Fair warning, I wrote this back in the Before Time when I was young(er) and dumb(er) and just falling in love with German weapons and machinery. As such I was drunk on stuffing as many technical terms as humanly possible into poor, innocent stories that had done nothing to me. Physics? Reality? Common sense? They have no place here. I blame Adam Makos for being so good at making history fascinating, but we all know the fault really lies with me.
The über lang swung around with a steady whirring to hone in on the tall facade of a crumbling stone building. Oberleutnant Walter Gressler couldn’t see the olive-drab Sherman lurking behind it, but he had heard the rubber-muted clinking of tracks over rubble and could smell the thick exhaust of an idling tank. His own Panther had been patrolling the streets of the war-decayed city, hearing the pop and crash of mortars over the hill and the screaming of men. The artillery was keeping the Amis busy for now. It was Gressler’s job to hunt down the three Shermans that had managed to slip past the German defenses and dispatch them before they could wreak too much havoc behind their enemy’s lines. The gunner, nerveless nineteen-year-old Unteroffizier Sepp Marscher, hadn’t the faintest idea why Walter was having him aim at what had once been a hotel, but he wasn’t questioning the hand on his left shoulder telling him which direction to point the Panther’s 17-foot gun. When he was lined up with one of the tall, arching windows, its glass blackened and shattered by countless concussions, Walter clapped him on the shoulder. The über lang stopped.
“Feuer!” Walter hissed, and with a boom the 75mm sounded off, blue flames spitting from the muzzle brake. The Panther rocked on its suspension and the front of the hotel exploded in a shower of debris and fire. Through the smoke and the falling stone fragments he could see the wrenched metal of a Sherman’s broadside.
“Hit!” called Walter. “Ready another. Aim for the turret before it can turn.”
Hans Weber the loader was already slamming a fresh shell into the breech, nudging the still-hot metal of the spent casing away with his foot. “Loaded,” he reported. Sepp raised the barrel and lined it up with the turret of the smoking Sherman. The American tank wasn’t moving; perhaps its tracks were jammed, or it was finally out of fuel. Or perhaps its commander was dead—or an idiot. Walter thumped Sepp’s shoulder. The 75mm fired again. The olive-drab mantlet flashed with a burst of fire and tearing metal and the Sherman’s barrel was ripped clean through.
“Hit,” said Walter. Flames were beginning to wisp out of the blast hole in the side of the disabled Sherman, licking up the metal and blistering the white-painted star against its mute green background. Against the Panther’s thick armor and supercharged shells, the American tank was effectively dead. The .30-cal up top was mangled beyond recognition and the bow gunner’s place was marked by an empty, smoking hole, although there was still the coaxial to watch out for; Sepp had sliced the Sherman’s 75mm in two but there was every chance the spare machine gun was still functional. Another shot would take care of that easily enough, but Walter didn’t want to waste ammunition. The Sherman was in too bad a condition to try and continue fighting, and the Americans weren’t stupid. They knew when they were beaten, and their survival instincts would kick in at any moment. Already the double hatches were beginning to crack open; behind the growing flames the wavering silhouette of a man could be seen struggling to escape the confines of his metal prison.
“Oberleutnant?” came the voice of the radioman, Rolf Becker, buzzing over Walter’s headphones. His MG-34 Panzerlauf was aimed directly at the American, waiting for the go-ahead to shoot him down. Walter hesitated.
“Hold your fire,” he finally said. He had no quarrel with this enemy. Obviously wounded, the man tumbled down the side of the blazing Sherman and crashed to the ground. Crawling to his feet took an effort; he limped heavily as he ran away, weaving unsteadily through the wreckage in the road. Walter watched him go, and no one in the depths of the Panzer said a word. They were all too busy imagining themselves trying to escape a burning tank while facing down an enemy gun, and hoping that, if it ever did happen, they would get as good as they gave.
Walter waited a moment longer for the remaining four members of the Sherman’s crew to make an appearance. But the only thing that emerged from the open hatches was noxious black smoke, then a muffled pop and a fireball as the ammunition inside began to go off from the intense heat.
“It’s dead,” he told Max Reinhardt, the driver. “Move on.”
That left two Shermans to take care of. Doubtless they would have heard the distinctive roar of the Panther’s über lang and now the ceaseless bursts of the dying tank’s cooking shells. They would be on even higher alert than before, lurking around corners and behind debris heaps, listening for the squeaking of the Panther’s all-metal tracks and hoping to get a shot in before its deadly long gun swiveled around to face them.
