Their reinforcements had arrived during the night and the Reds were gearing up for a real fight. Hansen and Arajs, while eying the remaining half-track with envy, couldn’t help but worry as they heard themselves the sounds of more and more Reds tramping through the woods.
Early in the morning hours, W.F. and Jahn returned to the line, bringing with them fairly accurate reports of what was building up in front of them. It was clear from their observations that this day would bring a conclusion to their efforts, for good or most likely, for ill. What hope that had grown over the night in the hearts of the German defenders with their successful defense, quickly evaporated with the morning light and the realization that, whatever hadn’t happened the night before was certain to happen by the light of this day.
Their despondency was such that even a few campfires were lit, although they revealed the troops’ positions, since many men counted this breakfast as their last meal and it seemed so utterly more important than any vain attempt at concealment. For his part, Leutnant Jaeger was enough of a leader and enough of a fatalist to ignore this particular breach of discipline, even sharing a hot cup of ersatz coffee with some of his men.
Unknown to them, the arrival at about this time of several hundred civilian refugees, with hundreds more following them, must have touched a certain chord even in the uncaring hierarchy of the German High Command. Planes were dispatched that morning to find the dead Rath’s forlorn rearguard and give it whatever support they might give. That this final consideration was both too little and far too late to save them probably only occurred to the pilots who flew the missions.
Wirblewind was one of those men who flew off alone and on what seemed to him to be suicide with a slight flair of grandeur. Unlike the others, he alone had some approximate notion of where the besieged rearguard might be found. All he had to do to support them was to avoid the swarms of Soviet fighters and avoid the Soviet anti-aircraft guns while looking behind his back for the occasional American or British fighter, in an aircraft that made a maximum of 407 km/h going downhill….
“Save your last bullet boys!” Hansen shouted laughingly at the troops while walking the short length of the line. Some of the men laughed, others threw things at him and still others simply jeered at him. But he had on his steel helmet and shouldered a newly found assault rifle during his stroll.
Flying low and slow, Wirblewind in his HS-129 spotted an American scout car trailing the tail end of the refugee column. He swept in, deciding on which ammunition to use to destroy it, but its two occupants were waving at him.
“Stupid Reds!” David W. said to himself and settled the plane into a low run.
Von Ribbentrop had imagined his own death in many ways, but never like this, at the hands of a German Jabo. Erika, who had more brains than he suspected, suddenly stood up in her seat, waving at the tank-hunting aircraft. Von Ribbentrop hollered at her to sit down, while deciding when might be the best time to ditch the vehicle. But Erika stood up, took off her helmet and let loose her waist-length blond hair.
Wirblewind was just about to pull the trigger when he saw the woman’s hair. On closer inspection, he was convinced that she was beautiful and definitely Aryan. So he buzzed the Dodge weapons carrier and headed off without firing.
It was in the instant that the Jabo dipped its wings and veered off that von Ribbentrop decided that he would marry Erika if they survived this journey and reached the sea.
Jaeger’s lot didn’t have a Russian Erika to save them when their time came. Having had hours to observe the German position, long-range Russian artillery opened up.
The entire forest bounced up under the impact of heavy artillery rounds. Entire trees were blown off their roots, chunks of men and logs suddenly were propelled into the air while the little party of Germans either hugged the earth or struggled to dig themselves in deeper.
“Thunp! Thump! Thump!” The Red artillery walked itself from one end of the Jaeger’s position and back again. Then it repeated the process. “Thump! Thump! Thump!”
The Germans stuffed their ears with their fingers or with pieces of cloth. But dug-in infantry is notoriously hard to kill by mere bombardment. About the only substantial thing the Reds accomplished by this display of might was to blow one of the parked half-tracks into the air and burst a few eardrums. Thoroughly awakened now, the Germans waited for the bombardment to stop, as it inevitably had to, and the Red assault troops to appear, as they inevitably had to.
Hundreds of Soviet infantry shouted as they jumped up from their cover and ran towards the small band of German infantry. They were immediately met with a storm of MG and small arms fire. Tom’s Puma and the two Hetzers raked them, bringing them down by the dozens but doing absolutely nothing to halt their charge.
The Reds were not to be denied their courage. They swept across broken ground, up and over obstacles either natural or erected by their foe. Such was the momentum of their charge that it quickly brought them against the sides of the wrecked half-tracks, over them and into the perimeter. At this point, the fighting became a nightmarish blur of man against man, with the fastest trigger finger winning the match.
