The Night of Nights – Part II

A blackbird landed on sandbags and kept its wings stretched for a moment to maintain balance. It pecked around searching for food and soon enough it came across scattered breadcrumbs. Young man found himself smiling at the scene. The night was dark, but sitting on an ammunition wooden box, he could see blackbird’s contours coming up against a slightly brighter sky. He was glad the bird was there, for he felt mighty lonely on guard duties and this little fellow kept coming night after night around one hour in the morning, so he figured he may as well share his dinner with him. One day he’ll give it a name – as for now, he couldn’t come up with anything he’d like. Miles sprang to mind, but he called his dog that way. He left Miles, a German coolie pup, back at his home town of Bad Schandau, not far from what used to be a Czechoslovakian border. He came to conclusion some other name would be more appropriate. Jarvis maybe, yeah, that could do.
The blackbird lifted its head and looked at the young soldier. Then it turned over and watched the horizon, where waves of black sea stormed the beach. Once more it gave the young soldier a peculiar lookand then it spread its wings and flew away.
He run a hand through his hair and narrowed his eyes, trying to look through the darkness. He would swear he heard hummm sound, piercing through splashes of waves. The sound was deep and steady and it grew louder and louder. It was a sound of a gathering storm. He shifted uneasily.
Soon enough first AA gun opened up, quickly followed by others. Flashes lit up the sky. Night turned into a day.

The motorcycle with a side car navigated its way through French countryside. With Captain on the driver’s seat, it consumed turns and hairpins and whatever the road threw at it, with great audacity. A closer look would reveal crouched and scared Lieutenant of Luftwaffe sitting in a sidecar and holding onto it, his knuckles turning white. Sure, he knew how to fly airplanes and flew a good deal of hours in Stuka dive-bomber, but hell, it was always he who controlled things and now, he made just a helpless participant. Tires let out a short screech as Captain brought the motorcycle to halt. Brécourt Manor, villa with massive walls made of grey bricks, had a heavy presence to it. No light shone through its windows, as the crew had to follow policy of blackout. Sergeant appeared at the gate and ushered them into a yard, where they met a Lieutenant responsible for the battery. After exchanging salutes, the Lieutenant spoke first.
“Good to see you Captain, care to see the guns?”
“That’s what I am here for, let’s go.”
“Follow me” said the lieutenant and headed out the gate.
The battery resided just around the corner.
“How are your men faring?”
“Only as good as one can, given this stage of war. Nobody likes waiting. My boys are the offensive type, you know? But they are good soldiers, we are ready, Captain.”
“Good.”
They stepped into a field. On its right side grew a line of trees and under their branches lay four 105 mm howitzers, ominous, fearful, waiting. They were connected by trenches, their backs covered by several machine gun nests on the left side of the field. It was a perfect position, and given the hell taken by similar battery positions on Cotentin peninsula from ally bombers, it seemed this one has escaped air surveillance and managed to survive unscathed.
Bum. Bum. Bum.
All men raised their heads and looked in the direction of the sound. Far away, they saw explosions illuminating clouds. Someone was up there. Could it be bombers? Or resistance air drop? Or is it the attack? Captain checked his watch. One hour and six minutes after midnight. Flak in Le-Grand Chemin opened up.

