Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Advance to Contact - South of Leningrad, USSR, October 1941

Leutnant Jürgen von Lüttwitz paused to watch a column of Panzers and Panzergrenadiere pass by on the dirt track his platoon was following. The ground was hard, that morning had seen four degrees of frost.¹ Which was good for the vehicles, in the rains of a month back the LKWs would have had trouble.

It was also good for the infantry as they weren't getting spattered with mud!

As the platoon continued up the dirt track for another kilometer, von Lüttwitz had time to think. As his platoon was leading the company, which in turn was leading the battalion, when they reached the point where they were to enter the forest, his men would be heading deeper into the woods than the rest, his position would be on the far left flank of the battalion.

Hauptmann Busch had left it up to him as to how to handle his platoon, but the company commander had recommended that von Lüttwitz advance with three squads up with one squad back as a reserve. He had also suggested that a left echelon formation would be a good idea, easier to change front should the Russians hit them from the open flank.

Infantry left echelon formation
Gruppe = Squad, Zugtrupp = platoon HQ
The squads don't have to be in this order, any order would work.
4th Squad is in reserve
As he heard Busch blow his whistle to signal the turn into the forest, von Lüttwitz saw no reason to deviate from the captain's advice. His 3. Gruppe was turning into the woods as he jogged to catch up with it's squad leader, Unterfeldwebel Leo Klempner. As he passed the leaders of his other squads he gestured for them to follow.

"Leo! Hold up!" Though Busch had chided him for his insistence on calling his men by their first names, he still did it. Acker had encouraged a certain familiarity in the platoon, which for the personnel they had, seemed to work well. He remembered the day Busch had brought the topic up.

"Look, von Lüttwitz, you can't allow yourself to become too familiar with the men, nor encourage them to do the same with you."

"I understand Herr Hauptmann, but Leutnant Acker ran the platoon that way and it seems to work well, the men have a certain comradery that I haven't seen in other platoons. The men know that I'm the man in charge, the noncoms make sure of that."

"Well, be correct if there are big shots around."

"Like Major Hassel?"

"Dear God no, he has nicknames for everyone, he's not one to stand on formality at any time. No, if the regimental or division commander is around, not that I expect that."

"Zu befehl, Herr Hauptmann." von Lüttwitz said with a short bow.

"Cheeky bastard. Now go and sin no more."

Klempner waited by the edge of the forest with von Lüttwitz as the other squad leaders joined them. Von Lüttwitz explained what he wanted, the squad leaders all nodded, they understood. Before Klempner moved out to catch up with his squad, von Lüttwitz grabbed his sleeve.

"Make sure you've got an experienced man on the far flank, none of the Grünschnabeln.²"

"Will do Herr Leutnant, I'll have my assistant squad leader out there, Obergefreiter Egon Böhnisch has a cool head, saw plenty of action in France."

"Very good. Watch yourself out there."

The three Russian soldiers were hopelessly lost. Their unit had been completely destroyed in the early days of the Fascist invasion. Their commissar had survived and had brought them to a unit of partisans in the forests to the northwest of Luga.

But the Germans were everywhere, driving on Leningrad as if men possessed. The Russians understood, soon General Winter would make his appearance.

"I tell you, Yulian Valerianovich, if they can't take up winter quarters in and around the city, the winter will kill them, if not, then our counteroffensive will destroy them!" Krasnoarmeyets Bogdan Ilyich Schastlivtsev waved his hands in the air, as if that motion alone would destroy the grey-green legions assaulting their homeland.

Krasnoarmeyets Yulian Valerianovich Fedoseyev sat up and threw the stick he had been chewing on into the small fire they had built. The nights were starting to get cold, he was sure they would see a significant snowfall in the next few days.

"I tell you, Bogdan Ilyich, it's going to snow, and soon. I can smell it!"

Krasnoarmeyets Dionisiy Valeryevich Sukhanov looked at Fedoseyev and shook his head, "Smell snow? Bullshit comrade, the only thing you can smell is yourself. None of us have washed in over a week. I disgust even myself!"

"Where are you from Comrade Sukhanov? "

"Alushta, in the Crimea. What does that have to do with anything?" Sukhanov spat into the fire as he said that.

"You see, Bogdan Ilyich? Our boy here is from a warm southern clime, what does he know of our northern ways?"

"It snows in our northern mountains, but no, where I'm from the weather is very mild. But smell snow? What does snow smell like?"

Fedoseyev laughed and said, "It smells the same as rain, only colder!"

Sukhanov shook his head as both Schastlivtsev and Fedoseyev had a nice laugh at his expense. But they were right, he had very little experience of snow. He also recalled his grandfather saying that one could smell rain. He had to smile at that.

Schastlivtsev held his hand up, he had heard something in the forest. No one ever questioned his woodland knowledge, he had been a hunter in Siberia before the war.

"Douse the fire, quickly!"

Böhnisch was on the far flank of the skirmish line. He had just given one of the men a dirty look. Schütze Gustav Hengsbach and Schütze Clemens Rickenbacher were fooling around again. He should have known to separate the two men.

