Pebbles In The Path (33.4)


Shebelle Outskirts — 8th PzD FOB

At 1700 hours the attack on Shebelle was as stagnant as ever, and many of the 8th Panzer Division’s assets that had been committed to that task were now returning to the fold, having passed the baton to freshly deployed infantry-based combat units. Reiniger’s M4 tank companies arrived under the roaring noise of continuous shellfire from M3 Hunters stationed just outside the camp, peppering Shebelle and Benghu from afar.

Noel stood at the side of his broken-down M5A2 when the medium tanks arrived, weaving through the woods in a single file line before arranging themselves again into platoons wherever they could find space to park. Noel counted maybe twenty tanks on the whole; so not all of them came back. Under his umbrella, he waved at the crews crawling out of their hatches. Most of them waved back; Reiniger himself was a notable exception.

He ran past the makeshift tent garage and headed for the HQ without so much as a glance toward Noel. He did not even gloat about having preserved his own tank.

So much the better; Noel turned his back on the arrivals and resumed fussing with his hamstrung vehicle. There was no getting around the fact that the Konnigin had been slain. A shell hole the size of his fist adorned the gun mantlet, and inside it his breech block was smashed to pieces; these pieces had then flown across the turret and embedded themselves in his ammunition racks. It was a miracle that the shells did not explode.

While Noel circled around the tank, surveying the damage from various angles, Ivan toiled in the rear. Soon as the engine cover came off smoke and steam billowed out in copious amounts. There was still a thin, dancing line of smoke wafting from the engine when Noel returned to the tank’s rear. He put a hand on Ivan’s back, as if they were staring with grief at a sick child; Ivan laid his hand over Noel’s, shaking his head and breathing out heavily.

“That last supercharge really screwed it up, Noel. There’s a warped cylinder in there. You can hear it. We destroyed the engine, basically. It’s a miracle it got us back.” Ivan said.

“Well it has been a real miraculous day.” Noel said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

Ivan withdrew a piece he had set aside. It was the tank’s thermostat, at one point; now the spring and the cap seemed to have fused together, and it became a chunk of slag.

“You tell me, Noel, how is this even possible?” Ivan said with evident despair.

“We’ll see if they let us borrow an M4 Sentinel to drive or something.” Noel said.

“I sincerely hope so, because our little queen needs half her parts replaced.” Ivan said. He threw away the thermostat. It rolled gently downhill into the surrounding forest.

Noel chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do, sweet-heart. Just relax for the moment.”

He turned and made to head toward the war room tent, meaning to speak with Dreschner; but he was distracted when he heard metal clanking in the distance. He saw birds flying into the air from the crowns of the surrounding trees, and found something large navigating the woodland. From between the trees arrived a pair of tank transporters, heavy trucks with thick, large wheels towing canvas-topped steel crates on tracked beds. Chains holding the road train together rattled incessantly as the vehicles cleared the treeline.

Each crate bore simple markings in large print, easily read once the road train had parked itself amid Reiniger’s tanks: WP6, alongside an eight-digit serial number.

Noel stood in the periphery, alongside several other curious onlookers in their coats and hoods. There was a knocking sound; the backs of the crates opened and hit the mud, forming ramps. Small parties of engineers ran outside, assessed the situation, and gestured into the interior with their hands. Engineers gesticulated wildly and angrily at nearby tank drivers taking their breaks; there was not enough clearance around the ramps. Several tankers were compelled to return to their tanks and move them away from Wa Prüf 6’s cargo.

Lights shone from inside the crates, and white smoke exhaust escaped the canvas.

Two tanks drove carefully down the ramps and over the muddy ground.

One tank reminded Noel strongly of the M4. Though the turret was a touch flattened and less round, it had the same 50mm KwK gun; the hull was a bit taller, but retained the same curved silhouette, with its glacis sloped inward, and the hull and side armor sloping gently down from the front. However, the glacis seemed thicker, its frontal bulge much more prominent, its track guards like sharp cups laid over the caterpillars. In addition, the side-plates did not conform as much to the otherwise uniform curve of the hull. They had a sharp, tapering, definitive edge to them. He wondered how thick the armor was.

