The Major's tent was full of activity. A small group of tankers was waiting in front of it, their eyes scanning their surroundings nervously. The only girl among them was the most intimidated. With her arms wrapped protectively around her slight body, she ducked her head and stared at the ground beneath her feet.
'All these strangers...' she thought with distress.
She flinched as a hand was placed on her shoulder. Her gaze darted up at the young redhead who had stepped up beside her and was giving her an encouraging smile - even though his features were tense as well. The girl tried to smile back, but with mediocre success. Her expression looked tormented despite the weak smile. She was looking forward to crawling away into her tank again, but first she had to report to the chief. Of course she and her crew weren't the only ones who had to do that, which forced her to stand and wait here. This was a strenuous task for someone like her, who could barely endure being caged in a big crowd.
A terrible eternity seemed to have passed before she was finally waved into the tent. She stiffly set herself into motion. The other commanders and the crews of the Panzer IV/70 followed her.
Many gazes were resting on the newcomers, which didn't contribute to the commander's wellbeing. She avoided the looks until she found herself in front of the man whose look she unfortunately had to return. His features were neutral, almost friendly. But he could have been glaring at her as well.
"My name is Schiefer," he said. "I assume you're here to report to duty for my battle group." His voice sounded like he had had to repeat this sentence too often already on that day to really be interested in the answer anymore. The girl nodded hastily. In the morning two officers had suddenly appeared and told her that she and her platoon were to participate in a mission. It hadn't been a request - they had been told to depart and go to the meeting point on the very same day.
"And you are?" Schiefer eventually asked, after only looking at her for several seconds and obviously expecting initiative.
"Panzer... Panzer IV," the girl stammered.
Schiefer raised an eyebrow, then looked down at the list on his table. He turned the page and then seemed to have found what he was looking for.
"I see," he murmured. He nodded and looked up again.
"Let's start with the commanders," he then said. Two of the other tankers stepped forward - the redhead and a second young man stood next to the girl. Schiefer smiled at them curtly before looking back at his list.
"Feldwebel Köhler Sarah, born on the 20th of September, 1926 in Meißen... Is that correct?"
The girl nodded.
"Correct," she said, but only after a short pause, as if she had to think about whether this statement was actually true. Schiefer made a little checkmark next to her line on the list. For some reason he seemed irritated, but carried on.
"Feldwebel Köhler Rainer, born on the 20th of September ... 1926, Meißen as well... Twins?" He looked at the two male commanders with mild amusement, apparently trying to guess which one was Rainer. "Well, well!"
"Yes, Herr Major," the redhead said.
"You don't even look alike," Schiefer noted.
"That's the case with many twins," Rainer replied.
Sarah didn't follow the exchange of words anymore and noticed that another group was entering the tent. Two tall men were leading it. They couldn't have looked more different from each other. One of them was well-built, with very short black-brown hair and darker skin than the other - who was pale, skinny, and ash blond. The blond man took off his cap and said something to his companion, before suddenly looking in Sarah's direction. She quickly averted her eyes. As she risked another peek, the group approached her. Sarah tried to convince herself that this was unrelated to her staring and looked at Schiefer again, who was already done with the topic of twins and had turned to the third commander.
"Feldwebel Kaufmann Peter, born on the 6th of June, 1925 in Potsdam," he read out, but then his expression darkened. "Mixed-blood..." He scrunched up his nose. Then he looked up at the young man, as if he expected some sort of justification. Said young man was used to this sort of treatment and only nodded. His comrades awkwardly looked into other directions. Schiefer scribbled something onto his list and crossed out something else. Maybe it was a note to remind himself to complain to the people responsible for assembling his troop. He stared at his list for a moment longer, but then looked at the commanders again and hinted at being done with them. They made way for their crews, who were next.
Jankovic watched as the other tankers departed. All very young men, with one exception. He shook his head, mentally pushing aside a lot of concerns, and then looked at the Major. He and Weidner stepped up to the table that Schiefer sat behind. They had sort of jumped the queue, but no one had really made any efforts to stop them.
