May 17th, 1939
Near Fulda, France-Allemagne
“Eg veit i himmerik ein borg, ho skin som soli klåre…”
The armies of Norway had marched to hymns for centuries. If, in this year 1940, there was more of tradition in it than of the burning faith that had carried the New Model Armies to Vienna, still, tradition’s inspiration was not to be despised. Eirik glanced back at the column, singing cheerfully enough in spite of the minor key. They’ll need all the inspiration they can get, soon enough, he thought. Most of them still had the fat of peacetime on their cheeks; they were a far cry from the lean, sun-burnt comrades he had led three times through the Sahel – once back and twice forward, under a sun that shone far more clearly than what any northern hymn-writer could have seen. That was the nature of a conscript army; five years later only the cadre was left of the hard, veteran force that had broken the sword of Islam and forced the Atlas mountains. But he supposed they would do; Spain was an ally now, and they were only fighting the French – would have been fighting them, at least, if there had been any sign of resistance. The word was that it was hot and heavy in the Languedoc, the cockpit of southern Europe; and on the Eastern Front. But here, where Norwegians had fought Baltic Wars since they were carried across from Skåne in dragon-headed ships, they had marched from Dannevirke to the Fulda Gap without hearing a shot fired in anger.
As if the thought had summoned it, a rifle barked. Eirik was seized by two conflicting impulses: The veteran’s urge to take cover, and the sergeant’s desire to find out what idiot had been marching with a round chambered and the safety off; for a moment he did nothing. Then his brain kicked into gear, and he realised that the shot had come from ahead, and that his company was the spearhead of the advance – and therefore, any idiocy belonged to a Frenchman, who had just revealed his position before, apparently, his commander had been ready to give the order. Poor fire discipline, the bane of would-be ambushers everywhere… but where was the torrent of all-calibre fire that ought to have immediately followed the first shot, no matter how badly timed?
Another solitary rifle shot cracked out; this time Eirik saw the muzzle flash in the window of a farmhouse. “Deploy!” he shouted from his prone position; at least his soldiers weren’t milling like sheep anymore, they were remembering enough of their training to get down as he had done and fire back. Those five seconds of confusion would have been enough for a wholesale slaughter against competent opposition; Eirik made a mental note to create some new digestive tract outlets at his earliest opportunity. But against this – well, what was this? He poked his head up cautiously; he could see another muzzle flash from the farmhouse window, and otherwise – nothing, though the volume of return fire from his company was deafening. If they really had only a single rifleman, he could walk over there and put a stop to this himself; it took thousands of rounds to kill a man. But tuned veteran’s instinct spoke against it; the one time you didn’t do it by the book was the time you were sure to get killed. He’d treat it as a drill, then, conveniently with live fire but not very much of it. “Advance, fire and movement,” he called, and was gratified to see A Platoon remember their training and get up to sprint forward the prescribed twenty meters. Of course it was easier when you weren’t advancing into a storm of machine-gun fire…
A few rushes brought them close enough for Eirik to hear the shouting coming from the farmhouse with every shot. He didn’t speak the vile Niederdeutsch, filled with French loanwords and sawn-off inflections, that passed for a language around here, but the repeated “Raus! Raus!” was clear enough. A solitary madman, perhaps; someone who thought he was a franc-tireur, and that such guerrillas fought from fixed positions and took more than two shots at large columns of men – or, perhaps, just someone who would literally rather die than live in occupied country. Rare, but not unheard-of; in any case, not a problem for a formed military unit. Throwing drill to the winds, he rose and ran towards the farmhouse door; a single bolt-action rifle did not worry a man who’d been shot at by the massed artillery of Islam.
His confidence proved justified; he reached the door unscathed, crashed through its cheap lock with a hard kick, and rushed upstairs, readying a grenade. The thin walls cracked and clattered as bullets whipped through them; at this point Eirik was more worried about being shot by his own men than by the French farmer – but, knowing what he did about their marksmanship, only so worried. The ones who were hitting the house were his best, and in a sadly small minority at that.
