Sunday, March 8, 2009

DBTL 17: Counterattack

Vilnius, Central Lithuanian Devo, Polish Commonwealth
22 October 1944

It had been raining in Vilnius ever since General Heinz Guderian's arrival there a week before. A cold, penetrating rain that seemed indifferent to whatever sartorial barriers were placed in its path. Guderian thought, if Poland's troops can make it through the Russians as easily as Poland's rain makes it through my topcoat, this war will be over in a week.

Just how effective the Polish army would be had yet to be demonstrated, but Guderian was hopeful. Although the Russians had flooded the country with men and tanks, and the sky with planes, the Poles had kept them from making any breakthroughs. The Russian push into Central Lithuania, for example, had ground to a halt twenty miles from Vilnius. Overhead, Russian and Polish aircraft ducked in and out of the cloud cover in a deadly game of hide and seek, while the Polish anti-aircraft rockets exacted a steady toll from the Russians.

In the last forty-eight hours, Guderian had traveled up and down the line of battle, visiting with his divisional commanders, the rocket batteries, the artillery regiments, and especially the armored cavalry regiments. It was, to Guderian's thinking, an oddly diverse army. There were Polish units, Belorussian units, Ukrainian units, German units, even Jewish units. And the journalists! Guderian had never seen so many journalists from so many countries in his life. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, Swedes, Dutch, even Americans. Which reminded him...

"Colonel Blair," Guderian called out.

"Sir!" the Englishman answered as he followed Guderian across the muddy field of Airstrip One.

"Has General Sosnkowski reported back from Lwow?" Guderian spoke in French, because for the life of him he couldn't understand Blair's Polish.

"Not yet, sir!" Blair answered in the same language.

"Damn! Send another message to his HQ! I'll be back in one hour, and I'll expect an answer by then!"

"Sir!" Blair saluted and ran back to the communications room while Guderian climbed aboard his helicopter. They really were the most amazingly versatile aircraft. Guderian wondered how he had ever managed to get around without one.

As he choppered through the Lithuanian night, Guderian pondered the fate that had led him to his current station in life. A promising career in the old German army had ended abruptly in 1933 when the fat scarfaced queer who called himself Germany's Führer had relieved him of his post in the General Staff. When some of Guderian's former colleagues had started showing up in concentration camps and morgues, he had decided to take a quiet leave of absence. Poland was the closest foreign country to hand, so Guderian had joined Warsaw's growing community of expatriate Germans.

A mutual friend had introduced him to a Polish cavalry officer named Stanisław Skwarczyński, and the two had spent long evenings discussing weapons, tactics, politics and personalities. When the fat queer declared war on Poland in '36, Skwarczyński had offered him a place on his staff. Guderian couldn't bring himself to join the Polish army and make war on his countrymen, but he did provide Skwarczyński with some unofficial advice from time to time. As the war between the two countries ground on, Guderian had the odd experience of watching as his casual suggestions to Skwarczyński were translated into Polish army tactics. It was with a combination of elation and despair that he followed the course of Skwarczyński's campaign from Warsaw to Berlin.

After the war, Guderian had returned to Germany, to help his shattered homeland recover from its self-inflicted wounds. Along with the rest of his countrymen, his heart fell when he learned of Poland's annexation of eastern Germany. Then there came an unexpected hope when the Law of Devolution was passed by the Polish Sejm. On Autonomy Day Guderian joined the throngs in the streets of Berlin as they celebrated Brandenburg's rebirth. That evening, he had received a phone call from Stanisław Skwarczyński, who had succeeded Jósef Piłsudski as First Marshal of Poland. Brandenburg was to have its own militia, the National Guard, and Skwarczyński wanted Guderian to command it. After days of soul searching, Guderian had finally chosen to accept.

As other devos came into being, they too gave birth to National Guard units, with Guderian acting as midwife. By the end of 1940, Skwarczyński had appointed him to the Polish General Staff, and Guderian had found himself directing the creation of Poland's Armored Cavalry units.

Now Poland was at war again, and this time at least Guderian had no qualms about fighting Poland's enemies. His last-minute inspection tour over, Guderian leapt out of the helicopter to the welcoming mud of Airstrip One, where Colonel Blair was waiting to meet him.

"Sir," Blair shouted above the still-spinning rotor, "General Sosnkowski reports that all units are in position and awaiting your orders!"

"Excellent," said Guderian. "Send word out to all units that Operation Lightning will procede as scheduled."

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