The Smoke Blocked The Sinking Sun (25.3)


41st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Village of Silb, near Dbagbo Border


Karla Schicksal thrust her arms up and shouted at the top of her lungs. She pushed open the top hatch and climbed out of the cupola. Her worst fears were confirmed as she pushed herself up over the edge of the turret top.

She found the M4 Befehlspanzer struggling to turn its tracks, helplessly in place, sloshing the wet goo of a pit that it had somehow worked itself into.

Wedged into the mud, the tank’s rear was a touch higher than its front. She pulled herself clear off the turret and stood up on the tank’s hull. Looking over the sides she could see the return rollers, half of the track idler and the top of the track over the puddle, but the drive sprocket and all but one of the road wheels were completely submerged. There was water and mud up to the drive hatch up front. No amount of spinning seemed to move the tank.

Schicksal collapsed, sitting with her hands up to her face, wanting to cry.

Soon it started to drizzle again. Big, cold droplets splashed over the tank.

Schicksal had promised General Dreschner she would have the Befehlspanzer at the new base in Silb by the time he returned from his plane trip, down to the Oberkommando Suden’s new base at Dori Dobo in Adjar Dominance. It was her shot to command a tank — a weaponless radio tank, but a tank. She was the first woman ever to command a tank for the Federation’s forces.

Twice already her tank had become mired in the muddy fields of Dbagbo.

At least the first time, Reiniger and some of his men were around with a staff truck and helped push and pull her out. Now, however, she was all alone.

She felt embarrassed about it, though this was not a unique predicament. In fact mud had been a recurring issue for everyone since the generals of the Oberkommando Suden gave the order to start the Dbagbo Attack Operation.

Generalplan Suden estimated that Dbagbo was to fall by the 40th of the Aster’s Gloom. That was no longer possible. On the 41st, much of Battlegroup Lee was still coming in slow and the Panzer Divisions in Dbagbo had failed to make it to the Champa Wildlands, a vast savanna with low tree density where Panzers would have a powerful advantage against Ayvartan troops.

Oberkommando Suden had failed to account for the mud and bad weather.

Schicksal returned to the inside of the tank, assured the driver that it was not his fault and took to the radio. She called the Panzerpionierie — the engineers who served the 8th Panzer Division in mechanized support positions.

“This is the Siren; the General’s panzer is mired along Crapway 66, maybe a few kilos from S-Point, umm, possibly 7-S-9250. Could use a mule here.”

She was speaking in code — broadcasting grid points taken from their maps of Dbagbo. Much of Dbagbo functioned on dirt roads, which the Nochtish called “crapways” as a derisive play on “highways.” They had numbers for the roads, and then major grid locations revolving around Dbagbo’s towns. S-Point was Silb, and the S coordinates where all in Silb’s map squares.

“All our mules are tied up at the moment Siren, there’s a lot of dirt to plow.”

That meant that their armored recovery vehicles were just too busy. Right now the 8th, 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions were active in Dbagbo, and they had in total close to 800 tanks in theater, with reinforcements on the way.

That was 800 tanks that could be getting stuck in the mud at any given time.

Not to mention supply trucks, staff cars, personnel-carrier half-tracks — all of these vehicles were just as unprepared to wade through the winter mud.

“Roger, but I’m gonna need to press you on this mule-driver. Leave the cloth wagons behind, there’s a grand chariot here in need of pulling.” She said.

Her voice grew irritated. She insisted that a recovery vehicle drop whatever light panzer it was tugging around and come pick her up instead.

“I’ll see what I can do to make you the priority Siren. Mule-Driver out.”

Schicksal stuck the radio microphone back into its hook on the radio box.

She sank back, sighed and kicked her legs childishly. What an annoying conversation that had been — it put her in a completely foul mood now.