The Panther rolled slowly through the dead, broken streets, crushing rubble beneath its 49 tons of steel. Walter rode high in the open turret, the headphones snugged down over his cap, the throat microphone pressing into his skin tight enough he could feel his pulse jump against it. With one finger he absently tugged at it to ease the pressure. Though he leaned casually against the steel ring of the turret’s wall, his eyes darted back and forth, searching for white American stars and the sharp, olive-drab outlines of Shermans. They were on the lookout for only two—but there were many places to hide.
“Oberleutnant,” same Rolf’s voice through the headphones. “Engelmann’s on his way. The transmission is replaced and he’s coming to help us.”
“Acknowledged,” said Walter. The tension up his spine eased a little; with two Panthers joined in the hunt there was less chance of ambush. Wolfgang Engelmann was a longtime good friend, a thirty-two-year-old captain and an old man in the war business. Ace’s stripes marked the barrel of his über lang, which he had affectionately nicknamed Marlene after his wife back home. He had been with Walter two days before, carving through the Ami-infested countryside, when his Panther, 014, had rolled over a shell fired from one of the Panzer IVs accompanying him in the assault. The shell had struck a glancing blow and landed, harmless, doing no more damage than denting the side armor of its intended target. Though it was for all practical appearances a dud, the Sherman had coughed into higher gear and scooted away, unwilling to press its luck. The shell had lain in the grass until 014 lumbered over it, and the vibrations from the massive tank had set it off. The radioman and the gearbox had been nearly blown to bits and the driver’s legs broken. Somehow 014 had limped, crippled, back the few miles to its lines to die in a ditch. A commandeered M8 Greyhound had found them and 014 had been hauled back for repairs. With a salute Engelmann had made it clear to Walter, steering his Panther down the road past 014’s crippled shell, that he would be back as soon as he could to rejoin the fighting. Walter had responded with a wave, and waited ever since.
Now, engine purring contentedly, Walter’s Panther prowled through the city, 17-foot gun jutting out in front as if to sniff out more Shermans. Walter kept an eye out for olive-drab, a flicker of movement, the crunch of rubble beneath tank tracks or the grumbling of an idling engine. Every side-street and alley they passed, he craned his neck to see the enemy before they themselves were seen. There was nothing. Even with the distant punches of mortar fire, Walter couldn’t help thinking one thing.
It’s too quiet.
He didn’t like being on the main thoroughfare. He straightened up and readjusted his throat mic. “Go down the next alley,” he told Max. “On the left.” It was only just wide enough to handle the Panther’s sprawling size, but it was far better than being exposed out in the open—and it was the widest side-street available. Tucked safely away in its hiding place, the Panther’s armor would be able to handle any glancing blows if the Shermans did show up, and the über lang could obliterate any opponents in moments. The few moments of vulnerability it required to reach such a position would be more than paid for. Max steered the steel behemoth in a sharp turn to avoid crashing into the far building, but he had misjudged the distance and estimated incorrectly how tight the turn had to be. With a growling squawk of protesting metal, the skirt armor overhanging the track on the left ran up against the thick stone wall of the building and the Panther, engine snorting, ground to a jerking halt. Walter lost his balance from the sudden stop, slamming into the wall of the turret. The steel ring bit into his ribs and knocked the breath out of him, but he shoved himself upright, blinking tears of pain from his eyes, and leaned over the side to assess the damage.
With a squeak of un-oiled hinges the driver’s hatch popped open and Max peered out, white-blond hair ruffled by his headphones and sticking out at all angles. He pulled the headphones off and hung them around his neck, peeking sheepishly up at Walter.
“What have I done now?” he asked, abashed. His eye at gauging distances was usually a bragging point for his crew. Making rookie mistakes like plowing into walls wasn’t something he expected of himself.
Walter let the damage speak for itself. The Panther’s skirt armor had grated through the stone to bite deeply and securely into the wall, showering white powder down onto the flank. Max disentangled himself from the headphones and throat mic, then pulled himself up and through the hatch to jump down and study his handiwork. He poked at it a moment and straightened up, wiping rock dust from his hands.
“I can seesaw it out,” he reported. “It isn’t in too deep.”
