Steeling himself, David Wirblewind cut the fuel supply to his intransigent left engine before it could really catch fire . Instantly, he was thrown into a struggle to keep control of the stricken airplane, as the torque from the still-running right engine conspired with a heavy South wind to flip him into a spin that would drop him down to the waiting earth .
One of the built-in defects of the HS-129 was an impossibly short control column—the “stick”--mounted directly between the pilot’s legs. This piece of undersized equipment had caused the Schlachtflieger anxieties both on and off the ground. On the ground, it inspired more than its share of jokes from pilots flying more conventional craft. (“How do you tell a Schlacthfleiger pilot from a normal pilot? Easy, he has hairy hands and arms like a gorilla from constantly playing with his tiny stick!”) In the air, in an emergency, the short stick meant that it took both hands to work the ship’s already heavy controls. Moving the rudder, the elevators or ailerons was a Herculean task with one engine out.
As he fought to bring the “mule” back on to some semblance of a course, he could see the Guards Tank Brigade driving North beneath him. It was a sobering sight; he hadn’t seen a concentration of German armor to equal this one Brigade in months. Having about half a magazine of 30mm anti-tank shells left and a full complement of 20mm shells, he dallied briefly with the thought of coming around and strafing the unconcerned Red tankists below. This would, of course, have been the equivalent of throwing an egg at a rock, but Schlachtflieger pilots weren’t trained to worry about the odds. Indeed, his plane, like the others in his Schwarm, had the Infantry Assault Badge painted with pride on the tip of its nose.
The mule wouldn’t let him follow through though. She fell off on one wing, and with both curses and prayers, he pulled the stick back. Great beads of sweat poured down his forehead. The sweat began to soak through his flight suit, both from the efforts and the fear.
The wind pushed him further South and, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a long black line snaking its way over the snow, just beyond the forest. How many similar lines of refugees had he seen in Prussia? The thought depressed him, but gave him something to ponder besides his stricken machine.
Then he saw the Russian cavalry. They were standing on their mounts, brandishing swords and firing rifles in the air. Not at him, they hadn‘t noticed him. The horsemen were just out of range of the very few Germans firing rifles at them from the refugee column. Wirblewind guessed that the Russians wanted to panic the refugees and quickly counted two or three squadrons of the marauders. As he watched, a small group of cavalry lashed out, riding into the column and straight through it before turning around and galloping off to rejoining their colleagues sitting safely out of range of its defenders. Seeing the fallen bodies left in their wake infuriated him vastly more than his recent frustration at his inability to attack the Tank Brigade.
With both hands, he slammed the stick hard over. The little plane went into something resembling a wobbly dive, but when he tried to pull its nose up, the aircraft reacted lazily, as if it were going to sleep on him.
Wirblewind had been flying his mule long enough to realize she was going to stall, so he gunned his one remaining motor and hoped for the best. It took all of his skill to straighten her out at treetop level . He quickly planned his approach and wrestled her around. Deciding not to waste any of his precious and rare 30mm ammunition—a 20mm was quite enough for “soft” targets—he peered into the gun sight mounted outside the cockpit and just forward of it.
Miraculously, his efforts brought him on exactly the right flight path to cross over the Red cavalry squadrons. Feeling a cold anger, he pulled the trigger as the plane ever so slowly closed in on the cavalry.
A 20mm round doesn’t act like a small caliber bullet—no neat little holes poked in its victim from a 20mm. A 20mm minces, shreds and chops both a human target or a horse into something unrecognizable.
The stream of shells and tracers leaving his nose gun left the Russian cavalry as mere bloody splashes of churned up snow and chewed up flesh, chunks of which it hurled into the air and many meters from where they originally stood.
The refugees began to cheer. Wirblewind managed to wag his wings once—no one on the ground could ever appreciate how dangerous that little exercise in acknowledgement was for him—and headed his reluctant “mule” home.
General Rosselsprung and Gruber left their headquarters to inspect the newly formed line. The grimy landsers they met on the way, contrary to what Rosselsprung expected, showed neither signs of incipient panic nor the resentment of him he felt was due. At this point, all he could give them was a few kind words of encouragement or thanks. Sometimes he would distribute a handful of cigarettes or a few chocolate bars, and the men were thankful for even those tokens. And when they stopped, other men would leave their shelters, gather round him and pat “Their General” as many called him, on the back. He had no way of knowing it, but very, very few of the soldiers blamed him—he was too close at hand. Whatever their fate, they all knew that he would have his share of it.
For him, It was an overwhelming and overawing experience to realize that, far from being hated, as he anticipated, he was actually held in some reverence by men who knew that the end was approaching.
He found Von Kessel and Witling standing around a fuel drum crammed with burning wood salvaged from the ruins. After a few words, Von Kessel pulled Roselsprung aside, so they couldn’t be overheard.
“You haven’t come to ask us to surrender have you?” Von Kessel asked anxiously.
Rosselsprung frowned. “There won’t be a surrender”, he said flatly and pointed at the grey stone church steeple, the tallest building still standing in the center of Bad Frostberg. From it flew the largest national flag anyone could find in the city and underneath that, Bad Frostberg’s own flag.
“When those flags come down, it will be Russian hands that take them down and, by then, you and I will most likely be dead.” Rosselsprung produced a flask and offered Von Kessel a drink. “Of course, I can’t promise as much for Colonel Gruber”, Rosselsprung said with a wink. Gruber was standing nearby and heard part of the exchange. His lips tightened. He and the General had never discussed the end, perhaps that was on purpose, but he certainly didn’t share the General’s or the S.S.’s “Death and Glory” mantra.
“Now let’s get down to business” Rosselsprung said. “What’s our immediate situation? I halfway expected the Russians to be here by now.”
It was true that the Russians were advancing slowly. Von Kessel had given up an awful lot of ground, as had Witling; it would take them some time to digest it. And, as a final parting gift, where there had been time, Von Kessel’s men had booby-trapped their former strongholds and any other house they happened into. Besides, the Russians knew this fight was over and no man rushes to become the last casualty in a victory.
Meanwhile, a company of Russian tanks cut the North road. They had misjudged the speed of the German advance, so they cut the road well South of Von Bellow’s men. There weren’t any Germans to be found there, just a few stragglers who quickly ran off into the woods oir further up the road to warn their kameraden. Having only been given orders to cut the road and block it, the Russian tankists decided to interpret those orders literally. Thus, they frittered away an excellent opportunity to catch Von Bellow’s men unprepared and from the rear.
At any rate, Sidirov, in his rush to fulfill the Commissar’s orders, through away any pretense of tactical subtlety with his next move. He threw two full companies of T-34s and all the infantry he could muster straight South down the road at the German spearhead. Hearing this mass coming, the Germans pulled their vehicles off the road long before it arrived.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....