Ivanovich popped the lid of his T-64 tank; perching his arms over the rim of his command hatch, he hauled his head and aching shoulders out into the fresh air of a new August day. They had been moving non-stop since the early hours of the morning, and his eyes watered and stung in the chilly morning air. The many hours cooped up in the cramped bowels of his command tank had every muscle in his body complaining, and he could take it no more. He reckoned he was probably breaking with discipline, unbuttoning his vehicle like that, but he no longer cared. The danger of partisan sharpshooters was minimal out on the open road, and the nuclear threat was still just that: a threat. He craved a cigarette like mad, but thought better of it. He was still an officer, and he had to suppress his cravings until he was relieved or dead.
There it was. He wished he hadn’t thought about it, but he did. Death. He was a good officer, his superiors had told him so – but he was also young, and inexperienced. Luck had spared him the worst of the fighting thus far. The breakthroughs at Hamburg and Bremen: Ivanovich and his company had been very much side characters in the fighting, always held in reserve, or somewhere on the outer wedge of the advance, far away from the most vicious fighting, always pushing forward, always. Delays were forbidden, retreats unthinkable, not one step back, not one. The KGB was watching, young commander, always watching. The thoughts tumbled through his head as he let his eyes fall shut, but he knew he couldn’t sleep. He flicked on his radio to speak to his crew over the din of the 5-cylinder engine and rattling tracks.
‘Granin,’ he intoned into his microphone. Granin, his driver, came back, his usual slow drawl.
‘Sir, I can smell the fresh here all the way down here. Mind if I get some?’
‘Sorry, comrade, not yet,’ the young tank commander replied. ‘Commander’s privileges this time. How are you feeling?’
‘Fantastic, sir, my leg is yet to cramp this morning,’ came the deadpan response. Ivanovich liked Granin, even if his respect for authority was left wanting sometimes, out here in the field. Or perhaps that was why.
‘Not long now, my friend,’ Ivanovich reassured his driver. He could see the church steeple of the Dutch town of Apeldoorn now, jutting out of the horizon like the tip of an immense spear. A good omen, he thought to himself. They were themselves part of an immense spear, thrusting deep into the side of the NATO armies.
Ivanovich glanced back at the column of armour following behind his tank, and then dropped back inside the squat turret. Pulling free a heavily used map from his belongings near his station, he studied the overhead of the small industrial town of Apeldoorn.
They were not expecting much – if any – resistance as they moved through the town, instead expecting to encounter the Dutch or British further on the route towards the Ruhr valley. Ivanovich looked over at Sokolov, his gunner, dozing against the hull in the most comfortable position one could manage in the confines of a T-64, and supposed he ought to wake him.
‘Comrade Gurlukovich, take your tubs around the fields on our right flank. I want you to screen our movements up the main road.’
Ivanovich received an affirmative, and watched as the four BMP-2s moved out of line in front of his tanks. The town may well be deserted, but he did not want any surprises sneaking around his flank. He had heard of it happening in the push through Bremen, and he did not want it known of the push through Amsterdam. He had positioned his command tank in the centre of the formation, alongside his attached anti-air unit in the form of a formidable pair of Shilkas. NATO air power was never absent in any battlespace, so he was glad to have them.
The commander was just about to move off into the town when he heard the first report of gunfire. The battle net lit up with reports of automatic cannon fire coming from the wheat fields beyond the church – his BMPs were coming under heavy attack and needed backup. Quickly Ivanovich had his tank companies assume pre-planned battle positions, rumbling into groups of four abreast as birds scattered from the trees lining the road side, the panes of glass in the small cottages nearby rattling in protest.
‘2nd Company, get into position and support those BMPs,’ the commander shouted into his microphone. ‘I want that right flank secure!’
The 2nd Company of T-64 tanks split off from the main body, and raced into firing positions covering the battalion reconnaissance vehicle. It was already too late. The last BMP, reversing and firing wildly towards its unseen assailant in the wheat fields, was disabled by a final volley of accurate cannon fire, multiple rounds breaching into the drivers compartment and turret. The 2nd Company tanks crashed through the garden of an abandoned cottage and immediately began firing, targeting the tell-tale plumes of white smoke from the firing enemy vehicles. There was an explosion as the Russian tanks claimed a kill, the turret of a shattered NATO vehicle tossed into the air like a coin. The commander of the lead company tank reported light tanks in the field, as his T-64’s autoloader levelled the barrel and rammed another high-explosive round into the chamber.
Ivanovich’s mind was racing. Light tanks meant reconnaissance, and reconnaissance meant a larger force was nearby. Reports were coming down the battalion command net of heavy resistance being met across the breadth of the advance, so he knew he was not alone; but in his little corner of the battle, this did not make him feel better. Gripped by fury and fear, the young commander ordered his 1st Company into an attack posture, and directed them off the main road, following the river up towards the large natural gas containers that dominated the industrial centre of the town. He would have them swing them around the nearby factory, and roll up the flank of what he expected to be a light screening force.
His 1st Company commander responded emphatically in the affirmative, and made off at speed cross country. For a few precious minutes, Ivanovich thought he had the situation under control. He had planned with his sub-commanders for surprise engagements like this, and thus far they were carrying out the plan as it had been drilled. This sense of battlefield management disappeared when the first of the artillery shells began falling all about him.
There was a bone-jarring explosion, and for a moment Ivanovich thought his tank had been hit. Not a second later came another detonation, further away, it seemed, and then another, and another – each one threatening to shatter his heavily armoured tank like a wine glass.
