November 30, 1941
Above St. Lo, Western France
"Soldaten!" The captain shouted, waking the recruits from their idle banter. "Stand up! Recite the parachutist's laws!" The bunch of young paratroopers stood as one and bellowed the Ten Commandments of the Fallschirmjaegers as one roaring voice that drowned out the drone of the Junkers Ju-52's three engines
"We are the elite of the German Air Force! For us, combat shall be fulfillment. We shall seek it out and train ourselves to stand any test!
"Cultivate true comradeship, for together with our comrades we will triumph or die!
"We will be shy of speech and incorruptible. Men act, women chatter; chatter will bring me to my grave!
"Calm and caution, vigor and determination, valor and a fanatical offensive spirit will make me superior in attack!"
"In facing the foe, ammunition is the most precious thing. He, who shoots uselessly, merely to reassure himself, is a man without guts. He is a weakling and does not deserve the title of Fallschirmjaeger!"
"Never surrender. My honor lies in Victory or Death!"
"Only with good weapons can I have success. So look after them on the principle-first my weapons, then myself!"
"I must grasp the full meaning of an operation so that, should my leader fall by the way, I can carry it out with coolness and caution!"
"Fight chivalrously against an honest foe; armed irregulars deserve no quarter!"
"I will keep my eyes wide open. I will tune myself to the top most pitch. I will be as nimble as a Prussian greyhound, as tough as Elbe leather, as hard as Krupp steel and so I shall become the German warrior incarnate!"
The captain nodded his approval "Well done! I'll be damn proud when I tell the big shots in Berlin that I led such a fine group as you!" And laughed gustily as the jump light turned first red, than green. "Now go make Germany proud and scare the piss out of that British rabble down there!" The paratroopers all cried their war cries as they leapt out of the aircraft, their parachutes pulling open in the cold predawn darkness.
Feldwebel (Sergeant) Wilhelm "Willi" Ulrich breathed in his first taste of French morning air as he checked his personal equipment. His jump gear included a first aid kit, three Stielhandgranaten stick grenades, emergency rations, a German-French dictionary, and his personal souvenir from his father: a powerful Finnish-made Lahti L-35 7.65x45 handgun. He buckled his knees just before he hit the ground, and found it much less painful than the hard packed dirt back home. Folding his chute hurriedly, Willi looked around for his comrades, noticing he had landed in an abandoned apple orchard. A low whistle drew his attention to the jump squad's Scharfschutze, or sharp-shooter, a 23-year-old Russian-German named Johann Stechkin. "Hey, Willi, seen any gunboxes?" He whispered, his little round glasses catching the moonlight. As was standard for German parachutists, both soldiers carried only pistols and grenades. The rifles and machine pistols were dropped in large canisters, one of which Willi could see sticking out of the soft ground about fifty feet away. "There's one of them over there. Let's collect some gear and then go look for the others." Making sure the Lahti was loaded and cocked; Willi went first, his almost-preternatural night vision scanning the dark orchard. Reaching the box, Johann breathed a little sigh of relief when he saw that it contained his modified Mauser K-98 bolt-action sniper rifle with a 10-power Zeiss scope. Willi slung an MP-40 machine pistol over his shoulder and scooped up a 'Kurz', or 'short', K-98. The two commandos then advanced slowly through the orchard. Everything was dead quite, save for a fox that startled the both of them by darting across their path. Johann spotted a light up ahead, and the two split and stalked forward, ready for a firefight. It was a small farmhouse and barn, both easily a hundred years old by the look of the broken and moss-covered stone walls. The light came from a roaring bonfire, around which six British foot soldiers stood or sat, talking loudly and raucously complaining of the cold. Willi had to stifle a grin at the stupidity of the enemy. Their weapons were out of reach, they had obviously been drinking a lot, and there were no perimeter guards! Johann signaled that he could easily kill all six, but Willi gestured for him to fall back and cover him if the shooting started. Once Johann had vanished into the ancient trees, Willi whistled! Loud and shrill, it made the entire lot look drunkenly about. One, a sergeant who was obviously in command, spoke up. "'Ere, wass all that buggerin' noise?! Oy, Charlie! Go check it out!" Charlie staggered upright and began to slowly meander into the darkness, towards Willi's position. Once he was close enough, Willi stepped out from behind the tree he had hidden behind and let his left hand fly out straight. Charlie never even made a sound before the razor-sharp gravity knife's blade hit with a rotten thunk! Between his eyes. In quick succession, using almost automatic fire, Johann fired five shots, all of them hitting the British soldiers in the head. Out of the darkness behind the old barn, Unteroffizier, or Corporal, Otto Mandlebaum, strolled forward, a Machinegewher (machine gun) MG-34 cradled like a hunting gun in the crook of his arm and spoke with a mock-angry tone. "You're both poor sports, those kills were mine!" Willi laughed and Johann slapped him on the back before vanishing into the darkness, the chuckling Otto in tow with his 'buzzsaw'.
