Saturday, 10 December 2016

Lofty wiped his brow

Lofty wiped his brow, the sweat and grit scraping muddy lines on his forehead. The Italian landscape was quiet, without the sound of the 25pdrs dropping shells on the Germans in small village ahead the birds had started chirping cautiously, and only the trudge of the platoon’s boots or the jangle of gear marked the passing of the New Zealanders.

“The makeup is looking good there Lofty.” remarked Patterson.

“Might have that career in theatre after all.” he replied with a chuckle.

Corporal Smithers called a halt and the platoon gathered forward around Sergeant Ballbriquer. The Sarge wasn’t exactly what you’d call imposing. A small man with a bad moustache and skinny limbs, he had a reputation for hard-arsedness you’d expect from a Hollywood stereotype of the rank. He drew himself up to his full 5’8” and addressed the platoon.

“Right you useless buggers. Our mission today is to recon the village over this small hill.” He indicated a hill ahead where an AT section was man-handling six-pounders up to a ridge.

“We’re moving to the right of that hill to support the gunnys. There’s Vickers teams moving the left, and to their left is 18 Platoon. They get the job of investigating reports on there being a Tiger in the vicinity. So if you’re wanting to bitch about a bit of stabby stabby, spare a thought for those poor bastards.”

He leaned his helmet back and nodded to the Lieutenant. The Company CO stepped forward, “Right! 19 Platoon! The Staghounds have gone forward, and we expect them to scout past a series of hedges to the north of us. Reports are that Jerry is in a tree line past some wheat fields. Stick with your corporals, the Vickers will be laying down suppressing fire, and those six pounders will keep any tanks at bay.

“Remember! There is no armoured support and no arty in this Army List! So we’re digging the bastards out ourselves the old fashioned way!”

Lofty and Patterson exchanged grim smiles. They knew “the old fashioned way” meant Lieutenant Chopper shooting numerous Germans in the face with slightly battered Webley. In the past two battles they’d fought a German company to a standstill while under fire from Pak38s and an outflank by some determined Stugs, and assaulted a platoon of Panzer IVs with sticky bombs after different section of six pounders had been badly mauled by the panzer’s 75s. Casualties in the platoon has been light so far, but you can only push your luck so hard – if it weren’t for the timely intervention of a Staghound platoon in the last battle, the platoon would have machine-gunned to pieces before they could dig in.


The platoon set out at a fast walk, glancing over their shoulders to the gunners grunting and swearing under the weight of their guns and ammunition. The ridge wasn’t huge, but the Italian soil was deep and the rain recent. The platoon hoped the covering fire would be ready in time.

The men flinched as the report of heavy guns started up. An explosion sounded and the beginnings of a fuel fire rose quickly into the sky, the rattle of ammunition cooking off cracked across the landscape, and Corporal Smithers picked up the pace. Lofty and Paterson increased the speed of their walk to a light jog along with the rest of their section, and the platoon advanced quickly towards the hubbub. More smoke could be seen rising, and the heavy guns were silent.

“Might be the Stags bought it…” muttered Lofty.

*             *             *

Platoon 18 was making good time. They’d set out into some kind of a walled garden, and were advancing quickly under cover some tall trees. Their mission was to seize a stone villa on the edge of the unnamed town ahead, and scout out a Tiger reported to be in the vicinity. They had seventeen pdrs to their left flank, but the gunners were struggling to set up lines of fire into the town, with too many tall hedges and tree-lines preventing visibility. The unit reported possibly seeing their prey near the villa, but they suspected it moved quickly to escape their shells.

The walled garden ended abruptly and the platoon drew up close. Through a gap to their right Private Billings saw smoke pouring up and over some high hedges.

“That’ll be what those reports were!” He shouted to the remainder of this section.

“Stow it Private…” hushed his Lance Corporal, “There’s Jerry about.”

Along the wall from Billings the Second Lieutenant pointed to a Sergeant, who gathered a squad around him. The first man went up and over the wall, followed quickly by 4 others. Billings could hear their boots clattering across the cobblestones, a shattered window, and he glanced around through the gap to see the last of the group entering the villa.

“Clear!” came the call, and two more groups of infantry scrambled over the wall and galloped over to the safety of the stone building.