Feeling instinctively that this was it, Hansen popped a couple more of the blue pills into his mouth and swallowed them. He was most heartily sick of hearing the Red battle cry and, standing up, placed his back against a tree while unleashing the fury of his assault rifle.
W.F. and Jahn were hidden in a snow trench, firing slowly, but deliberately at every target that appeared. For them, this was a shooting range at less than 20 meters—an easy game, but ever so dangerous to play.
Jaeger found himself stuck in a deep-dug hole using his trusted pistol to shot anyone whose head appeared above him.
Arajs still had his MG-34 to play with and formed a base of fire for his loyal Latvian troopers, who stuck by his side even when the attacking Russians decided to use heir bayonets to root them out.
Ever so slowly in the chaos, the German line fell apart as position after position was overrun, its occupants shot or impaled on the long Russian bayonets. One of the Hetzers exploded after suffering a close assault from Soviet troops armed with sticky grenades.
Over-flying the forest, Wirblewind could see what was happening. But by then the two sides were so intermingled that he dreaded opening fire. And all of the men on the ground were uniformed in white. Feeling incredibly helpless, he finally decided to begin at the end, shooting up anything that resembled a concentration of men, since he knew that there were no Germans to concentrate. But for the actual battle, he was helpless and turned his kite around rather than risk killing fellow Germans.
Hansen and Araj’s exchanged a glance, both thinking the same thought. The reserve half-track was parked under camouflage a good two hundred meters from the front line. As their eyes made contact, one of Arajs’ Latvians took a bullet through his skull and dropped forward, his warm blood beginning to fill Araj’s trench.
On the verge of being over-run, Jaeger crawled out of his hole, stood up and started firing his pistol at the nearest Russian. Advancing too far, he received a Russian bayonet thrust through his ribs.
Hansen saw him fall slowly to the ground, holding his side and trying to stop the flow of blood. Shooting his way to the Leutnant, Hansen dropped his weapon and hoisted him on his back. Carrying him, he put his entire strength into reaching the armored half-track held in reserve. Arajs and two of his Latvians were already there to meet him, as were W.F. and Jahn, who, seeing things in an advanced state of disintegration, naturally headed towards the best ground for a final fight. The still intact armored personal carrier was obviously the best ground at that moment, so there they went.
But the half-track couldn’t carry all of them. As the line failed, more and more Landsers filtered back to it. Hating himself for it, Hansen cleared the unwounded men out of its troop compartment at gunpoint so they could put the wounded aboard. He through Leutnant Jaeger in the back while Jahn leaped into the driver’s station and Arajs found a tight spot besides him.
The Reds were already pausing to shoot the wounded in their holes and the few Germans left in the line were clustered around the last working MGs and firing to all sides as the Reds worked their way behind them.
Hansen gave Arajs a last waive which Arajs acknowledged with a look approaching pity. W.F., standing on the other side of the vehicle gave Jahn a friendly smile and ordered him to drive off. Jahn stared hopelessly at him, but W.F. said simply, “Go on son and remember everything I taught you.”
Arajs’ two surviving men waited until the very last minute before jumping in on top of the wounded, who screamed with pain, but there was no more room for anyone else.
“Sh*t” Hansen said to himself.
Jahn gunned the over-loaded machine’s engine. The Russian fire suddenly focused on the escaping half-track, glancing off its armor and knocking down some of the men trying to reach it. Hansen found himself grabbing at the snow next to W.F. as the half-track drove off, tossing up snow behind it.
All around Hansen and W.F., men were dying, Russians and Germans, so it frankly didn’t seem either the time or the place to sink down roots. Together, they ran to the nearest hole which was manned by two troopers blazing away with an MG-34. A grenade sailed into the nest, the loader grabbed it off the ground and tried to throw it out of the hole but it exploded at the edge, knocking the MG and its gunner back and splattering all of them with blood. Panicking, the gunner stood to run off, but he was dead the moment he reached his feet.
Hansen grabbed the MG and started firing. The last belt cleared the ammunition box with an empty rattle. W.F. was grimly firing his rifle, only to suddenly stop, pull its barrel back to him and fix his bayonet to it.
“Wasn’t supposed to be like this!” Hansen shouted angrily as he picked an MP-40 out of the snow of the fighting hole and checked its magazine.
