Guns of the Highlands
Written by Woodclaw :: [Wednesday, 24 July 2013 18:03] Last updated by :: [Tuesday, 20 May 2014 10:16]
Guns of the Highlands
This story was written with the help of many people and I want to thank them all. More specificly:
- To Njae for the support and for translating the German bits;
- To Highlander for helping with the accent and the details about British military organization;
- To Fats for pointing me to a good military slang site;
- To Camille and Pansardum for proofreading this stuff above and beyond the call of duty.
Author's Note: this story is set in the same universe of my previous work "Closure Hour". How these two are connected is matter for future stories.
Normandy – June 1944
A burst of 7.92mm bullets flew across the square and riddled the brick wall shielding the 6th Platoon, B Company of the 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry. Behind the brick cover Lieutenant Ronald Irvin cursed his luck and a wide variety of saints. He was roughly 25 years old and he was in no mood to die on the other side of the Channel. His team had landed scarcely two weeks ago and, while they all knew that it wouldn't have been a walk in the park to get to Berlin, the Wehrmacht was making sure that they paid every step in blood and sweat. “Well lads, any brilliant idea to get us out of this?”
Platoon Sergeant Lenox Munro – a burly man in his late 30s, with unevenly brown hair – was quick to answer as a couple of rounds grazed window he was using as cover “Not bein' killed, sound brilliant ta me, sir.”
“Not wha' I want to hear from ye, Lenox”
“Sorry, sir.” Munro grinned, “But, those Jerrys are dug in deep. Cannae grenade 'em from 'ere.”
Irvin slid left along the wall trying to get a peek behind their own dug out, only to be greeted by a German round that drilled a hole in the brim of his tincap helmet. He backpedalled quickly and tried to analyse the situations. The Germans were holding a trench on the other side of the square, normally this required grenades to weasel them out, but they were almost too far for a good toss and they had the sense to use some boards to cover the maggies – the machine-guns nests. He cursed the supplies that sent the company rifle grenades to the Jocks of C company, about 15 miles North of them …
“Sir, we need to flank them.”
Irvin turned to face Private Lockhart – a barely 20 years old man with blonde hair and a mouth that always seemed curved in a sardonic smile – he was the youngest man in the company and was almost too eager to please. Something that Irvin found incredibly irking – almost as much as the Private's attempt to Oxford accent. “Nice thinkin’ Lockhart. Now if ye know how ta doo that withoot bein shoot.”
“Down there!” Lockhart pointed at a half ring of stone benches running along the left side of the square, opposed to the church.
“A wee too far, don't ye think?”
“No sir, I think I can get there.”
“Are ye invisible, Private?” Irvin tried his best not to sound sarcastic.
“No,sir. But I'm fast. Back home I was on the college track team.”
Irvin took a deep breath. It was a risky move, but they weren't accomplishing anything by sitting still. He considered himself a decent man and risking the life of one of his men – even Lockhart – wasn't something he liked. Against his better judgement he agreed. “Okay, lad. I believe ye. Just give us a minute to set up.”
A slow breath accompanied the steady move of the scope across the battlefield.
The troopers scuttled, trying to get in some decent firing position, while Lockhart ditched the bulk of his webbing keeping only the Enfield and some grenades. About 30 seconds later the platoon Brens opened fire against the German trench, a split second later Lockhart sprinted toward the fist bench.
The hunting scope kept moving, following the running man.
Another slow breath.
A salvo of German rifle bullets followed Lockhart, pumping a ton of adrenalin in his system. He pushed himself hard, harder than he did as a kid, harder than he even did at school. With one long leap he reached the bench and crouched behind it. “Jesse Owens eat my dust.” he laughed, feeling a bit light-headed.
Lockhart peeked from the corner of the bench. He still had two, maybe three, sprints to make to get into position. He waited for another salvo of cover fire from his 'mates.
The scope rested on the running man. From its vantage point it could clearly see his left shin.
Another slow breath.
The index finger rested relaxed on the trigger.
A whisper to a binocular nearby.
As the Brens reopened fire, Lockhart's left leg pushed with all his strength against the ground, only to explode in a cloud of pain. He screamed at the top of his lungs while blood started to pour out.
“Crap! They got 'im!” Munro shouted over the detonations.
“WHAT?!” Irvin returned trying to reload his Sten.
“Lockhart 's down! There's a sniper.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, but he'll soon be.” Munro said in the most neuter tone he could muster, he had fought his way out some of some of the worst hell-holes of the war and knew very well what was coming.
The two men stared in each other’s eyes, they both knew what to do, but neither was willing to do it. There was no way of getting Lockhart out without risking another life, so the merciful thing to do was sparring him more pain. Munro slowly cocked his gun …
The scope realigned on the wounded soldier.
Another deep breath.
Another shot loaded.
The index finger rested on the trigger.
A bit of delicate pressure.