Otto lead the two back to where he had retrieved his MG-34 which, according to the operation map, was where everybody was supposed to gather. "I think that we should make for the mission's objective and do what we can." Said Otto, obviously nervous about not relying on a higher-ranking officer to verify his ideas. Willi looked at the map, which marked the objective as a small farm being used as an anti-aircraft position by the French 3004th Motor Artillery Brigade. "Shouldn't be too hard." Was Johann's view on the subject, so the mini-squad set out? By the time they had covered the mile-and-a-half to the target, the sun was breaking over the horizon. "That's good," Willi observed. "That's means the French will be looking into the sun." Along the way, their numbers had swelled to six with the discovery of Zugfuhrer (Platoon Leader) Alfred Riesman and two Gefreiters whose names Willi didn't know. All three were armed with captured British Webley pistols and Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifles. Riesman was a rail-thin veteran of the early Nazi Party's Sturmabteilung rallies who had narrowly avoided the Night of the Long Knives by joining Otto Skorzeny's fledgling Special Forces. Often mistaken for humorless by his superiors and strangers, he was affable and flexible in all weather and situations. He had reported that Captain Metternich had been shot out of the sky by some sharp-eyed British guard, and that this now placed him in command of however many of the original thirty Fallschirmjaegers dropped had survived. The six then continued on to the farm, coming to a wooded hill which provided an excellent place to survey the target. Four twenty-millimeter British-made Vickers automatic cannons were clumped together in the middle of the farm, with a series of trucks and barriers formed into a rough circle around the guns, fuel, and ammunition. It reminded Willi of settlers circling the wagons in an American cowboy movie. Riesman tapped Johann and pointed out the large pile of ammunition caissons and fuel barrels arranged foolishly in the midst of the guns. Johann nodded and settled his rifle into the crook of a tree. Willi watched with fascination as Johann's body became rock-still and his finger gently squeezed the trigger. There was a faraway ping-FOOOOM! As the ammunition and fuel blew sky-high, taking the guns, the trucks, and the majority of the soldiers assigned to the post. The remainders were picked off at Johann's leisure, and the six soon moved down to the smoking ruin of a farm to size up the damage. "Check the houses!" Riesman said as he turned over the body of what had been the battery commander. Willi and one of the unnamed privates kicked open the door of the large three-story stone house. Willi found a small family, obviously caretakers for the house, hiding in the basement kitchen. "Ne pas tirer!" The man cried, covering his family with his body. Willi quickly remembered his French and pointed his gun up, trying to not look so frightening. He handed his chocolate ration to the children, saying in a soothing tone: "Le c'est bien, je ne vous blessarai pas." It's alright, I won't hurt you. The family seemed to relax slightly, and the children happily munched the small bit of chocolate. Willi left the other private with the family and continued searching the house. Other staff had concealed themselves throughout the house, but Willi merely sent them outside with reassurances they would not be harmed. As he moved through the final unsearched room, which was the master bedroom, he heard a noise come out of the massive walk-in closet. He flicked on the light just in time to see a large grey-haired woman raise an ancient Winchester shotgun. Willi dodged behind the door as the weapon spouted fire with a deep KA-WOOM and destroyed the far wall. Drawing the Lahti, he heard the old woman cursing in rural French vernacular as she struggled to reload the old gun. Willi jumped out, just in time to point his gun as she pointed hers. "Mettre le fusil!" Put the gun down! The woman had fire in her eyes and rock-steady hands, and Willi had no doubt he was going to be blown in half if he made a move. "Jamais! Sortir de cette maison!" Never! Get out of this house! Willi decided discretion was the better part of valor and slowly holstered his gun, backing away with his hands up. She shuffled out after him, her gun still leveled at his navel. The private he had left in charge of the family downstairs suddenly burst into the room. Without a pause, the old woman swiveled the gun barrel and unleashed both barrels into the unfortunate private. Her gun now unloaded, Willi leaped on her back and attempted to wrestle away the gun. He succeeded, and immediately prodded the irate woman downstairs to join the other French. While Johann and the others dealt with the family, Willi fought his dread at what he would find and went to check on the private. He seemed to be dead, but then Willi noticed that he was still breathing, but in a trauma-induced sleep. "Johann! Make up a stretcher and grab a first-aid kit!" Willi shouted, he had originally been trained as a combat medic before being transferred to the role of rifleman. It turned out that most of the deadly blast that ricocheted off the doorframe and only caused superficial cuts, but some pellets had completely torn off the little and ring fingers of his right hand. Johann arrived and the two gently carried him downstairs, where Willi used his meager medical supplies to clean, sterilize, and suture the finger stumps and remove most of the splinters and ricochets. The private awakened three hours later, complaining of the itch caused by the crude sutures in his fingers and the dozens of splinter injuries. "What's your name, soldier?" Asked Willi. The boy looked up from the bed he was lying in. "I'm Josef Keitel!" Riesman, looking genuinely surprised, widened his eyes. "My God, Willi! You just saved Field Marshall Keitel's son!"
Four days later
Farm outside of St. Lo