They were both in their late twenties, fairly typical for the 223. Infantrie-Division, a unit raised in Saxony just before the invasion of Poland. There were a large number of reservists in its ranks. Hengsbach and Rickenbacher were from the same small village, neither, as Unterfeldwebel Leo Klempner liked to say, had a lick of common sense.

Hengsbach had thrown a small branch at Rickenbacher which had made a surprising amount of noise. Both men looked chagrined at the look Böhnisch gave them.

As he motioned at his two clowns to continue to advance, Böhnisch swore that he could smell something ...


"Damn it, how many do you think there are?" Sukhanov whispered in Schastlivtsev's ear.

Before he could answer, Fedoseyev said, "Company strength at least. See how the line stretches back into the trees?"

"What do we do?" Sukhanov moaned.

"Be still you idiot." Schastlivtsev hissed.

Von Lüttwitz moved as quietly as he could to his left flank. The word had come up the line that 3. Gruppe suspected something or someone in the woods some hundred meters away. By the time he arrived, Klempner had already taken a small patrol off into the woods.

"What's going on, Egon?"

"I smelled smoke, like a campfire. We found a spot where someone had doused a fire, within the past few minutes. It didn't give off a lot of smoke, not that you could see, but the wind carried the smell to me. Unterfeldwebel Klempner took a couple of the lads further out to investigate."


"Most definitely, one of them left a military cap near the fire, probably dropped it in their haste to get away."

Von Lüttwitz turned to Schütze Heinz Baar, one of his runners, "Heinz, get to Hauptmann Busch, tell him we've made contact with a small party of Russians." Turning to Böhnisch he asked, "Scouts maybe?"

"No Sir, more likely stragglers. Remember, the SS had that big anti-partisan operation going on down near Luga a week or so ago. Flushed a bunch of 'em, inevitable some of them got away. Poor bastards are probably just running from us."

"Even so, we need to make sure."

Living in the forest for over two months had taken its toll on the three men. Sukhanov fell heavily as he tripped over a dip in the ground filled with leaves, he hadn't seen it.

Schastlivtsev hissed, "Get up Dionisiy Valeryevich, the Fascists aren't far behind."

Sukhanov tried to stand, he grimaced then dropped back to the ground, holding his lower leg. "I think it's broken Comrade. Leave me, I'll hold them up."

Before Schastlivtsev said a word, Fedoseyev gripped Sukhanov under one arm, "Use your rifle as a crutch, if we can get into that thicket, we might be all right."

Sukhanov looked in the direction Fedoseyev had indicated, they were still a good distance from the thicker part of the woods. But he got to his feet, gritting his teeth, he let his two comrades assist him along.

"Look here Leo, one of them must have fallen, someone is dragging him now!" Schütze Roman Wolf pointed at the disturbed ground around a shallow dip in the forest floor.

Klempner looked ahead, a ways off he could see that the forest thickened, he would bet his next promotion that the Russkis had gone that way.

Realizing that he couldn't do much with just himself and two other men, he reluctantly decided to pull back to the main body of the platoon and make his report.

Hauptmann Busch listened as the sergeant made his report to him and to von Lüttwitz. He didn't think that there were many Russians out there, as one of the men had said, probably fleeing stragglers.

"What do you think, Jürgen?" Busch asked the platoon leader.

"I think we keep moving, we're going to be stuck in these woods over night and I'd rather not get scattered chasing ghosts." von Lüttwitz shook his head, "It's always something, isn't it Herr Hauptmann."

"Yes, yes it is. I'll send word back to battalion. Also, bring your platoon in a little tighter with the rest of the company, as you say, it will be dark very soon. We'll let the Major decide if we hunt those men down or continue our sweep."

"Well, one of the objectives was to drive the Russians out of the woods." von Lüttwitz said.

"Yes, we've used a battalion to drive out a few stragglers. We'll never get to Leningrad at this rate. Let's set up camp now, I want to know what battalion wants before going further."

"Zu befehl, Herr Hauptmann!"


Von Lüttwitz turn to where Unterfeldwebel Klempner was standing, pointing at the sky. "What is it Leo?"

"It's starting to snow."

"Scheiße," was all von Lüttwitz could think of to say.

¹ -4° Celsius, roughly 25° Fahrenheit
² Greenhorns or rookies. (German)

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

New Orders - South of Leningrad, USSR, October 1941

Fahnenjunker-Feldwebel Jürgen von Lüttwitz ran a hand across his face, the stubble of his beard was starting to annoy him. It had been a number of days since anyone had had the chance to shave, but he felt he should set an example, so he felt slovenly.

Commanding the platoon in Leutnant Acker's absence, von Lüttwitz had a small staff to help him. His platoon sergeant (Führer des Zugtrupps), Unterfeldwebel Georg Hansen, was also new to the job, his predecessor, Oberfeldwebel Friedrich Kleist, had been killed in action the day before Acker had been wounded. Hansen was sent down from battalion to take Kleist's place the same day the company commander had given von Lüttwitz the platoon.

