By Jonathan Turner, (c) 1999
DIETRICH raised his face from the snow as he heard the Bolshevik tank approaching, engine revving as it crashed through the fir trees ahead and to his right. He scanned the tree-line and was rewarded with a puff of black smoke from its labouring diesel engine and the sight of a thin fir crashing over, far back in the woods.
He raised his hand and pointed to Eberbach, who lurched to his feet and half-ran, half-stumbled through the snow towards the small hill to their left. The flame-thrower tank on his back rocked awkwardly from side to side as he lurched forward.
Separated from their platoon in the fighting which had raged on the road to Budapest for four days now, Dietrich and his squad had ended up here, somewhere in the Hungarian countryside. They had been cautiously falling back towards their next rendezvous when they heard the tank. Hopefully, like them, it was alone.
Dietrich heard Ahlermann grunt beside him, and turned to see the machinegunner gesture toward the treeline. Dietrich trained his field glasses on the snow-covered firs, being careful not to let them touch his bare skin. There, in among the trunks, a Russian Guards squad – he counted six moving forward in half-crouches.
Dietrich’s squad was lying in little more than a snow covered ditch which provided them with camouflage, but little in the way of hard cover. He looked down the line to see anxious, bearded faces, breath hanging in ragged clouds in the frozen air. He nodded. They knew the rest.
The tank broke through the cover with the infantry in a shabby line on its left flank. It was one of the hated T-34s, Dietrich saw, grinding forward across the icy ground like some brutal, frost-shrouded dinosaur. He snatched a glance to the hill on the left and saw Eberbach crouching – too hard to get up and run with the flame-thrower tank – and watching him closely.
Dietrich gave the order to fire by shooting at the leading Russian with his MP-40 submachinegun. Ahlermann’s MG42 ripped into the line of advancing infantry with a sound like tearing fabric, clearly distinct among the rattle of rifle and submachinegun fire around him. The soldiers dropped in the swathe of fire, some rounds bouncing off the hull of the T-34.
It turned its turret ponderously towards them with a whine of machinery, the machinegun already spitting tracers at their position. Dietrich buried himself into the snow and wiggled along the ditch, Ahlermann in front of him pushing along his MG42. Dietrich heard the others frantic behind him, waiting for the sound of the tank’s 70mm gun to bring sudden, searing death.
It never came. On the small hill beside the advancing tank, Eberbach stood up as soon as the fire from the trench stopped. He dropped to one knee and swung the heavy barrel of the flammenwerfer around, shooting a stream of liquid fire down onto the thin roof of the T-34. He held the trigger down for a full five seconds, coating the tank with fire.
It jerked to one side suddenly, and the turret machinegun stopped firing. Eberbach fired another stream of flaming fuel, this time catching the tank’s flank, the fire carried round on its spinning treads and sizzling into the snow.
Dietrich stood as soon as he heard the whoosh of the flame-thrower and the T-34’s machinegun falling silent. He crawled out of the ditch, aware that Sattler was behind him on the left, his PPSh-41 submachinegun held ready. They approached the flaming tank from the other side, ready to drop to the snow should it explode.
The men inside could very likely be already dead or unconscious, Dietrich knew. The flames would steal their air and blind them with bitter, choking smoke. He was beginning to think that was what had happened when the roof hatch was suddenly flung open and one of the tankers appeared, clutching a Tokarev pistol. His uniform was smudged with black smoke, his teeth a white tear in his blistered and bloody face.
Sattler fired first, Dietrich loosing off a burst a quarter-second later. The tanker bucked and fell, slumped unmoving into the flames. The tank kept rolling slowly towards the ditch. Grunberg began to run forward, clutching a satchel charge, but Eberbach shouted at him to get back. They all crouched as he fired a third stream of fire, this time lapping into the T-34’s interior around the still body of the Bolshevik tank commander. For three long seconds, the tank kept moving – then something inside exploded, sounding like a firework erupting inside a tin can. The tank lurched into one of the firs and stopped.
Dietrich ordered the men to fan out and watch the woods for other Bolsheviks. Sattler and Grunberg paired off and dashed into the trees, crouching. Dietrich glanced around him, making sure everyone was all right. With a start, he realised they weren’t.
He found Staudenmeyer in the ditch, sitting down in the snow with a surprised expression of his face. He was clutching the red stain that was seeping from his snow smock where one of the T-34’s machinegun rounds had found him as he struggled along the ditch. Dietrich shouted to Sattler and crouched by the wounded soldier. Staudenmeyer had been with them for less than a month. Where was it he was from? Somewhere on the Ruhr. Some hick town in the middle of nowhere.
“Hang on, Soldat,” he said, leaning him back against his knees. “You will be all right.” There was a crunch of snow beside him and Sattler appeared, his PPSh41 dangling from his hand. He looked at Staudenmeyer and swore softly.
“Unlucky, Leutnant,” he said. Dietrich nodded. Sattler produced a field dressing from his pack and they gently lifted Staudenmeyer’s smock. The bullet had torn open his abdomen, and both men could see his viscera glistening through the fresh bloodstains. Sattler covered it with the dressing, tied it tight. They both spoke to him as he faded into unconsciousness, but Staudenmeyer’s only answer was a moan.
Sattler jerked his head back towards the burning tank as he worked, intent on the wounded soldier’s injury. “They were alone,” he said. Dietrich looked over his shoulder to where the men were looting the corpses, stealing boots and equipment. He nodded again, and his head felt very heavy.
“There may be others,” he said to the exhausted sergeant. “Let’s get moving.” They slid Staudenmeyer onto a grimy blanket and dragged him with them.
THEY found a SdKfz half-track parked on the side of the road at the rendezvous point, a camouflage shroud pulled over the roof. The machine-gunner in the back was anxiously watching the sky for Russian aircraft. Dietrich stumbled out of the woods, calling in German, almost stumbling into a slit trench the soldiers had dug by the side of the road. He had missed it in his hurry to get to the vehicle. Getting tired, getting careless.
The sergeant in charge of the checkpoint radioed for a medical team, the handset crackling with interference from the constant snow flurries. All they could do was load Staudenmeyer into the back of the half-track on his improvised stretcher and wait. They loitered by the vehicle, its engine flaring into life every so often to keep it from freezing solid.
Dietrich watched his men with haggard eyes. With Staudenmeyer wounded, there were five of them left. Sattler, his sergeant, his Iron Cross pinned on his tunic underneath his snow smock, won in the same bloody battle in Stalingrad that had earned Dietrich his. Eberbach, his flammenwerfer hanging loosely by a single strap as he slumped against a tree. No-one really knew Eberbach, or wanted to get close to him. Of all the men in the squad, death travelled most closely with him. All it would take would be for one round or piece of stray shrapnel to hit those tanks and he would join the dozens he had killed in a screaming pillar of fire. No-one wanted to be close to him if that happened. They had seen whole squads wiped out that way, and the Bolshevik snipers singled the flammenwerfer teams out because of it.
