2. What Next?
Episode Three- The Man Next To You
D-Day Minus One.
Early Morning, St. Mary’s Church, near Neuville-au-Plain
“Yes sir. Over and out.”
James kept the phone down and looked at Miller for a brief second. “I need a map.”
“What did they say?” Miller asked, simultaneously opening his backpack to produce a worn-out, coffee-stained map of Northern France.
James took the map from Miller and looked around. Seeing a door slightly ajar, he motioned Miller to follow him. The door led into a quiet room, pierced ever so slightly by daylight from a small, open window. Inside was a table and two chairs. James chuckled. It was like they were meant to be here.
Setting the map down on the table and grabbing a chair to sit, James began, “So, like you know, I told the command of our problem- that we were stuck in a church about three or four miles south of Neuville and not at Neuville exactly. They wanted us to make the best of a bad situation.”
“The hell does that mean?” Miller asked with consternation.
“Okay, here’s what they told me. They told me essentially what the sarge told us. We are here,” he said, marking the spot where the map showed St. Mary’s Church, “and up here, in the northwest, is the Merderet River. There is a bridge on the river which we need to protect because the Allied assault towards Paris needs it. Otherwise, they have to go around the Merderet which is a pain in the ass. You follow me so far?”
“Yeah. Go on.”
“Now, apparently, intel says that they’ve got Jerries coming at us toward Neuville from the south and the east. They don’t know the exact strength but it’s around 40-60 people combined, all on foot with artillery.”
“They don’t have enough to flank us.” Miller commented.
“Exactly,” James said, “which means they will fight us head on for it. And they won’t go around us directly to the bridge either.”
“Because then they won’t be able to fall back to anything if they are caught by our boys from the beach when they come to France.”
“Right,” James was impressed.
“So we have how many men? There’s twenty under my command and about fifteen under yours. That’s thirty five. Thirty seven with the two of us.”
“Yeah. How many snipers you got?”
“One. There’s a bell tower with the church. We’ll put both of them there. It can see well for quite some distance.”
“We can’t all be here. You know that, right?”
“I know. Send about ten men- five yours, five mine- to the bridge. We need them to rig the bridge up in case we can’t hold the church.”
“Yeah,” Miller said, “We ‘ll defend the church for as long as we can and if it’s about to fall, we go to the bridge.”
“One of us needs to be there near the Merderet.” James said.
“I’ll take the bridge. You take the Church,” Miller said, “Now get some shuteye for a few hours. I’ll take first watch with a few men. We’ll prepare the defences once the sun gets up.”
James nodded and got up from his chair. Following Miller out into the Church’s main hall, he looked for an open space. When he found one about three seconds into his search, he did not hesitate to throw his backpack and collapse on top of it like a man who had just been shot.
D- Day Minus One. Daybreak.
Blosville, France (About 5 km south of St. Mary’s Church).
Klaus felt like he had been walking for hours. Again, this wasn’t surprising. He had been walking for hours. All night, in fact.
“Where exactly did Bergheim say the other unit was coming from?” Aron whispered to Klaus as they walked together.
“He said they were coming from the east. Saint Mary- something.”
“That’s the one.” Klaus replied, recognising the name.
There was a brief pause in conversation before Aron said, “There was a change of plans you know?”
“Really?” Klaus wondered what it could be.
“The Americans- they’re not at Neuville. We thought they were and from what our intel intercepted- they thought they were. They’re holed up about two kilometres to the south of Neuville, in a church. News came through to Bergheim about two hours ago through this bad boy.” he patted the portable telephone he was carrying.
“So? We fight them a little further south than we thought. That’s it right?” Klaus didn’t see what was worth having a conversation about in that.
“Not just that. See, the original idea was that we meet Schwaab’s unit near this place called Turqueville- that’s much further north from where we are going now.”
“A place called Sebeville. There’s a church near there- The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. That’s where the two units converge. And then we head to St. Mary’s Church this evening from the south east.”
That’s a lot of something-villes to remember, Klaus thought. Of course, as a medic, he didn’t really care and he was thankful that he wasn’t a communications guy like Aron.
“Ladies!” Bergheim barked in the dark from somewhere in front, “shut the hell up will you? I don’t know about you but I don’t want to get killed by the Americans because you two couldn’t shut your mouths!”
Despite looking at each other in apparent recognition of the irony of Bergheim shouting at them for whispering at each other and possibly getting him killed, Klaus and Aron duly obeyed the order and walked on in silence, their quiet punctuated by the occasional chirp of a bird in the distance or a stray dog barking.
“How was the watch?” James asked, walking up to Miller.
“Uneventful. The Jerries are still some way out, if they’re coming even.” Miller replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Everybody knows something is going to happen. It’s the worst kept secret in the war. The Nazis know we’re coming for France. So do you think they’ll want to send soldiers to fight off survivors from a missed airdrop?”
Even though Miller had a point, James felt compelled to argue, “We hold a bridge. That should be enough to make them fight us. They’re going to need as many of troops near the beach as they can have when the landings happen. It’s our job to slow them down.”
“Slow them down?”
“We can’t stop ’em. We have to slow them down long enough for our guys to come through or else blow the bridge and hope we don’t get caught by Germans on our way to the beach.”
“Fair point.” Miller concurred.
“How’s it going?” James asked, nodding his head toward a group of soldiers carrying explosives outside the door.
“They’ll be done by the afternoon at the Merderet. I’ll go there and check it then. The snipers are in position at the bell tower. They’ll take turns watching through the day. Through the night it’ll be both of them awake.”
James and Miller stayed silent, watching the soldiers go about assembling explosives, cleaning rifles and performing mundane wartime tasks.
“Where are you from, Kyle?” James asked.
“Madison, Wisconsin.” he replied, not looking at James, “you?”
