Zugzwang (19.3)

This scene contains violence and death.

Central District, East Sector, Kabuli Road

“Platoon 3, Panzerabteilung B of the 15th Panzer Regiment, reporting no contacts.”

On the radio, a woman’s voice. “How far have you advanced?”

“Five kilometers. We are moving at pace with our infantry.” replied the Sergeant.

“How is the terrain? Have the roads been damaged? Do you see any earthworks?”

“There are no defenses in sight yet and the roads are mostly navigable.”

There was silence as the voice on the radio conferred with her own superiors.

“Advance one kilometer but keep your eyes peeled for ambushes. There are networks of tunnels around the area and the Ayvartans will use anything as cover. Ruined buildings, the sewers, the roofs and second stories of intact buildings, street corners, rubble mounds.”

“Understood. Will report back after any contact is made, or in one kilometer.”

That was all the Feldwebel in command of 3-B could offer in response. Though he wanted to ask how he was supposed to move forward if those were the conditions, he knew it would be impertinent. Surrounded by roofs, by ruins; did this mean nowhere was safe?

Panzerabteilung B had a storied combat history.

Founded four years ago, they fought in Cissea through the entire conflict against the terrorist rebel forces in support of the newly declared democratic government, and participated in quelling risings in Bakor at the request of the legitimate government of the islands. Equipped at first with M2 Rangers, the untested panzerkadetts of the 15th Panzer Regiment proved themselves in battle again and again, crushing motor and armor forces, scattering entrenched infantry, overrunning fortifications in brutal assaults. Platoon 3 had proudly participated in these engagements, showing no fear before the enemy.

Now their arsenal was upgraded – with their faster, stronger M4 Sentinels there was no force treading the ground on Aer that could stand up to them in a direct confrontation.

Therein lay the problem. This was not a field where two columns met in the open.

Organized as a platoon made up of five M4 tanks from the 13th Panzergrenadier regiment, and backed up by thirty Panzergrenadier support infantry on foot, they had been tasked to recon in force. On their maps this district was simply named “Kabuli” for “Kabuli road,” the main thoroughfare connected to Penance in the south. But this mission was not a conquest, not yet. Command was not authorizing a full-scale attack despite the orders to move. This was only a limited mission to probe potential routes for such an attack.

Though only a Platoon, the men on this mission counted themselves first and foremost as among the storied Panzer B battalion. They were proud and hardened.

And yet, they felt pause.

Panzer A had only two days ago failed to penetrate Penance fast enough to stop an orderly enemy retreat. They had lost two platoons of Panzers and a company of men.

That was Panzer A, and Panzer A’s Platoons.

But they were just a Platoon too in the end.

They had a good sight line going for a stretch of 800 meters, but then the road curved around a hilly plaza and out of their immediate sight. To each side of the column there were a paltry few tight alleyways between squat, brown brick service and small shop buildings, through which no tank could penetrate at least. There was a perpendicular intersection 500 meters away. Everything was quiet; how quickly could that change?

Men and tanks advanced together. At full speed the M4 could cross over 500 meters in a minute. But they were moving at perhaps 5 km/hour. They needed their men to protect them against ambushes, and the men needed them to provide heavy firepower. It was the best arrangement these forces could muster against such a pervasively hostile environment.

The Feldwebel looked through the periscope on the commander’s seat, watching the road ahead. He peered around himself, at the tanks behind him and the tanks in front, but his eyes settled on the road ahead, and that was where he made his first contact. He quickly pushed up his hatch and stood on his seat to rise out of the cupola. He confirmed with his personal binoculars and sounded an alert. “Contact, 700 meters ahead, communist tanks!”

His lead tanks became alerted at about the same time, and their own commanders raised their hatches and stood out of their cupolas to confirm the sighting.

Coming in from the curve in the road was a platoon of Ayvartan Goblin tanks speeding down the road. Despite their smaller size they had every kind of disadvantage – they were slower than M4s due to their weaker, obsolete engine, and their smaller guns could never penetrate an M4s frontal armor except at very close range. Common cannon-fodder.

