The fresh snow crunched audibly as it compacted beneath the boot of Oberfuhrer Edgar Puaud as he picked his way through the trees. Ahead of him, some fifty metres east of the railway station, he could see Obersturmfuhrer Serge Krotoff unlimbering his massive 88mm anti-tank guns and laying them with some considerable care.
It was fortunate for the Frenchmen that Barenwalde had a brewery; that could be relied upon to halt the Soviet advance temporarily. Not to mention the convent. A staunch Roman Catholic Puaud shuddered. His eyes scanned the railway embankment and the men there who were digging in before the attack they knew must come. He had done all he could to reinforce this position, bringing forward the battalion's mortars, all three of them, and a couple of short 75mm infantry guns to add what little weight they could to the defences. With the remnants of yesterday's battle at Barkenfelde he now had two under-strength Companies of infantry to hold the line.
Walking westwards he wondered once again if he should not occupy the small station buildings. No. He'd been right, it was too obvious a target for every Soviet tanker that would trundle up the road. Far better to deploy a platoon of infantry forward in the woods on the western side of the road. Ample supplies of panzerfausts would hopefully allow them to dominate the approach to the level crossing.
A cry broke the silence, "Monsieur General, les Sovietiques!". Puaud turned to look southwards toward Barenwalde. Sure enough a phalanx of T34s were moving out to the west, behind them the ant- like forms of the Soviet riflemen were scurrying across into the woods. "Tres bon", they would get a nasty shock in there! Puaud switched the safety catch on his MP40; he was a soldiers soldier, ready to fight and die to save Europe from anarchy.
CRASH! The retort of the Pak 43 tore the air apart, violating the stillness of the crisp winter morning. CRASH! Moments later the second gun added its voice as though in harmony with its sister.
From the turret of his T34 85 Starshy Leytenant Vladimir Lebed frantically signalled to the two platoons of tanks around him. The realisation that his efforts were wasted due to the smoke and flames from the burning hulks that surrounded him did nothing to lessen his frantic gesticulations. Looking round he saw the supporting infantry rushing from tree to tree on his left. To his right, just for a split second, he noticed the 88mm shell as it approached his turret at 1130 metres per second. His surprise was short-lived; death was instantaneous.
The ability of birds to sing amidst the fiercest of battles always surprised Dmitri Popov. As one T34 after another exploded in rapid succession the young Leytenant advanced though the woods to the west of the road at the head of his platoon. Just ahead of him the stammering of a machine pistol announced his closeness to an enemy position. He did not hesitate. "Uhraaaaah!". With what appeared to be a single bound the group of brown-clad men surged forward.
For Obersturmfuhrer Charles Géromini the on-coming mob appeared as a tidal wave. Even a full magazine from his MP40 was insufficient to stay their advance. With his squad at his heels he turned and ran for the main platoon lines. One man fell wounded, a man he had served with back in 1940, but there was no thought of stopping to assist him. Flight was the only option.
Serzhent Oleg Romantsev swigged from his looted bottle of Crème du Menthe and shouted encouragement to his driver as the T34 lurched across the open field to the east of Barenwalde. Ahead he could clearly see the two German anti-tank guns behind the railway embankment that were still firing into the maelstrom of burning tanks to the west of the village. His platoon followed him, all intent on the destruction of their potential nemesis. Slowly the massive barrels were swinging towards them…..
Leytenant Popov ran on through the fir trees. Ahead he could clearly see the small group of fleeing Germans drop out of sight as though they had magically disappeared. Now he heard a cry just off to his left. French. Why were the Germans speaking French? It was the last thought that Dmitri Popov had, as the woods ahead lit up with muzzle flashes and the ripping retort of an MG42 provided the full-stop at the end of his existence.
Oleg Romantsev was not keen on Crème du Menthe, but it was an 88mm shell and not liver damage that killed him. Yefreitor Alexandre Polshidalov's T34 managed to reach the railway embankment and was about to commence firing into the gun pits, but Obersturmfuhrer Michel Saint-Magne had been waiting for the moment when the lumbering behemoth came to a halt. A Panzerfaust ended the final hurrah of the Soviet first wave. From the clocktower of the convent in Barenwalde Kapitan Mikhail Noddinski turned to his Commissar, Vlad Biffovitch, "Artillery. Then we attack again".
Oberfuhrer Edgar Puaud moved amongst his men, offering encouragement and praise. He had good reason to be happy; the first Soviet attack had been beaten off with insignificant casualties amongst his men. Serge Krotoff was limbering up his 88mm guns, ready to change position before the next attack began. Charles Géromini was issuing fresh ammunition to his men in the woods and on the embankment the bulk of the Frenchmen sat and smoked, having not fired a shot thus far. All knew that this could only be the lull before the storm.
What a storm. Or, more correctly, an ill wind. Unremarkable in every respect but one, the Soviet barrage swept across the woods and the embankment causing minimal damage amongst the French infantry. But fate plays its part in every battle, and for Serge Krotoff two direct hits on his 88mm guns destroyed the shield which had so successfully protected the men of Charlemagne. Nervous glances to the south now replaced the optimism of minutes before.
On came the Soviet second wave. Onwards as one came the three platoons of T34-85s, now only threatened by the puny 75mm infantry guns. Standing off so as to avoid panzerfausts, the Soviets turned their fire on the defenders with impunity. For Edgar Puaud, veteran of Verdun and of the Foreign Legion, the situation was clear. Further bloodshed here would serve no purpose. With a shrug he turned northwards.
A small rearguard would serve to cover the retreat, buying just enough time for the Frenchmen to withdraw through the woods. Was there no stopping the Soviet juggernaut?
An interesting second game in the Charlemagne mini-campaign from the Christmas Special last year. The French really gave the Soviets a bloody nose in round one, but were astoundingly unlucky to lose all their real AT capability in one barrage. What makes this more astounding is that was exactly what happened in reality during the actual battle.
The Soviets attack with successive waves of three tank platoons and three infantry platoons in this scenario. Each wave can be called off at any time by the Soviet player, is removed from the table and a fresh wave then arrives after an artillery barrage. Noddy and Biff played the Sovs, and enjoyed the lack of concern they were able to have for casualties. BA and Tricky were the Charlemagne boys who clearly experienced great highs of success followed by the lows of terrible realisation when their 88s got stuffed. All in all a most interesting game. I'm looking forward to scenario three with "Barbeque Bill".