When the second vehicle rolled out of its crate a collective whispering began around it.

The lower half of the second vehicle was reminiscent of the first, but that was the only similarity. Certainly this was built on the new M4, on its tracks, on its hull; set atop the rear hull, a rigid, open-topped superstructure housing an absolutely massive gun replaced the traditional turret. Its armament outclassed the gun on that new Ayvartan type tank — it looked more like the old schwere kanone artillery guns in the rear echelon than it did a tank gun. Its barrel must have been ten centimeters bore, and at least three meters long. A pair of removable metal struts supported the long barrel against the front hull.

Both of the new tanks drove into the center of the camp, parting the crowd of gawkers and coming to a stop near the war room tent. Behind them, a blond-haired woman in a sharp office suit ambled in the mud, protected by galoshes and an umbrella. Sleek and professional, with her hair gathered into a wrapped bun, she had a mature look to her, with a hint of crow’s feet behind her spectacles, and some gray hair mixed in with the gold. Still she left an impression as she strutted confidently beside the tanks. Noel could no longer discern whether the crowd was goggling the armor, or eyeing the secretary.

General Dreschner and Signals Chief Schicksal stepped out of their tent, surprised by the arrival of the tanks, and shook hands vigorously with the General Auto official.

Noel circled around the crowd, and surreptitiously approached the party.

He arrived in time to hear the lady’s concise introduction. “Tanja Von Bletzen, chief computer for diagnostic and testing support.” she said, pushing up her glasses.

“Brigadier General Einschel Dreschner. And this is my signals chief, as well as chief of various unofficial duties, Karla Schicksal. Pleasure to meet you.” Dreschner said.

“I’m Captain Noel Skoeniczny!” Noel suddenly said, springing up beside them all. “How many marks a month does it cost to insure those monstrosities for the road, huh?”

Schicksal and Dreschner glared sidelong at him for intrusion and comment.

Tanja turned and politely shook Noel’s hand.

“Pleasure to meet you. I’ve been informed of your exploits, Captain. Colonel General Ferdinand holds you in high regard. I’m glad you’re here to see our new product.”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked on in mute surprise.

“I only wish I could have arrived sooner.” Tanja continued. “It would have made a great debut for these vehicles if a Panzer Ace used them to defeat his enemies and seal the Shebelle pocket. Hopefully there is still some action for them to participate in.”

“Oh, so you’re dying to see me wearing one of those, huh?” Noel said cheekily.

“It is fated to be, I just know it.” Tanja returned her own mischievous grin.

Dreschner and Schicksal both palmed their foreheads with eerie synchronization.

“Glad you’re both enthused. So; what are their capabilities?” Dreschner asked.

Tanja stretched her arm behind herself, gesturing toward the turreted tank. Dreschner and Schicksal’s heads turned with the computer’s arm, silently examining the vehicle.

“While I regrettably only have one example on hand today, this tank represents the next evolution in the M4 Sentinel line. Designation M4A2, WP6 calls it the Gran Sentinel.”

“Same gun as an M4; but it’s up-armored, isn’t it?” Noel said.

“Correct.” Tanja smiled. “The M4A2 features a much improved armor profile compared to the original M4: 75 mm glacis, 90 mm gun mantlet, 55 mm side, 30 mm rear. Hull top and turret top are still 20 mm, but those plates are rarely vulnerable to the enemy.”

“That is impressive.” Dreschner said. “But what is the cost in movement?”

“None.” Tanja said.

“None?”

“None.” She repeated. She clapped her hands once.

Tanja’s face lit up; she seemed to be enjoying herself.

