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Authors: Sven Hassel

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Historical, #War & Military

March Battalion

BOOK: March Battalion
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March Battalion

by Sven Hassel

EDITOR'S NOTE

The character who in this book is called 'Little John' has appeared in other novels by Sven Hassel under the name 'Tiny'.

'
It was the Spanish Civil War,' said Barcelona Blum, spitting casually through the open side panel of the Russian tank in which we were travelling started off fighting for one side and ended up fighting for the other. To begin with I was a mili' dono in the Servicios Especiales. Then the Nationalists got hold of me, and after I'd managed to convince them I was only an innocent German who'd been pressganged into service by General Miaja, they shoved me into the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Company, and made me fight for them, instead. Though mind you, as far as I was concerned there wasn't any great difference between the two sides in any case
....
In the Especiales we used to round up everyone suspected of being a Fascist or a fifth columnist and take them off to the Calle del Ave Maria, In Madrid. We used to line 'em up against the wall of the abattoir. The sand there was so dry the blood used to soak right up in a matter of seconds. No need to bother with cleaning operations
...
Mostly we preferred to shoot them standing up, but some of the buggers just curled into a heap and you couldn't budge them for love or money. At the last minute they always used to shout, 'Long live Spain!' ...Of course, when I got nabbed by the Nationalists it was just the same thing in reverse. Only difference was, they made us shoot them sitting down, with their backs turned. But it all came to the same thing in the end. They still used to shout "Long live Spain!" before they died
.

'
Funny thing, that: they all thought they were patriots. But when it came down to it, there was only one way of showing you were on the right side. You had to denounce someone. It didn't matter who, so long as you denounced them. They never got a chance to speak in their own defence, anyway. They were always told to shut up before they'd even opened their mouths
...

'Come the end of the war, we had a real problem on our hands. There was practically a five-year waiting list of people due to be exterminated. We had to take over the bull rings, herd them into the arena and mow them down with heavy machine-guns. We had four squadrons of Moors to give us a " hand. Villainous bastards THEY were.... After a bit, even the police had a go. Everyone wanted to be in on the act
...
And
'
when it came to it, they all died the same way. It didn't make an atom of difference which side you were on
.'

There was a moment's pause for reflection, and then Little John spoke. In his usual forthright fashion,

'I'm pissed off with the bleeding Civil War. Didn't they have any birds in Spain, for God's sake?'

Barcelona shrugged his shoulders and wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, as if to suppress the memories of slaughter. He began to speak of other things. Of orange groves and vineyards and people dancing in the street
.

Little by little we forgot the burning cold and the icy snows of Russia, and, for awhile, we felt only the sun and the sand of Barcelona's far-off Spain.

CHAPTER ONE

A
CROSS
the vast open spaces of. the steppes blew the eternal wind, whipping the snow into eddies and whirlpools. The tanks stretched out nose to tail in a long line. They were stationary now, with their crews Huddled together on the leeward side of the vehicles, seeking what little shelter they could.

Little John was lying beneath our Panzer 4. Porta had concocted a nest for himself between the caterpillar tracks, and he sat hunched up like a snow owl, his neck sunk deep into his shoulders. Between his legs crouched the Legionnaire, his teeth chattering and his face mauve.

For the moment, our hectic advance had been called to a halt. None of us knew why, and frankly none of us was very much bothered. War was still war whether the column advanced or whether it stood still. Much we cared.

Julius Heide, who had dug himself into a hole in the snow, suggested a game of pontoon, but our hands were too numb to hold the cards. The Legionnaire, indeed, had serious frostbite on both fingers and ears, and the ointment used for treatment seemed only to aggravate the condition. Porta had jettisoned his supply on the very first day, complaining that it stank of cat shit.

After a bit, Alte appeared, fighting his way towards us against the wind. We looked up at him, questioningly, knowing that he'd come straight from the C.O.

'Well?' said Porta.

The Old Man didn't reply immediately. He tossed his gun to the ground and more cautiously lowered himself on to the snow beside it. The next step was the ritual lighting of the pipe, the famous old pipe with a cover over the bowl, which he had made himself. The Legionnaire handed over his lighter. It was the very best lighter in all the world and had never yet been known to fail. It, too, was home-made, manufactured from an old lead box, a razor blade, a few scraps of rag and a piece of flint.

'Well?' insisted Porta, growing impatient. 'What'd he say?'

Little John, beneath the tank, began beating at his thighs in an effort to restore circulation.

'Christ Jesus, it's perishing!' Gingerly, he rubbed the parchment cheeks of his face. 'Did someone say spring was just around the corner?'

'Like hell, it's bloody Christmas in three weeks!' came the cheerless retort from Porta. 'And I can tell you here and now the only present you're likely to get is one in the head from Ivan.'

The Old Man, with deadened fingers, had pulled a map from his tunic pocket and was carefully spreading it out on the snow.

'Here you are. This is where we're going.'

He pointed to a spot marked on the map. Little John crawled out from his resting place to take a look.

'Kotilnikovo,' said Alte, jabbing a finger on the map. 'Thirty kilometres behind our front line. From Kotilnikovo we take off in the direction of some place called Obilnoje to have a look at the Russian troops. See what they're doing, how many of 'em are doing it... In other words, it's a reconnaissance trip. And if by any chance we find ourselves cut off with no means of getting back--' The Old Man smiled, pleasantly - 'our orders are to try and make contact with the 4th Rumanian Army, which is believed to be somewhere south-west of the Volga ... At the moment, that is. God knows where it'll be when we want to get hold of it. Blown out of existence, probably.'

A moment of silence. A reverberating fart from Porta spoke more or less adequately for the entire group.