His three runners (Meldern) and the horse holder (Pferdehalter - for the platoon's single horse and two small carts), made up the rest of the platoon headquarters. He also had his mortar section leader (Führer des Granatwerfertrupp) with his two mortarmen. At full strength the platoon had one officer, six noncommissioned officers, and forty-two men. After the encounter with the KV-1 outside Dubrovka, they were short four Landsers, one of whom had been killed the other three evacuated to the rear for wounds.

Of course, they were also short one officer. The last von Lüttwitz had heard of his lieutenant, his wounds, while requiring hospital treatment, weren't serious enough for Acker to be sent back to the Reich.

"I can get you water if you wish to shave, Chef." Oberschütze Otto Wandesleben said to von Lüttwitz.

"Can you get enough for the entire platoon?" von Lüttwitz asked, cocking an eyebrow at his senior Melder.

"Not really, no."

"Very well, if there isn't enough for all of the men, then I won't take advantage of it."

"Very good Chef. Did you still want to ..." Wandesleben was interrupted by the arrival of the company commander who had the battalion commander with him.

Von Lüttwitz and Wandesleben both stood as the two officers joined them. Both officers looked as grubby as everyone else.

"Wandesleben, von Lüttwitz." Major Kurt Hassel, a gruff man at the best of times, barked his greeting at the two soldiers.

"Herr Major." von Lüttwitz answered for both of them.

"Es ist saukalt, ja¹?"

Von Lüttwitz laughed and said, "So gentlemen, I take it this isn't a social call?"

"You did say he was perceptive, didn't you?" Hassel said as he looked at Busch.

Von Lüttwitz said, "Begging your pardon Sir, but one needn't be von Clausewitz to know we can't stay here, we need to advance and take Leningrad before the snow comes."

Hassel nodded, "Quite right. Problem is, regiment has no idea what is to our left flank, other than endless forest. Which my contact in the Luftwaffe tells me stretches all the way to the Gulf of Finland. Aerial reconnaissance indicates that no large, formed bodies of troops are in that area. Most of the Reds withdrew towards Leningrad to defend the approaches to that city."

Busch pulled out a map and spread it out on the ground. The major leaned in and studied it for a moment, "We are here, just north of Sorochkino. Our task is to get into the woods, then sweep north in a giant skirmish line. The hope is that the Russians have fled. If not, we will have artillery on call from division."

"Has the entire division arrived?" von Lüttwitz asked. He knew that his regiment was in place, and most of the logistical tail, but he had heard that the other two regiments were awaiting rail transport and were still at Pskov, along with the artillery.

"No, we're still short two regiments, but the artillery arrived late last night. Heeresgruppe Nord took over a number of trains which the SS were using to move civilians back to the Reich." Hassel answered.

"Civilians, why would ..." von Lüttwitz started to ask but was cut short by the battalion commander.

"It's better you don't ask such questions, Leutnant."

"Uh ..."

Hassel looked at Busch, "You haven't told him yet?"

"No Sir, I've been with you all day, since we got the word as a matter of fact."

"Sir?" von Lüttwitz was confused.

"Word came down from OKW, you've been promoted. You're now an officer, congratulations!"

Without another word, Major Hassel spun on his heel and headed back to the battalion command post.

Von Lüttwitz looked at his company commander, "He's not much for small talk, is he?"

Busch chuckled shook his head. "Get your men ready Jürgen, we step off at first light."

¹ It's freezing cold, yes? Saukalt is literally "pig cold." (German)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Family and friends

 *So...There I was...*

Mrs. J's 6 month campaign to get the Juvat Clan and friends together for an overseas cruise has finally arrived at the execution phase.  All the covid stupidity has been complied with.  Shot Cards are enclosed with the passports.  Airline Tickets are in hand.  Rendezvous with MBD, SIL and MG is complete and drop-off at the airport completed.  In-processing is complete and airport security is next.

I get told I have to take off my suspenders as the metal clasp on the shoulder straps might set off the metal detectors.  I also get told to take off my belt.  And the person supervising the metal detector happens to be female.  I get told to hold my hands up high and not spread my legs quite so much.

You see where this is going donch'a?

Well the first time they turned it on, I had to break formation and grab my pants otherwise...

Splained that to the lady.  She laughed and said "Don't do it again".

Fortunately for all concerned, a combination of large inhale and sneaking my thighs a little closer together prevented a catastrophic rampaging exodus from the airport.  

Loaded onto the airplane and discovered that my Travel Agent, being the wonderful woman (and Wife of mine) she is, had arranged for bulkhead seats.  In addition to the extra leg room, it also allowed MG to either have a bassinet to sleep in or a reclining crib sort of thing attached to the bulkhead.  More room for her parents, more room for her.

Or so we thought.

Unfortunately, MG is in the 96 percentile of growth for her almost 11 month old age group.  She didn't fit in either option.  

Arrival in Barcelona the next evening and rendezvous with our winemaker friends went smoothly.

View from the B&B balcony.

MG charming our winemaker friends

The following morning our meetup with our Uber driver for the drive to the cruise ship involved a bit of my HS Spanish as well as his HS English. Luckily, global war did NOT break out. After a minor hiccup or two, we arrived at the cruise ship in a timely fashion. 

