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Theo Hossbach lay on a cot in a military hospital in Cambrai. All of him was fine except for the last two joints on the ring finger of his left hand. He wouldn’t see those again until and unless what the Resurrection of the Flesh preachers liked to talk about turned out to be the straight goods. Theo doubted it—Theo doubted almost everything people in authority said—but you never could tell.
One thing Theo didn’t doubt was that he was lucky to be there, or anywhere. Along with the commander and driver, he’d bailed out of a burning Panzer II. They’d all run for some bushes a couple of hundred meters away. He’d made it. Ludwig and Fritz hadn’t. It was about that simple.
The bullet that amputated those last two joints came later. He didn’t know whether it was aimed at him in particular or just one of the random bullets always flying around a battlefield. The one by Beauvais seemed to have had more of them than most. Theo might have been prejudiced; he’d never had to bail out of a panzer before.
Or he might not have been. The French and English had stopped the Wehrmacht’s drive at Beauvais, and it hadn’t got started again. This made two wars in a row where the Schlieffen Plan didn’t quite work. Hitler’s generals came closer to pulling it off than the Kaiser’s had, but what was that worth?
A nurse came by. She took his temperature. “Normal. Very good,” she said as she wrote it down. “Do you need another pain pill?”
“Yes, please,” he answered. Those two missing joints seemed to hurt worse than the stub he had left. Phantom pain, the doctor who cleaned up the wound called it. He could afford to dismiss it like that; it wasn’t his hand.
“Here.” The nurse gave Theo the pill, watched while he swallowed it, and wrote that down, too. He figured it was codeine; it made him a little woozy, and it constipated him. It also left him less interested in the nurse, who wasn’t bad looking, than he would have been if he weren’t taking them every four to six hours. But it pushed away the pain, both real and phantom.
Most of the soldiers in the ward with him had nastier wounds. Most, but not all: the fellow two beds down wore a cast on his ankle because he’d tripped over his own feet and broken it. “I wasn’t even drunk,” he complained to anyone who’d listen. “Just fucking clumsy.”
Woozy turned to drowsy. Theo was dozing when hearing his own name brought him back to himself. The nurse was leading a captain over to his cot. The pink Waffenfarbe on the man’s Totenkopf collar patches and edging his shoulder straps said he was a panzer man, too. “You are, uh, Theodor Hossbach?” he said.
“Theodosios Hossbach, sir,” Theo said resignedly. How was he supposed to explain that his father had been slogging through a translation of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at just the wrong time?
He got the panzer captain’s attention, anyhow. “Theodosios? Well, well. No wonder you go by Theo.”
“No wonder at all, sir,” Theo agreed.
“You are a radio operator. You are familiar with the operation of the Fu5 radio set?”
“Yes, sir.” Theo knew he still sounded resigned. Every panzer in the Wehrmacht used the Fu5 except commanders’ vehicles, which carried the longer-range Fu10. If he was a panzer radioman, he’d damn well better know how to use the standard set. A pfennig’s worth of thought . . . was evidently too much to hope for.
Then the captain got to the point: “Can you return to duty? A radio operator in a Panzer II is not required to do much with his left hand.”
That was true, and then again it wasn’t. A radioman didn’t need to do much with his left hand to operate the radio. When it came to things like engine repairs or remounting a thrown track, though . . . Theo knew he could have said no. His hand was swathed in enough bandages to wrap a Christmas present, or maybe a mummy. He hesitated no more than a heartbeat. “As long as they give me a jar of those little white pills, sir, I’m good to go.”
“They will,” the captain said, with a glance toward the nurse that warned someone’s head would roll if they didn’t. “You’ll have it by the time I come back for you, in half an hour or so. A couple of other fellows here I want to scoop up if I can.”
A doctor gave Theo the codeine and a reproachful look. “You should stay longer. You’re nowhere near healed.”
“I’ll manage,” Theo said. “I’m sick of laying around.”
“Lying,” the doctor said automatically.
“No, sir. I’m telling the truth.”
“Right.” The doctor looked more reproachful yet. Theo hadn’t thought he could. “Maybe we’re lucky to get rid of you.”
“Maybe you are. Most of me doesn’t need the bed—only my hand.”
When the panzer captain came back for Theo, he had one other fellow (who walked with a limp) in tow and a discontented expression on his face. “The last guy I want is shirking,” he growled. “I’d bet my last mark on it even if I can’t prove it. Well, I just have to make do with you two. Let’s go.”
They’d laundered Theo’s black coveralls. Putting them on again did feel good. The other panzer crewman, whose name was Paul, seemed to feel the same way. Once he had the black on, he stood taller and straighter and seemed to move more fluidly.
The captain bundled them both into a Citroën he’d got somewhere or other and headed west. They drove past and through the wreckage of a nearly successful campaign. Dead panzers—German, French, and British—littered the landscape, along with burnt-out trucks and shot-up autos. Here and there, German technicians salvaged what they could from the metal carcasses.
Just outside of Mondidier, the captain stopped. “You boys get out here,” he said. “We’re regrouping for a fresh go at the pigdogs. They’ll fit you into new crews.”
“What’ll you do, sir?” Theo asked.
“Head for another hospital and see how many men I can pry loose there,” the officer answered. “The more, the better. We can use experienced people, God knows.”
