Authors: Robert Conroy
Tags: #Soviet Union, #Historical - General, #World War, #World War II, #Alternative History, #1939-1945, #General, #United States, #Historical, #War & Military, #American Historical Fiction, #Fiction, #Foreign relations, #Fiction - Historical
“What’s so funny?” Dimitri asked. “You people haven’t decided that this monumental adventure we are about to depart on is a joke, now, have you?”
Before Lieutenant Singer could form a reply, Logan answered. “No, sir, we haven’t gotten that far. We were just discussing why I am qualified as a combat instructor. But now that you mention it, this does have all the earmarks of a fiasco.”
Dimitri half smiled. “Better a fiasco than a tragedy. But why, Sergeant Logan?”
“Captain, because we’re sending one long column up one thin road toward Berlin. It can be blocked or ambushed at any place or at any time. Didn’t the British get their asses all chewed up trying to do something similar near Arnhem a while ago? Worse, it looks like someone got armor and mounted infantry all mixed up together, although at least the lead infantry are in half-tracks, which will provide some protection against small arms if they’re shot at. Unfortunately, the rest of us have to ride in trucks, and canvas sides won’t stop a peashooter. Frankly, sir, I’d rather walk.”
“Can’t,” said Dimitri. “We wouldn’t be able to keep up with the high-speed convoy that will soon be racing down those excellent German roads toward Berlin.”
Both Logan and Singer caught the note of sarcasm in the captain’s voice. Nobody was going to race. The move forward would be slow and cautious. “At least,” Singer said, “we won’t be in the lead group, where the action will likely take place.”
Captain Dimitri rose to leave and shouldered his carbine. “Tell him, Sergeant Logan,” he said as he walked on.
“Tell me what?” Singer asked as the captain departed. He had the terrible feeling that the captain and the sergeant, who went back a ways together, were laughing at him. Somehow, he didn’t really mind it. They were the experienced soldiers and not he, and, despite Logan’s protestations, the sergeant was a solid and respected soldier.
“Sir,” said Logan, “if you were a German unit setting up an ambush, which would you prefer to attack, the heavily armored and protected head of the column, or those soft, fat, and dumb trucks?”
Singer shook his head sadly. “You go for the trucks. Then the head of the column would have to hold up and wait until things got sorted out. Damn. Maybe we should volunteer for point. I promised my wife’s parents that I’d keep her as a JAP, and I’d like a chance to keep that promise.”
“What’s a JAP?” Logan asked, feeling that Singer was teasing him.
Singer grinned. “Jewish American Princess. And I do think it’d be best to be the lead dog.”
“That’s right,” said Logan. “And if they do set up a roadblock to delay the point of the column, then the rest of us will have to stop and wait for it to be cleared.
is the phrase I think fits best.”
“Shit. Well, intelligence says the Germans are gone.”
“Lieutenant,” laughed Logan, “with all respects to the fine men in G-2, I will believe that when pigs fly.”
Singer was puzzled. “Sergeant Logan, how come you’re not an officer? You are certainly intelligent enough, and I understand you do have a couple years of college.”
Logan shrugged. “At one time I thought I was going to be an officer. I tested out okay and put in the papers for Officer Candidate School down at Fort Benning, but we all got shipped out before anything could happen. My tough luck, I guess. At any rate, I can’t complain. I got my three stripes fast enough and, now that I’m a platoon sergeant, I think they owe me one more.”
Singer got up and left, saying he was going to write a quick note to his wife before they moved out, and Logan wondered what kind of woman he’d married. Lieutenant Singer was short and a little plump. Logan wondered if his wife was short and plump as well. He shook his head. No way he should start fantasizing about his lieutenant’s unseen bride. He stood and shook the dirt off the seat of his pants. Time to get his squad together and make sure the new lieutenant didn’t get lost on the way to Berlin.
Logan guessed he was flattered that it was he who was assigned as Singer’s babysitter until the man got the necessary experience. First Sergeant Krenski was just as happy to have the virgin Lieutenant Singer out of the way until he learned the lay of the land and could actually begin leading.