Since the harbor looked out over the Mediterranean, the military historian in me got a kick out of the fortress on the top of the hill overlooking the port.   Back in the Day, Captain Hook's real life compatriots were a definite concern.

First Port of Call was Toulon where we planned to visit a few wineries on a cruise company tour.  (That's kinda important because if a cruise company tour is delayed for any reason, the ship waits.  If it's not a company sponsored tour...KMAGYOYO!)

Unfortunately, the tour got cancelled.  But, Toulon is a big French Navy base, which meant two things.

One, there was an old fort overlooking the harbor.

And the French Navy was present.

MG was enthused. Mrs. G, however, was underwhelmed.

The day passed and it became time for an Adult Recreational Beverage and Relaxation Break (ARBARB in Naval Vernacular).

Next stop was Nice, which was nice.  Actually, the ship anchored in Villefranche-sur-Mer which is a very pretty and small town just east of the city. 

Even the houses had cannon turrets.  

 A quick train trip and we're downtown Nice.

In addition to Castles, we explored cathedrals.  Some were pretty breathtaking.

Although it was a bit of a downer to walk out of the cathedral and watch a drug deal going down not 50' down the road in broad daylight. 

No, Beans, I did NOT take a picture!

Next stop was Ajaccio, Corsica.  AKA somebody named Bonaparte's final home birthplace (Oops).

Line was WAY too long to go inside.

But, I did think this was humorous.

Went to the Open Market, wandered around a bit, and found a wine tasting booth. can imagine what happened next.  Was waiting in line and the guy and his wife in front of me asked if I knew anything about wine.  

"A Bit...what would you like to know?"

We ended up spending about an hour with them over a bottle of a nice Corsican Red.  But MG was the star of the show.

 I also got a few woodworking project ideas there.

After a long day, we headed back to the ship for a little relaxation on the veranda.

The following day was Civitavecchia, the port for Rome.  Mrs. J, MG and I stayed on board as we'd been there before and it was an hour and a half bus ride out and back.  Chilled, enjoyed peace and quiet and a little nap.  

The following morning, we were in Portofino.  A nice little town.

Which still warranted Castle support.

Stopped in Cinque Terra next.  Unfortunately, I had not charged my phone overnight, so I am having to rely on Mrs. J for photographic assistance.

We had stayed in Cinque Terra for a week back in 2010 or so.  Very quiet, very small, very pretty villages.  Not so much anymore, lots of turista's.   Course back then, we went in late October instead of the ending of the "season" this time, so our fault.  Nice to visit again though and the food was fabulous.

The local wine was PDG also!

Last port was Palma de Majorca.  Plan was to ride the funicular up the mountain to Sóller and have lunch.  Got on Board and shortly thereafter, the conductor came on board and said they were having mechanical difficulties and it would be 15 minutes until departure.

MG decided she'd pass the time entertaining the two ladies from Germany in front of us.  Always the diplomat, that girl.  Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes, we started looking at the time, comparing it to the sail time and watching the progress (AKA None) on fixing the problem.  Discretion being the better part of valor, we elected to disembark and ask for a refund.  Took a bit of cajoling but we got paperwork to submit to our credit card company.  Hustling back to the trolley stop, we passed by the Cathedral.  The line wrapped around the cathedral and sailing time hadn't changed, so all we got was this.

Note the battlement in front and closer in around the Cathedral.

As we're walking to the bus stop, the god's of weather decided we needed a shower and provided the water.  Surprisingly, it was fairly refreshing.

All in all, a very nice 10 days.  The tourist-ing was interesting and fun, the ship stuff was OK not great, but the Family and Friends part was fabulous.  MG was a blast.  Very little fussing.  In fact, when the airplane landed in Austin after an overnight flight from Barcelona, we're standing up getting ready to deplane.  There was a French Guy in the row ahead of us who noticed MG in Mrs. J's arms.  He asked where she'd been sitting.  When we told him she'd been behind him the whole time, he was astounded.  We just shrugged and asked "Isn't every baby like that?"

He chuckled.

Peace out, y'all!

*Standard juvat caveat indicating what follows is a "War Story" where the Author agrees to "...never let the Truth interfere with a good Story."  

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Well, how about that?

He's not wrong, but ...
That tree in the neighbor's yard is well ahead of the game, never saw it do that before. Won't be long before that Japanese maple (the one in the middle, saying "Well") will be bright red, at least I hope so. There was one year where it waited and waited before donning it's bright red cloak, only to shed it all on a wind-swept rainy night in October. Barely got to see it in full grunt. Less than a day really.

Yes, fall is here. As a kid growing up the foliage was part of existence, it got so you'd look out the window and think, "Okay, colorful, nice," but you got so used to seeing it, it became almost blasé. Where we live in Little Rhody, not far from the Bay, it doesn't get all that colorful. So yeah, I miss it.

Yeah, there's a street I go down on my way to work and home again where the trees all suddenly have these deep red leaves and golden leaves as well, very striking. Then the guy down the street has a couple of trees that turn nicely.

