Read the prologue here
D-Day Minus Two
Skies over the English Channel.
The plane ride so far had been uneventful- a word Corporal James Kirby didn’t think would be associated with the war. Of course, he had only been in the war for a few months- having somehow scraped through basic training at Fort Knox. And most of those few months were spent whiling away time at Belfast’s assortment of pubs waiting for his turn to be dropped into France along with the rest of the 101st Airborne Division. Not that he was complaining- he liked whiling away time courting women from the British isles and drinking strong Irish beer.
The plane jolted suddenly, waking James up from his reverie. Around him, some of the soldiers looked around them with their eyes widened. Unlike him, these were first time soldiers. Others just sat there with their eyes closed as if nothing had happened – these were the ‘vets’ (short for veterans)- for whom the battle that was about to ensue in France was their biggest hope yet to earn a ticket home.
“Don’t worry. It’s just turbulence!” the pilot- a young Irish chap by the name of Donnell O’Connor announced. James spoke briefly with O’Connor before take-off. He was a pilot with a civil aviation company when the war broke out and soon enlisted to fight. After flying Spitfires with the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, he was transferred to the Army seven months ago in preparation for the assault on Nazi-occupied France.
“Sir?” a hesitant voice next to him asked.
“Yes, Pennington?” James replied with his eyes closed, recognising the hushed tone accompanied by a heavy Southern accent to be that of Michael Pennington, a farmer from San Antonio.
Pennington came closer to James, something the latter didn’t think was previously possible in the cramped space of the aircraft.
“You ever been scared, sir?”
James looked down and smiled wryly. “I’m human, Pennington- though it may often seem otherwise,” both men smiled, “Of course I’ve been scared.”
“Are you scared now, sir?”
“Why do you ask?”
There was a brief pause which was filled only by the continuous whirring of the engines as the aircraft made it’s way through the French sky. Looking around him, Pennington put his hand into one of his jacket pockets and took out what appeared to be a piece of paper- crumpled and dirtied almost beyond recognition.
“This here, sir,” he said, handing the paper over to James, “is a letter. It’s for my wife and my daughter, if something were to… you know.”
Taking the letter from Pennington, James said, “I’ll give it to ‘em.”
“Tell them I love them- both Mary and Louisa.”
“I will, Private,” I said, “but let’s hope you’re able to tell them yourself.”
With that, the two men fell back into silence. James could only sympathise with Pennington. Having never been married, he could never empathise with him. And he wasn’t particularly good with emotional conversations. They made him feel awkward, conscious of his own life’s apathetic existence. But he had no choice. He had to have these conversations sometimes. It was part of the job- a part that came together with leadership and higher rank.
D-Day minus two.
A few hours earlier.
Somewhere In rural France.
“Unteroffizier, how much farther do we have to go?”
“Why? Your legs tired already, Klaus?” came back the sharp retort from his commanding officer, Felix Bergheim.
There was a snicker that went around the travelling party as they negotiated the rather uncomplicated shrubs and herbs of North-western France. There was a soldier who said “Docs aren’t cut out for this shit” in a voice that was deliberately not muted.
Looking down, and unconsciously being careful not to step on a couple of ants making their way across the field, Klaus Morstein decided mentally to refrain from asking questions. He didn’t like this group of soldiers that he was stuck with. He had liked his previous commanding officer, a jovial Bavarian from Munich by the name of Ralf Friedrich. With Unteroffizier Ralf, Morstein- a medic in the army by way of the University of Leipzig- had a little leeway (at least as much as could be expected in the Wehrmacht or the SS or any of the other Nazi organisations) as far as free speech went.
The party- about ten soldiers strong- had been sent as a reconnaissance group, or an advance party, if you will. They were to secure a house- one of the few still left standing in the war at this stage- which would serve as their rendez-vous point with the larger group of troops approaching the town of Neuville from two different directions. Klaus didn’t know the technical details of who was coming and from which directions. All he knew was that he was rudely supplanted from his unit- which at this point in time was being flown over to the Eastern front to fight the Red Army in the Ukraine or somewhere near there- into another unit which was to counter the impending Allied invasion of France.
The sun was definitely setting, Klaus thought, as they made their way past a small stream of water. He missed enjoying these moments sometimes. Trotting up the gentle slope, he watched the crimson colour of the sun deepen with every passing second in the distance, while on the opposite side a purplish hue had begun to set in- thus drawing the battle lines between night and day- a battle that would go on for a good two hours twice daily.
He found his reverie disrupted by the sudden arrest of the travelling group. Surveying the vast clearing they had come on to, and occasionally consulting the compass, Felix Bergheim would look into the distance- as if hoping to see German panzers and more Wehrmacht soldiers. Keeping his compass back inside, Bergheim raised his hand and made the ‘V’ with his index and his middle fingers. Normally indicating a victory, to the grim soldiers of the Wehrmacht today, it meant two kilometres before they reached their destination.
Resuming their walk, Klaus moved a little to the side so he could get a better view of what was in front of him. In the distance, he could see a small speck of concrete. There was apparently no sign of life from the building but he really couldn’t tell from this distance. He looked around and for miles, there was nothing but a hill with a gentle slope upwards and lots of greenery. Out towards the northwest of the house, there began a small forest with dense tree cover. A few birds flew around the French sky lazily- oblivious to the war that the world was engulfed in.
