The Benghu Tank War I (29.5)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Shebelle Plains, East

Noel Skonieczny knew voices. He was particularly familiar with men’s voices.

When the radio came alive, he knew the Colonel’s voice sounded distressed.

“Captain Skoniec, we have run into a problem!” Spoor said. His tone was subtle.

To the Colonel this was the most dignified voice he could muster in his situation.

“I can see some of that!” Noel replied, spying on the slaughter with his periscope.

Far across from him there was a grizzly show of flashing gunfire and dying men.

The plight of the infantrymen was not his plight, however. He had only stopped along the road so that Ivan could refuel for the next stretch of the journey — past south Shebelle and across the east, toward the town of Benghu. He was safely ensconced away from all of the southern fighting that he could see. Watching them was tangential to his mission.

Colonel Spoor of the Panzergrenadiers had an entirely different problem to report.

“The Ayvartans’ eastern defenses stretch out farther from Shebelle proper than we initially thought. They have occupied a one kilometer stretch of wood along a path that we intended to take on our way to Benghu. It is an isolated dirt road straddling a small dry gully located east of Shebelle. There are tanks or guns dug into the foliage there.”

“What about the Leichte D? Surely they can handle a few tanks?” Noel asked.

“We’ve lost a platoon of tanks we sent into the wood. I’d like you to appraise the situation. I’m afraid my men’s anti-tank weapons are too short-ranged for this predicament.”

“Very well then! Tell them Panzer ace Skonieczny is coming to the rescue!”

Noel switched his radio quickly with one of the preset options on a box at his hip.

“Bartosz! Dolph! Fuel up quickly, we’re running ahead.” He said excitedly. Through his periscope he watched the two tanks parked a few meters distance from him, their crews dismounted with fuel cans in hand, laboring in the rain while Dolph and Bartosz supervised. They had full crews at their disposal — they did not work quite like Noel did.

Ivan pulled open the front hatch of the M5A2 and climbed in, shutting it down and locking it up behind him. Noel bent down from the gunner’s post and gave him a smile. He was dripping wet, his drenched hair hanging around his eyes and ears. Rivulets of water trailed down all of him, and he was visibly shivering a little as he smiled back.

“You were right, it’s real cold out. But I got everything ready. We’re good to go.”

“Look at you, Ivan! You’re gonna catch a cold. I told you I would do it!” Noel said.

Ivan chuckled. “No, it’s just wouldn’t be right to get that pretty head all sopping wet.”

“You mean you’re not curious what I’d look like all wet?” Noel said cheekily.

Ivan sneezed, rubbed his nose and tried to smile back. “You got me there.”

Noel sat back up, produced a thermal blanket from a kit on the wall, and threw it down.

“I’ll warm you up myself once we’ve settled things in Benghu.” Noel said sultrily.

From the driver’s seat Ivan stretched his arm back and gave Noel a thumbs-up.

Engines rumbling under the intermittent thunder, the M5A2 and its attendant M5s pulled out of the patch of wood in which they had hidden and veered off-road across the country, due to northeast. They gave a wide berth to Shebelle and its defenses, traversing the rougher terrain in the wilderness and headed diagonally due north. Though part of the 8th Panzer Division, Noel’s Panzerjagdzug moved on its own, a lone platoon without supporting vehicles or the additional Ranger tanks of a Leichte Kompanie or light tank company.

He was tasked with acting in an eerily mercenary fashion during this operation.

Armies deployed in echelons. The 8th Panzer Division was not sending all 180 or so of its remaining vehicles into battle all at once. Instead, 80 tanks from Silb, divided into four companies, would attack first, while the 40 “fatigued” tanks deployed for the previous Sandari offensive would take it easy and establish forward positions to the southeast of Shebelle. There they would wait for the fresh tanks to open the way for them. In addition, 40 Assault Guns had been lent to the infantry of Shebelle to help effect their breakthrough.

Noel had already seen at least two M3 Hunter wrecks out in the southern meadow.

It was not his job to care about that — he had not been told to care about that. Dreschner had ordered him to run from hot spot to hot spot, supporting any attacks that lost steam. Spoor was his main charge. His sector had less tank power to count on than any other.

As they spoke, Reiniger was rushing east Shebelle, leading his M4 Medium Tank kompanie and two Leichte kompanies in skirmishing attacks on the defenses. Meanwhile, the remaining Leichte Kompanie as well as a company of men under Spoor, travelling in their half-tracks and light vehicles, were wheedling their way out of Ayvartan earshot trying to find unguarded parts of the line through which to attack Benghu. They had pinned their hopes on a stretch of sparsely wooded path along an old dry gully several kilometers east of Shebelle’s eastern-most reaches. They had been wrong.