But for the most part, when the conditions are right for max color, the conditions are also right for rain and wind. Strips all that prettiness away and flings it to the ground.

Sigh ...

Went to dinner with friends Saturday night, a Portuguese place, had a very good steak and a cuppla these -

Very crisp, lots of flavor. Went well with the steak. Next time I want to try the paelha, which is the Portuguese version of paella. My buddy assures me it's very, very good. But Saturday was a steak night, with an egg on top in a very delicious burgundy sauce, yum.

Speaking of my buddy, up until Saturday I thought that all we had in common was having Korean wives and having served in the military. Nope, there's more.

He was telling me of a trip up to Canada to sell off some family land which no one wanted.

"So where is this land?" I asked.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a map, "Here's Montreal, here's Quebec, here's where my family is from."

I looked, then I looked again. "Ya mean Trois-Rivières?" My voice betrayed my excitement I suppose.

"What? You've heard of it?"

"Heard of it, my great-grandfather was born there."

"No shit?"

"Ya, no shit."

Small world, innit?

Saturday, September 24, 2022

A Day for Wondering

Vermont in Autumn
It's autumn in New England.

Friday was a pretty day, a bit cool, the wind was up, the sun was shining, it was a good day to stop and thank God for another day.

Friday evening arrived and, to tell the truth, I just didn't feel like writing about war. Somehow the weekends just feel too peaceful to write about men fighting and dying, even in a good cause. So it was an evening for reflection.

And, oddly enough, listening to a lot of Jethro Tull. Back in the day when I was painfully lonely and shy, the music of that particular band kept me going. I knew that someday things would get better.

Boy, did they ever.

Anyhoo ...

Had one of these systems installed at Chez Sarge -

Ductless Mini Split AC System
Got a good deal on installation and financing so we decided to go for it. I'd seen this type of system mentioned in Juvat's posts about his new workshop, so I was confident it was something that would work for us as well. (As the price of home heating oil continues to climb, it will also save us a bit on heating too. As a Scot, thrifty is a thing.)

Took the lads who did it three days, start to finish. Neat and precise they were, The Missus Herself was happy with their workmanship and their manners. I made sure their bosses knew that.

Downstairs bathroom renovation continues, though getting materials has proven to be a challenge at times. Our contractor said he could do the job in October, well, a couple of his jobs fell through and would we mind getting it done earlier?

Well, no, we wouldn't mind at all. But we had nothing in place to get going, which was okay, they had to strip things down to the studs anyway, do the basic plumbing and electrical work as well. Gave us some time to get the rest of what we needed.

We just learned the remaining materials to complete the job have come in and this coming week should see us in the home stretch of that project, before beginning another.

Sigh, homeownership is kind of a never-ending stream of "Oh look, this is broken" events. As a renter it's "Hey, landlord, fix this, it's busted." Now it's "Say contractor, ya got a minute? Yes, yes, I have the funds ..."

And so it goes.

But I'm in a position to afford all this, much as it pains me to part with those hard earned shekels. But I have them in hand so, hey, I've got that going for me.

Years ago, I was sad listening to this song, wondering, aloud as it were, if I'd ever get to that sort of place.

The answer is a resounding yes.

Wond'ring Aloud
Ian Anderson

Wond'ring aloud --
How we feel today
Last night sipped the sunset --
My hand in her hair
We are our own saviours
As we start both our hearts beating life
Into each other

Wond'ring aloud --
Will the years treat us well
As she floats in the kitchen
I'm tasting the smell, yeah
Of toast as the butter runs
Then she comes, spilling crumbs on the bed
And I shake my head

And it's only the giving
That makes you what you are

I know what I've got, I'm a happy man.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Blood on the Sand, Western Desert, October 1941

Destroyed Crusader Mk III, North Africa
Fitzhugh spotted the German tanks first, "Mark IIIs 10 o'clock!" He was already in the process of slewing the turret when something hit the engine compartment.

Caddick screamed over the intercom, "The bloody engine's seized up!"

O'Connell had sat down hard when the tank was hit, banging his head on the hatch coaming. He saw stars and nearly passed out before collecting himself. He poked his head up out of his hatch and saw an Italian anti-tank gun to his right. That gun was shifting its fire to another target, the gunner making the assumption that he had killed O'Connell's tank.

While he tried to regain control of his senses, his own tank cannon barked. Turning his head quickly, and instantly regretting it, he saw a German Mark III not fifty yards off. The wind was abating and things were becoming clearer now. But he was still in something of a fog mentally.

"Damn it Teddy, what's going on out there?!" Fitzhugh was screaming at him.

O'Connell's head cleared. He saw the German tank starting to burn, it's crew bailing out as he watched. He thought it odd that he could already smell the enemy tank starting to burn when the wind was blowing at his back. Then he turned and looked back towards his own engine compartment. His tank was starting to burn!

Hoffmeister gasped as he saw his friend Johannes Becker's Panzer come to an abrupt stop. It had been hit, that much was obvious. As smoke began to issue from the hatches he sighed in relief as he saw the crew jumping from the tank and heading to the rear. Almost immediately he saw the vehicle which had killed Panzer 412. His gunner had seen it as well.

