2. What Next?
Episode Four – I Will Kill You.
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Near Sebeville
D-Day Minus One – 7.00 P.M.
“Sir,” Aron called out, “you have to listen to this.”
“What is it?” Bergheim responded
“There’s too much radio traffic coming in from the Allies.”
“Isn’t that always the case?” Bergheim asked, irritated. For the last year or so, the Allies had been crowding the radio signals. Most of them were pointless messages- like quotes from scripture, quotes from the French Revolution, how-are-you messages, I-am-good messages and so on and so forth. Garbage, for the most part.
“It’s more than usual.” Aron said.
“Doesn’t matter. We can’t focus on that right now,” Bergheim said dismissively, “What time is it?”
“Seven, Unteroffizier.” Ramstein spoke from the back.
“We leave this church at nine. By ten, we should be in position. We assess them for half an hour and then if no shot is fired till then, we fire the first one. Artillery hits them first and then we follow up with a ground assault.”
As he said all this, he paced evenly about the room. Unlike St. Mary’s Church, the one the Germans were in right now hadn’t seen war yet. It is still in pristine condition. Of course, it hadn’t been used in a while so there was dust all around but nevertheless, there were no broken parts anywhere. As he approached the altar, he slowed down a little and then came to a halt- his eyes fixated on the statue of Jesus on a crucifix. It was made out of white marble- and much in contrast to the surroundings, was well-lit by a single light emanating from the top. For their own safety, they had shut off all the other lights. They didn’t want to give the Allies a red carpet invitation to bomb the living hell out of the church if they happened to come by.
Losing the Battle of Britain was proving to be painful, Morstein remembered thinking when the order had been given to keep just one light on. He still couldn’t believe it. For weeks, all he heard was how powerful the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht were. And the swift fall of France only seemed to confirm that theory. He remembered one of the radio announcements from that time, “What we couldn’t do in four years in 1914, the Fuhrer has done in four weeks in 1940! Paris has fallen! I repeat, Paris has fallen!” It seemed like nobody could beat the Germans. Not least the British, who were then alone- Barbarossa hadn’t yet begun and Pearl Harbour was still intact and functioning at the time. But somehow, everything went downhill from there. Britain took control of the skies, Rommel lost in North Africa and was now in charge of the defence of France, Pearl Harbour happened and Japan forced Germany into war with the States and Stalingrad and Moscow refused to fall into German hands.
Buried in his thoughts, he didn’t notice Aron until the latter whispered into his ear. “Something’s not right, you know?”
Startled, Klaus took a moment to recover his composure and asked, “What? Why?”
“It’s true the Allies have been using the radio to send all kinds of crap but tonight the load is a lot more.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s a lot more crap than usual.”
“They might be bored today.”
Aron gave him a look that said “Are you serious with that shit?” which made Klaus laugh a little. Of course, Klaus recognised the other possibility – that something big was going to happen within the next twenty four hours. He just didn’t want to think about it.
St. Mary’s Church, Near Neuville-au-Plain
9.30 P.M. D-Day Minus One.
“What are they saying?” James asked a young chap named Peter Gayle as he peered through his binoculars at the light in the distance from the Merderet river bridge that was sending out messages in Morse code. He understood Morse but he didn’t want to take a risk misreading a message, so he brought a communications expert in Gayle with him.
Gayle- a cheery, young chap plucked out of the plantations in West Indies – looked intently at the signals for some more time before saying, “They say they’re alright. No sign of enemy movement nearby.”
James was up on the bell tower with Gayle and two snipers- Raymond McDonald and Keith Wasp. A cold breeze blew across his face, drying his lips as it did.
“Nice sight to see a full moon today isn’t it?” Gayle remarked, looking up at the sky.
He was right, there was a bright, full moon. James didn’t see what the big deal was though. It happened once every twenty eight days for all he cared.
“It’s better than normal- but there’s heavy cloud cover. In all likelihood, it’s going to rain.” McDonald replied.
“That’s going to make your jobs harder?” James asked the two snipers.
“Depends on how heavy the rain is and how windy it is. The full moon makes it a little more visible than it normally would be but I wouldn’t count on us being a decisive factor tonight if it rains heavily.” Keith said.
James pondered over the possibility of asking his snipers to step down from the bell tower and take up rifles and pistols and so on in preparation for hand-to-hand combat if it rained. He looked again at the clouds. Right now, they seemed to be okay.
