Disclaimer: This story contains strong language, violence and realistic depictions of war crimes. In some cases, the war crimes will have been committed by major characters. While many sympathetic military characters in the manga and anime are guilty of comparable crimes, I understand that it might be more difficult to read if the crimes closely resemble real life atrocities. If any of the above might be a problem, I recommend you stop reading now.
N.B. I have tried to make the story easy to read for those without significant knowledge of the period but I am quite fond of using foreign language terms rather than their English translations (which I feel sound clunky) so if there are any terms that you don't understand, I have added a small glossary at the bottom. Also, if anyone has any trouble visualising the inside of the panzer, there are some excellent cutaway pictures available on the Steam Community website for the game Red Orchestra 2 (a game whose puritanical pursuit of realism over fun has made it a justifiable research tool for this story). Just scroll down the page.
Chapter 3: Kuybysheva and Degtyareva
Kuybysheva, South of Stalingrad - 1st September 1942
The panzers rolled out from their temporary lodgings in Chervlenoye at exactly six in the morning with the Wehrmacht's almost mechanical punctuality. General Archer had persuaded the commander of the Sixth Army to accept the Fourth's armoured support in the drive towards the Volga River. Doing so would ensure that the Russians had no way of reinforcing the city apart from across the river itself, an easy target for artillery and aircraft alike. Wehrmacht intelligence was confident that the Russians had no means of transporting tanks to this side of the river but the smarter commanders knew not to be overconfident. There were widespread rumours that the factories in the city were still churning out legions of the round-turreted T-34s, a dreaded foe ever since the previous winter where the hardy Soviet machines had run rings around even the finest German panzers.
Private Kain Fuery had not been present during that endless winter. All he knew were the 6:1 confirmed kill ratios that the Wehrmacht had maintained against their Communist foes, quoted at least three times a day in the newspapers. The idea of facing the Russian machines in headlong battle held no particular fear for the young Private. He wanted to fight for the Fatherland, to actually use his radio and machinegun for more than just practice. He glanced backwards into the chassis.
The Panzer IV had a crew of five. The driver sat next to Fuery at the very front of the panzer and was currently standing up in his seat so as to see out the top hatch. Directly behind the Private was the main gunner, a stoic soldier with odd gold lightning shaped streaks in his otherwise dark hair. Beside him was the loader, a young Austrian-Italian who was almost as young as Kain but had been in the war since the Invasion of France back in 1940. And behind them was the Captain. The commander had come across rather sick these past few days, deep bags under his eyes and an unhealthy pallor clinging to his skin. Despite that however, there was no weakness in his voice as he sent out his commands to the platoon leaders.
"Tell Breda to keep his formation straight um Himmel zu willen," he snarled over the clamour of the engine. Fuery quickly hunched over the radio to send a censored version of the command. As he did, he noticed that the driver had sat back down and was closing the armoured hatch over his head. A thrill shot through the crew as they saw the distant outlines of buildings on the horizon. If the enemy were going to attempt an ambush or worthwhile defence, the bombed-out industrial complex would be a fine place to do it.
"Keep up the speed..." the Captain murmured as the panzers advanced towards the complex. Two of the large factory buildings were collapsed but a third remained standing as well as half a dozen smaller structures. The place was easily large enough to conceal an entire company of Russian T-34s, a significant force against the eight panzers of First and Third Platoons. And that did not even consider the possibility of concealed Russian guns or suicidal infantry armed with grenades or bottles of gasoline topped with flaming rags. Fuery had heard rumours which were lurid even by the usual bunkroom standard. He still refused to believe some of them.
Something moved next to the hanger.
"Load armour piercing!" the Captain yelled. The shell was being locked into the gun's breech before he even finished the final word. "Fifteen degrees, distance twelve hundred metres."
The turret turned in response and the driver slowed slightly to give the gunner an easier shot. On either side, the other panzers began to respond to the enemy presence. One fired, the shot going wide.