Logan looked again at the line of tanks now moving slowly down the road preparatory to jumping off for Berlin. The tanks, even with their high silhouettes and stubby guns, still looked strong and powerful. So how come he had this feeling of foreboding?
HE SMALL ROOM
in the Kremlin was brightly lit by the sun streaming through the high glass windows, which had been built in the days before electricity. The glare caused Josef Stalin to blink as he entered. The other two men ignored the premier’s momentary discomfort as he moved behind the desk and seated himself. Stalin, who was quite short, liked to be seated when in the company of others. The first of the two men was the bespectacled Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, who at age fifty-five held the official title of Commissar for Foreign Affairs, although he fulfilled whatever duties Stalin assigned him.
The second man was Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria, the squinty-eyed and reptilian chief of state security, the dreaded NKVD. He held the rank of marshal. Beria’s army consisted of border guards and, most important, those men whose duty was to hold the regular army commanders responsible for their loyalty. Virtually at will or whim, they could shoot deserters or execute officers for failure to accomplish tasks. It hardly mattered whether the tasks were achievable. The NKVD considered failure as treason. Along with enjoying torturing people, rumor also had it that Beria was fond of small children.
Molotov and Beria waited impassively while Stalin stripped the tobacco from a couple of cigarettes, tamped the shreds into the bowl of an old pipe he habitually used, and lighted it. Each of the two men knew his place. They were Stalin’s key advisers, but not trusted ones. Stalin trusted no one. Each knew that one misstep could result in his own personal destruction. They both knew what screaming horrors were in store for those who found themselves the targets of Stalin’s wrath, and whose lives ended in the basement of the NKVD’s Lubyanka prison. Even Beria, who administered the Lubyanka, knew he was only a word away from dying there.
Stalin blew out a cloud of noxious smoke. “You’ve read this man Truman’s message. What do you think?”
Molotov knew he had to speak first. “Incredible,” he said, and Beria nodded.
“Comrade Molotov, I expected more of a response.”
Molotov found himself sweating and knew it wasn’t the heat. “It is as if it were Churchill speaking and not Truman. With Roosevelt dead, there appears to be a degree of confusion in the White House.” Again, Beria nodded.
“Comrade Molotov, do you know Truman?”
“I met him briefly, but I do not know him well at all. Few do. As you know, he came from nowhere, a political nothing.”
It was not quite a lie. Molotov had racked his brain and been unable to recall meeting Truman at any time, but concluded that it was prudent to say he must have met the former senator from Missouri who was, until very recently, the almost anonymous vice president of the United States.
Stalin relit his pipe. “Yet I am expected to believe this nonsense? That, in the name of our sacred and fraternal alliance against the Hitlerites, the Americans are going to send two full divisions into Berlin as a favor to us? I suspect the treacherous hand of Churchill in this American action. He has coerced the Americans into taking Berlin from the rear and robbing us of our glory in being the ones to take it from the Hitlerites. I suspect that the American divisions will not only try to liberate Berlin, but will also attempt to liberate Hitler and his coterie of lackeys, and use them for their own purposes. Hitler has tried for so very long to split the alliance and sue for a separate peace, and now it appears he has succeeded.”
“But why, Comrade Stalin?” Beria asked. Only his eyes betrayed any sense of nervousness.
Stalin stared at him coldly. “Because Churchill hates us almost as much as he hates the Nazis, perhaps even more. Now that Germany is defeated, he feels he can move to stop us from becoming too powerful, and he has convinced this Truman thing to go along. Do you doubt me?”
“No,” they answered in unison.
“It is utter arrogance. We will not let them rob us of our rightful vengeance. It will be stopped.”
Stalin rose and looked out the window onto the sunny but empty courtyard. “I will contact Marshals Zhukov and Koniev to discuss the final drive on Berlin. We have waited years for this moment and we will not be denied. We will be the ones to take Berlin and destroy the Hitlerite nest, not the Americans. We will not let them liberate a thing. The Americans will be stopped before Berlin, whatever the consequences and regardless of the lies they give as their intentions.”