“Sir!” Keith hissed suddenly, drawing him out of his thoughts.
“What happened?” James asked, slightly alarmed.
“Jerries.” He said, pointing in the direction of the enemy.
Less Than 1 kilometre from St. Mary’s Church
D-Day Minus One. 9.50 P.M.
They moved slowly like ants up an anthill. Klaus and Aron were in the third line of troops advancing. Abandoning their plans to advance over a wide arc because they would be too spread out, Bergheim and Schwaab decided to use darkness and the rubble as cover to advance on the church from the southeast. Then they would spread out as they got closer to the church itself – forcing them further back into the church and hopefully, across the plains to the Merderet bridge.
Their advance was dimly illuminated by the moonlight. Thank God for that, Bergheim had said earlier when he noticed the full moon- not noticing the fact that he was thanking God for his help in staging an attack on a house of God. They could see the bell tower from where they were, which meant the Americans could probably see them too. And they took care not to step out too much into the open- lest they had a suicide mission. Klaus was pretty sure nobody had that on their agenda.
Out in front, Bergheim raised his hand and motioned everybody to stop. Still using only his hand and still facing forward, watching for any enemy movement, he told people behind him to go sideways to his right and find cover. Klaus needed no second invitation. Scurrying across the rubble, being careful to make as little noise as possible, he followed a group of soldiers as they made their way into a half-broken down building. Taking cover behind a wall that was still standing, he came face to face with three men- whom he didn’t recognise in the dark.
“We got a medic with us.” One of them whispered.
“Listen to me,” another one grabbed Klaus by his shoulders and looked sharply into his eye, “stay here. We’re going to go forward and attack. Don’t get out until you hear someone call for a medic. Do you understand?”
Klaus nodded. Instantly, he was filled with a sense of fear. He was going to be left alone? What if the Americans found him?
“And move from cover to cover as much as you can. We can’t lose a doc. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. I get it. Cover to cover.” Klaus repeated, almost mechanically.
With that the soldier turned his attention to the world beyond the wall. Outside, Bergheim stared intently at his watch. He had said ten thirty earlier in the day during the briefing. But that was taking into account any unexpected resistance and difficulties in assessing the enemy. So far, neither had been a problem. Klaus had a feeling Bergheim might advance the timetable for the attack.
And as if he heard Klaus’ thoughts, Bergheim signalled the artillery to fire ahead.
They were prepared for it but nevertheless, the first shot was a jolt. And so were a few others after that. James was ready for an assault by the foot soldiers but he didn’t expect the Germans to fire up the artillery. In the darkness and amongst the rubble, they couldn’t make out the mortars and a few of the other heavy jewellery the Germans had bought with them.
“Get out of the church now!” he shouted to the few remaining soldiers in the building. Amidst the firing, he wasn’t sure they caught the message and he could ill afford to lose any soldiers early- especially when there were just twenty seven people defending the church against a force double their size.
As if to emphasise James’ message to his men, the Germans sent a shell right through the middle of the main hall of the church. Inside, he heard someone cry out.
That’s one down. He thought. He hated the odds that were on the battle now.
As he thought of this, a soldier next to him peered above the makeshift barrack they built for themselves with sandbags. “They’re not advancing, sir.”
“You don’t need to peer at them to know that, Private. When they advance we’ll know about it. And you know what we’ve got to do then.”
“Yes sir.” He said, a hint of nervousness creeping into his voice.
“How does anybody survive this?” Klaus asked, to nobody in particular as he looked at the shelling of the church by taking occasional peeks over the side of the wall.
“They’re Jews. They’ll survive everything unless you kill them personally. Hand to,” he paused as the building shook from the impact of the one of the shells hitting the church, “hand.”
“And even then, you can’t be sure. You need to put a bullet through their head.” Another man beside Klaus said.
In the meantime, Bergheim watched the proceedings with a grim look on his face- which Klaus could discern thanks to the generous lighting that the moon provided. He seemed statue-esque for about five minutes before moving a muscle. Satisfied that the shelling was doing it’s job, he signalled the infantry to move ahead in one single motion of his hand.
