2. What Next?
Episode Five- D-Day
New York City, January 1967.
“You remember the first time we met?” James asked, staring into the distance and mentally replaying the scene as he did.
“How could I forget? I thought I was going to die.” Klaus replied.
“Yeah, well, I thought you were going to die too.” James said, matter-of-factly.
“What stopped you?” Klaus asked, genuinely curious. In all these years, he had never gotten an answer to that question no matter how hard he tried.
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“You had your hand on the trigger. You had a Nazi in front of you who was definitely not going to protect himself. Why didn’t you shoot?”
James thought for a while. It was a question that he had asked himself a countless number of times. Why didn’t I shoot? he repeated in his own head.
God’s will? He dismissed the idea almost as soon as it entered his head. He didn’t believe in God’s existence. The things he had seen during the war when he fought his way through Belgium, Netherlands and Germany were far too grotesque for him to believe in a higher power. After all, if a higher power existed, wasn’t it natural that it stop a massacre like that? And not to mention the Holocaust. People said God did everything for a reason. And yet, amidst the horrors and darkness of war, he struggled to see why anyone with the power to stop it wouldn’t, whatever the reasons for not stopping might be.
And yet, a little part of him felt like God existed. After all, his whole life may be different right now had he pulled the trigger then. For starters, he might not even have been alive.
D-Day- 6th June 1944. Five past midnight.
St. Mary’s Church and it’s surroundings.
James was relieved when he finally got the radio to work. For the last twenty minutes, he was desperate for some answers.
“Delta Two, come in! Delta Two, come in!” he shouted, as loud as he could over the din.
“Delta One, this is Delta two over.” crackled the voice from the other end.
“Miller! Are you seeing this?”
“Yeah. You call for air support?” Miller asked
“No. I thought you did!” James replied, perplexed.
“No. I didn’t. What the hell is going on?”
It was a fair question. If neither of the two commanders on the ground had called for air support, what the hell was going on? James told Kyle to call the operation headquarters and find out. He still had Germans to take care of.
“Twenty minutes! They’ve been bombing this place for twenty minutes!” Bergheim told Klaus as they huddled together behind a wall.
“What the hell is so important to them about this damn church? It’s just a damn church!” Aron questioned. He was a few feet away from where they were and crouched lower than they were, inside a crater that had formed amidst the debris.
“What’s it looking like out there?” Klaus asked Bergheim, and when the latter turned back with a look that said he didn’t understand, he added, “numbers wise, I mean.”
“We’ve definitely got the upper hand now. We’ve lost more than they have, I think but not by much. And we’re closing in on the church. It shouldn’t be long.”
Bergheim looked up again into the sky. Klaus followed suit. In the darkness, despite a full moon, and with intense cloud cover, he wasn’t able to make out much. But he could just about see the silhouettes of bombers flitting in and out of the clouds. They seemed to be in the hundreds- odd for a place like St. Mary’s Church, or even for places like Neuville-au-Plain or Sainte-Mère-Église, the two nearest towns (which were also getting bombed, by the way).
“I don’t think this is air support.” Klaus suddenly said out loud.
“What!” Bergheim exclaimed incredulously, “how did you become a doctor if you’re this dull!”
“No. Look at it,” Klaus reasoned, never minding the insult to an intellect that was clearly superior to Bergheim’s, “the Americans are not stupid. They’re not going to waste so much hardware on a church. There’s something bigger going on.”
“Right now,” Bergheim said, cringing a little as an incendiary bomb exploded in the house opposite to them and set it on fire, “my concern is to stay alive. Let Berlin worry about the bigger picture.”
With that, he immediately got up and ran across the ruined hallway into an adjacent room with slightly more cover. The order implicit in his actions, Klaus and Aron followed.
Miller was crouched near the bridge behind sandbags, his men beside him, watching the fireworks display about a kilometre or two away from them. As his eyes took in the glorious treat of Nazis being subdued with one bomb after another, he simultaneously tried for the headquarters via the field telephone. For some reason, it was very busy today. Miller didn’t get through till about his seventh try.
“SHAEF Headquarters.” a lady’s voice finally answered, as if she was the receptionist at a fancy corporate company.
“This is Corporal Kyle Miller, Delta Company, 101st Airborne.”
“Where are you Corporal?” she asked to which he responded by giving his co-ordinates.
“What is your purpose of calling, Corporal?” she asked again, still maintaining a civil tone when clearly, Kyle knew she could hear the bombing in the background.
“I got the Air Force bombing the shit out of the Army and I need to speak to someone in charge!” Kyle shouted, partly because he wanted his voice to be hear above the battlefield sounds and partly because he was getting irritated at the receptionist.