This explained their current tactics – they would charge the M4 column as fast as possible to engage in a melee. At point-blank range they could cause some damage.

“It’s a death charge, open fire and give the commies what they came here for!” shouted the Feldwebel. He moved his tank back and off to the side of the road, allowing his subordinate vehicles forward, forming a battle line with three tanks forward, one tank in reserve, and his own sheltered behind a mound of rubble. The Panzergrenadiers took up positions on both sides of the street and kept their eyes peeled, but their heads down.

As the Goblins neared 500 meters from the column, his lead tanks opened fire with their guns, their first three shells smashing into a building and over the turret of the goblin.

Those were the probing shots.

Across the line the gunners loaded new shells and the commanders ducked inside the turrets again and helped adjust the tank’s aim. At 300 meters from the enemy, the more accurate second salvo hurled fresh shells across the road and eviscerated two of the tanks. One turret flew in pieces from a hull that turned, out of control, and crashed into a nearby building; another tank was penetrated right through its strongest armor in the forward plate, the glacis, and flew into the engine, causing the tank to explode in a brilliant fireball.

This did not deter the remaining three tanks, speeding to the 100 meter danger zone.

“They’re not shooting, they’re going to ram!” Shouted a subordinate tank commander.

Gunners in the lead tanks scrambled to reload, but there was no time to shoot.

The Goblins collided their tracks and glacis plates with the M4 tanks and pulverized themselves on the armor, their tracks and drivetrains flying in pieces in every direction as they smashed against the much larger and sturdier vehicles. The Goblins struggled and ground themselves against the enemy until their treads gave out completely and their engines died out. The M4 tanks were pushed back from their orderly battle line and left scarred with hollow cavities in the armor, collapsed front hatches and broken track guards.

The Feldwebel watched from afar and sighed inwardly with some relief. None of their foolish enemies discharged their weapons. At point-blank range the 45mm gun on the Goblins was more dangerous. He thought that had been the point of the death charge.

“Inspect those tanks.” The Feldwebel shouted, addressing the infantrymen.

The Panzers disentangled themselves and retreated from the wrecked Goblins.

One M4 tank had its track damaged enough that it had to move quite tenderly on this limp, and found it particularly difficult to extricate itself from the battle line. It was rotated out to the back of the formation, and the reserve tank, untouched by the violence, took the lead in its plae. With about thirty meters of safe distance from the crashed Goblins, the Feldwebel ushered the Panzergrenadiers forward. Carefully the men climbed the tanks and opened the top hatches, apprehensive, ready to be thrown back by a potential trap.

Nothing happened. They climbed inside. They saw no one. They cleared each tank.

“Feldwebel, the Goblins are empty! They just had their drive levers jammed forward!”

“Just a trick then.” the Feldwebel said. “Lead tanks, push those out of the way.”

From their cupolas the commanders of the three lead tanks nodded to acknowledge. They dove back into their respective tanks, and drove forward. The Feldwebel started to descend into his own tank when he suddenly heard shouting that pulled his attention front.

“Contact!” shouted a Panzergrenadier, “Armor on the intersection, 480 meters!”

The Feldwebel peered into his binoculars and saw two tanks emerging from the corners at the intersection, one from each side of the road, driving out of cover with their side plates facing the column and their turrets turned on them as well. These were not Goblin tanks. They were much larger, built on long green hulls with sloped side and front plates, widely spaced tracks, and a turret mounted very close to the glacis.

They were roughly the size of an M4, but the gun was bigger.

“Medium tanks! Take aim and fire on their exposed sides!” the Feldwebel called out.

His new enemy was moments quicker.

Both of the unidentified medium tanks opened fire on the M4s. They were mounting rather powerful guns – the shells hurtled toward the column and cut the distance in a blink and exploded with force. An M4’s turret and track received the first beating. One shell pounded the ground near the track and exploded, launching the drive wheel into the air and scattering track links about. Nearly penetrating, the second shell smashed into the turret and left an enormous dent that deformed the mantlet and upset the gun’s position.

