This story segment contains scenes of violence and death, including fleeting graphic violence.
West-Central Sector, Koba and 1st Block
After Matumaini Kern had waited and he had sought prophecy in people’s faces, in radio messages, in the storm rains and the cries of men driven to panic by traumatic wounds. When he heard about Operation Surge he got his sign – the end of him was quite near.
Now in the middle of the rallying area he waited anxiously for marching orders.
For two days the machinery of the Oberkommando Suden’s elite 1st Vorkampfer shifted its great bulk throughout the region, cramming as much of its firepower as could be made available in Bada Aso into three starting attack points that would eventually branch into a dozen advancing lanes as Operation Surge got underway. Every truck and horse that could be found was enlisted to carry men and pull weapons and supplies to the western, central and eastern rallying areas. Each rallying area spanned a few blocks in its third of the city with easy access to various streets and alleys leading north into the city’s depths.
A common “block” in Bada Aso was one to three kilometers long, and as one neared the city center, the number, size and purpose of the buildings along a block became less definitive. As one got further inward, the city became older, and one saw far less of the carefully planned outer blocks, with their large central tenements serviced by an outer ring of canteens, co-op and state goods shops, post offices, administrative buildings, workplaces such as factories and civil services such as hospitals and ferry stations.
Along the edge of Koba block, an ancestral two-story house stood next to a drug dispensary for the state healthcare authority, itself next to a cooperative cobbler’s workshop, next to a spirit shrine in a grassy plot, and several houses. A gloomy alleyway wide enough for a small car separated a pair of houses. Across the street there were several houses, a civil canteen, and a playground for children. It looked macabre in its abandoned state.
This was all perhaps half a kilometer worth of roadside. But it went on in that exact way upstreet as far as the eye could see. Buildings small and large without any symmetry.
Between the two streets was a road perhaps 10 meters across, if that. It was fairly tight.
To the landsers of the 6th Grenadier division, Koba and 1st Block was “Koba Sector” and there were no blocks. On their maps the Central-West was just a number of kilometers that they needed to cut through. These buildings were potential strongholds. Whether something was once a shop or a place or worship or a house made no difference. It had walls and windows. It was just dangerous. Kern certainly didn’t think of their purpose.
Was this what they called the Fog of War? Would he slowly lose all recognition of his surroundings until there were only shapes? Rectangles sprouting from the ground, nondescript? What would his fellow soldiers become? What would the enemy?
A strong breeze blew through the streets, but it did little to ease the hot, humid weather. He almost felt steam coming off of his pale body, his short, straight golden hair. He shouldn’t be here, he thought. He was the farthest thing apart from the people born to live in this place. Oberon was temperate, and a gentle coolness always ran through it, even in the summer. That was the proper place for scrawny, shiftless men, milking cows, picking veggies, tilling fields. Kern ran his hands across his face anxiously. He was a good looking boy. He could have found a nice girl and gotten some of his father’s land.
What a fool he had been to leave the farms!
When the breeze passed, he could hear again the sounds of struggling engines and clanking tracks. With every vehicle that came and went he knew that the hour drew nearer and nearer. Every gun and mortar accumulated, every machine gun handed out.
Kern was stationed alongside a company of a few hundred men. They were all huddled in a cluster of buildings closer to the front than the rest of the regiment in the rallying area. They would be going in first. Kern saw a dozens of groups of men idling around nearby.
Far behind him he had watched transports come and go, moving the regiment forward. A truck or a horse wagon would bring in a squadron of men and an artillery gun, maybe a few crates, and pull up in front of a big church one street down that was selected as a storage point for Koba. Men would unhitch the gun and pull it away, and the soldiers would be pointed to their battalion or company. They would form up and wait for commands. Some of them had been waiting for a day now without any sign of combat.