The main bulk of the German blitzkrieg or 'lightning war' attacks vaporized the British and French defenses in days, and there was no happier feeling than the day that the first Panzerkampfwagen Ausf B 'Panzer 4' from Rommel's 7th Panzers, the 'Ghost Division', rolled over the horizon and a young, grinning tank commander popped the hatch and dispersed a huge bundle of rations and ammunition. The rest of the missing men, 23 in all, had eventually found their way to the farm and had enjoyed the four days of relative comfort. "There's a special command truck comin' up tomorrow from Paris!" The tanker said cheerily to Riesman. "Command heard about Private Keitel from that motorcycle messenger that passed through, and the Feldmarschall and Standartenfuhrer Otto Skorzeny himself want to meet the medic that saved his life." Willi could hardly believe his ears. A sergeant and he were going to meet the legendary commander of the German Special Forces! The tank left to rejoin its comrades, leaving the food to be shared out and even cooked by the French staff of the household. Rather than evacuating as Willi and Riesman had suggested, they had stayed faithfully in their former master's house and voluntarily cooked for the Germans. Even the old woman who had nearly killed Private Keitel, revealed to be the Frenchman's mother, now had a grudging rapport with Riesman and Willi. Trucks filled with regular Wehrmacht grunts rumbled past night and day, the men whooping and singing 'Horst Wessel Lied' as they waved to the Fallschirmjaegers. As Riesman put it; if Otto Skorzeny and Erwin Rommel were gods among the infantry, than the paratroopers were the two great leader's angels, or valkyries, if you were into Wagner. The special truck arrived two days late, and the bullet pocks told Willi, who was turned out in a freshly-cleaned field tunic, that the French Maquis resistance was still not entirely pacified. There was dead silence as the men stood at tight attention. The French family sat on the front porch of the farmhouse and watched silently, all save for Jean and Jacques, the two youngest children. They had taken to following Willi and Riesman, so they stood at attention in the back row, not wanting to embarrass who they perceived as their new friends. There was the thump of dress jackboots hitting the ground, and the scarred, seemingly eternally-grinning face of Colonel Otto Skorzeny surveyed the lines of troops. He did not, in fact, wear a dress uniform, but instead wore a stained and wrinkled Rauchtarnmuster camouflage field blouse. His only indication of rank was his three silver SS pips and the owl's-head patch of the German Special Forces on the side of his field hat. Behind him, Field Marshall Jorge Keitel stood resplendent in a pristine dove-grey uniform. Private Keitel, his hand wrapped in fresh gauze, proudly saluted before embracing his father. After the introductions, Skorzeny spoke in his thick Swabian-accented voice. "May we retire to that charming little farmhouse?" Riesman and Willi followed Skorzeny and both Keitels into the farmhouse. Skorzeny removed his Rauchtarnmuster and hung it on a coat peg, revealing a field green wool coat. He settled back into one of the many cushioned easy chairs and lit up a small pipe. Field Marshall Keitel sat down beside him, also removing his own black leather greatcoat. "So," said Skorzeny, his gaze never leaving Willi's face. "You are the man that treated Private Keitel?" Willi nodded, along with Private Keitel himself. Private Keitel spoke up excitedly. "He did! He saved my…" Skorzeny raised his hand in the universal 'shut up' gesture. It didn't matter if Keitel's father was God; he was still a mere private in Skorzeny's eyes right now. "Admirable, admirable. Was this your first battle action, Sergeant Ulrich?" "Yes, sir!" Willi said. Skorzeny puffed on his pipe and nodded to Keitel Senior, who stood up and walked across the room to Willi. "I want to thank the both of you, but not as a superior to his soldiers." He handed two pieces of rolled paper to Willi and Riesman. "These are special promotions that add two promotions to whatever you have now. I hope its enough thanks." Both paratroopers saluted smartly and shook Keitel Senior's hand. Skorzeny, still reclining, drew two Iron Crosses and the rank patches from his pocket and skimmed them across the table to the two. The crosses were first classes, and were the most beautiful things Willi had ever seen. He had dreamed of earning one of these since his first day in the Fallschirmjaegers. The promotions made him a captain and made Riesman a lieutenant, and were plenty impressive on their own right. Skorzeny stood and wordlessly gestured for Keitel Senior to follow. "Well, I must go. Thank you for saving my son, captain." As the two commanders left, Willi thought being called 'captain' by Keitel Senior was the greatest honor a man could earn.
Fallschirmjaeger Captain Wilhelm Ulrich cursed the baleful eye of the sun that now glared down on his men. There was plenty of shade, this part of Germany's former colonies was famous for their lush tropical jungles, but the unluckily stranded lorry had decided to die in the blazing sun. Willi puffed and blowed as he shoved his shoulder into the three-ton dead weight. From the shade of a colonial-era ruin nearby, the crew and passengers of the lorry, SS-Leibstandarte infantry, idly chatted amongst themselves, casting snide remarks about the paratroopers who toiled in the sun. Johann Stechkin, now a sergeant, sat down heavily with his back against the truck. "It's no use, Willi! We're gonna have to call a tank and pull it out." Willi glared pointedly at the clean-shaven, arrogant SS men in the shade. "You're right, Johann. Screw it and let the SS deal with it!" The paratroopers gathered their gear and began to walk away, down the road to the main headquarters of Afrika Korps Command Group East. "Hey, dog soldiers! What do you think you are doing? Get back here and get this truck moving!" Willi turned slowly to see a young SS lieutenant pointing at the truck, a brand-new MP43 semi-automatic rifle leveled one-handed at Willi. "You will get that truck moving, captain! The SS are not to be trifled with!" Willi merely smiled at the irate lieutenant. "Oh, you won't have to worry about the truck anymore." The SS man looked around as the paratroopers dropped onto the sand. "Whoa..?" BOOOM!! The truck went up in a column of flame from the small limpet mine Willi had planted. As the dust and sound settled, the spluttering, coughing SS man picked himself up and shrieked with rage at Willi. "You bastard! You elitist, conniving, untermenschen BASTARD!" Willi dusted himself off and helped himself to the lieutenant's dropped MP43 rifle. The man began blubbering, the tears of rage and fear soaking his dust-stained uniform. The rest of his men were standing around, dazed from the explosion, watching their leader throw a temper tantrum. Johann slapped the SS man lightly across the face. "Knock it off! That thing was beyond all hope anyway!" He continued crying. "But…but what are we supposed to do now??" Willi pointed at his own men, already marching off down the road. "You walk with us, or are you too good of soldiers for that?" The SS infantry shuffled off down the road, followed by their sniffling leader.
