Quiz Contest First Prize
This is the action scene Larry and I wrote for Pawel Kasperek, who took first place in our Book Contest quiz. Pawel asked us to write a new scene that could have appeared in our military thriller Cauldron.
by Patrick Larkin and Larry Bond
Lieutenant Pawel Kasperek threw himself to the ground as another shell screamed overhead and slammed into a building up Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski Street. A blinding orange flash penetrated the thick smoke billowing across the street. Bits and pieces of shattered brick, concrete, and red roof tile pounded down all around the little band of Polish soldiers taking cover among a mass of burnt-out cars, trams, and German APCs. More smoke coiled into the air. Half of Szczecin seemed to be on fire.
“One of theirs or one of ours?” Sergeant Borkowski’s hoarse voice rasped.
Kasperek shrugged. There was no way to tell whether they were being fired on by German artillery or by their own guns. After three days of confused and bloody fighting in the city’s maze of streets and avenues, Polish and German units were intermingled. Nobody on either side knew much about the situation on the ground, and, communications were a mess. Radio jamming and all the steel and concrete in the urban landscape blocked transmissions, and most of Szczecin’s telephone lines and cell towers were out of operation—sliced by shell bursts or buried in burning rubble.
“So where do we go now?” Borkowski growled.
Kasperek decided to ignore the omitted “sir.” The Topographic Service insignia on his collar marked him as a staff officer, not a combat soldier. Borkowski and the other survivors of this platoon had admired and respected their old lieutenant, but he was dead, killed by a burst of German machinegun fire yesterday. They weren’t happy about being thrown back into battle, especially under a rear-echelon type.
Hell, Pawel decided, he wasn’t very happy about it himself. He’d had the usual military training, but his language and analysis skills were better suited to the headquarters post he’d earned in peacetime. With half of the battalion’s platoon and company commanders dead or wounded, though, his colonel had no choice. “I need officers at the front, Lieutenant,” the older man had said flatly. “And I need them more than I need map-makers. Or even a battalion intelligence officer masquerading as a map-maker.”
And so, happy or not and ready or not, Pawel Kasperek was in command.
“We advance west, toward the Port Gate,” he decided. “Taking a building near there should give us a clearer field of fire.”
Kasperek climbed cautiously to his feet, ready to lead his men through the tangle of wrecked vehicles and shattered buildings. The field manuals said he should deploy scouts first. But the field manuals didn’t have much to say about how you really led the remnants of a platoon ground down by combat until it was only a little bigger than a squad.
Unslinging his Min-Beryl carbine, he edged around the blackened side of a gutted Marder APC and froze.
There were German troops moving east along the street. But they weren’t leapfrogging from piece of cover to cover like soldiers advancing into the face of the enemy. Instead, they were ambling along the glass- and rubble-strewn sidewalk. And their uniforms were clean, unstained by smoke and days of hard living in the field.
Kasperek’s eyes narrowed. These were fresh troops moving forward from reserve. And the Germans thought they were well behind their own lines. One side of his mouth twitched. For all he knew, that might even be true.
Slowly, he dropped prone and motioned Borkowski forward.
“Shit,” the sergeant muttered. “Cocky bastards, aren’t they?”
The German infantrymen were within a hundred meters. One of them, an officer, carried an open map case and peered at it intently from time to time before looking up in increasing puzzlement—evidently trying to make some sense out of the jumble of ruined, burning buildings around him. A radioman trotted at his side.
“Spread the men out. Carefully, but quickly,” Kasperek hissed. “Then we hit them. But only at my command. Understood?”
Borkowski nodded and wriggled back behind the Marder.
Kasperek heard the soft scrape of boots on the pavement and the muffled rattle and clink of equipment as his soldiers took up firing positions among the mass of wrecked vehicles blocking the middle of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski Street. Fighting to control a sudden tremor in his hands, he sighted down the short barrel of his carbine.
The Germans were just fifty meters away. Forty meters. Thirty meters. They were passing the smashed storefront of a bicycle shop. Their camouflage field jackets stood out oddly against the shell-mangled, brightly colored bikes tossed across the sidewalk and street. One of them glanced curiously toward the wrecked mass of vehicles where the Poles were waiting. His eyes started to widen in shock.
“Fire!” Kasperek shouted, squeezing the trigger. The carbine stuttered, bucking against his hands and shoulder. The German he was aiming at spun away in a spray of blood and torn cloth.