"Fire!" the Captain ordered. Fuery peered through his own machinegun's gunsight in order to see whether or not the shot hit but it was difficult to make anything out as the panzer shuddered up and down over the rough ground.
"Miss. Load another," the Captain snapped, his voice curt but not harsh. "Hold fire until we pass within one thousand metres."
The Russian tank was next to fire, the shell landing about ten metres in front of them and sending up a magnificent spray of dirt. The driver threw both levers forward and the Soviet tank disappeared behind a wrinkle in the plain. The panzer took a few second to climb up the incline and get the tank in their sights again.
"Eleven degrees, range is one thousand metres on the dot," the Captain called out. "Fire!"
The gun roared, jerking the panzer from the recoil. Fuery pressed his eye to the gunsight in the hope of seeing the enemy blown up but was disappointed.
"Miss. Correction to ten degrees. Range is still a thousand." The next shell was loaded in a flash. The Captain barely paused before he ordered, "Fire!"
This time, they were rewarded with a thick plume of oily smoke from the enemy tank.
"Good hit to the engine block. Gun might still be operational..."
Bright orange flames began to lick the bottom of the smoke and the top hatch was flung open as two Soviet tankers fled their burning vehicle. Moments later, the ammunition store went up in a gorgeous plume of flame, blasting the Russian turret clean off of the chassis.
"Or maybe not," the Captain smirked. More Russian tanks were coming out of the woodwork now, pouring from the intact factory or bursting from beneath camouflaging pieces of rubble. The other seven panzers of the German armoured group halted behind the ridge and began trading shots with their Russian counterparts. Shells whistled through the air, gouging great furrows in the dark soil where they missed and colliding with armour plate in a tremendous crash like a huge pair of cymbals bashed together by an amateur percussionist.
And above it all, the Captain's firm voice.
"Thirty one degrees. Range is nine fifty... Fire."
Another shuddering jerk as the gun discharged.
"Miss... Turn us to the right. We're not going to do anything at this range."
The panzer shuddered into motion, hugging the ridge as it swept around to the west of the complex. The radio clacked. Fuery pressed the headphones against his head and rattled off the messages coming in from the rest of the German force.
"Lieutenant Breda has lost a Panzer but the crew are all fine. Sergeant Falman reports minor damage and no casualties. He is requesting we wait for support from the infantry column..."
"And what are the dirt-pounders going to do about verdammt T-34s? Tell Falman to stop being a coward and hold his position while we flank!"
There was a noise like glass marbles being dropped on a metal sheet and the Captain immediately ducked back into the turret.
"Hard left and stop!" he yelled. The driver jammed the steering levers and the engine roared in protest, the awful shriek of clashing gears assaulting Fuery's senses. Over the noise, he could hear the Captain order, "Brace!"
Fuery froze dumbly and paid dearly. The shock of the collision jarred him to the very bone. His teeth smashed together and he tasted blood in his mouth. His head felt extraordinarily heavy and the engine noise suddenly sounded very far away. Mixed up with that distant sound was the Captain's voice.
"... frontal hit... snuck up on us," the Captain's words dimly registered in the radioman's frazzled brain. There was a sudden draft and Fuery twisted around to see that the Captain was standing up in his seat, his torso out of the top hatch. There was the raw hydraulic pounding of the panzer's machinegun followed by a rapid set of instructions to the gunner.
The panzer jerked and then shuddered into motion. The machinegun roared again for a moment and then fell silent and the Captain dropped back into the copula, a vicious look on his face. Fuery pressed his eyes against his own gunsight (almost poking himself in the eye as he did) and saw the dead Russian tank, artfully concealed in a shallow dip in the landscape. There was a hole in the turret and two bodies sprawled a few metres from the vehicle. Despite all his training, the sight caused the young private's stomach to turn.
"Come on!" the Captain ordered.
The engine groaned as the driver coaxed it back up to speed. Through his right hand viewport, Fuery could make out the shape of the factory complex, now adorned with plumes of black smoke. As the ridge faded back into the plain, the panzer swung around, now barely two hundred metres from the buildings. Two hundred metres of open ground; manageable but risky all the same.