Ahlermann had been an accountant before the war, though to see him fire his MG42 you would never know. His glasses were practically frozen to his nose, one lens cracked, but he refused to discard them. Dietrich didn’t think he really needed them, it was more some bizarre affectation – a reminder of the life he had given up. He was lovingly cleaning one of the MG42’s spare barrels, checking it for cracks, peering along its length like some bloodthirsty mole. Beside him, Grunberg, his chest crossed with ammunition belts, closed his eyes and rested against one of the trees.
They spent the next 20 minutes warming themselves on the half-track’s engine when the driver started it, standing by the exhaust or resting their numb hands on the bonnet. Every so often Staudenmeyer would moan as the pain of his injury seeped through his semi-consciousness. They fanned out into the trenches on the other side of the road when they heard more engines approaching.
It was another half-track and a truck with a red cross on the side, crawling along in case it slid into the ditch. They pulled up at the checkpoint and an intense young man with captain’s pips on his shoulder got out and approached the SdKfz. He spoke briefly with the sergeant and then came to Dietrich, saluting smartly.
Dietrich returned the gesture without enthusiasm. The captain looked him and his men up and down quickly.
“Leutnant,” he said, “I believe you made contact with an advance Bolshevik unit?” Dietrich nodded, jerking his head back towards the trees.
“Yes, Hauptmann. Six troops and a T-34. All destroyed. One of our men is seriously wounded and urgently needs medical attention.” The captain nodded.
“Far back into the woods?” Dietrich shook his head.
“Less than half a mile. Why?” The captain turned to Sattler.
“Sergant, you will take a medical detail to recover the bodies.” Beside them, several other men had dismounted from the truck, carrying stretchers.
Dietrich intervened: “Sir, the men are all dead. And there may be other Bolsheviks approaching.” The captain cut him off swiftly.
“Nonetheless, Oberst Erdmann has ordered that all casualties are to be retrieved, for intelligence purposes.” He clapped Dietrich on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about your wounded comrade, Leutnant. Oberst Erdmann is the finest surgeon on the eastern front. His field hospital is less than five miles from here.” Dietrich smiled in spite of himself. Maybe Staudenmeyer had a chance after all.
Carefully they loaded him onto the back of the captain’s half-track as Sattler prepared to return to the woods, taking Ahlermann and Grunberg. Dietrich watched from the back of the vehicle as it turned on the road and clattered off towards the hospital. Sattler raised his hand in a laconic salute as the snow started falling in earnest again. The Russians would already be starting to freeze, their open eyes staring blindly up into the darkening sky.
IT took them almost an hour to reach the hospital, the half-track juddering and bouncing along the frozen track. Dietrich watched the woods on each side carefully, but saw no movement among the black trees. On several occasions they passed groups of haggard looking Wermacht soldiers, strung out along the road – retreating west. They met his gaze from the back of the half-track with black, sullen eyes.
The driver swung the vehicle off the road onto an even rougher track, cutting its way through the firs deeper into the woods. Staudenmeyer, his face as white as his snow smock, groaned loudly as it left the road, the tracks scrabbling for purchase on the ice.
The light was almost gone now, and Dietrich couldn’t see very far into the trees. Soon the only light was from the half-track’s hooded headlights, illuminating a small stretch of the winding track in front of them. The engine snorted as it slowed suddenly on a final bend, and Dietrich stood up and looked over the side to see a group of sentries at a checkpoint. They waved the vehicle through.
The track led into the yard of a large farmhouse, surrounded by a handful of outbuildings. Several groups of soldiers were standing around the yard, and in the centre a Flak 43 anti-aircraft gun was placed with a camouflage net covering its position.
Dietrich jumped from the back of the half-track and was met by four men coming from the house. He saw their grey tunics were spotted with blood as they carried Staudenmeyer gently from the vehicle.
“Go into the house, Leutnant,” one of them said as they carried the wounded private away towards an outbuilding. Dietrich stood his ground.
“I want to go with him,” he said softly. Staudenmeyer moaned at the sound of his voice, shifting in the litter. The corporal in charge of the medical detail shook his head firmly.
“I’m sorry, but we must operate on him immediately if he is to survive. No-one can come with us. The colonel will explain.” He gestured to the farmhouse as the other orderlies carried the stretcher away.
Dietrich turned to the house, looking dark and silent behind the boards blacking out the windows. It was large for this part of the country, a sturdy looking three-storey structure with huge bay windows. It was more like an ancestral home than a farm, he thought. He studied the outbuildings carefully in the darkness as the half-track trundled off. The soldiers had constructed fortifications at most of the buildings, sandbagged pits or slit trenches. He could hear digging from the back of the largest building, a barn. They obviously intended not to surrender this place without a fight.
He stood until the orderlies carrying Staudenmeyer were swallowed up by the darkness, trudging through the snow
towards the barn. Then he turned and walked up the steps to the farmhouse, the rest of his squad strung out behind him.
Once he stepped over the threshold, Dietrich realised he had been right. This was more than just a farmhouse. The hallway was wide and tall, leading to an imposing staircase which swept up to the next floor. The area was well-lit with oil lamps, and Dietrich saw soldiers moving to and fro, tramping dirt into the fine carpets. Some wore snow gear, but others were in their regular uniforms. Most of them were Waffen SS, he realised.
He heard a burst of static from the room beside him and looked in to see a soldier manning a radio set. In the corner a fire crackled merrily in the substantial grate. The soldier’s jacket lay over the back of his chair. Somewhere in his boots Dietrich felt the first painful stab of warmth returning to his extremities. He pulled his gloves off and stumbled forward like a man in a daze. The heat also stirred the lice in his uniform into activity, itching and crawling next to his skin.
A large mahogany table had been dragged into the room with the staircase, and two soldiers sat at it with a mound of papers in front of them. One of them gestured to Dietrich and he came forward, unzipping his snow smock.
“Name and unit,” the clerk barked, his pen poised above a fresh sheet of paper.
“Panzergrenadier Leutnant Otto Dietrich, 24th Panzer Division.” He gave the names of the rest of his men in a mechanical monotone, without inflection or feeling. The clerk’s pen scraped across the paper like a dying insect. He looked up, and Dietrich saw black bags under his eyes.
“Very well, Leutnant. You will wait here.” He got up and walked down the hallway, his heels clicking as he left the carpet in the hall and walked across the bare wooden floor.
Dietrich and his men sat on a long wooden bench along one wall, Eberbach dumping his flammenwerfer on the carpet with a grunt. They sat in silence, some of them quietly smoking. Dietrich examined his fingers as the painful tingling grew worse. The tissue on all of his fingers was waxy and pale, and the nail on one of his little fingers had gone black. He laid his head against the wall with a sigh.
He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but his body had conditioned itself to shutting down whenever it could. He opened his eyes with a snap to see the clerk in front of him, calling his name insistently. He gestured for him to follow and stalked off towards the stairwell. Dietrich lumbered after him, rubbing his eyes as he did so.
The room at the end of the hall had obviously originally been a study, and Oberst Erdmann had kept it for just that purpose. It was dominated by a large writing desk and a bay window to one side, now stacked up with sandbags and blacked out with paint and wooden boards. Apart from that, the room looked unchanged from its original lay-out – the solid mahogany desk, rows of bookcases behind it, several fine easy chairs and a gramophone in one corner.