Before the bullet cleared the barrel a dark blue blur zipped across the field of vision and the target was gone.
Munro and Irvin were getting ready to do the only thing they could for Lockhart – neither of them was particularly happy about it – when a violent rush of wind swept their position. They grabbed their Stens and turned in synch, but immediately relaxed as they recognized the figure in front of them.
She was of roughly average height with a slim, athletic build. A long braid of copper red hair spun down halfway through her back. Her face had a pleasantly oval profile, but was mostly covered; a few dark dots on her checks hinted a line of freckles across the bridge of her nose, she had a thin, well designed mouth and a pair of steely grey eyes. Her clothes weren't exactly flattering to her lithe figure, she was wearing a blue shirt with a St. Andrew cross emblazoned upon it, military khaki pants and a pair of standard-issue ammunition boots with the usual baggeds – the web anklets. A canvas '37 combat webbing – with a red cross musette bag – and a blue mask finished the outfit. The mask was actually little more than a scarf, covering her from half an inch under the hairline to the tip of her nose with not-so-neatly cut holes for the eyes. The entire outfit was caked with dust, dirt and, right now, drops of Lockhart's blood – the poor lad was now unconscious and resting over her right shoulder. In spite of all this, she was still considered by many a real angel and the unofficial sweetheart of half the 2nd Highland Light Infantry.
Before the two soldiers could say a word she moved past them and leaned Lockhart down in a dug out nearby. “Medic!” she cried, while unpacking her own field kit. Private Gilliam – the platoon orderly – crawled forward and started to attend Lockhart's wounds.
After a minute she turned and saluted sharply the two officers. “Sorry fer not reportin' immediately sir.” she smirked.
Irvin answered the salute. “Not a problem Miss Saltire. I'm just … glad ye took this matter oot of my hands.”
“What's tha form, sir?” the position of Saltire within the army was something of a problem. Technically she wasn't part of usual chain of command, but many commanders were glad to have some metahuman help, so she was usually able to have some pull in spite of that. Given the situation Irvin was all too happy to see her.
“Sticky as a tar pit, I'd say.” Irvin snorted while moving back to his firing position. “The Jerrys are dug in deep, cannae grenade them from here. And we get a sniper covering the square, anyway. We're in a blue pencil of a bog-up.”
“Where is he firing from?”
Irvin looked at her a bit puzzled. As the stories went, Saltire was fast enough to pick a bullet mid-flight, he thought that she already knew. Munro interjected, “Me money is on the bell tower.”
Irvin eyed the profile of the church and nodded. “The sergeant is right. It's defensible and has a good view. We cannae storm it with all the rubble around.”
Saltire eyes narrowed to a pair of slits as she tried to figure the situation. “I think I can help ye here. Just keep 'em pinned an' be ready fer me signal.”
Saltire gave him a wicked smile and leap away before answering.
She flew through the air toward the building in front of her, grabbed a window sill and hang there for a second before pushing her feet against the wall and leaping again to reach the roof of an house on the opposite side of the street. From the new vantage point, Saltire made a quick appraise of the battlefield. As the lieutenant said it was a mess. The German trench was well fortified and the building covered most of the approaches. The centre of the square was a perfect killzone, with at least two MG-42s covering it. The fence surrounding the church cut the right side of the square, making impossible to slid through that side and – if the sergeant was right – the sniper was covering the left side from the bell tower.
She took a deep breath and sighed. Having super-senses had proven to be a liability on the battlefield several times. Each explosion was deafening to her. A muzzle flash at close range was like a lighting burning through her eyes. And the smell … she could still taste her own puke after the first time she went through a combat zone where flame-throwers were deployed. Without her ability to regenerate she would be blind and deaf by now. Still there were times, like now, when having them was a major perk, in spite of the splitting headaches and the general sense of nausea.
She zoomed in to the bell tower. The sensation of losing her peripheral sight was always a bit disconcerting. A quick check of two lower archways revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but the top one was ripe: the tip of a K-98, wrapped in a piece of sackcloth, rested against the sill of the archway and she could almost distinguish a glimpse of the scope in the shadows behind.
Without any apparent hesitation, she rushed across the rooftops surrounding the square at high speed. In spite of her apparent ease, she doubted she would ever grew accustomed to things like running at 40 Km/h upon rooftops. A few tiles broke under her feet, but her super-senses also gave her a near perfect sense of balance, so she barely slowed down. She kept pushing and leaping, until she saw the clearing next to the church. She gave herself an extra push and jumped, curling like a professional long jumper and covering the 10 meters gap.
The landing wasn't the most graceful – and went unnoticed only thanks to the continued firing from below. Saltire slammed violently against the church roof, smashing a score of tiles and sliding down the side, until she grabbed a more solid holding. Climbing back up she took a second to check her clothes, lucky for her they were mostly intact – she still had her dignity to preserve.
