The Battle of Matumaini II (13.4)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

25-AG-30 1st Vorkampfer Rear Echelon

Von Sturm was furious; everything was spiraling out of his control.

Fruehauf and her girls struggled to keep up with the volume of radio traffic.

On Penance road the advance had failed to crack the Cathedral and was thrown back; on the Umaiha riverside a company of enemy infantry with unknown vehicle support had pushed the Cisseans back, forming an odd bulge in the lines; and Matumaini was turning into an unmitigated disaster. The Infantry Regiment that the 6th Grenadiers sent forward was being crushed to bits piecemeal. Recon trips into small byways had become suicide missions as platoons and companies were crushed by tanks driving in from nowhere.

There was little hard intelligence on what was transpiring past the intersection on Matumaini. At first Von Sturm had given reasonable, by-the-book orders. But nothing seemed to stick, in-combat communication was erratic, and after-action reports were scarce.

Every gun battle his troops seemed to get into was an annihilating event that nobody seemed able to speak of. Worst of all, countermeasures were growing ineffective. Attempts by anti-tank platoons to stifle the enemy had been brutally repulsed. Air support was not forthcoming. Their armor was supposed to be preparing to assault the Kalu, but the mustering was broken up now because Panzer elements had to be reorganized and rushed into the city. Already Von Sturm had lost an assault gun platoon and a dozen anti-tank guns.

It was sheer, maddening chaos.

Fruehauf bounced back and forth between her radios and the horrified staff along the planning table. At first she had tried to smile but that facade wore thin. Now each trip seemed to unhinge Von Sturm further. Soon he devolved into outright rabid shouting.

“SHELLS. DO NOT. BOUNCE OFF!” Von Sturm shouted at Fruehauf accentuating each bit of sentence, wringing his hands in the air as though he meant to strangle her.

“I know it is strange General!” Fruehauf said, shielding herself with her clipboard. She looked on the verge of tears from all the tension and the shouting and the anxiety in the room. She continued, nearly pleading, visibly shaking in front of the General. “But those are the reports we’re receiving! Our anti-tank guns can’t penetrate these tanks!”

“That is impossible!” Von Sturm shouted, approaching her dangerously. “Impossible! They have nothing that can withstand an anti-tank gun. Their tanks even get shredded by fucking Panzerbuchse rifles! You get on that radio right now and tell these cretins–”

Before he could seize Fruehauf as he seemed to be preparing to do, Von Drachen stepped nonchalantly between them, and looked down at the shorter Von Sturm.

“It’s important we retain the vestige of civilization that we claim to represent.” He said.

Von Sturm grit his teeth and wrung his hands in an even more violent fashion.

Von Drachen looked over his shoulder at Fruehauf. “We should probably alert the supply convoy towing the LeFH guns that their position may become compromised.”

“You don’t give those orders! I do!” Von Sturm shouted. He prodded Von Drachen in the chest, and stared around him at Fruehauf like he was a pillar of rock in his way. “Fruehauf, order the howitzers to rush out, set up, and vaporize the communists!”

Fruehauf nodded fervently, and rushed back to the radios, taking any chance to retreat.

Von Drachen said nothing – he did not even look back at Von Sturm to challenge his gaze. He merely marveled silently at how quickly the sarcasm and aloofness of his superior general broke down into childish violence when the burden of leadership presented itself.

Von Drachen was nowhere near as worried as Von Sturm about his own Blue Corps.

Perhaps because he had altogether different goals for this operation than Von Sturm.

“Aren’t the howitzers being deployed to the intersection?” Von Drachen asked.

“Look at the map, why don’t you?” Von Sturm sarcastically replied.

“That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, my good man.” Von Drachen added.

Von Sturm threw his hands in the air, and walked back to his table. “I’m coming to regret bringing you here, Von Drachen! Perhaps you really ought to have stayed in your dust speck of a country if you are going to question every order your superior is giving!”

“Oh, but I don’t really question your orders.” Von Drachen said, crossing his arms and looking puzzled. “You see, from my perspective, and functionally speaking, I always end up following your orders. It just takes a little effort to get me to fully agree with them.”

Von Sturm slapped his hands over his face, and buried his head in his arms at the table.

25-AG-30 V-Squad Retreat, Matumaini 3rd

Nocht’s assault on Bada Aso had been conducted in three concentrated lanes from east to west each advancing from south to north, led by the 1era Infanteria, 6th Grenadiers and 2da Infanteria. Originally the idea was that these three concentrations of forces could cover each other via artillery and fast-moving units, and would have room to spread out from their lanes at their leisure. Advancing as unified fists, their independent units could always fall back on organized strong points behind them if an expansion mission went awry.

The Battle of Bada Aso would thus start on Penance, Matumaini and Umaiha Riverside where the landsers would secure territory from which to advance confidently into the true heart of the city. From the South; to the city center and the seaside; and finally north. However the state of infrastructure after the bombing had not been accounted for, and this and many other factors now imperiled the original plan and necessitated corrections.