A small, intense looking man was seated behind the desk, wearing a set of glasses with thin round frames. He wore a blood-splattered white coat over the SS regulation black shirt and tie. Several papers were strewn over the desk and as Dietrich stepped forward to salute, he saw anatomical charts spread out on among them.
Oberst Erdmann stood and snapped off a perfect salute, holding his mouth in the sort of grim line so favoured on Nazi recruiting posters. Dietrich answered it as best he could, pain stabbing through his shoulder as he did. Erdmann held the salute for three seconds and then gestured to a chair.
“Sit, Leutnant,” he said. Dietrich did so, trying not to simply slump into the easy chair. As he turned, he saw Erdmann’s tunic hanging on a coat rack by the door, his polished Iron Cross catching the light from the oil lamps.
Erdmann looked intently at something on the desk in front of him as if he had never seen it before. Dietrich saw it was the list he had given the clerk downstairs. Erdmann tapped his fountain pen against it thoughtfully, and then sat back and steepled his long, spidery fingers.
“The wounded man you brought in, how was he injured?” Erdmann asked. Dietrich sat bolt upright in the chair, wary on some level that something was going on he wasn’t yet fully aware of.
“We ran into a forward element of the Bolshevik advance,” he said carefully. “A tank and grenadiers that appeared to be separated from their unit. Staudenmeyer was wounded by the tank’s machinegun fire.” Erdmann nodded as if it was old news. He gestured to Dietrich with one of his unusually long fingers.
“You have the Iron Cross, I see.” Dietrich nodded, following the finger to where the medal hung from his tattered tunic. It dangled from behind his snow smock, almost brown with dirt and grime. “Where were you awarded it?”
“Stalingrad,” Dietrich replied. No further comment was necessary, but once again Erdmann nodded in that curiously arrogant way.
“I see,” he said. Slowly. “You were with the Sixth Army?” Dietrich nodded.
“My sergeant and I were injured in the fighting around the tractor factory. We were flown out just days before the Kessel closed,” he said. Something flickered in Erdmann’s cold eyes.
“The sacrifice of the Sixth Army was surely not in vain, Leutnant. They fought to the last man so that Germany would survive. Their fortitude and courage should be an example to us all.” Dietrich merely nodded at the Nazi rhetoric, his mind briefly flitting back to the squalid conditions he and his men had endured on the Ostfront – especially those who had been left behind.
Then Erdmann seemed to shake himself, snapping his head up and peering at Dietrich with piercing eyes. “I have every reason to believe that your wounded comrade will recover, though he will be ill for some time. When his wounds have stabilised we will move him to another hospital in Germany.” Dietrich nodded his thanks dumbly. Erdmann considered his fingernails for a moment. They were long for a doctor, trimmed neatly. His fingers were stained yellow by some chemical.
“Sadly, it appears the rest your unit is involved in fighting some distance from here. I cannot spare a vehicle to take you there and in any case, we have need of additional personnel here in case the Bolsheviks attack,” Erdmann continued. “I trust you and your unit will find that a satisfactory arrangement.”
Dietrich considered the choices. More brutal fighting in the frozen forest, feet and hands freezing, sometimes so cold rifle bolts snapped, or here, where there seemed to be adequate food, fuel for heat and light, and medical facilities on hand should anyone be injured.
“Of course, Oberst Erdmann,” he said brightly, a smile breaking through his bearded face. “What duties do you have in mind?” Erdmann looked up from his fingernails.
“Mostly sentry duty on the hospital and laboratory buildings. We are expecting further reinforcements to arrive in the morning.” He cleared his throat and placed his hands firmly on the desk, palms down.
“You are clearly a patriot, Leutnant. You and your men have fought and suffered for the Reich. You, more than anyone, know the threat we face from the Bolsheviks.
“Yet even though things seem desperate, our scientists are hard at work devising ways to stem the Red tide. This laboratory complex is one of the many facilities we are using to develop the next generation of weapons we will use to drive the Bolsheviks back to Moscow.” He paused, and Dietrich interrupted, frowning.
“Weapons, Herr Oberst?” he said. “I thought this was a hospital.” Erdmann shrugged his thin shoulders, making the lab coat look like a bizarre shroud.
“Yes, Leutnant. But it is attached to a laboratory complex where we are developing new weapons, and perfecting the sort of techniques we will need to turn back the Bolsheviks.
“There have also been many medical advances connected with this research, advances which your wounded comrade will no doubt benefit from.” He stood abruptly, bringing the conversation to a close. Dietrich numbly got to his feet, his feet now throbbing with pain.
“May we see Staudenmeyer?” he asked. Erdmann shook his head with a single, swift movement.
“I am sorry, but he will be undergoing surgery very soon. We cannot risk further infection,” he said, walking round the huge table to stand beside Dietrich. He put his hand on his shoulder, oblivious to the threat of lice crawling onto his hand.
“I will perform the surgery myself, Leutnant,” he said with a slightly arrogant smile. “He is in the best hands.” Leading Dietrich to the door, he added: “Hauptmann Strecker will see to you and your men.”
Dietrich found himself standing on the threshold as Erdmann closed the door gently but firmly in his face. Despite the unreality of his predicament, he found himself staring at the wooden door with a smile on his face.
THE next morning was spent delousing Dietrich’s squad under the careful eye of Strecker. Filing into the showers, the exhausted men looked like vagrants compared to Strecker, his black SS uniform crisply pressed, his medals glittering. Their own clothing was a mix-and-match of German and Russian uniforms, including Bolshevik quilted jackets and the warm foot cloths they used instead of socks. An hour later they had picked out the clothing they wanted to keep – including their rare Russian snow smocks – and burned the rest.
At breakfast in the mansion’s dining room, Strecker informed the men they would be assigned to the rota of sentries around the mansion’s grounds. With the Russians grinding closer, there was a possibility that the area may have to be evacuated under fire, he said in crisp, measured tones. Dietrich sat back in his chair and examined the room as Strecker rhymed off a duty roster from a folder in his well-manicured hands.
He couldn’t guess who had once been welcomed as guests into this chamber, but the Wermacht had now made it their own. Converted into a canteen for many of the men, the room had suffered. The thick carpet was muddy from soldiers tramping in and out, the fine table was now chipped and scored and there were bare spaces on the walls were refined pieces of art had no doubt hung once. It left Dietrich with a heavy, melancholy ball in the pit of his stomach. But there would be worse to come.
As soon as breakfast was over, such as it was, he walked out into the snow to get his bearings. The SdKfz half-track which had driven them to the hospital the previous night was parked outside, its engine running as two mechanics looked it over. Dietrich’s breath hung in the morning air like the vehicle’s exhaust fumes as he walked towards the out-buildings where the orderlies had taken Staudenmeyer.
There were four of them. One had obviously been converted for use as a barracks, another as a store, and the third as a garage. Its double doors were lying open, and Dietrich could see another half-track and two trucks inside.