“We’re losing this place!” James said, as they retreated inside the compound of the church.
“You want to go back?” Pennington asked him, all the while firing rounds at Germans. The bombings had halted for a brief while now, providing a window in which scattered soldiers could fire at each other.
“Not yet!” James said.
The conversation came to an automatic halt as they faced machine gun fire from a group of Germans diagonally across to their right, forcing both James and Pennington to get down, safe under the cover of sandbags.
“They’ve got a machine gun. We need to take it out!” James shouted at Pennington, even though he was only a few feet away from him. He wanted the message to be clear.
“What?” Pennington asked anyway, straining to hear the corporal.
“The machine gun! We need to take it out!”
Pennington gave a thumbs up to James, signalling that he understood. They were about to crouch and move to their right when a soldier came running up to them and crouched beside them.
“Fucking machine guns!” he said, clearly frustrated.
“Who the hell are you?” James enquired
“Private Gary Mayer, sir. I’m a runner. I’m with Corporal Kyle Miller at the bridge. I have a message for you.”
“What is it?” James asked.
“It’s D-Day sir.”
James’ eyes widened. It explained the bombing. But just to be sure, he asked again. “I’m sorry, what did you say, Private?”
“Corporal Miller told me to tell you that the headquarters response was that it’s D-Day sir. And that the Air Force is going to stop bombing this place in fifteen minutes so that you guys can get back to the bridge- there was a mix-up earlier which is why they’re killing it now- they didn’t know we were here. There’s a two- minute window for you to leave this place and fall back before they bomb again.”
“Thank you, Private.”
“Do you want me to stay, sir?”
“No. Go back. We need men at the bridge.”
Peering above the sandbags to look at whatever he could, in his surroundings, Gary Mayer ran off when he thought there was an opening. James and Pennington laid down as much cover fire for him as they could but in the face of a machine gun, it was futile. Mayer’s body was ripped to shreds- blood, flesh, and muscle thrown onto the ground in a dirty mess barely twenty feet from where James stood.
For a moment, James and Pennington just looked at each other, disgusted and horrified by what they saw. Instantly though, military focus kicked in and James signalled that they had to move to their right. They could dissect what they saw later- they had a whole lifetime to do that. Right now, they had other priorities.
The one functioning machine gun we have is functioning very well. Klaus thought. Camouflaged by the darkness and hidden behind a half-destroyed wall, sandbags and some debris, the instrument of destruction was doing it’s job perfectly. It was only a matter of time before the church fell, notwithstanding the bombing.
Klaus was a little distance behind the machine gun, now alone and hidden from sight. Bergheim was handling the machine gun himself now- the original machine gunner was shot dead beside him. Aron was next to Bergheim, trying furiously for the Luftwaffe headquarters in Paris. The Germans had made good gains on the church but their numbers were being depleted rapidly by the aerial bombardment-Bergheim still didn’t know how many were dead- and the fact that they were being drawn further toward the church- where the Americans had consolidated their position and were forcing the Germans out into the open where they were easier targets to hit.
He coughed as dust from the surroundings irritated his throat. In fact, his throat was burning- like he had just subjected it to a barrel of vodka. Deciding that he needed a new place to hide, if not for anything else then just to get some less burnt out air, he scanned his surroundings. He was about twenty or thirty metres behind German lines so he would be safe to move a little bit. The only thing he had to watch for was the bombs. He looked around him. The air was blurred, smoke covering the atmosphere like a blanket. Rubbing his eyes and straining, he spotted a suitable place across the street. There was an intersection of walls at right angles. It wasn’t much cover and he wasn’t protected from aerial attack but it was enough for one person and he decided to take his chances with the planes.
Crouching down as low as he could, one hand on his helmet and the other on his medical kit- which was now practically empty- Klaus Morstein scurried across like a rat and crouched near the walls, relieved that he still had his life with him. For a few moments it seemed like everybody except him- the bombers from above, the snipers at the bell tower, the other American soldiers, even unexploded mines on the road- had control of it.
James and Pennington, from where they were, saw a German soldier running across the street onto the other side. However, firing at him would mean giving away their position. Of course, the likelihood was that the Germans wouldn’t notice in the middle of all hell breaking loose- as it was right now- but they couldn’t take a chance.
“How many do you see?” James whispered into Pennington’s ear.
“Three Jerries….No. Two. One’s dead.” he replied, still looking across from their position. They were thirty feet or so from the machine gun position and the Jerries still hadn’t caught wind of them.
“He died just now?” James asked, a little incredulously.
“No. He’s been dead a while, I think. I thought he was just prone on the ground until one of the other two kicked him aside.”