For one, not all of the path was sparsely wooded. Much of it was open, and then there was a kilometer-long stretch that was almost forested right in the middle, in their way.

Secondly, that path was very visibly not unguarded at all. Time to revise the maps!

A half hour’s travel from the southern lines Noel spotted scattered vehicles spread out in a defensive posture just off the gully and outside the stretch of trees barring the way. Just inside the wood, packed in front of the road, Noel spotted three M5 tanks abandoned and damaged. From his vantage he could not see all of the damage, but these were likely frontal penetrations. Outside the wood there was a front line of six or seven M5 tanks casting shells blindly into the wood, using the slope of a tiny mound for some measure of cover.

Behind them, seven Squire type Half-Tracks stood along the road with their men dismounted and gathered around them as if using them for cover. A few men ranged their rifles and Norgler machine guns by firing tracers into the wood from around the sides of the half-tracks. As Noel and his men approached the gathering, he trained his periscope on the wood, and saw muzzle flashes trading fire back. There were defenses in the wood alright.

A particularly bright flash then startled him; the next instant a howitzer shell flew out of the wood and crashed into the front of an M5 Ranger, resulting in a brilliant explosion.

Though the shell had too low a velocity to penetrate, the detonation was so violent and came from less than a kilometer away, retaining all of the force of the gun as well as the strength of the explosives. In an instant the turret of the M5 Ranger was torn off its body and sent flying backwards, gun spinning, the men inside flying in pieces amid a storm of metal, fire and rain. Those who remained in the hull were incapacitated by the blast wave. Inside a tank, an impact with that force rocked men unconsciousness or dead by itself.

Remains of the turret landed as far back along the road as Noel’s approach.

Before the smoke had even begun to waft off the wreck, there were additional flashes from inside the wood. Red lines from tracers cut across the air like calligraphic ink, connecting track guards, bogeys, gun mantlets and glacis plates with unseen guns. That little hill was no defense at all — it barely covered the tracks from this gunfire. Smaller, faster anti-tank shells struck around the forward tanks, some bouncing off, others hitting dirt, but one lucky shot snapping a track on a tank. Noel counted six shots by the tracer lines.

Those must be the Ayvartan tanks. But Noel could not see them! They must have been huddling around the trees and the rocks, using every piece of cover. This was not good.

From the moment he had arrived Noel had got to thinking of what to do. Nobody thought of him as being particularly bright or fierce — at least nobody who did not know him. But throughout the unfolding carnage his eyes had been appraising, and he had been pinning pictures on his mental bulletin board. He quickly formulated a course of action.

“Everybody back, now! Right now!” Noel broadcast to on the Panzergrenadier’s signal.

“Back where?” Spoor replied via the radio. Noel scanned around the vehicles for him, and finally trained his periscope on a radio half-track farthest back in the formation and saw Spoor standing atop it, waving his hand high up in the air to get his attention.

“There’s no cover anywhere Captain Skoniec! We need to attack now!” Spoor continued.

He could hear the impatience in his voice and a kind of restrained hostility.

Noel knew men’s voices all too well. Particularly the voices of frustrated men; of men who had not gotten their way exactly. Spoor’s voice was all too familiar at that moment.

“We will attack, but we’re too close right now! Just trust me!” Noel replied.

“Very well!” Spoor replied. He gave his signal to his men to pull back.

Every vehicle in the vicinity started its engines and began to maneuver in a directionless retreat. The M5s reversed course from the edge of the wood under repeated anti-tank fire. Men loaded back into their half-tracks while the vehicles were in frantic motion. Noel kept his eyes peeled for that howitzer, hidden somewhere along the dirt road in the wood. There were trees and rocks and maybe even camouflage obstacles in his way however.

“How deep is that gully, and is it flooded from the rains?” Noel asked.

“Not flooded; and it is only a meter and a half or so deep.” Colonel Spoor said.

“Send five tanks and some men down the gully. Right now!” Noel said.

“I shall heed your advice, Captain.” Spoor replied with feigned politeness.

Certainly if he was offended at Noel’s impudence before he must have been livid now.

He called for support, but perhaps he was unready for Noel to take the lead.