But the orderlies had taken Staudenmeyer towards the fourth building. Set back into the trees, about 250 metres from the main house, it was a large, concrete structure with a sturdy looking flat wooden roof. Sandbags had been piled on top with several cross-beams to act as protection against artillery. Two Waffen SS sentries stood outside the heavy wooden double doors, and a machinegun team were dug in nearby.
Obviously the building had been used as a barn of some kind before the war; the doors were big enough to drive a tank through. Dietrich wandered over, his Schmeisser slung over his shoulder. One of the sentries stepped forward before he got within 50 metres of the building.
“What do you want?” the man snapped angrily. He was tall, over six foot, and his cold blue eyes looked as hard as the MP40 gripped in his gloved hands.
“I was wondering if it would be possible to see one of my men, he was brought here last night,” Dietrich said evenly. The sentry shook his head grimly, and behind him his partner uttered a short, sharp laugh.
“Impossible. Go back to your post,” he snarled. Dietrich stood his ground.
“Perhaps, Soldat, you will get your superior officer so that I might speak with him,” he said. The soldier prodded him in the chest with his submachinegun.
“Perhaps I should just shoot you,” he replied. “Everyone stays away from here unless they have express
permission from Oberst Erdmann. Anyone else, we shoot.”
Dietrich paused, sizing up how serious the man was. For five seconds they stood staring at each other, and then he heard snow crunching behind him. The sentry’s eyes flicked over his shoulder, and he heard the men in the machinegun trench take the safety catch off their MG-42. Slowly, he looked over his shoulder.
Sattler, Grunberg, Ahlermann and Eberbach were standing in a long line, their weapons not exactly pointed at anyone – but not exactly not either. Sattler spoke first.
“Is there a problem, Leutnant?” Dietrich took a slow, deliberate step backwards and raised his hand warily.
“No problem, Sergant. Perhaps a simple misunderstanding.” He was in the process of backing towards his men when a small personnel door set in one of the larger doors opened, and Strecker stepped out into the snow.
“What is going on here?” he spat. The sentry snapped to attention and delivered a crisp salute.
“These men wished to go inside. We were warning them to get back,” he said. Strecker ignored him and rounded on Dietrich.
“Were you not told, Leutnant, that this area is verboten? You and your men are to stay away from here. Apart from the danger of disease, this area is classified. Off-limits. Do you understand now, or shall I have you returned to your unit? I’m sure the Bolsheviks would be only to glad to renew your acquaintance.” Dietrich nodded slowly.
“I understand, Hauptmann. But as I am sure you will appreciate, we are concerned about our comrade.” Strecker sighed.
“He is in the best hands,” he said. “He will…” His voice tailed off as a scream erupted from inside the barn, clearly audible through the open door over the sound of the half-track’s engine. Dietrich took a step towards the outbuilding, ignoring the muzzle of the MP-40 inches from his chest.
“Good God, man,” he hissed. “What is going on in there?” Strecker nodded to one of the sentries and he closed over the door to the shed, cutting off the scream.
“Surgery,” the captain said smoothly. “Your comrade is not the only recently wounded man in there.” He met Dietrich’s gaze evenly. They stood staring at each other, with the muzzle of the submachinegun pointed at Dietrich’s chest never wavering. He knew that if the sentry fired, Sattler or one of the others would cut them all down. And that would be the end of that.
A very bad end, Dietrich decided. He’d seen things spiral out of control like this before. In the Kessel at Stalingrad, wounded men trying to fight past feldgendarmerie to get onto the already overcrowded transports as the Russians closed in. Fistfights, comrade shooting comrade, all hope lost among the blood and the lice and the snow and smell of cordite, while the thump of artillery in the distance grew closer.
Dietrich took a slow, easy step backwards, spreading his hands and nodding. Strecker waved his hand to the sentry, who finally lowered the gun. Whatever was in that building was truly off limits, Dietrich thought. Something far more important than a hospital. But this was not the time to do anything about it.
The rumble of an engine off in the trees broke the spell around the little group. Dietrich turned to see a half-track moving along the little rough track into the mansion grounds, followed by another truck. And behind them, grinding and sliding across the frozen snow with a sound like fingernails on a blackboard, came a tank. It lumbered off the path like a recently awoken giant, the engine growling angrily, snorting clouds of black smoke from its exhaust. A German tank this time, the King of the Panzers – a Tiger II.
“Reinforcements,” Strecker said quietly. Then louder: “Leutnant, these men will need to have additional fortifications dug for them, especially on the southern flank. You and your men will assist.” He stalked off before Dietrich could answer.
The lieutenant walked slowly towards the new arrivals, watching as soldiers jumped down from the truck and half-track. The Tiger rolled forward out of the mouth of the track, its turret shredding several tree branches as it lumbered past. The trees shuddered, showering snow like petals.
“We are as unhappy as you are, Leutnant,” Sattler said as soon as they were out of earshot of the hospital. “None of us like to think of Staudenmeyer in there.” Dietrich nodded.
“Despite the assurances of that SS ass, I don’t think he is in there entirely for his own good,” he said softly. “Oberst Erdmann suggested they may be testing weapons here.” He exchanged a meaningful glance with the sergeant.
“On our own men?” Sattler said with a shake of his head. He spat in the snow. “But I can believe it of these dogs.” Dietrich looked round at his men, standing in a loose semi-circle, watching him silently with dark, hollow eyes. He spoke carefully.
“We’ve all come through a lot together. I don’t see the point in staying here any longer than necessary. We can make some excuse about getting back to our unit.” He let the rest tail off.
Ahlermann spoke, shoving his glasses up his nose and clearing his throat first. “And if they don’t let us?” Dietrich shrugged.
“We’ll see.” Behind them, the new arrivals were already digging in the frozen earth at the treeline. They turned to join them.
DARKNESS came quickly out here, and somehow Dietrich had the crazy notion that it seemed to come seeping out of the woods, along with the mist that crept over the grounds as twilight fell.
There were almost sixty men billeted at the house now, not counting whoever was in the outhouse that served as the hospital. They had been there three days now, with no word of Staudenmeyer, despite repeated questions. In that time Dietrich and his men had been put on the sentry roster, standing watch at night in the biting cold.
No-one had come out of the hospital in that time except Strecker, Erdmann and two orderlies who seemed to keep themselves to themselves. Among the non-SS personnel at the mansion, there was little talk about the hospital except for whispered speculation about what was going on in there. Occasionally the night was broken by a scream from inside. It made everyone nervous. Even the SS guards seemed to be uncomfortable and jumpy.
On top of that, what news that filtered back from the front was bad. The Bolsheviks were breaking through at every turn, drawing closer and closer. From where Dietrich stood, shoulder deep in a trench that had taken two days to dig, he could hear the crump of artillery off in the distance and sparodic gunfire. If he cared to climb out and watch the leaden sky, he could see the distant red flashes of it exploding off to the east.
In some ways, Dietrich welcomed the sights and sounds of the battle. It helped keep everyone sharp, for one thing. It was easier to persuade the men not to smoke – the smell could give their position away – and to keep them focused while the flashes in the sky lasted. It was a reminder of how precarious their position was.