"Fuery!" the Captain called out, "Tell Breda to advance east by north-east along the ridge, skirt the Russian's maximum range and then set up on the hill. Falman is to stay where he is, count down two minutes and then go all out towards the enemy. Breda will cover him and he can use as many smoke canisters as he wants."
Fuery fiddled with the radio, still blinking bright spots from his eyes. The bleeding in his mouth seemed to have subsided but his jaw ached considerably and he had to repeat himself to make himself understood to the two platoon commanders. The Captain removed his silver pocketwatch and began counting down seconds. After a minute, he snapped the watch shut.
"Forward, full speed."
The driver shoved both levers forward and the panzer began to trundle across the steppe, slowly accelerating to its top speed. Fuery quickly calculated in his head; two hundred metres would be covered in just about a minute, maybe less. It was a long time to be out the open with no cover and no support. He braced himself against the seat, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the radio cover with fearful strength.
The buildings grew through the vision slit, crumbling brick and battered aluminium filling the radioman's limited field of view. The driver coaxed the panzer towards the gap between two of the buildings, a narrow alley barely large enough. The radio crackled: Falman had begun his advance. In response, they could hear the Russian guns fire with desperate intensity, just beyond the behind the buildings. The Captain ordered they move out of the alley.
Four Soviet tanks sat in hull-down positions less than fifty metres away, their guns turned towards Falman and his three-panzer assault.
"Like fish in a barrel..." the Captain breathed. He did not even need to rattle out the co-ordinates. It was point blank. "Fire."
It was a perfect shot: straight through the vulnerable rear armour, the transmission and into the ammunition store. The tank went up like a firecracker before it could even begin to react. This close, the shockwave was considerable, albeit dampened by the panzer's armour. There was a rattling hail of metal debris as the other Soviet tanks swung around to meet the new threat. At this range, the differences between the Soviet and German guns and armour were meaningless. The Captain was gambling everything on his loader's capabilities against the turning speed of the Soviet turrets.
The shells blasted a hole in one of the Soviet turrets, still pointing halfway in the wrong direction. The chassis continued to move but there was no way the gunner or his weapon could have survived. Two down. Two left. The gunner was still adjusting the turret when the first Soviet tank's turret traversed enough to aim properly. The gun belched flame and there was a thunderous blast, not at all like the clang of the shell which had hit them earlier.
For a long moment, Fuery wondered what had happened. Dust clogged the air, mixing with the foul reek of sweat and diesel which already permeating the panzer. Through the vision slits, all Fuery could see was swirling dust. The Soviet gun must have missed and pulverised the cheap brick building behind, kicking up an ungodly amount of debris.
"Where...?" he began only to be swiftly hushed by a sharp kick from the gunner behind him. He fell silent and peered through his machinegun's sight but could make out nothing amid the churned up dust. As he strained his eyes, he realised how deathly quiet the battlefield had become. Even the panzer's engines had cut out. He could even hear his own heart beating in his chest, accelerated by the desperate thrill of battle. And he could hear something else...
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The Captain was tapping his fingernail against the side of his cupola, his eyes closed and mouth drawn into a thin line.
Tap. Tap. Pause. He snapped his fingers.
The panzer's gun fired and was answered a moment later by a bright flare of orange light, distorted by the dust. Another shell whistled by, passing off to their left. The Captain's eyes remained closed as he spoke.
"Seventeen degrees. Fire when ready."
The turret shifted and the panzer fired once more, a fearsome metallic clang vindicating the Captain's prediction. As the dust began to settle, Fuery could make out the burning wreck of the two Soviet tanks which the Captain had brewed up. Another few seconds revealed the two which had been disabled, their plain green sides marred by gaping holes ringed with scorch marks. There were some shapes writhing near the destroyed tanks. For the first time since the battle began, Fuery realised that he was gazing at them through a gunsight. His finger tightened on the trigger and there was a burst of noise. The writhing stopped.
There was a long moment of silence and then a crackle over the radio.