“Just don’t bring the entire building down on us,” cautioned Walter. He glanced up at the stone structure warily. He didn’t fancy being smashed to death by it, even if it did happen to be a dress shop with the remains of stylish gowns on display behind the blasted-out windows. Hopefully it wasn’t relying on that one corner to stay standing.
Hans took the opportunity to pass up the spent casings so Walter could throw them overboard and free up some more leg room. Max had just scrambled back into his seat and clanged the hatch shut when Walter heard an engine revving. But it wasn’t the Panther’s Maybach. It was too quiet and too far away for that. There was the crunching of rubble, the squeak of moving metal, and then an olive-drab tank pulled around the corner up ahead. Its boxy outline and bulbous turret were unmistakeable.
“Sherman!” hollered Walter. “Sepp, to your right. Max, get us out of here!”
The Panther roared to life with a juddering jerk and the turret began to swing towards the Sherman. The American tank had stopped dead in the main street as if unable to believe that it had caught a Panther in a vulnerable moment. For a few seconds it just sat there, idling exhaust fumes into the still air.
Why doesn’t it fire? Walter wondered. The Sherman’s 75mm was pointed off to the side, away from the Panther, but it made no move to correct its position. What’s the matter?
Then he heard Sepp’s cursing and, tearing his eyes away from the enemy tank, realized what was happening. The Panther had angled just enough that the turret couldn’t make the turn. The monstrous über lang, lined up with the front of the Panzer, was too long to swing out of the alleyway. Its muzzle brake kept ramming into the far wall, tearing a gash in the bricks. When Sepp tried to turn it the other way, the turret crashed into the building to their left; when he tried to raise it, it scraped into the far wall and would go no further. They were in too deep to maneuver. The mighty Panther had been caught off-guard, and the Americans had known it. Now that they saw their prey was sufficiently trapped, the Sherman’s barrel began to leisurely swivel toward the Pride of the Wehrmacht, taking its time.
Even the thick armor of the Panther couldn’t withstand a constant barrage broadside forever. If the American gunner was smart he would blast the tracks first to make escape totally impossible, blow out the bow gunner’s position from pure spite, and get to work on the turret, hacking the Panzer to pieces before it could fight back. Effectively, Walter and his crew were doomed.
Max was working feverishly at the controls, gears biting and grinding as he rocked the Panther back and forth, edging it bit by bit out of the jam. Cracks spread up the side of the building as the skirt armor sawed its way back out of the stone. He isn’t going to get us moving in time, Walter thought desperately. Rolf’s MG-34 was the only weapon that could turn to fire on the Sherman, but what good could a machine gun do against the Americans’ 75mm cannon?
Walter knew he should button up the hatch and take cover inside the Panther’s steel shell, or at least he should run, but something told him that it was no use any way he looked at it. He would be prolonging his death by only a fraction of time. If he tried to make a break down the main street the Sherman’s .30-cal would mow him down—and it was too precarious and far a fall to try and flee down the alley. He’d be killed for sure. The Panther was butted up too close against the wall for him to take shelter behind the turret. And desertion was, in his mind, out of the question. Discipline and a bizarre, dogged sense of duty, no matter how skewed, had seen to that. He stayed upright, the steel turret wall pressing into his ribs, and watched the Sherman’s gun swivel towards him, feeling the last seconds of his life slipping away. Max was still trying, rocking Walter back and forth on his feet with each lunge of the Panther’s powerful engine, but it wouldn’t do any good. The Sherman’s 75mm was aimed straight at them, shuddering by fractions of inches as the gunner fine-tuned the reticle, making the most of the unbelievably lucky shot he’d been given. Walter cursed himself for wasting his time staring transfixed. What little chance he’d had to live was gone. In his headphones the buzz of panicked voices could be heard.
“Can’t we make a run for it?”
“Max, get it moving!”
“Herr Oberleutnant, what do we do?”
The Sherman fired, and Walter ducked down into the turret. With a hollow, teeth-rattling bang the shell smashed into the Panther’s flank. Smoke poured down around him through the open turret; he made no move to try and close the hatch. His hands were already occupied, crushed flat against his ears in a vain attempt to ease the deafening explosion as the Panther rocked drunkenly on its suspension. He could smell flames, and realized that they were being hit with HE shells. The rounds burst magnificently on contact, but against the Panther’s tough hide—even against its thinner side armor—they were impractical. What had become of their T33 armor-piercing shells? Did they not have any? Or were they simply stalling, having fun with their trapped target by blasting it bit by bit with inadequate firepower and wasting ammo like lunatics? Whatever the reason, it gave Walter’s men a little time, though admittedly not much. Their death would take longer, and they would be burned or rattled apart by concussions.
