"See? It wasn't that hard," Jankovic said with a smile. He stood up and dusted off his clothes. "Next time you can do it alone."
Sarah just looked at the floor sheepishly. She was very out of breath. Handling the heavy track links was of course much more difficult for her than it was for Jankovic, who wasn't struggling with them at all.
Rainer and the third commander, Peter, had helped as well and thanked Jankovic again before they went about putting the tools away. The rest of the Panzer IV/70 crew members had formed a half circle around the tank destroyer and watched with interest while the commanders had repaired the track. The small crowd slowly dissolved as everyone went back to their previous tasks.
Sarah, Peter, and Rainer also went about packing their things. The Kampfgruppe was about to strike the camp.
Jankovic grabbed his things and strolled to the Jagdtiger, which was now parked at the border of the field.
The rain had finally stopped in the morning and now in the early afternoon the ground was at least dry enough that Jankovic's crew had managed to free their tank. The Major had already gotten impatient, but Jankovic had explained to him that this process couldn't be accelerated. He had gotten the impression that Schiefer was now less enthralled by the Jagditger than before, but he didn't pay it much mind. Jagdtigers were mighty war machines, but everything had its price and disadvantages.
On the other hand, Jankovic understood the Major's worries. "We're losing valuable time!" he had said, and he was right. The second unit was probably already waiting for them - if they hadn't been held up as well. At the same time, the Russians were approaching.
The folding chair that Jankovic was sitting on was outrageously comfortable. It invited to lean back and relax. Nevertheless, Jankovic was sitting up straighter than usual. He found it hard to relax when he was sitting in Schiefer's tent, its owner just across the table. Of course he tried not to let this show too much; he also tried to focus on the conversation instead of the man he was having it with.
He hadn't been keen on this talk, but he understood that someone had to have it. This someone was him, being the highest-ranking NCO.
Schiefer on the other hand had leant back indeed, hands folded on top of his belt.
"And if that doesn't work out, we'll still have the PaKs," he said.
He had spent the past 30 minutes explaining every detail of his combat plan for the battle against the Russian unit. He seemed to have thought of literally everything. The plan was so complex and took into account so many different scenarios that Jankovic's head had started spinning after a few minutes already. It was frankly impressive how much of a plan there was with how little information about the enemy force they had.
"So? What do you think?" Schiefer asked finally.
Jankovic had already started asking himself why he had been called here if he wasn't going to be asked for his opinion anyway. He had expected being involved in the creation of the plan, but that didn't seem to be what Schiefer had in mind. At least now he was given a little say, if very late. For a moment Jankovic considered just telling him that he disapproved of the plan completely. That wasn't the truth, but Schiefer's face would have been priceless for sure. Of course he decided against it.
"No objections," he replied.
Schiefer nodded, seemed satisfied.
"Of course there would be an alternative...," he then said.
Jankovic's immediate fear rang true: The whole thing started over as the Major started reciting his backup plan. That one was even more complicated than the first one, even though Jankovic hadn't thought that to be possible.
Only when the second plan was also fully explained, Jankovic noticed that the two plans had something in common. He frowned.
"What role do the Panzer IVs have in this?" he asked. He had suddenly realized that Schiefer hadn't mentioned them at all both times.
"We can't rely on them. They'd hurt us more than they'd help us. At best, they're suitable to be cannon fodder."
Jankovic couldn't stop his features from forming a shocked expression.
"But...!" he began to say. He fell silent for a moment as he tried to regain his composure. Schiefer raised a brow with apparent interest. Jankovic had to choose his next words wisely.
"Herr Major... With all due respect - the crews may not be the most experienced, but with proper guidance-"
Schiefer cut him off with a dismissive gesture.
"And who should be taking care of that? Who has the time to look after a bunch of children while in combat?"
If Jankovic had been more temperamental, he would have started seething now. He was upset nevertheless, but didn't give in to the temptation of showing that openly. He didn't answer Schiefer's rhetorical question; instead he decided to play dumb.
"Wasn't it you who requested this platoon?" he asked matter-of-factly.
Schiefer's expression grew darker in a dramatic fashion.
"They neglected to mention what these crews are actually made of. I was under the impression they'd send competent soldiers, not some kids who are still wet behind the ears. And on top of that a..."
He trailed off with a grumpy "Hmph", as if he had already given up getting mad about these facts. Jankovic slowly started getting a suspicion that the superiors hadn't been that concerned with telling the truth in this case. That raised the concerning question of if there were more things that had been sugarcoated a little. In any case he was disgusted by the way someone could just rid himself of other humans in such a calculating and ruthless way. Schiefer didn't even want to give them a chance to prove themselves. And most importantly: Sacrificing three fully functional tanks was simply foolish.
Jankovic started another attempt at maybe bringing Schiefer to reason after all.
"I could-" he began to say, but Schiefer seemed to already know what he wanted to say and interrupted again.
"Certainly not!" the Major said sternly. "You should focus on your own tank."
Jankovic was irritated by Schiefer apparently assuming he couldn't look after himself while also taking command of other tanks; he had done this countless times before. He may not be a master strategist, but neither was he a common soldier without any leadership qualities. His rank hadn't been gifted to him.
"For my company I have been in charge of multiple platoons many times," he said with tediously kept calm.
"This isn't your company," Schiefer snapped. He seemed to be losing his patience with this stubborn man.
Jankovic didn't know what to say anymore. Schiefer went on.
"You are not responsible for the Panzer IVs. Do you understand?"
Jankovic dropped his gaze.
