This story segment contains scenes of violence.
53-AG-30 Dbagbo — Benghu Outskirts
There was not much more finesse to muster. At some point maneuver warfare simply became warfare — once you were close enough to the target or once the terrain simply gave up on you or you on it. All that remained was to draw sword and engage in the melee.
Over six kilometers out they spotted the few buildings along the edge of Benghu.
Noel and Spoor’s mobile detachment from the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment, consisting now of a half-dozen half-tracks, a few cars, a hundred men and a dozen tanks, had maneuvered all that they could along the eastern approach from Shebelle, steering well clear of the city’s defenses and hooking around Benghu’s southeast.
Between them and the underbelly of the town there were several km of empty field. Their column was staggered into three broad echelons — their tanks at the front, the sixty or so men and their half-tracks, and finally Panzergrenadiers lacking the Panzer part, packed into a few cars or hitching rides on the sides and back of other vehicles.
Far to the west there was a small hill and a patch of wood that was out of range of anything; straddling Benghu itself there was the cover of sparse woodland and some actual geography. But before them there was only flat, muddy earth beneath windswept grass.
When the column confirmed first visual on Benghu they stopped for reconnaissance and planning. Flushing fire was suggested but Spoor argued against it on account of their weapons lacking power for the task. A few men spread out ahead of the column, crawling along grass, running toward the hill, looking for different vantage points.
Noel stepped up and out of his turret, umbrella in one hand and binoculars in the other as he surveyed the surroundings. At full magnification he could see the buildings on the outer edge of the town as if standing several hundred meters rather than single-digit kilometers away. Because his field of view was limited however he was forced to pan around atop his turret for several minutes to get a good look past the fences and along the buildings.
“They’re all in there.” Noel said over the radio. “I know they are. They’ll crawl into any building and make an ordeal out of getting past it. But I don’t see anyone out in the open.”
Spoor was watching too, about a kilometer behind everyone in his courier car.
“There are three buildings with windows facing the field: two houses and what appears to be a wide and squat granary or storage building perhaps. They are likely fighting positions. I don’t think they are large enough to house heavy guns. We could advance.”
Noel nodded to himself as if nodding to Spoor. He kept looking, picking up more detail.
“There’s also a road cutting in from the west. It runs along just behind those fences and then curls away in two directions, one deeper into town and another out to Shebelle proper.”
“There seems to be nothing to do but to get in as fast as possible.” Spoor replied.
“I think we should avoid it entirely. Even as a target of opportunity. Let Reiniger take care of the town. Once we secure Chanda and the rail station they’ll be surrounded.” Noel said.
Spoor was no longer speaking to him in restrained tones. He had fully gone over to Noel’s side and they spoke as equals, trading opinions on the situation like any two landsers on the ground. It was rather pleasant. Noel was glad not to be stuck with someone like Reiniger.
“I don’t disagree, but with the town intact, our rear could be vulnerable as we move on Chanda. I believe at least some token attack on the town must be made to buy time.”
“So long as we leave scouts behind we’ll know if we’re in danger or not.” Noel said.
“Are you volunteering for the task, Captain Skoniec?” Spoor said in a whimsical voice.
Noel laughed. “I’m not getting closer than 2 klicks to any of those buildings–”
He started to say this — but then found ample reason to start moving closer.
Along the road straddling southeast Benghu a column of four rare Orc tanks approached. These were much more substantial tanks than Goblins, with thick, flat-topped rounded turrets balanced by a long boxy counterweight in the back, long flat-topped hulls. Leisurely they rounded the buildings, ran through the fence, and trundled out into the mud and grass. They lined up along the edge of town and nonchalantly opened fire southward.
An armor-piercing shell flew about 200 meters too wide to hit Noel and crashed into the dirt. Two others flew too far over the mechanized column and a final shell crashed almost a kilometer ahead of them, splashing mud and grass. Missing did not deter the Ayvartans — within a few seconds another salvo of four shells flew around the invaders.
When a 45mm shell finally struck the front of an M5 tank it deflected off the hull.
Though the Panzergrenadiers and tankers around them were remarkably collected in the face of continuous enemy fire, Spoor called for calm over the radio nonetheless.
“All soft units maintain formation behind the tanks. We are safe at this distance.”