Stalin glanced at the clock on the wall. It was midafternoon. “In a few hours, we will commence the greatest bombardment the world has ever seen. Then more then two and a half million men will assault Berlin and drive toward the Elbe. I will inform both Zhukov and Koniev that they are to expedite the pincers movement behind Berlin and seal off the rear approaches to Berlin.”
Molotov, normally impassive, paled. “But, Comrade Stalin, what if the Americans are already in Berlin or within the pincers?”
Stalin smiled tightly. “Then so be it. The Americans will squeal very loudly and learn a lesson.”
HAT IS THE
comrade tank commander staring at this fine night, this most wonderful of evenings, which signals the end of the Nazi empire?”
Commander Sergei Suslov climbed down from the dark turret of the T34 tank and stretched his tired muscles like a cat.
“Comrade driver,” he said with a tired grin to his slightly insane crewman Ivan Latsis, “I was staring at Germany across the lovely Oder River and wondering how much longer they can possibly hold out against our armies.”
They glanced across the clearly visible river where hundreds of flashes of light on the heights overlooking them showed where shells were impacting with horrible regularity. Each man had to speak clearly, as the noise level was deafening. Suslov wondered how it could be endured.
“They are not responding to our barrage,” Latsis said.
If that was the case, Suslov could not blame them. His company, his brigade, were part of the largest army the world had ever seen. It had more men, tanks, guns, and planes than could have ever been dreamed of only a few years prior, and had been accumulating and gathering its strength along the Oder for what would surely be the final assault on Berlin, only thirty miles away.
Suslov said, “They have very likely withdrawn from their fortifications, which we are so intently bombarding, and will not return to them until the advance units start to cross the Oder. Only then will they respond to our invitation to do battle.”
The Germans on the hills had an excellent view of the Russian preparations, but had chosen not to waste ammunition on them or to give away the location of their few remaining heavy guns. Suslov could not complain about that decision on their part, nor could he complain about the fact that he and his armored brigade would not be part of the first wave. Instead, they would follow once a bridgehead had been secured and would be part of the breakout.
Latsis was constantly brooding, his face looking particularly dour in the flickering lights of the distant explosions. “I hear a rumor that we won’t be allowed to attack Berlin, that the honor will fall to others.”
Suslov shrugged and tried not to see the hate on the other man’s face. “It would be an honor I could do without. Tanks are meant to fight in the open, not in streets. I had all the city fighting I could ever want at Stalingrad.”
Latsis agreed reluctantly. The name of Stalingrad was both sacred and evocative of slaughter on a mass scale. Suslov had taken another tank and crew through the battle, been wounded, and returned to duty as this tank’s new commander a few months earlier.
“Even so,” Latsis insisted, “I would like the opportunity to destroy a portion of the city and the people inside it.”
“I know,” Suslov said gently.
Latsis had told them several times what had happened to his village when the Nazis took it. It was not just that the people had been killed, but how they had died.
was the better word, although even that was inadequate to describe the rape and torture that had preceded death in so many cases. Latsis was obsessed with the fact that both his mother and his sister had been gang-raped and mutilated by a bunch of Nazis, and left to die. He had found through the handful of survivors that his thirteen-year-old sister had lived in screaming agony for a few days after, but that his mother had died almost immediately.
Suslov slapped Latsis on the shoulder in an attempt to break his driver’s dark mood. “Don’t worry, there’s more of Germany than just one city. You’ll have your opportunity to make them squeal.”
Latsis grunted and moved away, leaving Suslov to wonder just what was in store for those Germans in Berlin. There were hundreds of thousands of Russians with stories just as horrible as the one Latsis told. As for himself, he had no love for the Nazis, nor hatred either. He just wanted them dead so he could go home. That is, if there was a home for him anywhere in this mutilated world.
ajor General Walter Bedell Smith, “Beetle” to his friends, was a short and belligerent man who some compared to a bulldog with a bad attitude. As chief of staff to Dwight David Eisenhower, he served at Ike’s pleasure and frequently did the tough and dirty jobs that preserved his boss’s benevolent and affable reputation. His input was received and respected. That included this afternoon’s meeting between Omar Bradley, who commanded the huge Twelfth Army Group, and Eisenhower, who commanded all the Allied military forces in Europe except the Russians.
