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Second and Third Platoons of First Company supported by the heavy weapons squad marched west along the road toward the village of Erxleben. Though all of the officers of the battalion had gone through these exercises, Honeker was sure the colonel had ordered and accompanied this field exercise deliberately to make him look bad. That officer and Hartmann, both wearing green armbands instead of the red his men wore, rode along as observers, with Hartmann thankfully back near the heavy weapons.
He had to admit one thing Hartmann had done right was having the men march further than they normally would, so the men weren't tired. In fact, he used this route at least twice a month, so they knew the terrain.
The exercise was simple: The Air Force had located a bandit camp near here, with enough men to equal a platoon, being played by his own First Platoon. His orders were to march there, find and engage the 'enemy,' and bring them in as prisoners.
But he'd never considered that his enemy knew the terrain as well as he did.
Hartmann had winced inwardly when the lieutenant told his men not to load. Yes, it was the procedure on a route march to wait for orders to load, but if you expect to go into battle, you should be ready for it. He shared a look with the colonel who moved out with the junior officer.
"Contact," Feldwebel Cronenberg said softly. His men were prone in the trees ahead and to the right of the approaching column. He rolled on his back looking at Major Nudelmann. The officer wore a green armband signifying that he was an observer and umpire for this impromptu war game. Cronenberg's men had blue armbands. "Sir?"
Nudelmann waved. "I am just an observer, Feldwebel."
"Right." Cronenberg looked down the rank of hidden men. "Pass the word down to Vogler. Signal Jäger." On that end, Lieutenant Köstner was watching intently.
On the slope of the hill two hundred yards north, Jäger nodded. The signal had been merely a slowly waved hand. He glanced at the second set of umpires, Captain Brinkmann and Lieutenant Reicher. "Marksmen ready. Call your targets. I will kill the lieutenant's horse. No one is to shoot him." Down the line, each man called out his target.
At their first meeting, Ludendorf had been impressed by Fritz Jäger's demeanor. Only about five-two, the blonde man had the coldest eyes the colonel had ever seen. When Hartmann had told him more about Jäger, his approval rose. Only twenty-two years old, Jäger, son of a long line of Jägers, had begun shooting at ten, and by fifteen was one of the best shots of his family, which served in both the militia and town watch of his native Suhl. The last five years of that service had been as bandit-chaser.
Bandits were, sadly, a fact of life in war-ravaged Franconia before the Ring of Fire; and the bands had sometimes grown large enough to sack villages. When it happened near Suhl, those villages had sent money to Suhl, and half a dozen of their militia with a couple of jägers would arrive, often with him among their number, and for three of those years Jäger had led them. When he did, the villagers knew he would never relent in the pursuit, and when he was in charge, the only prisoners were those already wounded. Once he had tracked a band to within sight of the walls of Bamberg. His nickname was 'Headsman' because he didn't bother to bring back the whole body.
The walkie-talkie he held sputtered. "Ludendorf here."
"Marksmen are shooting at these men," Brinkmann reported, giving their names.
Ludendorf said, "When they are ready. Did you get that, Hartmann?"
To make it fair for both sides, only the umpires with the blue force knew where the 'bandits' were. So neither Ludendorf or the sergeant could unintentionally be looking in the right direction when—
The four rifles cracked as one, and the men passed them back without rising from the prone position. The four that passed theirs forward stood, then moved behind trees to reload.
As a veteran, Hartmann was already looking for any sign of the ambush. At the flash of smoke in his peripheral vision, Hartmann shouted "Herzig, dead!" The man moved to the side and sat down.
Ahead of him, Ludendorf shouted, "Your horse has been shot, Lieutenant. Luftmann and Kohlner, dead!" The wachtmeisters moved to the opposite side of the column and sat down.
Honeker spun around, sighting the smoke. He had thought they would attack from the other side if it were here! "Company—"
"Get off your horse, now!"
The lieutenant threw his leg over, dropping on the side facing the ambush. "Company, action left! Load and fix bayonets!"
As the men began to form ranks, he noticed the wachtmeisters were not repeating them. Honeker wanted to curse, but it was at least partially his fault. He had told them over and over that he gave the orders, and unless the subordinates passed them on, the men were to do nothing.
"Mayenburg, you're wachtmeister! Give the order!"
He turned to the third platoon, "Zeigler, you're wachmeister of the Third. Action left! Load and fix bayonets."
Now he ran toward the rear of the column where the heavy weapons were formed up. "Herzig—"
"Dead, Sir!" Norden pointed to where the feldwebel sat.
Honeker snarled. "Take over! Move behind Third Platoon. Load grenades. By God, what I would do with those time-fused grenades!"
"Load rifle grenades!"
The men moved as instructed, and began to load. Honeker glared at the sergeant who was watching the men deploy.
The column had not even finished loading when there was a second series of shots. All of the remaining feldwebel were taken down by this volley, and he couldn't remember who was chosen man of each squad. Why hadn't they shot him? No matter, he'd just stand in the center!
"Why didn't you shoot the lieutenant that time?" Brinkmann asked.
"Because as long as he is alive, he will try to maintain control," Jäger commented blandly. "First rule: If they are giving orders, shoot them." Jäger cocked the rifle he had been handed. "But if you know someone would interfere with good order, leave him alive."
"And who taught you to do that?"
"The sergeant, Sir."
"Such an evil, evil man," Brinkmann commented.
"Marksmen! Call out when you are loaded!" A moment later they did, but only two men shouted. "I thought there were four of you!"
"Ziegler and Kohn are feldwebel! Both dead!" Chosen Man Adenaur shouted back.
While he had known who they were, Honeker hadn't bothered to remember more than their faces. "Marksmen, pick your targets and fire!"
At Ludendorf's call, Reicher on the ridge with the snipers pointed at the four men standing as they reloaded. Two were out of cover, and both were judged to be killed. The other two kept loading. The four marksmen with their already loaded rifles waited with the other two members of the squad ready to fire.
"Both platoons on command will fire and charge! Heavy weapons! You will charge behind them until within range. Call out when you are!" Honeker drew his sword. "Fire! Charge!"
Brinkmann pointed at the two still standing, judging them as wounded.
The battered platoons charged screaming. Only two hundred yards! With only four men shooting they would only lose that many more!
Cronenberg at the center of his line shouted "Fire!" as the charging men passed his position. Jäger's six remaining men fired. Twenty more rifles fired into the flank and rear of the enemy. At only fifty yards the bullets would have gone through one man to hit another, and this time no one was told not to shoot the lieutenant. Cronenberg had passed the word, however, that only two men, one in each squad, had that privilege.
Honeker stumbled to a stop, staring at the smoke of the flanking volley. Before he could shout, a whistle blew behind him.
"The men will stop right where they are!" Ludendorf shouted.
The men stopped, looking back as the umpires came forward. Hartmann walked over to where Nudelmann had stepped from cover, and they paced down the line from the bottom to the top. Brinkmann stood and did the same above. At each point, Ludendorf ordered men to sit down. Some were still standing but had one arm raised to show they had been judged wounded.
Of the seventy men, only fifteen were still standing and uninjured along with eleven more injured.
"Well . . ." The colonel looked over the less than half that had survived. ". . . that could have gone better. Sergeant, march them back to the base. We will debrief when you arrive."
Honeker stormed toward Hartmann. "What did you do, Sergeant? How did you arrange this?"