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Unteroffizier Laupert, leader of the regimental pioneer platoon's 1st Squad, came rushing out of the makeshift battalion command post and ran toward the truck around which his squad had gathered. Feldwebel Wegener, the platoon leader, followed him on foot. Behind him came the other two squad leaders. "What's up, Herr Unteroffizier?" called Kneisel, commander of the first machine gun team.
"We're leaving at once. The bridge at Homyly must be taken before it is blown by the enemy."
The four Opel Blitz trucks, which were parked in a wood at the side of the road, drove off moments later. They left the main road and rolled along a field road. Rudi Brasche hung on tightly as the truck pitched and rolled. The first houses appeared before the trucks. That had to be Homyly. Soon the first shots were fired in their direction from the entrance to the village.
"Ready the machine guns. Polle and Gambietz take over the antiaircraft machine gun." Machine gun bullets chewed pieces of wood and metal from the trucks. Soon they could hear the shots. Kneisel and Nehring, the two machine gunners, ripped their machine guns from the side racks and placed them on the side of the truck.
"Faster, Grothe!" The Opel Blitz leapt forward. The village houses rushed closer. Rudolf Brasche saw the first smoking tracer rounds streaking toward the leading truck. Then the first burst of fire whipped from the MG34 mounted on the truck in front of them. The second machine gun joined in, and then the tripod-mounted MG15, which was actually intended for antiaircraft purposes, began to fire aswell.
Seconds later the three machine guns in Brasche's truck opened fire. The noise of the three guns nearly deafened him. As Brasche watched, Ecklebe, the second member of the gun crew, loaded a fresh belt of ammunition. Then a burst of fire struck the truck. Heierberg cried out. He let his rifle drop and half fell on Martens, the second member of Kneisel's gun crew. The truck veered hard to the right. A house flew past on the left. They were now safe from the enemy machine gun. The truck came to a small wood and jerked to a stop.
"Get out and follow me!" shouted Unteroffizier Laupert.
Brasche grabbed the two ammunition boxes. He jumped down and ran after Nehring, the leader of his machine gun team. They reached the wood together with the 2nd and 3rd Squads. Feldwebel Wegener appeared from the fourth truck. The Holtsteger squad followed with explosive charges.
"Along here! This dirt road leads right to the bridge."
Breathing heavily, Brasche ran along behind his leader. They had gone no more than four hundred meters when they came under fire from machine guns and fast-firing cannon from ahead and to the right. Glowing steel whipped toward the German soldiers. Brasche and the others hurried on, following their squad leader, who ran into a stand of tall ferns.
In front of Brasche, Nehring fell to the ground heavily. The machine gun flew through the air in a high arc and fell into the ferns. Cursing, Nehring got to his feet, shook himself off, and kept going. The forest thinned out before them. Then they saw the bright band of the road, and finally the bridge appeared in front of them.
Four figures were visible. First Squad fired at them on the run. Three of the men returned fire while the fourth ran back across the bridge.
"Stop, stop! He's going to blow the bridge."
Two bursts were fired at the fourth French soldier. One caught him before he was halfway across the bridge and knocked the man face down.
"Across the bridge and dig in on the other side!"
Rudolf Brasche felt himself getting short of breath but he kept on running, always following his squad leader. They reached the approach to the bridge. Machine gun fire whistled in from the far end of the span. Kneisel threw himself down in the middle of the bridge and opened fire with his machine gun. The enemy troops quickly turned their machine gun on Kneisel. But the Obergefreiter was quicker. His burst struck the enemy position before the French could open fire and silenced the machine gun.
"Platoon, across the bridge in one dash. Go!"
Feldwebel Wegener jumped to his feet. Noticing movement behind the main pillar, he opened fire with his submachine gun while on the run. Rifle shots cracked from the riverbank. A man running behind Brasche cried out and fell to the ground. Then they were on the other side, and the fear that the bridge might blow up under them at any moment vanished.
An enemy soldier appeared ten meters to one side of the Laupert squad. He raised his weapon, but Nehring was quicker, firing his machine gun on the run. The Germans threw themselves down into the cover of the French position. A pair of figures emerged from the bunker, their hands raised.
Shouts drifted over from the wood that flanked the far end of the bridge. Then two armored cars appeared and opened fire on the bridge with cannon and machine guns. Bullets bounced off the steel buttresses and whizzed off in all directions.