"Nice way you handled Hitler's pets, Willi." Said Johann, after the paratroopers had gotten far ahead of the SS. Willi chuckled and glanced back at the minute figures of the SS men. "Yeah…nice gun that one fellow had, though." Willi still carried the MP43, and was admiring the light weight and 20-round box magazine. The group walked into Command Group East just as the sun was setting in a blaze of orange fire. Hundreds of Axis soldiers, from local askaris and Italian armor troops to Vichy French, Hungarian and Polish SS volunteers, were all crowded around the massive colonial mansion that housed the commanders. The paratroopers drew looks of respect from every soldier as they headed for the steps. Willi left Johann and the others on the front steps, the unit taking up stations like statues up either side of the steps. Inside, Willi removed his dark green field hat and approached a harried-looking secretary. "State your rank, unit, and business, Captain! I'm a busy man!" Willi came to attention and replied sharply. "Captain Wilhelm Ulrich, Commander 1st Fallschirmjaeger Assault Platoon. I'm here to see Colonel Gelser." The secretary scribbled something in shorthand and pointed at two magnificent carved-oak doors. "Yes, yes. He's in there, talking with Field Marshall Rommel." Willi immediately checked his kit in a window reflection, making sure he looked halfway presentable for the Desert Fox himself. The two doors swung open, and Willi entered the most beautifully-appointed room he had seen since France in 1941. At a fully-stocked bar, obviously English from the Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire, sat Erwin 'Desert Fox' Rommel. He had the look of a veteran foot soldier, and the harsh African sun had tanned his face bronze. Behind the bar, in the process of pouring Rommel another drink, was Willi own leader. Blonde, dashingly handsome, and possessed of a rare sharp wit, Oberst Aldo Gelser smiled when he looked up and saw Willi standing at sharp attention. "Captain! You've arrived at last! Come and pour yourself a drink, there's someone I'd like you to meet." Willi tentatively walked to the bar and poured himself a small shot of Beefeater. "Erwin, I'd like you to meet the man who single-handedly drove the British and French out of German East Africa, Fallschirmjaeger Captain Willi Ulrich!" Rommel's ice-blue eyes scanned Willi up and down, lighting on the Iron Cross First Class and the campaign cuff titles from France, Crete, and Operation Barbarossa. "Seems like you've got quite the record, captain. You're the one that captured Stalin at Moscow, right?" Willi's look of surprise was enough for Rommel to laugh and clap him on the shoulder. "Corporal Otto Mandlebaum is my favorite nephew; he told me all about it." Otto had carried his MG34 and had run alongside Willi from that farmhouse in France to the very doors of Stalin's private bunker in Moscow, and had proved himself as one of the most brave and loyal men Willi had ever met. He had been hit in the leg by a Russian sniper in Leningrad during the mop-up after Russia's defeat in 1941 and had been sent home, honorably discharged. Very few knew that Willi had even participated in the Battle for Moscow. Willi stammered out a reply. "Y-yes, sir. That was me!" Rommel smiled again and picked up Willi's discarded MP43 rifle. "Good, good. This is a fine rifle, captain. Not many non-SS units can get them, am I right? How'd you get it?" Willi calmly explained the incident with the truck and the SS-Leibstandarte men. When he was finished, Rommel burst out laughing and gave Willi back the rifle. "I've never liked Hitler's pet divisions myself! Sit, sit, and have a drink with the colonel." Colonel Gelser looked quizzically at Rommel. "You're leaving us, Field Marshal?" Rommel shrugged on a sand-colored officer's coat and stepped toward the door. "Unfortunately, I must go down to Command Group East. Admiral Walther Doenitz from the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and Reichsprotektor-SD Joachim Pieper wanted a full situation detail on these 'Long Range Desert Groups' the English are using. Personally, I'd rather let them figure it out themselves." Chuckling, Rommel belted on his pistol and walked to the double doors. "I'd stay around if I were you, captain. You may hear from me, or maybe you'll hear from others. The war is far from won, and I need men like you and your unit." With that, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel walked out of the plush common room and into the simmering African night.
The next day, as the sun was barely peaking over the tops of the date palms, Willi was up and cleaning the previous day's dust from his field hat. He shivered slightly in the desert night's remaining chill as he watched the compound wake up around him. A group of Croatian SS volunteers had drunk themselves to sleep around midnight, and they were now stumbling about clutching their heads and moaning. Well, thought Willi, they'd best get their uniforms fixed before the SS attaché inspects, or they'll be for it. Others were striding around, yawning and blinking in expectations of another baking tropical day. Johann wandered up, cleaning his glasses studiously. "Morning, Will. Ready for another day in the Reich's section of Hell?" Willi smirked and clapped Johann on the back. "Cheer up, Sergeant! We Fallschirmjaegers already stormed hell once, we're used to it!" Both soldiers laughed heartily as the sun's full blazing glory spilled over the compound walls.
The pair of mirrored sunglasses flashed in the late-morning sun as a sinister visitor stepped out of the dust-covered Maybach-Zeppelin staff car. His high-pitched, imperious, Thüringen-accented voice cut across the stutter of the surprised HQ guard. "Reichsprotektor-SS Reinhardt Heydrich! I am here on official Reich business with Colonel Gelser!" His thick-muscled arm shot out and swiped the frightened guard aside. He stormed into the building, rushing past frightened office staff and a bewildered Johann Stechkin. "COLONEL JULIUS GELSER!" Roared Heydrich as he kicked in the office's oak doors. The colonel was smoking a meerschaum pipe behind his desk as he shot to his feet. "Sir! What is the meaning of this?" Two SS guards with MP44 assault rifles took up positions. "What is this I hear of our brave Leibstandarte men being abused by your Fallschirmjaeger dogs?" Gelser, having gotten over his initial surprise, now reacted coolly and sat back down, continuing to smoke his pipe insolently. "What? The mighty SS-Leibstandarte can't handle its own brethren in the regular army?" Heydrich bared his teeth, spittle flying out. "Don't give me that shit, colonel! A lieutenant reported that he and his men were set upon by men dressed in 1st Fallschirmjaeger Assault Platoon uniforms. They destroyed an SS truck and stole a new MP43 rifle! I demand that you turn them over to me at once!" At that moment, Willi pushed open the door. Flanked by both Johann and a powerfully-built corporal named Kurt Hellmann, he cut a much more impressive figure than the cleaned-and-pressed SS guards who were rudely pushed aside. "I believe, Herr Reichsprotektor, which you are looking for us. I am Captain Wilhelm Ulrich, and I am here to tell you that those Leibstandarte men deserved much more then they got." Heydrich's glasses had slipped off his face, revealing burning orbs of electric-blue hate that attempted to tear holes into Willi's own eyes. Willi coolly held Heydrich's stare for a good fifteen seconds before Heydrich's veneer of fearlessness suddenly cracked and he switched his gaze back to Gelser. "I want these men arrested for insubordination. You will testify against them, or face the consequences." Gelser slowly raised a cocked Mauser C-96 pistol.