“Shut the door, Beetle.” Smith did as Ike asked.
Eisenhower was grim as he paced the floor of his office. “Brad, what do you think?” Ike asked.
“I don’t like it one bit.” Bradley was tall and lean. He was rarely seen smiling in public. Despite this, he was considered a friendly man, and was delighted when soldiers started calling him the “GI’s General.”
Ike nodded. “Good, so what have you done about it?”
Bradley walked to the map. “I’ve given Simpson orders that he is to do as much as is humanly possible to avoid casualties and unexpected contact with either the Germans or the Reds. The 17th Armored and 54th Infantry divisions have crossed the Elbe above Magdeburg and, unlike the previous crossing, have met almost no resistance. Unless you object, they will be the force that moves on Berlin. They will pick up the autobahn and follow it toward Berlin. However, just south and west of Potsdam, the autobahn branches, with one route going to the Spandau district, which is on the outskirts. We will take the Spandau route and not charge into the heart of the battle for the city.”
Ike nodded and lit a cigarette. For the last year he had been chain-smoking. “Good.”
Bradley continued. “That will put us in Berlin proper, but a long ways from where Hitler is hiding and where the Reds will be making their main assault. The river, the Havel, will help separate us from that battle and any accidental involvement.”
“Are they up to strength?” Beetle asked.
“The 17th Armored is a new division with very little combat experience, and is pretty well up to snuff as far as men and equipment go, but the 54th has been in action since January and has been worn down a bit, but it’s still in good shape. I’m sending Chris Miller from my staff to command. He’s a good, solid man who won’t make any mistakes and who won’t go off like a cowboy.”
Ike liked Bradley’s thinking. It would satisfy the political need to be in Berlin without actually being in the dangerous heart of the city. Hopefully, the Reds would understand the American army was not going to interfere with their vengeance.
Smith stared at the map and smiled. “Gatow?”
This time the corners of Bradley’s mouth did rise in satisfaction. Gatow, along with Tempelhof, was one of the two major airports serving Berlin, and it was in the Spandau district, right along the line of American advance.
“Well,” Bradley said. “I couldn’t see us not having an airport to use if we actually got there. Tempelhof’s on the other side of town and the Russians will own it soon enough, but Gatow could easily be ours.”
“Brad, what if our boys can’t advance? The Germans could slow them fairly easily.”
“Ike, my orders to Simpson and to Miller and those boys are very simple. They go to Spandau safely or not at all. This is not a suicide mission and they are not, under any circumstances, to do anything foolish. If German resistance is too great, they are to stop and dig in. If it looks like they are going to get overwhelmed by the Germans, they are to cut bait and run back to the Elbe as fast as their legs will carry them.”
Smith shook his head. “Truman might not like that.”
“Screw Truman,” said Ike, and Bradley laughed. Eisenhower’s carefully nurtured image as a fresh-faced country boy was not quite correct. Decades of military service had taught him to swear fluently.
Bradley teased. “Ike, you’d better not let the boys from
magazine hear you talk like that.”
Ike grinned the now famous cheerful smile. “Fuck
• • •
HE RIPPING SCREECH
and clang of bullets hitting metal jarred them from their trancelike state in the truck to one of total animal alert. “Out!” screamed Logan. “Out, out, out!”
The horrifying noise continued, only now it was joined with the sounds of men screaming and crying out in fear and pain. The soldiers in the truck needed no urging as they tumbled to the ground and rolled or crawled to any fold in the earth that might provide some cover from the bullets. As the German machine guns continued, there was still more screaming.