"Lieutenant Breda sends his congratulations. He believes this brings you up to sixty one."
"Sixty two," was the Captain's reply, "I got one over behind the ridge. But I was lucky. If that last one had been armed with armour piercing instead of high explosive rounds..."
Fuery went back to his radio, swiftly forgetting the shapes which had died beneath his gunsight. It was only much later, long after the rest of the crew had collapsed roaring drunk from celebrating their sixtieth kill, that the scene came back and the full implications hit him. He lay in the small bunk he had scrounged, staring at the rough wooden ceiling of the barn they had commandeered and wondering how different it felt to have killed another man.
"I don't feel anything..." he whispered.
"Lucky bastard," someone replied. It did not help him sleep any better.
Sportanovka, Stalingrad Northern Outskirts - 1st September 1942
With dignified slowness, Hauptsturmführer Zolf Kimblee stood. His large bodyguard tried to make pull him back into the trench but he shrugged off his hand and gave him a sharp glare.
"Do not interrupt the performance, Heinkel."
And then he stood tall, his black coat flapping in the stiff autumn breeze. The Russians seemed to have caught sight of him and bullets began whipping around them. Kimblee did not seem to notice them however. His eyes were closed and his hands were held up in front of him as if he was in the middle of some pagan prayer. Heinkel was about to jump out of the trench and manhandle his clearly deranged commander back into cover when he heard something, almost lost amid the clamour of war.
Kimblee was humming.
As if on cue, the distant shriek of aircraft engines drowned out the noise. Kimbley's hand began to tremble and then they descended in a decisive stroke. As they did, the shriek intensified until men dropped their rifles and clamped hands over their ears. At the climax of the noise, the Hauptsturmführer flung his hands wide and the divebombers screamed into view, releasing their deadly payloads as they descended. Kimblee was suddenly silhouetted against the flash of incendiaries, his arms splayed as the enemy trenches were engulfed in explosions. The shockwave buffeted the German trenches and caused Kimblee to sway slightly but he remained upright, his coat flaring open. Above the roar of explosives, Heinkel could hear his commander let out a cry of pure joy.
"I love this part!" he screamed. Another sharp hand movement and another section of the enemy trenches disappeared beneath a torrent of high-explosive ordinance. Then he brought both arms up in a wide sweeping motion and the Waffen-SS troops behind him scrambled out of the trenches, their rifles cracking and popping like roasting chestnuts. The Russians were too rattled by the bombardment to react properly and the Germans were swiftly among them in a swirling mêlée of bullet and bayonet. Heinkel ran forward to prevent Kimblee from hurting himself but found himself outpaced by the smaller Hauptsturmführer. Kimblee practically danced forward, his pistol barking death at the Soviets who tried to close with him. A Communist machinegun started up but was swiftly silenced as the Hauptsturmführer leapt on top of their emplacement and emptied his Luger into the stunned Soviets.
As the pistol clicked dry, one of the Russians raised his own rifle only for it to be wrenched from his hands by the grinning Kimblee. Not even bothering to reverse the weapon, he simply thrust it forward, the butt connecting solidly with the Soviet's face in a crunch of breaking teeth and cartilage. The Soviet collapsed and Kimblee finished him with a shot from his own rifle.
The Russians were routing now, fleeing their trench lines across an empty stretch of dirt to a cluster of brick houses which served as their command post. Snarling at their cowardice, the Hauptsturmführer lifted the Soviet machinegun and braced it against the opposite side of the earthworks. Over the gun's consumptive splutter, Heinkel could make out Kimblee laughing at the top of voice. None of the Russians still in the open made it back to their command post; they were all scythed down one after the other by Kimblee and his stolen gun.
By the time Heinkel caught up with the man he was supposed to protect, the fighting had calmed significantly. The occasional rifle crack rang out as dead Soviets were revealed to be less so but the German troops were mainly preoccupied with reloading and rearming from their assault and the Soviets were hastily reinforcing their command post. Kimblee's appropriated machinegun had run out of ammunition and the Hauptsturmführer was now leaning backwards against some sandbags, still faintly humming a tune Heinkel did not recognise.