Heydrich's eyes went wide for a nanosecond, and then he let out a sickening high-pitched keen of laughter. "Jew-loving fool! Guards!" But his two SS guards had guns pointed at them as well. Silent as wraiths, the rest of Willi's loyal squad had crept up and now surrounded the two with a forest of gun barrels. Heydrich had just enough time to utter: "Fucking Jew-loving traitors...." Before the C-96 spoke and blasted the back of his head off. The two guards fell to their knees, but Gelser ignored them. He blew smoke off the barrel like an American cowboy after a duel as he turned to Willi, who stood rooted in shock. "Any comments, Herr Hauptmann?" Willi looked down at the dead Heydrich, then up at Gelser. "How could you hope to get away with this?!? They'll hunt you down!" Gelser smiled and turned toward the windows, admiring the glint of the midday sun on the small pools that dotted the gardens. "The Reich will not find me. With any luck I'll have the honor of shooting the rest of those twisted monsters in Berlin." Willi and his men heard the sound of approaching German engines. It sounded as though a whole army had just rolled into the compound. "Ever heard of the Valkyrie Organization? Absolutely genius group put together by Rommel and a few other Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe generals after Russia fell. We've found...camps. Terrible things that the bastard Himmler's been up to. We're going to put a stop to it." Willi continued staring at Gelser, even as a familiar, dusty figure strolled into the room, his hobnailed boots clicking on the wood floor. Rommel merely glanced down at Heydrich's corpse before addressing Gelser. "The SS auxiliaries outside are disarmed and pacified. The rest of Valkyrie congratulates you on another step toward the salvation of the Fatherland." Willi broke his stupor. "Herr Feldmarschall! Is it true? The colonel speaks of 'camps' and something monstrous. I don't like Hitler any more than you, but is revolution necessary?" Rommel suddenly looked very old under the layer of dust as he drew a wrinkled photograph from his uniform pocket. "Here. I vowed to carry this when I wondered the same thing." The photo was small, but the image was so clear and horrible that it was instantly seared into Willi's mind until the day he died: corpses piled seemingly to the sky, with a smiling SS guard standing triumphantly atop the pile with a rifle. Below him, a line of near-skeletons, but still living people shuffled past. Children, women, men; they were all alike in a starved, bloody state. Willi let the picture slip from his fingers, where Johann picked it up and, after the same shocked examination, passed it among the rest of the paratroopers. "Is...Is it real?" Willi said after a minute of silence, a tear forming in his left eye. Rommel sighed deeply, as if girding himself for a difficult task. "Yes. It was taken in a place called Auschwitz."
The whole room stood, unmoving and silent, for almost 3 minutes. Then, with pride and sorrow in his eyes and voice, Willi saluted Rommel. "Then we must find this place. It must be wiped out. What are your orders, Herr Feldmarschall?" Rommel smiled. "I'm honored, Hauptmann. Come; you, I, and your Fallschirmjaegers have much to discuss."
Wewelsburg Castle, Western Germany
2 days later
Gruppenfuhrer Otto Skorzeny paced across the Black Sun symbol tiled into the floor. Here, in the SS 'Center of the World', Heinrich Himmler and his cadre of Gruppenfuhrers planned the great 'rebirth and cleansing' if those races they deemed worthy. Skorzeny carried with him the death file of Reinhardt Heydrich. His body, horribly mutilated, had been found lying alongside a road in Italy. Now that the traitorous Rommel and his Afrika Korps had revolted, most of the remaining SS forces had either been wiped out or evacuated to Italy and Sicily. Skorzeny felt great anger and hate rise in him when he learned that the promising young paratrooper he had promoted two years ago had taken his entire division into the traitor's arms. The revolutionaries now possessed both the supplies and the men to strike deep into the Reich if they wanted. Skorzeny's scarred face twisted into a grimace as he thought of how he could use his own Airborne SS to counter these enemies. Before he had worked out the particulars, he was pushing open the great carved oaken doors of Himmler's Ritterseclorum, or Knight's Hall, where the round table that he and his Blood Order of which Skorzeny was a part of sat at. Here, each specially-chosen SS man would meet for planning, occult rituals, great victory feasts, or simple meditation in the dead silence. The Reichsfuhrer-SS was already seated, plucking at his lower lip. Skorzeny recognized this as a sign that Himmler was either nervous or excited. "Herr Skorzeny, please be seated." It came out as theeted, another sign that Himmler was nervous enough that he was lapsing into a childhood lisp. Skorzeny placed the file before his master before taking a seat on the right hand of Himmler. The small, round-faced man's spectacles flashed in the dim torchlight as he opened the file. "Mein Gott! Our comrade the Reichsprotektor has been slain by that brigand Rommel and his traitors!" The other men who sat around the table, invisible in shadow until now, uttered curses. "We shall have them soon enough, mein Herr!" Skorzeny promised, and he meant it. "My Airborne SS has already been ordered to Africa to launch a direct assault on Rommel. He shall not survive the Reich's righteous vengeance!" A snort of disapproval came from Feldgeneral Sepp Dietrich, the legendary commander of SS-Leibstandarte. "My dear colonel! Have you forgotten that those Fallschirmjaegers you so proudly boasted of in 1941 have defected also? Two entire divisions of the best-trained men we've got! Even you Airborne SS are not as capable as they are! According to Admiral Doenitz and the Abwehr (German military intelligence), they're the ones chosen as Rommel's personal guard! They AND the Afrika Korps are possibly the most powerful fighting force that the world has ever seen!" Now it was Joachim Peiper, commander of SS-Das Reich, to interrupt. "No one can stand up to all 10 Germanic-SS divisions! If we attack now, with our great might we will obliterate them!" Himmler raised a hand, and the bickering stopped. "After our losses in Africa and our disorganized garrisoning of the Italian peninsula, we have neither the manpower nor the equipment and transport to mount such an offensive! The Fuhrer has already ordered the auxiliary Italian, French, and Russian SS units to move onto Sicily. Our intelligence goes on to suggest that the Allies, including Rommel's new 'German Republican Army', will launch a massive seaborne invasion of Sicily to use the island as a base for air raids and invasion of Italy." That brought more exclamations and declarations of power from the gathering of commanders. Himmler slammed a clenched fist down on the table, silencing the generals. "Mein Gruppenfuhrers! Either work together, or I'll find NEW Gruppenfuhrers!" The scowls showed that Himmler did not have them completely cowed, but he at least some measure of control. Skorzeny stood, gathered his documents, and raised his right arm to Himmler. "Herr Reichsfuhrer! Please excuse my rude exit, but I must ready my divisions for deployment to Italy!" Himmler waved him away. "Very well, Standartenfuhrer. You have my permission to augment your forces with the auxiliary SS units as you see fit."
Within 2 hours, Skorzeny and his division commanders were in the air, on their way to meet their marshaled forces at Sicily.