“So where is Jerry…” muttered the Lance Corporal.

*             *             *

Having met no Germans as they advanced at pace around the flank of the ridge 19 Platoon was making good time. They were coming up on the billowing smoke of what was probably the last position of the Staghounds, when the heard the THUMP of a very big gun indeed.

“Tiger!” Patterson said, and the platoon dropped to its haunches involuntarily. A gout of earth flew up in the air near the ridgeline, and the tracer of vehicle machine-guns could be seen spraying what might be the gunners.

“Move!!” shouted Sergeant Ballbriquer, “If we’re stuck the open the bastard will be on top of us!”
The platoon surged ahead. Lofty, noticing the Vickers crews setting up on a hedgerow to their left, prayed silently they’d be able to dig in before Jerry noticed any of the Kiwis.

Lofty and Patterson sprinted up to a hedge ahead of them, and glanced around through the gate. The black smoke gathering about the burning Staghounds had been joined by a light grey smoke from a smouldering wheat field, and looked for all the world like decent cover. They could see that another hedge ran forward past the three Staghounds, and obscured the line of sight to the forest that was their destination.

Corporal Smithers galloped past them towards what looked to be the only Staghound not ablaze, closely followed by the rest of the section. Lofty and Patterson hoisted their Lee Enfields and followed ducking low in case of snipers or machine guns, and came up on Smithers checking over what looked to be a recon crewman.

“What’s your name son?!” Smithers demanded, shaking the crewman out of his stupor. “What happened to your unit?”

The crewman looked up, “G-g-Garden…” He stammered, “Jerry opened up on us from the hedgeline across the fields…

“It was just so quick… We’d barely made it into the cover of these hedges, then they opened up… We forgot to measure how close they were… our bad… they might have been within 20cm… then… then we failed our reccie roll… damn Jerries cleaned us up… I bailed, but the others…”

Smithers looked across at two infantrymen, “You two! He barked, see if those damned AT are still where Garden said they were! It’s at least turn 4 so that bastards might have pulled out!”

Sergeant Ballbriquer jogged past, the remainder of the platoon in tow, “Leave him!” He bellowed to Smithers over the crackle of the burning Staghounds, “We need to keep the pressure on!”

*             *             *

Private Billings glanced round the cover the wall, just enough to see the unmistakeable outline of the big cat. The 88 thundered, and Billings followed the line of fire to the 6 pounders he knew were covering the platoon from the ridge to their right.

“Kitty-Cat!!” He shouted along to the Second Lieutenant, who turned and pointed to the platoon PIAT team. They bounded up and over the wall with their heavy gear, and under the cover of the villa dived through one of the smashed windows.

Billings saw the Second Lieutenant’s head snap round to the platoon’s left. The unmistakable sound of .303s and Mausers was coming from the direction of the seventeen pounders. The officer nodded to a Sergeant who grabbed a Corporal by his shoulder and started dragging him towards the covering wall in the direction of the firefight, the section falling in and following quickly. A glance from a trooper over the wall and the shout to the Lieutenant’s confirmed Billings’ fear, the seventeen pounders were being over-run.


“On me!” Shouted the Lieutenant, and the infantry readied their rifles. Behind then, in a pause between the rattle of the Tiger’s machine guns, Billings thought he heard the muffled ‘clunk’ of the PIAT being fired, but a reply from the 88 suggested that the Tiger was still operational.

“We have a Tiger to take down!!” The Second Lieutenant bellowed, “Ready sticky bombs!!”

Leaving the dozen men with the Sergeant to cover their rear against the approaching German infantry, the remainder of the platoon surged out towards the isolated Tiger, sitting over-confidently in the plaza of the town. It opened up with its machine guns against the charging infantry, but there was no stopping them. One group of infantry rolled a 1 and disappeared in a ball of fire, but the remainder surged up and onto the heavy tank.

“My God…” gasped Billings, “He’s not going to!”

The Second Lieutenant was unwrapping the most deadly sticky bomb Billings had ever heard of. A weapon so lethal only a maniac would use.