Schiefer was still slightly irritated and introduced himself again before asking who he was dealing with now.
Schiefer searched through his list for a moment.
"Stabsfeldwebel Jankovic Milan, born on the 29th August of 1906 in... Kr... Zerw..." He frowned with frustration.
"Crvenka," Jankovic said. Schiefer looked like he was holding him personally responsible for being unable to pronounce the name of that town. But his anger only seemed to last for a moment.
"Jagdtiger commander," he read on, immediately sounded consoled. "Very good. I'm glad you decided to participate in this mission."
Jankovic nodded, but his expression was distant.
Soon, the formalities were finished and Jankovic's group left the tent. They returned to their tanks to grab their things. They had been told that it would take until the next day still until everyone would arrive. They would spend the night in the barracks that they had been assigned to.
The rest of the day passed by with routine tasks. Jankovic eagerly lent his hands, and was downright trying to make himself useful everywhere at once. Weidner and his gang on the other hand chose a more leisurely approach. They spent the majority of the time playing cards. Only the New Guy had been sent off to ask around for spare paint. Weidner's hope to make his Panther presentable again, after all, hadn't died yet.
Unfortunately the New Guy returned empty-handed in the end. Weidner looked up from the small table at which he was sitting with a folding chair. He gave the radioman a frown. It was getting dark, which meant that their faces were only illuminated by a gas lamp placed on the table. Roth was sitting at said table as well, but didn't turn around. She seemed busy with looking at the cards in her hand. As an audience she had brought two of her crew members with her. They were standing behind her with crossed arms, but were more occupied with throwing wary side glances at each other than really following the game.
"I'm sorry..." the radioman mumbled.
"It's fine," Weidner grumbled with a dismissive gesture. From the corner of his eyes, he had spotted something that claimed his attention more.
"Eh!" Weidner said, in a brighter tone. All present people seemed to feel addressed, but then followed Weidner's look.
Jankovic was approaching. He smiled as he noticed all eyes being on him now.
"Good evening, everyone," he said. He stood next to Roth and looked at the cards on the table curiously. "Am I interrupting?"
"That depends," Roth replied.
"We were almost done here anyway," Weidner threw in.
Roth looked at him with a baffled face.
"You cheat too much for my tastes," Weidner said with a gravely serious tone, but couldn't hold back a grin for long. Roth stood up with a haughty snort.
"Come on, guys. We're leaving," she said to her companions. "The Oberfeldwebel needs some time to think about how to talk to a lady." Her tone was serious as well, but in an exaggerated manner.
The addressed men nodded and the three tankers marched off.
Jankovic sat down on the chair that Roth had been sitting on previously.
"She didn't even deny it," he mused with a concerned expression.
Weidner chuckled and put the cards away.
"What's up?" he finally asked Jankovic, as he didn't come out with the reason for his visit on his own.
"I just wanted to spend a bit of time with my old friend," Jankovic said with a shrug.
Weidner hummed agreeingly, then reached into his pocket to light a cigarette. He had a feeling that his 'old friend' wanted to talk about something very particular. But there was no rush.
"You've been pretty busy today," he murmured.
"Yeaaaahhh..." Jankovic said in a drawn-out manner. "There wasn't all that much to do, but I wanted to ask around a bit."
So they were getting closer to the interesting part. Weidner's expression turned more curious.
"Did I miss something? I didn't realize we're on an espionage mission," he teased Jankovic. That worked like a charm, since Jankovic immediately turned sheepish.
"I- I just wanted to know what we're dealing with."
"The Russians," Weidner said deadpan. "I thought everyone was clear about that."
Jankovic shook his head with a tortured grin.
"I'm talking about the Major. Schiefer."
"Hmm," Weidner hummed. "And what do your sources say?"
"I don't think we'll get along very well," he said.
"How come?" Weidner asked.
"He has a certain... reputation," Jankovic said with a frown. "That he's not a particularly moderate fellow."
Weidner understood what he was hinting at and nodded.