James allowed himself a chuckle and told Pennington to get back behind the wall- a few inches away from the edge, just to be safe.
“Alright,” James said, “so they’re about thirty feet away from us. We need a distraction. You got a grenade?”
“Good. Throw the grenade near them. That’ll get their attention. And then we’ll go in under cover of the smoke and take ’em out.”
“There’s Americans to our left- about twenty-thirty metres.” Aron said to Bergheim in between two rounds of gunfire.
“I saw them too. What do you think they’re waiting for?”
“No clue. But they aren’t going to come at us head first. They’ll have a distraction. I’m placing my bet on a grenade.”
“So what do we do?”
“Keep watching them. As soon as they throw the grenade, we run to that,” he pointed to a nearby half-destroyed house. Seeing an empty post, they’ll be confused. We take them out then.”
“Now.” James whispered and duly, Pennington threw the grenade- a little further from the machine gun post. It was far enough not to cause serious damage to the machine gun itself- it would be invaluable if it fell in American hands but close enough that it would be a distraction and would give them enough cover to run across and engage a confused enemy.
As the grenade lodged itself comfortably amidst the ruins of what was once a restaurant, James waited to see if the Germans noticed anything. Fortunately for him, neither German said anything- the two of them were too busy firing at Americans in the church.
James counted down mentally, “Three…Two…One.”
“Jetzt!” Bergheim shouted, just before the grenade went off. Aron duly obeyed and ran towards their pre-determined hideout. And not a moment too soon, for as soon as they took off, the grenade exploded a few metres away from them.
Aron and Bergheim, both were thrown forward by the blast- which was a good thing. Their target was now only a couple of steps away from them. Getting up quickly- every moment was precious if they needed to avoid being shot by the Americans who, they were sure were running at full speed towards the machine gun position. Sliding down into their makeshift, shallow trench, they waited.
They didn’t have to wait long.
James and Pennington emerged from the smoke prepared to fire.
“What the…” Pennington began when he collapsed limp into the ground, five bullets piercing his body within a second.
James was quicker. As soon as he got out of the smoke, he noticed a pair of eyes looking straight at them. He didn’t need a millisecond more to decipher that he had been trapped and quickly took shelter behind the sandbags surrounding the machine gun. It wasn’t much but it was something. But he needed to act quickly. He was inside German lines and heavily outnumbered.
He looked. The church courtyard was about sixty yards out- he could make a break for it. But it was too risky and almost a definite death. He could make a stand at the machine gun and die- maybe killing a German or two. He was definitely going to fight this out. There was no question.
Without warning, James felt a huge blow to the right side of his head with a searing pain accompanying it. He swung his hands wildly and threw punches into empty air. His rifle fell one way and his vision progressively worsened, becoming a blur within a second.
The last thing he remembered was the colour black being all around him. Just black.
“Good work, Morstein!” Bergheim was genuinely elated when he emerged out of the rubble with Aron.
Klaus stood over the body, still coming to terms with the fact that he had used his rifle to knock a man out cold. It was a necessary move, he told himself but it was the first time he had come close to killing someone. All his previous work as a medic was well behind the frontlines.
“What do we do with him?” Aron asked, as both of them watched Bergheim retake control of the machine gun.
“We take him prisoner.” Bergheim said.
“Prisoner? Let’s just kill him. He’s a nobody in the army- look at his stripes.” Aron argued.
“He’s a corporal- I think that’s equal to an Unteroffizier. Plus,” Bergheim paused to get a few rounds off at the church, “this is a small army group. A corporal or a sergeant are probably going to be commanding it. We take him, we may get an idea of the larger plan.”
“The larger plan?” Klaus asked, a little confused. Wasn’t Bergheim the one who wanted Berlin to worry about the bigger picture?
“All this,” Bergheim pointed at the sky where the bombers were still roaming around, “is not for a damn church. It’s part of something big. And we need to know what it is. Moreover, we can kill him later if he proves to be useless. There’s no need to hurry that.”
Klaus and Aron stayed silent, which Bergheim took as a sign that they agreed with what he had just said.
“Morstein,” Klaus responded by stepping forward to listen closely to Bergheim, “there’s a civilian car abandoned about two kilometres away from here- behind us. Go with Aron, take that and get down to Saint-Lô. It’s about an hour’s drive from here but given that this bombing doesn’t seem to be a one-off, you may have to go a little circuitously. Be careful. Get to Saint-Lô and contact Generalmajor Reinhardt Strass. He’ll tell you what to do next.”
“Generalmajor Strass?” Klaus asked, just to confirm.
“Generalmajor Strass.” Bergheim confirmed one more time, and then shredded an American imprudent enough to make a run for the church in the open.