Many idled between orders to crack open rations or to lie for a few hours.There were men smoking, playing cards, cleaning their rifles. He wondered what was going through their heads. Kern couldn’t busy himself much. He was part of the Combat Command HQ Platoon for the battalion. He stood in attention, with his back to a half-broken electric post, hands in his pockets, counting the trucks. Captain Aschekind leaned against a wall with his head bowed low, his thick arms crossed over his chest, a portable radio on hand.
“Do you drink or smoke, Private 1st Class Beckert?” Captain Aschekind asked.
Kern nearly jumped from being so suddenly addressed. He had nearly forgotten he had received the meaningless appellation “1st Class” four days ago. It was meant to bolster his morale, but it only made him feel even more inadequate in the face of titans like Aschekind.
“No sir.” Kern said. He felt a tremble in his lips that felt all too noticeable.
Aschekind did not comment on it, if he heard it at all. “There is no shame in it.”
Kern wondered what he would have said instead if he had replied in the affirmative.
“Yes sir. My father was a mean drunk and a mean smoker. I don’t want to be either.”
Aschekind nodded his head solemnly. “Do you fear for today, private?”
“No sir.” Kern replied without thinking. If he was honest with himself, he was anxious.
“Alcohol or a cigar keeps you upright and moving; but so can the force of your will.”
It’s not like Kern would know – he had never tried either thing in his life. “Yes sir.”
“Choices that we make without even thinking. You might drink to stay awake just like you run to stay alive. There are many alternatives; but you don’t always live after.”
“Have you made a wrong choice, sir?” Kern asked. He nearly interrupted the Captain.
Captain Aschekind raised his head and stared at Kern with a strikingly neutral expression. All of his intensity seemed gone – there was only an eerie hollowness left there.
“I have made several choices that took from me more than they gave.” He said.
He adjusted his peaked hat and left the wall, walking past Kern, raising his hand radio.
Captain Aschekind turned to face down the street at the assembled men. A few turned or raised their heads to stare, but most barely acknowledged him at all until he addressed them. “We’re moving!” He bellowed. “Company, start walking. Keep your eyes open. Our combat patrol did not return. We will reconnoiter in force. Stay alert and march! “
At first only a few men responded; they shouldered their packs, affixed bayonets and started marching north in a loose formation. They were leaves falling from a tree. Few at first glance – but slowly the wind of war peeled more and more of them, taking them from their cards, their food, their cigars, their game boards, their jovial conversation. Recognition dawned upon them one by one, and the entire company marched off to war.
Aschekind did not drive them forward.
He only stood and he stared as they passed him. When he started walking, so did Kern, joining the rest of the headquarters platoon in the rear. There was no turning back.
On a marching stride, a kilometer went by in forty minutes or so.
Certainly trained athletes could clear a kilometer very quickly.
An athlete did not have to walk over rubble, did not have to check every window and door an alley around them for contacts, stop and start whenever they thought they saw a person dressed differently than them. They did not have to account for the slowest among their number, walking at a pace and formation that protected their precious machine gunners and AT snipers. They did not travel with twenty-five kilograms of equipment.
As part of the Headquarters platoon, Kern carried a backpack radio that added ten kilograms to his combat load. He could never clear a kilometer at a competitive speed.
For thirty minutes there was nothing worth breaking up the march. Then from the front of the march, one of the forward squadrons called for a halt of the column. Their platoon then sent these men to the rear to speak to the command platoon. Through their binoculars they had seen movement ahead of them on the road. Aschekind sent them out front again.
Within moments the column broke up – two platoons formed up side-by-side, fifty to seventy-five men on the left and right streets along the road. Squadrons of eight to ten men advanced north, each separated from another by a few meters for protection. A hundred meters from the leading elements the third platoon followed, and then the headquarters, ten meters behind them. Everyone was in formation, and ready to meet any engagement.
Kern felt out of place in this movement of men. He felt sluggish and unprepared.
“Run forward, stay behind the front line. Keep in contact.” Aschekind said. Around him, a pair of light mortars were being positioned on the road by the rest of the HQ platoon.
