Friday, September 2, 2022

Into the Trees

The forest was silent after the bombardment, smoke drifted through the splintered trees at the edge of the wood. The birds were silent, all was as still as the grave. The morning sunlight was just starting to pierce the shadows and the smoke.

The young infantryman from Oberammergau tightened his grip on his rifle, he was sweating so badly that he feared he'd drop his weapon. He took another step into the forest, the air reeked from the smell of high explosive and disturbed soil. This was Horst Buchholz's first time in combat, and he was terrified.

He looked over at his best friend in the squad, Norbert Hennig, who could see just how nervous the young man was, his friend mouthed the words "bleib ruhig¹," gesturing with his hand at the same time.

Buchholz was wondering just where the Russians were. There were no bodies, no debris to indicate any man had ever been along the edge of the wood. He was puzzled and was just starting to relax when he heard a gunshot behind him.

A messenger from Hauptmann Bergdorf stopped in front of Wunsche, still panting from running across the fields to the edge of the forest. The company command post was set up near the road, a good 300 meters to the rear, Wunsche and his platoon sergeant were just outside the forest.

"Hauptmann Bergdorf wants to know why you aren't engaging the enemy." the messenger asked breathlessly.

Before Wunsche could speak, Feldwebel Neumann gestured angrily towards the forest and hissed, "What enemy?"

Kirilenko suspected that the small party of Germans waiting in a dip in the rolling terrain were a command party. When he saw a man, probably a messenger he thought, run up to the small group, he knew it was. Now, which one was the officer?

One of the Germans waved a hand at the forest, through the scope on his rifle the man looked angry. Not exactly an officer, in his experience only the sergeants got angry, so he continued to observe.

Wunsche held his hand up, "Easy Herbert, the man is simply doing his duty." He looked up, another man was approaching.

"Isn't that Schweigert, from 2nd Squad?"

Neumann turned, "Yes, it is, maybe he can tell us what's going on in there."

Johannes Schweigert nodded to Neumann, then addressed Wunsche directly, "The Russians are not there, Herr Leutnant. Empty foxholes, no dead, no wounded. Unterfeldwebel Klingenschmitt thinks they've withdrawn deeper into the forest."

Wunsche nodded, then said, "All right, let's go have a look." Then he turned to the messenger from the captain.

"Go back and tell the Hauptmann that I'm going in to take a look, the Russians have withdrawn. Unless told otherwise we will advance to contact and try to fix the enemy in place. Klar?"

"Alles klar, Herr Leutnant." And without another word the messenger got up to head back. Everyone jumped at the sound of a bullet impacting steel.

Kirilenko saw the younger man speaking earnestly to the messenger, then he saw the dull silver shoulder boards as the man turned to point towards the forest. Ah ha! An officer!

He squeezed the trigger as he let his breath out slowly. He saw the man's head jerk to the side. The bullet had hit the man in the head, right where Kirilenko had aimed.

Time to move.

"Sir, are you all right?" Neumann leaned over his lieutenant who lay dazed on the ground. His eyes were fluttering but he seemed, somehow, all right.

"Jesus," Schweigert said as he saw the lieutenant's helmet, "there's a hole right through the top!"

Wunsche tried to sit up, but he was barely staying conscious. It felt like he'd run straight into a brick wall. His ears were ringing and his mouth tasted of copper. Of all things.

"Hold still Herr Leutnant, I think you bit halfway through your tongue, but somehow the bullet didn't even cut your scalp."

Wunsche spat blood, then sat up. He had bitten his tongue but not as bad as Neumann assumed. In fact, he felt pretty good for having been shot in the head. Pulling his helmet off, he looked at it.

"Do you think the Army will charge me for a new helmet?" As the men began to chuckle, firing broke out from inside the forest.

Norbert Hennig was on his back, blood issuing from his mouth as he tried to hold his intestines in. The first burst of fire from the Soviet machine gun had hit him in the belly and chest. His vision was starting to fade.

As he lay there, trying to breathe, his friend Horst Buchholz slid into cover right next to him. He fired a number of rounds from his rifle in the direction of the Russians. Only when he went to reload did he notice that Hennig was wounded.

"Norbert!" Buchholz reached for Hennig's hands, then saw what they were attempting to do. He began to scream, over and over,  "Sanitäter!! Sanitäter!!"

"All right boys, let's get out of here before the Germans get their wits about them." Efréĭtor Ustin Rodionovich Kazankov looked left, then right as his squad pulled back to their next position.

He was using the Degtyaryov himself, assisted by the Byelorussian Rahula. Who looked at his corporal and spoke.

"Two more drums, Comrade Corporal. Then we throw rocks at the Germans."

