Button up those jackets, idiots! We're not on vacation! Eichel, quit leaning against that vehicle and get to work! I want to see this company in top form, jetzt!" Feldwebel Martin Kappel moved through the aisles of the camps, his trademark scowl creased over his face. His left hand hung limply by his side; it was beginning to miss the feel of its precious riding crop. The soldiers wasted no time to fix their corrections and hustled off; the last thing anyone in the unit wanted was to be yelled at by the fierce Feldwebel and blow out their eardrums. Martin allowed a brief smirk at this and continued on his way.
Martin's men, all one-hundred twenty six of them, were on standby to join the regiment that waited triumphantly in France. Before last week, his Kompanie was eighty men stronger, including some of his best men and snipers. However, Major Ehrlichmann of the 216 Infantry Regiment was running dangerously low on soldiers on the Eastern Front near the Crimea peninsula, and was close to begging on his knees for any support. To his dismay, Generalfeldmarschall Manstein was dealing with his own troubles and turned a deaf ear to Ehrlichmann's pleas, instead passing the order to other officers. Martin and his Hauptmann offered what they could along with the other Kompanies in the area. Deep down, Martin feared that it would be all for nothing.
I gave those bloodthirsty Ivans less credit than they deserve, Martin thought to himself, turning a corner. Then again, who wouldn't be out for blood after being betrayed like that? Operation Barbarossa, in his opinion, was the worst mistake the Fuhrer could pull this early into the war. Did the Great War not teach him anything? It wasn't that tyrant Stalin Martin was afraid of: it was the millions of pissed-off Soviets. Fighting Soviets were bad enough; fighting Soviets after stabbing them in the back was signing a death wish. Hitler may have had charisma and a large army behind him, but that did not make up for the lack of brains. Certainly his advisers saw the outcome of the invasion, certainly Himmler and Goebbels tried to talk him out of it… right?
His footsteps slowed to a stop before a tent, the afternoon sunlight revealing four silhouettes hunched over a table. Martin paused to straighten out his uniform and checked for any stains or blemishes. After finding none, he smoothed back his brown hair, let out a deep breath and stepped towards the tent flap.
"Feldwebel Martin Kappel, requesting permission to enter, sir."
At first, silence reigned. Then, "Enter."
"Yes, sir." Martin checked himself over one last time and pushed aside the tent flap, wasting no time entering the aptly named 'Strategy Room'. There were no chairs for one to sit, large blackboards hung from the metal poles to the left, right, and end wall, all decorated with maps and scribbles of possible maneuvers. In the middle laid a large wooden table with an enormous map of the French countryside dangling from all four edges. On top of the map were rocks and small twigs, possibly representing tanks and soldiers. Martin fought not to scrunch up his nose at the stench lingering in the tent; smoke.
The man to Martin's right, a Stabsunteroffizier, glanced up and said, "Afternoon, Herr Kappel."
"Afternoon, Barth." Martin gave him little eye contact, his focus more on the shorter man in the middle, a fresh cigarette neatly resting in the right corner of his mouth. He was the shortest of the five men, with Barth surpassing him by only an inch and a half. In short, he was a stout, little man with an odd, little upturned mustache, more or less identical to that Chaplin fool. The three small diamonds resting on his epaulets immediately gave notice to who he was.
Martin readied himself at attention, giving the man a professional salute. "Good afternoon, Hauptmann."
The captain's dark eyes glanced up at Martin and he pulled the cigarette from his mouth. "Good timing, Kappel. Barth, you and the others are dismissed. See if you can contact Hauptmann Drescher about our reinforcements. I'm tired of him dodging that question."
"Yes, sir!" The adjutant gave a hearty salute and marched out, followed by the other men. The captain waited a few moments, then gave a heavy sigh, rubbing his eyes.
Before Martin could speak, Hauptmann Paul 'Smoke' pulled out his lighter with his free hand and laid it on the table, groaning. "If I hear one more strategy today, I'm going to throw myself into a mine field! Thank God you came when you did." He looked up at Martin and sighed. "You can go at ease, Martin! They're gone."
Hesitantly, Martin did so. For a man with such incredible military skills and connections, Smoke was... how would one put it... lenient towards military behavior. He could have cared less if a soldier didn't salute or give the proper reporting statement; Martin knew no other officers like Smoke. He didn't know whether to find it relaxing or just plain silly.