Beside him in the trench, Ahlermann leaned on his MG42, the muzzle pointed into the frozen treeline. Grunberg rested back in the trench on the other side, spare ammunition belts at his feet. A panzerschreck lay propped up against the wall of the trench near Sattler – a German copy of the American bazooka. Whether it could fire its armour-piercing warhead far enough through the trees to avoid injuring them remained to be seen. Eberbach sat on his flammenwerfer, the flame out, his MP-40 strapped across his chest. His head nodded down every so often. Dietrich let him sleep.
Two hours into their watch the artillery faded out and then stopped altogether. The night was clear and crisp again, the frost singing in the trees with the slight wind. It was then that Sattler heard the digging.
It was off into the trees, to the right. Dietrich thought at first it might be some soldiers working at their fortifications, but he soon discounted that theory. There was a stealthy quality to the work, and whoever was doing it was digging in absolute silence.
Dietrich and Sattler edged themselves over the lip of the trench and shuffled into the treeline. Behind them, Ahlermann moved on their left flank, his MG-42 trained on the woods from the hip.
A hundred metres in the trees, the digging was louder, but still there were no voices – none of the muffled curses and whispered banter which might have accompanied soldiers digging at a trench. Anyway, they were too deep in the wood for that now.
Dietrich dropped slowly into the snow and began to crawl forward, using his elbows and knees to move. Sattler went down as well, wriggling behind him. In a few minutes, they had reached the site of the digging.
The night was on their side, because the sky was clear and the moon was three-quarters full. The snow and ice added to the clarity of the evening.
There were seven men in a small clearing – two of them digging. Two others rested on shovels, and the others were standing by watching. The two men working were breaking the frozen ground with picks. They were all dressed in SS uniforms, except for one of the watchers – a small intense man with thin, stooped shoulders inside his greatcoat. When he tilted his head, the moonlight glinted off his glasses. Erdmann.
The diggers halted and moved aside to allow the two men with shovels to work at the hole. They shovelled aside the broken earth for several minutes. Already the hole was several feet deep. The broken earth lay nearby.
All four men jumped into the trench, working with something out of sight. Then they climbed out, pulling at four ropes leading into the hole. In a few seconds they had pulled a coffin from the hole, throwing crazy shadows in the moonlight. Dietrich and Sattler exchanged puzzled glances.
Erdmann spoke softly to the SS soldiers and then turned on his heel, walking back towards the hospital. Four of the men hoisted the coffin onto their shoulders and followed him. The other two remained to fill in the hole.
Under cover of the noise of their digging, Dietrich and the sergeant returned to their trench, sliding in beside the others. Dietrich looked around at their puzzled glances.
“They were digging,” he whispered. “It looks like a grave.” Ahlermann grunted.
“For who, I wonder?” Dietrich shook his head.
“Not to put someone in. They were taking someone out.” He jerked his head in the direction of the hospital.
They passed the rest of their watch in silence, each man worrying his own thoughts in his mind.
THE next day brought more bad news. As they mingled with the other non-SS soldiers for a meal at the end of their sentry duty, the line was buzzing with gossip. None of it was good. One of the men claimed to have overhead a conversation in the radio room before he was ushered away by an SS guard. The Bolsheviks were closer than ever now, less than ten miles in some places. Some of the men were muttering about when they would be pulled back, but Dietrich knew that wasn’t going to happen.
He went outside with the rest of his squad to share one of their dwindling supply of cigarettes, stretching in the nip of the morning air. The smoke mingled with the cloud of their breath as they passed the cigarette around. Grunberg spoke first, careful to keep his voice low.
“Should we just run for it?” he said, speaking the unspeakable. “With all that is happening, they can hardly spare men to go looking for us.”
“He’s right,” Ahlermann said. It wasn’t surprising that he was chipping in with Grunberg – both men fought as a unit and often thought like one as well. “Staying here to defend this place will land us in the grave or the gulag.”
Dietrich turned to Eberbach, who as usual stood slightly back from the others. The lieutenant raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.
“I’ll take my chances in the forest,” Eberbach said quietly. Dietrich nodded. He already knew what Sattler’s thoughts were. Now he only had to wrestle with his own.
“You are talking about abandoning your post,” he said. “Desertion.” Grunberg hawked phlegm into the muddy snow.
“We’re not the only ones,” he said bitterly. “The only people who want to stay here are the SS and that freak.” He jerked his chin towards Erdmann’s quarters. “Gravedigging like some ghoul in the middle of the night. None of us joined up to do this.”
Dietrich sighed. “Deserting your post is one thing, but deserting a comrade is quite another.” The circle of men fell silent. They knew that there was no way of taking Staudenmeyer with them. None at all. Eberbach broke the silence.
“It is not an easy thing to do, Leutnant,” he said, his deep voice hard. “But sometimes we must make hard choices. It would have been better if he had died in that ditch.” Silence hung in the air like frost. No-one looked Dietrich in the eye.
“Very well,” he said. “Each of you try to scrounge some extra rations and ammunition. Take no more than you can carry and be careful not to get caught. We go tonight.”
Sattler dropped the cigarette into the snow. It sizzled for a moment before the ember finally died.
AT dusk, an hour before they were due to take up their position in the trench again, Sattler and Dietrich slid into the trees towards the spot where the soldiers had been digging the night before.
They kept low among the firs, wary in case the SS were nearby. But they saw no-one on the way to the clearing.
There had been very little snow that day, and it was easy to find the spot where the troops had been digging. They had filled in the grave, but the earth was uneven. A narrow track wore through the trees back towards the hospital, just big enough for two men to walk abreast.
At one time, the clearing had been a proper cemetery. Snow and stubborn lichen covered the weathered stumps of several headstones. Others were more intact, slumped in the snow like drunken men, slouching at crazy angles. Dietrich knelt by one, wiping the snow off with a mittened hand. Underneath, the inscription was so weathered it was unreadable.
“Leutnant,” Sattler called softly. Words had a way of carrying further than one intended through the frozen forest. Dietrich rose, his knees popping, and crossed to where Sattler was standing, his breath frozen in the air.
If the ground behind them was the old cemetery, then this was the new one. Two rows of simple graves stretched to the edge of the clearing, 20 of them in all. They had been dug with military precision, each a carbon copy of the others. Snow and frost lined the edges of the turned earth, but there was no trace of footprints in the fresh snow. They had been dug recently, but not within the last day or so.
Without a word, the men slipped back to the trenches.
THE night settled its grip over them like a velvet vice, the cold edging past the threshold of being tolerable so slowly Dietrich hardly noticed. His stomach was jumping as he shifted from foot to frozen foot in the trench. They had draped sacking on the floor and sides to insulate the frozen earth, but now it was frozen solid, as stiff as steel sheeting. Dietrich’s mouth was dry from swallowing too much in an effort to shift the heavy lead weight in his thorax. Nerves. No, that was a lie. It was fear.
Like squatting in a bunker, waiting for artillery to rain from the sky. Like crawling through the snow towards the enemy, or cowering in a Stalingrad basement, choked and blinded by plaster dust. It was always the same, and those who didn’t feel it were mad or already dead.