Up in the tower, UnteroffizerErnst Schumacher – a short and hard soldier from Bavaria, with reddish-blonde hair and a badly shaved beard – wasn't a happy man. He was the designated spotter of the company third sniper team and there were few places in his company that were worst than that. The main reason was his companion: Unterfeldwebel Hans Meyer.
Meyer – a 30ish fellow with a head of chestnut hair and a lean profile – was a sadist. The kind of man that should have never been allowed to serve in a military organization – at least under normal circumstances. With a war raging across the world, someone thought that having a man with such a killer instinct was an edge and put him in a uniform.
While Meyer's service record as a sniper was impressive, a lot of people were scared by the glee and pleasure he seemed to get from the act of shooting an unsuspecting enemy. Unteroffizer Schumacher hated Meyer for that – and some more personal reasons – secretly hoping that one day an allied soldier would kill the sick bastard.
Thanks to his bad luck, maybe today was the day.
Down on the roof, Saltire took a couple of step backward, gauging the distance. There was no room for mistakes now, one wrong step and she would end up with a bullet in the face. She tried to relax and rushed forward, at the third step she leapt forward aiming for the top archway of the ball tower. As the stone archway quickly approached, she realized that her trajectory was a bit off. She fumbled through the air trying to compensate, her outstretched arm grabbed an iron crossbar – which was used to reinforce the archway – with an heavy pull she dragged herself in stumbling against the bell.
The sound of the bell at such a close range was enough to stun Saltire for a moment, giving the sniper team time to react. While the world was wobbling in front of her eyes, Saltire saw the two soldier dropping the binoculars and rifle, and drawing their pistols. In a fit of pure survival instinct she sprung forward smashing her left fist against the cheekbone of Unteroffizer Schumacher, causing his body to go limp.
In the strict confines of close combat, Unterfeldwebel Meyer fired his Luger. The bullet grazed Saltire's forehead and the muzzle flash blinded her. She cried and swore, as her left elbow performed a return swing, connecting with Meyer's chest and smashing his sternum.
Temporarily blinded and deafened, Saltire spun on the spot expecting another sudden attack that never came. She felt a faint sucking sensation on her forehead as the bruise from the bullet healed itself. Lucky for her a single 9mm Parabellum wasn't powerful enough to pierce her skin, but was still a hell of a headache.
Saltire leaned against one of the stone pillars holding her head and trying to normalize her breath. In a minute her sight and hearing were back and she surveyed the scene. The first soldier she struck was out, but still breathing. She took a pair of handcuffs from her combat webbing and tied his arms behind his back. The second one was dead, one of his ribs had broken and pierced his heart. Fighting back a wave of nausea, Saltire looked down to the battlefield. The two platoons were still engaged in a full-on firefight.
“Oh bloody hell.” Saltire whispered as she surveyed the scene and started to second guess her own idea. It was the kind of things that sounded good on paper: get to the tower, deal with the sniper, dive into the German trench and do some damage. Still, the Highlanders were waiting for her and she didn't want to disappoint.
'Just one straight dive' she thought while focussing on the machine-guns nests, 'One straight. No more smashing and bumping.'
Before jumping she fumbled in her pockets, pulled out a pair of earplugs – which she borrowed from an artillery platoon a couple of days ago – and put them in. In a trench fight noise and blasts were often too loud and she really didn't want to be a sitting duck there.
Taking a couple of deep breaths, she leapt off the bell tower towards the closest maggie, screaming “Geronimo!” at the top of her lungs as she had heard from some U.S. paratroopers do. A few German soldiers looked up just in time to see a dark spot closing in fast and smashing in one of their emplacements. An unlucky loader – by the name of Erik Stahler – took the bulk of the hit as Saltire smashed through the top of the boards covering their position and landed right on top of him, boots first. His crewmate tried to get to his sidearm, but was too slow, Saltire grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and head-butted him hard. The impact was nothing short of brutal and the soldier’s stahlhelm caved in over his head, but still miraculously saved his life.
The trench was coming alive. A burst of MP-40 missed Saltire by mere inches and lifted a spray of mud from the trench wall next to her. In return she ripped the MG-42 from its bracing and unleashed a burst of 7.92 bullets down the trench. She typewrote two more bursts and rushed into cover behind a bend, moving toward the centre of the trench.
A potato-masher grenade flew over her head, forcing Saltire to rush from cover to cover. She sprayed another burst from the hip. Normally controlling a 1200 round per minute weapon was a nightmare, but not for her. She was strong enough to bench a half-track and lift almost 10 tons in a full body press; controlling the recoil was actually very easy to manage. Between that and her speed she was a nightmare to face and she was pushing the Germans back one step at a time. It was then that 6th Platoon came back to life.
Shouting an unarticulated war-cry the men of the 2nd Highland charged across the square, taking advantage of the second MG-42 barrel change and Saltire's flanking. Three of them were gunned down by the defensive fire and one was impaled on a German bayonet as soon as his boots touched the trench. After that, it was trench fight at its most brutal. In the close space of trench it was very rare for a bullet not to find its mark and the flashing of bayonets, entrenching tools and makeshift clubs made the whole mess more confusing.