The turd of an apple cider hangover…

*             *             *
  
Lofty fell in behind Corporal Smithers as they halted behind a large hedge. They’d seen the trees above the hedge as they’d approached, so they that if any Germans were about, they couldn’t be far away. The two scouts had established that the AT unit had withdrawn after destroying Garden’s Staghounds, so Lofty felt secure that they wouldn’t be outflanked just yet.

Lieutenant Chopper pulled his moustache and pointed to two men, “Under the hedge! We have Jerry out there somewhere!”

The unlucky troopers dropped to their bellies and began crawling into the hedge. Meanwhile, the clatter of the Vickers heavy machine guns could be heard to the platoon’s left.

 “Sounds like the MGs finally finished digging their holes!” said Patterson and the men around him laughed.

One of the troopers scuttled back and reported to Lieutenant Chopper. Lofty knew it couldn’t be good, because the Chopper took out his Webley and smiled at it, the devil incarnate. Pretty soon word came down the line for the platoon to start crawling under and through the hedge.

*             *             *

18 Platoon had fallen back from the shit-smeared Tiger and into the walled garden, still gasping from the effort of taking the big cat down.

“They’re coming!” someone bellowed, and Billings climbed up to fire his .303 into a line of a German infantry.


The Germans were over the wall before Billings knew it, and the world dissolved into a slow-motion picture of blades and blood. They’d poured fire into them from the wall, and the rest of 18 Platoon supported from the closer windows of the villa, but the bastard Germans has passed all their infantry saves. 18 Platoon was losing men rapidly, and they looked like they were for it until the Second Lieutenant, standing like the Rock of Gibraltar itself called ‘British Bulldog!’ and the Kiwis lifted themselves for one last effort. The tide turned onto the Germans, and before they knew it the Kiwis has pushed their enemy to the far end of the garden.

A grunt from a German lying prone on the ground resulted in a large hole from a .303, and the Second Lieutenant calling the remainder of the platoon back into the garden from the villa.
“This is it men…” he said to the platoon survivors, “time to finish them off!”

18 Platoon charged through the trees onto the remaining three bases of Germans.

*             *             *

Lofty was charging across the short distance from the hedge to the tree line when he heard the screaming from the town to their left. A sound of terror so chilling he almost stopped in his tracks.

“NEEEEEEEEIN!!!! DER GESTANK!! DER GESTANK!”

The fire from the Vickers was abating, ragged cheering was carried on the wind from the 6 pounder crews on the ridgeline, and Lieutenant Chopper had thrown himself into the undergrowth. Firing was gathering pace, with Mausers, MP40s and Lee Enfields crackling among the treeline. A German appeared in his line of sight, and Lofty dropped to one knee to fire his rifle from the shoulder. The German fell in a bloodied mess as Patterson left past Lofty to bayonet another. The platoon was surging forward into the German lines and the enemy was falling back through the trees, ragged firing failing to keep the Kiwis at bay.

As the Germans fled 19 Platoon slowed and gathered together, advancing more cautiously through the trees towards what looked to be a treeline, and beyond it a stone wall. Sergeant Ballbriquer sent a small section forward, and the platoon followed shortly behind, crouching low to make the most of the hard cover.


Lieutenant Chopper, wiping blood (and possibly entrails), from his moustache popped his head over the wall. The answer of ricocheting bullets suggested the Germans weren’t demoralised just yet. He grinned.

"Sergeant!" the Lieutenant yelled down the line, "who did we lose in the firefight?!"

"The redshirts! PIAT and 2" mortar team!" replied Sergeant BallBriquer.

"No surprises there!" shouted a infantryman, to a rumble of grim laughter from the platoon. Lieutenant Chopper climbed into a low crouch behind the wall.

“MEN!!” He shouted, “ARE YOU READY?! One last push and we’ll be onto the objective! There’s at least two heavy machine guns out there! There are MP40s and riflemen!”

He grinned again.

“BUT YOU’LL BE FINE! DO YOU KNOW WHY?!”

The infantrymen glanced confused at one another as Lieutenant Chopper stood and prepared to leap over the wall and assault the Germans, who Lofty could now see were hiding in the ruins of a stone villa across the street.

“YOU’LL BE FINE BECAUSE YOU KNOW POOCH CAN’T ROLL FIVE 4s ON 18 DICE!!”

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