Hansen and the Latvians were old hands at this job. They spread out in a long crescent and waited silently in the snow for the Russians to appear.
The Guards Reconnaissance Company didn’t disappoint them. They weren’t exactly pushing themselves, Hansen noted. There were half a dozen T-70s followed by a score of jeeps and American lend-lease scout cars, but the crews were relaxing, either smoking cigarettes or singing. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn’t trouble.
Which was unfortunate for them, as Hansen’s only goal in life at this time was to cause the Reds trouble.
The Soviet unit had sealed off the western escape route from Bad Frostberg, deploying many of their vehicles in support of an infantry battalion hastily rushed to that area for the same purpose. What mission remained to them, they thought was being carried out by the Cossacks, so their advance was unguarded and a bit naive for experienced troops. Not a one of them expected to see deadly combat, considering that hey had been told that the escaping Germans consisted overwhelmingly of unarmed civilians dragging their children along after them.
The Latvians cocked the triggers of their panzerfausts as the lead T-70s drove ignorantly into the ambush.
Hansen gave the signal to fire and four panzerfaust rockets arced into the Soviet tanks, blowing them up. The Latvians quickly threw those empty rocket launchers aside and replaced them with new ones strapped to their backs. Without waiting for Hansen's order, they launched these at the next row of tanks. No T-70 ever made could withstand a panzerfaust hit, so in moments, the remainder of the Russian tanks went up in flames, broiling their two-man crews alive. To their credit, the Russian infantry hit the ground running after dismounting their jeeps and scout cars, but by that time, Hansen’s little group had faded back into the forest and was close enough to Leutnant’s Jaeger’s perimeter that they were covered by its MGs.
Instead of fighting it out, Jaeger decided that a bloody nose was enough to inflict on what might be only the recce elements of a much superior Soviet force. Loading as many men aboard as possible, he sped off to the next position on his map and established himself there well before the walking infantry in his tiny force arrived. But Leutnant Jaeger didn’t fool himself; he knew that his insufficient force was now locked into a fight with a rapidly advancing and fully mechanized enemy. This was a fight he was bound to ultimately lose, but he wasn’t so much worried about his own fate, what troubled him was the thought of the damage a triumphant Soviet mechanized force might inflict on the still exposed civilians in front of him.
As the Cossack cannon blasted the pitiable civilians, a lone Hetzer shook off its snowy camouflage, attracted to the sound of high-velocity fire. Feldwebel Michalik’s Hetzer had remained, its’ engine turned off to conserve gasoline, on the very edge of the forest behind the refugee column for the last few hours, before the sound of Grusinov’s indiscriminate shelling awakened it. Now it moved quickly to the scene of the slaughter. No one, either German or Cossack paid any attention to the trail of snow its tracks threw up in its struggle to close with the refugees and discover from where the shells were being fired.
At 1,500 meters, Michalik’s gunner identified the four 45mm guns set up in the barrenness of the winter wastes. At 1,000 meters, the trajectory of the L48 75mm gun carried by the Hetzer was basically a straight line. Beyond that, gravity and velocity entered into the equation. And that was for an anti-tank shell—a high explosive shell, on the other hand, being much more underpowered, required much more skill to land on a target 1,500 meters away.
But Michalik’s gunner only said, as he calculated the range and trajectory, “Bet on the long shot Feldwebel!”
The gunner pressed the trigger and looked into his sights in anticipation.
The first shell fell slightly short, but the second was in the air before the Cossack artillerymen could react.
“Whompf!” That was the sound of the second shell impacting on the armored shield of a 45mm cannon. Finding the range, the Hetzer gunner lobbed shell after shell into the artillery position, smothering it before it could fire back. He was grinning in satisfaction as the Red ammunition began to explode behind the guns.
The Hetzer crew slapped each others' backs in triumph as each gun was knocked out in its' turn.
But Grusinov had more guns in reserve and was bringing them up to replace the lost ones. The German column was severed, as he had planned, and he could afford the loss of a mere four guns. Especially as his powerful and fearless cavalry regiment was forming up in the snow behind him.