The German trenches were dug so that their field of fire interlocked across the perimeter. There was a chance they might be spotted slipping off into the woods, but Dietrich’s squad now occupied two of the trenches. All they had to do was head straight out into the forest, and hopefully by the time they were missed it would be too late to get them – and no-one would be bothered to pursue them anyway.
That was the plan. As 3am approached, the air felt as stiff as the sacking around the trench. Dietrich could physically taste the cold, sliding into his mouth with every breath, stabbing into his teeth and leaving his throat like a ragged, angry wound. Running in these temperatures would be an exercise in pain.
He turned to Sattler, who was watching him silently from the darkness like a grizzled badger poking its nose from a set. Sattler had the hood of his snow smock pulled up over his helmet, and all he could see of the sergeant was his eyes and the cloud of his breath. Dietrich nodded and climbed slowly out of the trench. Sattler and others clambered out with difficulty, and to the right Ahlermann and Grunberg emerged from their position, crunching as quietly as possible through the snow.
Dietrich led the way into the trees, sneaking a glance back at the mansion grounds. His eye lingered on the hospital, squatting like a huge black presence in the night, and he thought of Staudenmeyer with sudden, piercing sadness. He never liked leaving anyone behind. But he had others to think of.
They fanned out in the trees, Dietrich at the apex of a long arrowhead. He clutched his MP-40 tightly, looking back frequently. He could see the others doing the same; Grunberg and Ahlermann on one flank, with Sattler back on the extreme left. Eberbach trudged through the trees a few feet away, labouring under the weight of the flammenwerfer. He had refused to abandon it, and Dietrich was glad. If nothing else, it would be easier to light a fire when they needed one.
He was paying so much attention to the rear that he almost blundered into the Russians. It was Eberbach who saw them first, shouting a warning and half-diving, half-stumbling into cover behind a tree. Dietrich took two steps forward and jumped to the right instinctively, just as the woods lit up with muzzle flashes. He heard the crack of a bullet passing nearby, followed almost immediately by the crump of the gun that fired it.
Dietrich propped up his MP40 against the tree, using one hand to rip off the sacking he kept over the action to protect the breech from frost. He saw vague shapes running through the trees and he swung the muzzle to track one, firing a long burst. Twigs snapped angrily in the undergrowth, and he saw snow tumble from a branch where bullets struck a tree. The shape disappeared from sight. Dietrich had no idea if he’d hit it.
The sound of ripping fabric erupted from behind him, where Ahlermann was laying down fire from his MG42. He could hear Sattler’s submachinegun stuttering, but what he was firing at he had no idea. Dietrich sprayed in front of him, suppressive fire, and then began crawling backwards, his hood flopping over his helmet and obscuring his vision for a moment. They had to fall back to the trenches. Now they were meat in the sandwich – the Bolsheviks in front and the SS behind. Either side would kill them without question.
Bullets cracked over him, whizzing through the trees in either direction. He heard a whoosh and caught a glimpse of a lash of flame just ahead of him. He looked up to see Eberbach silhouetted in the trees, stumbling backwards as the flames caught the firs, sizzling and cracking. That might keep them occupied for a few valuable minutes.
Then, the mortars started.
The first round screamed in and exploded in the compound, a second landing so quickly behind it they sounded like one thunderous detonation. Through the trees Dietrich could see the blast lighting up the grounds. A half-track was moving across the compound, weaving crazily from side to side. The gunner was firing, but even he didn’t know at what.
Mortars were especially deadly in this weather. Instead of burrowing into the soil and exploding, they bounced right off the frozen earth, detonating in mid air, showering men and vehicles with hundreds of pieces of razor-sharp metal. It was a nightmare, and the trench was still 50 metres away.
Dietrich got up and ran, taking one of the crazy chances that sometimes made all the difference in combat. He sprinted back through the firs, zig-zagging like a lunatic, fire tearing up the trees around him. Ahlermann was still firing, but he could see Sattler backing up, loosing off short bursts.
Dietrich reached the edge of the treeline and turned, reloading and aiming back into the trees. He saw Eberbach run towards him, looking like an ridiculously easy target, weighed down with his cumbersome flammenwerfer. But then he was through, stumbling into the trench under the flood of cover fire. Next out was Grunberg, with Ahlermann behind him. They slid into their trench, shouting as they reloaded the machinegun. The mortars still rained down on the buildings. Dietrich looked around as one struck the hospital, crashing through the roof and exploding. Fire erupted from the timbers, jetting up into a night sky the colour of an old bruise.
The fire from the trees had lessened, and the fighting seemed to have switched to the other side of the compound. Between the mortars landing he felt a deep rumble in the ground, and watched as the Tiger thundered past, its turret turning ponderously towards the far treeline, machineguns spitting tracers.
Then, the mortars fell silent. The hospital’s roof was ablaze, tongues of yellow and red flame flickering through the shattered timbers. Dietrich saw the main house was on fire as well. In the crazy, jumping light from the flames, he saw several men lying on the ground, unmoving. Others screamed while some staggered around, wounded or with their reason gone. A truck was abandoned near the anti-aircraft gun, the door to the cab open, the driver nowhere to be seen.
Now the real battle would begin. The Bolsheviks would already be moving forward. Gunfire rattled on the far side of the compound. It was obvious that was where they were pushing in, from the direction of the road. Perhaps Dietrich’s squad had just encountered a flanking patrol, but he was taking no chances.
Then, a figure sprinted out of the darkness, back-lit by the flames from the house.
“Leutnant! Get out of that hole and get to the hospital! I want a fire control detail there now!” Strecker’s voice was close to breaking, his uniform collar undone, his hair sticking up from his head.
Dietrich pulled himself from the trench, signalling the others to follow. They kept low, running through the nightmare, past wounded men and damaged vehicles, all thoughts of desertion gone. This was survival now, pure and simple. The Tiger’s main gun boomed, and Dietrich flinched, feeling it in his very teeth. Two seconds later the treeline was lit by another explosion.
They reached the hospital, the SS guards pounding on the doors. They were obviously locked and those inside were too busy fighting the fire to open them. Or too dead to care.
Dietrich ran up to the Soldat at the door, who was pounding on it with his rifle butt.
“Get back,” he shouted. “We’ll have to use a grenade!” The soldier looked at him, wild-eyed and uncomprehending. Dietrich grabbed him and pulled him away.
“They’re killing them!” the private shouted, his voice cracking. “Listen!” Dietrich ignored him, reaching to his belt and pulling off a grenade. Around him, the squad started to take cover, when suddenly tracers laced across the compound into the front of the hospital. Dietrich hit the snow as the line of bullets zipped past and walked lazily through the sky in front of him. They spun off the hospital, spitting and fizzing like angry wasps as they fell in the snow. The SS Soldat was too dazed to react in time. Two bullets caught him in the back, pitching him onto his face in the filthy slush.
Over the sound of the fighting Dietrich could hear virtually nothing. He felt more than heard the Tiger roll past again, still firing. Then there was a flash from the treeline, and shards of metal seemed to leap from the Tiger’s turret. It rumbled on regardless, shaking off the other tank’s round like a raindrop.