“Our gun is unseated!” shouted the commander of the stricken tank. “We can’t shoot!”

The Feldwebel shouted for the tank to move off the line, but without its track this order was impossible to fulfill. Hatches opened and the tank crew evacuated and ran back from the fighting. His two remaining forward tanks retaliated, shooting over and between the goblin wrecks. Their shells crashed into the ground as the enemy tanks retreated around the street corners. The Feldwebel cursed. These tanks were faster than he had anticipated.

Now there was another wreck in his way that had to be moved – the damaged M4.

“We cannot engage them like this!” The Feldwebel shouted to his troops. “Retreat!”

His own tank was the first to reverse away from the Goblin wrecks, and the Panzergrenadiers ran up both sides of the road to get away. Because of its track damage, the slowed-down M4 that was cycled to the rear was abandoned as well, its interior purposely damaged by a bundle of grenades to prevent any useful capture.

Its crew dashed off with the Panzergrenadiers.

Finally the two remaining line tanks started to reverse and pulled away, building up speed, firing their guns at the intersection. While the drivers pulled them back, the gunners feverishly loaded and launched shells targeting the street and road behind them to preempt pursuit. Like a boxer’s jabs, they launched shells to keep the enemy at bay. With the crews working themselves raw, the tanks sustained a rate of fire of 15 shells a minute – every eight or ten seconds a gun fired, and dust and gravel went up in the air along the intersection.

In the midst of this gunfire both the Ayvartan tanks peered across their corners again and shot their guns down the street in a circumspect fashion. Enemy shells traveled over the Panzergrenadiers and smashed the corner wall on a nearby building, and hurtled between the tanks to hit the road behind the column. The M4s kept running and kept shooting, hitting the corner buildings, knocking down a streetlight. One shell exploded directly in front of an enemy tank, kicking up pavement onto its green glacis.

Again the enemy tanks retreated around the intersection, this time without a victim.

They did not peek out to shoot again; the continuous fire from the M4s pinned them.

Tense minutes of reversed fighting later the Feldwebel peered out of his cupola.

They were almost a kilometer from the intersection and the enemy had stopped firing on them. The Panzergrenadiers started to slow down, and the retreating tanks paused to reorient themselves, turning their tracks so that they could drive away from the intersection rather than retreating in their reverse gear. For safety’s sake, one tank kept its turret pointing toward the intersection, but the other faced its gun forward.

Perhaps 10 to 15 shells remained in each tank.

They had gone through much of their ammunition.

With the heat of battle having passed, the Feldwebel picked up his radio and reported.

“This is Feldwebel Crom to command. We made contact with an Ayvartan force. Events transpired too quickly for an in-combat report. We disabled five Ayvartan Goblin tanks that were seemingly rigged to spring a trap on us, and then two medium tanks of an unidentified model attacked us, and disabled two of our tanks. We incurred no casualties – both crews evacuated safely. We have lost visual contact with the enemy and retreated 500 meters. Requesting assistance and resupply. We are low on ammunition and fuel.”

There was a brief silence and then the radio operator answered. “Hold your position and await reinforcement. Platoon 2 of Panzerabteilung C is on its way.” She said.

“Acknowledged.” He said. “We will hold here. I do not believe the enemy will advance. We can establish a defensive line and await Panzer C. I’ll keep you notified.”

“Once you have linked up with C, carefully pursue contact,” added the voice on the radio. She sounded tense. “Command would like to capture one of these tanks.”

“Indeed. Hopefully they have not vanished into the stones.”

He hung up the radio again.

Feldwebel Crom climbed out of his tank and issued orders.

He concealed his tank as best as he could behind a mostly collapsed wall in a nearby building. On each street he positioned his line tanks as close to the buildings as they could be, facing upstreet toward the intersection. He ordered the crews of the destroyed tanks to vacate, and a squad of Panzergrenadiers left with them. His two remaining squadrons of men divided themselves along both sides of the road, covering the tanks.

