1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 50

Chapter 20

Krakow, official capital of Poland

Actual capital of Lesser Poland

Gretchen wasn’t normally all that interested in the technical aspects of warfare, however keenly she might pay attention to their practical results. But despite that usual indifference, this time she found herself engrossed in what was happening.

Why? The simplest explanation might be that this time it was her husband overseeing the technical aspects, and she was always interested in her husband. As was usually the case with simple explanations, Gretchen was partial to them.

“What are they doing, and why are they doing it?” she asked, looking at the crew handling the three-and-a-half inch mortar. More precisely, since the mortar itself had been set off to the side, the crew was handling a heavy wooden platform about eight feet long by four feet wide with some holes drilled in it–one in the center and one in each corner.

The same crew had spent the day before digging up and leveling the ground upon which the platform now rested. That had been hard work–so hard that Jeff had worried that his whole plan might have to be scrapped. The same prolonged cold spell that had frozen over the Vistula and made it possible for their army to get quickly into position outside of Krakow had also frozen the ground. Digging into it, which would have been easy at most times of the year, had been just this side of impossible.

But, they’d managed. The one thing that had made it doable was that the terrain the scouts found to set up the mortar battery was already very flat and level. It had been more a matter of scraping soil and filling in some low places than what people normally thought of as “digging.”

She and Jeff were standing in the center of the battery’s position, just far enough back that they weren’t getting in the way of anyone who was actually working. Looking in either direction, Gretchen could see half a dozen such level spaces on either side of her. In all of those positions, the mortar crews were now checking to make sure that the wooden platforms were indeed level, and doing whatever was needed to make them so.

“I’ll start with why they’re doing it,” Jeff said. “There’s one big problem with my plan.”

He paused for a moment, thinking of how to best explain himself. While he did so, Gretchen found herself a bit amused by her husband’s unthinking use of the term “my plan.” Officially–this would certainly be how the historical accounts would report the matter–the plan was Prince Ulrik’s. He being, of course, the commander of the entire army that had marched here from Silesia. But in the real world, Jeff had been the one to develop the plan, with the help of his immediate subordinates and the leaders of the Bohemian forces who had arrived two days earlier, just a few hours after the Silesian army took its positions. Ulrik’s contribution–Morris Roth’s also–was just to observe and let the real military professionals go about their work without interference. Gretchen had been there and done the same.

“The problem,” Jeff continued, “is that everything has to unfold pretty quickly. Essentially, we’re laying a trap for the city’s garrison. We’ll start with the half dozen mortars that we’ll move into position during the night, not more than three hundred yards from the gate we’ll be seizing.” He pointed to the east. “You can’t see it from here–or any part of the city except the castle on Wawel Hill down by the river–because of that rise in front of us. We need that rise to hide”–here he swept his hand around–“this much bigger battery of mortars. We’re about five hundred yards from the gate here.”

Gretchen visualized what he was describing. It seemed simple enough, but… “Can you reach the gates from here with these mortars?”

“Oh, yeah. We’re well within range. If we were using black powder propellant, we wouldn’t be. But we’ve got enough nitrocellulose donuts for about one thousand rounds, and those are quite capable of firing the bombs that far. Although, I’d like to use as few of them as possible. It’s hard to get replacements for them–especially out here, this far into Poland–and it’s even harder to get the RDX we use for the bombs themselves.”

She decided to forego asking any questions about the way the mortars worked and the logistics involved. She could find that out from Eric Krenz later, if she felt it necessary.

“All right,” she said. “So why is speed essential?” She smiled. “Other than the fact you’re always going on and on about the central, metaphysical–almost sublime–nature of speed in warfare.”

“Smart ass. The reason it’s important is because we want to get into Krakow quickly. And the reason that’s important is mostly political, not military. Which is your bailiwick so you can cut it out with the jokes about lowbrow soldiers. We want to do as little damage to the city as possible because we’re going to want to billet all our troops in it for the duration of the winter–“

“That’s a military issue.”

And we don’t want the city’s population to be furious with us.” He cleared his throat. “Seeing as how you and Krzysztof and Red–God knows who else and I don’t want to know–have settled on the grandiose scheme of turning the Galician Democratic Assembly into the Lesser Poland Democratic Assembly. With Krakow as the capital.”

“Actually, the scheme is a lot more grandiose than that. What Opalinski and Zaborowsky and Sybolt and those around them–I’m just what you might call a consultant–really want is to take over the whole Commonwealth. But in order to do that they have to seem like a serious alternative to King Wladislaw and they can’t do that if they’ve just got Galicia. That’s why they want Krakow.”

“Politics, like I said. To get back to the point, we’ve got to lure the garrison–a goodly part of it, anyway–to make a sortie. The way we do that is by positioning a small battery where they can see it along with what looks like a small infantry force, not too far from the gate. Then we start lofting mortar bombs into the city. We’ll walk them back toward the gate as we get the proper range. We think the mortars will come as a complete surprise to them. They have been used in the war against Poland, but that was in the north. Whatever accounts have made their way down here aren’t likely to be very accurate and they’re certainly not going to be long on the details.”

Gretchen could see the logic. “So they’ll be frightened but seem to be dealing with only a small force, so…”

“They’ll come charging out to destroy them. Or at least drive them off. And that’s when we hit them with a double whammy.” He stretched his hands out in both directions, indicated the line of a dozen mortars. “We start with a barrage that lands right on top of them. That kind of mortar fire hitting men out in the open is devastating–if it’s on target.”