The grenade went into the upstairs bedroom, and Eirik followed its detonation smartly enough that a ricocheting bit of metal dinged his helmet, not very hard. A snap shot with his rifle at the bleeding, dying mess behind the barricade of – potato sacks? – at the window ended the action. Of course, his men didn’t know that; belatedly, it occurred to Eirik that he ought to be commanding his company, or at the very least let it know where he was, rather than indulging in the heroics suitable to a sergeant. And, also, that he’d just put himself at the center of what his men were aiming for, and sooner or later one of them was going to put a bullet through the window, if only by sheer chance.
He rushed down the stairs faster than he’d come up, then paused to reflect. When he’d charged forward, his men could see that it was him, and aim elsewhere – though knowing their skill, his back suddenly crawled at the risk he’d taken. But if he suddenly appeared again in the doorway, how were they to know it was him? Excited men in their first real action, farcical as it was by the standards of the Sahel, might take a snapshot first and think later. “Cease fire!” he shouted, and then less formally, “I got him!”
It took several repetitions, but gradually the rifle fire died away. In the silence Eirik could hear children crying – under his feet? He looked down, and realised he was standing on a trapdoor, leading no doubt to a potato cellar – traditional refuge in these parts when an army came through. He pressed his lips together; he had no particular desire to meet the children or wife of the man he’d just killed. But then, was there any need to? It wasn’t as though he planned to do anything further to them – and for all he knew the wife was holding a shotgun and ready to shoot the first Norwegian soldier that poked his head in – so why bother them? They’d find out about their husband and father soon enough, and if they were hiding in the cellar they clearly didn’t intend to resist.
“Wir schiessen sie nicht,” he shouted, which was vile German but might reassure someone, then exited into the bright sunlight. Coming down off his combat high he felt shocky and let-down; he could no longer fathom what had made him run through a hail of rifle fire, even if most of the bullets had been coming from behind him. But he was used to that; you couldn’t force the Atlas passes without learning something about what adrenaline did to your mind.
His men were laughing with the same shocky relief, high on the hormones of combat and survival; they crowded around him, congratulating him, slapping him on the back even. “Guess that’s the end of the picnic,” one of them said, and Eirik had to bite his tongue to hold back a snap. “One man with a rifle?” he said instead. “Nah. You go on a picnic, you have to expect some bugs. Just keep them out of the jam, that’s all.”
In the chatter it took him some time to become aware of the snarling sound of many engines, coming from the south. He could not have said how long he’d been hearing them when there came a pause in the chattering of his men, one of those silences that occurs occasionally in large groups because, by chance, nobody has anything to say at a particular moment. But the silence brought the roar of motors to the forefront of consciousness, and everyone looked south in near-unison.
The small crests and troughs of the North German plain did not block sightlines; the horizon was a long three miles away, and on it, a swarthy storm of dust was rising towards the sky. Eirik fumbled for his binoculars; through them, the tiny moving toys under the dust fairly leaped out at him, grey unpainted metal, khaki canvas on troop-carrying trucks, and everywhere the black cross outlined in white that von Hentzau had made the war ensign of the Bayerische Räterepublik. A motorised column, moving at four or five times the speed of his conscript infantry; and behind the screen of troop carriers would be self-propelled guns and tanks. His own men had seen a tank, once; it had been specially brought in for the purpose, when the High Command’s requests for a real armoured force, even a single brigade, were found too expensive.
There was no help for it. There couldn’t be many Bavarians here, their main force would be busy in the East, while the whole army of Norway had poured into North Germany; eventually, even at foot speeds, they would outflank and overwhelm. But that was small comfort for the first men on the sharp end, the few who would have to try holding back a motorised assault with rifles and entrenching tools. Three months of training, a single machine gun to a company, air support to be called up by officers commanding brigades and above… but needs must when von Hentzau drove; and they’d been poorly equipped, by the standards of the Great Powers, when they drove Islam back across the Sahel.
“Spread out, dig in,” Eirik rasped. “We’ll try to hold them until our friends get here. Now the picnic’s over.”
Norwegian troops advancing unopposed through northern France – or almost unopposed; note the solitary Bavarian motorised division.