In the dark of the Panther’s hull he could see Sepp’s grease-streaked face, pale but void of emotion, staring at him through the murk.
“What do we do?” the gunner asked, his voice calm. “Can we run for it?”
“You could try,” Walter told him resignedly. “Their machine gun is aimed straight at us. They’d cut you down in seconds.”
Sepp’s lips pressed into a thin line. Desertion wasn’t on his mind so much as the practicality of living, but suicide didn’t appeal to him. “It’s not good, Oberleutnant,” he said simply. Then he turned back to the handwheel, and tried again to move the gun.
Another round slammed into the Panther’s side and it lurched as it absorbed the impact. Walter lost his balance and his head cracked into the wall. The layer of peeling white paint did nothing to soften the blow and lights burst in his vision, which when added to his ringing ears reduced him to complete, aching confusion. His nose and eyes stung from smoke and his head throbbed, but the next blast he expected didn’t come. Maybe they ran out of ammunition, he thought blearily. They deserved it after the way they’d been flinging inadequate shells around with such abandon. He waited, ears ringing. The Panther’s engine was silent now save an idling purr. Max, for whatever reason, had stopped trying. From outside came nothing; the Sherman still didn’t fire. Walter’s curiosity got the better of him and he clambered unsteadily back up into the open turret to see what was happening.
The Sherman hadn’t run out of ammunition. Its gun was simply readjusting, slowly sinking down to point at the Panther’s already-battered tracks. Walter stared, waiting for the flash from the muzzle and the bone-cracking impact that would follow. He wondered briefly why the Americans simply didn’t take his head off with the .30-cal, and considered making a run for it despite the odds, duty be hanged. It would be easier to jump from the Panther and get a bullet in his back than be blasted to death. He could almost hear the sound of the shell sliding into place and the thunk of the breech block slamming shut as the Sherman stared him down.
The green tracer tore through the air so fast that Walter could only see it out of the corner of his eye before it slammed into the Sherman, so hard it ripped straight through into the building behind. The turret exploded in a fireball of warping metal and the American tank rocked sideways, tilting haphazardly before crashing back down onto its tracks. Drifting smoke outlined the shell’s trail and blazing pieces of shrapnel littered the ground.
“What was that?” demanded someone down below. “Oberleutnant?”
For a moment Walter couldn’t figure it out. And then he heard the squeak of wheels and the muzzle brake of a cannon peeked out from behind a wall, followed by a barrel striped with bands of ace’s paint. The sloping, boxy outline of a Panther rolled into view from the far side of the street. Emblazoned on its turret in fresh paint was the number 014, hatch securely closed, raring for a fight.
“It’s Engelmann!” Walter shouted. “Engelmann’s hit the Sherman!”
And Engelmann wasn’t finished. 014 eased to a halt and fired again. The Sherman shuddered as the shell punched into it and through it to burst in a shower of dust against the wall the tank sprawled in front of. At such close range Engelmann’s über lang, Marlene, was absolutely deadly. Flames were beginning to pour from the holes in the Sherman’s armor. And still Engelmann kept pumping shells into it, blast after blast into the most vulnerable areas, green tracers clawing through the air to slam shrieking into their target. Walter watched in silence, remembering the wounded American he had let escape only a brief time earlier. Engelmann hadn’t reached the old man’s age of 32 by pure luck. He had learned long ago to tilt the odds to his favor.
Now the Sherman was a mass of flaming wreckage. Paint blistered and dripped like blood from twisted sheets of warping steel. What little remained of its five-man crew was undoubtedly dead, and billows of black smoke poured from it into the sky in a pillared mass. Satisfied, 014 purred into motion and rolled down the street towards the other Panther.
Walter found himself laughing uncontrollably. Showoff, he thought fondly of his fellow commander’s display. He ripped off his headphones and waved his forage cap in the air. “Engelmann!” he hollered. “Engelmann, you’ve done it again!”