‘Granin, get us into the shadow of that house, NOW!’
The driver responded with mechanical precision, manoeuvring the 40-tonne tank up against the old cottage with the unpressured demeanour of a man parking a car in a rainstorm. It would not help with high-angle artillery, but Ivanovich would rather be disabled in cover rather than out of it. He peered out of his periscopes, searching for his anti-air unit that had been sitting nearby to him not a moment before. A Shilka was sitting in the middle of the now heavily cratered road with its left track blown off, its hull heaving occasionally as the driver tried to get his hobbled vehicle out from under the shellfire. Ivanovich got on the net immediately as the barrage slowed to a stop, ordering the disabled Shilka crew to get the hell out of their track. A blinding flash consumed the stricken Shilka, and an earth shattering detonation as the anti-air vehicle was reduced to a shattered heap of twisted metal.
‘More artillery coming in,’ was the panicked cry from Sokolov, the gunner of the command tank. That hadn’t been an artillery shell, Ivanovich knew. The 1st Company commander came over the net almost immediately, reporting that his tanks had come under concentrated anti-tank missile fire from the factory grounds.
Ivanovich hadn’t run into a screening force at all; he had run out of luck.
Volgin, the 2nd company commander continued to engage the light tanks in the field with a furious expenditure of ammunition. The field was afire, the flames belching dark smoke into the heavens, but still he kept firing. Unlike his commander, he had been constantly frustrated by the lack of real combat, and he was enraptured by the din of battle. His earpiece buzzed to life as another high-explosive round was sent screeching into the fields, this time rewarding him with a spectacular shower of molten metal as his gunner scored another kill.
‘Volgin, what is your situation?’
It was the CO, his voice breathless like he had ran a marathon in the few minutes they had been gone.
‘Excellent, comrade commander,’ Volgin answered with vicious sincerity. ‘The dogs in the fields will soon have no place to hide.’
‘Listen to me, Volgin,’ Ivanovich instructed carefully. ‘Our anti-air is gone, and the road has been sighted for artillery fire. 1st Company is pinned in the town, so I am coming to you. You are to stay put, is that clear?’
Volgin hesitated for just a moment as he drank the information in. None of what he had just heard was good news; he felt his combat high receding, and in its place a creeping dread. He slammed his fist into the turret wall, before clicking his mic to transmit.
‘Understood, comrade commander. I will cover you as best I can.’
Volgin ordered his tracks to cease their fire with some reluctance. He swung his cupola periscopes to the rear, watching for the CO coming up behind them. Something different, however, caught his eye: two dots on the horizon, low, sweeping in at speed. Volgin grinned as the unmistakeable silhouettes of two Harrier jump-jets levelled off for an attack run.
He gripped the controls of the 12.7mm machinegun mounted on the roof of his tank, and felt another combat high wash over him.
Commander Ivanovich gripped tightly to the inside of his turret as Granin dashed their tank across the cratered landscape around their position, making a break towards the church yard where he knew Volgin and his tanks were waiting. He had tried again to contact his 1st Company over in the centre of town, but was met with an ominous silence. As they rounded the shattered remains of the Shilkas, Ivanovich could just about make out a line of squat tanks through the smoke in the distance. 2nd Company seemed intact, thank god.
‘Comrade commander,’ the net sparked to life, ‘fast jets, incoming from the West!’
The commander could see the roof-mounted machineguns of 2nd Company spit tracer as the tanks engaged whatever flying death was coming in from behind them. Ivanovich acted fast.
‘Granin, hard left! Behind the building!’
Granin let his driving answer, swinging the command tank into a 90 degree turn on the trot, and into the cover of a ruined domicile just off the road. The NATO jets screamed overhead not a moment later, unloading their munitions onto 2nd Company. A wave of explosions followed as the cluster munitions detonated, taking with them a T-64 and the wind out of the remaining armour. Ivanovich watched as the NATO planes – Harriers, it turned out – jinked hard, deposited flares, then sped off out of sight. With increasing despair, he switched to the company net to check on Volgin.
‘Still alive, comrade commander,’ Volgin growled down the microphone. The explosion had rocked his track so violently he had battered his head against the hull, and blood was running into his eyes.
‘Volgin, I have lost contact with 1st Company,’ Ivanovich said. He spoke slowly, deliberately, without emotion, and continued. ‘This battle is lost, comrade. We have no back-up. We can still help our brothers further up the line, but we must move now.’
The inside of the 2nd Company command tank was dead silent. Volgin could feel his fingernails dig into his leg as he listened intently. His jaw was set, and his eyes burned with anger hitherto unknown to him.
‘Volgin,’ the commander came back. ‘You will have your tracks fall back in line with me, and we will proceed to...’
Volgin was listening, but the words seemed very far away now. He acknowledged the order after his commander finished speaking, and then relayed the instructions to his tanks with dispassion. He was about to give the order to move off when a shouted call came over the company net: more Harriers, and they were coming in hot.
The 2nd Company commander grinned from ear to ear. One last dance, he thought to himself – and with a renewed sense of purpose he took control of the 12.7mm once more. The Harriers were swooping in on the same path as they had last time. Even as his other tanks opened up, their tracers arcing harmlessly into the sky, he waited. He watched the British planes jink left, then right, then level out for the final run. He settled the crosshairs on the foremost plane.
An eye for an eye, Volgin thought to himself. He depressed the switch of his heavy machinegun and laughed.