The cannon barked and he saw the English Panzer take a hit in the engine compartment. It stopped, but the turret was still moving. In less time than it took to think it, the enemy gunner's barrel was pointed directly at Panzer 413. Hoffmeister winced as the enemy fired.

"Gott sei dank!" Hoffmeister whispered as he heard the enemy round hiss past, a near miss!

"Horst!" he barked at his gunner.

"On it!" Krebs answered.

"Verdammt!" 413's shot went high as the English tank began to reverse. Whatever damage he'd taken to his engine didn't prevent them from reversing apparently.

Caddick was working the levers frantically as he managed to get the tank into reverse. "It ain't the engine, transmission is wonky, Sarge!"

"Hold here!" O'Connell ordered his driver as the tank was now out of sight of the Germans. "We must support the infantry. Eyes open lads. Fitzie, kill anything that comes over that ridge to our front!"

"Wilco, Teddy."

As the firing of tank cannon died out, Morley risked taking a peek over the lip of the trench, Falasco didn't seem to notice. The young Italian had his rifled trained on something in the near distance. With a sharp grunt, Falasco fired his rifle.

"Ti ho preso, bastardo!¹" Falasco bellowed as he worked the bolt on his rifle. Then he gasped and turned to his left, swinging his weapon in that direction.

Morley heard the sound of metal impacting flesh and winced. He couldn't believe his eyes, the young Italian who had been watching over him had been hit in the head. The man's helmet went flying and Morley was showered with the young man's blood. As Falasco slumped to the floor of the trench, Morley heard a voice speaking English.

"Take that you Italian bastard. Where's your friends, I'll bloody kill them too!"

The accent sounded Australian, Morley yelled out, "Don't shoot! I'm English! A pilot!"

"Hey Winnie! We've got a right Pommy bastard over here! Bleeding Eyetie speaks pretty good English too." Private Larry Babcock had a man standing in front of him at bayonet point as he beckoned to his sergeant.

"Sergeant Winston Humphries trotted over and pointed back to the British lines, "Get his arse back to the lorries. The bleeding tankers have driven the Jerries off for now and we've done for most of the Italians. F**kahs put up quite a fight!"

Humphries took a moment to check on Babcock's prisoner, the man was soaked in blood.

"Jaysus mate, you alright then? You look quite the mess."

"It's not my blood Sergeant, and I am British, the Italians took my identification after capturing me. If you look in that tent," he nodded towards a large tent just behind the trench line, "you'll find my papers and my flying kit. About a half-mile further on you'll find my Hurricane."

Humphries grinned then prodded Morley with his bayonet, "Cheeky bastard, ain't ya? Get a move on, we'll let the captain sort you out. But for now we've got to be off before the bleeding Huns regroup."

"Right then, lead on." Morley began to lower his hands.

"Nah mate, after you and keep those paws in the air."

Rather than risk being pricked with the man's bayonet again, Morley did as he was told.

Destroyed Panzerkampfwagen III, North Africa
Hoffmeister crawled to the edge of the slight ridge his Panzer was behind. He had two vehicles still alive besides his own. On the bright side, they hadn't lost anyone. Max Petersen's driver had a slight wound but all they had lost was vehicles, no men.

The Italians hadn't made out so well. Their camp was a shambles and there were a number of bodies strewn around, especially near the Italian gun pits. Those gunners had sold themselves dearly, some of the bodies were English. (Hoffmeister had no way of knowing that they were Australians, to him the enemy were "the English.")

Fritz Weber soon joined him, staying on his belly as the enemy were still in the process of withdrawing. "Engine is all right, that fire you saw was Lutz's blanket burning. Poor bastard will be cold tonight!"

"His blanket?"

"Yes, the English round hit one of the ventilator fan mountings and must have thrown off a lot of sparks, it's all scorched there, but all it did was set Schumacher's blanket alight."

"No damage otherwise?"

"None, she's drivable, ready for action."

Gesturing towards the Italian camp, Weber said, "I don't think we'll be getting any infantry support from that lot, will we?"

"No, the ones who didn't die are probably halfway to Benghazi by now. We should report back, at least we stopped that English patrol."

Weber nodded towards the wrecks of two British tanks, "Looks like we traded two for two."

"Yes, we got lucky. The English were close in, we had no advantage other than surprise. The bastards recovered well. Let's pack it in."

Morley was being shoved along by one of the Australians when they came upon an Australian officer.

"Lookee here Cap'n, caught myself an Eyetie. Poor bugger keeps claiming he's bloody English."

Captain Miles O'Donoghue looked towards the man speaking, "Right then, how do you know he's Italian, Babcock?"

"Well, caught him in the Eyetie camp, hunkered down in one of the trenches, we gunned his mate down then took him prisoner. All the fight was out of him by then."

O'Donoghue looked at Morley, "You can put your hands down Flight Leftenant. Are you the Hurricane pilot that went down in these parts four days ago?"