Port Said, Tunisia
Colonel Wilhelm Ulrich, along with his second-in-command, Major Johann Stechkin, gazed from the stage out over the sea of assembled faces. Today was the day of what the American general Eisenhower was calling 'the great crusade'. 1000 Fallschirmjaegers, lead by Willi, were to attack and take the city of Salerno. According to the latest intelligence, the city was defended by 2 divisions of Italian infantry and 1 battalion of Croatian 'Handschar Division' mountain SS. This did not present much of a problem for Willi, as he would have access to massive artillery support and an entire American air wing at his disposal. With his confidence raised to the heavens, he stood with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Soldiers! I stand before you, the proudest military commander in history! Never before has such a powerful and righteous fighting force been assembled. You all know of the evil committed by the Nazis and the SS that has soiled the proud name of the Fatherland, and I ask you to fight as you have never fought before! To stand by me as I personally lead you from the skies to descend upon Salerno with a wrath that will extinguish ANY soldier, be they Italian, Croatian or German, that stands in our way. Now let me hear your voices!" Each and every one of the assembled Fallschirmjaegers joined in as the voice of an angry god, a voice that rattled windows and lifted each man's heart into their throats as they all swore to fight with as much courage as the legend that would lead them into battle. "Alright, men! Get to your planes; I'll see you in Salerno!"
It was so much like that first jump into France, Willi thought as he drifted towards the tiled roofs and elegant spires of Salerno. Around him, other Fallschirmjaegers prepared themselves for the task ahead. The strategy was for Johann to lead a separate attack that would take the Cathedral and the Italian HQ, while Willi stormed the Croatian SS headquarters and eliminated the anti-aircraft defenses. He hit the cobblestones and rolled behind a long-abandoned Fiat, releasing his harness and readying his newly-issued FG-44 assault rifle, a shortened version of the MP-44 infantry rifle. His radioman appeared from an alleyway, slinking through the shadows to be at his side while others appeared out of the darkness. Willi's night vision picked out the glow of a lit cigarette in the mouth of a figure standing on a street corner. He wore the fez and sash of the Croatian SS, and he had an MP-40 machine pistol slung casually over his shoulder. So far, all the fighting was across the city near the Cathedral, and had not stirred the majority of the Croats quite yet. Willi made a gesture to one of his men, who drew a wicked-looking kukri and scuttled silently towards the guard. There was a wet spluch, followed by a clatter as the MP-40 hit the ground. The soldier returned, wiping off the kukri before sheathing it again. Willi lead his men up the street, many more pouring from the alleyways and buildings until the sound of jackboots drowned out the gunfire. Several Croatian SS, living up to their reputation for poor training and motivation, broke and fled from the advancing Fallschirmjaegers, while those that didn't were cut down by a wall of gunfire. Turning a corner, the division found themselves facing a hulking concrete structure that flew the black flag of the Handschar Division. Willi suddenly broke into a run, shouting at the top of his lungs to his men. "CHARGE!!!" With a great war cry, the merciless waves of splinter-camouflaged men descended upon the terrified Croats. Willi kept pulling the trigger on his assault carbine until it went empty, replacing the empty magazines with lightning speed. He saw some of his men go down, but even as one would fall, another would grab him by the arms and help him forward. Once inside the HQ, Willi ordered his radioman to send the all-clear to both the Allied high command and Johann's division. Willi continued advancing through the passageways, clearing out every nook and cranny of any Croat resistance.
Meanwhile, Johann and his division had swept away the Italian resistance after a brief firefight with a platoon of Airborne SS that the intelligence hadn't mentioned. This platoon was lead by a towering figure of a man that Johann faintly recognized, but he retreated with the rest of the SS survivors before Johann could get a clear fix on him. He thought nothing of it, being more concerned with signaling the Allied fleets to send the regular infantry ashore. Little did he know that it was in fact Otto Skorzeny and his personal detachment.
Skorzeny was on the verge of panic as he dashed through the streets with his 12 remaining Airborne SS soldiers. He had only three remaining magazines for his automatic rifle, and there was word that their transport, a Junkers Ju-52, had been shot down by a roving British fighter. He was trapped in Salerno. Before the coming day was half-over, the streets would be flooded with Allied troops, and he would be caught and most likely executed like a mad dog. His only hope was to make for the Handschar headquarters, and hope the Croatian troops would listen to him. He and his men rounded the same corner that Willi had rounded a mere hour ago, and found them facing hell. A line of Fallschirmjaegers, stony-faced and silent, stood with rifles leveled directly at Skorzeny's face. He was frightened into silence, his lifelong veneer of fearlessness cracked as he faced the very soldiers that he had plotted to eventually betray, even before their defection. From among the silent throngs of men, a figure draped in shadow stepped forward. In one hand, he carried a frighteningly familiar pistol. Skorzeny found his voice: "Its...it's you...Ulrich!?" Willi's eyes burned with a hatred and disgust as he cocked the Lahti pistol. "Yes, Herr Standartenfuhrer, or is it Gruppenfuhrer now? We've found out everything you and those Nazi monsters have been up to. Let me tell you, Skorzeny, whatever pain I or Allied Command can inflict on you will be nothing compared to the pain and blood that you and the rest of the sick fucks in Berlin owe to the world." Skorzeny attempted to recover some of his self-image. "Ha! Torture? You know as well as anyone that an SS man would rather die, even in the face of torture!" There were two quick shots, and Skorzeny felt a horrible screaming crunch as both of his knees were blown away by the heavy 7.35 jacketed rounds. He collapsed, screaming piteously as the rest of his Airborne SS backed away in horror, their hands raised. Willi walked slowly up to where Skorzeny lay writhing in agony, his pistol still raised. "So, how was that, Skorzeny? You think this is pain? I've met men with the Afrika Korps and the British SOE that would make the pain you feel right now seem like heaven." Skorzeny rolled onto his back, his eyes now glaring with hate as he spat up into Willi's face. Willi's face never changed, even as he wiped off his cheek and aimed the pistol directly at Skorzeny's left eye. "The reason an SS man never surrenders, Skorzeny, is because nobody needs you alive!" The bullet crushed Skorzeny's skull into an unidentifiable pulp. The rest of the assembled Fallschirmjaegers sank to one knee, their heads bowed in the medieval style of reverence to a king. The sun peeked over the horizon, the first rays surrounding Willi in a halo of light. He closed his eyes and breathed in the wonderfully fresh Sicilian air, along with the slight acrid odor of gunpowder. He holstered his Lahti and turned to his men, their heads still bowed. "Rise, brave soldiers of mine! He was just the first. Before the decade is out, we will have the rest of them as well!" They all stood and raised a mighty cheer as the drone of hundreds of Allied transports filled the morning air.