Rat
Rat-a-tat
Rat-a-tat-tat
Tat-tat-tat-rat-a-tat-tat

 Red and yellow tracking bullets raced towards airplanes up in the sky.
“Everybody, get into positions! This is it guys!” shouted the Lieutenant. He then turned to Captain, lump in his throat and adrenalin starting to pull through his veins.
“We will hold Captain, we will hold.”
“AA gun crew from Bouteville will join you here once they run out of ammo. Make sure your guys know and do not mistake them for enemy” said Captain and looked up at the sky.
Vrrrroouuuummmm transport planes’ propellers roared in the background, only occasionally drown out by an explosion when one of them got shot down.
“You are a good soldier, Lieutenant. May the God be with you. I’ll see you on the morrow.”
“Thanks Captain.”
“So long” said the fellow from Luftwaffe and shook Lieutenant’s hand.
They left for the motorcycle in a hurry.
“Where is your rifle, Lieutenant?
Lieutenant thought for a second and then said:
“In the basement in St. Mére Eglise I’m afraid. Shit”
Captain rolled his eyes.
“Ask if they have some spare inside, and get moving!”
As Lieutenant ran to the gate and spoke with the guard, Captain strolled off to the parking spot, started the motorcycle and moved aside into shadows. He watched bushes and branches for movement and listened for snapping twigs. He didn’t expect small units or individual soldiers to attack a well-prepared defence position just minutes after their jump – that would be insane. Alas, fellows raining from the sky were a rough bunch of paratroopers, elite soldiers and according to Wehrmacht intelligence, this night would be their baptism of fire. He couldn’t count on these young men to have self-preservation instinct. Fresh from the training and eager to join combat – that’s when soldiers can be at their most dangerous. It wasn’t encouraging. Their own paratroopers in the area, the 6th paratrooper regiment, consisted of seasoned veterans, young fellows around seventeen to nineteen years, but when they spoke you thought they had twenty five or more. They were rough and war made them grow up real fast.
Lieutenant’s boots squashing the gravel gave him away well before he’d enter Captain’s line of fire. Enemy’s dropping from airplanes and he walks around like this is a kind of parade rehearsal. Even his rifle is on his shoulder. Captain knew he could safely leave the shadows and scare him out a bit, for the Lieutenant was not able to shoot right away. Lieutenant stood next to the motorcycle and looked around. When Captain stepped out of the shadows, Lieutenant froze and moment later realized it was only Captain and tried to play it cool.
“Let’s get going?” he said.
“Yeah, we better move out.”

Stream of planes thundering in the sky seemed endless. Minutes passed since first drops and Captain knew they had to be careful, the game was on. He floored the gas and stormed for St. Marie-du-Mont. Speed was their ticket to safety. They never saw the incoming grenade. Its explosion threw them off the track and they spun and crashed into a ditch, motorcycle rolled on its side. Captain, shaken but not wounded, wrung himself free. He crept away from the motorcycle. Someone barked orders. He had to be quick. Lieutenant lay there, his body twisted in a grotesque angle. He’s gone. If I can get myself to those nettles, they’ll make a good hiding. Ten metres, five, four, two. He made it, crouched and prepared for shooting, nettles burning his hand and face. One of the troops jumped into the ditch and aimed at the motorcycle, ready to provide covering fire for his comrade, who approached it from the road. When he saw Lieutenant’s body, he shot a burst into it. Captain steadied his breath. They know there were two of us.
Bang.
He went down. The second soldier threw a grenade in Captain’s direction. Captain rolled on the road and covered his head. The grenade went off with a loud crack and soil and stones flew all around. Captain crawled to the ditch on the other side of the road and used it for cover as he ran away. Damn. A grove of trees was on the right side of the road, so he headed there to hide and calm himself down. Way too quick, way too quick for my taste.

He crouched and paid attention to noises around. Apart from distant gunfire, everything seemed quiet. It was almost unnerving, but then in the background he recognized a rustle of leaves – breeze was up, and he relaxed. He wiped sweating hands off of his pants and moved on. Just as he was about to leave the cover of small grove and sneak around the field boundaries, a series of loud cracks, tearing and swearing broke the silence, finishing with a swoosh. He turned around in an instant and brought rifle to his eye, ready to shoot and ready to kill. A paratrooper landed in trees and hung there in his harness. Captain didn’t shoot right away. The paratrooper had no gun in hand and stared at him, moonlight uncovering his young face. A good deal of fear was in his eyes. Captain struggled to get his heart rate under control, but managed to realize he was not in an imminent danger. One shot. Paratrooper’s face had no wrinkles, just freckles here and there. He might have been a redheader, however Captain wouldn’t swear by it. One shot. He couldn’t bring himself to pulling the trigger.
This ain’t no fair way to kill a man, when he’s all tangled up and helpless. But what is, after all? I’ve had enough of it.
Captain lowered his gun and ran away.

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About Petr Klíma