But Noel had no time to worry about the chain of command. He switched back to speaking to his own people. “Dolph, Bartosz, follow me! We’re going around this mess! Ivan, full speed due east for a kilo and then swing around north a kilo to clear the wood.”

It was a mercenary action, but Noel had always been praised for being mercenary.

Ivan was quick to turn the tank, and at full speed Noel and his men cut to the east for at least a kilometer before swinging around back north, well clear of the sparse patch of wood in which the Ayvartans were making their stand. He saw from afar the tanks lining up and moving into the gully, gingerly dropping within the walls and aiming their guns over them.

Farther north there were no more Ayvartans coming from the clearer parts of the dirt road. They had all elected to entrench inside this kilometer-long stretch. He expected something like that. He had yet to see timely Ayvartan reinforcements in the war. He had also yet to see them affect any kind of mobile defense. So he counted on these facts.

“Our tanks are moving up the gully, and they are engaging the enemy.” Spoor said. “The Ayvartans have six tanks. That Howitzer that they’re using as a direct fire gun that has not been found, and there are at least a hundred other troops according to my men.”

“Tell your guys to go slow and aim carefully.” Noel said. “At close range, the difference in elevation means the enemy’s tanks can’t hit your gully men unless they climb up.”

“I shall relay.” Colonel Spoor replied. Noel thought he heard surprise in his voice.

As the Panzerjagdzug trekked their way up north and around the obstacle, Noel looked out his periscope at the wood, and saw the heavy flash of the howitzer from within.

Smoke rose up from somewhere south, out of his sight. A violent explosion.

“That damned Howitzer fired into the gully. One tank down!” Colonel Spoor reported.

“I know where it is now.” Noel called back. “Just hang on! Dolph, Bartosz, charge!”

He received his affirmatives within seconds. His subordinates were always ready.

Dolph and Bartosz lined up, forming the sides of a spread out and enveloping reverse arrowhead. Together the M5s turned sharply around and doubled back south.

Masked by the rain and thunder and by the timely distraction of the tanks creeping up the gully, the Panzerjagdzug attacked the Ayvartan position directly from behind.

“Dolph, sweep around right, and Bartosz take the left, and meet 500 meters ahead, divide the enemy and take the best shots you can! I’ll go along the road! Ivan, keep moving and do not decrease your speed below 20 km/h! We can’t afford to stop yet!”

His subordinates spread out, forming the jaws of Noel’s expertly commanded attack.

Noel drove in as the tongue. He immediately got a taste of the enemy position.

One gun, six tanks, maybe a hundred men with machine guns and grenades and anti-tank rifles, spread out across the kilometer of wood without a thought as to their own flanks. His eyes scanned across the enemy and took in their positions like reading faces in a crowd.

Not a single position ahead seemed to be looking out for its rear.

Even a single tank could do a lot of damage to such a nearsighted formation.

As soon as he cleared the treeline, Noel loaded his despicable canister shot and flung a round forward while Ivan kept the tank continuously moving. The 37mm fragmentation shell landed atop a camouflage tent a hundred meters away, held up by poles and covered in brush, strung up between a pair of trees. At once the canister violently erupted into hundreds of individual bits of metal shrapnel that shredded the net and eviscerated the men crouching around the net’s contents — a 122mm howitzer, pointed down the road.

Though the gun itself was mostly undamaged it was instantly unmanned.

Several hundred meters ahead he sighted the Ayvartan tanks, Goblins as usual, taking pot shots at the gully and moving in reverse, trying to build distance to counter the difference in elevation. They were divided into three echelons, interleaved such that they could shoot past each other. It would have been a good formation — for anti-tank guns.

At the loss of the howitzer the tanks were alerted to Noel’s presence.

Judging by their movements, two of the closest tanks, maybe two hundred meters ahead, seemed to have been given the immediate task of stopping him. They turned to meet him.

Switching his viewpoint quickly between periscope and gun sight, Noel gave his orders.

“Ivan, make for that rock up ahead and stop behind it! Then move on my signal!”

Soon as they spotted him the Goblins engaged, muzzles flashing and tracers burning. These initial shots flew well past him as he swept onto the road and off it at full speed. The M5A2 stormed through their gunfire and out of their sight. Ivan hid the tank quite snugly behind a large boulder just off the dirt road. Dolph and Bartosz swung around the outside, both of them avoiding fire from the tanks closest to the gully down the road. Noel was fortunate enough to be able to look over the rock with his periscope.