He saw them then, coming out of the treeline. T34s. At least six of them, turrets turning from side to side, tracers flashing into the night. Between them, infantry in snow smocks ran forward, crouching and firing. A flammenwerfer flashed in the darkness, and one of the tanks was smothered in fire. It rolled onwards, blazing fuel rolling off its treads and into the snow.
Sattler lay prone in the snow, dragging out the panzershreck he had slung over his shoulder. He aimed at the nearest T34 and fired, the rocket looking ludicrously slow as it whooshed towards the Bolshevik armour. It hit the tank square in the turret, which disappeared in a flash of red flame. For a second, the tank rolled on, then something inside seemed to give up, like a clockwork toy with a broken spring.
Dietrich shouted: “Let’s goooooo!” and ran towards the treeline, away from the tanks. He hoped the others would have the sense to follow him.
But as he rose to his feet, he looked round to see Strecker running towards them, waving his arms furiously. He was yelling something, struggling to be heard over the rattle of gunfire and the thump of the tank guns.
Dietrich never heard him. As the captain drew level with the hospital, his head disappeared. His body kept running for another six feet, arms and legs pumping, before it toppled over into the snow. The tank round which had hit him buried itself into the hospital, the blast knocking Dietrich off his feet and shredding the front of the building.
Darkness then, for maybe ten seconds, maybe more. Dietrich opened his eyes to find himself on his back, his ears ringing and the taste of fresh copper in his mouth. He shook his head and tried to rise, but the breath was ragged in his throat. He rolled onto his face in the eerie silence, looking up towards the flames of the hospital. Tracers licked overhead, bullets that seemed to make no noise except for the ringing in his skull. He felt an arm on him, and looked up to see Sattler trying to drag him away. The sergeant’s mouth moved, but his words sounded like he was speaking underwater, making no sense. There was nothing except the ringing, and the taste of blood.
There, in the fire, men burning. No, Dietrich corrected himself, they were coming out. But it looked like they were wounded, staggering out of the wall of heat, some stretching their arms towards the cool air. Dimly, through the sludge around his brain, Dietrich could feel the flames from the burning hospital on his face, a dry, tinder heat like a summer bonfire.
Sattler was still pulling his arm, the lieutenant’s legs moving after him like a robot’s, utterly disconnected from his brain. He shook his head as Grunberg ran past him towards one of the men emerging from the hospital. The Soldat stretched out his arms to the man and Dietrich saw his mouth silently moving. He concentrated on the words, trying hard to make them out. His eyes flicked to the man emerging like a wraith from the hospital. He was wearing nothing more than a pair of white linen pyjamas, the jacket torn and flapping behind him in the thermals from the blaze. He was trudging towards Grunberg like an automaton, his arms dangling by his sides. Dietrich tried to focus on his face, but his eyes seemed to be too slow. Then his vision cleared, and he saw the sandy hair topping the broad, open face of a farmer’s son. Staudenmeyer.
Grunberg reached out a hand to grab the wounded man, and suddenly, like an animal, Staudenmeyer lunged at him, his lips curled back in a wolfish grimace. He seized the assistant gunner, sinking his teeth into his shoulder and worrying it like a dog with a rat. Grunberg screamed, and Dietrich saw blood oozing out in thick rivulets over Staudenmeyer’s face. It splattered on Grunberg’s snow smock, over his attacker’s bare chest.
Something clicked, and the world rushed back into Dietrich’s silence. His ears were still ringing, but his vision was clear, and his brain shook off the sludge enough to let his training take over.
He brought the MP40 up, his hands moving with a will of their own as he cleared the breach, tipping the barrel downwards to clear any grit he may have got inside when he fell. The action worked smooth and clean as he brought the weapon up, aiming at Staudenmeyer. The Soldat was grappling with Grunberg, the two men a confused muddle of arms and legs, Grunberg screaming, Staudenmeyer growling and yapping as he bit his comrade again and again.
Dietrich fired, once, and saw the bullet strike Staudenmeyer high on the right shoulder. He took a step back, his mouth tearing free from Grunberg, stuffed full with bloody clothing and flesh. Dietrich fired again, twice more, short, controlled bursts, striking Staudenmeyer in the chest. He stumbled back again, Grunberg sliding from his grasp down onto the frozen earth. Dietrich squeezed the trigger, his mind dead, and bullets ripped into the farmer’s son, carrying him backwards until he too tumbled into the snow.
Dietrich reloaded without thinking, shaking his head to clear the last remnants of the fuzziness. Not even the most desperate men he had ever seen had resorted to what Staudenmeyer had just done. What had they been doing to them in there? Starving them?
He ran to Grunberg, still with enough sense to keep low. Dimly, he remembered the tanks, and looked back to see several of them on fire, one racing past the Tiger and firing point-blank. The German tank had thrown a track but was still firing, the turret rotating like a ponderous giant searching for Jack.
Sattler was beside him as he knelt by Grunberg. His eyes were glassy, his breath coming in ragged, uneven gasps. Staudenmeyer had torn a meaty chunk from his shoulder and neck. Already a pint of his blood was pooled underneath him. Dietrich grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard, watching the life run out of him into the snow.
He jumped as Sattler started firing, jerking his head up to see Staudenmeyer shuffling towards them, blood streaking his face and torso. But not his blood. Bullets punched into him, jerking him back like a marionette with some of its strings cut.
He howled then, and even through the ringing in his deaf ears Dietrich heard enough to make him cringe. It was a cry of desperation, of hunger and despair, of hatred and a thirst for vengeance. It was an animal’s song of blood and meat, of teeth and claws tearing into prey.
Sattler was reloading, backing away and swearing furiously. It was the first time Dietrich had ever seen him rattled. He looked back at the hospital and saw the others, like Staudenmeyer. They were dressed similarly, and even in the light of the flames Dietrich could see the pale blue of their skin. Corpses. Walking corpses. Some shuffled, some even crawled without limbs, but others were moving like lithe tigers, slipping into the night. They growled and howled, their teeth shining in the light of the burning hospital.
Staudenmeyer was rising for the third time, one of his legs broken and useless. He snarled and yipped as he dragged himself towards Grunberg, snapping at Dietrich. Behind him, some of the others were looking their way – the slow ones, thankfully – shambling towards them with groans and barks. Dietrich felt his mind floating loose.
Ahlermann appeared out of the crazy shadows thrown by the fire, sparing a quick glance at his friend on the ground. If the things that had been his comrades frightened him, he didn’t show it. The firelight glinted off his glasses as he set his MG42 against his hip. His eyes were as dead as the things shuffling towards him.
He fired, walking quick bursts up each of them, throwing them back into the snow, arms and legs jerking like men in a fit. One of the tracers struck the nearest man in the head, taking the back of his skull off. Dietrich started firing, backing away, pouring bullets into the things on the ground as they shuddered and struggled to rise. Like Ahlermann, he felt the bitter taste of revulsion in his throat like bile. All he wanted to do was make them suffer and die.