"Infantry following behind the armored cars, Herr Feldwebel!"
By running and dodging, Feldwebel Wegener safely reached the hole occupied by the Laupert squad. Out of breath, he let himself tumble in.
"Machine guns open fire on the infantry!" he ordered.
The two machine guns opened up simultaneously. The enemy infantry, which had emerged from the wood, quickly pulled back again. However, two of the seven armored cars now turned and rolled toward the squad's foxhole. The two vehicles turned their guns on the machine gun position. For an instant Brasche saw a red-yellow lance of flame; it seemed to be heading straight for him. He pressed himself against the ground and heard the ringing impacts of bullets striking the steel of the bridge behind him.
"Pass a belt here, Rudi!"
Brasche roused himself and passed along a fresh belt of ammunition. Bullets clattered against the frontal armor of the armored cars. Nehring aimed somewhat higher. He saw the flash of the impacting bullets. All at once the enemy machine gun stopped firing. The armored car now turned its cannon on the German position and was soon joined by the second vehicle.
"Damn, what's the Holtsteger Squad doing, Herr Feldwebel?"
"They're on the other side. They should have put their antitank rifle to use long ago . . ." The Feldwebel's voice was drowned out by a sharp crack.
"That was the antitank rifle."
They saw the armor-piercing round strike the leading armored car. Smoke began to curl into the air above the vehicle. The armored car's ammunition supply blew up and the crew bailed out. On the far side of the bridge the 20mm cannon opened fire. The roar of machine guns and the crackle of rifle fire added to the din.
Richard Gambietz crawled forward to Feldwebel Wegener. Rudolf Brasche, whom everyone called Rudi, followed. Nehring and Ecklebe joined them.
"Kneisel, you hold on up front and keep their heads down while we work our way along those blackberry bushes, understood? When we're in the wood, shift your fire to the right so you don't hit us."
Kneisel fired, sweeping the edge of the treed area. Feldwebel Wegener left cover and crept as fast as he could to the left, where he disappeared into the bushes. Brasche followed along behind Gambietz. He saw Nehring appear beside the Feldwebel and disappear again at once.
Brasche felt his hands, which were gripping the handles of the ammunition boxes, becoming wet with sweat. He was afraid, but he knew that he would have to overcome his fear to be effective. The pace quickened. Brasche had to keep pace in case Nehring should need ammunition. Gambietz paused and turned toward Brasche. His young friend with the slightly pointed face tried to smile but only managed a grimace. Brasche caught up with him and moments later they joined Nehring. Just then they heard the roar of an engine and the pointed nose of a French armored car pushed its way through the thicket. They all saw the machine gun and the 20mm cannon.
Feldwebel Wegener signaled silently as Wegener looked his way. He raised one of the four hand grenades he had stuck in his belt. Gambietz nudged Rudi Brasche and pulled out a grenade. Brasche put down the two ammunition boxes. He screwed off the metal caps of two hand grenades and crouched lower in the shadows of the bushes as the armored car rolled directly toward him.
The vehicle came nearer and nearer. Then Brasche spotted movement behind it: enemy infantry, trying to approach the bridge from the flank under the protection of the armored car. The French vehicle was now 30 meters away. Glancing to the side, Brasche saw that Nehring had aimed his machine gun at the enemy troops.
"Go!" shouted the Feldwebel. Rudi Brasche jumped up and threw one of the grenades. Gambietz and the Feldwebel did likewise. The enemy were already firing back when the grenades fell on the armored car. Nehring opened fire with his machine gun. The three hand grenades exploded. Brasche jumped to his feet. A bullet whizzed past his head. Behind him Nehring's machine gun roared again. Three figures appeared in front of him. He ripped the porcelain knob from the grenade and tossed it toward the group of three. At the same time he threw himself headfirst to the ground. Brasche landed hard on a stump. The burst of fire meant for him passed overhead. The blast from the hand grenade silenced the three enemy soldiers.
On the other side, Feldwebel Wegener reached the enemy armored car and threw two hand grenades inside. Gambietz overcame a second group of enemy troops. Then it was quiet, except for the sound of breaking branches as the enemy fled through the woods. There was a fresh outburst of firing to the right and then from the far side of the bridge, where a squad had been left behind.