Both of the Goblin tanks opened fire on the rock formation, smashing its face with their explosive AP-HE shells, the Ayvartan’s preferred type, and kicking up a cloud of smoke.

They did nothing to the rock — it was two meters thick and nearly three across.

Suddenly the tanks split up, each Goblin charging down its own side of the road.

Through the smoke he saw the silhouettes of the tanks, intending to sweep his flanks.

Noel grinned.

He smacked a loud kiss with his fingers on the radio — Ivan’s signal for the maneuver.

Like a boxer avoiding a knockout blow, the M5A2 backed suddenly out from behind the rock and swept down the road in reverse, suddenly facing the tanks coming around the sides of the rock formation. As Ivan retreated Noel sighted and fired, and put a round through the front of the first Goblin as it emerged from around the rock. Such a shot was certain to kill the driver inside. Noel loaded and fired a quick second shot into the turret.

Two neat holes, almost perfectly aligned on the hull and gun mantlet; one could probably superimpose a picture of the Goblin’s layout and find the driver and gunner exactingly killed.

Soon as the second Goblin swept around to clear the rock it turned its turret on them and opened fire, but the 45mm shell hit air as the M5A2 swerved sharply to the left and hooked around a tree. Noel felt a thrill as the tank swerved — Ivan was a genius with the sticks! But the Goblin was not letting up. Its next shot came very quickly. A sharp-tipped shell tore suddenly toward the M5A2, snapping through the tree trunk and striking armor.

It plinked right off the side plate, having lost nearly all its momentum within the tree.

Responding in kind, Noel engaged the turret drive, swinging his gun around the tree and shooting as if in one single motion. He punched right through the flat hull front of the Goblin with a rigid, capped armor-piercing shell. There was no explosion inside the tank from Noel’s shot, but the cone of metal from the point of penetration would kill the driver and hurt the gunner, who were packed close together in the cramped interior of a Goblin tank.

To make certain he loaded and fired a second shot from his ready basket.

Noel’s armor piercing shell soared through the exact same hole as the first.

There was a burst of fire from the back of the Goblin as the engine ignited.

In a moment he had taken out both tanks. There was no more movement from them.

“Ivan, move forward behind a tree, we’re about to be almost done here!”

In the next moment the remainder of the attack came to its predicted conclusion.

Down the road two more tanks went down within moments as Dolph and Bartosz penetrated the wood from opposing sides, firing their guns on the move in close quarters.

Across the right flank of the wood the tanks creeping along the gully had managed to close to the first echelon of the enemy, and they started to open fire with their cannons and machine guns almost as soon as Dolph and Bartosz entered the wood. Ahead the Ayvartan infantry was pinned under tremendous gunfire, while their remaining tanks were quickly detracked and destroyed from the seemingly omnidirectional barrage.

With the withering of resistance the Panzergrenadiers gained courage, and Noel saw their Squire half-tracks, norgler machine guns blazing, moving up the dirt road.

In an instant the seemingly formidable position dug into the patch of wood was wiped out.

With all their heavy firepower lost, the remaining Ayvartan troops, bewildered, surrendered themselves to the Panzergrenadiers. Those who fled did not get far under fire.

Panzergrenadiers disarmed the captives and bound them like farm animals, arms to legs and behind their back, and some even to the trees and the rocks, their bonds nailed in place with bolts, and left them for the next echelon to catch and take back behind the lines.

Many of them looked defiant still. A few struggled a little against the bonds. Others protested continuously in their language which nobody could quite understand.

Once the area was cleared, the softer vehicles crossed the path and started out of the little wood. Having sent word previously, Colonel Spoor dismounted his half-track and met with Noel, who had his flower umbrella to cover him from the rain. He stretched out a hand.

Noel delicately shook the fingers of his glove with the tips of his own fingers.

Spoor smiled. He was an older man, sparsely-haired, sharp-featured, like a bird. When calm he was like a resting owl; when angry he was probably a diving hawk. Noel knew his gentlemanly demeanor from their sparse interactions before — but hearing his agitated voice today, Noel thought he knew an entirely different side of him now.

He didn’t begrudge him this. If he did begrudge it he would just hate everybody.

“I must admit at first I did not think you looked like much of a tanker.” Spoor said.

Noel smiled and waved with a flamboyantly limp wrist. “Everyone says that.”

Nobody did, not openly, but Noel knew. Subtext did not slip past him easily.

“I’m a true believer now, Captain Skoniec. That was excellent maneuvering.”

