– a story from the Third World War ... that erupted in 1946
by Christopher Marcus
Previously: Javier, Miguel and Dominic were Latin American volunteers for NATO’s expeditionary force in Spain. But since their regiment was destroyed in a Soviet attack they have been drafted – more or less unwillingly – into NATO’ elite partisan hunters, composed of former Waffen-SS men. Expecting an imminent renewal of the Soviet offensive, their leader, Colonel Jäger, decides to ‘secure’ the mountain villages behind NATO’s Sherman Line … in the way of the SS.
"This is the last time I will ask! Where – did – he – get – those – weapons?"
Colonel Jäger’s steel-gray eyes gazed at the man before him:
Marcel Carstagnol shook his head again. As he was there in front of them all, held firmly down by Larsson and Berg in the diminutive dining room of the cottage, muttering and being generally incoherent – he came off more like a drunkard than ‘le maire’ of the small community of Pont d’Enfer – or what remained of it.
Most of the dozen or so inhabitants had already fled the small collection of houses that were nestled on the slopes leading down to the river which wiggled through the borderland of the Pyrenees. But some remained …
… potential enemies.
Jäger hit Marcel again. He spit blood again.
“Answer me! – These are Soviet weapons! Were you going to arm the remaining villagers – select some snipers – join the partisans – what?!”
Lieutenant Diego Estevez tried to keep up with the translation to German, but even he had trouble now. And worse: The man apparently spoke only Catalan, which was not Diego’s forte. That, and the fact that he did not speak it particularly clearly:
"Answer me!!” Jäger howled again. And hit Marcel again – and again. But Marcel just kep on mumbling – as if he was praying.
Jäger looked at the man in disgust. Marcel was not looking at anyone now; his head drooped ... but he was not unconscious from all the beatings. He was also still held firm by Jäger’s two men, of course, but he hardly appeared as if he had any plans of trying to resist, let alone assault the ex-SS officer who had been screaming at him for half an hour now.
And who had finally exhausted his patience …
"You had your chance," Jäger said curtly. He pulled his gun from his belt holster ...
Standing near the cottage door, behind the SS-men, was private Javier Gonzales. Something cold – like needles dipped in ice – pricked in his stomach and around his heart.
He had seen these executions five times now, in the days and weeks that he and his fellow soldiers of the now extinct 5th Overseas Regiment had been ‘drafted’ as local scouts by Colonel Franz Jäger. He never got used to it. In fact, he felt like vomiting each time. But it was not so much the killings that made him feel this way, he knew, as the fact that he felt powerless to prevent it – and more and more ashamed each time it happened.
But this time it was worse. Only half an hour ago he had had dinner with Marcel and his wife and two children.
Yes, Javier had been invited into Marcel Carstagnol’s house as an honored guest. He had come to the nearly deserted village on the French side of the old border last evening, telling the first man he met – a goat shepherd who understood a little Spanish but spoke none – that he had been separated from his regiment, after an air attack – which was not far from the truth. The shepherd had led him to Marcel’s house and he had been welcomed, albeit with some skepticism at first, but then given food and drink.
They were ‘peace-loving people’, Marcel had explained in Catalan – his native tongue, while Javier struggled to follow. It resembled a mix between Spanish and French, and yet none of them. Marcel’s French wife, Charlotte, was not of much help, but she smiled and kept pouring him warm soup. At least he understood as much as Marcel’s insistence that they did not like the Soviet invaders any more than the German and ‘would do everything to help him get back to his regiment’.
Tomorrow he would get a ride with Marcel himself, in the village’s only motorized vehicle – another old truck. NATO troops were continually striding up and down the valley, to get to the fortifications south of Laruns, Marcel explained. He would meet fellow comrades and be back with his own in no time. The two children, Jean aged 5 and Marie aged 8, stared at Javier without daring to say anything – they were obviously wary of strangers; – to which Marcel proudly commented several times how well-behaved they were. Javier had said as little as possible that evening.
In the morning he had excused himself and gone for a brief walk, reported to lieutenant Diego Estevez who was waiting nearby, and then returned to the village. He had told the lieutenant that he had experienced nothing out of the ordinary while being there, and that there was nothing in the manner of the village ‘maire’, as Marcel titled himself, which suggested anything would ever be out of the ordinary. The remaining villagers just wanted to ride out the storm.
Presumably the hoped that whenever the Soviets came – and they seemed to expect this – they would be so high up the mountain that the battle would hardly touch them. At least Javier could think of no other explanation for why a man like Marcel had not brought his family to safety elsewhere, since the front was so close.
Javier had been sure that that was that, after talking to Estevez. Nothing would come off it; after all – what could possibly be to find in this small, nearly empty village? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about what happened at the front – at the Sherman Line itself – less than 10 kilometers away?
The thunder from the Soviet artillery seemed like it went on around the clock now, instead of just intervals. Many of the Waffen SS-men, experienced combat veterans from the Eastern Front and Berlin, had looked at each other with the ‘yeah-it’s-going-to-break-loose-any-moment’-look, but said nothing to their commander.
There were rumors that Kesselring himself had been dug out of one of the VIP-prison camps to act as a consultant for the NATO field commanders who frantically tried to build line upon line of bunkers, mine-fields and trenches in the few passable valleys between the mountains. But what would it help?
Their men were tired, resources were few, the terrain was hideous, and Stalin had plundered half of France to feed new hordes of soldiers, recruited from the seemingly unending reservoir – further and further east from the steppes of the Soviet Union, from the new Communist ‘allies’ in the Balkans, even many volunteers from the countries that had switched the Nazi occupation force for Soviet troops.
It would have to stop soon, though. The Soviets could not go on. And yet, Javier had thought grimly, as he had made his way back to the village, what if it could? What if everybody had been wrong about the Soviets? He had been wrong himself about a great many things – including the role he had imagined for himself in this war. He was glad when he finally reached Marcel’s house. He did not really like to think too much about what a big, bloody failure his decision to go to Europe and fight may have been.
Javier had been ordered to return for breakfast at Marcel’s and one more ‘reconaissance’ and so he had, coming back to the house as if he had just been on an extended walk.
And then – suddenly – the door had burst open, and Jäger and his men hade made their entrance, and Javier finally understood. He had not been there to scout – but to keep the family occupied, while some of the stealthier amongst Jäger’s small anti-partisan unit had searched the surrounding area.
And they had found weapons, buried – not far from the main house.
Nobody had needed to translate the horrified looks in the faces of Marcel’s family, and then the darkening of those same faces, as they looked upon Javier with something that could only resemble hatred, when his ‘comrades’ entered the house and immediately seized Marcel for interrogation … and worse.
They had given Javier shelter, trusted him, but he …