Where the hell was the firing coming from? Logan thought. A Sherman about a hundred yards ahead responded with its own machine gun and Logan saw the tracers arc toward a farmhouse on a low hill a quarter mile away and splatter on its stone walls. In a second, the Sherman’s main gun fired and a section of the house blew away, followed by other pieces of the building as additional tank guns found the target. The machine guns inside responded with a quick burst and then fell silent as the building disintegrated into a pile of burning rubble.
Logan rolled over to where Singer lay staring wide-eyed at the house, or what was left of it. “Hey, Lieutenant, so how’d you like your first taste of battle?” Despite the apparent casualness of the question, Logan was shaking from the suddenness of the attack.
“Jesus, Logan. I was just looking at that particular house when I saw the krauts open fire from a window. God, it was so sudden!”
And so violent, Logan thought.
“And how the hell did they get inside our patrols?” Singer asked, his hands shaking too.
“Not difficult at all for a couple of Nazi fanatics who want to commit suicide. Our patrols can’t be everywhere, so they probably just hid in a basement or a closet until our men passed by.”
Logan checked his men and found them all unhurt except for a couple who complained about being trampled in the mad rush to get out of the truck. They were still alive and there was nervous joking about it. Logan looked forward a couple of trucks and grabbed Singer’s arm.
Unceremoniously, he pulled the lieutenant to the truck that had recently passed them on the other side of the divided road. It had borne the brunt of the raking fire by the gunner in the house, and a half-dozen bodies lay sprawled about it, horribly torn and bleeding profusely. Medics had separated the dead and dying from those who might live, and were attempting to stop the blood that seemed to flow like thick red water from fire hydrants.
Singer paled at the sight and the stench of the smelly gore, which was already darkening and beginning to congeal. “It’s awful, Logan,” he said and tried not to gag.
“I know, Lieutenant, that’s why I wanted you to see it. That’s what could happen if you fuck up when you’re in charge. In this case, no one did anything wrong and certainly these guys did nothing to deserve to be shot to pieces like this. Hell, it could have been us as easily as them.”
Logan turned toward the now totally destroyed building. The actions of those few Nazi soldiers had slowed the entire column.
Dimitri’s loud voice penetrated their thoughts. “Singer, Logan, take some men up there and check it out.”
They gathered the platoon and moved up the hill, weapons at the ready. The farmhouse had been flattened and was smoking, but death could still be hiding in the ruins. They fanned out and approached it from three sides. Once close, it appeared that nothing was alive in the rubble. A charred body stuck grotesquely out of the ruins, but that was it. A blackened arm slowly moved. Someone yelled that it was still alive. A couple of men fired at the body, blowing it to bits. Satisfied, they turned and returned to the stalled column.
Attacks had happened before, but never so close. Always it was a distant chattering of machine-gun fire from up ahead or way behind, or maybe the threat of mines in the road. But never anything like this. Never right beside them. Along the way they had passed a couple of burned-out buildings and a destroyed truck, but everything human had been picked up before they arrived.
Logan shook his head grimly. “Y’know what’s worse, Lieutenant. I’m damn glad these guys weren’t from D Company. I don’t feel guilty about it. It’s like them being from another unit makes it easier to deal with.”
Singer understood. “Yeah, like they’re not even in our army and this really didn’t happen.”
They returned to their own truck and the men gathered about it. “Like I said, Lieutenant, now what do you think of combat?”
“It’s shit, Sergeant Logan, really, truly shit.”
Logan nodded. “Now will someone tell me just what the hell we’re doing here? Everybody says we’re going to fall back to the Elbe when the krauts surrender, so why did our guys have to get killed and wounded when they should have been safe and happy on the other side of that damn river? Whose idea was this?” he said angrily. “Who the hell is trying to prove a point with Stalin?”
Singer nodded. Captain Dimitri had read a letter from a general named Miller in which he spelled out the goals and objectives of what he referred to as Miller Force. It didn’t make anybody happier. The war was almost over and they were sticking their necks out. It wasn’t fair.
seemingly drunkenly, as she forced her aching and weary legs to move. Walking more than a couple of hundred feet was something she’d been unable to do for several weeks, and the inactivity had made her soft. The lack of proper food—or any food at all, for that matter—had made her weak, and her young and once nimble joints were racked with pain. Her head pounded from pain as she and her young nephew Pauli followed the bearded and one-legged man who was going to save them. Save them from what? she wondered as her eyes tried to focus. From the Russians, she remembered. From death.
