The Benghu Tank War I (29.4)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

 53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Shebelle Plains

Nocht’s fighting men saw no dawn on the 53rd. Through the thick and storming skies above Shebelle and the lower Dbagbo the light of the sun scarcely brought the world out of the twilight. Under a grey gloom and worsening rain the men marched at exactly 0600 hours.

The Grenadiers marched to rally points along the front line from the Sandari riverside, masking their approach and concealing their idle forces in short stretches of wood to the southeast, behind low-lying rocky scarp to the southwest and behind shallow hills rising and falling along the road directly south of Shebelle city. In these places they settled for some time and made their final preparations for the battle only hours or minutes ahead. Between 0700 and 0900 a Regiment of 5000 men deployed among these various points along the southern city approaches. They gathered ammunition and weapons, tested their communications, and carefully performed their final scouting missions.

To the Nochtish eye the approach to Shebelle was picturesque countryside consisting mostly of flower and grass meadows that were muddy underfoot, dotted with trees and all beset by thick rains. They were a few kilometers away from the southern hamlets but the line of sight was open enough for many along the southern road to see the little roofs and the brown brick and wooden constructions that separated the country from the beginnings of the city.

From the edge of the trenches to the first houses of southernmost Shebelle, the first echelon of visible Ayvartan defenses stretched two kilometers wide and around one kilometer deep. There were a few discreet fighting positions in the open, and more along the first and most visible trench line. Though the biggest forts had been flattened by bombs from the short-lived preparatory bombardment entrusted to the Luftlotte, the smoke and fire was clear and there were certainly soldiers hiding in the hollowed-out redoubts.

Another immediate fact was the lack of cover before the first echelon of the defenses.

Men would be running most of the way out in the open with only scattered boulders, bushes and trees for cover, too sparse and spread too far apart to serve as jumping-off points.

Soon the artillery and the few supporting tanks allotted to the infantry regiments began to arrive along the Nochtish lines and to establish their own positions and calculate their firing lines along Shebelle’s borders. There was a hasty, last-minute tactical debate among the infantry commanders as to whether the shooting would expose their positions too early. It was quickly realized however that exposure would nonetheless happen immediately when the men stepped forward, and that without good cover and without air support or artillery they would have nothing but their feet to count on as they advanced.

To preserve some modicum of surprise and momentum, it was decided to start the fire mission ten minutes before the Grenadiers charged. At around 0950 the men took up final positions as their 10.5 centimeter guns lobbed shells over and around their various forms of natural cover. Soaring over the little hills, from within the patchy wood and between the rocky scarps, the howitzer shells navigated their arcs and found their way across the meadows, crashing haphazardly around the Ayvartan lines. Eighteen guns from six different positions laid down a barrage of fifty-four rounds in a minute. Rolling blasts rocked the length of the Ayvartan front, kicking up copious smoke and dirt.

Almost 600 shells had come down on the Ayvartan defenses within ten minutes.

But 600 shells scarcely made a dent in a defense that was measured in kilometers.

Everyone knew it but they could no longer consider their options. It was time to move.

At around 1000 hours the first wave of infantrymen from the 17th Grenadier Division began their attack on the southern approach to Shebelle city. Along two kilometers of frontage 3000 men would move, divided into four battalions each with two companies forward. As such for the very first stage of the charge, there were about a thousand men running. Every man was privy to at least a hundred others running in his line of sight.

For the first nearly thousand meters from the starting positions, almost halfway to the Ayvartan lines, the men charged without arousing even a single bullet. Rifles in hand, heads bowed, bounding from short sprint to short sprint, the men advanced unopposed by enemy or obstacle. Between bounds several men raised their rifles and took shots into the rain, aiming for the sandbag-lined trenches and for the half-dozen wooden redoubts along them. Their bullets disappeared into the air and the cracks of their rifles went unanswered.

Behind the advancing Grenadiers the Regiment’s guns sounded a slower barrage than that which opened the charge. Ahead of them the Landsers saw a dozen shells falling every minute, kicking up sharp columns of dirt and smoke, sending wood and sandbags flying from impacts on the trench, and shredding every bush and tree along the defensive line. As they advanced the men were kept on target by the periodic falling of shells in front of them, as though they were signal flares flashing under the pervasive gloom of the storm rains.

Accompanying the sound of explosives was the pounding and chugging of engines.

Forty M3 Hunter assault guns had been scrounged up from the 8th and 15th Panzer Divisions and attached to the Grenadiers for the attack. Twenty were dispatched with the first wave, charging in five minutes behind the men, each tank a hundred meters apart from the next on a broad front that would cover the whole width of the defensive line.

By the ten minute mark on the assault the tanks had nearly overtaken the men, and were ready to cover the remainder together. Like the men the M3s bounded forward and paused periodically to fire their 75mm howitzers. Several direct hits were scored on improvised wooden bunkers and on quiet sandbag walls, sending them flying in pieces. The tank’s tracks slipped on the muddy earth and cut great gouges into puddles and soft dirt, and they advanced quite slowly for fear of becoming stuck in the oozing earth.

Fifteen minutes into the attack without a sign of resistance, the infantry commanders behind the Nochtish advance felt great trepidation and failed to communicate it quickly enough to their men. Under the rain and the clap of thunder, delighting in their momentum, the Grenadiers cleared invisible kilometer line and the nebulous halfway mark to the trenches. With the enemy closer and clearer in sight, they felt bold.