Kern thought he was talking to the air at first, but he reflexively saluted, while his mind tasted the words like poisoned caramel in an unwary tongue. Once he understood what the Captain meant, and to whom it was addressed, Kern dropped the extra mortar ammo he had been carrying for the HQ platoon, and ran past the rear platoon, a terrible sensation in his stomach. He took to the right side of the street with the assault forces.
Ahead of him the men broke into a run. He heard the first cracks of enemy gunfire.
Several hundred meters ahead were two houses built across the street from each other, with third stories that caused them to dominate the low-lying urban landscape of the lower Koba sector. From those windows came the first shots.
Streaks of machine gun fire and bolt-action rifle fire flew over and around the platoons as they charged. Each house attacked the street diagonal to it, and the enfilade fire took its first casualties almost immediately. Kern saw a few stragglers at the back of the columns hit by fire that had soared over the advance troops. Lines of gunfire slashed over the street.
From his vantage he could not see the enemy, just their handiwork.
But there was no panic, except in Kern’s rushing, flailing mind.
Meticulously the men of the two forward platoons moved to disperse into and around several houses even as the bullets fell around them in vicious bursts and streaks. Kern swallowed hard and ran in with the closest group into an alleyway about a hundred meters from the houses. The Ayvartans did not let up for a second – enemy fire bit into the corner of their building and fell relentlessly across the street just outside their alley.
“Call it in!” A man shouted at Kern over the continuous gunfire from the houses.
Call it in? Words came and went through his ears, barely registering at first.
Realization; he was talking about the mortars.
Kern picked up the radio handset, but then he froze.
As the observer and point of contact he was supposed to feed a set of map and landmark coordinates back to the company’s mortar team, but he forgot entirely what he was supposed to say. All of the numbers he had practiced before escaped his mind. Lips quivering, he stared helplessly at the nearby squad leader, denoted as such by the pins on his uniform. Shaking his head the squad leader, a tall, lightly bearded older man, physically turned him around and picked up the radio handset from his backpack to speak.
“This is Schloss, calling in a fire mission. Yes chief he’s right here. I don’t know.” Schloss paused and quickly recited a string of numbers and letters. He put back the handset.
Within moments they heard a series of blasts in quick succession farther up the street.
“Listen kid,” Schloss turned him around again and held him by his shoulders, staring straight into his eyes. “I’m not mad at you yet, but it’s getting close. If running’s all you’re good for then run close to me so I can use that radio when I need it. Ok?”
Kern almost felt like weeping. He nodded affirmatively.
He pulled the shoulder strap of his rifle over his head and readied the weapon in his hands. Seconds later they heard another round of blasts. At once the bullets stopped falling on the street outside their alley, and the squadron broke into a run, dashing out into the street. Ahead of them mortar fire crashed over the two tall houses, pounding on the roof.
A cloud of smoke and dust descended over the high windows.
As they ran, figures in the shadows of the ground floor doors and windows launched sporadic bursts of rifle fire their way, hitting the street and flying past their helmets with a whining sound. Kern struggled against his instinct to duck somewhere – there was not a lot of fire with the machine guns suppressed, and yet he was terrified of any individual bullet that he saw. He recalled the volume of fire in Matumaini, and this was nothing like it, but it only took one bullet. Just one bullet would kill him.
He could run fifty meters in ten seconds; bullets traveled that in less than a second.
Schloss’ squadron bolted ahead, and with titanic effort Kern bolted with them.
They closed to within a dozen meters of the enemy before their mortar fire lapsed, and the machine gun fire from the upper floors resumed. Schloss pointed everyone to the ruins of a nearby building. One remaining north-facing wall and corner provided enough protection from the second and third story gunners in the strongholds ahead.
Inside the ruin there was only a mound of rubble. Men started climbing it.
Standing at its peak they could peer over the remains of the wall.
Across the road Kern saw men carrying a Norgler machine gun and settling atop the remains of a collapsed wall. No sooner had the shooter braced the gun that a bullet speared him through the neck. He fell over the rubble and into the street, thrashing to his death.