If only she knew his name, Elisabeth thought dizzily. She had been brought up to believe in God, and she wondered if the one-legged man was a saint or an angel. Maybe he was the Archangel Michael? A few feet away, the man hobbled along on his crutch, crippled in body but leading them through strength and force of will.
Behind her, she heard the rumble and thunder of the battle for the city of Berlin, the center of Nazi Germany. For several days, the artillery had been incessant and the bombing had been a nonstop drumming that shook the earth and caused buildings to disintegrate on top of their occupants, burying and crushing the people inside. It would seem a miracle if anyone was alive. Yet there were many people still hiding in their basements and shelters while others, like Pauli and herself, attempted to flee westward from the burning city.
A sharper noise intruded as something large exploded in the distance. She resisted the urge to turn around and gaze at the billowing black clouds that sometimes blotted out the sun. In her confusion, she thought she would be like Lot’s wife and be turned into a pillar of salt for her sin of inquisitiveness.
There were about fifty refugees. They stopped and she looked up ahead to see what the cause was. It was another roadblock, and the jackals from Himmler’s SS were searching for deserters. The slack body of a young man hung from a telephone pole, and she tried in vain to keep a wide-eyed Pauli from seeing it. The corpse’s eyes were open and his purple tongue stuck out.
A golden-haired and well-fed SS officer in his late twenties, clad in a shockingly clean black uniform, walked through the little crowd and sniffed at them in dissatisfaction. There were no deserters here. Only the old, the lame, a few women, and a couple of children. He stood in front of Elisabeth and stared, and she looked back at him although her eyes continued to have a hard time focusing. In her condition she was physically thin and shapeless and was wearing the clothing of a small man. She also probably looked quite mad.
“And what is this,” the officer sneered. “Male or female?”
A couple of soldiers snickered, and the officer ran his hand down the outside of her shirt, searching for breasts. Once she had had a nice petite figure. Now she was a shapeless stick.
“I can’t tell,” the SS man pronounced to his men in mock confusion. He laughed at his own joke and his men laughed along. Then he jammed his hand down Elisabeth’s slacks and grabbed her crotch so hard that she yelped in pain and shock. “Female!” the officer proclaimed triumphantly. “But so wasted she isn’t worth fucking.” He waved to the one-legged man who was glaring at him. “Cripple, get these people out of here. Heil Hitler!”
Elisabeth stood transfixed by the brutal actions of the SS officer until the one-legged man limped up to her. Steadying himself with his crutch, he patted her cheek with his hand. She was almost in shock from the incident.
“It’s all right, little girl. It is all a bad dream that will soon be ending.” He looked at her sunken cheeks and pale skin. “When did you last eat?” he asked.
“She feeds me,” Pauli chirped with the innocence of his six years.
“Ah,” the man said, understanding. The girl had been giving her scant supply of food to the boy. “What is your name?” he commanded her, and Elisabeth told him.
“Good,” he said. “I am Wolfgang von Schumann. Once I commanded a brigade of tanks. Now I shepherd this little flock. Do you understand me?” Elisabeth nodded dreamily. She was almost out of energy and the world was starting to revolve. Von Schumann continued. “In a few minutes, I am going to call a halt for the night. We will distribute what food we have. I will see that the boy has his share and you will eat yours and not give it away. Do you understand? If you love this boy, you will help yourself stay alive for him.”
Elisabeth blinked and started to cry. “Yes,” she whimpered. She saw that von Schumann was about the same age as her late father, maybe fifty. He had a stern face, but his eyes were sad, not cruel.
Von Schumann gestured for a couple of women to help Elisabeth, who was about to collapse. “Perhaps we can even find some extra food to help you regain your strength.”