'Who's got bats in the brain box, you or the C.O.? Ivan's not bloody blind, you know. He'll spot these tanks a bleeding mile off.'

The Old Man smiled again his pleasant smile.

'There's more to it than that. The best is yet to come. Just wait till you've heard it.'

He removed his pipe from his mouth and thoughtfully ' scratched his ear lobe with the stem.

The idea is to dress up in Russian uniforms and move about behind the Russian lines in the two T.34s we captured off them.'

The Legionnaire sat suddenly bolt upright.

'That's the next best thing to suicide.' His tone was accusing. They've no right to do it. If Ivan catches us dressed up in his clothes like that, we're done for.'

'It might be a quicker death than slowly freezing at Kolyma,' murmured Alte. 'On the whole, I think I should probably prefer it.'

Without giving us the chance of further comment, he brought us to our feet and we slouched unsoldierly through the snow towards the C.O.'s vehicle.

Captain Lander had not been long with the battalion. He came from Lesvig and he was known to be a fanatical Nazi. Dubious rumours, linking his name with various cases of ill-treatment of children, had reached the ever-receptive ears of the men at the front. Porta, as always, was the one who dug out the truth, via his friend Feders. A story emerged of icy baths in a certain 'place of education' with which it appeared Captain Lander had been connected. We were not particularly surprised. Many of those who joined the battalion had past lives that hardly bore investigation. Men who clapped you on the shoulder and called you friend, men who freely passed round their cigarettes, who received parcels of bacon and ham from Denmark, who boasted of the way they got on with the people of the occupied countries - sooner or later, their past caught up with them, and then it was either Porta or the Legionnaire who was responsible for their future.

Some were knifed between the shoulders blades during the course of a general attack; some were left to die of cold; and some were handed over to Ivan. What he did with them we never knew for certain. Perhaps it was just as well.

Captain Lander was waiting for us, standing with legs apart, gauntleted hands on hips. He was a smallish, plumpish man, about fifty years of age, the former owner of a delicatessen. He was much given to biblical quotations and scriptural-sounding speeches. Whenever he court-martilled a man, it was: 'This hurts me far more than it hurts you, but it is the will of God. His ways are imponderable when he leads the straying sheep back to the path of righteousness.'

Captain Lander prayed a great deal. Before meals, he said a lengthy grace. Before signing execution orders for Russian civilians (taken by him and him alone to be partisans) he invariably invoked the Holy Ghost. The sight of mangled and bullet-ridden bodies merely brought forth the observation that those who lived by the sword should die by the sword.

The day on which he himself executed a young girl produced the following fine turn of phrase: 'You will find a better world than this in the kingdom of the Lord.' He then gently stroked her hair and had to shoot twice before he succeeded in despatching her to the aforesaid kingdom.

In general, there seemed to exist a confusion in his mind between God and Adolf Hitler.

The, Captain kept himself always a respectable distance from the actual fighting. His iron cross was, quite simply, the result of a colossal red-tape
faux pas
. When the regiment made an attempt to discover what acts of heroism lay behind the award, Lt. Col. Hinka received orders direct from those in the highest authority in the Bendlerstrasse to drop all inquiries forthwith.

Alte made bis report, and Captain Lander turned a grave face towards us.

'War,' he explained, solemnly, 'demands its victims. It is the will of God. If a war does not kill, then it is no war. The mission on which I am sending you will for most of you no doubt end in death. But it will be the death of a soldier. An honourable death.'

'Fucking hooray,' muttered Little John, very audibly.

The Captain paused. He gave Little John a look that managed to be disapproving without in any way displaying annoyance. He had been well taught in the military school in Dresden: an officer never loses face. As a cadet, Lander had filled twenty-six exercise books with notes on the comportment of officers in all possible circumstances, including a complete section on 'how to behave on a bicycle'. He now, therefore, contented himself with a lofty stare in Little John's direction and continued with his homily.

'Death can be beautiful,' he told us. He lifted up his voice and sang out loud to the falling snowflakes. 'It can even be sweet!' he cried. 'Death can even be sweet... It is the bounden duty of a German soldier to fight for the Fatherland. To give up his life if called upon to do so. What more could he ask than to die a hero's death?'

'I could tell you, if you're really interested!'

Little John again. It was obvious from the Captain's twitching lips that he was under a strain. His face, already blue with cold, passed rapidly from purple to scarlet, and then slowly paled. 'I shall be glad, Corporal, if you will kindly remain silent until such time as I choose to speak to you.'

'Yes, sir!' said Little John, smartly. 'Remain silent,' he murmured, as if to lodge the words more securely in his memory. 'Remain silent until Captain chooses to speak to you.'

Porta guffawed, and the Legionnaire drew his features into a hideous grin. Steiner spat lustily upon a nearby corpse half buried in the snow.

Captain Lander gnawed at his lower lip. With his right hand he sought the comfort of his gun belt, fingering the Walther revolver that he carried.

'The mission with which you are to be entrusted is one of vital importance. You should be proud and happy that you have been selected for it. It is evidently the will of God that you men should penetrate beyond the Russian lines.'

'God?' said the voice of Little John, plaintive and puzzled. 'I thought it was the will of our Generals?'

In one instant, twenty-six exercise books with notes on the comportment of officers were swept aside. Lander strode forward to Little John and stood quivering, his head on a level with Little John's chest. As he spoke, a spray of saliva came from his lips.

'Insubordinate sot! It's three days' hard labour for you, my man. Insolence towards officers will not be tolerated in the German Army! One more sound out of you and I'll shoot you on the spot! Repeat what I have just said.'

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