Safe, yes, but Noel also knew they could not fight back effectively at this range. Neither side had the punch to harm the other at these ranges. They were over 5000 meters apart. At 500 meters, the M5 Hunter’s 37mm gun could penetrate about 30mm of armor. With the capped ballistic shell this rose to 40mm of penetration at 1000 meters — but that was only issued to Noel’s unit. All nine of their remaining tanks were issued stock AP tracer shells without the ballistic cap and improved coring. They were no good until they got close.
While the Ayvartan 45mm gun was stronger, it was not strong enough for 5000 meters. Those Orcs were taking complete pot shots. Any tank so stricken would be utterly unharmed. No gun could penetrate any tank at 5000 meters. It was not tank combat range.
“They want us to get close to them.” Noel said. “In range of their defensive line.”
“Do we take the bait then?” Spoor asked. “We have overwhelming superiority. An Orc tank is not much better armored than a Goblin — at 1000 meters you can break them.”
Noel grinned. Some people had described his grin as sinister. He enjoyed it.
“Nah. Let’s just ignore them. They can have their shitty town. Let’s go around.”
He spoke in a jesting voice and hoped Spoor would intimate his true meaning.
Without protest, Spoor issued the order to move east around Benghu’s meadows.
Noel dropped back inside the gloomy confines of the M5A2’s turret mechanisms.
“We’re moving, sweetheart!” Noel said to Ivan, shouting without the radio.
Ivan looked back at him with a smile. “Good! I was getting restless!”
Swiftly the column shifted its great bulk away from the town. Tanks at the front turned their sides to the enemy and started east within minutes; half-tracks groaned to life, their men mounted, and made their way behind them. Noel and his men played rear guard, and followed along with the stray cars and foot soldiers marching at the end of the column.
Once they were underway it took them a few minutes to clear nearly a kilometers worth of distance away from the defenses of Benghu and the haphazard fire of the enemy tanks.
Predictably the Orc tanks did not stand for this. Safe inside his turret and looking over his tank’s shoulder through his telescope, Noel watched as the tanks started after them, accelerating rapidly to their full speed and giving reckless chase to the vulnerable rear of the column, just as he planned. By ignoring Benghu he forced the Orcs to come fight him.
Lured into throwing the first thrust they could be cleanly taken out by the riposte.
In a few minutes they too would be out of the range of Benghu’s support fire.
Then it would be quite an even match between the Orcs and the M5 tanks.
Noel timed the enemy’s approach, and then he issued his orders over the radio.
“Dolph, Bartosz, charge ’em! Everyone else, enjoy a leisurely drive to Chanda!”
As one the M5A2 and Bartosz and Dolph’s M5s turned their hulls around in place, sliding over the slick mud beneath their tracks, and charged at the pursuing enemy. Already running, the Orcs started the confrontation at around 3000 meters from the M5s, but Noel’s group was making quite good on cutting that distance. They were nearly twice as fast as the Orcs, even on the soft, slick and gooey terrain of rain-swept Dbagbo.
“Dolph, Bartosz, listen up. We can breach the Orc’s front armor starting at 1000 meters, but they can do the same with their AP-HE once they reach 500. It will take about 30 seconds once we hit 1000 for that to become 500 — load APCB and shoot fast on my signal!”
Noel watched the tanks becoming larger in his sights as the two sides approached.
Shells came flying from the Orc guns starting at 2000 meters, sweeping past Bartosz, crashing around Dolph. A shell deflected right off Noel’s sloped glacis. He felt the transfer of energy, the loud THUNK as the projectile’s mass struck his armor at a poor angle and flew off. He shook, but it was no more a shaking than the recurring operation of the tank on bad terrain produced. Tanks shook. It happened. Noel kept his cool.
Ivan, too, withstood the attack bravely despite the shell crashing right before his face.
Ahead of them the four Orcs seemed implacable behemoths compared to the small Goblins that they were used to fighting. Their rank moved with metallic inevitability, like boulders rumbling down the field. Dolph and Bartosz at his sides made no move to change their trajectories. Zig-zagging would have only cost them precious speed. Trusting in their armor and guns alone the sides closed in, parallel ranks about to meet.
Two minutes in and the invisible threshold was suddenly crossed. 1000 meters distance.
Noel blew a smacking kiss into the radio as his signal to commence rapid fire.
He had only about thirty or forty seconds of shooting before the Orcs became deadly.
