The commanders retreated into one of their tents. This offered not only some privacy, but also protection from the rain that had now started in full. Weidner watched disgruntledly as the others entered. He hated that this meeting was necessary in the first place.
Jankovic was the last one to enter the tent. He hadn't finished his dinner yet and simply took his cheese sandwich with him. To keep his hands free, he was just carrying it with his mouth. His eyes darted downward as one of the slices of cheese fell off and landed on the ground. He was already bending down, but a strict "Milan, no" from Weidner made him throw the slice out of the tent instead of putting it back onto his bread. Then he sat down.
"Welp, so much for that," Roth said as seemingly no one else wanted to start talking. "I'm slowly but surely getting the feeling that this mission is doomed."
"Don't catastrophize it," Weidner rumbled. "Let's stick to the facts."
"Then call it a fact if you prefer," Roth replied. "Doesn't matter. Until now it was trivial things that went wrong. But this now is all but trivial."
"I didn't argue with that," Weidner said stubbornly.
"Then we're in complete agreement," Roth said and shrugged. "So, what do we do?"
Habich leant back and propped himself up on his hands.
"Well," he said. "We have no say in this, so it's not up to us what happens now, but...think about it. When there were two units planned to stop the Russians and now only one fights them because the second didn't show up-"
Weidner shook his head.
"I would go even further than that," he said grimly. "What do we know about this other unit?"
He looked at the others and earned clueless looks.
"See?" he finally answered his own question. "Everyone's been talking about that second unit, but no one could tell us anything about it. How big? What's the composition? Did anyone think about this?"
Jankovic had to swallow before he could reply.
"So what you're getting at is..." he said pensively, "that this other unit doesn't actually exist."
"Exactly," Weidner said. "They called in a Jagdtiger, isn't that suspicious? If we're supposedly superior in numbers anyway... and the Russians are so easy to beat... what do we need such heavy-hitting equipment for?"
Jankovic sounded sober as he agreed.
"I also think it's possible that we've been lied to."
Habich chimed in, sounding uncertain.
"Why would they lie to us?"
Instead of replying right away, Jankovic took another pensive bite from his sandwich first.
"Does this battle group seem like an elite unit to you? I am getting more of an impression that they were barely able to scrape it together. What if it simply wasn't enough for a second unit?"
"But..." Habich disagreed. "We are the elite..."
"Us four, maybe. But the rest?" Jankovic said calmly. "Be honest... If you had known that this unit would be on its own, would you have joined the mission?"
Habich seemingly didn't want to accept the truth yet.
"Why would they send us on a suicide mission?" he asked. "That would be idiotic. It wouldn't help anyone!"
"Maybe they're hoping we'll make it anyway... Or at least buy them some time," Jankovic replied.
"I knew it!" Roth said. "There's our catch."
"I don't know...!" Habich said. "It does sound a bit... far-fetched." Before Weidner had to reason with him more, he went on. "In any case I'd still suggest we turn back."
A short silence ensued in the tent. Jankovic was done with his dinner by now and ended it.
"I can try talking to Schiefer. Maybe he'll listen to me," he said with crossed arms. He got up to go do that right away.
Before he could leave, Weidner turned to him one last time.
"Isn't that a bit rushed...?" he said.
Jankovic just looked at him silently for a moment. His expression was worried.
"Do you have a better idea?" he eventually asked. "Dead men are given medals, not promotions."
Weidner dropped his gaze.
"You're right..." he said hesitantly. He and the other Panther commanders stayed behind as Jankovic left the tent.
Jankovic didn't have to search for long before he found Schiefer. He was standing next to one of the trucks and talking to one of the soldiers. Said soldier walked off as the Stabsfeldwebel reached them.
"Herr Major," Jankovic said with a nod.
"What can I do for you?" Schiefer asked. He seemed to be in a foul mood but didn't take it out on his visitor for now. Only his voice was rough. Jankovic wasn't deterred and got straight to the point - or rather straight for his standards, at least.
"It's about the mission," he said in a serious voice.
"You too?" he asked. Obviously Jankovic wasn't the first person to address the matter. He guessed that he also wasn't the first person to suggest what he was about to suggest.
"I think it's a bad idea to-" he began to say, but Schiefer didn't let him finish.