Ever since the disasters in Bada Aso the Heer issued guidelines and urged that the lower rungs had to take greater care with their radios. Though there was no evidence for this yet, many in signals theorized that the Ayvartans had sophisticated radio capture and possibly dedicated signals intelligence teams undermining Federation communications. Chatty signals girls were blamed for many missteps — equally gossipy grunts with portable radios, less so.

She sighed and prayed that their encryption equipment got here soon. She hated having to speak like one of the automatons in science fiction pulps. She just wanted to be behind her radios again, doing her job. Then she could not possibly fail. Not like now, where Dreschner was asking her to do all this.

She hoped for all that was holy that an ARV would come for her soon.

* * *

Silb was a woodland village of about eight hundred people, spread across a few kilometers of small clearings with wooden buildings linked by winding dirt roads. It was linked to the outside world chiefly by a train station and supply yard connected to the city of Shebelle up north. Since the communist expansion, only a paltry few modern administrative and service buildings had gone up. Its inhabitants were largely treated as a collective farm, growing in clearings in the wood and small plots out in the meadow. They also hunted and logged in the Silba forest into which the village was mostly set.

That was true, perhaps, until around a week ago. Now it was another ghost town. Schicksal had not yet actually seen a real Ayvartan village inhabited by Ayvartans. There were in fact many villages that had been left behind the line of the Nochtish advance, but it seemed Schicksal was always sent to the deserted ones. More room for the division’s panzers to sit on, she supposed.

By the early evening the Befehlspanzer’s long journey to Silb was finally complete. Following the dirt road, the tank made it into a clearing a short distance into the Silba, where a pair of panzergrenadiers were acting as guards. They checked up on Schicksal, and quickly allowed her to pass. Her tank trundled up past the collapsed ruins of a red brick building, and followed a series of road signs to a brick platform. Across from it there was another ruin, this one a roof of tin sheets fallen over black and grey ash.

The Ayvartans had destroyed their administration building and the supply warehouses near the train station. It didn’t quite matter. Nocht didn’t have any trains yet that ran on Ayvartan rail gauge, and conversion of the railroad network was an undertaking not even in the planning stages at this point.

Instead the supply yard was used as parking space for the 8th Panzer Division Headquarter’s compliment of fighting vehicles — 3 M4 Sentinels, and 5 Squire Half-Tracks with long noses and Norgler machine guns.

Schicksal climbed out of the Befelhspanzer and shook hands on the train platform with Colonel Spoor, the gaunt, serious leader of the 8th Panzer Division’s newly-acquired 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Though General Dreschner preferred to be at the front lines with his handpicked cadre of young, brash Panzerkompanie lieutenants, the organizing work of higher officers like Spoor was necessary for Dreschner to have his little adventures.

Spoor had arrived days ago and paved the way for the relocation of the 8th Panzer Division to Dbagbo. A relocation that, by all accounts, had become a nightmare for everybody involved. Spoor looked as if dragged bodily through the brush. There were streaks of mud across his uniform, and the lines on his face looked to Schicksal like they were greatly accentuated by fatigue.

“Good to see a lively face in this bleak place.” Spoor said while they shook.

“Apologies for the delays. I had trouble getting here.” Schicksal said.

“Everything here is delayed; no apology necessary, milady. We don’t even have the supplies yet to start a proper camp. We had to clear a trap bomb out of the civil canteen building just so we could have a place without a leaking roof in which to establish a radio room. No food to be found in there, too.”

As soon as they started talking another drizzle came down from the grey sky.

Mein gott; this leaking has been endless for the past week.” Spoor cursed.

“I was mired in it myself. You look like you’d had to push a few tanks too.”

“My half-track nearly dug a pit into the dirt road. Every man had to get out and push the damned thing, knee-deep in mud, under the pouring the rain.”

“Rotten luck.” Schicksal said. She could imagine what an ordeal that was.

Spoor raised his hand to his mouth and sneezed into it. “I suspect I might become ill from that exposure. We then had to cut open our few sandbags to pour the contents over the mud and stabilize it for incoming vehicles.”