"Those 'moderate fellows' have been sparse from the very beginning," he said soberly. "In any case we gotta do what he says, even if we don't like him, which we luckily don't have to, after all."
"Absolutely correct," Jankovic said. "It's more important for us to focus on the mission. And that he hopefully won't spoil with his world view."
Weidner nodded and pensively lowered his gaze.
"This mission seems mighty important to you," he said. He looked up again, gave Jankovic a swashbuckling grin. "Does your company no longer need you, or why did you sign up? Is there something special about this mission that I don't know about?"
Jankovic answered the question with a question of his own.
"Why did you sign up?"
"Honour, glory, for the Reich... You know," Weidner said with a mock salute.
"And the real reason?" he asked.
Weidner became serious.
"They promised me a promotion. That means more money that I can send to Emma," he said. Jankovic nodded. Weidner knew that his buddy hadn't worried about money in a long time, but he didn't have to support anyone financially, after all. He had offered Weidner financial aid a couple of times in the past, but his pride wouldn't let him accept it. As Jankovic didn't continue the conversation himself, Weidner rose to the task.
"So, what about you? Why did you accept?" he asked.
"I'm just doing my duty," Jankovic replied with a shrug. "I think that we can complete this mission and that a lot depends on it. With my participation I may achieve more than with my company currently."
He fell silent for a moment, but then went on gravely serious.
"And now that I know that you're also participating, I have to go for it all the more. Someone has to keep an eye on you."
Weidner gave him a scandalized look.
"I can look after myself just fine!" he protested.
"That's what people who get themselves in trouble at every opportunity always say," Jankovic retorted with a crooked smile.
A snort from Weidner made his smile only grow, but only for a moment. Jankovic started frowning.
"You can only cheat Death so many times," he said and looked at the scar on Weidner's temple that was only partially hidden by his hair. "In the end he gets everyone."
Weidner rolled his eyes, he had heard this warning before countless times already.
"Also," Jankovic added with averted eyes, "there's the crews of the tank destroyers... Did you see them? How young they are?"
Weidner already knew what he was getting at, but didn't interrupt.
"I thought we were meant to be some sort of... special forces unit? How do... children fit in with that?" Jankovic lamented. "You can't tell me they're here of their own volition! It's utterly irresponsible to get them involved with something like this, isn't it? They should be going to school, not to war...!" He seemed to run out of steam and just shook his head with a deeply affected expression.
Weidner leaned forward and waited until the other man returned his look again.
"You have a serious case of the mother hen complex, do you know that?" he said.
Jankovic gaped at him speechlessly for a while before he regained his composure.
"Nonsense...!" he mumbled. "I've never heard of such a complex before."
Weidner looked to his cigarette, which had burned down without any use in the meantime. He lit a new one and shrugged.
"You can't protect them all," he said calmly.
Jankovic looked at him firmly.
"I can at least try."
Weidner leaned back and crossed his legs.
"The right thing," Jankovic replied.
The sun had barely risen and the camp was already full of activity. Weidner stood at the entrance of the barrack in which he had spent the night and watched the soldiers bustle about through the smoke of his morning cigarette. He wasn't involved in any of this. As a tanker he thought himself too good for participating in the daily tasks. Officially he was busy with Panther maintenance together with his crew, but he wasn't in a hurry to do that.
The rest of the Kampfgruppe still hadn't arrived, but that should be the case before midday - if everything went according to plan. From what Weidner had heard, they would even meet up with a second unit as soon as they reached Russian ground. This unit was meant to also join the battle group. The soldiers had been assured that the two units together would have no trouble taking care of the Russians. Even though Weidner was skeptical - he didn't believe in guaranteed victory - he didn't feel too pessimistic about this promise yet.
He kept watching the soldiers for a while longer, until he had finished a second cigarette. Then he figured that it was about time to round up his crew.
Said crew was currently hanging out by the tanks. Weidner startled them.