“Five men up there, three men on what remains of the door!” Schloss shouted. He climbed up the mound, and beckoned Kern to go up as well. Kern peeled himself away from the doorway and the corpse; he climbed over the rocks, some of which still had rusty metal bars going through them. They crouched along the corner, where the rubble formed a platform. One man put his helmet on his rifle and raised it over the wall. Nothing.
“They’re not looking this way. We’re not a machine gun squad.” said the grenadier.
“On my mark everyone rise, shoot into the window, and hide again.” Schloss said.
“Which window?” Kern asked. He had not gotten a good enough look at the houses.
“Corner window, closest to the street, facing us. Second floor.” Schloss shouted. Ayvartan machine gun fire grew vicious again and he had to raise his voice to be heard.
Kern nodded. He gripped his rifle and steadied his feet, waiting for the signal.
Schloss nodded his head, and the fireteam rose over the wall. Kern saw the window, and he thought he saw a shadow in the faint smoke and scarcely thinking he opened fire.
All at once the high windows on both houses exploded.
Smoke and dust and a brief burst of fire flashed from inside the windows, and the walls crumbled, launching debris onto the streets and belching fumes into the surroundings.
Kern stared at his rifle in disbelief as the house was wiped from the world before him.
Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the structure.
Kern heard a noise as something flew in overhead.
Explosive shells; hurtling in from farther south they battered the buildings into chunks. Guns and mortars pounded the roof and walls until they sank, crushing the Ayvartans in the rockfall; ceilings and floors collapsed and walls folded out onto the street. Debris flew into nearby buildings and the grenadiers closest to the building hunkered in cover.
“Too close! Too close!” the men shouted at nobody who could hear as the debris fell.
Men abandoned their forward positions and ran back down the street to escape the concrete shrapnel, but the violence had already peaked. Rubble settled on the street and the guns and mortars concluded their fire missions. There was only dust, billowing in clouds.
Schloss stood over the wall and peered out at the carnage. He waved his men down, and the soldiers on the mound slid off the rubble and regrouped, vacating the ruin together.
On the street, the wind blew away the murky air. Kern heard the chugging of engines in the distance and the whining of tracks; he looked over his shoulder through parting clouds. At the rear of the company, third platoon left the road and stood on the street, sidelined by a platoon of M3 Hunter assault guns advancing to the urban front.
Each of these vehicles was a self-propelled seventy-five centimeter howitzer, and the ruins ahead proved the strength of their massed fire. Because of the tight road, they moved forward in a box formation, two rows of two tanks followed by the command vehicle alone in the rear. Even this arrangement occupied most of the road. Company foot soldiers stuck close to the buildings, giving the machines space as they moved through the block.
Once the machines had gotten clear of the men, third platoon moved up to where the fighting had taken place, and Aschekind reappeared. Beige clouds blew in from the ruins ahead, travelling on the strong afternoon breeze. Aschekind did not even blink as he walked.
“We will be following the tanks.” Aschekind said aloud. “I want third platoon directly behind them, and second platoon following within fifty meters. First platoon, take the rear.”
After listening to the Captain’s orders Kern realized how quiet everything had become.
Kern could have sworn that hundreds of landsers must have died from the fire and carnage, but with the benefit of silence, he found that only a dozen men had died, and several of the wounded had survived. Many men were only bruised. He looked at his surroundings as though the block had been taken from him and replaced somehow.
Idle thoughts dropped heavily onto his consciousness from someplace unknown, and all at once he felt the fatigue that his anxiety and adrenaline had suppressed.
He shivered without cold.
All of the shooting and killing and he had not even gotten a good look at the Ayvartans.
Fighting at these ranges that made him question if he was engaging human beings at all. They barely needed to see him in order to kill him; he barely saw them before they died.
“Move ahead with these men,” Aschekind instructed Kern, “stay behind the tanks.”
The Captain’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder.
Kern felt almost as if being shoved forward.
“Yes sir.” Kern replied.
He saluted, and beside him, Schloss saluted as well, acknowledging.