"Jawohl, Herr Major."
Schiefer's mind couldn't be changed.
"And the things we discussed will stay in this tent, obviously," he said.
"Obviously," Jankovic replied.
He looked up again as steps approached. A soldier entered the tent.
"Herr Major Schiefer, Herr Stabsfeldwebel," he said and saluted.
Schiefer tilted his head with a slightly irritated expression.
"Finally...! What took you so long?" he asked.
The soldier looked down for a moment, but in a sheepish way. But Schiefer didn't even seem all that interested in the actual reason for the delay.
"So? What did they say?" he asked on.
"They reassured us that the unit has continued on its way in the expected direction," the soldier replied. He pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket. He unfolded it and showed it to Schiefer, who grabbed it and put it on the table. It was a map, on which two points and a line were marked. The markings were self-explanatory.
Schiefer spoke to the soldier again without taking his eyes off the map.
"How old is this map?"
"The intel is from last night."
"I see. Anything else?"
"No, Herr Major," the soldier replied.
The soldier saluted and left the tent. Schiefer waited until he was gone before he spoke on.
"I was hoping the storm kept them up as well..." he said with an unhappy frown. "We will have to intercept them at a different spot than planned." He didn't seem all too distressed by this fact, which is why Jankovic assumed he had thought of this case as well. He scrutinized the map for a while and then looked up again. "We should meet them tomorrow evening if nothing else comes up."
Jankovic nodded. Until then they would have met the second German unit already. The meeting point wasn't far away anymore - they would reach it in a few hours.
Schiefer leaned back again and crossed his arms. He was obviously thinking about something and briefly after also shared these thoughts.
"Russian vermin, and traitors on top of it. Perverse," he said with a pejorative snort. He was talking about the farmers that he had sent his soldiers to. It wasn't just regular Russian farmers; they were collaborating with the Germans.
Jankovic thoughtfully averted his eyes. Schiefer seemed to be waiting for him to also speak. But when no reply followed, he eventually changed the topic.
"You're from this... Tsenka. Where is that anyway?" he asked.
"Yugoslavia," Jankovic said. Schiefer whistled, seemingly impressed.
"That's pretty far away, isn't it? How did you end up in Germany? How long have you been here? Your German is flawless."
Jankovic didn't really have any desire to tell this man his history. But he also suspected that Schiefer wouldn't be satisfied with an evasive answer.
"My mother was German. She travelled a lot when she was young," he said hesitantly. "Eventually she met my father in Belgrade and married him soon after."
"And why did you come to Germany?"
"I may have grown up in Yugoslavia, but my heart was always German." Jankovic shrugged. "That's why I migrated when I turned 18 years old. That was 20 years ago."
"You say 'I'. Does that mean your family didn't come with you?"
"No, they didn't," Jankovic said. After a short contemplation he added, "We haven't been in contact for a long time."
He immediately regretted saying that, because now Schiefer obviously wanted to know more.
"Why?" he asked.
But Jankovic had already said more than he had wanted to give away in the first place. Schiefer didn't need to know that the contact had only stopped after the war had begun.
"It's a long story," he said cryptically and with that, the topic was concluded for him. Luckily, Schiefer seemed to understand that the distant tone of voice meant that he wouldn't pry any more info out of Jankovic - even though he obviously had further questions still.
"Well," he said finally. "Everything has been discussed that I wanted to discuss."
Jankovic was infinitely grateful that he was finally allowed to get up and leave.
"Are we there yet?"
Bachmeier had propped up his legs and looked at Weidner with a sour expression. Weidner returned the look with a glare.
"If you ask this one more time, I'll throw you out of the tank..." he growled.
The loader tried to intervene - like the times before.
"It can't be much longer," he said with a glance at his watch. Weidner had heard this sentence too many times already that evening. He looked to the radioman.
"If you would stop your private chatter for a moment," he said with exasperation, "we could perhaps ask about how far it is still." But the radioman didn't hear him.
Weidner twirled the yet unlit cigarette between his fingers. He had promised Emma to smoke less, but that was a difficult endeavour when he had to deal with this bunch.
"Whatever," he said to himself. A few moments later he had a good view of the Kampfgruppe, leaning against the edge of his cupola with the now lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth. The dreary landscape was the same they had been crossing the entire day.
Weidner grabbed his binocs and tried to find any sort of landmark, but was disappointed. Shouldn't there be a camp somewhere?
He tried to ignore the ominous feeling that was creeping up on him.
'Don't be paranoid,' he thought and put away the binocs. He looked up into the sky as some raindrops landed on him.
The dark clouds loomed above the convoy; only a select few rays of light from the setting sun pierced them. The last thing they'd need right now was another cloudburst. But this time, the raindrops stopped falling already after only a few minutes. Weidner breathed a sigh of relief. Before he could light another cigarette, he saw that the soldiers further in front were halting. The rest of the Kampfgruppe did the same.
Weidner put the cigarette behind his ear and climbed out of his tank as it stopped as well. His crew followed him and the rest of the platoon also appeared from inside their Panthers.
"What's going on over there?" Weidner asked the other commanders. Habich shrugged.
"We will find out in a moment," he said.
They elbowed their way past the infantrymen to reach the front, where they suspected to find Schiefer. As they reached him, he was surrounded by men who obviously wanted to know the same as the Panther commanders.
Weidner listened to the conversation.
Schiefer said that they had reached the meeting point. He couldn't answer the question where the other unit was. Weidner had heard enough. He felt the gazes of the other commanders and crew members and turned around.
"Marvelous," he said.