"Back to the bridge!" ordered the Feldwebel. They hurried back, running at a crouch, reached their foxholes, and jumped inside. His lungs pumping hard, Rudi Brasche lay still for a few moments beside the machine gun, which Nehring had already moved into position again. Slowly his cramped body relaxed. He raised his head. Gambietz nudged him and Brasche turned toward him.
"Now then Rudi, you were damned scared, weren't you?"
"And how!" Brasche wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, which was soaked in sweat. For three hours the small group of German soldiers held the bridge against repeated French attacks. The enemy was trying to reach the explosive charges, but these had already been rendered useless.
Three armored cars made another attempt to reach the bridge but were forced to turn away. Then Oberstleutnant Radwan, commander of 2nd Battalion, arrived at the head of the relief forces. He was the first to roll across the bridge and into the enemy. As had often been the case before, this bold move succeeded and the area in front of the bridge was swept clear. They had captured the Seine River crossing undamaged. The advance road lay open before them.
On 19 July 1940, Oberstleutnant Oskar Radwan was awarded the Knight's Cross in recognition of the circumspect and exemplary manner in which he had led his battalion and his own personal bravery.
Standing beside his friend Richard Gambietz, Rudi Brasche received the Iron Cross, Second Class. Neither could know that they would both later win the Knight's Cross.
The Russian Front
"Looks suspicious to me, Rudi. I wouldn't be surprised if we get caught here east of the Mius after our eighty-kilometer retreat."
Richard Gambietz pointed to the wall of the brickworks beside which the Kumm company had dug in. The remaining companies of the 93rd Regiment were strung out to the east, where an extended, low ridge stretched toward the east, forming the southern boundary of the Kamyenka Valley.
"But if Ivan attacks he'll have to climb the ridge first, and that will give us a chance to stop him. What do you think, Wilhelm?"
The man in question and his two companions only grunted. "Some answer," grinned Brasche.
"Pioneer platoon leader to battalion!"
Feldwebel Wegener got up and walked back in the direction of Pokrovskoye, where the battalion command post had been set up behind the ridge.
"They're cooking something up, Rudi."
"About time. We've marched back eighty kilometers. It's damned cold, and this brickworks would be the ideal spot to spend the winter."
"We could light the kiln," enjoined Wilhelm Grunge.
"If we had something to burn."
"We'll look for something. Want to bet there's fuel hidden in those buildings?"
The pioneer platoon had taken up position at the edge of the brickworks. The telephone operations squad was already in the administrator's house at the south end. The thermometer was showing minus twenty-two degrees.
"Hopefully Wegener will come back soon, Heinz."
Unteroffizier Laupert, the squad leader, came over to the men. He squatted in the corner between the low brick wall and the carefully layered pile of unbaked bricks, which had been laid out to dry the summer before.
"He should be back any minute, I imagine. Has anyone still got a little something to warm the stomach?"
"Here, Heinz. Left over from the fleshpots of Rostov."
Martens passed his canteen. The Unteroffizier gave it a shake. "Great. It's not even frozen." He unscrewed the cap and took a small swig, then he passed back the canteen.
"The Feldwebel's coming!"
Feldwebel Wegener walked along the footpath which ran through the snow like a dark line.
"He's got the company headquarters squad with him. Something's up."
"Squad leaders to me!"
The three NCOs hurried over to the Feldwebel, who had squatted in the shelter of the wall among the men of the Laupert platoon.
"Listen up. We're to check out the lime-kiln and see if it's suitable as a flanking position. If it is, then our line will run along the Mius to the left. From the lime-kiln the line would run precisely due east along the ridge. Ivan will attack from the direction of Kryekaya, or from the northeast."
Feldwebel Wegener returned to his men and gave them their instructions. The Holsteger squad stayed behind to clear a path of retreat, should it become necessary, while the remaining squads moved into the brickworks.
"Careful, Rudi. There's a house behind the shed."
Rudi Brasche pressed on, his machine gun at the ready at his hip. Gambietz stayed close beside him, while Grunge followed with the two ammunition boxes. Twilight had fallen on this first day of December 1941. The men could see nothing but the sharp outlines of the buildings, the kiln, and the extended drying shed, which were silhouetted against the lighter background of the sky.