What he simply hadn’t counted upon was Ulrich’s 234/1. Like Michalik’s Hetzer, the sound of high velocity fire brought it running like a moth to a flame. Unlike the Hetzer, it was neither on the edge of the woods nor was it slow.
On a good day, with a new vehicle on a perfect road, a skilled Hetzer driver might be able to squeeze 40 km/hr out of his mount. Ulrich’s armored car, moving across uneven, snow covered ground, hit well over 60 km/hr during its dash at the Cossacks.
Seeing the armored car lunge at his regiment, Grusinov hesitated. The part of him that believed in the superiority of numbers and the courage of his mounted men couldn’t reconcile with the part of him that knew just how serious an armored opponent possessing that kind of speed and firepower might prove to be.
And in his momentary hesitation, fate cast its ballot irrevocably against the old and on behalf of the new.
The insane sight of a lone German armored car charging the better part of an entire Cossack Regiment was met first with incredulity by the Cossacks, then with derision. Aside from the annoying bombardment from the Hetzer, the Cossacks were in their element and didn't feel threatened. After all, they were every one of them strong, fit, hardened, men, sitting astride strong, fit horses in ranks and columns straining to begin their own charge.
But Ulrich himself may have been partially insane by then. All day long he had seen the bodies of old men, women and even babies dead in the snow, their corpses frozen into inhuman shapes. He hadn’t been able to intervene then or save a single one of the unfortunate innocents. Now he could intervene and his targets were standing in the open. Being a man short after the death of his gunner, Ulrich’s radioman and rear driver, Dieter had been “promoted” to crew the car’s guns. Neither he nor any other member of the crew realized the madness of their actions at the time. All were deeply enveloped by their mutual hate of anything Russian. When they were close enough to see the Russians laughing at them, Dieter opened up with both the 20mm auto-cannon and the coaxial machine gun.
The nearest Cossack ranks simply dissolved in front of the eyes of Ulrich and his crew. Horses were cut in two and men were decapitated or dismembered by the 20mm. The machine gun fire dropped horses and men alike in great heaps. The Cossacks broke ranks almost immediately. Grusinov, who had been laughing with the rest, suddenly found himself on the ground, the hindquarters of his horse having been blown away. He didn’t stay on the ground long though—there were many, many riderless horses to choose from and he quickly grabbed the reins of one.
But fleeing from an enemy, with just as much speed as a horse, presented its own problems, especially when that machine was operated by maniacs bent on mass murder. To add to the mess, the Hetzer stormed out on to the snow and closed quickly with the now disorganized and confused Cossack squadrons. Dieter fired as rapidly as Ulrich could feed magazines into the 20mm. The car literally hacked a path through the ranks of cavalry, firing to all sides and running down individual horses and fallen men.
An uncontrollable panic seized the Cossacks as their comrades fell in windrows. They attempted to scatter in every direction, but their own formations trapped many of them. Ulrich pushed into, blew apart and then pursued the larger groups, running them to ground and slaughtering them at will. The Hetzer fired its entire load of high explosive shells, aiming them at any group larger than five riders.
Grusinov, realizing that his command was irreparably shattered, rode off with a few of his personal guards, not daring to look back at the disaster that had fallen on his proud troops.
Ulrich hunted the Cossacks relentlessly, until his ammunition stocks grew low and the barrel of the 20mm over-heated. By that time, the little hill and the surrounding terrain was awash in blood. In fact, the car itself was soaked in blood picked up by the tires and spat back by them on to the mudguards and lower hull.
For the first time in longer than he cared to remember, Ulrich felt a deep sense of personal satisfaction. As the car pulled up next to the Hetzer, German civilians and soldiers began to cheer and clap in spontaneous celebration. Michalik and his crew quickly dismounted, as did Ulrich and his men. The two crews hugged each other and raised each others’ arms triumphantly into the air to the ringing applause of the civilians.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....