Sergeant Munro wielded a saw-off Winchester M-12 Trench gun, he had borrowed from a dead U.S. Paratrooper. He pumped two buckshots, killing a soldier and blasting the leg of another, before a K-98 round got him in the right shoulder.
A few meters back Privates Kilgore and McNair lobbed a pair of Mills grenades in a foxhole, tearing apart UnteroffizierSchenider and Gefreiter Klein, who were serving the second MG-42. The stockpile of 7.92 rounds exploded, producing a spectacular geyser of earth and metal shards, blasting them flat on the ground.
Lieutenant Irvin was locked in hand to hand combat with a massive, blonde German Unterfeldwebel called Werner, until a spray of earth and mud from a Sten separated them.
The Wehrmacht was fighting back with the tenacity of a wolves pack, but the presence of Saltire shifted the balance toward the Allies. Pressed between the proverbial rock and hard place LeutenantBraun – the German commander – ordered a general retreat. He was a veteran of Rommel's Afrikacorps and had no intention of dying in France after surviving El Alamein.
As the Germans cleared the position, Lieutenant Irvin ordered not to pursuit. There were several wounded to attend to and the terrain wasn't easy to move across. A couple of scouts were dispatched to make a short range recon nonetheless.
Saltire leant against the side of the trench, in spite of her strength her right arm was sore from the repeated bursts she had fired. She was also exhausted, not physically, but she was mentally spent. A medic had once told her that it was a normal thing, as the body simply reacted to the end of the combat trance and adrenalin rush. Just another little reminder that she was still very much human after all.
A soldier passed her a tin cup of water and Saltire gratefully took sip, while she tried to relax and shut off the stream of informations from her super-senses. There was something though, something that kept pushing at the edge of her conscience. It took her a moment to understand: the earth below her was slightly trembling. Just for confirmation she looked in her cup and saw the water rippling in waves still too small for a normal human eye to see.
“Holy Mary, please, not that. Not now!” she whispered, as she scanned the area with her super-hearing, wishing and hoping that she wouldn’t hear that noise. That one special noise that scared the living hell out of Allied soldiers on every front of the war. But there it was … one … two … three times. That sound of overloaded engines, of threads shredding the ground.
Saltire dropped the cup and literally jumped over the border of the trench desperately trying to triangulate the noise
Lieutenant Irving was giving a sitrep to the Company HQ, after checking the wounds of Sergeant Munro. Apparently they had fallen behind 5th Platoon – Lieutenant Ramsey's mob – but the Germans were pulling back in all sectors at the moment. He felt emboldened by the news and was about to reorganize the platoon for a possible extra push, when he heard Saltire shouting for him.
“Wha' is it, Miss Saltire?” he was a bit annoyed, although he knew he owed her a great deal.
“Ye ha'e tae pull yer men out. Now!” she shouted quickly. The fast paced wording made her accent even more prominent than usual.
“Wha'? Why?!” a involuntary bit of outrage slipped into his voice.
“There's armour incomin'!”
“That's …” as if on cue the vibrations intensified and a chunk of bricks fell from a nearby house. Irvin cursed loudly and looked at Saltire in shock for a second. A moment later he jumped up and started barking orders, while the radio operator relayed alarm to Company HQ.
“Where's our Armour? We need those 'I' tanks!”
“HQ says they're bogged down by tha river, sir.” the radio operator shouted back, “A company is tryin' to get them out of tha mud.”
“Tennyson be damned!” the lieutenant grumbled referring to the famous poem about cannon fodder, “We pull out now!”
“Sir, I can't raise 5th Platoon.”
Saltire heart sunk when she heard that. 'Not the 5th … God, please, not the 5th …' she silently prayed, while she tried to keep her composure.
Irvin turned as if he was expecting a wild beast to pounce him every second “Not much we can do …”
Saltire was about to grab the lieutenant, but the noise was getting louder and louder by the second. There was no time for discussion and, unfortunately, no time for her sentiments to take over right now. “Move it!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.
6th Platoon scrambled back across the square and into the buildings, but it wasn't easy to retreat. About a third of the men were wounded and most had received nothing but the most basic field dressing so far. But it was too late and the noise was just upon them. Saltire rushed back and got ready to cover the running men.
It came down the narrow street next to the church. 56 tons of steel and weapons rolling forward on thick threads that ripped the ground to pieces. The hull mounted machine-gun fired short bursts in front of it, riddling the ground with small holes. Its turret turned slowly across the square, hunting for a target and when it roared it was like all hell breaking loose.
To the fleeing men it wasn't a machine, but rather a beast out of some obscure nightmare of their childhoods.