As Heinkel slipped into the dugout, the Hauptsturmführer raised a hand, his eyes closed again.
"I told you not to interrupt. The overture is most beautiful at its quietest."
Heinkel did not know how to answer so held his peace. Kimbley continued humming regardless. A radio operator crawled into the dugout shortly after and the Hauptsturmführer deigned to open his eyes and tap out a brief message in Morse, checking his silver pocket watch as he did. Once it was done, the young radio operator scrambled away again. Heinkel was not sure whether or not to be amused. When members of the Waffen-SS were uncomfortable sharing a dugout with you...
His thoughts were interrupted by Kimblee, now standing up to look over the parapet at the Communist strongpoint.
"A few minutes more before the finale..."
He turned back to Heinkel and looked at him with inscrutable dark eyes.
"Have you ever heard the 1812 Overture?"
At Heinkel's blank look, he shook his head sadly.
"I see. I fear that there has been an unfortunate overemphasis on Wagner these recent years, the Führer's personal favourite. All unsightly Teutonic bombast and no subtlety, no appreciation for moments like these..."
The Hauptsturmführer inhaled deeply and then checked his watch again.
"That is not to say that Tchaikovsky's work is entirely devoid of histrionics..."
Kimblee stood straight again, returning to the pose he had taken just before the storming of the Russian trenches. As he did, Heinkel suddenly realised what it was. It was a conductor's pose.
Kimblee spoke to him without turning around, "Can you feel it? Deep in your bones, like a part of you that you never felt before?"
The divebombers were returning for another pass, their engines becoming louder and louder as they tore across the sky like hawks swooping on a field mouse.
"This is it!" Kimblee breathed, "This is the Crescendo!"
The planes descended, their wailing warcry deafening to hear. It was worse than before and it rose to such a pitch that it became more than just a sound but also a resonance deep in one's body, like one's very heart was aflame with its shriek. Heinkel felt tears forming in his eyes and struggled to remain upright but Kimblee barely seemed to notice. His hands jerked downwards and the planes pulled out of their dives, their bombs continuing to fall.
By the time the bombs detonated, Heinkel could not hear a thing. The roar of the explosions was more a shuddering through his boots and a jerk from the blastwave than actual sound. He staggered and then fell to one knee, his eyes squeezed shut and hands clasped over his ears. And then, there was only ringing silence. Heinkel removed his hands and saw blood on the fingertips. He swore softly but could barely his own voice over the ringing echo in his ears. Slowly it faded and he looked up.
Kimblee stood on the parapet, his eyes closed and face set in an expression of perfect ecstasy. As Heinkel watched, the Hauptsturmführer's eyes flew open and he beheld the burning wreck of the Soviet strongpoint.
"There is no more exquisite symphony in this world than that of war," the man whispered. Then he threw his head back and laughed.
"What do you think of this Overture, Tchaikovsky?" he yelled at the sky. "Show me the nation that weathered Napoleon and his armies. Prove to me that you are worthy of such music!"
Only the silence of the dead followed his words.
Degtyareva, Stalingrad Front - 1st September 1942
Rebecca raised the rifle to her shoulder and peered through the telescopic sight. Riza followed her gaze with a pair of binoculars and saw what her partner was aiming at: a squad of eight men in the grey uniform of the German Army picking their way carefully through the broken rubble. Rebecca talked calmly as she adjusted the scope and chambered a round.
"The fascists are not stupid," Rebecca explained. "They wouldn't have gotten this far if they were. They know not to stay in the open for very long and as soon as you fire your first shot..."
The rifle discharged with a loud crack. One of the Germans fell to the ground and his comrades all dived for cover. By the time Rebecca had worked the bolt and reacquired them through the scope, she had no clear shot. She did not seem fazed at all. In fact, she seemed almost jovial as she spoke.
"That is why you always shoot the first one in the stomach."