“Engineering vehicles were too busy to help, I assume.” Schicksal said. She still felt quite salty about having to wait most of the day in a muddy pit.

“Indeed. It is my understanding that most of our Panzerpionierie, are out near the Sandari on the front lines. As of four hours ago the Ayvartans destroyed the major bridges across the river and are shelling us from positions just beyond the opposing banks — the crossing will be painful.”

Though the Sandari was not a major river, without load-bearing bridges it would be very difficult for tanks to cross — and tanks and other vehicles were the overwhelming majority of Nocht’s strength in Dbagbo. Schicksal sighed. Crossing the Sandari would become another few day’s worth of obstacles. Pontoon bridges would have to be put up, bridgeheads slowly cleared.

“We have lost incredible amounts of time this week.” Spoor said.

“Guess it’s time for another Generalplan revision.” Schicksal replied.

Once the rain let up a little she followed Spoor back to the village proper. Though she was only a signals officer, Dreschner had left instructions for her to be treated as his personal and professional deputy, albeit without any grand decision-making capability. As such Spoor treated her cordially. Perhaps it was not just Dreschner’s directives either — Schicksal had it in mind that Spoor seemed quite the gentleman. He was serious but gentle, blunt and severe in physical appearance but soft-spoken in personal manner.

Schicksal felt a little tense at first — after all she was handling the General’s official business in Silb for a while. But Colonel Spoor made it seem easy.

They walked across little dirt roads and through sparse brush beneath scattered trees barely forming an irregular canopy. Most of the village houses were very similar log constructions with mesh screen windows and concrete foundations that served as unvarnished floors. Here and there she spotted Spoor’s men gathering around the houses, searching for materiel — or mines.

Panzergrenadiers were a new sight to her. They looked rather impressive.

After the losses in Knyskna, OKS reinforced the accomplished and important 8th Panzer Division, The Spearhead Of Knyskna, with the addition of the 7th Panzergrenadier Regiment. Before, they possessed no dedicated infantry component whatsoever save a few Pioniers, engineering troops. Now they had Panzergrenadiers with them. Across the village Schicksal saw them, traveling the dirt roads, camping out in the bushes, exploring the houses.

Nocht’s elite tank-support troops, tall, rugged men, with thick hooded coats, flared helmets, carrying submachine guns and anti-tank rifles at their backs. There were a few medics with them, a few of them women; mostly the troops were tough-looking men, a bit older than the average landser. She knew that the Panzergrenadierie had higher standards for recruitment and rougher training. This seemed very evident when looking at these men up close.

Spoor himself was pretty tall, but he was an older man and an officer, and he did not at all appear able to best any of the grunts in sheer physicality.

“How are your men deployed, Colonel? Is this just your personal cadre?”

“Yes. This is my Headquarters platoon and a security company. Most of my men are making their way to Sandari to support the operation.” Spoor said. “Let us gather around a map and I will appraise you on the situation.”

After showing her around the village, Spoor led Schicksal back to the main dirt road and took the path opposite the one leading to the train station. At the path’s end a massive conifer with a thick trunk leaned into and over a red brick, open-faced building. The Civil Canteen’s cooking equipment had been left in place, but the small dining area was cleared out, and a tarp hung before it as an awning to help keep out the rain. Radio equipment and a war-room table had been set up in the building in place of the dining tables and chairs.

Ayvarta’s civil flag had been taken down from a pole and used as a carpet by the irreverent Panzergrenadiers. Waving on the flagpole in its place was the flag of the Federation of Northern States, red and blue stripes with a white eagle in the center, orbited by a star for each of the twelve Nochtish Republics (including Lachy and Franz, but not yet the Republic of Cissea).