“The M4A2 is actually faster than the original M4, thanks to its new engine. It can achieve speeds of 50 km/h. Using the old engine, the speed is a respectable 40 km/h. And this particular model has a built-in motor supercharger solution we are testing.”

“I must admit I’m not terribly fond of those superchargers.” Dreschner said.

“Ivan likes it well enough, but it burnt a few things in sustained use.” Noel said.

Tanja tipped her head in a gracious little bow. “Feedback noted.”

Schicksal jabbed her finger in the air. “So, the drake in the room; what is that?”

“10.5 cm Dicker Max.” Tanja turned her head, glancing toward the open-topped tank.

“Is it supposed to be a new assault gun? A replacement for the M3?” Dreschner asked.

A conceited smile played across the computer’s face.

“The Dicker Max is a complete re-imagining of the armored assault gun concept, using an M4 hull.” Tanja said, a soft opener before she shifted fully into sales pitch mode. She next barraged them with facts, and Noel wondered whether she had rehearsed it all.

“An enclosed structure or rotating turret is limited in the types of weapons its hull can reasonably support. Tweaking the armor profile, and redesigning the gun housing, we have achieved dramatic results. As you can see, the Dicker Max is fielding a 10.5 cm schwere kanone. This would be impossible for an ordinary M3 or M4 tank. Fully armored in the front and side, the Dicker Max can withstand long range direct fire and destroy any bunker, anti-tank emplacement, or enemy tank, from over 1000 meters away.”

“Until someone chucks a grenade through the open roof.” Noel said.

Tanja drew back, offended.

When she next spoke her voice had gone from enthusiastic to downright cold.

“Use of appropriate tactics is, of course, a prerequisite for effective deployment.”

“How many rounds does it hold in there?” Dreschner asked.

“Twenty-six. More than enough.” Tanja said dismissively.

“Sounds stingy.” Noel added, crossing his arms and grinning.

Calmly, Dreschner pressed on. “Is there a secondary armament?”

Tanja was starting to visibly bristle. “No.”

Noel shrugged comically, wiggling his hips a little.

Tanja pushed up her glasses, though they could not go any higher over her nose.

“Extensive tests have shown that in its appropriate role the Dicker Max can break a position in under twenty shells. You underestimate the schwere kanone.” She said.

“Extensive testing didn’t seem to identify the fact that you can chuck grenades through that open roof, so I’m not completely convinced, to be honest.” Noel said.

She turned her cheek on him.

“There’s an optional canvas roof for rainy day deployment.”

“Do you have it with you?” Dreschner gently asked.

“No.” Tanja said.

Schicksal crossed her arms and stared at her shoes. General Dreschner rubbed his chin. Both of them seemed at a loss for words to voice their trepidation. Noel wasn’t.

“Hey, no offense Tanja, you’re nice and all, but.”

Noel pointed at the Dicker Max with his free hand while twirling his umbrella.

“That thing just doesn’t match my aesthetic.” He dramatically said.

Everyone around him let his theatrical words hang awkwardly in the air for a moment.

But someone else had been listening in and lying in wait.

“Sounds fuckin’ good to me!”

Behind them the war room tent flapped open; Reiniger suddenly pushed Noel aside and stomped toward Tanja, and took her hand brusquely in his for an uncalled for shaking. He turned his head over his shoulder to glare at Noel while shaking up the computer.

“Lieutenant Jorg Reiniger. Ma’am, if the fairy doesn’t want this tank, that’s his problem. You got your ace tanker right here. I’ll drive your Dicker Max right fuckin’ now, ma’am.”

Tanja looked at him with tentative disdain, drawing her hand away from him.

“Reiniger, control yourself.” Dreschner snapped.

“General, c’mon, you can’t still be pinning your hopes on this Lachy fool who spends more time with his hair than his gun.” Reiniger said. He pointed sharply in Noel’s face — his finger was only a few centimeters from Noel’s nose. “He’s already fucked up one op, and if he can’t see how good this fuckin’ thing is, he’s rarin’ to fuck up the next one. I can take this tank, some of my boys, drive top speed to that rail yard, and end this now.”