“Get back!” Sattler shouted, gripping a stick grenade in his fist. The Leutnant ran, reloading quickly, Ahlermann walking slowly backwards, his ammunition belt draped over a shoulder. Sattler flipped the grenade towards the front of the hospital, ducking away as it erupted in a shower of snow and rocks. Two of the things fell, but the others kept on coming.
“Eberbach!” Dietrich shouted, running towards the trees. Behind him, he heard a massive rumble and then a bass explosion which made him miss a step and stumble. The Tiger was finally burning, he saw in one quick glance behind him. The Russians had destroyed the anti-aircraft emplacement, and he could see infantry over-running the main house. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the hospital.
Eberbach emerged from the trees, his flammenwerfer lit and at the ready. He hadn’t seen Grunberg’s death, or the battle with the corpses from the hospital. He grabbed Dietrich by the tunic.
“Come on!” he spat. “We haven’t much time!” Dietrich stabbed a finger back towards the hospital.
“Burn them,” he gasped. “Burn them!” Eberbach’s face contorted into a confused frown.
“The Russians? There are too many, Leutnant. Our only chance is to run.” His voice trailed off as he looked back at the hospital.
Sattler and Ahlermann were running backwards, firing, reloading; firing, reloading. No matter how much fire they put down, the corpses got back up. They were so badly damaged now they looked more like a butcher’s window than men, stumbling, shambling monstrosities with broken arms, missing fingers or legs, viscera dragging behind him in the snow.
“Burn them!” Dietrich screamed, fumbling with a fresh clip and dropping it in the snow. He fell to his knees, scrabbling in the slush for the ammunition.
The same revulsion they all felt gripped Eberbach, overwhelming reason and fear. Thought had no part in what he did next. Training took over. Eberbach reacted, reacted like a soldier. He killed the enemy.
A tongue of fire leapt from the flammenwerfer, engulfing the bloody mess that had been Staudenmeyer. It kept coming, but Ahlermann shot it down like a dog. It landed on its side, legs moving pitifully as the flames licked around it.
Eberbach walked the flames from side to side, the pillar of fire leaping from one corpse to the next. They kept walking and crawling, helping the flames spread upwards over their heads, features running like black wax. And then, finally, they began to die.
Dietrich’s relief was short-lived. The Bolsheviks were almost on them. He loosed off a burst at the infantry and ran into the trees, yelling at the others to follow. They plunged into the firs, bullets rocketed off the trunks.
They ran on into the night, leaving the nightmare far behind.
KAMAROV stepped into the clearing, Voytetsky close behind. The major spared a glance at the burnt out hulk of the Tiger, surrounded by several destroyed T34s. Soldiers clambered over the ruins in the weak sunlight, shouting to each other as they sought to salvage what they could.
Kamarov strode towards the hulk of the hospital, his adjutant on his heels. Voytetsky was a big man, standing easily a foot higher than Kamarov. His brawn was matched by an intellect almost as keen as the major’s. And that was all that mattered.
Everywhere, there was activity. Soldiers ran back and forth, vehicles rumbled on the road through the trees. They were running patrols into the forest to round up those who had escaped last night’s attack, and to identify where the next thrust towards Berlin should be. That was not Kamarov’s concern. The semi-circle of charred corpses in the snow was.
There were a lot of them this time, he saw. Maybe ten, twenty. Even though light, wet snow had fallen on and off through the morning, the chunks of flesh on the ground told their own story.
“Poyavlyatsa,” Voytetsky said softly. Kamarov simply nodded, shrugging down into his greatcoat. He stepped into the semi-circle, noting that some of the bodies were still smoking slightly. He wrinkled his nose at the smell before he noticed Grunberg.
The major stood over the dead Soldat, whose eyes were now literally frozen open. Kamarov’s gaze traced the pool of icy blood underneath him, the torn bloody wound in his neck and shoulder.
“They killed this one,” he said to no-one in particular. “The fascists must have retaliated.” Voytetsky nodded in silence. Kamarov pointed into the trees, beyond the bodies. “And then, into the trees…” He threw his hands up like a magician finishing a trick.
“As quick as they could go,” Voytetsky muttered. Both men exchanged grim smiles. A shout broke in on their grisly joke.
It was a squad of soldiers, forcing a man ahead of them at gunpoint. He had taken off his tunic, but his black trousers and fine jackboots betrayed him as an SS man. His hands were bound behind him. As he got closer, Kamarov saw one of the lenses in his glasses was smashed. Blood caked his forehead from just under his ink-black hair to his eyebrow.
“We found him in the woods, about a half-mile from here,” the sergeant in charge of the patrol said. Kamarov nodded silently. The sergeant thrust out a black leather satchel.
“He was carrying only this.” Voytetsky took it in his huge hands, opening it and pulling out the papers inside. There were pages and pages of cramped writing in German, mathematical and chemical formulae mixed in with esoteric occult diagrams. Silently, Voytetsky replaced the papers and closed the satchel with a snap.
Kamarov gave the sergeant a half smile. “Good work,” he said. “Please wait over there.” The sergeant saluted crisply and barked orders at his men, walking off to a respectful distance. Kamarov looked the prisoner over one more time, his mind searching for a name.
“Erdmann,” he said. The prisoner glowered at Kamarov for a moment, then licked his lips and spoke in perfect Russian.
“I know what is going through your mind, Major. But I am sure there is much of value in my papers which I can help you with. My research has been extensive, my breakthroughs simply astounding.” Despite the situation, the prisoner’s enthusiasm for his topic – and his arrogance – was plain.
“The documents are worthless without me to translate them. Much is written in cipher.” He shrugged. Voytetsky walked slowly round behind him, his eyes never leaving the captive. “My laboratory is destroyed. These notes are the only records that survive.”
Kamarov nodded, tilting his head towards the trees.
“Come, Herr Oberst,” he said. “Let us walk and talk of this. The men, they are superstitious.” Erdmann nodded gladly and followed the major, Voytetsky walking behind them with the satchel dangling from his hand.
They walked into the firs in silence for a few minutes, following a rough track through the trees. The sounds of the soldiers behind them grew softer, until they emerged into the clearing of the cemetery. If Kamarov was surprised by the graves, he didn’t betray his feelings. Instead, he turned to face Erdmann, his eyes black with hate.
Voytetsky kicked the colonel in the back of the legs, pitching him down onto his knees. Erdmann. The partisans had spoken of the doctor, of how his SS patrols had raided villages for men, women and children. The Russians had found many villages, burned to the ground. Many of them were eerily empty, without even the corpse of an animal to be found.
Kamarov was one of the few that knew the truth. He knew what had gone on in the `hospital’ behind them. Prisoners and even German casualties, injected with the poison that stripped men of their humanity, their dignity, their reason, and even their ability to die. Turning them into monsters, into mindless cannibals whose only thought was to kill anything in their path. The Poyavlyatsa.
Kamarov rolled the word over on his tongue, drawing his pistol from his holster and pressing it against Erdmann’s right temple.
“Please,” Erdmann said. “I can help you.” Kamarov let his lips curl back into a snarl. The shot was very loud in the silence of the clearing.