A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 25


“The best reconnaissance will always be the attack.”

–Adolph von Schell, Battle Leadership

Bella Vista, Balboa

There was a small headquarters set up in the shell of a burned-out home, a couple of hundred meters away. For the nonce, though, Janier left it to his staff while he, alone, tried to get some sense of the looming battle in the open air.

He shuddered and almost cringed from the blast of jets moving fast and at low level, just overhead. They passed, this wave of them, in a fraction of a second, yet their roar stayed behind for much longer, reverberating from the ground, the rocky outcroppings, still-standing buildings, and from the very trees. Leaves fell from those trees, too, under the sonic assault. Janier saw the leaves fall but didn’t notice that some few birds likewise fell dead, perhaps frightened into cardiac arrest by the sound. He’d have understood the cause completely if he’d seen them flutter to the ground.

Along with the jets, there as a steady freight train of artillery shells heading north as well. Coordinating those so that the jets and shells didn’t try to occupy the same space at the same time had been a major job for his staff. At this range both cannon and shells were distant and weak, but every now and again the blast of a thousand or two-thousand pounder–Anglian attack aircraft, Anglian measures–rocked Janier back on his heels.

Poor bastards, he thought, in contemplation of the effect of the bombing and shelling on the Balboan defenders. He thought, too, of the troops he was going to launch into and attack on the ridge south of the river. The sentiment was almost exactly the same, Poor bastards, but I have to know.

Mentally, for the umpteenth time, Janier went over in his mind the indicia on offer. We captured over fifty of their regimental guns. At the scale they were issued, previously, three guns per battery, that’s enough for–oh, call it–six regiments, or two divisions. Or a corps, which we know was here. We also have enough heavier guns and rocket launchers in the capture pool to make it a corps that we seem to have caught flat-footed, and all oriented to the north, as if anticipating the Zhong eventually landing from the Mar Furioso, if they’d taken the Isla Real.

Once the island was obviously not going to fall, nor the Zhong to land anywhere near Balboa City, they should have faced south, to contest our landing. Why didn’t they? They could have hurt us badly if they had, maybe even defeated our landing. That’s grounds for suspicion number one. Yes, yes, the deployment of the artillery, lighter and shorter ranged nearer the north and heavier and longer ranged to the south, was completely consistent with a focus on the Zhong. And it’s plausible, as the staff insists, that they simply lacked the transportation to shift them around, so they were still in that configuration when we hit them. Yes, it’s plausible. But I still don’t believe it.

The artillery fire to the west slackened and then stopped. He shuddered inwardly again, as another wave of jets shot by overhead. He couldn’t see them but following their progress by sound wasn’t hard. This set peeled off to his right, or west, to lay their bombs along the ridgeline, using the airspace temporarily freed up by the halt in artillery fire.

I told the staff that the regimental guns, at least, the Volgan eighty-five millimeter, were auxiliary propelled and could have moved if their formations had wanted them to. Of course, the staff weenies had a good answer for that; “the guns may move themselves, yes, mon general, but the ammunition may not. No sense in moving them until you can move that as well.”

And that’s still plausible, but I still don’t quite believe it. Call that one a “neutral indicator.”

Every private, non-com, and officer we’ve captured also tells us the same story; that higher headquarters, in this case Carrera, himself, didn’t seem to believe we’d actually have the balls to land. That’s more than plausible; up until the first helicopters took off to secure the drop zones, I had my doubts we’d be allowed to land on the ground, too. I wonder if it was the death of one of the high Kosmos, Lady Ashworth–or, as our limey friends called her, Ashworthless–that persuaded the TU and our national governments to support the attack. After all, “people so insane as to kill important colleagues of the cosmopolitan progressive movement must be put down like the mad dogs they are” . . . or so I imagine the conversation to have gone.

So, okay, maybe that accounts for the lack of proper focus and direction on the ground. Best evidence we have, actually. Call that one point for the proposition that this is not a huge fucking trap. That’s not a lot to risk an army on, indeed, to risk several armies on.

The artillery picked up again to the west, to be matched by a diminution in the east. This time Janier got hands over his ears in time for the gut-rattling passage of the jets.

So, it hinges on this; in which direction does that line the prisoners call “the Parilla Line” actually face. If it faces, even mostly, towards the Mar Furioso, I’m sold, we continue the buildup, clear out Cristobal, and eventually attack north. If it faces mostly south then it’s not a misoriented defense line; it’s a sally port cum bridgehead for something I don’t want to deal with. In that case, I’m going to ask to pull out while we can. Well . . . at least I’ll think about asking. I might just do it, instead, on my own hook.

But I must know which it is. And for that, we must attack–at least a local and limited attack–to see what kind of reception we get and what is actually there.

Assembly Area, Thirteenth Company,

Royal Haarlem Commandotroepen

Sergeant Werner Verboom felt mildly encouraged by the artillery and air preparation going in before the attack. Rehearsals for the attack were done, and the men were waiting in loose little knots for the order to move out. He took the opportunity to talk things up to the troops, though, perhaps a very little bit more than circumstances called for.

“There’s not going to be much left there,” Werner reminded the men of his squad, “and those will be shaking from the shelling. That doesn’t mean we can slack off. There’s going to be a period of time–and the trees will make it longer than it might otherwise be–when the artillery will lift and we’ll be on our own; us, the machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and the company heavy weapons. Though don’t expect sixty-millimeter mortars to do much.

“So, speed is going to be the thing. When we get to within four hundred meters the guns will, half of them, shift off and change from high explosive shell to white phosphorus. The others will go stay on target, but they’ll be firing pure delay fuse until we get with a hundred and fifty meters when they’ll–”

“Sergeant Verboom?” came the below from the platoon sergeant.


“Move ’em out.”


Werner turned to his senior corporal, Coevorden, making a forward slash with his left hand, in the direction of advance. The corporal, a little paler than normal, said not a word but began to move, his fire team falling in to either side of him. Werner, himself, followed being the fire team leader at a distance of perhaps ten meters. The other team leader, short a man, formed a wedge on himself and followed Verboom. That team would have been even more short, had not the corporal in charge dragged van der Wege out from the bushes in which he’d hidden himself and forced the slimy rat into formation.

The platoon leader, Lieutenant Kranz, along with one radio telephone operator and one of the machine gun crews, took position behind Verboom’s second team. The rest of the platoon following along from there with the platoon sergeant taking up the rear. The other two rifle platoons of Thirteenth Company formed up further back, so that the point of each defined a company wedge. Further to the rear came the other two companies of the battalion, along with the headquarters and the various support platoons. Only the heavy mortars were staying where they were, since they could already range about four kilometers past the objective.

The mortars weren’t firing yet, either. It had proven much tougher to get a load of ammunition to them than it had to the artillery, further back. They’d save what they had until it was needed.

Some, apparently, was needed pretty quickly; Werner heard the distinct sound of one hundred and twenty-millimeter mortars opening up to the right and behind, maybe fifteen hundred meters in each direction. Small arms fire had kicked in, too, but only to the right. It was distant and faint, but he could make out the very distinctive cloth-ripping sound of Balboan F- and M-26 rifles and light machine guns.