Obergefreiter Schmidt was exhausted after the all-nighter pulling maintenance on the tanks, refueling, arming, issuing everything from rations to ammunition, and the long roadmarch to the east didn't help with the rattle of the tracks on the road and the murmur of the tank's engine calling him to sleep. He joined Vogel on air-watch in the turret. The damp night air was refreshing and welcome and helped keep him awake. The pleasant smell of the wet pines on either side of the road further lifted Schmidt's spirits from the turret hatch of the Leopard tank. Vogel looked over at his tank commander in the waning dark but the two didn't speak. It was a good thing too, because someone broke radio silence over the company net.
"ADLER ELEMENTS THIS IS WEBER. WE HAVE LOST RADIO CONTACT WITH OUR ADVANCED PARTY AND THE BATTALION CANNOT RAISE ANYONE OUTSIDE OF THE CITY. PANZERS UP FIRST PLEASE. THE INFANTRY WILL PULL OVER AND ALLOW THE LEO'S TO PASS. BATTLE-CARRY SABOT. WEBER OUT."
"That's odd" thought Schmidt. 2 Leopard I's along with the company's First Sergeant, Hauptgefreiter Freitag, were sent to reconnoiter the battle positions around Schwarzenborn straight from the Company's Laager near Neuental. They were maintaining contact with the Battalion's recce teams and were able to keep the Battalion informed of the situation. For some reason that contact stopped. Schmidt spoke through the intercom.
"Wake up and look alive, gentlemen. Our advanced party has not reported in. Something's up. Maintain your spacing with two-one-two and dont get too close or Ivan will get you." Ivan "getting you" was a constant joke on all of their exercises that if they didn't follow even the most mundane protocols from shining their boots to bore-sighting the main gun that Ivan would "get them."
Daylight was breaking in central Germany for the second day of World War 3, and Kampfgruppe Weber, a mixed Panzer Grenadier Company of tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, was marching to the front.
Over the rumble of tank engines and the clatter of tracks, one could just make out the crack of tank guns, and the ground shook with the impacts from artillery, which could be felt from within the "safe" confines of the armored vehicles. Schwarzenborn was dead ahead by less than a mile. Already they had passed scores of vehicles headed west. Men, too tired to acknowledge them, stared blankly from turrets or were fixated on the road to the east, as if Ivan was right behind them. Schmidt didn't notice the bent, twisted metal, shattered tool boxes, and scorched pock-marks from auto cannon hits on the sides of the West German vehicles as they withdrew to the west.
If Schmidt had any trouble staying awake, the looks on the faces of those men quickly woke him up. "They're scared shitless" Schmidt thought to himself. Better to not share that thought. He glanced at the map. Their platoon was to occupy a Battle position in a woodline to the northeast of the town on the right and defend against Ivan, exactly as they had practiced in field exercises in the past. If the map was any guide, they'd have good fields of fire for almost 2 kilometers out. The plan was to march along the Sandweg, and break off by platoon moving to their pre-designated fighting positions which Hauptmann Weber and Leutnant Keller discussed prior to leaving the Kaserne.
The sound of tank-fire became more pronounced now and it sounded like a day at the range, albeit with more explosions and artillery impact tremors. The radio crackled to life.
ALL ADLER ELEMENTS THIS IS WEBER AGAIN. WE WILL BE FIGHTING RIGHT OUT OF THE MARCH. SECOND PLATOON ASSUME LINE FORMATION AT THE EDGE OF THE SANDWEG WHERE THE TREES OPEN AND FOLLOW MY MOVE. OUR FRIENDS ARE THERE ALONG WITH SOME UNWANTED GUESTS. GOOD HUNTING. WEBER OUT.
Leutnant Keller came on the radio and re-issued the same orders to all of the tanks of second platoon. Schmidt readied himself and held the microphone from his headset close to his lips. "Vogel, battle-carry SABOT." The overweight loader dropped into the fighting compartment and slammed a 105mm armor piercing into the main gun's breech. Schmidt also took the opportunity to pat Huber, the gunner, on the shoulder. It was a sentimental notion and one they did every time on the gunnery range before start was called. It was for luck.
Muffled, rumbling, explosions to the east were more pronounced now and were arriving in quick successions and though Schmidt was never involved in an earthquake, he imagined it would have felt like this. He grabbed his field glasses and looked to the east. The break in the trees was coming up and there were 105mm guns firing, and also other tank guns that they'd never heard before. The march serial sped up and Horst, the driver, sped up with them. The second platoon leader spoke on the radio. Apparently everyone has forgotten the radio silence order. "Ivan's gonna get him" Horst said into the intercom.
