In the Heart of the Storm

Part One

Just before ten at night the left flank of the regimental front was heavily shelled, and after twenty minutes we came in for it too. In a brief space we were completely covered in dust and smoke, and yet most of the hits were just in front or just behind. While this hurricane was raging I went along my platoon front. The men were standing, rifle in hand, as though carved in stone, their eyes fixed on the ground in front of them. Now and then by the light of a rocket I saw the gleam of helmet after helmet, bayonet after bayonet, and I was filled with pride at commanding this handful of men that might very likely be pounded into the earth but could not be conquered. It is in such moments that the human spirit triumphs over the mightiest demonstrations of material force. The fragile body, steeled by the will, stands up to the most terrific punishment. – Ernst Junger, from Storm of Steel.

It was a town to the east of Vrsac, on the Romanian side; and probably a bit to the south, though the maps weren't clear. An irrelevant town, now mostly dead from the Janissaries having gone through it. The Draka were pushing ahead again, trying to create a situation along the north bank of the Danube where they could break through the thin northern foothills of the Carpathians, here, and swing around to occupy Belgrade, as dangerously close to the front lines as that city was. The Romanian troops here had been broken in heavy assaults throughout the past week, and had fallen back much to close to Vrsac; in response, one of the precious German divisions in the area for reinforcements had been committed by Crown Prince Wilhelm, and then a panzer regiment. The panzers were still coming up but the division was in place.

It was late 1942; early October, snow was not yet on the ground but it was cold, the men all felt it. The Draka pushed on with a certain degree of haste, to make gains before the weather began to feel its effects, but nothing at all like the haste with which they now fought in Russia, where it was rumoured they were very, very close to taking Moscow, and the allied armies were exceptionally hard-pressed. It was bad news, but it didn't affect the regiment's Colonel, or his regiment, and he had pushed it aside and concentrated on the bad news that was carried with his own position, and the good which might serve to counteract it.

The Romanians were off to the east somewhere. This was the position of the left-most of the regiments in the German infantry division sent forward, and their connections with the Romanian units which had held were tenuous at best, and in desperate need of being plugged. It was a landwehr division, and a great number of the men in it were veterans of the First World War. So was their commander, and he had paid special attention to laying out the appropriate fortifications, the dugouts and strong points and the digging of the lines, to provide for the maximum defence—but also to make counterattack easy. His own dugout was placed very close to the front, recklessly, one might say, but Ernst Junger was no stranger to the risk of enemy fire.

He cut a fine figure, a man in his fourties with a death's-head sort of leanness about him, hair cut nearly to be bald, lean, in incredible shape for his age. His uniform bore the Pour le Merite that he had won on the western front, and his body bore seventeen scars from seventeen wounds during that older conflict. He was also displeased with his assignment; thanks to his notoriety for the publication of his works, he had gained promotion on account and he did not like it. Commanding a regiment kept him further from the front than he would prefer—for Ernst Junger always preferred to be in the first rank.


“Go ahead,” he replied without looking back. The regiment's commander was studying the trees standing near here. It had once been a farmhouse; the cellar had been turned into the basis of the command dugout. They'd found an old man—the patriarch of the place?--stabbed a dozen times under one of those trees. He had been in his eighties, or older; Ernst thought one of his medals had been a campaign medal from the Russo-Turkish War. Someone to old to leave, and to old to want to leave, he mused with a sympathetic approbation.

Luftwaffe reconaissance reports have reached us from divisional headquarters, Sir,” his Chief of Staff carried on. “There is at least a battalion of Janissary tanks coming up, not more than five miles from the front.”


“They just seem to be reinforcing the jani's on this line.”

“They'll have support,” Colonel Junger replied firmly. “I'm going to double-check the placement of the anti-tank guns and the rocket launcher teams before they can place themselves for an attack. Are we going to get any artillery support?”

“Only divisional, based on request and need.”

“The usual,” Ernst shrugged. He had not expected anything else, but sometimes luck was with the infantry soldier. The rest of the time, he persevered on spirit alone, and that had done well enough so far. “You know what to do if they come, Joachim. Regimental artillery fires in front of our own men after an attack; otherwise, keep them dialed in on the concentration points.”

“Of course, Oberst!” He came to attention and snapped a salute.