Heavy collapses shut off whole streets from motor and even armor units. Connections between the three lanes were more limited than originally envisioned. There was trouble getting heavy weapons and armor into position at all, let alone on time for the scheduled offenses. Retreat and reinforcement could only be carried out over specific street routes.

Nocht’s carefully charted vision of the conflict was warped out of shape, and without it the front lines were left to their own devices, carrying out improvised attacks and rushed defenses. In the absence of carefully thought orders from their commanders, the troops fell back to a mix of instinct and doctrine that was immediately put to a violent test.

Kern had not been privy to a lot of the plan. None of them were.

That was the natural position of the officers. Officers attended meetings and then passed down their knowledge as orders given on the field. It was a hierarchy that was meticulously organized and carried out. A landser needed only to train to fight and kill the enemy. Kern knew tactics. He knew cover, he knew tactical movement, he knew how to use his knife, he knew ranges, he knew his equipment, he knew equipment that he would be using in the future, like how to drive a small car, or fire an anti-tank gun.

Extensive training and instruction had insured this.

But he didn’t know how war worked. It was a fearful new world to tread upon.

Everything had grown abstract.

His training was supposed to be a tool that he applied to a situation like a formula for a mathematical problem. Reality had grown too complex for that; he could hardly cope.

Now Kern found himself creeping through alleys and inside ruined buildings. Desolation surrounded him on all sides. There was no enemy to fight with and no allies to link up with. Hart and Alfons were quiet. Voss was in the lead. He did not have a map of Bada Aso. Sergeants and above cared about maps, they had maps. Corporals led fireteams – they didn’t need maps. Their maps could fall into enemy hands if they died fighting.

His surroundings felt so isolated he wondered if anyone had even lived in them before.

From the byway wall they jumped across, the squad followed the alleyways behind several buildings headed south. Many times they came across a collapse and had to squeeze in through concrete frames filled with debris of their own roofs and floors like giant standing buckets of rock and dust. They detoured through standing structures, clearing them room by room with their pistols out before jumping out a window or from a second floor into a new alleyway or into an otherwise inaccessible building nearby.

Most buildings they saw, stripped of anything valuable in them (or having had anything valuable in them crushed by bombs), suggested little about what their original purpose was. There were many long walls and empty rooms. Kern believed most of them had to be living spaces. He had heard that Ayvartans lived crammed into three by three meter rooms, their “guaranteed housing.” From what he had seen, the architecture did not support such a claim, but they still needed a lot of living space to support their population.

Twelve houses down from the byway the squadron exited a small building through a back door, and found themselves in a tragic scene. A much taller tenement building, several floors high and wide had completely collapsed and now barred their way.

Kern was reminded of the edge of Matumaini, where collapses like these had forced the battalion to take a detour. This was not like an urban snow, not a smooth mound of soft dust. What was blocking them was all rock struggling to retain shape enough to defy them. It was all misplaced window frames serving as makeshift doors to halls crammed full of rubble, rebar sticking out like thorns from vines of warped concrete columns, chunks of rock the size of one’s fist all in a rumbling stack ready to spill if provoked.

Kern swore it must have been contrived.

On all sides its remains barred the way. Voss covered his hands in washcloth and knelt.

“We’ll crawl in.” He said. He squeezed under a half-buried window frame.

Speechless, Hart, Alfons and Kern crawled inside as well. Kern snaked under the frame and cut himself on a piece of glass, a few centimeters along his right calf. He grit his teeth and pushed blindly ahead. Even the ruins in this place wanted him to suffer.

They crawled deeper into the tight rubble, beneath hard stone at odd angles, around jagged pieces stabbing into the ground. It was tight and dark and it smelled eerily, of smoke or some kind of chemical. Kern pulled himself forward by his forearms and elbows.

Ahead of him he saw Voss stand up, and Hart and Alfons followed.

He crawled into an open room. It was tilted on its side, and there was a window above offering dim illumination and a framed view of darkening, cloudy sky.

“Now we go up. We’ll check to see which direction to go in from there.” Voss said.

He and Hart lifted Alfons up, who in turn helped Kern.

Outside the building sloped irregularly, jutting out in places and sinking in others, but there was a high peak in a particular rubble hill a short ways from the window, formed by the tenement piling atop another building. While his companions helped each other out, Kern started to walk up, eager to see what his vantage would be like from higher up. He carefully walked up the red brick, and broke into a run once he felt sure enough in his steps. He was fifteen or twenty meters up, and he saw the intersection off south and east.

“I’ve found the way!” He called back to Voss.

Hands out like they were walking on a tight-rope, the squadron descended the ruins, and climbed down onto a comparatively intact alleyway. This time Kern led them through, trying his best to square the picture he had in his mind with the direction of the intersection and the layout of the alleys. They ran, frantic, trying to return to their own lines.