THIS IS ADLER 2, BE PREPARED TO ASSUME LINE FORMATION AND BREAK OFF FROM THE ROAD. WE WILL FAN OUT INTO THE FIELD ON THE LEFT AND MAINTAIN VISUAL CONTACT WITH COMPANY LEADERSHIP. KELLER OUT.
The Leutnant didn't sound nervous or scared at all and that made Schmidt feel better about himself and his crew.
Directly up the road was a large industrial complex and a number of farms. about a half kilometer distant was the first treeline and the Sandweg cut through it. That treeline was supposed to be their initial battle position. Someone spoke on the company net.
HEY THOSE ARE OUR GUYS! It sounded like Leutnant Keller. The Company's advanced party was there. And they were shooting.
"My God Ivan's already here!" Schmidt said into the intercom as he looked down the road, past the factory. Up ahead were dark, low tanks in the treeline clearing where the Sandweg cut through.
Schmidt assumed they were Russian T-62 or T-72 tanks. They were bunched up at the clearing and some of their antennas were wildly flying around, so they were on the move. They passed 2 Leopard I tanks from their own company and a Jaguar tank hunter in a hide behind the factory.
ALL ADLER ELEMENTS THIS IS WEBER. FIRE AT ENEMY TARGETS AS THEY APPEAR. But he didnt have to finish. Immediately the tanks of the second platoon opened fire at the T-72s at 650 meters (or so the rangefinder had said). The first volley found a target and hit one of five Soviet T-72s that were racing through the treeline. The German tanks were firing quickly. Schmidt called their first target out, and as he gave the order to fire, the T-72 exploded directly in front of him before his tank even fired. Then Schmidt's own 105mm gun barked and the armor piercing round sliced into the crippled T-72 right as a befuddled surviving Soviet tank crewman was climbing out of the driver hatch. He tumbled off the tank and God knows what happened to them. Horst found another T-72 that was moving behind the killed one.
"TARGET!" he yelled into the intercom. "SABOT UP" yelled the loader as he closed the breech block. Schimdt peered through the sight. "Fire!" The L7 cracked again and found a moving T-72. The round hit home and sparks showered across the turret but the tank kept moving. "LOAD SABOT" Schmidt yelled into the intercom but Vogel was already loading another tank killing round into the breechblock. "TARGET! CEASE FIRE!" yelled Horst as the T-72 just stopped with smoke pouring out of the top of the turret. This one had no crew emerge from it.
Schmidt looked at his watch. It was 6:37am and within 4 minutes there were 5 burning T-72s in front of them. He peered through the sight and didn't see any more, although more tank firing was heard to their right. The platoon had spread out in an open field to the left of the factory complex with scant little cover to hide in. They didn't know it at the time, but the Soviets, who were supposed to be attacking the outskirts of Schwarzenborn in Company level strength, got a taste of victory and sent in their tanks in not realizing there were more West Germans on the march coming to reinforce and defend the town, and unbeknownst to both sides, this fight was just starting. The small advanced party group from Kampfgruppe Weber bought precious time for the entire battalion to get into position.
ADLER ELEMENTS THIS IS WEBER. IVAN WILL HAVE MORE TANKS COMING THROUGH THAT CLEARING AND PERHAPS EVEN THE TREELINE. SPREAD OUT AND PREPARE FOR THEIR ARRIVAL. TWO THREE TWO TAKE COMMAND OF SECOND PLATOON IMMEDIATELY AND REPORT STATUS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. OUT.
Schmidt was shocked. "What happened to Leutnant Keller?" Over the intercom Schmidt's thoughts were interrupted by the announcement that more enemy tanks were appearing to the front, behind the gaggle of destroyed T-72s from the first wave. "Time for work" Schmidt said calmly over the intercom. He called out on the platoon net to the other tanks from second platoon.
"ALL SECOND PLATOON ELEMENTS REPORT IN. THIS IS SCHMIDT. SOUND OFF PLEASE."
TWO FOUR TWO CHECKING IN. WE ARE GREEN ON AMMO. GREEN ON PERSONNEL. AWAITING YOUR ORDERS.
There was silence.
"No other tanks survived that? How the hell are we going to last the war?" Were Schmidt's first thoughts. Their baptism of fire was a confusing mess and didn't happen anything like he had anticipated. He called out to the 242 tank.
