It was, of course, inevitable that the enormous industrial city of Italopolis would be nuked. The largest concentration of industry and manpower in the world, in a world war fought with nuclear-tipped ICBMs – well, anyone living there was just asking for it. It was the way it got hit that brought the anger of the world down on the African power variously called ‘Quebec’ and ‘Bretonnia’: The new player surrendered, got a truce on terms, then broke the truce by nuking Italopolis. After that there was no mercy. We ground him to dust. Broken-backed warfare in dusty African jungles, with our supply lines writhing under the nuclear flail and industries falling as radioactive dust on what was left of the productive croplands. But we broke the Breton power and brought those responsible to justice, such as it was.
August 27th, 1958
Gold Coast, Africa
The Bretons were dug in on a hill overlooking the road, such as it was: A muddy trail with occasional patches of gravel in the worst potholes. The advance would have been slow even in the absence of machine-gun fire; now it was completely stalled. Fortunately the lead truck had been carrying local auxiliaries, most of whom had got out under their own power, rather than valuable supplies. Even better, they were returning fire with their ancient bolt-action rifles; brave, in the circumstances, and perhaps even useful.
The spot was well chosen; the column had just emerged into a clearing from a stretch of road with thick jungle on both sides. The armoured vehicles couldn’t get up past the burning truck to bring their firepower to bear on the hill; and even after the infantry had worked its way through the jungle, with the inevitable ambushes and mines, the hill could defend itself by raking the forest edge with heavy fire. Ingvar smiled grimly. There was nothing for it but attack; the enemy commander had demonstrated that very well in the week before this. If he tried to sit still and bring up artillery, the Bretons would just strike him while he was strung out along the road, and when they weren’t constrained by hitting the lead vehicle of a column, they had an uncanny knack for finding just the one he could least afford to lose. So; time to see if his new tactics were going to work. He gave rapid orders, and men jumped out of their carriers to form a skirmish line that vanished into the trees.
Meanwhile a Gaupe APC made its way up the drainage ditch by the side of the road. For a moment he considered ordering its driver to push the burning truck aside – it would fall on top of the natives, but that couldn’t be helped – and clear the path, but decided against it. The Bretons could just as easily cripple the next truck in line, and anyway they had almost certainly mined the road. The only way to get ahead was to occupy the hill and work without enemy fire. He thought wistfully of air support, of the Kondor bombers sweeping in to destroy Japanese positions in Russia… but in Russia the aviation fuel hadn’t been shipped over three thousand miles of ocean and then through five hundred miles of jungle and mud roads. It would have to be done the old-fashioned way.
The Gaupe got into position and its 20-mm autocannon opened up, hammering the trenches on the hill in short bursts. Explosions and screams from the jungle told Ingvar that the booby traps were being cleared, in the only way it could be done. Bursts of rifle fire spoke either of resistance or of shooting at movements and shadows. From the level of the noise he judged the enemy had no more than a platoon in there, against his armoured regiment – but the armour was useless, the enemy had picked the ground, and it had been a long time since he had seen replacements for his casualties.
Nevertheless, numbers and body armour told. After a few minutes the enemy hill came under fire from the forest’s edge; the bushes rippled and swayed where their machine gun struck back, but his men were well hidden. Now it was time to order the Gaupe forward, in spite of the danger of mines; with the enemy pinned down from two directions, that risk was now tolerable, where before a damaged track would have been loss with no compensating advantage. The Ashanti auxiliaries rose whooping from their ditch and advanced in its wake. Ingvar raised an impressed eyebrow – not many troops would leave cover, even with an APC to hide behind, after being caught in an ambush and pinned down for long minutes by a heavy machine gun. The tribesmen didn’t lack for courage – but then, the Ashanti, being the most numerous folk in the region, had been on the receiving end of Breton divide-and-conquer tactics for four centuries. If they were eager for revenge, who could blame them?
The enemy commander was no fool, however. His ambush had done its job; the Norwegian column would be stalled for a day or more clearing mines, and the jungle fighting had favoured his troops. Now his task was to clear out before Ingvar’s regiment could bring its superior power to bear and crush his force; then he could repeat the fight a mile or two miles up the road. Ingvar, conversely, needed to prevent him from breaking contact. That was why he had spent two days clearing the last ambush site, instead of the one he’d actually needed. Time enough to pore over the aerial reconnaisance photos; time enough to confer with the Ashanti resistance leaders; time enough for three squads to work their way through the trackless jungle – which wasn’t so trackless, if you had local guides and weren’t moving much in the way of hardware. The Breton had gotten overconfident, when his trick worked three times in a row; he had picked the same sort of ambush sites every time, and that had allowed Ingvar to predict where the next one would be.
Ingvar spoke into his hand-held radio; the regiment burst whooping from the treeline, firing as they went. The enemy fire had slackened as they retreated; now it diminished still further, although men still went down in the skirmish line. But the decisive blow had been laid on the enemy flank, where three squads now opened fire on their line of retreat. The Gaupe advanced up the hill, and another was working its way past the still-burning truck; next would be a T56A3 main battle tank, with the 125mm main armament loaded with canister and two 15mm machine-guns. Now it was the Bretons who could not advance because their path was beaten by fire; but unlike Ingvar’s column, they didn’t have the firepower they needed to smash their foes into retreat.
It did not take long before sullen prisoners, stripped of their arms, were being prodded towards the rear of the column. The officers, according to standard orders, were separated out, and Ingvar strode over to address them.
“I speak for the Norwegian Ting and Folk; for the German Reich; for the United Italies; and for the French Republic. The state of Brittany is declared a rogue and outlaw state, beyond the pale of civilisation; as such, those found in arms in its defense are lawful booty, to be dealt with however their captors see fit. As a matter of practicality, we are still observing the conventions as regards enlisted men; we have no wish to encourage them to fight to the last.”
He drew a breath before continuing; it was necessary, but it wasn’t pleasant to pronounce death sentences on men who could look you in the eye and curse you. “You, however, have taken commissions from the Breton government. Therefore, you are outlaws, wolf’s-heads, with no claim to the protections of common humanity; every man’s hand is raised against you, and none shall shelter you – not even the shelter of a prisoner-of-war camp. You are animals, not worth so much as the bullets it would take to put you down. Therefore: Begin walking.”
He pointed down the road, indicating the direction they should take – down the road which had almost certainly been mined, which was currently lined with African volunteers holding machetes and grinning. The officers looked at each other; one – the youngest, perhaps as much as seventeen years of age, with an ensign’s tabs on his shoulders – looked inclined to protest. Ingvar gestured, and his men fixed bayonets with a menacing rattle. One of them visibly decided that a mine intended for tanks would be quicker than a bayonet, and silently began his walk; the others followed, cringing slightly every time they put their feet down. The young ensign was the last to die; he had gotten almost three hundred meters.
Ingvar looked at the road, and sighed. It was still a long way to the coast.