“Never is!” W.F. shouted back. He only had time to say that before the first Russian leaped into the hole. W.F. drove the rifle’s bayonet into him, pulled the blade out and turned just in time to shot the next one in the face. Hansen sprayed a burst off, emptying the clip, released the clip and pushed a new one home.
“We can’t stay here!” W.F. screamed.
Michalik’s Hetzer was backing out of its position, a single Landser holing on desperately to its engine deck and two more behind it, firing as they retreated at a walk, using the bulk of the machine for cover. Michalik had poked his own head out of the commander’s hatch, screaming instructions over the intercom to the driver, who had no rearward view at all. But he couldn’t afford to turn the Hetzer around and give the Reds the easy target of its rear and side armor.
A bullet caught the man clinging to the engine deck, swatting his off like a fly. He rolled down the sloped engine compartment and fell beneath the Hetzer’s track in front of Michalik and behind the reversing machine.
A76.2 shell struck the Hetzer's front, the explosion didn’t harm it but the shrapnel from it and the force of the blow blew off Michalik’s steel helmet and knocked him unconscious.
The Hetzer continue to roll backwards. The loader stuck his head out of his hatch to guide the driver, but a Russian sniper, waiting for the opportunity, shot him through the neck.
At this point, the driver, knowing that their luck had run out, hit his left brake and tried to spin the machine around. A salvo of 76.2 mm shells bracketed the machine, but it mad the turn successfully, hidden momentarily in a cloud of smoke, flying earth and snow. The driver, who had placed a crucifix in his mouth before attempting the turn, stomped on the accelerator and the machine darted forward into the trees. Hansen and W.F. ran after it and early reached it when a mortar round blew them both sideways into the trees while a Russian anti-tank gun finally scored a hit on the Hetzers engine compartment.
That shell knifed through the Hetzer’s rear, blowing the unconscious Michalik out of the hatch and sheering through the gunner, whose body saved the driver. The Hetzer began to burn while the driver crawled over the corpses of the gunner and loader and squeezed himself out of the loaders hatch. He dropped off the roof of the tank destroyer, dazed. A nearby trooper stopped to crouch over him, trying to bring him around when a second shell struck both of them, splattering pieces of their corpses against the burning Hetzer’s hull.
Hansen and W.F., themselves hurt and only slowly recovering their wits, could only watch this tragedy unfold before they found themselves under fire. They crawled into the bushes, their attempt at escaping bringing them to Michalik, who lay in the snow several meters from his dead Hetzer. Michlaik stare up at them.
“We have to leave you”, W.F. said softly. Michalik understood. With his good arm, he unfastened his holster and pulled out his pistol. W.F. and Hansen understood and crawled away, although even over the noise of the battle, they thought they could still hear the single pistol shot.
With gas still in his tanks, Wirblewind watched the fight flicker out. He saw the lone German halftrack emerge from the trees and into open ground. Wirblewind resolved to kill anything that followed. But nothing followed.
But what Wirblewind, flying freely in the air, failed to notice was that one of the reasons no Red vehicles were following the half-track was because a number of them were quite too busy chasing down Tom’s Puma.
Wisely throughout this final fight, Tom had kept his Puma out of the forest and relied on the range of his vehicles’ gun. When it became obvious that nothing could stop the Reds from overwhelming Leutnant Jaeger’s position, he had withdrawn further into the featureless wasteland beyond the forest. What he hadn’t counted upon was the sheer wastefulness of the Red army’s unholy vengeance, which sent a half a dozen light tanks and another score of soft-skinned vehicles chasing after him—as if he were quite that helpless!
As if, indeed, his retreat was based on anything other than the obvious hopelessness of Leutnant Jaeger’s position.
Maybe an airplane wasn’t there when it should have been to help him, maybe too he missed the stolid support of Ulrich and his car, but his Puma wasn’t exactly the lone vehicle that any enemy should have ever wanted to idly chase after--a lesson he taught his pursuers over and over again, every time they came within 1,000 or so meters of his car’s 50mm cannon. He gradually made his way back to Neuburgh, but only after leaving, burning or wrecked, some ten Soviet vehicles behind him on the snowy plains, without so much as receiving a single scratch to his Puma.
If anything, this experience deepened his contempt of the Reds and strengthened his belief in the inherent superiority of German arms, had there ever been enough on his side to counter the endless tides of humanity and vehicles thrown against them.
Whatever the future held, and it held much travail for him and his crew, it didn’t include being hunted down by lesser armored vehicles.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....