Riza realised with a start that the man Rebecca had shot was still moving, writhing on the pavement as he clutched his wounded abdomen. His distant shriek of pain sent a thrill of horror racing down her spine. As Riza watched, one of the man's comrades crawled over to him, a medical satchel in one hand. He was about a metre away when Rebecca's rifle discharged again and the man's head dropped in a pink spray of blood.
"Always shoot to kill with medics and officers," the sniper murmured as she chambered another round.
While she was preoccupied with working her rifle, an intrepid German seemed to have guessed their position as he leant out from behind a ruined automobile and loosed a shot at the building they were in. Riza ducked but Rebecca remained where she was standing. When the German worked up the courage to stick his head out again, Rebecca was ready. The round caught him in the forehead and he dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.
"Don't worry too much about those coal-scuttle helmets of theirs. They need to be a good inch thicker to protect against a direct hit with a Mosin," Rebecca explained in a matter-of-fact way as she chambered another round.
The Germans did not break from cover after that but tried to crawl to the safety of the apartment building. Rebecca got one more as he tried to get across a patch of open ground but missed with her next shot as the rest of the squad rushed for the building all at once. Rebecca tried to fire another shot but the rifle was empty.
"Chyort!" the young Sergeant snarled.
While she reloaded, a shot punched straight through the wall Riza was sheltering behind, missing her by less than a metre. Rebecca grabbed the stunned teenager and dragged her deeper into the house.
As they searched for a new firing position, Rebecca continued her lesson, "Another thing: try and keep moving before they guess your position. If you fire too many shots from the same position or put yourself somewhere painfully obvious, the fascists can just call in a mortar or something and that is the end of it."
Riza nodded distractedly, still shaken from seeing the cheerful and bubbly Rebecca methodically kill four people. By the time they reached another suitable firing position, the Germans were long gone. Rebecca fired a shot into the unmoving body of the man she had hit in the gut. "Just to be sure". Despite everything however, the sniper looked slightly disappointed.
"We could have finished off that squad if you had a rifle and a decent telescopic sight. I don't like leaving a job half-finished like that... Not much we can do about it, I suppose. Got an idea of what being a sniper is all about? Normally this is a three week course but Commissar Armstrong said that you were already pretty handy with a rifle..."
They made their way back to the Soviet forward base in silence, Riza still digesting the realities of being a sniper while Rebecca had lapsed into an uncharacteristic quietness. They were almost all the way back when a figure jumped out in front of them.
Riza's hand flew to her Nagant revolver before she recognised the figure as the boy who had leapt on her the first time she had showed up at the 39th Headquarters. The boy clearly seemed to have forgotten her as he bounced up and down with excitement.
"Major Armstrong has sent me with a message for you, Sergeant Becky! Very important message, time sensitive..."
Rebecca made hushing sounds, her eyes smiling.
"What is the message, Selim?"
The boy calmed somewhat but he continued to bob slightly on his heels.
"Major Armstrong says that Major Raven's company have trapped some fascists in the old bakery on Markov Street but they need your help. There is a fascist sniper!"
"Really? Then we should head to Markov. Do you know the way?" Rebecca asked. Selim nodded earnestly. Rebecca smiled and turned to Riza.
"Come on. You should see this."
Major Armstrong was already waiting for them at the bakery along with two more members of his sniper unit; a serious young woman with short dark hair and a blonde man who seemed to be barely twenty. Beside them was the largest rifle that Riza had ever seen; more than a head taller than any of them bar the Major if stood on end. Major Raven was standing just behind, a grey-haired old man with wizened Kazakh features, ordering his troops around with casual ease. As the sniper and her student approached, the Major stood and waved them over with his paddle-like hands.
"Sergeant Catalina and Ms... Riza, it is good that the boy found you," he rumbled. "We have reached an impasse with our German adversaries; they are trapped in the floor above us but have the stairways covered with machineguns. Major Raven has already lost a dozen men trying to displace them from their position."
"Maybe he was hoping they would run out of bullets before he ran out of bodies," the short-haired woman snorted quietly and the Major gave her a sharp look before continuing the briefing.