Saltire dodged left and right, trying to offset the crews’ aim and get close before the main gun was upon her. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. She knew that even with her abilities she was no match for that beast. The Tiger weighted 56 tons, over 5 times her maximum deadlift and its armour was too thick to punch through. She could just hope to outmanoeuvre it, dodging into its dead angles and looking for some kind of weak spot to exploit.
A burst from the coaxial machine-gun got too close to her, she jumped left and rushed forward trying to get into the dead angle. As the machine-gun stopped firing to cool down she leap over the front of the tank and punched the hull mounted machine-gun with all her strength. It was an rushed move, one that she would soon regret. The metal barrel crumpled under her fist, collapsing in a steel mushroom, but ever so she couldn’t stop the tank momentum.
All the kinetic energy of the 56 tons travelled up Saltire's right arm. Her muscles went numb and she screamed as a surge of pain exploded in her mind. Luckily her shoulder joint popped, saving her from more grievous damage.
She quickly decided to disengage and she jumped away, clearing the roof of a nearby building.
As the beast slowed down and came to rest in the centre of the square, 6th Platoon scuttled across the buildings. They set up in a defensive position expecting the support German infantry to come along soon. It was Saltire instead who reached them first.
Lieutenant Irvin greeted her back. “Are ye okay?”
She didn't answer, her look was enough. Her right arm was hanging at her side, her face was smoked black and a dozen smaller cuts from debris and shrapnel were healing just about now. “I need some help.” she said, trying to sound as flat and confident as the pain allowed her.
Private Gilliam had just finished checking the wounded and was really hoping for some rest, but this was not the time. Saltire closed on him showed him her arm. He knew the field procedure very well, but hesitated to perform it. Getting a shoulder back in position was extremely painful and he didn't want to be on the receiving end of a possible punch from her. Gilliam looked up at the lieutenant hoping for some kind of support, but the officer eyeballed him in return. Irvin wasn’t as good as Sergeant Munro at eyeballing, but the sergeant was in no shape to do it right now.
“Very well Miss Saltire.” Gilliam sighed, his accent wasn’t as prominent as the rest of company after studying medicine at Cambridge “You’ve Red Cross training, right?”
Saltire nodded in response.
“Good. I need you to relax a bit.” he continued giving her a leather strap to bite in. As he grabbed her arm, he was surprised by how it felt. Ever since hearing about Saltire, Gilliam had thought that her body would feel as hard as a rock, but under under his finger her flesh seemed rather normal, although she was clearly heavier than she looked.
Saltire relaxed her arm as much as possible, nodded again and looked away.
“One … Two …” on the count of two Gilliam slowly rotated her arm until it her felt some bits of resistance, then he twisted her biceps as much as possible. It seemed like a simple procedure until there was an audible pop and a muffled cry. Saltire bit down the leather hard and her teeth ripped it apart like it was candy taft, the shoulder joint slotted back into place and small tears formed in Saltire’s eyes.
She spat pieces of leather and looked at Gilliam, who was still clutching her arm in fear. “Thank ye.”
As he let her go, Saltire stood up and tried to wipe out some of the black from her face, while looking at the men around her. 6th Platoon was in no fighting shape, too many wounded and too little time to reorganize. Even if she was scared to go back she had to give them some kind of cover … and then there was ‘him’. “Lieutenant,” she called getting close to Irvin’s position, “I cannae fight them on me own. I need some help.”
Irvin looked at her with some skepticism. “These lads are in no condition. I cannae risk their lives.”
“That’s not wha’ I asked. Dae ye ha’e any AT?”
“We’ve got a PIAT, but-”
“Good.” Saltire quickly cut him off, “I’ll take all the rounds ye can spare.”
Irvin thought about it for moment, then had enough sense to see that there was no point in arguing right now. He called for the PIAT team and then whispered to Saltire. “We’re goin’ ta hold this position as long as we can. But we need to evacuate the wounded back to triage. We need ye ta keep the Jerrys off our arses.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Saltire answered as she took the carrying tubes with the three spare bombs, but refused to take the launcher from the team.
“How are ye planning to use those without the tube?”
Saltire answered knowing smile. “I’m better at this with a free hand toss.”
Before anybody could reply she gave a half-assed salute and zipped away. Leaving Irvin and the PIAT crew vaguely dumbfounded.
Back at the square the beast was resting near the dead centre, guarded by a dozen of soldiers in greenish-grey uniforms and steel helmet. Its engine was still on and it gave a distinct low roar. A man in a darker uniform, with a M43 field cap and a Totenkopf – a skull and crossbones insignia – on his collar patches, examined the remains of Saltire’s handiwork, while giving off a long comment punctuated by the word ‘scheisse’ over and over again.
Saltire crawled between two houses and eyed the scene from afar. The PIAT bombs gave a bit of an advantage against the beast, but not that much. She could toss them farther than a conventional launcher ever could, but they still remained a rather short range weapon against that kind of armour. From what she recalled from her training, she knew that there were only a couple of safe ways to hit a Tiger without being shot back: straight up its arse or right upon its head. She slowly took one of the 1.1 Kg bombs out of its container and balanced it in her hand.
