The Night of Nights – Part I

The call caught him lying in a bed. He stared at the ringing phone for a moment and then rested his cigarette on an ashtray, blew the smoke out of his lungs and picked it up.
He got up off the bed and walked towards the window, holding the machine in one hand and the receiver in the other. The street beneath the apartment was dark and deserted, each window covered with curtains so no light could be seen from the outside.
Flame from a kerosene lamp flickered, moving the shadows and changing their shapes.
The man‘s face darkened. A quick glance toward the sky revealed nothing but a few stars scattered around, shining through sporadic clouds. The man grunted and hung up. He sat down on the bed, which screeched in response, he rubbed his eyes and resumed smoking the cigarette.

The apartment had a worn-out yellow paint on the walls and was furnished with, apart from the bed, a plain wooden table, two chairs, wardrobe and a porcelain basin in the corner. It was far from the luxurious apartments the officers took for themselves, but it was his and no one else’s and it had been a damn too long since he had a room for himself. It had been too long since he had a good sleep, too. On that night, his sleep was bound to be disturbed once again. He walked over to the basin, washed his face and drank a little. A pair of sharp, focused eyes moved about in the mirror scanning his face and noticing tiny scars, dry, cracked lips and unevenly cut stubble. He walked to the wardrobe and opened it up. A breath of musty air, the kind usual in old wardrobes stored in moist environment, hit his nose. Local lady has washed and ironed his uniform. It looked splendid and he hoped for a false alarm, since he wasn’t in the mood of crawling in trenches and getting his lapels muddy. He dressed himself quickly and methodically, not wasting any time, and packed his pockets with ammo. He picked a rifle and looked it over – mechanical parts were clean and as for the gunstock, well, it bore bruises and slashes from previous battles.
How strange, he thought, being in a place with no artillery fire, no enemy reconnaissance units, I’ve got an apartment for myself, comfortable bed, warm food, and some woman is washing my clothes… and yet the pressure from the possible strike is stronger than anything I felt whether it was in Poland, France, Africa… hell, even in Russia. There, it was a living organism unable to stop, constantly moving, breathing, inhaling, fighting… here, we sit as ducks and we wait for the hit to come and it may never come, maybe they’ll go for Calais instead, or southern France. But if they come here, they’ll hit us with all they’ve got. Tension is almost tangible. I wonder, what’s going on under the cover of the night?
He sighed, choked the flame in the kerosene lamp and in darkness made his way to the door.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap he flew down the stairs and headed out on the street. Wind blowing from the beach brought fresh, salty air, the sky was cloudy and he could hear no engines, just crickets and bugs buzzing in the background. He had swung the rifle from his shoulder to a standby position and strolled down the street in a direction where an AA gun has been placed. Its crew was supposedly alerted in time, so he hoped to chat with them for a while and drink some of their coffee. Footsteps of the army boots falling heavily on the cobblestones echoed from the surrounding buildings. He turned right behind the elementary school and followed the path between orchards. Soon, he disappeared into the night.

The gun in question was a standard Flak 38, 20mm calibre four-barrelled anti-aircraft weapon. Its crew has indeed arrived in time, having used a motorcycle with a sidecar and a flatbed truck, and joined the patrolling soldier. In a matter of moments they pulled off the protective camouflage, locked in the magazines and loaded the gun. Neither of them thought of it as something else than a routine exercise, however last time they were caught off guard by an inspection and the whole crew lost their weekend permits and the leader was degraded and sent elsewhere. They sat around, all nine of them, watched the sky and lost a word from time to time. Some of these soldiers were young, aging between seventeen and nineteen, others were in their twenties, two were seasoned but tired veterans nearing their fiftieth year. Boredom was upon them – for months they’ve been pulled out of their beds in the middle of a night, they drilled routine exercises, dismantled and cleaned their guns and put them back together, got grilled if there was a stain on their uniforms… and the high command freaked out about the allied invasion that hung over Nazi occupied France like a sword of Damocles. Heck, now the rumour was Rommel himself flew over to Berlin. All was quiet in the Normandy.

“Well boys, I was half afraid I’d wake you up from good night sleep.”
The whole crew grasped for breath in a surprise, for he appeared out of nowhere.
“S-s-sorry Captain” one of them uttered.
“You are as vigilant as a fellow lion after he stuffed himself with a young gazelle. Somethin’ tells me your gazelle is just about to land.”
“What’s going on, sir?” one of the veterans asked as he got his act back together.
“The word is out they sent paratroopers as an envoy, few of them has been seen here and there, probably pathfinders. You better keep your eyes open, if they are not members of resistance, it may as well mean the main show is about to begin. And watch out, for they might slit your throat in no time if they catch you napping around.”
“What are we supposed to do?!”
The Captain measured the soldier with his eyes. It was just a boy, scared and far from home. Even his uniform was a number or three too large.
“You sit behind the gun, son, and shoot at those goddamn airplanes and blow them to pieces. Once you are out of ammo, retreat to the village and hold your positions there, someone will take care of you. When you move stay low, cover each other’s back, and you’ll be fine.”
The Captain patted one of the soldiers on his shoulder and sat on the motorcycle with a sidecar.
“I’ll borrow this beauty over here, you’ll make do with the flatbed. See you around.”
And with that, he started the engine and drove away once more disappearing into the night, leaving the crew behind, baffled and afraid. Men looked at one another and then on of the veterans said:
“Alright fellas, let’s get to positions, you two – hold guard until the planes show up, then we’ll need you at the gun.”
They nodded, prepared their rifles and scanned the shadows searching for any hint that would give out a hiding enemy.