France, Hedgerow Country
1944, D-Day +3
The rumbling vibrations of the Panther tank proved soothing to Willi's aching legs as he sat with his back resting on the warm metal of the turret. Johann sat straddling the big 88 high-velocity main gun, also enjoying the respite from the thick mud that sucked at the infantry's feet. Willi and the rest of the Fallschirmjaegers had hooked up with the famous 7th Panzer Division on the first day of Operation Overlord, sweeping inland with the tidal wave of men and equipment that shattered the frail lines. Willi had felt pity for the tired, untrained boys of the Florian Geyer and Hohenstaufen SS divisions that had been crushed before they had even begun to mount a defense. As he thought of this, and other mysteries of life, he let the vibrations release the tension from his aching back. He reminded himself that nearly five years of jumping out of aircraft and frontline combat were taking their toll. He was still in prime condition, but he now found it harder to shake off hitting the ground or to vault three-foot hedgerows. Johann teased him lightheartedly about it, pointing out that a charge like the one last year at Monte Cassino would take the wind out of anybody.
These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the clang of the tank's driver hatch opening. Oberstluetnant Kurt Singer, veteran of Africa and winner of the Knight's Cross and the American Distinguished Service Cross, appeared with a friendly grin on his youthful face. "Not too much further now, Colonel! You may get to ride Big Max all the way to Berlin, from what I'm hearing from the American spotter planes!" Willi laughed and knocked on the Panther's thick hide. The name certainly fit. "I wouldn't doubt that, Oberst. St. Lorient is a major supply depot, but with the losses coming thick and fast, I doubt there will be much resistance. Especially when they see the friends we brought to play with!" Willi swept his arm behind them. Over a hundred Panthers, modified Tiger 1s, and workhorse Panzer 4s made up the tip of the Allied spearhead that was driving into the heart of Nazi-occupied France. The tank rolled past the burning remnants of an SS-marked lorry. Gaping chunks were torn out of the side armor, and it looked like the three-quarter-ton truck had been flung off the road like a toy. Singer chuckled grimly. "A new British plane called the Supermarine Typhoon. They dropped a huge radial into the Spitfire and gave it 4.8 centimeter rockets and 6 .50 caliber machine guns. Basically, it's a fucking nightmare for any vehicle that doesn't take cover." Willi thought of the terror dealt by Russian IL-2 Sturmovik ground-attack aircraft during Barbarossa. "Worse than anything our Stukas can do, it seems like." Singer nodded his agreement and lit a cigarette. The smoke curled out behind him in the clear, warm morning sunlight. Willi suddenly thought of how badly the invasion would have been hindered had the Allied high command chosen to invade in June, rather than July. The clear weather gave the Allies absolute rule of the air, and it looked to be the same on the ground.
That hope was dashed moments later, when Willi picked out the faint yet distinctive whistle of a Nebelwerfer rocket launcher. "Get off the road!" He yelled to his men. Johann leapt off and into a deep ditch, followed shortly by the rest of the platoon and Willi himself. Singer had barely sealed the hatch when the rocket hit in the field to his left. The notoriously-inaccurate rockets had thankfully gotten no more precise in these past years. Responding with years of experience, Singer kicked the Panther into high gear and roared forward, the gunner active and tracking with the wicked 88. The smoke trail from the rocket, which gave the launcher its nickname of 'fog-thrower', lead Singer and Willi's trained eyes to a copse of trees about two thousand yards ahead of Singer's Panther. Willi waved his men forward as another rocket screamed in, this one falling far to the right. "Come on, Green Devils! You want to walk all the way to St. Lorient?!?" His men screamed war cries as they charged forward, keeping pace with the roaring Panther. The other tank crews followed suit, spreading out and rolling forward. Singer's gunner engaged the battery at eight hundred yards, the slam-crash of the 88 firing mixing with the crying engines and shouting men. The first battery went up in flames, and now Willi could see a second launcher rotating to fire at the oncoming steel beasts. It never got a chance, because now it was Willi's turn. His infantry began firing as they closed the gap. Five hundred, three hundred, one hundred yards! Grenades flew and bullets rained down on the battery, shredding the unfortunate men who tried to pick up their own guns. A few threw up their hands, fear in their eyes as the menacing men and tanks pulled up. Singer appeared, his face blackened from the fumes of fired shells. "Fucking amateurs, Willi! Would they have got in the Wehrmacht when you and I started out?" Willi patted the Nebelwerfer's rust-spotted barrels, marveling that the thing had even fired. "Not a chance! They wouldn't even have made it in the U-Boat fleet with this kind of technical sloppiness!" The prisoners were put in a halftrack to be moved back to HQ, after enduring catcalls and whistles from the paratroopers. "Alright, save it for their boss!" Willi yelled good-naturedly. "Did we lose anyone?" A veteran master sergeant with a heavily-bandaged hand snapped to attention, saluting sharply with his injured hand. "Oberfeldwebel Jurgen Kruger, reporting an injury, sir!" Willi returned the salute, smiling. "Can you hitch a ride with that hand, Kruger?" "I'll try, sir! I wouldn't want to hold up the whole invasion!" Willi climbed aboard the Panther and stretched out a hand, helping the veteran up. "Good man! We need men like you in St. Lorient." The Panther's engines kicked into high gear again, and the whole column started forward. As the soldiers rode down the wide French roads, they sang lusty songs from the barracks, old patriotic songs like "Wacht am Rhein" and "Der Soldat", and crude barroom songs like "Lili Marlene". Even Willi and Johann sang a few of the lines, much to the amusement of their troops. They passed vast fields that had been turned into runways for gliders bursting with American paratroopers and equipment. They were tossed bundles of flowers and bottles of wine and champagne by cheering, weeping farmers who waved tiny Free French flags or wore their old World War 1 uniforms. "It's a hell of a Great Crusade, isn't it?" Shouted Singer above the engines. "They'll make motion-pictures about us, Willi!" Allied soldiers; Americans, Englishmen, Free French, Canadians, and even a company of Free Polish infantry, cheered and waved to the panzers and the riders as they roared ever onward.