“I can see that.” She’d heard the plan laid out in the conference, but having it explained again, here where she could see everything, was bringing it into focus. “And the second part of the ‘whammy,’ as you call it?”

Now Jeff pointed to the north. “There a good-sized woods up there–more in the way of a little forest. General von Mercy has been moving his cavalry into position, where they can’t be seen by the garrison. Once the barrage starts, he and his cavalrymen will charge the gate. It’s pretty clear and level ground once you get out in the open. That’ll take a while, getting out from those trees, but the first elements of the cavalry should reach the gate within four or five minutes. We’ll stop firing when they’re three hundred yards out. They can cover that final distance in less than a minute. We figure they’ll be able to seize and hold the gate easily. At which point we start moving the rest of the army in.”

He waved his hand behind him. “They’ll be positioned around here. Even the infantry can cross a mile within fifteen minutes, at a fast march. Twenty, at the outside. We don’t think the garrison in there is anywhere nearly good enough to get themselves reorganized in time to set up a defensive line inside the city. Especially because most of the cavalry will be rushing in to seize the huge square in the middle of the city. They’ll be at some risk because cavalry always is when it’s operating inside the confines of a city. But they only have to hold the square for half an hour, which we’re pretty sure they can manage given that we expect the garrison not to have been able to reorganize itself in that short a period of time.”

“Why is half an hour–“

“Because by then–even sooner, I think; Krakow’s a pretty small city–we can have at least one battalion of the Hangman Regiment reach the square also. With the rifles they have now, they won’t be at great risk, especially because they can fort up inside the town hall and the Cloth Hall. If the cavalry’s coming under bad fire because they’re in the open, we can pull them out of the square at that point. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. Once we hold the central square and the two big buildings in the middle of it with both infantry and cavalry, we’ll control the whole city. Even a top-flight garrison would surrender at that point.”

“I still don’t see why you’re so concerned about speed.”

“I’m concerned because once the sortie comes out of the gate we’ve got to start hitting them with mortar fire right away. Or they’ll overrun the small force we set up to bait them. And the problem there is that”–he nodded at the nearest mortar–“these things are not what you’d call precision weapons. It takes time to get them ranged in, and that’s time we won’t have. So we’re going to range them in today by firing”–he turned around and pointed in the opposite direction–“thataway, until each mortar has the right elevation set. Then we swivel the mortars back around facing the city, on a platform that’s level enough and with spikes to keep the mortars from shifting. Come tomorrow morning, we’ll still have some adjustments to make, but they should be pretty minor ones.”

“Won’t the garrison hear you firing?” She now realized that issue hadn’t been brought up in the planning stage. Not that she could recall, anyway.

“Oh, sure. But they won’t be able to see us.” He looked up at the sky. “And Eddie should start buzzing the city any time now. We figure that between having an airplane doing something that seems just weird to them and hearing a lot of cannon fire but not knowing where it’s happening and why it’s happening, by next morning that garrison is going to be edgy as hell.”

“But what if they don’t sortie? It seems to me that sends your whole plan up in smoke.”

Jeff shrugged. “I’m wedded to you, sweetheart, not the plan. If they don’t sortie, then what happens is that we continue the mortar bombardment until we’ve driven off any troops except the relatively small number who’ve been sheltered in the barbican. By then, the whole regiment will be in position and we’ll seize the gate with a frontal assault. After that, the garrison will probably surrender pretty quickly.”

A droning sound came from somewhere above. Looking up and around, Gretchen spotted the plane. “And there’s Eddie.”

“Right on schedule. There’s more than one reason we call that plane the Steady Girl.”

Gretchen turned her head, looking to the southwest. “I wonder how Denise is doing.”

“Once she gets to Vienna, she’ll do fine. From the stories I’ve heard, I’d take that girl in a tight spot over most anyone else. Not counting you, of course. But until they get there…”

She made a face. “Yes, I know Denise. Nobody can be–what’s that expression you use?

“Pain in the ass.”

“Yes, that one. Better than Denise can.”

On the road to Pressburg

A few miles north of Trnava

“Are we there yet?”

Noelle tightened her jaws. “Denise, if you ask that one more time, I swear I’ll strangle you. Well, no, you’d probably beat the tar out of me. I’d ask Lukasz to do it.”

“I would accept,” said the big hussar. He flexed his hands, laced his fingers together, and cracked his knuckles. “Gladly.”

“I’m not afraid of you, tough guy.”

“I know you’re not. You’re not really afraid of many things. I’m amazed you’ve survived this long. Some things, Denise, are true whether you fear them or not. One of those things is that I can throttle you regardless of your state of mind. I am twice your size and even proportionate to the difference in weight, I am much stronger than you. I am stronger than most men I know, no matter how big they are.”

“Yeah, sure. I know that. Just as long as you understand you don’t scare me. It’s the principle of the thing.” She looked out of the window of the cabin-atop-a-wagon which was laughably titled a “carriage.” The right front wheel heaved up again and they were all tossed about. Again.

“Blasted potholes,” Noelle groused.

“Potholes, my sweet little teenage ass. This stupid road has cauldron-holes. Are we–?”

Denise gave the other two occupants of the cabin a sweet little teenage smile. “–having fun yet?”