The drill was picture-perfect. The hand moved forward and simultaneously, the soldiers moved positions. Whatever defects the Wehrmacht had, they had a discipline that was second to none- not even to the Allies, from what he’d heard. Swiftly navigating the rubble, Klaus watched the soldiers with him move one behind the other.
Everything was going…
He was about to compliment the soldiers in his mind when he was thrown back by a huge explosion. It wasn’t the church. This was much closer to home.
“THEY’RE MOVING!” someone shouted in the darkness amidst the firing. He didn’t need to though, James thought. The explosion of one of the mines they had placed in the surrounding rubble was enough indication that someone was moving.
“Do you think it’ll work?” the soldier next to him asked.
“Let’s see.” James replied, stoically.
Through the morning and the afternoon, the Americans had booby-trapped and mined the surroundings of the church. While they’d mined pretty much everywhere, they focussed on the south and east- especially on the road leading up to the church. On either side of the muddy, straight path to the “local Vatican”, as Miller called it, were houses. Most of them were destroyed but there were still a few that had some standing structures like walls, closets and pillars. For maximum damage, and anticipating that the Germans would avoid direct exposure by coming down the road, James and Miller decided to rig as many houses and standing structures as they could. It would slow down the advance, indicate German positions in the dark and finally, it would kill a few people. There was even an outside shot of the Germans avoiding the mines and using the main road- coming in the direct firing line of the Americans.
“What if they go the other side of the houses?”
“They have to come this side. The church has only one door.” James replied without hesitation.
Klaus stirred ever so slightly and quickly checked on himself to see if he was okay.
Both Hands. Check.
Both legs. Check.
They’re moving, too. He thought, as he palpated his abdomen rapidly for any wounds. There was nothing. All he had were a few minor scratches on his face- which burned like all hell – and a displaced helmet. Hoisting his rifle behind him and quickly gathering his medical kit- which had fallen a few feet away from him, he rapidly took in his surroundings.
The building in front of him, where the German soldiers had gone, was blowing smoke. The air smelled of gunpowder, burnt flesh and destroyed construction material all at once. What was once a calm French evening with a full moon was a smoldering volcano of veritable human destruction. The sound of rifles firing all around him was interrupted occasionally by the piercing cries of human loss.
“MEDIC! MEDIC!” came a sudden cry from over to his right. As if the shout triggered a neuron in his brain, Klaus ran towards it, ducking as low as he could- his gun hoisted over his right shoulder and his medical kit over his left. As he ran, he could hear the cry get louder. He could also feel the target on his back get bigger, for some reason- like he mattered any more than some of the others. On occasion, he even thought he felt a bullet or two whizz by.
He found the source of the cries to be a young man, seemingly in his mid-twenties, huddled up near a tree. He was whimpering, crying, shivering and hysterical all at once. His hand was bloodied- Klaus could see that even in the darkness.
“Hey, hey, hey! I’m here! Where are you hit?”
The man continued to cry out loud. Grabbing him by his cheeks, Klaus drew attention to himself from his patient. In the meantime, his eye caught two wounds- one on his abdomen and the other in his thigh.
“What’s your name? Do you know your name?” Klaus asked as he quickly got out the morphine syringe from his bag along with gauze.
In between his sobs, the soldier managed to say that his name was Stefan and that he was afraid he was going to die.
“Listen to me, Stefan!” Klaus shouted to make himself heard over the continuous explosions, “you’re not going to die!”
“Listen to me! You’re not!” Klaus cut him off, “I’m giving you morphine! It’s for the pain!”
With that, Klaus thrust the syringe as deep as he could into the man’s deltoid. As soon as it was done, he wrapped bandages around the wounds and told Stefan to keep pressure on it. Somewhat thankful and somewhat drowsy, Stefan agreed.
His hands still bloody, he threw the empty syringe out, waited for the most opportune moment and darted as fast as he could across the plains to hide behind a large mountain of debris. While there, he found another German soldier busy firing at targets in the dark.
“I saw you treating Stefan!” the soldier shouted- Klaus recognised the voice to be that of Unteroffizier Schwaab.
“How is he?” he asked.
Klaus stayed silent.
“I asked,” he paused to get off a few rounds at the Americans, “you a question, soldier.”
“He’s not going to make it sir. His femoral artery has been hit. The bullet through his abdomen may have hit a few,” he paused as a huge explosion took place, “may have hit a few organs but his femoral is going to be the immediate reason sir!”