Before she could formulate even a scratch of a plan to take the beast down, an explosion rocked the nearby buildings and a cloud of smoke rose from the horizon, right in the direction where 5th Platoon was headed. Shock and disbelief rushed through Saltire’s mind as she watched wide-eyed the dark smoke trail against the cloudy sky. “No … No …” she whispered in shock.
Rage came up next. Saltire clutched the explosive hard in her hand and rushed forward accelerating with each step. By the time she broke into the square she was already doing close to 100 km/h. She shouldered her way through the first soldier she met, he was bumped about 20 meters away into the church iron fence. A second one got punched so hard that he regurgitated his last meal before passing out. The third, she literally walked over, using him as a ladder to vault over the immobile tank. She turned and twisted in mid-air and dropped the bomb hard against the upper-rear section of the tank. As soon as she touched the ground, Saltire rolled to avoid the shrapnel, clutching the remaining tubes.
The explosive wedged into the hatch of the engine compartment behind the turret and exploded a few seconds later. The shaped charge ripped the beast innards apart. A secondary explosion set the diesel fuel on fire and filled the tank with thick black smoke. The crew evacuated the vehicle, while the support infantry scrambled for cover, fearing a massive explosion, leaving Saltire free to rush away from the scene as fast as she could.
Saltire keep pushing further toward the supposed position of 5th Platoon, which was actually harder than it looked. First she had to navigate by sound only, using the crackle of weapon fire as a compass; second, the streets of an old French village weren’t meant for a supergirl to rush at her maximum speed. Every two steps she had to slow down, dodge an obstacle, or make sharp turn. Trying to find a better view she leapt toward a nearby building and slowly climbed to the roof, while another blast exploded in the distance.
As the explosion rocked the building, Corporal Duncan McNeal crouched down behind a flipped over oak table, trying to get some cover from the debris. He was a big man – not very tall, but with the kind of hefty mass that people usually associated with bears rather than men – sporting a buzz-cut of brick coloured hair, clear grey eyes and rough hands.
While the dust settled he made a quick headcount: Burnett … Gilmore … Trotter (with his omnipresent cigarette) … all the members of his fire team … plus Craig and Campbell with the 2” mortar. For now they were lucky, when the platoon scattered, they were able to stick together and find some cover, but now …
“Wha’ doo we doo, sir?” Gilmore whispered, he was scared as hell.
McNeal cursed under his breath. He was a good soldier and an excellent team player, but he never wanted to be in charge. He hated being responsible for the lives of others, but he was also too conscientious to ignore his duty. “Fer now, we play dead. We cannae face that kind of firepower.”
“Nor we want ta.” Burnett added, he was the self-appointed joker of the company. He was pretty good at practical jokes, but his attempts at more subtle forms of humour were … not that good.
Machine-gun fire riddled the building and McNeal cursed again. He wanted to live on, pure and simple. Not just surviving, he wanted to get back home, to his job, to his friends, to be happy and sad again. Most of all he wanted to see Aileene again.
Dear little Aileene – with her red hair and those pretty freckles – she worked as a waitress at the local pub, but dreamed to become a novelist someday. Duncan had been in love since the first time he saw her, but never had the courage to ask her out properly. He literally felt his heart skipping a beat every time she smiled – and she smiled a lot when he was around – and often spilled his pint over his trousers as a result. For Duncan, the only positive side to the whole war was that he now fully understood how short life was, and had muster the courage to ask her if … NO! There was no ‘if’, only a ‘when’.
A 8.8 shell exploding closely snapped him out of his reverie.
As the men of 5th Platoon endure the bombardment from his tank, Oberfeldwebel Gunther Wolff wasn’t happy. Matter of fact he was a torn man. On one hand there was the loyal soldier and a patriot. He was a veteran of Panzerdivisionen, serving ever since the Fall Gelb – the invasion of France – in 1940. As much as Oberfeldwebel Wolff didn’t like shelling these Tommys, he had little choice in the matter as long as HerrHitler remained his Führer. On the other hand there was the man, who longed to return to his fiancé – Anke – in Münster and finally having a chance for a normal life, away from the madness of a war that should have ended long ago. In his mind, Gunther Wolff had a very precise idea of what he should have done as a human being: namely driving all the way back to Berlin and fire an 8.8 shell up the Führer’s ass.
It was the voice of his radio operator to wake him up. “Kommandant, wir haben ein Problem. [Commander, we might have a problem.]”
“Was ist los, Gustav? [What is going on, Gustav?]”
“Ich kann den Leutnant nicht erreichen, Herr Oberfeldwebel. [I can’t raise the Lietenant, sir.]”