Ernst Junger was already on the move. He returned to the dugout, where he snapped up his “papishka”--he was very found of the Soviet weapon, handy enough in close quarters battle, with a good magazine, and most of all, a solid wooden stock which was weighty enough to kill a man. He had, after all, found the need to kill a man with the stock of a gun on several occasions before in his life.

The sky rumbled. Thunder, he classified in a heartbeat. Rain will do us some good, his minded added in afterthought, as he called out to a few of his younger aides in a cheerful voice: “Come on! We're going up to the lines to check on the anti-tank defences.” With a wave of his hand, he started forward at a swift jog. The Pour le Merite was the only thing that distinguished him from a common infantry soldier; he wore it so that it was half concealed, but on close inspection it would be obvious from it who he was. After all, he was the only man in the regiment who had one.

They jogged along a cow-path through the little copse and toward the front line, toward the village where once these farmers had driven their animals to market, and perhaps their wagon to church, loaded with the womanfolk. The ideal life of the simple man; free before his God to possess his land and go about his work, to serve his nation honourably to keep the land as the generations before him done, since the days when Rome had civilized Dacia. But in war, the simple man becomes the simple soldier; and for the honour of this pleasant little patch of soil, Ernst hoped that somewhere off to the east, in the ranks of the Romanian army, perhaps around Brasov, there were the sturdy grandsons of that old man, maintaining the honour of this patch of soil which had given them birth and would, when they turned the tide, accept their bodies back into its eternal embrace.

There was a crackle of fire ahead. Some of the young men flinched, but Ernst did not; he knew that they could not be seen even by snipers from the front at this angle, and on the Western Front, you eventually had to stop ducking at the sound of death nearby, or else you would be rendered worthless, for the sounds which would make you flinch and cower were an unending chorus for four years of unending life, and death, under a god's hammer of steel and flame.

Another gesture—hand signals were much more common in the older regiments out of pure habit, for there were many times under heavy shell fire when voices were entirely unintelligible—and Colonel Junger led the group at a crouch down through the strewn rocks and trees close to a creek bed. Here in the natural protection that it provided there was a casualty clearing station for the regiment established.

“Everything ready, Doctor? You'll be busy soon.”

A grim, haggard look at that. The fellow was a young medical student who had been made a combat surgeon by an intensive training course; he had learned all that he had needed to know in school, and he would earn his right to call himself a doctor by the horrors of combat which the medic saw perhaps closer than anyone else. “There is nothing we need, Oberst,” he replied shakily.

Ernst patted him on the shoulder, and grinned tightly. “Good.” A moment later, reassuringly: “Do not be mortified when the men feel the pain of your knives, Doctor, for when you hear their cries, remember that the pain you give them is the salvation of their mortal life, and keep that in your heart when you go to work.”

“God be with you, Oberst,” the young man answered, blue eyes seeming to brighten with the moral certitude that was held in the words of the poet of German's soul, as Prince Regent Goering had called this eager warrior, and reluctant prophet.

From there they dashed from strong-point to strong-point, checking up on the anti-tank guns. The regiment had eighteen in total; three were 75mm/48cal, the other fifteen were long 50's. Fearful men, tense men, silent as the wind as fat, cold raindrops fell upon them. Their positions were well-concealed in the rocky, undulating soil here, close to the Danube, with the outcropping of rock from place to place at this verge of the Carpathians (looming up grandly to the southeast as they were) equally serving as a chance for cover, and to provide a danger of splinters from the strike of artillery shells.

A long, thin row of trenches, interspersed with areas where the men were sheltered with only foxholes, where the terrain was better for the defence, marked the front line. Behind it, dugouts overlooked it with heavy machine-guns and mortars, and groups of foxholes at crazy angles to each other concentrated reserve platoons.

Ernst completed a circuit of the heavy anti-tank guns and then, after a brief radio conversation with Joachim back at headquarters, began his inspection of the trenches, with some real haste now. The message had been to the point: “Enemy tanks concentrating in village to the south of our position, infantry moving up to jumping-off points”. It was the time for haste, and so he hastened.

Here, then, there were tiny dugouts concealed into the trench-line proper, where teams of men with Panzerfaust rockets were concealed deeply into the earth. Their task was grim, and their tactics simple: They were to wait until enemy tanks, if they came, overran the trenches, and then arise from their cover and fire into their vulnerable rear armour.

But the circuit had not been complete when the sky erupted. Here the sound was instantly familiar to the grim veteran. Shellfire! He dropped down along the thin length of entrenchment in which they had been moving, zig-zagging and interrupted by lengths of mere foxholes, and waited. Shells fell to their rear with the usual freight-train rumble. The explosions showed that they were HE. ..Or...