014 slowed to a halt a few yards away. It idled there, the most beautiful thing Walter had ever seen, while the corpse of the Sherman burned away behind it. But in his relief at being alive, Walter had forgotten one thing, and Engelmann, perhaps, had never known it in the first place.
A third Sherman was hiding inside the ruined city. And it had seen the smoke its fellow was sending up like a signal flare.
It pulled out from behind a building farther down the road and took in the damage. It saw the burning tank and the two Panthers, one wedged, trapped, against a wall, the other sprawled in the middle of the road as if keeping watch. The Sherman’s gun swung forward, spitting flame in a wild, unmeasured arc. The badly-aimed shell missed 014’s flank and clipped the gun barrel before hurtling into a nearby facade. Walter flinched, close enough to feel the heat from the blast—and close enough to see the damage the shell had done to 014. There was a hole punched in the narrow metal of the 75mm, situated directly between two of the ace’s stripes, so slight it looked inconsequential. But Walter knew better. The smooth circular pathway of the barrel had been ruptured, making it useless—and too dangerous—for firing. Any shells sent though it could get caught and go off while still inside, leaving only one place for the resulting concussion to go: back inside the Panther’s hull. Engelmann and his crew would be killed in moments.
The Sherman was gearing up for another try, its gunner taking the time to align the 75mm with its target instead of letting another shell go wild. Walter put his cap back on and settled the headphones over it. Beneath him the Panther coughed and began once more to rock back and forth. Max must have decided to try again, even though the right track had been reduced to a tangle of shattered wheels and links and resisted mightily the command to roll backward. The Panther’s once-smooth engine shuddered with effort, battered from the beating it had taken at the Sherman’s hands, but it wasn’t going to die so easily. Sepp waited, tense, behind the gun until it could be freed from the confines of the alley.
“Faster, Max,” Walter ordered. “There’s another Sherman out there, and he isn’t waiting on us.”
“What about Engelmann?” came the driver’s scratchy voice through the headphones. Even though they couldn’t see, Walter shook his head.
“His barrel took a hit. He can’t fire.”
But suddenly 014 stirred. The barrel trembled as machinery whirred and groaned. And then with a whine the turret began to swivel around to face off with the Sherman.
He doesn’t realize, Walter thought, growing panicked. He doesn’t know the barrel’s damaged. He’s going to fire it again!
He clutched at the throat mic. “Rolf!” he yelled. “Rolf, you have to warn him! His barrel is hit! Warn him not to fire!”
He could hear a garbled reply in his headphones and pressed them closer to his ears. Rolf’s broken voice came through, heavy with static and a low wavering whine.
“. . .can’t tell him, Oberleutnant. The radio. . .equipment has been utterly destroyed. We took too many. . .lucky shot.”
014’s gun was lined up perfectly with the Sherman. Normally at such close range, with such heavy firepower, there was no chance the Panther could miss, and no chance the Sherman would survive. But the half-moon hole in the underside of the barrel changed all that.
“Rolf!” screamed Walter. “Rolf, you have to try! You have to warn him, Rolf!”
Whatever the radioman’s response, he didn’t hear it. 014 was gearing up to fire. And Walter could only watch.
It happened at first as a muffled crack, and then with an ear-splitting blast the barrel blew apart. Fire and smoke poured out of every opening and the Panther shuddered, rocking to absorb the recoil. Then there was silence. The turret hatch had blown open from the force of the explosion, but nobody came out. The backblast of the detonating shell had killed them all.
“We’re free, Oberleutnant!” Max’s triumphant yell burbled into his ears through the sputtering headphones. “I’ve got back maneuvering!”
For a moment Walter couldn’t find his voice. He stared at the blazing Panther in silence, and then his gaze moved to the Sherman. It was still sitting there, waiting, gun pointed at the dead Panther. Gloating that its job was now a little easier, that one of its targets was already eliminated.
“Move her back!” Walter shouted to Max. “Move her back!”
The juddering lurch of the Panther beneath him signaled that Max was attempting to comply. The mangled track shrieked in protest, but with metal wrenching, engine roaring, the Panther forced itself backwards, rolling with a lopsided limp until it was free of the alley. Walter’s hand found Sepp’s right shoulder and squeezed it hard. The 17-footer swung around with an electrical whir, agonizingly slow, until down its long barrel Walter could see the Sherman. The American tank was beginning to waver now, backing away, realizing that the tide had turned. Walter let it slip backward, waiting. The Panther’s gun hit her sweet spot at a half-mile. There was nowhere for the Sherman to go in time. Walter gave the command.