Night fell over the ancient river port of St. Lorient, doing nothing to calm Heinrich Himmler's nervous tics and worries. He paced the study of the mayor's house, where he had set up his personal headquarters. He was attended by Standartenfuhrer Oskar Dirlewanger, the infamous commander of the 36th SS Division. Formed as an anti-partisan unit made up of convicted poachers, professional hunters, and the inmates of several prisons and institutions, the unit was reviled among the Wehrmacht and loathed by the rest of the Waffen-SS. Of course, Himmler found a strange kinship with the incredibly-unbalanced Dirlewanger. "What do you propose as a defensive strategy, Standartenfuhrer?" The storklike Dirlewanger fiddled with the collar of his tunic, his eyes darting over the maps of the ever-closer Allied lines. "I suggest we destroy ALL the bridges! And s-s-s-s-strap the fucking p-p-p-partisans to the tank traps! That'll stop the Jews d-dead in their tracks!" Himmler thought of telling Dirlewanger that there were no partisans or Jews for that matter, in St. Lorient, but the man was in a dangerous state. "Herr Standartenfuhrer, what does your division have at our disposal?" Dirlewanger cast a glance out the window, to the parade ground where the 25 Panzer IVs and 4 Tiger Is sat, their engines warming up for the coming maneuvers. "We have an I-I-I-INCREDIBLE force at our disposal, Herr Reichsfuhrer! My men shall swe-swe-sweep the vermin from the face of the earth!" Himmler frowned, looking down at the latest strength estimate for the 7th Panzer Division. It listed 50 Panthers and, lo and behold, that bastard traitor Ulrich and his 'Green Devils' were acting as mechanized infantry this time! With a burst of rage, Himmler knocked over the table, sending the maps and reports flying. Dirlewanger looked at his Reichsfuhrer as if he had gone insane. "P-p-perhaps you should calm down, m-m-mein Herr." Himmler suddenly thought about how funny it would seem later, being told to calm down by the man who routinely molested BDM girls and went into fits of rage where he was apt to kill anybody within arm's reach. "Very well, Standartenfuhrer. You'd better get on the field and lead the counterattack." To his credit, Dirlewanger wasn't lacking enthusiasm. He snapped to attention, his arm shooting out. "Heil Hitler! We shall be victorious, Herr Reichsfuhrer!" He spun about and ran out of the room, where Himmler could hear him shouting some nonsense about air cover.
The spire of St. Lorient's church came into view as dawn was breaking. Willi roused Johann, pointing toward a copse of trees ahead. "I see two gun barrels. Maybe Panzer IVs?" Singer popped up again. "My spotter confirms! Two Mark IVs with their hulls exposed. Shall I give the order to fire?" Willi nodded, covering his ears as two other Panthers opened up, the 88 shells blasting the two Panzer IVs into oblivion. "Staggered order!" Yelled Singer into his radio. "We'll make this the 'Charge of the 7th Cavalry', and REALLY terrify those bastards!" The other tanks assembled like horseback skirmishers, the two command tanks raising small Imperial German flags. Singer had a theatric streak a mile wide, Willi noted as he and the infantry dismounted to follow behind the tanks. Singer appeared atop his turret, giving the old American Cavalry 'charge' signal. The jaws of the watching infantry dropped as the skirmishing line tore ahead, knocking down trees and slaughtering Dirlewanger's hapless infantry. Willi and his soldiers followed the trail left by the panzers, Johann stopping to check the insignia of one dead gunner. "No doubt, Willi! It's the 36th for sure!" Willi grimaced, thinking back to Dirlewanger's dossier. Besides his known pedophilia, the man had ordered his unit to burn dozens of villages to the ground; not as part of military operations, but out of cruelty. Singer's voice crackled out of the field radio. "Now they'll see why I am King Panzer!" The rest was drowned out by the slam-CRASH of 50 Panthers opening up on the defenseless village. A fuel depot blew sky-high almost immediately, a 500-gallon drum flying like a rocket into the clear morning sky. Dirlewanger's men put up a hellacious resistance, crippling two tanks with Panzerfausts that wrecked the tracks. They were then attacked by the Green Devils. The taka-taka-taka of the MP44 assault rifles carried by the paratroopers soon drowned out the pop-pop-pop of the 36th's MP40s and Kar 98s.
Not one man from the hated 36th SS was allowed to live.
As the bloodlust cooled and the tanks sat idling in the rubble-strewn town square, Willi took stock of what exactly they had captured. Reams of paperwork, detailing the supply logistics of the crumbling Waffen-SS, was going to be a gold mine for HQ. There was only one more place Willi wanted to search: the church. With Johann on his left and Singer, armed with an American pump shotgun, on his right, he swung the ancient oaken doors wide. Dust motes whirled as sunlight illuminated the dark interior. "Drag marks." Commented Singer, pointing with the shotgun to the scuffs and scrapes on the dusty floor. "You think Dirlewanger's alone?" Willi's eyes searched the dark recesses and corners, his finger resting lightly on the trigger. "I don't think so. But whoever he has with him isn't a soldier, or he would have ambushed us by now." The three silently moved to the rear of the church, checking behind the great stone altar and in the confessional booths. The drag marks lead to a door that hung open on a broken hinge, nothing but darkness within. Johann took a lit oil lamp from the wall and held it high, trying to see into the gloom. The light caught a pair of watery eyes, startling Johann when a tremulous voice burst from the shadow. "F-f-fucking BASTARDS! You've destroyed m-m-m-my mighty division, and f-f-for WHAT?! Well? Answer a superior officer!" Singer stepped forward, racking the shotgun. "Come out, Dirlewanger! Come up before I start shooting! Do you really want a stomachfull of buckshot?" Somewhere in the dark, there was a whine of pain and the sound of Dirlewanger's laughter, insanely gleeful. "Someone else in this cellar doesn't want that, but she'll get it if you fire that thing!" A match struck in the darkness as Dirlewanger lit two lamps. Willi's heart froze at what he saw. Cackling like a demon, Dirlewanger was pressing his pistol to the head of a girl who couldn't be old