Smoke bit down on his cigarette, his hands placed on his hips. He began to pace. "I've been here ever since breakfast, Martin. Staring at all of these... it's driving me crazy! 'Move the tanks here, it has better ground... No, put the men behind this hill! The enemy won't know what hit them'! It was like listening to the broken record back home. Kids, Martin. You just can't let a five-year-old play with your records without thinking about the consequences..."
Ah, yes. The infamous tale of Smoke's youngest son, Aldrich, taking his father's records outside to play in the snow. His oldest son, Erwin, convinced the poor boy that they could be used as sleds. Martin cleared his throat and said, "Sir, I don't mean to change the subject, but I just finished looking over our supplies. Grenadier Kortig reported three MP40s are in need of repairs, about five of our Karabiners are missing firing pins, and a crate of our grenades are gone."
"So Drescher pretty much gave us his duds?"
"I'm afraid so, sir."
Smoke's teeth tore the cigarette in two and he spit out the half that was in his mouth. "Alright… when you find Barth, tell him to get in contact with Major Lange about the supplies. He'll get us taken care of."
"And knock it off with the 'sir' nonsense, Martin. We're alone in here!" Smoke leaned against the table, smirking.
"Forgive me, but I'd rather not, sir. It wouldn't feel comfortable to me…"
"If you're sure. You need to loosen up, like that Hexenkopf fellow."
Martin fought not to clench a fist at that name. He knew exactly which Hexenkopf Smoke was talking about: the pain in his ass, Max! Just how that moron managed to get into the military was beyond his logic. He was loud, obnoxious, and not to mention an embarrassment to the Kompanie entirely. It was bad enough that he was a pain by himself, but now he had a lackey: Steinmann. Hexenkopf had no trouble dragging Steinmann into his wild schemes; the boy lacked a damn backbone.
"I'm sure I don't need his advice, sir. I'm perfectly capable of relaxing on my own."
Smoke opened his mouth to say something when in came Barth, panting like a dog. His face was flustered, as if he had just sprinted halfway across the camp.
Martin turned to him. "What's wrong?"
Barth took his precious time to catch his breath before straightening himself up, throwing a hasty salute Smoke's way. "S-sir, there's… there's a… fight going… going on…"
"What?! Where?" Martin's scowl returned and he stared at Barth. "Tell us!"
"N-near the supply tent, sirs. I wasn't able to see who or what caused it, but…"
Smoke looked to Martin and grabbed his hat hanging from a handmade hook. "Shall we, Feldwebel?"
"After you, Hauptmann."
Max stepped out of the way of yet another punch and grabbed a handful of Vogel's hair, throwing him to the earth. He hopped back and wiped the blood dripping from his nose and lip, watching in amusement at Vogel struggling to stand. He could barely afford a yell as Vogel launched himself at Max and tackled him down into a tent, the force tearing a large hole in the canvas and collapsing the tent. A fist slammed into Max's face twice before Vogel was kicked off, landing square on his back. Both men jumped to their feet, glaring daggers at the other before charging again. Most of the soldiers in the crowd were rooting for either or both, while the rest were yelling at them to stop. Emmerich and Meine could only watch on, Emmerich pinching the bridge of his nose in irritation, shaking his head.
"Enough of this!"
The tremor of Martin's yell shot the hair on the bystander's napes at attention. From the right, Martin and Smoke appeared from the crowd, soldiers turning into frightened mice and scattering to and fro. Like lightning, Martin's hand gripped Max by the back of his jacket and pried him from Vogel, easily throwing him aside as if he were a feather, while Smoke restrained Vogel by the shoulders. No one risked moving an inch.
Martin narrowed his blazing eyes. "What the hell happened here?!" He looked from Vogel to Max. "One of you will tell me in the next five seconds, or you're both going to be court-martialed!"
Max wiped blood from his nose again. "This little piece of… he started it! I was minding my own damn business when he came over and spit in my face!"
"Liar!" Vogel struggled to free himself from Smoke. "He insulted my family and called me a bastard!"
"Both are true, you ass!"
"At least my parents wanted me. I don't blame your mother for walking out on you!"
"Shut your damn mouth…!" Max clenched a fist and advanced at him, but Martin swiftly got between them, keeping Max at bay with his hand.