Morley lowered his hands, his left shoulder was aching, he suspected that he'd damaged something up there. "Thank you, name's Morley by the way, Reginald Morley, friends call me Reg."

"I'm O'Donoghue, despite the name I'm from Sussex, as English as can be. Friends call me Miles, need a lift?" O'Donoghue gestured at one of the Bedford lorries, "You can ride with me, seems we have some space now, sorry to say we lost about twenty of our chaps. The Italians wanted to fight today."

"Don't suppose you've a medic with you? Bashed my shoulder pretty good during your attack, fell on an ammo crate."

"Well no, we don't. Is it broken?"

"Don't think so, just aches. I'll be all right I suppose."

As the lorry he was riding turned about and headed east, Morley saw that the Australians had tanks with them as well. He also saw the wrecks of two British and two German tanks. He wondered why the Australians were leaving their dead behind until he saw a dust column to the west, the Germans, maybe the Italians, were reacting to the small British raid.

Collect the dead, you might join them. Harsh but then again, that's the very nature of war.

As the camp dropped out of sight, he thought about the young Italian soldier. A decent kid, he'd treated Morley well. He felt bad about the man's death. He wondered if the grumpy Italian sergeant had survived. Hard to say.

But for now, he was safe.

He wondered if Janice had been informed of his being missing. He would soon find out.

 ¹ "I got you, you bastard! (Italian)

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Into the Fire, Western Desert, October 1941

Australian troops advancing on an Italian position
Imperial War Museum
"Christ it's bloody cold." William O'Shea said over the intercom as he drew his greatcoat tighter around himself.

The advance was halted, waiting for dawn. With the engine off, sitting in the dark, the nighttime cold of the desert gradually seeped into the tank, chilling the entire crew. They had bundled up in their greatcoats after retrieving them from where they had been bundled on the outside of the turret. Of course, they were all saturated with sand.

"It's like wearing sandpaper!" Alan Caddick, the tank's driver, had complained when he was back in his seat after donning his coat.

"That's enough lads, haven't you heard, there's a war on." Sergeant O'Connell snapped over the intercom. He was tired and a bit nervous about going into action blind.

The Aussies had sent out a patrol to investigate a number of campfires over the next ridge. They reported back that it was an Italian Army bivouac, no sign of any Germans, or armor. Which made O'Connell a little happier, until his gunner, James Fitzhugh, asked if they'd seen any sign of dug in anti-tank guns.

While a large part of the Italian Army in the desert was made up of conscripts with indifferent leadership, the same didn't hold true for the Italian artillery. Absolute professionals who worked their guns to great effect. The last thing a tanker ever wanted was driving into an anti-tank gun ambush. O'Connell broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of AT guns in the dim light of dawn.

Morley was shaken awake by the young Italian who had been tasked with guarding him. "Tenente, sveglia!¹"

"Cosa, cos'è, Nicola?²" Morley sat up, he was tired and confused. He did note that sunrise wasn't far off, the horizon was beginning to light up. After a brief moment, he heard engines, tank engines.

"Carri armati tedeschi, tenente, presto, devi nasconderti!²" Private Falasco hissed at him as he tugged on Morley's shoulder.

Groggy, not quite awake, his Italian being not as strong as he'd like, he only understood part of what the Italian said. But the words "German" and "hide" got his attention. He was confused as to why Falasco was helping him, but for now he'd go along.

After refueling, Hoffmeister's platoon received orders to move up to the border with Egypt. He was briefed that there was an Italian camp along the way and he could expect an infantry escort from there. The Italians were not motorized, but they could ride the tanks. At least they would have infantry support, even if it was Italian!

Hoffmeister and his men were bundled up against the cold of the desert night, with the hatches closed and the engine running, the men inside the turret and the hull were comfortable. Only Hoffmeister was shivering as he was standing on his seat, he hated moving buttoned up, especially at night. He was cold, but he could see what was around him.

As the horizon in the east began to light up, the platoon entered the Italian bivouac. He had the platoon assume line formation then halted them. He looked around for someone in charge and saw a man he assumed was an officer, also looking for someone among the Germans in charge. "Das bin ich,³" he muttered to himself as he climbed down off of his Panzer.

He walked over to the man he assumed was an officer, and in the dim light saw that the man indeed was an officer, a major by the looks of it. Hoffmeister stood to attention and offered the man a crisp salute, hoping that the officer spoke German because Hoffmeister knew almost no Italian.

Smartly saluting, the Italian officer spoke. "Good morning, Herr Unteroffizier, Maggiore⁴ Feliciano Stagliano at your service." The man grinned then continued, "Yes, I speak German, I went to university in Ulm."

Relieved, Hoffmeister dropped his salute and said, "Good morning Sir, I was told you would have infantry to escort my Panzers as we reconnoiter the line ahead of your position. Aerial reports indicate a Britisher patrol is moving in this direction."

"If you wish I can provide infantry to ride your magnificent tanks. However, if you like, you can take up position here, behind my anti-tank gun screen, and pick off the English survivors when they charge into my cannon." Stagliano smiled as he said that, the man seemed very confident.