“You couldn’t tell there was a war going on here, could you?” one of his fellow soldiers, Aron Schrieber said, walking faster to catch up with Klaus.
“No you couldn’t,” Klaus said, looking into the distance as he imagined children playing football on the fields, “you most definitely couldn’t.”
“You know, there’s a place near my house like this.”
“Where are you from?” Klaus asked, genuinely curious and happy that he found a fellow conversationalist.
“A village outside Dusseldorf.”
“This your first time?”
“In France, yeah. I was in North Africa before this with Rommel.”
“I hear good things about him,” Klaus said, before taking a look at the trudging backside of Felix Bergheim and wondering why he couldn’t be with Rommel, “did you ever meet him?”
“Once,” Aron replied, “more as a sort of a squad meeting, you know? Nothing personal. Just the usual ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ‘take this position’ and so on.”
“That’s good. At least you got to see him.” Klaus replied, a tinge of green lacing his words.
They stayed silent for a while as the march continued. The house continued to grow bigger and bigger and the sky grew darker with every step they took towards the house.
“What did you used to be?” Aron asked.
For a moment, Klaus didn’t understand what he meant, prompting an immediate addendum, “before the war.”
“I was a doctor.”
“Of course,” Aron said, chuckling, “yeah that makes sense. Where?”
“I’ve been there. Nice place it is, Leipzig.”
“What were you before the war?”
“I worked at Carl Zeiss in Berlin- fitting lenses to spectacles and so on. Mundane factory work.”
“You didn’t work in Dusseldorf?”
“No. I didn’t want to stay close to my family. Wanted to see the world. Berlin was my dream. So I went from my village to the railway station at Dusseldorf- sold newspapers there for a while and saved up enough money to go to Berlin. I’m not going to lie- it was a tough couple of weeks initially before I got a job there. When the war broke out and they needed men, I signed up. This was my chance to go to other countries- and kill some snobby Englishmen along the way.”
Both men laughed to that before silence descended upon them. They didn’t speak the rest of the way but somehow, to both Klaus and Aron, the other’s presence nearby was reassuring. They reached the house soon after and found that it was deserted.
Outside the house, Bergheim turned around to address the ten men. As if his smirk wasn’t enough to assert and exude authority, he stood on top of the staircase that led into the house. Higher rank, higher platform.
“Alright. This is the house we’ll be staying in for however long it takes till those bastards can get here. Now, there’s a forest northwest. There’s been news that the Americans are doing drops with their fancy parachutes into France- sort of like ambush missions or something. Tonight, six of us – me, Ramstein, Weiberg, Hamann, Dieter, and Weil – will cover the sector from the north to west of the house. Heinrichs and Stahl will cover the southwest areas while Schrieber and Morstein set up the comms and medical supplies at the house. Any questions?”
Everybody just looked around to see if anybody else had a question they wanted to ask. Not that they would ask even if they did, thought Klaus. Taking silence for obeisance, Bergheim told them to get inside the house, drink water, rest for a couple of minutes and then head back out.
“We are officially in Nazi country boys!” O’Connor announced from the front, rather cheerily.
“You might not want to announce that!” one of the vets called out from the back.
“Don’t worry. I got the radio off! And the way we’re going, they won’t know what hit ‘em. We’ll be in and out in a jiffy.”
“That’s not the point!” the vet replied, clearly irritated.
James liked that expression- “in a jiffy”. He didn’t particularly know why. But he did. Maybe it was the fact that this war was the first time he was interacting with Irish people. He had heard that there were a lot of them in Massachusetts- Boston, especially – but he had never been there to verify the claim. He found Irishmen interesting. They never seemed to be sad, always had a beer either in their hand or somewhere within arm’s reach and yet when time came to do the work- they were serious as hell. Florida could learn something from Ireland, he thought, as he adjusted himself so that his legs wouldn’t feel anaesthetised when he needed them most.
They flew on in silence. Somehow, the announcement that we were in Nazi airspace seemed to have created a tense situation within the airplane. Maybe it was the possibility that now, death was not something they only heard of in training camp but an actual reality that could just be a gunshot away. What made it worse was the uncertainty of it- how and when it would happen. James tried not to think about it. And more importantly, he tried not to think about the fact that he could lie dead and feasted on by vultures somewhere in an abandoned, war-torn field in France while his mother received only a telegram informing her of his death. It was a reality he decided he would avoid, somehow.
He looked outside one of the windows. It was dark. To an airborne soldier, it meant a lot of things. For one, his drop could happen anytime now- although by his own rough estimates, the drop zone should be about another hour from where they were. It also meant that the chances of misdrops were high. More often than not, darkness was both a soldier’s biggest friend and his biggest enemy at the same time.
Suddenly, the plane jolted out of the blue throwing James off his seat- along with a number of others. People near the sole window looked out, alarmed. In the darkness, they couldn’t see anything. James looked around him to see if anybody else had thought of the worst possibility of all of them- and realised that nearly everybody had thought of it.
As if on cue, the announcement came in.
“This is your captain, O’Connor,” he said, in a voice far from the cheery cry just a few minutes ago, “don’t panic but I just wanted to let you know that we’ve got company.”
To Be Continued…