Wolff briefly considered the situation: so far they’ve only met infantry, but it was unlikely for the British to push this far without armour support. Maybe there were some heavy tanks incoming. “Versuchen Sie es weiter! [Keep trying.]”next he turned to the driver. “Ziehen Sie uns zurück und bringen Sie uns in Deckung, Hans. Ich möchte nicht, dass sie uns von hinten erwischen. [Pull us back into cover, Hans, and hull down. I don’t want to expose our rear.]”
Unterfeldwebel Hans Engel grunted in response as he inverted the tank engines. He and the commander went a long way back, ever since serving together in the 7. Panzerdivision, during the invasion of France.
As the tank pulled back behind some cover GefreiterErik Fischer – the gunner – called out a shot “Bewegung voraus! In 300 Metern auf 11 Uhr, dort auf dem Dach. [Movement up ahead, sir. 11 o’clock, 300 meters, on that roof.]”
Wolff slowly trailed his periscope and barked an order to Gefreiter Frederick Meyer – the loader – to load a high explosive shell.
Saltire reached the top of the roof just in time to spot the tank turret rotating toward her position. She involuntarily froze like a deer in front of a car. She looked down the deep black of the main barrel with fascinated horror. Among the cacophony of noises she could hear the gears grinding moving the turret and the metal on metal sliding of the cartridge loaded in the firing chamber. Her instincts were screaming to get the hell out, but her body seemed unable to respond for a whole second.
When she spotted the first faint light of the explosive ignition peeking from the barrel, she jumped, but it was too late. The 8.8 main gun was meant to be an anti-aircraft in first place, with its incredible muzzle speed, it took less than half a second to hit his mark at such a close range. Although she avoided the shell itself the shockwave hit Saltire in mid-air, she spun out of control, lost the carrying tubes and plunged straight down into the ground. As she tried to get up, her senses only half functioning from the blast, Saltire heard a sound like a closing thunder just a moment before the rubble hit her.
Corporal McNeal coughed while crawling his way to the nearest door. He knew that the Germans had hit something, but he wanted to know what. He peeked from the corner of the door and saw something moving in the middle of the dust and rubble, something … blue. It didn’t took long for McNeal to realise what it was, everybody in the battalion knew her – even if he never met her up close and personal – but it was something else that shocked him. She was crying in pain with a voice that he knew. Time dilated for McNeal as he prayed to be wrong but, in his heart, knew he wasn’t.
His mind raced to find a way to help her. They didn’t have the firepower to even dent the tank. He could see her pushing and pulling, trying to free herself from the rubble, but he could also hear the threads shredding the ground as the tank closed in to confirm the kill. She was their only option – and he hated the thought – but she needed time. Sudden inspiration hit him and McNeal spun to face the mortar crew.
“Craig! Campbell!” he bellowed, “Smoke tha bastard!”
Half buried by the rubble, Saltire pushed with all her strength, trying to budge the rubble enough to slide out. The stone moved slightly but it was hard, not just for the sheer mass, but also for the pitiful leverage she had.
The rumble grew closer.
Again she pushed and sometimes gave up, but not enough, not nearly enough.
Closer and closer.
Her heart was pulsing in her own ears, as adrenalin pumped into her veins.
From her angle she couldn’t clearly see the tank, but she didn’t need to know that it was close enough to finish her with ease.
Wolff spotted something among the ruins, but the periscope gave him too small of a field of vision. Against his usual carefulness he climbed up on his chair and opened the top hatch to gain a better view.
The mortar team tried to get the weapon into position, but it was hard to make it work properly. “Cannae line up tha shot, sir.” Craig apologized.
McNeal was watching the unfolding of the scene with horror. She, was still half buried and the tank was now just a few meters away. “Fer God sake! Eyeball it!” he screamed trying to resist the urge of charging the Tiger all by himself.
“Fire that damn thing!”
Wolff saw her, clad in blue and khaki she stood out among the rubble. He didn’t waste time to wander how was she still alive. “Geschütz, 30 Grad nach links! [Turret rotation, 30 degrees left.]”
As the gears started to grind once again a cannister bounced against the top of the turret and rolled down to the front.
“Was zum … [What the …]” Wolff asked when the chemical reaction started and the front of the tank was engulfed in chemical smoke. He coughed hardly, trying to give the firing order and closing the hatch. Engel was still trying to reverse the engines, while Meyer was using every trick he could think of the speed up the reloading, when she descended upon them.
Her clothes were drenched in her own blood. Her face was distorted from the pain and the adrenalin rush. She looked more like a spirit, like a banshee, and she surely screamed like one. She grabbed Wolff by the front of his shirt and tossed him aside. His body flew about 10 meters before smashing against a wall, decorated with a cross of Lorraine graffiti, where he laid stunned for a while.
McNeal took the occasion to rush out from his cover and pull a mills bomb from his webbing. “Catch!” he yelled, as he hurled it towards Saltire.