"I said enough!" Martin glanced at the damage on the tent, then back at the two men. "Now, you will both listen to me and you damn well better listen good. We are in the middle of a war, and fighting amongst each other isn't going to help one bit. Grow up! Hexenkopf, you will pitch up a new tent before the day ends, then you will be assigned to inspect every single man's tent until I say stop. Vogel, you are confined to supply counting with Kortig for the rest of the week. He will oversee your work. After chow tonight, I want to see you two at my tent with a written statement of what took place today, and it better be thorough." He paused, then his eyes darkened. "And if I see a stunt like this pulled in the future, I'll give you the pleasure of a quick death. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, sir," both men said in a low voice. An idiot would know that Martin always kept his word.
Martin waited for Smoke to let go of Vogel, then lowered his hand. "Good. Clean up, get to your details, and get out of my sight."
Without another word, Max and Vogel silently went in opposite directions. Martin gave a small sigh of relief when he noticed Emmerich and Meine still standing there, both looking away. He frowned. "Did you two see what happened?"
"I… What I mean is…" Meine felt himself go red.
"No, sir. We were both occupied with a conversation when the fight took place," said Emmerich.
Martin turned to Meine. "Is this true, Steinmann?" Steinmann was a terrible liar. If Emmerich was covering for his cousin, he would know after hearing the kid's answer.
Meine looked the Feldwebel straight in the eyes, knees on the verge of giving in. Grabbing the hem of his jacket, he said in a clear voice, "Yes… y-yes, sir."
Smoke adjusted his hat before speaking. "Sounds good enough to me, then. You two are dismissed. Steinmann, get some water before you collapse. You look like you haven't hydrated all day!"
"Yes, sir…!" Meine threw up a salute along with Emmerich.
Smoke saluted back and watched the two hurry off before turning to Martin. "Odd bunch these soldiers are. Guess we got lucky, eh?"
"If one can say that, sir. I'm just praying they last more than five minutes on the battlefield."
"Of course they will! They have the best Feldwebel I've ever had the honor to serve with."
Martin looked to the side, fighting back a slight blush. "Th-thank you, sir, but you don't need to flatter me…"
"Too late." Smoke smirked and pulled out another cigarette. "The faster this war is over with, the faster I can get back to my family. Erwin's turning ten next month."
There was a sympathetic look in Martin's eyes. "It's a pity you won't be able to celebrate it with him, sir. My little girl turned six last week."
"You were able to call her, though, right?"
"Yes, sir. Sarah said her birthday wish was to see me again… My wife cried at that." Martin cleared his throat, not mentioning he cried as well.
"Well, hopefully her wish will come true." Smoke smiled and patted him on the shoulders. "Let's go see if Barth got through to that idiot Drescher and…"
As if on cue, the adjutant burst from the corner, followed by two of the other men in the tent with Smoke before being dismissed. In his left hand he held a sealed envelope, the other holding a crumpled note. In no time at all, Barth staggered over to Smoke, his face redder than a hot coal. The others, almost looking to be twins, halted in a synchronized fashion, saluting. Smoke replied with a half-hearted salute and looked to Barth, his eyes gazing at what was being held.
"Sir... sir, we..."
Smoke rolled his eyes and looked to the soldier on Barth's right. "What is it?"
"We contacted Hauptmann Drescher and inquired about the reinforcements, sir. He said they won't be able to reach our area until the end of the week, and that he apologizes for the inconvenience. He also apologizes for the weapons shipment he gave to you, and is sending a new batch with the reinforcements."
"I'm sure he is," Smoke mumbled under his breath, crossing his arms. In a higher tone, he said, "Inform Drescher that I thank him for his... hospitality."
Smoke gestured to the envelope. "And that?"
Barth managed to recuperate and stood straight, holding the sealed document out. "This is from Major Lange himself, sir. It was delivered ten minutes ago."
Smoke took the envelope and stared at it, immediately recognizing Lange's large-looped signature across the front. He glanced at Martin, then at the soldiers, as if asking them if he should open it. After some mental preparation, he tore off the upper seal, pulling out a single folded piece of paper, once again seeing the major's ridiculous signature. He skimmed through the message three times, his eyelids flickering only once. The other men stared at him in curiosity, wondering just what Lange had written. Orders to draw back? Transfer to the Eastern Front? New officer...?
"What... does it say, sir?" Martin asked.
Calmly, Smoke folded the letter up and slipped it back into the envelope. He looked to Martin. "Tell the men to pack up. We're headed to battle."