Ernst was in his protective suit the fastest of any of the men in the whole section. It was an automatic thing to him, like pouring a cup of coffee in the morning or picking up the phone when it rang. This was the world of the trenches that he remembered so well; the world where the cry of Gas! was reacted to with an automon's precise speed, without comment. The shells continued to fall, and from the moment he had secured his protective gear, he began to think again, like an officer ought.

Those shells are falling quite far behind us, he noted. And gas is not a correct useage of limited artillery batteries for an attack; unless they plan a limited advance.. Or.. No; that would have to wait. He stayed low, and felt himself slipping into the beautiful reverie of the battle, the tense waiting before the action, the heat of one's blood, stoked with all the glory and the history and the expectations of the nation, the ghost of the dead Kaiser standing over his regiment, him, personally, and all who had gone before in turn.
“Leutnant! Your name?”

“Gustav Roth, Obest!

A snap gesture toward the dangerous lip of the trench with a gloved hand. “Tell me when the infantry comes, and tell me if they're tutti's or jani's.” A soldier's slang was used, casually, carelessly by the Colonel: Jani's was an obvious short form, but tutti's was the preferred insult for Citizens, their reputation as 'tutti-fruttis' of their flamboyance and sexual habits having been sealed long before the war had ever begun.

The Leutnant had been chosen as one of the two men in the little inspection party with a trench periscope, useful enough in any sort of entrenchment or area with cover that they'd be reissued on a limited basis, and in greater numbers on the more static fronts like Italy and the Balkans where permanent fortifications were much more common.

Leutnant Roth pushed the periscope up carefully, looking into it through the eye-plates of his gas mask even as clouds of swirling, uncertain toxins started to drift over them, blown south with the light breeze, and amongst them, ratcheting up the tension here even more.

The waiting, under gas and under artillery, left more time for Ernst to ponder. The wind was also bad for gas.. None of it really made sense, this will surely not be a major attack. He thought clearly despite the barrage and the gas, and out of the corner of his eye he noticed one of the men to be shaking perceptibly.

“The gas cannot harm you,” he spoke with a sort of strange mixture of peremptory instruction and kindness. “You are well protected, if you took the precautions you have been taught. Don't worry about it.” A pat offered, through the rubbery quality of the suit—some sort of new plastic based compound woven into it—and he waited once more.

At last, resolution and relief came upon the words of the young Leutnant Roth:

“They're coming forward, Sir!”

The sight he saw was one that Ernst could imagine in his mind: Chemical-protective suited men rising up, dashing forward, dropping, squads coming up from behind to leap-frog them, dropping in turn, the first line moving forward as the second began supporting fire, the teams with the support weapons dragging them up, bellies on the ground, as the defenders began.. And this he heard... To fire mortar shells down upon them and rake into them with the heavy machineguns and the light machineguns alike, for the troops had worked their way up close thanks to the undulating terrain.

There was only one question to be asked, to give certainty about his course of action:

“Tutti's or Jani's, Leutnant?” he barked tersely.

“Jani's, I'm sure of it!”

“Then we've got to get back. They're directing their main thrust to east through that,” and here the derisive snort could be heard through the gas mask, “so-called Romanian division which is supposedly on our flank.”

There was nothing else. Another snapped gesture, and he was off, leading the group of staffers—and himself—straight through the artillery and the gas, which was obviously being placed on them to keep him from pulling units of his main line here, once he realized it was a diversionary attack, to send them to the east to further flesh out an area held by a few Rumanian jaegers, assuming they would not flee at the first onset. The tanks, also, would be sent there; and against this Ernst would have to scratch together some sort of force to hold off the Draka until Panzers arrived to support them, out of rear-area units and a few companies in his deep reserve.

But that challenge was met by his hot-running blood, and he took to it gladly, once again back in the forge, in the Sturm auf Stahl as he had called it when he named his diary, and he didn't regret it one bit. He dashed back through the fire and the toxins and the shrapnel coming down, and prepared to pit his ingenuity and his courage against this, the newest and the most meaningful of all the enemies he had fought: For in combat against the Draka the heart of Germany would either perish, or be forged anew, and in a struggle that epic, a man might let his life and every mortal love go by, and put forth into battle the very essence of his soul.