Hoffmeister nodded and said, "I understand that Herr Major, but I have my orders to advance. If you wish I will go forward along your desert flank and if the English do show, we can destroy them together. Given those circumstances, I won't advance very far, so I won't need your men to ride my vehicles. Is this acceptable, Sir?"

Stagliano smiled broadly and said, "I think we are of like mind Herr Unteroffizier. Cover my desert flank and we shall give the Englishmen a warm welcome." He then turned on his heel to rejoin his men.

The Australians were out of their trucks and were advancing briskly towards the Italian positions, the sky was getting lighter as they advanced. Private Caddick remarked over the intercom, "Well, it's officially dawn in these parts."

"What makes you say that, Alan?" Ian Sullivan asked from his bow gunner's position.

"The Arabs say that when you can distinguish a black thread from a white thread, then it is dawn." Caddick answered.

"How do you know ..." Sullivan began before being cut off by the tank commander.

"Quiet lads, the Aussies are going in. Caddick, prepare to move." Then over the R/T he transmitted, "All tanks, this is O'Connell, echelon left, forward, walking pace."

As O'Connell finished, Caddick engaged the transmission and the tank began to crawl forward.

The crew of the Cannone da 47/32 anti-tank gun were ready for whatever came at them from out of the blowing dust. It didn't matter if they were the heavy Matildas or the lighter Crusaders. They were ready.

What they weren't ready for was infantry.

The Australians had packed nearly a half-company into the two big Bedford lorries. Eighty-two men had dismounted behind their armored escort, aligned themselves and plunged into the swirling dust kicked up by the wind rising with the sun.

One man, a private from Brisbane, jumped into an Italian gun pit and began joyfully bayoneting the gun crew. He was having a wonderful time until an Italian gunner smacked him in the back of the head with a crow bar. The Aussie went down, his skull caved in.

His squadmate, also from Brisbane, bayoneted the plucky Italian who went down cursing and swinging that crow bar, catching the Aussie's arm as he did so. His killer's arm broken, the Aussie dropped his rifle.

But his mates swarmed in as he fell clutching his broken forearm. They took out the gun pit and swarmed over the surrounding foxholes manned by Italian infantry. Some of the Italians began to head for the rear.

Maggiore Stagliano was furious, shouting at the running infantry to support their brothers in the artillery. They didn't stop. Stagliano drew his pistol, not to threaten his own men, but to engage the enemy soldiers (who he thought were English) he could see starting to emerge from the dust.

An Australian sergeant stopped, aimed his rifle at the Maggiore and began to shout something. He was bayoneted from behind by a group of Italian infantry who were falling back in good order.

Another Australian emerged, shouting his fury at the Italians, the desert, the war, and life in general. Stagliano could see that the man's bayonet was dripping with blood. The Maggiore was offended for some reason by the man's antics, it didn't seem very soldierly.

That didn't stop Stagliano from shooting the man in the chest as he approached, oblivious to the Italian officer standing in front of him. The Maggiore thought he was starting to get control of the situation as another group of his men joined him and began firing at the advancing Australians.

He was directing a small party of five men to the right flank, in the hopes of stopping the enemy, when a Lee-Enfield .303 bullet hit him and spun him around.

There was no pain at first, but Stagliano was having trouble keeping his balance, and he felt winded. Shaking his head, he aimed at another Australian running at him, screaming. He fired an instant too late.

The man from Perth fell without a sound, the Maggiore's bullet had hit him square in the forehead. As he fell, his bayonet struck home, killing the Italian officer from Firenze as it pierced the man's chest.

The Australian attack was faltering as Italian resistance stiffened. The death of their Maggiore had enraged them, he had been a very popular officer.

The Italian infantry were starting to advance, some of the men who had fled shamefacedly rejoined their comrades. One gun pit was retaken and the gunners among the men in the counterattack quickly prepared the gun for firing.

The bark of a tank cannon off to the desert flank on their right startled the men. But one of their lot recognized the sound of a German gun.

"Steady boys! The Afrika Korps has pitched in!"

"Jesus wept! Now what?" O'Connell watched in horror as one of his vehicles staggered to a stop. He hadn't heard the crack of gunfire on his flank until too late. He was on the R/T at once.

"Wheel left, enemy tanks!"

Morley was wondering what fresh Hell he'd wandered into. His guard, Falasco, had been leading him to the center of the bivouac when firing broke out. The shouts of men killing and dying could be heard very close by.

Falasco shoved him into a trench yelling, "Tenente! Nascondere!"

Morley fell hard, banging his left shoulder into an ammunition crate, causing his arm to immediately go numb. As he tried to sit up, Falasco shoved him back down, his rifle at the ready.

"Nicola! What the bloody Hell!" Morley gasped as he tried again to sit up. Just as Falasco started to shove him back down again, both men froze at the sound of a tank cannon firing, not twenty yards away.

Morley began to wonder if he would ever see his Janice again.

¹ Lieutenant, wake up! (Italian)
² German tanks, lieutenant, quick, you have to hide! (Italian)
³ That's me. (German)
⁴ Major (Italian)