The tracer punched into the Sherman head-on. The tank jumped, front plate buckling. Smoke poured from the ragged hole ripped through its heart. The Panther’s breech spat back the empty casing, and Hans loaded another. Walter clapped Sepp on the shoulder, and another shot smashed into the crippled Sherman. But still Walter didn’t stop. He wasn’t finished with this enemy yet.
He ordered another round, and again the Panther’s muzzle spat flames. The Sherman’s tracks wailed with the sound of scraping metal as the force of the impact rolled the tank backwards. Another shot blasted the turret into nothing. The Sherman’s front was caved in, a mass of red flames and mangled steel. The ammunition inside began to spit and crack. The enemy had been eliminated. The blind need to take revenge had been fulfilled, and the red faded from Walter’s vision.
“Stand down,” he said to Sepp, and took off his throat mic and headphones. He climbed out of the Panther, scrambled down onto the street, and made his way over to 014. The smoldering Panzer was awash with the orange glow of the burning Sherman. Boots finding a purchase on 014’s tough Zimmerit-coated skin, Walter clambered up onto the engine deck and leaned over the open turret hatch. Heat struck his face, but the main fire had gone out. He knew what he would find, and after a long moment, he dropped to the ground and returned to his own Panther.
It was in sad shape, its right flank scarred and dented, charred Zimmerit sheared off in places, tracks twisted beyond function and interleaving wheels fused by heat into a melted mass of steel. A long gash in the sandy paint on the lefthand skirt armor showed where it had scraped against the stone building. Walter stood and stared for a moment, and then Sepp’s dark head popped up out of the turret hatch.
“All dead, Oberleutnant?” he asked with his typical candor. Walter glanced over his shoulder at 014. Then he turned back.
“Max reports the controls unresponsive. We can’t take her back.” Sepp pulled his headphones down around his neck. “Do we walk?”
Walter sighed heavily. The Panther had been a fierce, loyal partner, and he hated to repay its faithfulness by gutting it and leaving nothing but a smoking hull. He gave a weary nod.
“Get everything out. We’ll burn it before we leave.” Then he hesitated. While 014’s gun was ruptured and her crew was all dead, pulverized from the heat and pressure of the shell’s backblast, there was enough of the tank itself to be a prize for the Allies should they find it. Walter gestured to Engelmann’s Panzer with a soot-streaked hand. “But that one first. Leave nothing for the Americans.”
Sepp nodded, and disappeared back inside. Walter retreated to find cover as his Panther’s turret whined around to line up with 014. The über long fired, recoiling from the blast. 014 flinched back as the shell hit home, ripping a hole through its skin and bursting inside. Flames spouted from the open hatch as the ammunition ignited, followed moments after by the fuel. Walter stood back and watched it burn while his crew vacated their Panther. Max lingered for a while, unable to leave his beloved machine without first nursing the engine to a gentle lull. It shut off with a final sputter and smell of hot exhaust, and Max climbed out. He dropped to the ground, gave his Panther a last glance, and joined the four others in the street.
They were watching Walter expectantly. As commander it was his job to deal the final blow. He had nothing, no grenades or plastic explosives to make his job easier. His head throbbed from where it had struck against the Panther’s wall during the blasts from the Sherman, and now that the adrenaline was draining away a bone-weary ache pervaded his entire body and a coppery taste stained the back of his throat from what must have been a bloody nose he hadn’t even noticed. He returned the crew’s gazes blankly, feeling his heart pound in his ears. Sepp gave the waiting Panther a glance.
“I’ll do it,” he said, and no one objected. They watched, curious, as the gunner went straight past the tank to the dress shop beyond and hopped up through the blasted-out window into the gutted interior. Hans and Max exchanged doubtful glances.
“Our gunner has lost his mind,” Rolf commented to Walter. “Or do they sell explosives in French dress shops?”
But Sepp hadn’t lost his mind any more than the rest of them had. He reemerged from the shop with a bolt of dark gray cloth under one arm. He climbed up onto the engine deck and unwound the cloth into a heap at his feet. Then he pulled a knife from his pocket and began cutting long strips off the tangle of fabric. Walter watched in silence. Behind him, Rolf clucked his tongue approvingly.