The 745cc engine bubbled and puffed and purred as it navigated its way on the rugged French side roads. Captain drove with lights turned off not to give away his position should there be some night stalkers flying in the sky, however after months spent in Bouteville and its vicinity he knew his way around by heart. He arrived in St. Mére Eglise after a few minute ride and parked on a square, just below the church. The square was deserted and dark, sparsely lit by a dim light of a moon when it peeked out of clouds. As Captain made his way towards a pub’s basement, where the company’s headquarters resided, a barrage of footsteps broke the silence and, moments later, halftrack’s diesel engine woke up to life and rattled with its characteristic clopping.

A unit of soldiers mounted the halftrack and the driver revved the engine and rolled the behemoth out of the square. Things are on the move, good. No more waiting, no more doubting. This is it. He looked at his watch. It showed twenty three minutes after eleven.
A patrol guarded the doors, but opened them as soon as he saw the Captain coming. They both exchanged a polite salute and Captain entered the pub whilst the guard closed the door and shivered, being aware of a lot of movement around this quiet place, way too much for his taste. He checked both sides of the street and grasped the strap of his rifle with greater strength. Weight of the weapon pushing against his shoulder felt reassuring.

No one drank or cheered in the pub – beer taps were hidden by small cloths, chairs were lifted on the tables and a cleaning lady mopped the floor. Captain nodded at her and walked down the stairs to the basement, where shouty voices promised a heated discussion. As soon as he entered, four heads looked in his direction.
“Evening folks,” Captain said, “Major,” he nodded.
“Heya Captain” the men answered.
They were from Wehrmacht, a Major and two second lieutenants, with one fellow from Luftwaffe, a first lieutenant. Informality of the meeting was obvious and something not so rare between closed groups of field officers of the army. They all knew about their limited supplies, scattered mobile reinforcements pretty much unable to support their defence positions against enemy pressure, a good deal of their soldiers were either too young, or too old. If they wanted to win, or even survive, they had to outwit the enemy and in such a situation, formality goes out of the window. Professionalism? No, professionalism stays.
Captain run his hand through his hair and joined the circle around a map placed on a table.
Major spoke first: “The AA gun ready?”
“Locked and loaded Major” Captain responded.
“Good. Orders placed?”
“Once out of ammo, retreat to Bouteville and hold positions awaiting further instructions.”
“Fine. We’ve got three key points in our sector – St. Mére Eglise and Chef-du-Pont, both controlling beach exit roads leading inland, and St. Marie-du-Mont, on a direct route from the beach to Carentan. Now,” he pointed at a map, “Bouteville is two clicks away from Brécourt Manor, where a battery of four 105mm howitzers controls the only road leading to St. Maríe-du-Mont, so once Bouteville crew is out of ammo, they’ll move east to reinforce Brécourt garrison, understood?”
Major continued: “I’ve already sent a messenger there, so they’ll be alerted. Now, second lieutenant, make sure Chef-du-Pont is ready & waiting. Don’t give them anything for free, and blow the bridge to pieces if necessary.”
“It will be done,” one of the second lieutenants responded.
“Sir, I’ve got around one, one and a half platoon at my disposal, when can we expect reinforcements?”
“You can’t, I’m afraid. You know how stretched our units are and St. Mére Eglise holds greater strategic importance not only to us, but mainly to the enemy. If hell gets loose upon us, we’ll join you in Chef-du-Pont, otherwise you are on your own, lieutenant.”
Lieutenant sighed. “Alright, we’ll hold, sir.”
“Captain, ride to Brécourt to inspect the situation. Should they land on this goddamn beach, they are in for a surprise. Then, once inspected, join your company in St. Marie-du-Mont and take our fellow comrade from Luftwaffe with you, he’ll help navigating the AA fire.”
“All clear?”
“Yes Major.”
“Yes sir.”
“May the God watch upon us, at least six pathfinders were reported, some of them shot. It’s happening guys. Dismissed.”

Only Major and one of the lieutenants remained in the room. The Lieutenant reached into his breast pocket for a pack of cigarettes and took out two, one for himself and one for the Major.
“It’s gonna be a hell of a long night” he uttered as he lit them on.

The guard by the exit jerked to attention when three young officers left the pub.
“At ease, soldier” sighed the fellow from Luftwaffe and turned to his companions.
“So, is this the night of the nights?” he asked.
“We will see on the morrow. We’ve got some rough guys in positions, the fields are flooded, main intersections are defended” the lieutenant declared.
“Defence against paratroopers ain’t worth much unless you have built a roof over your trenches.”
“Yeah? I thought Luftwaffe would protect me when it rains. Where the hell are all the interceptor planes anyway?”
“Why, somewhere over the Ukrainian frontier if you ask me.”
“Enough gentlemen,” the Captain intervened, “we’ve got work to do, let’s move.”
“Sorry Captain, I’ll see you tomorrow then” said the second lieutenant, saluted and left.
Captain waved him off and walked to the motorcycle, accompanied by the Luftwaffe fellow. The Lieutenant got in the sidecar, the Captain started the engine and off they went into the darkness, heading to an artillery battery at Brécourt Manor.

Over their heads, hidden in the clouds and unseen, hundreds of transport aircrafts organized in V-shape formations were just minutes from crossing the coastline. Pilots switched on a red light and in response leaders of units in each plane shouted from the bottom of their lungs Stand up! Hook up! One of them looked out of the open door and wondered, what awaited him and his men down there on the ground.

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About Petr Klíma