Fiercely the rounds flew, traded as fast as their respective crews could load them.
The Orcs had been firing the whole time; this put them at a disadvantage.
Noel’s tanks already had rounds loaded and they shot first in this crucial exchange.
Through his gun sights he put the Orc within the triangle in the middle of his reticle.
Immediately the M5A2 forced a round through the turret of an Orc in the center of the formation, causing the others to give it a wide berth in their rank. Smoke issued from inside and the hatches burst open. Noel must have hit the gun mechanisms, maybe even the breech. He quickly retrained his gun, using his foot pedals to steadily turn the turret.
Noel’s own gun was gyro-stabilized but all the other tank gunners had to deal with the shaking of their guns while firing at top speed. Projectiles flew wildly across the intervening distance, soaring past and crashing around tanks. Dolph and Bartosz were throwing a shell every five seconds but their shots failed to connect with anything but mud and air.
Fifteen seconds; 700 meters; the fourth barrage from the Nochtish half of the duel.
Noel loaded, aimed, and fired on an Orc that appeared almost as if right next to him.
An APCB shell from the M5A2 sliced through the glacis of the Orc at an angle, causing an explosion inside the tank that smashed the track mechanism on the tank’s side, sending a bogey flying and disgorging pieces of the crew compartment out the flank armor.
Two Orcs were left behind in twenty seconds as the columns hurtled ever closer.
“We’re hitting their effective range! Take them out or start evading!” Noel shouted.
He hardly saw the muzzle flash across the field from him; it seemed less than a second later the M5A2 shook suddenly and violently and he hit his eye on the periscope as an AP-HE shell struck the front plate, detonating right outside Ivan’s position in the hull.
There was no penetration; but there was a bruise. Noel pressed his hand against the side of his left eye, and winced as he raised a shell one-handed into the breech.
His next shot joined Dolph and Bartosz’s own shells and eviscerated the Orc responsible for the attack. Through the front glacis, into the gun mantlet, and in front of the track the M5s punched holes in the Orc, completely disabling the monster in one vicious salvo.
At the 500 meter point there was a single remaining Orc, and the Jadgpanzerzug broke off their formation and spread out, Dolph left, Bartosz and Noel off to the right. A 45mm shell soared between the tanks as the formation broke — the Orc missed its chance.
All at once the tank hunters launched their final salvo and cut the enemy to pieces. Two shots through the engine block from the side at an angle, one shot through the turret. There was a brilliant explosion, tongues of flame consuming the tank and regrettably anyone inside. Noel nursed his tender, injured temple as he ordered his unit back.
Sweeping through the flanks the M5s curved around the tank carcasses and turned the way they had come, watching a few Ayvartans extricating themselves from the husks, bleeding from spalled shrapnel, limping, taking meek cover near the wrecks. They would have been easy to pick off with the machine guns, but that was not Noel’s style at all.
Instead he ignored them. He defeated their tanks. He had won his points. Anything else above that was just a waste of ammunition and an act of graceless butchery.
“Noel, are you alright?” Ivan asked. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t avoid that.”
“We’re driving a tank, not an airplane. It’s quite alright. I’ve just got a little bump.”
“Sorry about our shootin’ Captain.” Dolph said. “These M5s are showing their age.”
“Your shooting was fine!” Noel said cheerfully. Speaking made his temple sting.
Forming up once more the M5s turned their backs to Benghu and headed east.
Leaving the wrecks behind they caught up with the Panzergrenadier column in motion, leaving the roads and moving up broad green meadows ringed by small hills. Noel drove up alongside Spoor’s car. He rose out of the turret hatch with his umbrella in hand and bandages and a patch around his forehead and temple, under the bouncy gold locks of his hair. Spoor rolled down the windows on the passenger seat to greet him with a smile.
“Astonishing work, Captain. I have never seen tanks charge as boldly as yours.”
“It’s a livin’,” Noel said. “How far are we from that school building and the rail station?”
“Thirty minutes to an hour at most.” Spoor replied. “I have contacted HQ to inform them of our movements. General Dreschner wants to prioritize the taking of the rail station.”
“As he well should, but the school is likely a defensive position. We’ll have to fight it.”
“Indeed. I take it that you will keep your distance from those buildings as well?”
Noel grinned. “I’m not going a klick near that school until those defenses are clear.”
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