"If you're trying to say that we should turn back, I want you to know that we won't be doing anything of the sort," he said. He must have had enough of standing around in the rain and set himself into motion. He set a brisk pace, but Jankovic followed him and wasn't shaken off.
"If the second unit doesn't join us and we continue the mission, we're taking a big risk. Human lives are on the line."
"We're at war. At war, human lives are always on the line," Schiefer retorted stoically.
Jankovic wanted to say something else, but three men appeared before them. They had been waiting in front of Schiefer's tent and now turned around as the Major approached them. Judging by their dark expressions, the three StuG commanders weren't here to have a pleasant chat.
"Schiefer!" the platoon leader shouted.
"Herr Major Schiefer," the addressed man corrected him sternly. He halted as he and Jankovic reached the commanders. They also didn't beat around the bush.
"We want to turn back!"
Schiefer looked at Jankovic, then at the other present people, and seemed like he couldn't believe what was happening before his eyes.
"There is no turning back!" he barked.
Jankovic wasn't quick-witted enough to keep his mouth shut now.
"You really should recons-" he tried to say.
"And you should break your habit of talking back!" Schiefer shouted at him. "I certainly won't risk my superiors beheading me! And even if no one shows up here, we'll continue on!"
The platoon leader of the StuGs looked like he was about to say something for a moment, but then obviously changed his mind. He and his companions must have realized that this was one of the moments where they shouldn't overestimate their luck.
Schiefer glared at Jankovic for a moment longer and then threw a furious look at the other commanders as well, before marching straight past them and disappearing into his tent without another word.
Jankovic remained where he was and looked after the chief with a puzzled expression. The StuG commanders also looked at each other, seeming thrown for a loop as well.
"I told ya," one of them mumbled.
"Bah!" the platoon leader shouted and set himself into motion. The other two trotted after him.
Jankovic also didn't stick around any longer and returned to where he had come from.
His friends already awaited him. The mood in the tent was gloomy. Roth and Habich were talking to each other quietly as Jankovic was entering the tent. They fell silent when he sat down. All eyes were on him.
"We're not turning back," he said.
"I didn't think Schiefer would allow it," she said.
"He didn't want to listen."
Habich rubbed his cheek and averted his eyes.
"That's... regrettable," he said.
"He is incredibly reason-proof," Jankovic added. He had to think of his failed attempt to convince Schiefer to not sacrifice the Panzer IV/70.
"There's gotta be something we can do. I don't feel like ending up as cannon fodder," Roth said sourly.
"No, there's nothing," Weidner said with crossed arms. "We can talk as much as we want here. Volker already said it. We're not the ones in charge. Schiefer is the chief and if we have a problem with him leading us to our death, then there's only one thing we can do."
"And what would that be?" Roth asked.
Rainer stood before his sister and looked at her with bewilderment. Sarah avoided his gaze and pulled her knees closer to her chest, her back resting against the wheels of her tank.
"It's our only chance..." she said.
"We can't do that...!" Rainer insisted. "Where would we go? Should we hide for the rest of our lives?" His expression turned fearful. "Can you imagine what they'll do to us if they find us?"
"Maybe the Russians would-"
"They'd kill us or worse!"
Sarah fell silent for a moment. She suddenly felt close to tears. Her cheeks were already wet from the rain anyway, but she lowered her head anyway to hide her face behind her bangs.
"I'm afraid..." she whined quietly. "I don't want to die...!"
"We won't die!" Rainer tried to calm her down. "They'll arrive soon, I'm sure. And even if they don't, we'll make it through this somehow anyway. The Herr Major knows what he's doing!" He didn't sound like he really believed all of this, even if he really wanted to. "And what about Peter? Do you want to leave him behind?"
"He can come with-"
A new idea made Sarah look up again.
"Maybe... Maybe we'll turn back," she said hopefully.
Rainer nodded eagerly.
"Right! If things start looking bad for us, the mission will be cancelled for sure. We don't have to worry about it at all!" He wrestled a smile from himself. "Everything will be alright."
Sarah returned his smile. She hoped that he'd end up being right.
Rainer bent down and held out his hand.
"Now come back into the tent before you catch a cold," he said. Sarah accepted his help and the two returned to their comrades.