More assault rifles chattered, as his men opened up on the stunned enemy at close range. Caught by surprise and without cover, the Germans were cut down in droves, screaming shrilly and then falling dead and silent. Bullets punched into men and ricocheted off concrete and steel in a dizzying shower of sparks.
It was over in seconds.
“Cease fire!” Kasperek yelled. “Cease fire!”
He scrambled upright, still aiming at the dead and dying Germans. The bitter taste of bile filled his mouth and he fought down the urge to vomit. After years as a soldier, he had done what he had hoped and prayed he would never have to do. He had killed other men.
And then he heard it.
The muffled roar of a powerful diesel engine and the squealing clatter of treads on pavement. It was the sound of a Leopard II.
Oh, Christ. The Germans had a tank.
Kasperek spun round, staring west along the street into the billowing clouds of smoke. Nothing. Not yet. But the tank was coming. And it would kill them. Unless they killed it first.
Borkowski materialized at his side. “Come on! We’ve got to go! Now!”
“Where are the RPGs?”
The sergeant shrugged. “We fired the last one two days ago. Never got a resupply.”
For a moment, Kasperek’s mind went blank. Without anti-tank weapons, his troops were helpless against the approaching panzer. They might be able to evade it by hiding in the ruins, but the Leopard itself would keep moving—driving east toward the bridges he and his men were supposed to be denying to the Germans. Were there other, better-equipped Polish troops between here and the river? Perhaps, but he doubted it. Days of continuous fighting had ground Poland’s 12th Mechanized Division into a battered collection of isolated small units clinging desperately to key positions. There were no reserves left.
His gaze swung back to the German corpses heaped across the sidewalk. Their commander, a young lieutenant, lay crumpled beside his radioman. His helmet had fallen off and a light breeze whipped up by the fires spreading across Szczecin ruffled through his blond hair. The dead man still clutched his map case.
Kasperek breathed out. Already moving forward, he rapped out an order to Borkowski. “Get the men out of this, Sergeant! Fall back fast and take cover!”
Kasperek ignored the protest. Instead, he dashed toward the dead enemy officer, threw his own helmet aside and donned the German’s helmet in its place. Then he grabbed the map case and sprinted east into the thickening smoke. His pulse pounded, spiking higher and higher with every meter he ran.
A massive, blocky shape loomed out of the smoke. It was the Leopard, trundling forward in a shower of sparks and shrieking metal as it shoved wrecked cars out of its path. The tank commander, wearing goggles and a black beret, rode with his head poking out of the turret.
Still running, Kasperek waved wildly to attract the tanker’s attention. “We’ve got contact!” he shouted in perfect German. “The damned Poles are holding a building about two hundred meters ahead. We need you to blast them out!"
The other man rose higher through the hatch. “Where exactly?” he demanded.
“I’ll show you,” Kasperek told him, holding up the map case as he skidded to a stop beside the still-moving Leopard.
The tank commander pulled down his goggles. He frowned. “Hey, you’re not Eichel—“
“No,” Kasperek said quietly, tossing aside the map case. “I’m not.” He swung the carbine around and squeezed the trigger. One round hit the turret below the cupola and tumbled away. The second tore the German tank commander’s head apart. Killed instantly, he flopped forward. His beret tumbled off.
The Leopard kept moving forward.
Now what, Kasperek thought wildly? Once the other Germans realized what had happened, they could heave their dead commander inside, slam the hatch shut, and fight on without danger. He grabbed the side of the Leopard, looking for a handhold.
Another figure raced out of the smoke. It was Borkowski.
“My turn!” the sergeant shouted as he swung himself up onto the panzer’s aft deck, leaned forward, and tossed a grenade in through the tank commander’s open cupola. He threw himself backward just as it went off.
Treads still squealing, the Leopard swung left and veered across the street. In a grinding roar and crash, it smashed into the front of a shell-damaged building and crashed deeper into the interior before coming to a stop with its engine still running. Broken shards of concrete and masses of fractured brick spilled from the torn upper stories, cascading down in a choking cloud of dust and debris onto the turret and deck of the dead tank.
Stunned, Kasperek turned to find Borkowski standing close by. Hiding a smile, he said sternly, “I thought I gave you an order to fall back, Sergeant. Not to pull some damned fool stunt like me.”
For a moment, the other man looked more like an errant teenager than a veteran noncom. “Hell, sir,” he said gruffly at last. “This platoon has already lost one good lieutenant. Now that we’ve got another decent officer, I couldn’t take a chance on that happening again.”
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