Noel knew men’s voices; from the sour to the adoring. He had heard them all in their possible tones. So he felt a touch of warmth in his heart, because though Spoor had a serious, implacable demeanor to his face, his voice now betrayed his admiration.

A more cynical part of him reminded him that one could easily abuse and discard something one admired. He had experience with that too. Still, it was rewarding.

“You can thank my driver for the maneuvering. Now, the shooting, that was all me.”

Noel pointed proudly to the holes in the husks of the Goblin tanks along the road.

“Most excellent shooting as well, of course.” Spoor said. “Captain, you have opened the way for us. Next stop is the town of Benghu. I’d be honored to lead the way alongside you.”

“Oh ho ho!” Noel laughed. “I love this old cavalry pageantry. Sure, let us ride then.”

In the back of his mind Noel still wondered whether he was truly honored with the Colonel’s right-hand, or whether he was meant to stand in the way of a bullet targeting it.

That was usually how things went with Lachy folk found worthy of Nochtish wings.

And it was not something that voices and tones could fully communicate to him.

Spoor returned to his radio half-track, and Noel followed at his side, cruising down the road at a leisurely 40 km/h. Following behind him were ten tanks from the Leichte, the remainder looking for a place to extricate themselves from the gully; farther back were five more half-tracks and sixty men between them. Dolph and Bartosz covered the rear.

Perhaps inauspiciously, they had found their hole in the line. Benghu lay ahead.

Residual adrenaline coursed through his body. Noel felt a brimming in his hands. His fingers tapped on the electric trigger almost by themselves, play-acting gun shots.

He wondered how his most excellent subordinate must have been feeling.

This would be their first major tank operation. Tukino had been an interesting fluke.

“Ivan, how are you feeling?” Noel asked.

“I’m shivering, Captain.” Ivan said.

Noel smiled brightly to himself. “Cold, or fear?”

Ivan stammered. “Both, but don’t worry, I’ll be fine Noel.”

“You know I trust all the driving to you.” Noel reassured him.

“And I trust my life back, my Captain.” Ivan sweetly said.

Now that was the very rare kind of voice that Noel loved to hear from a man.

53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Chanda General School

In the middle of a shrapnel extraction procedure a pair of men showed up at the door.

“Elena, take over, you know what to do.” Dr. Agrawal said.

She pulled down her mask and stepped out of the office in which they had several men awaiting shrapnel extractions. Elena took over the tools, and Leander looked up, his eyes following the doctor out of the room, but when Elena asked him for tools with the same authoritative voice as the doctor he segued right back into his role without trouble.

Outside, Dr. Agrawal met with two men, their green capes dripping water onto the floor.

“Ma’am, we’re sorry to bother you, but since your rank reinstatement–”

Dr. Agrawal felt a sharp jab in her chest and an unwanted thrill in her stomach at the thought of being regarded again as Captain Agrawal. She had left all that well behind.

“I’m the commanding officer. I know. But this is a medical and supply installation.”

“I’m afraid it is also in danger, ma’am,” said the second man, speaking up.

“Report.” She said to them. She curled one arm under her breasts and raised fingers to her chin while they spoke. Her hands were visibly stirring without her consent.

“Benghu received word that Nochtish units broke away from the southern attack and bypassed our defenses. Our scouting unit was sent out to spot the Nochtish units, and we found enemy forces moving toward Benghu. We continued to track the enemy’s movements and found a mechanized company bypassing the defenses at Benghu. We asked for no more ambulances from the front to be sent here because of the intrusion. Shebelle is being outflanked, and Benghu has no mobile forces to counter. We’re exposed.”

“They are headed here to cut the railroad and capture our supplies.” Dr. Agrawal said.

“Yes ma’am. We’ve been tasked with helping you defend the area, but there are only eight soldiers and three tanks in our recon squadron. We don’t know what to do.”

Dr. Agrawal raised her hands to cover her face. This position felt all too familiar.

“I’m afraid we only have five or six soldiers to spare here.” Dr. Agrawal said.

“Is that counting you and the medics here ma’am?” asked one of the soldiers.

“No. But you’re right. That brings it up more.” She bitterly conceded to them.

She felt her heartbeat grow faster. She started to pace around in front of the men. Her head hurt and she started getting all kinds of dire ideas and sights intruding in her mind. For a doctor, Panchali Agrawal’s life seemed a constant struggle not to do harm.

“I’m going to need a rifle, I suppose.” She said, almost to herself; to her past self.

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