"OK WILLIE. THIS IS SHIT GROUND WE ARE ON. TRY TO FIND A DEFILE TO CRAWL YOUR TANK INTO FOR SOME PROTECTION. REMEMBER THE INFANTRY MARDERS ARE COMING UP TO OUR REAR AND WILL NEED A FIELD OF FIRE FOR THEIR MISSILES. GOOD LUCK. LISTEN TO THE NET FOR UPDATES. MORE OF IVAN'S TANKS ARE COMING THROUGH THE CLEARING BEHIND THOSE BURNING ONES. SCHMIDT OUT.
Indeed just as he called, low, dark shapes seemed to glide effortlessly around the destroyed tanks at the tree clearing and the burning wreckage from the dead first wave obscured the sight. "Horst, we'll have to do this the old fashioned way. Vogel, load SABOT."
Schmidt opened the hatch of his Leopard and spotted targets for the gunner. The T-72s were trying to creep along the treeline and get around their dead comrades, eager to close with the German tanks and kill them. Apparently they'd already killed 2 tanks from Schmidt's platoon, including Leutnant Keller's tank.
Up ahead the Soviets were stopping to fire at Schmidt's tank and at Willie's 242 tank. One round slammed into Schmidt's tank and rocked it back. Some of the crew instinctively crouched and Horst fell out of the gunner's seat. The red light flickered inside and the low light tv went down. Schmidt looked through the tank commander's sight. It was cracked. "Had they been hit?" He wondered. "All stations report."
"Vogel OK. Ammo checks out. Everything's fine"
"Huber OK. Sights working." Huber, the tank gunner, sounded rattled. Nervous.
"Driver OK." Horst was the only one to follow procedure and report in by his position, rather than name.
A call came in over the radio from Willie's 242 tank.
SCHMIDT! TWO MORE MOVERS DEAD AHEAD! WE CAN TAKE THE LEFT TANK!" and even before Willie's radio call had ended, the 242 tank fired and hit a T-72 on the side. Sparks exploded off the turret deck but the tank kept moving. Schmidt's attention switched from the crew and tank status back to the battle. With the sight busted, he peered his head, as far as he dared, over the rim of the turret hatch of the Leopard. The left T-72 that Willie had called out and the right T-72 were still moving. Schmidt yelled into the intercom.
GUNNER! SABOT! TANK! RIGHT TANK! FIRE! and the L7 fired another tank killing round out at the enemy, Vogel already having loaded another sabot round into the breech. This round definitely hit the T-72 which stopped immediately. The turret hatch on the T-72 flew open and through the sight, Schmidt saw a crew member start to crawl out when a huge explosion consumed the T-72, popping the turret off and into the sky. It was incredible and also terrifying thing Schmidt had ever seen. The turret landed on top of the burning tank hull. Schmidt's attention turned to the second T-72. GUNNER! SABOT! TANK! LEFT TANK!
CANNOT IDENTIFY! Came the response from Huber. Befuddled, Schmidt looked through the busted sight, then peered out above the rim of the open hatch. There were only burning tanks in front of them. 242 must have killed the other T-72. "Thank you Huber. Continue to scan for targets."
"242, send me your report, Willie." There was nothing on the net. Just static. Schmidt looked over at where 242 was supposed to be. The tank was there and the turret was moving, scanning for targets. Schmidt looked out at the treeline. There were at least 7 dead T-72s out there now and probably many more alive ones down that road.
The company radio net awoke. NICE WORK, SCHMIDT. BATTALION REPORTS MORE SOVIET ARMOR IS APPROACHING, ALONG WITH PERSONNEL CARRIERS. UNDERSTAND THAT OUR INFANTRY IS ALSO APPROACHING FROM THE ROAD BEHIND YOU. I HAVE INSTRUCTED THEM TO REMAIN MOUNTED BUT THEY WILL BEGIN FIRING AT TARGETS AS THEY APPEAR. YOU SHOULD HAVE THREE MARDERS APPROACHING YOUR POSITION FROM THE REAR. IF YOU HAVE A TARGET FOR THE COMPANY MORTARS, LET ME KNOW, OTHERWISE I HAVE A FEELING IVAN'S INFANTRY WILL BE COMING THROUGH ON MY SIDE OF THE FACTORY AND I WILL HAVE TARGETS FOR THEM SHORTLY. WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO HOLD ON FOR ONE MORE PUSH, AT WHICH POINT WE WILL WITHDRAW TO ALTERNATE POSITION 2. GOOD SHOOTING. WEBER OUT.