“Miami.” James replied, without emotion, “What did you do before the war?”
“I was studying economics at the U when war broke out.”
“So you’re a Badger huh?” James asked, smiling.
“Badger for life, man. Badger for life,” he declared, proudly, “what about you? What did you do before the war?”
“History at Syracuse.”
“Orangeman huh?” Miller asked, slightly amused, “you play any sports?”
“Basketball. We whooped y’all by the way the last time we played- in thirty eight, I think it was. Won by like some thirty points.” he said, in jest.
“Ours is a team in transition, man. Cut us some slack. Plus our point guard was injured the whole season. We’d have done better with him.”
“I’m sure.” Miller replied, sarcastically.
They stayed silent for some time, getting used to the sultry French air now seeping in through the windows of the Church.
“You studied history. So you don’t plan to have a real job anytime in your life?” Miller asked, pretend-seriously.
James laughed. “And you men with real jobs came real good during the Depression man.”
Miller laughed and shrugged his shoulders as if to say it wasn’t his fault. “How’s studying history? It teach you anything?”
“That it repeats itself,” James replied, sighing, “a lot.”
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Near Sebeville
D-Day Minus One- Afternoon.
“You guys took your time getting here.” Unteroffizier Rainer Schwaab said, greeting Bergheim with open arms ready for a hug- which Bergheim obliged rather uncomfortably.
“So what’s the plan?” Bergheim said, his line in keeping with his stern self.
Immediately, as if on cue, there was a change in Schwaab’s voice. He turned to face the direction of St. Mary’s Church and pointed towards it.
“That is the way to St. Mary’s Church, which is where the Americans are camped up. I don’t know if you are familiar with the area, Felix…”
“I am. Go on.” Bergheim replied, curtly. Klaus felt it was unnecessary. Schwaab was trying to be nice to him.
“Anyway,” Schwaab said, momentarily thrown off, “to the north-west of St. Mary’s Church is the Merderet river. And on this river is a bridge that is still intact and hasn’t been bombed out by the Allies. Our objective will be to defeat the Americans at the Church and then take the bridge.”
“Why is the bridge important?”
“Two reasons. Very contradictory to each other, of course, but nonetheless important. If we take control of the bridge, it can allow for quicker supply to troops at the beaches further north- they’ll need it considering the Allies are planning an invasion of France some time in the near future. And secondly, if we take control of the bridge but our troops are defeated at the waterfront, we can blow this up and slow down their advance- especially the advance of artillery and tanks and heavy machinery in general.”
Bergheim thought for a little while, his eyes fixated at a spot somewhere in the distance.
“We can’t go around the church?” he asked, after some time.
“No,” Schwaab replied, “the snipers at the bell tower would know.”
“There is a silver lining though,” Schwaab continued, “the Americans know, just as we do, that the bridge is important. So, they’re bound to have people there. And explosives, they will be prepared to blow it up just as we are. That’s a problem, Unteroffizier.“
“No shit,” Bergheim replied, still staring at something in the distance, “Alright look. If they have people at the bridge, they’re going to have very few people in the church itself or in the buildings around it.”
“There’s not really much left standing. It’s a lot of half-destroyed buildings around the church. And the church itself isn’t in great shape. Only the main hall and the bell tower are really practical to use. Apart from that there isn’t much.”
Both Schwaab and Bergheim stayed silent, each lost in his own thought. To Klaus, it seemed like Schwaab was assessing Bergheim and his competence. They were both of the same rank but Schwaab was junior to Bergheim in age, which is why Schwaab deferred leadership of the assault to Bergheim without actually saying anything.
Exhaling loudly, Bergheim spoke again- this time to the rest of the soldiers – bringing Klaus back to ground reality. “We have about fifty men,” Schwaab nodded in agreement, “but they have the snipers in position, which means that we cannot go as one large group. So what we will do is attack the church on a wide arc from the east to the south. Spread out over a large area, the snipers will be less effective.”
Bergheim took a brief pause as he gathered his thoughts before continuing, “Like Unteroffizier Schwaab said, most of the area is rubble with semi-standing buildings according to our intel. This means softening up targets with mortar and artillery isn’t a particularly great idea but we’re going to do it and use it as cover to get deeper inside- near church territory. Are you following me so far?”
“Yes Sir!” came the unanimous reply from fifty-odd grown men in uniform.
“Good,” he continued, “Our objective will be first to take the church and force a retreat from the Americans. And the first thing we want to take control of in the church is the bell tower. That’s a vantage point and huge one at that. Once we get that, attacking the bridge becomes easier. And we’ll take it from there. Are we clear?”
Hesitantly, Klaus raised his hand.
“Yes, Morstein?” Bergheim asked.
“When do we attack, Unteroffizier?”
“We can’t attack when there’s daylight. The snipers will have an advantage then. We’re going to attack them in the middle of the night.”
There was yet another long pause, after which Bergheim spoke again, in a tone that Klaus rarely heard from him- a slow, reflective one. “Tonight is going to be the first time a lot of you will be in battle. And I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. It will be bloody. It will be brutal. Every man you face will want to kill you. And you will want to kill every man you face. Every moment that you are there, you will not be you. You will be someone else. You will be a savage you never thought you were. And at the end of the night, if you’re lucky, you will live to fight another day- to live another day as a primitive being.”
He paused again and when he spoke, his tone was different – more in line with what Klaus had heard so far. “But remember that all those feelings don’t matter. Remember what you’re fighting for. Remember who you’re fighting for. You’re fighting for your Fatherland. You’re fighting for the Fuhrer. You’re fighting for every German from Hamburg to Munich and from Kiev to Paris.”
“And most of all,” he lowered his tone, “remember that if not anything else, you’re fighting for the man next to you.”