Soon they heard traffic – feet, wheels, and treads all – and followed the sounds.

Around a corner, and past several ruined buildings, they squeezed through to the intersection on Matumaini and 3rd. Kern thought the mortar holes still seemed fresh, and certainly they were familiar. There was no time to rest, however. Kern found his situation starkly reintroduced to him after the brief lull in the eerie world within the ruins.

Across the intersection the 6th Grenadier mustered its forces. Men rushed north, carrying sandbags and grenades, pushing anti-tank guns, holding mortars over their shoulders. Every minute, it seemed, a truck would arrive and its crew would hastily unhinge a towed howitzer, a 105mm leFH (leichte fieldhaubitze), and more men would pull these back into corners, organizing them in groups of three, and crews began preparing them.

Three more assault guns then entered the intersection in a line.

And at the very end, they saw the Ayvartans starting to rush.

Scheiße,” Hart said wearily, “We’re back in the frying pan again.”

“At least we’re accompanied.” Voss said, patting him on the back.

Kern left their side. He looked around the crowds for Captain Aschekind.

An artillery crewman pointed him to one of the first buildings just out of the intersection, on the connecting road to Matumaini 2nd. Kern had remembered seeing people hiding in it during the late stages of the charge, because the inside was hollowed out. Mortar rounds might land in it, but it was otherwise one of the safest places from which to fight. He found Captain Aschekind and some of his staff in there, seated in folding chairs and with a table ready. The Captain glanced briefly at the door when Kern entered but then returned to his task. He was tuning into a radio, and barking terse orders into it.

Aschekind’s staff, three men and an older woman that Kern was very surprised to see, ushered the young landser in and asked him if there was any news he had brought.

They seemed to have been expecting someone. Kern shook his head.

“No, I just,” Kern hesitated. He hardly knew what he even wanted out of this exchange. He just felt ashamed and weak, and perhaps he wanted someone to see it, someone to punish him for it. “I just wanted to return this radio. I’ve no real use for it.”

He withdrew the radio Aschekind gave him from his satchel, and placed it on the table.

An explosion outside seemed to punctuate this action. Kern started to shake.

“You have more to say than that.” Aschekind said. He did not look up from the radio set on the table. Kern could not see his eyes – his peaked cap was in the way. “Be honest.”

Kern’s teeth chattered slightly. His heart pounded.

“Sir, I have spent this entire battle running away.” His lips trembled. He tried not to show tears. “I never even grouped with my correct squadron when we came into the city. I’ve been handed off to different platoons and companies like an idiot, because I came here wandering like a vagrant, with no understanding of what I am doing or where I am going. Gradually I have remembered my place, but too late. I joined the army to be anywhere but home. I sat through my training and it went in one ear and out the other. I should not be here. I am simply wasted space and resources among these men.”

“It has never been a question of whether you are meant to be here or should be here. It is always a question of whether you want to be here. Your role, Private, is to occupy space. That is the fundamental role of a Grenadier. Do you want to fight, Private Beckert?” Aschekind asked. “Do you want to occupy space? It all begins in that simple role. There is more than enough space to be occupied. At this juncture that is all that I require of you.”

“I do not feel I have properly acquitted myself, sir.” Kern said, mouth still trembling.

Captain Aschekind stared at him quizzically.

It was the most emotion he’d shown on his face that wasn’t anger or grim resignation.

He pushed the radio back in Kern’s direction with his hand.

“Your last report alerted us to the communist’s attack. What defense we have managed here, we owe partly to you. Do you want to do that, Private? Even just that much?”

Kern could not say anything to that. He hesitated even to take the radio back.

Captain Aschekind put down his own radio handset, and seemed about to say something further. But a sharp noise from the intersection overcame his words.

Everyone in the room looked out the window.

Kern saw a shell fly across the intersection from the west and explode in the middle of an artillery position, shredding through two leFH and their crews. Gunfire parted the intersection in two. Men took cover away from the diagonal west-bound road, from which Ayvartan troops and a huge tank rushed down, right into the heart of their defense.

Kern drew his rifle and stood up, with the intention to find Voss and the others. Captain Aschekind reached out across the table – he was so tall and his limbs so long he easily seized Kern by his shoulder and stopped him. His grip was casually, brutally strong. It hurt.

“Run down the southern road and alert all incoming artillery towing tractors and trucks to stop at the end of Matumaini and 2nd. I will be joining you shortly. This is a mission more valuable than dying in that intersection. Are we clear, Private Beckert?”

A truck nearby exploded – screaming men flew back from it.

One landed dead outside the door.

Stunned, Kern nodded to the Captain, and without thinking, he left the building and ran down the street, careful to avoid the fallen men. He was stuck in the war again.

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