"Ah, Ruslan Tsypryyanovich, you have so little faith. One more drum, then we run like Hell!"

Kazankov saw movement ahead, he began to fire only to burrow his head into the dirt and debris of the forest floor. The damned Germans had one of their damned machine guns up and the bullets were zipping over his head!

Paulus fired again when he saw two heads pop up about fifty meters away. As Kołodziej changed belts, he bellowed at the infantry cowering nearby, "Get up and maneuver on those bastards. We'll keep their heads down!"

Kołodziej smacked Paulus on the shoulder and yelled, "Ready!"

When the MG 34 began firing again, in short, controlled bursts just as Paulus had been taught, Kołodziej did two things. He held the ammo belt lightly with his palms as it fed, steadying it as necessary to prevent jamming. He also watched the barrel, firing for too long, even in short bursts, would make the barrel overheat. He was ever-ready to pull the spare barrel from its case on his back to swap barrels.

He and Paulus had that task down to an art form!

Rahul grunted, then slumped to the ground. Kazankov rolled him over, the tough little Byelorussian had been hit in the forehead, just below the rim of his helmet. He was quite dead from what Kazankov could see.

"Sorry lad, but I have to leave you here."

Then he was up and sprinting. As he ran he realized that he'd left the last ammunition drum behind.

Wunsche and Neumann came up on the MG position manned by Paulus and Kołodziej. Wunsche was still a little woozy.

"Herr Leutnant." Paulus nodded companionably, as if greeting Wunsche on a crowded street in Berlin.

"Paulus, isn't it?"

"Yes Sir."

"Nice work here, I see two casualties, any more?"

"No Sir, Hennig and the new kid, Buchholz. Hennig was hit in the early going, Buchholz died trying to drag his buddy to safety."

"Brave." Wunsche nodded.

"No Sir, stupid. Hennig was already dead according to the Sani."


"Jawohl, Herr Leutnant, viel scheiße.²"

Majór Telitsyn looked back and listened as the German infantry continued firing. By now they were firing at shadows and perhaps the ghosts of the men he had lost. He turned to Kolobkov.

"How many did we lose, Vitaliy Afanasievich?"

"Seventeen, Comrade Major, these Germans were very aggressive. But the scouts tell me we're in the clear for the next few versts.³"

"Versts is it, you backwoods peasant? We're new Soviet men, we measure things in kilometers!"

"If you say so Comrade. If you ask one of the people in these parts how far something is, they'll answer in versts. Unless they're really old fashion, then they'll tell you how long it takes to walk there. If they've ever been there that is."

Telitsyn shook his head, "The things I learn from you, boy. But now, we have to move. I want to put many kilometers, or versts if you prefer, between us and the Fascists before morning."

¹ Stay calm.
² Yes, Lieutenant, a lot of shit.
³ An old Russian measure of length, about 0.66 mile (1.1 km).


  1. Some of the Soviet rifles were WWI era, with the sights still measured in arshins, which was about a yard.

  2. Is Pvt. Buchholz's nickname "Chico"?

    1. No, but I did like the actor. (Good one, Captain O)

  3. I can feel the enclosed nature of the forest in your writing Sarge. Your writings of the casualties make me wince in pain.

    The inclusion of an older measures (versts) makes me happy. The world was a more interesting place when we had a variety of measurements (Japanese swords are traditionally measures in shaku and bu. A shaku is 11.9 inches or 30 cm. A tanto is about one shaku long, a wakizashi is one to two shaku long, and a sword starts around two shaku. What is seen in the west as a "classic" Japanese sword is 28 inches or 2.3 shaku. Our style uses longer swords; standard is 32 inches or 2.8 shaku, but we train with blades up to 3 shaku (100 cm or 35.8 inches).

    1. The old measurements add a bit of "local color," which I like.

  4. New guy didn't last long, that's why there's always a new guy. Had never heard of versts before Sarge, this place does expand my knowledge base.....:)

    1. I wasn't even going to name him at first, but that felt cold.

  5. Replies
    1. They do, though not designed to stop bullets they will occasionally deflect a bullet.

  6. There is lots of vast Forests in Poland and Byelarus, including the awesome Białowieża Wilderness. Natural habitat to guerillas of all stripes, at some point of war Polish, Soviets, and Jewish parties prowled that one, without much interferencje.

    1. Some people think of Russia as flat, steppes, no trees. They never visited that part of Russia. Then there's the Pripyat, guerilla paradise.

  7. Another great photo, and delighted (but not at all surprised) to see you work the spare barrel and carrier into the story. Details matter and getting them right is hard for most authors, but you got the touch!
    John Blackshoe


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