On the table was a map of Dbagbo. Flag skewers marked current positions. Civilian maps captured in Shaila and Adjar added much needed detail on the names and locations of minor villages and towns. Dbagbo was not as large as Shaila or Adjar, but constituted a significant buffer between Nocht’s forces and the Red Desert wherein the main objective, Solstice, was located. In the interior of Dbagbo, the Sandari river and Shebelle city constituted the main defensive areas. After that, the way was clear until the Garanges, a major river dividing Dbagbo and the desert in the north and northeast.

Spoor touched his index finger on the map, along the line of the Sandari, and he slid the tip of the gloved finger down from the river and back to Shaila.

“We entered Dbagbo on the 35th, after a week-long delay imposed by the supply situation, reorganizing after the Shaila operations and the moving of prisoners from the Tukino pocket. Though the penetration of the border was simple and took only a few hours, storms began to hit and the Ayvartans retreated in good order. Mud across the front made it difficult for Panzers to advance — it was difficult for us to maintain speed on soft and loose terrain, and many tanks became mired in pits and puddles. This cost us time and it prevented us from rapidly encircling any part of the Ayvartan retreat.”

Schicksal nodded, following along as Spoor’s finger traveled across the stretch between Dbagbo’s border, and the Sandari, to which Silb served as a sort of halfway point. She noticed the flags pinned near the Sandari — 10th PzG and 15th PzG were the primary combat units currently that far up.

“Due to the situation that transpired in Bada Aso, the OKS is reassessing its intentions in Shebelle city. In the original plan this would have slowed us down, but since we haven’t even reached Shebelle yet, it does not matter.”

“Shebelle is not as big as Bada Aso, is it? And it’s not coastal.” Schicksal said.

“You are correct: it is smaller, and it can be more easily besieged.”

“Are only the 10th and 15th out there? I assumed the 8th is fighting.”

“Our 8th Panzer Division is performing mobile support. Right now the 10th and 15th Panzer Divisions are our spearhead: after being freed from holding the Tukino pocket, they were tasked with heading the Dbagbo attack. They also took the fewest losses in Shaila, when compared to our 8th Panzer Division. So then we should be in prime shape to launch an attack; but–”

He left it hanging for a moment. “But?” Schicksal said, crossing her arms.

Spoor smiled. He pointed again at the flags of the 15th and 10th PzG.

“It is true that the 10th and 15th have suffered few material losses compared to us, but they have been active for longer and more intense combat. They are tired, and they have stalled at the Sandari due to this terrible spate of rains.”

Schicksal nodded. “I assume also they must be spooked about Bada Aso.”

“Yes. Bada Aso shook our whole army to its foundations.” Spoor said.

It took them some time to get word of the catastrophe in Adjar. Schicksal could hardly believe it herself when it came in, and it was part of the reason Dreschner was recalled to OKS. Because of Bada Aso, actions in the north-west of Ayvarta were heavily delayed. Not only had upwards of 40,000 troops been killed or maimed, with the majority of the survivors wounded badly enough they would not fight for months, if ever again; but in addition the loss of the city and its port, meant that the north of Adjar was a black spot for supplies. Its potential as a transport hub and supply station was all gone.

Mobilizing Nochtish troops there in such a situation was a nightmare. Even so a minimal attack on Tambwe had to be prepared and launched to coincide with the Dbagbo operations. To date, however, it had not cracked the border.

It was still on everyone’s minds in the Federation army. Fighting in Ayvarta’s cities could prove unbelievably deadly, if Bada Aso was taken as a sign of a new paradigm in Ayvartan strategy. Nobody knew for certain what had happened, but they had a city in ruins, and tens of thousands of casualties.

“Right now General Dreschner, and the 10th PzG’s General Strich, are meeting with the OKS and Field Marshal Haus.” Spoor said. “Hopefully they can entreat the OKS to delay our attacks until we have more fresh divisions that can catch up at Sandari to support our tired Panzer companies.”