“He’s making a fuse,” he said, as if the others hadn’t realized it yet. “I told you this one was smart.”
“That was back in Mons,” Max countered. “Between there and here you’ve been continually speculating that he’s either gone mad or has lurking undertones of stupidity.”
“That’s true, Rolf,” Hans pointed out. “Though we all had our doubts from time to time.”
Busily Sepp twisted the strands together and tied the ends to create a long makeshift rope. He hopped down and dipped one end into the fuel tank, letting the gasoline soak down its length. Scrambling into the turret, they heard the slam-thud of a shell being loaded into the breech. Sepp reappeared, slid down the side of the Panther to the ground, and pulled a captured Zippo lighter from his pocket and flicked it to life. He waved an arm at his comrades.
“I would get back if I were you,” he called over. “This isn’t an exact science.”
The four others beat a hasty retreat across the cobblestones to find shelter in a squat building, its side sheared off by the same explosion that had felled its taller counterparts. They took their places behind the wall, and Walter waved his cap in Sepp’s direction, giving him the go-ahead.
Sepp held the Zippo’s flame to the fuse and let it alight. He waited, watching the flame busily eat up the braided cloth, until he was sure it wouldn’t go out, and then he snapped the lighter shut and ran for it. As he dashed across the street he blew a kiss over his shoulder at the Panther, sitting forlornly in the street waiting for death. Sepp crashed through the broken window next to his comrades, and then the wisp of fire hit the fuel tank. With an almighty crack, the Panther erupted in a tower of flame. The others flinched, covering their ears and turning their heads away from the explosion, but Walter just lay there and watched. He watched as the flames danced higher, as the MG-34’s spare ammunition began to pop and snap as the intense heat cooked through the Panther’s hull. Then the shell Sepp had loaded into the über lang overheated with a deafening clap. The gun ruptured and the turret was shredded from the force of the concentrated concussion inside it. With a thunderous blast the remaining shells in the Panther’s belly began to explode. One went off, scattering shrapnel and fire over the street. Then another, and another. Walter didn’t blink, even as the smoke began to sting his eyes to the point of tears. He felt a terrible, unexplainable ache in his throat, the guilt of betraying a trusted friend. It was stupid, he knew. The Panther was a machine, that was all. A tough, durable machine that was made to be abused to the breaking point to keep its crew safe and blast the enemy resistance into powder. But somehow Walter knew it was so much more than that.
He felt Sepp’s hand on his shoulder. “Oberleutnant?” the gunner said carefully. In the one word he asked so many silent questions, Walter couldn’t begin to answer them all. He could answer the most pressing one, though, and as he sat up and brushed dust from his black Panzer uniform, he did.
“I’m all right. Let’s go.”
It was an odd, hopeless sight, five disheveled young men straggling in a weary, black trail down an avenue lined with the ruined corpses of tanks. Thinning columns of smoke rose from the two Shermans, one turretless, the other caved in beyond recognition. Their fires had long gone out, but a last orange glow flickered from within the twisted cages of charred metal. The burning Panther had run out of ammunition and was now content to crackle like a campfire, the acrid stench of paint and burning gas lying thickly over the street. 014 sat still and silent, a hole smoldering in its heart. Jagged claws of metal fringed the shredded stump of its über lang. As they passed it Walter’s lips pressed into a thin line. He would never hear the bark of that gun again.
They trudged past the caved-in Sherman, and Walter could see on the buckled plate of its flank where the white Allied star had once been painted. He thought of the first Sherman, the one his own crew had killed, and wondered if the injured American had made it to safety. Inexplicably, Walter hoped he had.
They killed Engelmann, a chiding voice reminded him. They killed your friend.
But Walter was too weary for hatred. He knew it was no use, not any longer. Hatred was for the fanatics and the politicians. All he could make himself feel was hopelessness. He was entirely empty.
The caved-in Sherman smoldered as they walked by. Sepp, always interested in the effectiveness of German weaponry, took a long look at the hole ripped through its gut by the Panther’s three-foot shells. He gave a low, impressed whistle.
“We could win this war yet,” he commented, “if the Americans would stop firing back.”
“We could win this war,” Hans replied darkly, “if nobody had started it in the first place.”
No one could think of anything else to say—only of the long way to walk back to friendly lines. So Walter steeled himself for the road ahead, and kept putting one foot in front of the other.
There was nothing else he could do.
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