"He has requested that we find a position where the Germans are in easy view and remove their gunners while he makes another assault. The apartment complex to the south would be perfect however Major Raven has warned me of a German sniper covering the street. We will need to deal with him before we can render support to our comrades." He checked his watch and then turned back to Riza and Rebecca.
"Find Comrade Riza a rifle and prepare yourselves. The German sniper does not seem unskilled."
To Riza's surprise, it was the serious looking woman who volunteered to help arm their squad's newest member. She introduced herself as Sergeant Maria Ross and made a careless gesture towards her partner, the young blonde man.
"That layabout there is Private Brosh..." she dismissed, leading to an indignant squawk from the offended party. She flashed a savage smile at the complaining man which silenced him at once. "We operate the anti-tank rifle," she explained, gesturing at the huge rifle with rather more reverence then she did her comrade. Riza paled slightly, both at the weapon's size and the possible implications of its presence.
"You don't think that the Germans... the fascists have a panzer?" she asked. The rifle was certainly large and powerful but it was no artillery piece. Even if it could pierce a panzer's armour, how much damage could it possibly do?
Ross shrugged nonchalantly and motioned for them to move away from the group.
"The fascists certainly have panzers but I do not think they are committing them to the city proper," she mused. "It is far too close for them to be much use. But this rifle is pretty good for taking out other snipers; it'll punch straight through anything our fascist friend chooses to cower behind, even concrete."
As she spoke, she wove deftly through the crowd of milling troopers towards a makeshift aid station. A group of men lay on makeshift beds, clutching bandaged wounds while a rather nervous looking man tended to them. Sergeant Ross exchanged a few quick words with the medic and he pointed towards a pile of discarded equipment. Riza was swiftly handed a rifle and a pouch filled with loose cartridges.
Riza nodded and was considering separating them when Private Brosh ran over.
"The Major has got the brief," he hissed to Ross, who gave a curt nod of understanding. They hurried back to Major Armstrong and found him deep in discussion with one of Raven's men. At their approach, the huge man excused himself and gave them an appraising stare. Riza shrank involuntarily from his gaze, clutching at her newly issued rifle. He seemed satisfied however as he removed a notebook and a stub of a pencil.
"According to our comrade, the German sniper is somewhere in this apartment building here," the Major explained, sketching a map with surprising skill and speed. "We can either try and dare him into exposing himself and let Sergeant Ross or Sergeant Catalina take a shot or we can go around and try and sneak up behind him." A wandering line was drawn around some of the other nearby buildings and behind the apartment complex.
"First one," Ross and Rebecca said in near perfect unison. Brosh seemed about to argue but thought better of it. The Major nodded solemnly.
"Very well. Sergeant Ross will set up in the front section of the bakery, near the counter. It should give you a good view without being too exposed. Private Brosh and Comrade Riza will go with her. Sergeant Catalina will be with me. We will be the distraction."
If Rebecca had any qualms about being bait, she hid them well. Riza swallowed and followed the awkward duo of Ross and Brosh as they slung their oversized rifle between them and lugged it to the Major's ordered position. The final stretch was done on her belly, crawling like a primordial creature making its first steps onto land. Broken glass and concrete shards dug into her palms through the thick rags Ross ordered her to wrap around her hands. But Riza was not about to argue. Having seen what Rebecca had inflicted on the Germans an hour earlier, she was not eager to find herself under a sniper's crosshairs.
The position was half outside of the bakery building, concealed in the shadow of a pile of rubble from the sagging ceiling. The gun was manoeuvred into place with not inconsiderable skill on Ross' part and an unexpected show of physical strength from Brosh. Riza felt distinctly useless as she pointed her own weapon aimlessly at the building the Major had drawn. It was a large apartment complex in dull sandstone, ugly and utilitarian like a lot of modern buildings. A German bomb had destroyed a large chunk of the left side, causing the corner to collapse slightly. Most of the windows were without glass.