He felt confident in this position. Here the road was fairly narrow, and there were no alleyways around him through which a tank could fit. Most of the buildings around the column were either intact or so utterly ruined he could see through them to the building behind them and sometimes out to the next block or street over.

Any attacks would be obvious to him.

Withdrawing a cigarette from a pouch under his jacket, Feldwebel Crom climbed out of the tank and jumped down onto the street. He lit his cigarette and leaned against one of the partially collapsed exterior walls of his ruin. Panzer C would take maybe twenty or thirty minutes to reach them. He had time to take some of the edge off his nerves.

Curse those Ayvartan cowards – had they fought him in the Plaza or around that Cathedral he would have shown them how tanks really fight. Not by peeking around corners furtively firing their guns, but by charging at top speed, circling each other like bloodthirsty sharks, firing their guns on the run and taking burning bites from each other.

That was how Panzer B had fought in Cissea and in Bakor!

Not this tiptoeing game of tag!

He went through his first cigarette viciously, sucking out the smoke in desperation, tossed it on the ground, leaving it burning on the debris-strewn floor. He took another from his pocket it, lit it and smoked it too. He blew a cloud gray as the paint on his M4.

Raising his eyes across the street, he saw a hint of movement behind a window.

“Landsers!” He shouted to some of his men across the street. “Inspect that building–”

Glass shattered, concrete flew.

Across the street, at deadly close range, the facade of the quiet old building toppled over onto the road, and over the debris an enormous Ayvartan tank suddenly appeared, forcing its way through the building and onto the street. Machine gun fire from the ball-mount on its glacis raked the street and forced Feldwebel Crom behind a wall for cover.

His Panzergrenadiers clung to cover and kept out of the beast’s sight; the heavy tank turned its turret on the M4s instead. With one shot it claimed its first hunting prize, punching through the engine block and setting ablaze another of the battalion’s prized M4s.

Compared to the other tanks it was a monster – Feldwebel Crom had never seen a tank that big in any arsenal. It shared the same wide-spaced tracks and forward-mounted turret as the previous tanks but it was larger, thicker, taller. A behemoth; it stepped onto the street, the heavy machine guns on its glacis and turret cracking incessantly as it reloaded its gun.

Panzerwurfmines flew from the hands of scared infantrymen, crashing ineffectually around the enemy tank. Most of the grenades had not had their canvas fins fully deployed; those that managed to strike left ugly dents in the turret and glacis of the Ayvartan tank but scored no penetrations. Turning around its turret around over its exposed engine block, the remaining M4 desperately attacked, unleashing an armor-piercing shell at close range. The Feldwebel’s tank joined in, firing its own gun from the ruin, both within 30 meters.

Both shells deflected off the turret, launching skyward harmlessly.

In the next instant the monster’s barrel flashed. It punched a hole the size of a human head into the turret of the remaining line M4. Smoke erupted from the end of its gun barrel; its top hatches blew open from the pressure. Soon its engine began to smoke and burn.

Around the street the Panzergrenadiers began to retreat through the alleyways.

Feldwebel Crom scrambled into his tank, and screamed to his driver.

“Start it and run! Run!” He shouted, shutting his top hatch, his heart racing.

Before his driver had even manipulated the levers, the enemy tank turned its gun.

In the instant the Feldwebel’s tank backed out into the street, it was shot through.

An armor piercing shell crashed through the engine block and punched into the driving compartment. Under the Feldwebel it exploded, wreaking havoc in the cramped quarters. Concussions, burns, shrapnel; all manner of trauma visited the tanker whose armor was defeated by a tank shell. Once invincible, the M4 now became a cast steel tomb.

Surveying the carnage, pitted with the scars of failed penetrations, the Ayvartan Ogre tank brushed aside the wrecked hulls and drove up the street, to meet the Hobgoblins further ahead and thank them for their collaboration in another successful day’s hunting.

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