Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Tank

The platoon Lehto’s group had caught up with had not advanced to the road on both sides of the path. For it turned out that it was unable to advance far enough to the left without breaking contact with the First Platoon. This in turn was connected to the grouping of the other battalion, and so second lieutenant Sarkola had had to change the orders on his own initiative and advance a hundred metres on the right-hand side of the path. He reported what he had done, and received approval for it, which was natural, for the breaking of contact in the darkness would have been too risky.

Koskela had been informed of the matter, and he sent a messenger to meet Lehto. The messenger had wandered about terrified in the darkness, encountering the surviving men of the group only when they were on their way back.

Koskela was on his knees in the ditch at the side of the road, scanning the darkness, where an enemy tank was rumbling. Rahikainen crawled up behind him and said:

‘Lehto’s dead… We didn’t find anyone there.’

Koskela glanced over his shoulder. Then he turned his head and stared into the darkness again. After a long silence, he said, as if he were only now realizing it:

‘Ah… Aha. Yes, there were was no one there.’

‘Well, there were foreigners there. But they didn’t seem to want to know us.’

Rahikainen was rather anxious, and so he spoke brusquely right from the word go, as though ready to rebuff possible accusations. He thought that Koskela’s silence implied some kind of condemnation, and continued in an injured manner, trying by his tone of voice to show that they had suffered an injustice:

‘You know how it is. Everywhere we go. We crept along the path and then we started cleaning them out with an automatic rifle… Lehto copped it straight away…’

‘Yes… The body was left there?’

‘Aye. Lying right under their noses. It was all we could do to get the machine-gun out of there.’

‘Where are the others?’

‘In behind. But we don’t know what happened to Riitaoja. Didn’t he come here?’

‘He’s not been seen.’

‘Then he’s disappeared. We looked for him and shouted for him. When we didn’t get any response we thought he’d come here.’

‘No, he’s not here, and we don’t have the men to send out to search for him. Rokka.’

‘What’s up, then?’

Rokka crawled along the ditch to where Koskela was.

‘Lehto’s been killed. From now on you’ll be in charge of the first group. Put Sihvonen back in his own group and take Wolf with you to the first.’

‘Right you are. How did it happen?’

‘He walked straight into a gang of them.’

Koskela stared into the darkness again and muttered:

‘They shouldn’t have been sent straight in. It’d have been better to go round through the First Platoon…’

‘Well, there’s two sorts of luck. There’s the good kind and the bad kind. Lehto lad had the bad kind. But if that damn tank would just come a bit nearer, there’s mines there.’

‘Go and take up position on the left. If it’s clever enough to go round the mines, then let it come, and keep the infantry back behind it.’

The road had been cut, and the enemy had immediately thrown troops into the breach. In the darkness both sides were preparing to go into action as soon as it was daybreak, and what fighting there was resulted from the nervousness of the backup forces. Rokka had taken charge of Lehto’s group, and they were in position at the side of the road, but were careful not to shoot, as the tank was still rumbling ahead of them, firing into the darkness now and then.

‘Don’t shoot unless you have to, lads,’ whispered Rokka. ‘Ah, damn you, come a bit closer, will you? Not too much… three metres will do. The bastard won’t come. I’ll have to go and put a grenade on its roof. Now it’s coming, it’s coming… right, lads… wait for it… now!’

The ground shook, and a tongue of flame lit up the night as a mine exploded under the caterpillar tracks. The excitement burst out in frantic firing from both sides, and for a moment the shots crackled fiercely, gradually dying away again. The flames began to lick the sides of the tank, and soon they were blazing up on all sides, brightly illuminating the darkness of the small hours.

Rokka whispered joyfully:

‘You set a mine off there. I wasn’t serious, you know. I was just joking, and you went and took it in earnest. People say a lot of things in this world, but you shouldn’t believe them all.’

‘Shut up. We don’t know what may happen next.’

Rahikainen had not yet fully recovered from the shock. Vanhala, on the other hand, was in a cheerful mood. The new group leader was definitely to his liking, for Lehto had spoiled his fun too often by saying curtly: ‘Stop your giggling.’ But Rokka chatted about amusing things, and Vanhala saw the future turning downright rosy as a result.

The tank burned, crackling and banging, for the heat was making its ammunition explode. Rokka watched closely to see if the crew would try to escape from the flames, but they had probably lost consciousness in the mine explosion, for no one tried to get out.

‘Well, the bastards have sure had the hair on their asses singed,’ said Rokka, when he had made sure there was no more possibility of rescue. Vanhala put his machine-gun down alongside, fiddling about with the belt and repeating Rokka’s words, which he thought were splendid:

‘The hair on their asses… Hee hee… the hair on their asses.’

‘Pipe down, Vanhala. We’re going to catch it from them in the morning.’

They watched the fire. It was reflected in their faces, which glowed in the darkness, illuminated by the flames. Rokka’s eyes burned like a cat’s in the dark. He was in a good mood, for the destruction of the tank meant they were in less danger now.

Wolf Paw looked at the silently burning tank for a long time and then whispered:

‘That’s a hell of a way to die.’

'This is no Sunday school, you know. You’ve got to kill like the devil himself. I’ve always said that we haven’t come here to die but to kill. That’s if you want to stay alive, of course.’
Paw raised his rifle to his cheek, fired into the darkness and said as he let the spent cartridge fall out:

‘That’s not what I meant… Those guys are not the only ones. Damn it, I’ve been watching those bushes and watching them. But they seem to be empty.’

(from Tuntematon sotilas [The Unknown Soldier], by Väinö Linna, Helsinki, 1954 [my translation])
Post a Comment