A query from a reader prompted me to consider putting up another writing sample, it’s been a long while since I have done so. Here goes; you all get to guess its context and series! There’s a lot more where this came from.
At a little after four in the morning, Gun Number Three’s field telephone buzzed. Geert picked it up. He heard the Fire Direction Officer’s voice on the other end. The man delivered his message flatly.
“Fire Mission, Platoon adjust, Number Three, one round, shell HE, Lot XY, Charge 4, Fuze Quick, Deflection 2573, Quadrant 247, continuous fire.”
For a brief moment, Geert’s eyebrows went up. He knew the command “continuous fire,” which meant that his gun would fire at the maximum rate until “check fire” was given, but he had never heard it. He had expected something like “five rounds in effect.”
Training snapped into place. Geert repeated the message to his crew; they sprang into action. This was the first time the gunners would hurtle high explosives towards their fellow man. But that thought would only come later, if at all. For now, there was a fire mission, a job to be done.
Geert set the announced deflection on the panoramic telescope and traversed the tube until he had the correct sight picture on the proper aiming point. He called out “Deflection 2573.”
The loader used a hydraulic ram to press the appropriately fuzed 41.9kg round into the chamber, this was followed by “green bag” propellant. Once everyone was clear, they closed the breech block and installed the primer.
The assistant gunner elevated the tube to 247, centered the quadrant range bubbles and called out “Quadrant 247, set!” He took the firing lanyard in hand and stood as far away from the breech block as possible.
The enormous howitzer was ready to go, all the platoon’s guns would adjust off of Geert’s gun once the rounds were adjusted down range.
“Fire!” The assistant gunner made a turn like a matador, lanyard in hand. With a heavy thud, the breech block recoiled a few feet into the fighting compartment. As soon as it was forward, the AG levered the block open, blackish powder fumes puffed out. The loader cleaned the breech and face of the breech block with a swab. They repeated their actions; within seconds the weapon was ready to fire again.
Sweat stung Geert’s eyes. One good thing about the reek of propellant is that it blocked out the funk of the crew, he thought. He waited on the fire adjustment, it wasn’t long in coming. The field telephone buzzed again.
“Special correction. Number three, left five mils.” Geert called out the correction, and adjusted his gunner’s aid. With another jerk of the lanyard, another round headed downrange. The crew went back through their carefully choreographed dance, the howitzer was ready once more. The field telephone buzzed. It was the Fire Direction Officer again.
“Platoon, continuous fire.”
Professionally, Geert was pleased. His reserve crew had managed to hit the target (men, his inner voice said to him) with only one correction; that meant good work on his battery’s part, as well as the forward observer, the poor bastard. As his crew labored on their gun and round after round left the tube, Geert imagined what it must be like in the Fire Direction Center, with a hundred cries for help from the heaving front.
How could the FDO stand it, listening to the radio, and triaging life-saving fires?
All Geert could do was what he was doing, managing his boys while cranking out death at four rounds a minute, 41.9 kilos of exploding metal at a time. Geert looked at his watch. Pretty soon he would have to reduce the rate of fire to one round per minute, his gun was heating up, and his loader was flagging.
The fighting compartment really stank of cordite, even with the evacuator fans cranked all the way up. Geert heard the other guns firing, B Battery was going flat-out, and Geert would have to call for a re-supply track, soon.
His gun fired again. Geert’s somewhat rusty but fairly experienced eye started to catch the traces of fatigue in his crew, and the gun was getting hot. After this shot, thought Geert, we are reducing our rate. The loader was fumbling with a fuze wrench when the field telephone buzzed. Geert picked it up.
“Check fire, check fire. End of mission. Be advised, we reposition in five mikes. Counterbattery. All guns respond in sequence.”
He waited his turn, then he spoke up. “Three, roger.” He was looking at his loader, even with the help from the semi-auto rammer, sweat was pouring off of the man.
Geert pitched his voice. “Alright, Check fire. Do not load. We’re leaving in five minutes. Get to work.” The AG and the loader got out of the vehicle and scattered. Field wire had to be rolled up, aiming stakes pulled; it was organized chaos. Geert prepared the vehicle for movement while the driver waited on the command to go.
No one wanted to be around when the Soviet artillery, or worse yet aircraft, figured out where they were. Geert’s armpits oozed as he sat and waited for his guys to get back, time stretched like tar on a hot day.
At last, his loader and AG climbed back aboard and strapped in. The radio, which had been silent until now to prevent triangulation, clicked through his Combat Vehicle Crewman’s headset. Geert recognized the Battery Commander’s voice. He kept it simple.
“All elements, displace, now.”
Geert spoke. “You heard the man, driver. Follow the leader. Let’s get the fuck out of here!” He opened the hatch and stood up. He gave the driver small corrections as they formed up in a convoy and left with haste. B Battery was following a forest trail to their next firing position, Geert smelled diesel, earth and crushed pine. As he understood things, their next position was only a klick away or so.
As Geert stood in his hatch like a tanker, he heard a new sound; a whooshing roar like freight trains, somewhere in the direction from where he had just been minutes earlier.
Unlike Lot’s wife, Geert didn’t look back as yet another chunk of Germany got chewed up.
Dawn was coming on Bravo battery’s first day of war.