Noel slapped aside Reiniger’s hand and contemptuously averted his eyes. He was eager to tussle with words, but when a brute started throwing around his hands, it rendered the situation utterly beneath him. Reiniger was no longer fun anymore.

Reiniger raised his hand again, and this time gave Noel a half-hearted shove, pushing the slender Captain back a step, and then taking his own to confront him. Noel sighed.

Dreschner laid a hand over his own face. He closed his other hand into a fist. Noel thought that he would step forward and pound Reiniger again, but the General held his ground. He underwent a gargantuan effort to show restraint. There was a pallor to his face, a nervous twitch around his eyes and jaw, a palpable tension thrumming just beneath his skin. He crossed his arms, perhaps so as to drown away the eagerness of his fist to punch.

“Mrs. Von Bletzen, I apologize for the conduct of my over-eager lieutenant.” He said.

“It is nothing, General.” Tanja said. She was stone-faced and disinterested.

Reiniger grunted with frustration. “Just answer me this lady: do you think the Dicker Max could defeat an Ayvartan tank with over 80mm of armor layered on the front?”

“It can break 100 mm of armor at over 1000 meters.” Tanja curtly replied.

“Then we have nothing to fear.” Reiniger said.

“There’s plenty to fear, Reiniger! You can’t just–” Schicksal said.

Reiniger side-stepped Noel and instead planted his feet in front of Dreschner.

Schicksal blinked, and was taken aback by the action. He was just a breath away.

“General, I must insist that we deploy immediately. Right now the only thing we have to fear is inaction. We have them, General. We can win!” Reiniger said. “You know that we don’t have much time left before sundown. We can be there in an hour if we deploy light. They’re already exhausted, they’re weak, and even if that new tank shows up, we can–”

Dreschner raised his hand to quiet him. “I know perfectly well our situation, Lieutenant.”

Noel almost winced when the General’s hand moved, expecting the fist to come flying.

“Then let us deploy! My men are eager to close this fucking pocket.”

Calmly, Dreschner turned his head to look over Reiniger. He faced Noel.

Noel shrugged. It was not his place to demand anything here.

Meanwhile Reiniger awaited a response right in the General’s personal space.

Dreschner replied coolly.

“Reiniger, deploy the Dicker Max. Noel will be joining you in the M4A2. Take three other tanks, two of the M3 assault guns for long range support, and three half-track carriers full of Spoor’s Panzergrenadiers for close support. Everyone else will catch up when they can.”

“Sir!” Reiniger saluted. His saluting hand was almost touching Dreschner’s face.

He had on a terribly wicked grin. Noel almost felt a bit of hatred in that instant.

Noel had been wrong. In his voice Noel heard so many voices whose textures and tones made him feel sick; voices that signaled craven hearts, thrashing hands, cold tongues, oozing with hurtful power. Before, he had put Reiniger mentally in with the kind of men who could be played with and sculpted, men who were nothing one way or another, the kind who turned up at the cabaret and cracked jokes and couldn’t take the girls taunting him.

But that was wrong. Reiniger was rancorous, the worst sort of man, the kind that would take a girl out back just to slap her. He would do it and he would revel in it. Noel just knew.

He grit his teeth, hiding behind his pretty lips, locking up the memories.

Now that a deployment was authorized, Tanja seemed to regain her enthusiasm.

“I shall have our engineers perform a quick final check on the vehicles.” She said, polite and energetic. It was as if the confrontation before had been an entirely different world.

Reiniger nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll go get my crew and climb aboard.”

When the Lieutenant turned around, he shoved brusquely past Noel again.

“Stay close, shut up, and follow orders.” Reiniger said as he walked away.

“At your command, instructor.” Noel called out. His tone was thick with sarcasm.


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