"Alright... not even two hundred metres," Ross murmured as she dialled in the numbers on her rifle's sights. Brosh removed a pair of battered binoculars from an equally battered leather case and scanned the hollow windows of the apartment building. There was a long silence, punctuated by the distant crack of rifles and undercut by the omnipresent rumble of artillery.
A rifle discharged, far closer. There was a pause and then another shot. Riza wondered whether or not that was the distraction Major Armstrong had mentioned. Nothing seemed to happen. Riza stared at the building, eyes straining for the tell-tale reflection of light off of a lens or the orange flash of a rifle firing. Long minutes passed. No-one spoke.
Out of the corner of her eye, Riza could see a figure in a Soviet uniform dash across the road in a half crouch. It was Rebecca. She was almost entirely across the road when a rifle crack rang out and she fell. Brosh and Ross both turned to her collapsed body in horror but Riza's eyes were still fixed on the building. She had seen the flash but pinpointing it was hard when all the windows looked much the same and she was trying desperately not to look at the unmoving body of the bubbly sniper.
"There!" Riza hissed. Ross tore her eyes from her friend and pressed her face to the sights of her rifle, grim determination etched into her features.
"Where?" she asked with forced calm.
"See the section where the roof collapsed?" Riza counted quickly. "He is just to the left and one floor down."
The long barrel of the rifle shifted slightly and then was still for a moment. When it fired, it was with such a noise that Riza wondered whether or not she ought to reconsider her prior judgement that the rifle was not an artillery piece. In the enclosed space, it certainly was enough to deafen her. Brosh fiddled with his binoculars and checked the window.
"Blood," he said simply. Anti-tank rifles were hardly the type of weapons to cause flesh-wounds. He put down the binoculars and they all turned back to their fallen comrade. Who was no longer there.
"Don't look so glum," a familiar bouncy voice intoned behind them. "Bullets travel faster than sound. If someone falls over after you hear the shot..."
The Major was overjoyed to find her alive, Ross was furious at the recklessness and Brosh fitted uneasily between the two. Riza was content to stand on the outside of their familial embrace but found herself dragged in anyway. It was warm but not unpleasantly so. At last, they broke up and the Major gave Riza a vigorous pat on the back that almost sent her sprawling.
"You have quite the Hawk's Eye, Comrade Riza," he beamed at her.
Panzer - German word for tank. In this story, it will usually refer to the Panzerkampfwagen IV, the mainstay of Nazi Germany's Panzer Divisions during the mid to late war. German panzers were typically characterised (especially at this point) by high quality guns and experienced crews
Wehrmacht - the Nazi German ground forces
Hauptsturmführer - a rank of the SS roughly equivalent to Captain (or Hauptmann) in the Wehrmacht
Waffen-SS - the armed wing of the SS, the Nazi German state security service. Generally considered elite troops, they were also widely despised by the Wehrmacht and the Allies alike for their ruthless methods, persistent habit of usurping Wehrmacht authority and complicity in the vast majority of the Nazi's warcrimes
T-34 - a mass produced Soviet medium tank and widely considered one of the best designs of the war. While less well armed than the German panzers and let down by a lack of experienced crews and radios, it was incredibly easy to produce and possessed slightly superior speed (especially during the winter) and frontal armour to the German designs.
Chyort - Russian expletive loosely equivalent to "damn"
Nagant - the standard sidearm of the Russian and Soviet armed forces.
Mosin - the standard rifle of the Russian and Soviet armed forces. Formally known as the Mosin-Nagant (hence the potential confusion with the revolver).
Well... I did promise some combat this time around and this chapter has plenty. Kimblee gets a section all to himself because he's a major antagonist (and he is so fun to write) but do not expect it to be a regular thing. Roy and Riza are still the primary characters and will be for the duration of this fic. For anyone who asks whether or not this story is Royai, I am not sure how to respond. Unless it is not already obvious, there is not a big scope for romance within my premise. That being said, they will have meaningful interactions beyond trying to kill each other. I'd say more but that would spoil it, wouldn't it?