"You could have started already!" he shouted and gesticulated at the nearby Jagdtiger, whose maintenance was already in full swing. "Take a leaf out their book!" The crew immediately got to work, even though a certain Bachmeier mumbled something under his breath. Weidner noticed that and confronted him.
"You can share it with the class," he said.
The gunner put his arms akimbo.
"How come that you commanders are lazing about while you expect us to work our asses off?" he grouched. Weidner returned his unwilling glare. The other crew members observed the power play with great interest.
"But I'm right here! I was about to-"
"But you said we should have started already. And the guys over there actually did!"
Weidner's expression turned confused.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
Bachmeier pointed at the Jagdtiger without a word. Weidner looked into that direction again. Only now he noticed that Jankovic was nowhere to be seen. He raised his voice.
The Jagdtiger's crew paused their work to throw curious glances at Weidner. He went on as soon as he was sure of their attention.
"Where did you leave your commander?"
"Breakfast!" one of the men shouted. The others shrugged. Weidner's crew immediately found this to be a justified reason to stop working and start running their mouths.
"How can one guy take so much time to eat? It's a mystery to me."
"He doesn't take his time. Have you actually watched him? I don't know anyone who's nearly as greedy."
"That's true. He only needs this much time because he's eating so much. It just looks like he's busy with the same plate the entire time because he grabs a new one so fast."
"That's enough," Weidner barged in. "Like old washerwomen..."
"Speak of the devil!" the driver said as he noticed that the man they had been badmouthing had appeared. Weidner turned around and spotted him as well. Jankovic was on the way to his Jagdtiger, even though it wasn't completely clear how he could even see where he was going - his arms were wrapped around a whole bundle of jerry cans. Weidner watched with amusement as Jankovic only stood around helplessly until someone got the idea to help him with the cans.
Weidner smirked and set himself into motion to join his friend. Before he could fully leave his crew behind, Bachmeier spoke up again.
"I thought you were going to help us!" he complained.
"You'll be fine on your own," Weidner said over his shoulder without stopping. He could vividly imagine Bachmeier's dissatisfied expression, but didn't really care about his discontent - like so often. Instead his attention was directed at the Jagdtiger's crew. He arrived at the hulking tank destroyer a few moments later.
Jankovic didn't notice him right away, having just started tightening the screws on one of the tank's road wheels. But he stood up and smiled with surprise as he became aware of the other man's presence.
"Eh?" Weidner said.
Jankovic patted the Jagdtiger's side armour.
"The big guy needs some love," he said and sounded like a proud father - as he always did when talking about his tank. Before Weidner could respond, someone else spoke. Weidner looked up to the tank's rear, where Jankovic's driver was sitting.
"The engine hasn't been running smoothly..." he said.
"It's stuttering every now and then, isn't it? I also noticed that," Jankovic said.
"If it doesn't stall altogether, yeah."
One of the loaders, who was also busy with the wheels, looked up and laughed.
"Oh, you're just saying that because you don't want to admit you're choking it off!" he teased.
"Go to hell..." the driver mumbled.
"Dunno if you'd get us that far."
Jankovic shook his head.
"Hey, get along!" he said.
"Can't you just repair it?" Weidner asked.
The driver pulled up his shoulders.
"We requested some spare parts a while ago already, but didn't receive any yet," he said. "I have an approximate idea of what could be wrong, but that's no use if we can't replace the broken parts."
"I see," Weidner said. He looked to Jankovic, who returned the look with an affected expression.
The growing noise of engines made all present tankers look to its source with curiosity. Three StuG III tank destroyers had appeared at the border of the camp and were driving towards the other tanks. They halted nearby and the crews hopped out. Only one of the men even deigned a look at the other tankers as all of them marched straight past the Jagdtiger. And even that look was outright disparaging. Weidner returned it coolly and then looked to Jankovic, who was frowning.
"Well," Weidner said. "Statistically speaking, such guys had to show up eventually."
Jankovic made a thoughtful "Hm" as he looked after the crews. He shrugged.
"The first impression can sometimes fool you," he thought out loud.
"But most of the time, it's not that far off," Weidner replied with a dark expression.