As soon as he looked to the rear of the Leopard, Schmidt saw 3 Marder fighting vehicles fan out into the fields to his left. They found small undulations and drainage culverts to tuck into and their small, boxy turrets were looking for Ivan. They didn't have to wait long. 3 more T-72s, this time trying a different approach, moved from the Sandweg and pulled off into a field, probably to try and approach through the woodline instead of up the road. They were moving slow, but the missiles from the Marders likely would not have a shot against targets in the trees. Schmidt pulled the binoculars up and looked. One single tank moved along the treeline on their side of the trees. It had 2 antennae and not just one, along with a commander riding high in the hatch. "A command tank?" Thought Schmidt. He called out to Huber, who had already seen what they thought was a company or battalion commander's tank. Huber fired the main gun at the Russian tank. The round glowed bright as it traveled at supersonic speed towards the target. It hit and bounced! "VOGEL LOAD SABOT!" Schmidt yelled over the intercom.
The Soviet Tank Commander dropped within the turret and the turret immediately started to turn and seek out the Leopards. Schmidt heard the tell-tale launch of a MILAN missile and knew the Marders were in the fight. He also heard the quick POP POP POP of a Marder's auto cannon seeking out the Russians to halt their drive. 242 joined into the fray and fired a round at the Soviet command tank. It, too, bounced! "Of all the luck!" Schmidt thought, as a MILAN missile seemed to fly right overhead of the same tank. Nothing seemed to be able to find this charmed Soviet officer's tank. Schmidt heard an explosion to his left and peered out of the hatch. A Marder had exploded about 300 meters away and men had dismounted on fire. The men were rolling around on the ground, trying to extinguish the flames when tracer fire from the Russian armor found some of them, momentarily lifting them off the ground and throwing them back down. They were still on fire.
Schmidt felt anger well up inside him and decided to take his anger out on this charmed Soviet officer to his front. Huber let another round fly in between 2 dead T-72s and the round missed. Suddenly a voice broke the intensity of the battle. Things were getting so loud, Schmidt had to press the pad against his ear to fully hear Hauptmann Weber.
.....HAD IT HERE. TIME TO PULL OUT! I SAY AGAIN THIS IS WEBER TO ALL ADLER ELEMENTS IVAN HAS BROUGHT UP ADDITIONAL TANKS AND CARRIERS ON THE RIGHT FLANK. I CAN SEE THEM MOVING INTO THE WOODS. WE'RE STARTING TO TAKE HEAVY CASUALTIES HERE. ADLER ELEMENTS WILL BREAK CONTACT, STARTING WITH THE INFANTRY TO ALTERNATE POSITION TWO. THE MORTARS AND SECOND TANK PLATOON WILL COVER YOUR WITHDRAWAL WITH FINAL PROTECTIVE FIRES AGAINST THE TREELINE.
Schmidt looked out and, besides a burning Marder, the remaining 2 Marders were already pulling out past Leopard 242, which was firing at the T-72s in the treeline. The distinctive WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP of mortars from the M113 mortar carriers began and the impacts made the ground shake although Schmidt couldn't see them as they were on the other side of the factory. He pressed the microphone on his headset up to his lips.
"okay Horst. Get us out of here. Huber keep the turret pointed east at Ivan and be prepared to engage. Shoot the command tank. Horst, we're going to the other side of Schwarzenborn to an overwatch position with the rest of the battalion. I will guide you once we pass the clearing we came in on."
All told, Second Platoon's introduction to modern warfare in World War 3 had lasted a grand total of 27 minutes. It cost them their Platoon Leader, Max Keller, his tank, and his entire crew, as well as the Platoon Leader's wingman tank which the platoon had recently nicknamed "Thunder" because of the loader's flatulence.
Schmidt was shocked to learn that Willie's tank, 242, had used most of its armor piercing rounds although in recounting it didn't seem like they had fired that much. Schmidt's own tank used almost half of their onboard armor piercing "sabot" rounds.
Kampgruppe Weber took significant casualties including 2 Leopard I tanks, a Jaguar anti tank vehicle, and 3 Marder infantry carriers, and was placed into the Battalion's reserve.
It's important to mention that the Soviet drive on Day 2 of the war in the III German Corps Area just north of Bad Hersfeld and the American V Corps was halted outside Schwarzenborn due to casualties from their attack against the factory complex.
Hauptmann Weber mentioned Schmidt's heroic defense on the left flank of the Company's precarious and exposed position at the factory complex and Schmidt's name was submitted to Division for an award for conspicuous bravery and gallantry under fire. If you asked Schmidt, he'd tell you he was just as confused as everyone else in the fighting and didn't really see how killing a few Soviet tanks amounted to helping win the war. Deep down, he was just happy he and his crew were still alive.
They never did kill that Soviet tank company commander.