Joining the rest of the mostly-intact second platoon, Kern advanced behind the assault guns. They moved between the rubble of the stronghold houses and continued up Koba Street. Most of the buildings were low-lying, and every taller building seemed like the ominous pillars of a great gate in the distance. The M3 Hunters raised their guns whenever they neared a building that possessed a second story, ready to flatten it.
They crossed the shadows of several buildings without incident.
Whenever Kern walked past however he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. He had heard the Ayvartans had tunnels, and that they would often reappear suddenly in buildings thought cleared. There was a reason their recon squadron had never returned to report to them. Would they find those six men dead somewhere ahead, their sacrifice forewarning the Company of danger? Would they be discarded, faceless on the street?
Or did they just disappear into the haphazard blocks of buildings, never to be found?
Another kilometer behind them, no contacts. Everyone peered ahead expectantly. Atop the tank there was a man with binoculars, one of the vehicle commanders. He played with the lenses, magnifying. Every so often he waved his hand, and everyone continued to march.
They had a sight-line about 800 meters forward. Koba, like a lot of Bado Aso’s streets and blocks, was tight, flat, and fairly straight. In Bada Aso the chief limitations faced by soldiers with otherwise good eyesight were rubble and ruins obstructing the way, and the haze of dust, heat and humidity, and of course, the curvature of the horizon itself. Even with binoculars it was difficult to acquire a reliable picture any further ahead of the column than 800 meters to a kilometer, no matter how straight the road was. And some roads were not so straight – on the Western side, Bada Aso softly curved, following the shape of the coast. Koba and other western streets curved as well and limited their sight.
Everyone marched briskly, some with their guns out, many with their guns shouldered.
Then the tank commander raised his fist instead and the column stopped in its tracks.
Men ran back and forth from him, and several then crept around the front of the tanks.
Word traveled through the column – another Ayvartan position, a few hundred away.
Kern and Schloss took cover around a street corner and peered ahead around the tanks.
Two M3s trundled ahead, paused, and then put shells downrange. Columns of dust and uprooted gravel rose across the Ayvartan line. A shell hit a sandbag wall dead center. Kern saw figures disperse from behind the bags in a panic. Grenadiers from the third platoon, gathered around the assault guns, saw the opportunity and charged the enemy line.
Rifles and machine guns cracked and flashed from the ground floor windows of a store and a co-op restaurant a few dozen meters behind the sandbag emplacement. Kern counted the flashing muzzles and thought there had to be at least a dozen Ayvartans in each building.
It was the same as before; two buildings across from each other, barring the way.
Bullets filled the air, red tracer lines lending them the appearance of burning arrows, flying past and crashing around the men as they approached. Landsers cut the distance by taking cover until the gunfire shifted its weight to a different position and then bounding toward a new piece of cover. Working in this fashion they managed to confound the poor fire discipline of their enemies and make rapid gains even in the face of the gunfire.
Assault guns carefully shifted their bulk, repositioned their guns and resumed firing on the Ayvartan line, kicking up debris in front of the windows and doors and striking the walls and corners. High-explosive blasts collapsed walls and smashed the streets.
Even as their cover turned to ruins the Ayvartans continued to fire with zeal.
Third platoon kept mobile, and soon occupied several positions close to the two structures, including a squadron of men huddling right behind the Ayvartan sandbags.
These were the eight closest men to the enemy, and with the best view. Armed with bolt-action rifles they took turns firing over the smashed remains of the sandbags and ducking for safety. Hits on the thick concrete walls issued thin and fleeting wisps of dust and chipped cement; most of the exchange on both sides hit cover, tracing sharp lines across the distance between the sandbags and cooperative restaurant or to the shop.
Farther down the street groups of stray landsers, their squadrons sometimes split across the street or in adjacent alleyways and buildings, took cover in doorways and windows and behind staircases. When the gunfire swept past them they hid, and a few then moved; but most remained in place behind cover and plinked at the crumbling windows and doors.