Then the ground started giving in a hundred different places for a split second.

Men started to suddenly give away with it, tripping over bursts of dust and metal.

Soon as a foot touched the plate atop the hidden Ayvartan Tiddi mines, a small explosive triggered that tore through boots and sent shards flying through men. As the men ran through the minefield it appeared as though a sudden rising foam beneath puddles and mud knocked them over. But then they wound find themselves seriously wounded.

At first nobody seemed to see nor hear the mines, for they were designed not to be seen nor heard. It was an explosive not designed to tear off a limb, but to disrupt advances and wound and frighten running men. But the men continued to bound forward as though their falling allies were none of their concern. They scarcely noticed the men toppling over.

Those who did notice and those who paused to help failed to see flashing ahead.

Like the shining eyes of lurking predators, muzzles flashed a fleeting orange from a kilometer away, all along the trench line, and their leaden claws struck the running men and alerted them to resistance. Suddenly machine guns opened up automatic fire from redoubts thought cleared and from trench lines thought blasted. Streaks of colored tracer fire cut across the distance, slicing clear through the rain and splashing across the puddles and mud. Like a cloud of flashing locusts the gunfire mounted, seemingly from thousands of rifles.

Out in the open the Grenadiers were cut down every second. Bright lines of gunfire swept across the meadow, punching men to the ground in mid-run, taking limbs and heads from men crouched to fire, cutting around crawling men, bouncing off the armored fronts of advancing assault guns. Those men close enough to duck near the armor rushed to hide behind the trundling bulk of the M3 Hunters, while those out in the open dropped onto the mud, concealing themselves in the tall grasses and in deep puddles, crawling with their faces down, all the while relentless grazing gunfire kicked up dirt and water over them.

Everyone foolish enough to keep running in the open was dead in a fleeting instant.

Artillery shells from the Nochtish lines continued to fall on the Ayvartan trenches, but it seemed to do little to stem the gunfire. Then within moments, with a great blast that cut a squadron off from behind a tank and lit the vehicle’s engine ablaze, the first Ayvartan shell responded. Men looked up in horror and saw great arcing lines of tracer fire lighting up the dark grey sky. Fired from Shebelle, the lobbed howitzer and long-range mortar shells painted in the sky a red web-work before hurtling earthwards into the Nochtish advance.

Blasts from 122mm guns and 120mm mortars stationed 6 to 10 kilometers away raised plumes of smoke, water, grass, and mud, bursting from the earth like pillars and stopping men in their tracks just as brutally as the solid object could. Men hiding behind tanks felt and heard metal fragments striking their cover as though falling hail stones. Men crawling along the ground felt terrible blast waves blowing hot over their prone bodies. Thousands of shells fell every minute, inaccurate individually but annihilating in bulk.

Unless a direct or very close hit was scored, however, a tank had little to fear from an Ayvartan fragmentation shell. The M3 Hunters continued to bound, closing to within 500 meters of the Ayvartan trench with a dozen men following behind, taking shots from around the sides of the vehicles. They caught glimpses of the automatic guns and of the snipers and light machine gunners along the trench line and fought back as best as they could. As the assault guns closed they too could better see the enemy, and laid accurate, explosive direct fire over the trench line, into the pillboxes, into the sandbags, and up in trees and around boulders from which muzzle flashes had distinctly been spotted moments earlier.

After each 75mm shot from the M3 Hunters, the men creeping behind looked around their moving pillboxes and saw Ayvartan light machine gunners dashing from stricken positions, footing it quickly to new places from which to resume their automatic fire. Like phantoms under the rain they could escape being targeted and resume fighting between blasts.

Below 500 meters a new threshold was crossed, and brighter muzzles flashed ahead.

M3 Hunters rocked as their front plates endured fire from light anti-tank cannons.

From behind the tanks the Grenadiers witnessed the direct fire of the guns, carefully hidden past the trench lines in bushes and camouflaged hay bales and fake boulders. Bright AP-HE tracers flew close over the ground and exploded against the tanks. The M3 Hunter’s front armor was unparalleled in the Nochtish army, and there were no penetrations scored, but the combined volume of fire was staggering and insurmountable. Disoriented by repeated hits against their faces the assault guns slowed to a greater crawl, and the men behind them were exposed to ever more accurate gunfire and relentless artillery barrages.

This drama seemed to play out across every hundred meters width of the charge.

Save for a dozen men huddling behind the struggling assault guns, the first wave of the advance had been thoroughly repulsed within thirty minutes. Assault guns and men traded ineffective fire with the Ayvartan line from 400 meters away at the closest, and the advance had become so lopsided that there were parts of the line still 600 and 700 meters away.

The 17th Grenadier Division injected more men — the Regiment had many more men, and the Division had two other Regiments. Soon a thousand more men and ten additional assault guns joined. There would be many thousand more after them, each building off the momentum of the last, almost literally walking over the corpses to take the trench, and from the trench to reach the southern hamlet, and from there to fight in the city streets.

All of them had been told to charge the city, to take distant Shebelle from the enemy’s hands. None had been told they were a distraction, and that 700 casualties in 30 minutes was somewhat expected, and that 5000 by the day’s end would not be frowned upon.

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