Schicksal blinked. She’d heard General Dreschner was meeting with OKS, obviously. But she didn’t know he was meeting with the Field Marshal in person. She thought he was just going to consult, or receive a briefing.

“What is the disposition of the enemy, that we know?” Schicksal asked. She felt a little tense all of a sudden, but she had to keep her cool and act like a professional. After all she was here as Dreschner’s deputy in the region.

Spoor shook his head. “We’re not certain. We know that the ‘Battlegroup’ of Dbagbo, known as Rhino, consists of 100,000 troops, just the same as Shaila’s. However, we do not have the advantage of superior numbers this time, because the majority of our divisions are far behind the line, or holding the rear in Shaila. We do not have a 10-division surprise border attack up our sleeve anymore. And for all we know Ayvarta has reinforced Dbagbo by now. Eventually they must overturn their peacetime regulations and deploy larger forces. So far we believe we have fought 4 distinct infantry divisions, all of which have retreated in good order, so we expect the Shebelle line to have 4-8 infantry divisions. Ayvarta’s tanks are practically nonexistent thus far.”

“In a perfect world, what would be the plan of attack for the coming weeks?” Schicksal asked. She hoped to brief Dreschner on the situation, which, knowing the dispositions of the Ayvartans, she now could; but she also wanted to know, for her personal curiosity, what everyone’s plans were.

Spoor arranged the little markers around the city of Shebelle. He had the 10th, 15th and 8th Panzer Divisions, the 16th and 17th Grenadier Divisions and the 11th Grenadier and 14th Jager Divisions. These latter two he had plucked from all the way down in the Knyskna area and stuck in Dbagbo. Idealistic, perhaps, with the current climate and supply situations.

“While the Ayvartans hold a small numerical advantage in Central Dbagbo, the mobility of our troops has forced the communists into holding a long, thin line across the front of Shebelle. They are unable to respond to our mobile attacks, so their only recourse is to stretch out to try to catch them in progress wherever they might happen. This gives us the advantage.”

“How so? Being outnumbered is being outnumbered, isn’t it?” Schicksal said.

Spoor never once lost patience with her. He smiled and responded politely.

“Because the Ayvartans are turtled up in defensive positions, they cannot thicken the line everywhere in response to an attack. We can decide to attack any part of the line with any amount of troops available, but they have only a fixed amount of assets with which to defend any given part of the line.”

Schicksal nodded rapidly. “Ah, I see. I understand now. Thank you Colonel.”

Spoor bowed his head. He returned to the map, picking up a little pointer stick and tracing lines from his little divisional flags. “We will engage the enemy line in Shebelle with our infantry, but instead of assaulting the city, we will break through along the flanks using our Panzer Divisions. Elements of our 8th PzG will punch through in the east and rush up to Benghu; elements of the 15th will rush to Gollaproulu in the west. With a loose square kettle around Shebelle, we can either pocket it, or force a large enemy retreat.”

“Who is the architect of this plan? It’s not General Dreschner, or else he would not have asked me to gather information for him.” Schicksal asked. Since shortly after their conversation began this had been bothering her.

“We received these orders a few days ago from Field Marshal Haus. He is an avid war-maker.” Spoor said. “General Dreschner should receive a copy when he meets with the Field Marshal. So I’m not sure why he decided to trouble you so much, milady. Perhaps he thought you should be kept a little busy, or perhaps he just isn’t well aware of how things are done by the Field Marshal.”

“I see.” Schicksal looked down at the map. Spoor was right. She had been caught up in the seriousness of the situation, but in reality this was not much of a splendid occasion for her. She got to drive a tank somewhere that a tank transporter could have just taken it; and she attended a meeting with a Colonel to learn information Dreschner would get from the OKS itself.

Dreschner did not logically require any briefings from her. After all, he was meeting with the Field Marshal, so he would have access to information at the top level. So she didn’t really have any reason to do this but busywork.

Unless he just wanted to hear what she picked up on for some other reason.


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