As the grenade flew her way she snatched it out of air. There was no thinking, no second guessing, just the training: pull the pin, count to 5, toss it.
The explosion rocked the tank interior. Fisher, Meyer and Engel were obliterated by the blast. Gustav Neumann took a massive hit, but was left conscious long enough to see his comrades turned to a pulp. As he slipped in unconsciousness, his leg weighted down on the trigger pedal of the hull MG, it kept firing until the barrel was fizzling and the magazine completely empty.
Saltire was completely spent too. She was wounded and out of breath. The adrenaline was dying down and she had a major case of post-combat shakes incoming. Her legs went limps and she slid down the side of the tank. She felt someone’s arms catching her and smelled something … familiar.
“Don’t worry. I wannae drop ye.”
She smiled, but Duncan McNeal didn’t drop her.
Saltire woke up a couple of hours later in a triage station. In spite of the pain she could that her legs seemed okay. She tried to wiggle her toes and they responded properly. She let out a big sigh of relief. Aside from the legs, she noticed that they had also bandaged her abdomen and her right arm, which itched like crazy – usually a sign that it was healing.
As she tried to get on her feet a brunette in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps uniform, with Lieutenant rank and a Londoner accent stopped her: “I’m afraid I can’t let you on your feet just yet.”
Saltire eyeballed her a bit, she knew that she meant well, but she wasn’t an ordinary patient. She had dealt with this kind of stuff often enough. “Listen. I just want to see if I can walk or not.”
“If you like to look inappropriate …” the QAs nurse answered, pointing at her legs. It took moment to Saltire, to notice that she wasn’t wearing her trousers. They had to cut them to bandage her.
Saltire blushed and tried to preserve a bit of dignity, by pulling a bed sheet over her. “Can ye help me? And no skirts, please.”
The QA was able to get her a pair or regulation trousers and a blue RAF shirt, which were close enough to her regular clothes. Saltire took a brief look around, there were many wounded, but the situation appeared to be under control somehow. From the smell of burning diesel and the voices she heard, it seemed that A company and the support tanks had arrived and secured the area.
While she was getting dressed, she noticed that the lieutenant was a bit tense, which was usually a prequel to “the speech”. Saltire hated when people gave her “the speech” about how honored they were to met her. She hated being the centre of so much attention, of having so many expectation thrown upon her. This time though she was spared.
“I’m glad too see ye’re doin’ fine.” McNeal interjected. He was standing next to the entrance to the triage station. “I’m sorry tae bother, but they need ye over at tha command.”
Before the QA could object Saltire marched out of triage and following McNeal closely.
McNeal guided her through the encampment of the 2nd Highland, until they reached some buildings that were turned into a command post. Much to Saltire’s surprise, McNeal kept going until he reached an old bistro, which had been miraculously spared. He walked in and dusted the seats in a secluded corner.
“Didn’t ye said that something about command?” Saltire inquired.
McNeal seemed a bit embarrassed “Aye … but I didn’t say when … I just want to talk to ye in private for a wee moment.”
Saltire was starting to feel really uncomfortable, but she managed to put up a brave face and smirked. “Ye’re not the first to ask me that.”
McNeal gulped down and pushed back a snarky reply. “Aileene, is that really ye?”
Saltire mouth hung open for a whole second. Over the last year she had grown so accustomed to her mask that hearing her real name sounded a bit strange. She stammered, trying to find a good way to reply, but none came to her mind. Her head spun and she had to sit down. “How …?”
“Don’t know fer sure … I just had this … gut feeling ye were actually close …” Duncan was stammering too, he had never been good with words. “Listen Aileene, I need ta tell ye somethin’.”
She took a deep breath and nodded.
“Ye know me story pretty well. I’m just a bloke from Caithness that went South looking fer a better job. I ha’en’t studied much, me father still speaks Gaelic and struggle with English. Ye dream ta be a novelist, I just dream abou’ goin’ back and bein’ happy. I know it sound pretty selfish, an’ that our stories doon’t amount tae a pile o’ beans in this tragedy, but there’s one thing that kept me alive …”
Aileene felt tears rolling out her eyes. She tried to wipe them, but she ended up shifting her mask instead. She felt Duncan’s big pawns trying to gently lift it and she didn’t resist.
“… it was tha idea ta come back and see ye again. Fer me, tha world might got crazier. Winnie and Adolf might kiss on top of the Tour Eiffel. If I doon’t ask ye, I know I’ll regret it for the rest of me life. Aileene Scott would y-”
Aileene gently placed her finger on his mouth and shut him off. She was crying and smiling. “Not now please.”
“Please don’t. I fear that if ye tell me now, ye won’t come back to tell me back home.”
He took her hand into his. It looked even smaller than it was by comparison. He wasn’t sure about what to do and neither was she. They just stood there for a moment before embracing each other, sharing a very tentative kiss and for the next minute or so the ongoing war, Adolf, Winnie and the rest of the world just went away.