Schwaab stayed silent. Taking cover behind the rock, he turned to look at Klaus. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead into his eyes. Exhaling, Schwaab said, “You did good doc. Can’t save everybody. Now, I’ll give you cover fire. Get to the main street. There’s a lot of wounded there.”
He paused for a brief second before adding, “Welcome to France, son.”
D-Day Minus One. 11.00 P.M.
St. Mary’s Church and it’s surroundings.
James rushed as fast as he could, using the cover fire laid out for him to get into a nearby house. Quickly surveying his surroundings, he caught his breath sharply. While there were two walls separating them, there was no mistaking the Wehrmacht insignia that had momentarily appeared in the dark and glittered.
He was careful not to make any noise. He had to get closer. Then again, he didn’t know if he was dealing with just one Nazi or more. He peeked again past the wall. There was no movement- no sign of life. He stepped back behind the wall and calculated his next move. He decided that he was going to flush them out and then decide on the fly what he would do.
Taking a grenade, he removed the pin, counted to three and threw it near the other wall. Taking a step back away from his own wall, he waited. And sure enough, there was a cry in German.
There was definitely more than one person there, he thought. Reflexively, as soon as he heard the cry, he stepped out past the wall into a position where he could see past the walls and had a clear firing line. Without hesitating a moment, he pulled the trigger twice at a running German who had materialised seemingly out of thin air. And just to confirm that he was dead, he pulled it a third time as he was falling to the ground before going behind the cover of the wall again.
Klaus ran as far as he could and dived away from the spot where he stood as soon as Tobias Weil had yelled that there was a grenade nearby. And thankfully, he ran in the right direction. As he turned back during his escape, he heard gunshots and saw Weil collapse to the ground. And not a moment later, the grenade exploded, shaking the ground with it. The nearby wall half-collapsed and more rubble was added to the pile beneath it.
His ears were ringing from the explosion- but not for long. Quickly ensuring that his hearing faculty was still intact, Klaus looked around him as he lay on the ground. There was still rubble all around and he was covered enough that nobody could see him. He quickly got up and decided to check on Weil. It was unlikely he was alive after all this but he was duty-bound to check anyway. He had done that for seven soldiers tonight- what was one more?
Rubbing the mud off his uniform, he ran back inside and found Weil’s body buried underneath a pile of stones. Thankfully, neither were the stones heavy nor were they many in number. With efficiency he removed the stones and exposed Weil to the atmosphere. It was of no use though- Klaus knew it as soon as he saw it. There were too many exit wounds through the front- especially around the abdomen and the thorax. There was no way any man would survive this shooting. And as if to confirm his fear, several of the wounds were spurting and oozing blood. A lot of major arteries and veins had been shot at and hit. Sighing, he closed Weil’s eyes out of respect when he realised he was not alone. And out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something- something that confirmed that he was going to die in the next few seconds.
An American flag on the sleeve of a military uniform.
James stared at the German who was kneeling beside the dead German he had just shot and pointed his gun at him. Slowly, the German raised his hands and stood up, his head still facing downwards. Around them, the world was still in glorious self-destruction but in that twenty five foot square area of rubble there was a dead German, a live German, himself, and an uneasy calm.
He wanted to shoot the man as soon as he saw him but his eye caught the symbol of the red cross on his medical kit. So he waited. After all, what could a German doctor do to him? He decided to let the lad look at the dead boy and then he would decide what to do with him.
Klaus needed no stethoscope to find out what his heart rate was. It was running faster than Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics and screaming louder than Hitler in Nuremburg every year. People often said awareness that one was going to die often brought a new perspective to life. He didn’t know who said but he just heard it a lot in Leipzig.
Bullshit. That was all he could say about it at that point.
Suddenly, he felt like every normal physiological process was laboured. He was uncomfortably aware of his own respiration- forced, hard, with short breaths- and the fact that he was sweating like a pig at noon in summer.
The American broke the silence.
“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” he asked, heavily accented.
Klaus nodded in the affirmative.
The fear was palpable and one could cut through the tension with a knife. It didn’t deter James, though. He was used to it.
“Good. I’m leaving you right now because you’re a doc. And I respect docs- even Nazi docs like you. But if I see you again trying to save a Jew-hating maniac like that one,” he paused for effect, “I will kill you.”