Theo felt shy about joining a new crew. He’d spent his whole military career—he’d spent the whole war—with Ludwig and Fritz. They’d understood him as well as anybody did. They’d put up with him. If another driver and commander had lost their radioman . . . He made a sour face. He’d feel like a woman marrying a widower and trying to live up to the standard his first wife had set.
To his relief, he didn’t have to do that. The personnel sergeant assigned him to what would be a brand new crew. The commander was a sergeant called Heinz Naumann. He had bandages on his neck and his left hand—and maybe in between, too. “Burns. Getting better,” he said laconically. On his coveralls he wore the Iron Cross First Class and a wound badge. Sooner or later, Theo knew, a wound badge would also catch up with him.
By contrast, the driver was just out of training. His coveralls weren’t faded and shapeless; you could cut yourself on their creases. He was a big fellow with dark hair who moved like an athlete. His name was Adalbert Stoss.
Theo was from Breslau, way off in the east. Naumann came from Vienna. Stoss hailed from Greven, a small town outside of Münster. “It’s a wonder we can understand each other,” he said with a grin.
Grin or not, he wasn’t kidding. As far as Theo was concerned, Stoss and Naumann had different strange accents. They probably thought he talked funny, too. “We’ll manage,” Heinz said.
“Oh, sure.” Adalbert went on grinning. He seemed happy as could be to have escaped basic and come out to join the grown-ups at—or at least near—the front. Theo had seen that reaction before. Most of the time, it wore off as soon as the rookie saw his first body with the head blown off. Training was hard work, to say nothing of dull, but you hardly ever got killed there. In real war, on the other hand . . .
“I was hoping they’d give me a Panzer III,” Naumann said. “But no—it’s another II.” He eyed Theo’s bandaged finger. “You aren’t complaining, though, are you?”
“Not right now,” Theo allowed. In a Panzer III, the radioman sat up front, next to the driver. He also served a hull-mounted machine gun. That wouldn’t be much fun with a bad hand. Then again . . . “A Panzer III, now, that’s a real fighting machine.”
“I know, I know. That’s why I wanted one,” the sergeant said. Along with two machine guns, a Panzer III mounted a 37mm cannon. Unlike the Panzer II’s 20mm gun, which fired only armor-piercing ammo, the bigger weapon had high-explosive shells, too. That made it a lot more useful against infantry out in the open.
A Panzer III also carried thicker armor, and boasted a more powerful engine. A Panzer III was a real panzer. A Panzer II was a training vehicle. Oh, you could fight with it. The Wehrmacht had been fighting with it, and with the even smaller, lighter Panzer I, ever since the Führer gave the order to march into Czechoslovakia, more than six months ago now. But it would be nice to have a fighting vehicle that matched the ones the enemy used.
Would have been nice. Panzer IIIs were still scarce, while there were lots of IIs and, even these days, quite a few little obsolete Is. (There were also Panzer IVs, which carried a short-barreled 75mm gun and were designed to support infantry, not to attack enemy armor. There were supposed to be Panzer IVs, anyhow. Theo didn’t think he’d ever seen one.)
“I know what I’m doing in a II,” Stoss said. “They never let us drive a III in training. Most of the practice we got was in those turretless Panzer I chassis—you guys know the ones I mean.”
Theo nodded. So did Heinz Naumann. What you used in training was as cheap as the Wehrmacht could get away with and still do the job. Theo doubted whether any Panzer IIIs were within a hundred kilometers of a training base. You didn’t practice with those babies—you got them into the fight.
Eager as a puppy, Adalbert asked, “You know where they’re going to throw us in, Sergeant?”
“Nope,” Naumann answered. “Far as the generals are concerned, we’re just a bullet. Point us at the enemy, and we knock him over.”
Or he knocks us over. Theo remembered the antitank round slamming into his old Panzer II’s engine compartment. He remembered opening his escape hatch and seeing nothing but flames. He’d followed his panzer commander out the turret hatch instead. Ludwig hadn’t made it much farther. Theo had—which didn’t stop that bullet from finding him a little later on.
The new Panzer II looked like the one that had burned. Theo’s station was behind the turret, just in front of the bulkhead that separated the fighting compartment from the one housing the engine. He couldn’t see out. The smells were familiar: oil, gasoline, cordite, leather, metal, sweat. He didn’t smell much lingering fear, which argued that this panzer hadn’t seen a lot of action.
He started fiddling with the radio. No matter what the manufacturer claimed, every set was different. Heinz Naumann said something. Theo ignored it. Indeed, he hardly heard it: like the radio, he was good at tuning out anything that didn’t directly concern him.
Sometimes, he tuned out things that did concern him. Naumann spoke again: “I said, is it up to snuff?”
“Uh, it seems to be.” Theo came back to the world.
“Good. Pay some attention next time, all right?”
“Whatever you say, Sergeant,” Theo answered. Ludwig had tried to keep him connected, too. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. When Theo got interested in a radio, or in whatever was going on inside his own head, everything else could go hang.
They motored west, toward the front, the next morning. Naumann rode along standing up with his head and shoulders out of the turret. That was how a panzer commander was supposed to do things when not in combat. A lot of commanders looked out even when their machine was in action. The vision ports in the turret just didn’t let you see enough. There was talk of building a Panzer II with a proper cupola for the commander. The Panzer III had one. So did a lot of foreign panzers. Not the II, not yet.
From the Hardcover edition.