Shells pounded the side of the restaurant and the store. Kern marveled at the sustained rate of fire on their assault guns, but the frames of the houses stood even as their walls started to fall. Though 7.5 cm shells blasted holes into the walls that pooled rubble onto the street, the buildings did not complete crumble and the Ayvartans continued to shoot. No shell had yet managed to soar through the small windows and into the interiors.
A third M3 peeled from the assault gun platoon and crammed beside the first two, opening on the strongholds with its own gun. Though it added some volume to the artillery volley, it was ill-positioned and could only hit the store from its vantage, and not the restaurant. Both the other M3s subtly shifted on their tracks, trying their damnedest to put a shell into a window but in so doing mostly pitted the street and the road ahead.
“We can’t just stand here, lets go,” Schloss declared.
He started leading his men off the street and deeper west into the alleys. Kern watched them go and wondered whether to follow. West of Koba block was a long, five meters tall wall that separated the block from the coast. Skirting around the houses adjacent Koba Street, Schloss could probably flank the enemy ahead from behind or the side.
A muffled roar sounded far too close for comfort interrupted Kern’s thoughts; livid red flashes off the corner of his eye startled him. Smoke started to blow in across the street from a sudden blast. Was that one of theirs? Kern pulled up his binoculars.
He peered along the road.
In the middle of the street a shell crashed and consumed the squadron at the sandbags in a fireball. A pillar of thick black smoke rose from a 3-meter wide crater smashed into the place. Gunfire halted on both sides, a second of silence followed by dozens more shells.
Kern ducked back behind the corner.
Shells crashed all along the column, punching through roofs and smashing grenadiers hiding in buildings, bursting into showers of fragments outside of alleyways and spraying unlucky landsers with piercing shards of metal. Men caught in the middle of the street when the heat fell threw themselves face down as the road pitch was thrown up into the air around them, and fire and smoke rose up around them like geysers, consuming unaware men.
In the face of this fire the three assault guns broke from their attack. Ceasing all fire they clumsily reversed from their cramped positions, inhibited by the space. They turned a few centimeters this way and that trying to stay off one another and off the walls of nearby buildings while inching back out of the combat area. Metal clanked as they hit each other.
Sluggishness proved fatal; a pair of projectiles overtook the vehicles at a sharp angle.
Fire and fragments chewed brutally through the assault guns. One tank burst almost as if from the inside out, its hull left in the middle of the road like a shredded can. Chunks of track and ripped pieces of armor flew every which way, and the short barrel of a 7.5 cm gun was launched through the air by the blasts and smashed through a nearby wall. Explosive pressure so heavily and directly on the armor left behind wrecked, charred hulls in the middle of the street, hollowed out wherever the blast waves hit them.
Kern’s ears rang even as the blasts subsided.
He pressed himself against the corner of the same building and dared not move. Breathing heavily, he produced the radio handset from his pack, and he called out to Captain Aschekind. “The Ayvartans have deployed heavy artillery support!”
“I heard. First Platoon is rejoining. Second company is en route.” Aschekind replied.
In response Kern raised his binoculars and looked south, the way the column came. Through the thin dust he saw the first platoon rushing back up; father behind them he saw a brand new unbroken column moving in. Two hundred more men moving in to fight.
Behind him an isolated shell descended into the middle of the street. He saw only the flash in the corner of his vision, and he heard the booming explosive and falling debris.
Something compelled him, and the distress in his voice surprised even him. “Sir, you have to tell them to hold off, there’s a chokepoint up ahead, we can’t keep trying to—“
“Air support will take care of that. Focus on advancing.” Aschekind replied. “We have to advance. That is Operation Surge, Private. Join Second Company and advance.”
Kern heard the shuttering sound of the Captain’s radio disconnecting from his own.
He replaced the headset in its spot on the backpack. With his back still to the wall and his eyes to the south, Kern hyperventilated as he waited for the second company to move in, all the while the Ayvartan artillery fire resumed behind him, shells falling by the dozens.