Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DBTL 50B: Who Can It Be Now?

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth. With no spellbinding demagogue to unite them, Germany's radical right remains fragmented. In October 1932, ex-Army Captain Ernst Röhm, the leader of Germany's right-wing street fighters, siezes power in a coup d'etat. The lawlessness and misrule of his Brown Revolution leads to growing popular discontent, and in an effort to head off a possible uprising, Röhm launches an invasion of Poland on 10 May 1936.

The German advance grinds to a halt in October, and the Poles launch a counterattack on Christmas morning. By the spring of 1937 the Poles have driven Röhm's Brown Army completely out of Poland and have set their sights on Berlin. At this point Poland's British and French allies finally bestir themselves, launching their own offensives in late April . . .

Off the coast of Bremerhaven, Germany
26 April 1937

Private James Heather Gordon of the 6th Australian Division gripped the side of the landing craft with grim determination. They were close enough now to see the spires of Bremerhaven’s churches silhouetted in the growing dawn light.

At 28, Gordon was too young to remember the accounts of Gallipoli that had appeared in the newspapers. Growing up after the war, though, he had listened to veterans talk about the terrible ordeal, the pointless infantry charges, the months spent under Turkish fire, and the final ignominious withdrawal. And there wasn’t a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign alive who didn’t curse the name of Winston Churchill, who had masterminded the whole fiasco.

And now here he was, along with the rest of those Australians foolish enough to volunteer, about to do the exact same bloody fool thing all over again -- and on the day after Anzac Day, to boot.

There had been a couple hours of shellfire from the invasion fleet, but that had ended half an hour earlier, and it was eerily quiet. Gordon was suddenly thrown off his feet when the deck below him gave a sickening lurch. He was picking himself up when the drawbridge at the front of the landing craft dropped slowly open, and a gush of icy water washed over the deck. Up ahead
was fifty feet of water with a dense wall of marsh reeds beyond it.

Gordon followed the other men of his company as they dropped stolidly off the end of the drawbridge into knee high water. He spared brief glances to left and right where he could see a line of other landing craft disgorging other men. Then he was out of the water and trudging through muck. He hoped to God someone up front knew where they were going, because he didn’t have a bloody clue.

The muck slowly became more solid, and the marsh reeds gave way to woods. Gordon continued to follow the men ahead of him, all the time wondering when the Germans would open fire.

The woods had given way to a road that bordered tilled fields with some scattered farm buildings when they saw their first German. He was leading a horse-drawn wagon loaded with turnips down the road, and he seemed flabbergasted to see soldiers surrounding him. He raised his hands above his head and gabbled away in German.

A lieutenant who spoke German questioned the man for a time, then addressed the men. “He wants to know if we’re the bloody Polacks!”

That brought a loud laugh from Gordon and the other men. The lieutenant continued, “He says the only German troops he knows about are a gang of fifty stationed in the town. All the rest have been sent east to the fighting.”

Gordon didn’t really believe it. There had to be German troops around, waiting to lure them into a trap. The lieutenant told off a squad of men to keep watch on the road, and led the rest of them on into the field beyond. To his right Gordon could see more men going off down the road into Bremerhaven. As he passed the wagon Gordon reached in and grabbed a couple of turnips, the
spoils of war.

Past the field were some more woods, which debouched onto another road, this one with houses scattered along its length. Gordon waited uncertainly beside the last of the trees, certain that the houses must conceal German troops. A sergeant saw him standing there, glared at him, and bellowed, “Move your arse, soldier!”

Gordon followed half a dozen men as they ran across the road to the nearest house. He crouched down below a window, then gingerly reached across to the door, giving it a couple of knocks. After a bit the door opened to reveal a balding, middle-aged man in a dressing gown. “Ja? Was ist?” he said as he looked incuriously at Gordon.

“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” said Gordon as he touched the brim of his helmet, “but I’m with the Allied army. We’re here to conquer your country. Mind if I pop in to see there’s no soldiers hiding in here?”

The man gave an exasperated sigh, opened the door, and stood aside. Gordon entered, wandered from room to room, apologized to a middle-aged woman he interrupted in the loo, and finally left the house.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” he said to the man in the dressing gown.

The man gave another exasperated sigh and went back in, slamming the door behind him.

Gordon gave a shrug. “Right,” he said, “which way to Berlin then?”