By Adam Selby-Martin
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 6th contest was Cliche.
Gefreiter Hans Ulrich held onto the shoulder strap of his FG42 assault rifle with one hand, and used the other to hang onto the hull of the Rhine barge with the other. Wherever he turned his head to look, he could see dozens, if not hundreds, of sea-going vessels. The majority of them were barges like the one he was currently in, the little ships bobbing up and down in the water as they slowly but surely made their way towards the English coastline; in the ships nearest to him he could just about make out the men in the other platoons in his company, and he briefly wondered if they had just as many men incapacitated by seasickness as he did. In between the barges raced the sleek, predatory shapes of Schnellboots, the fast attack craft shepherding their precious charges and acting as their first line of defence. Past the guard-dogs, Hans could just about make out the shape of several destroyers, their sharp, angular designs a great comfort to him as they guarded against attack. And of course, out past the horizon where he couldn’t see them, were the mightiest vessels of the Kriegsmarine, ready to challenge the Royal Navy for dominance of the Channel. The venerable older battleships like the Bismarck and Tirpitz, the newly-launched H-Class Adolf Hitler, and of course the aircraft carriers.
He’d never seen any of the aircraft carriers, only pictures of Graz Zeppelin and her sister ships in copies of Signal, but as he looked up he could see their precious cargo flying above the fleet. Dozens of Me-262 and P.1099 jet fighters, the cream of the Luftwaffe, taking up station to watch over their Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine comrades. For a moment the grandeur of the situation struck Hans, and he felt a fierce sense of pride. To think, it had been a mere seven years since the Fuhrer had come to power, and now the might of the Reich was poised to deal the final, fatal blow against the treacherous British and that ugly bulldog of a Prime Minister.
Suddenly, as if some invisible signal had been given, all hell was unleashed on the invasion fleet. The deafening thunder of artillery filled the air, followed by explosions. Hans ducked down instinctively, even the meagre cover of the sides preferable to open air, and the boat rocked fiercely from near-misses that threw huge geysers of water into the air and sprayed the men inside. The coxswain at the rear gunned the engines for all they were worth, and Hans felt the boat shudder slightly at the small surge of power. Risking a peak above the hull, Hans could see that every transport vessel in the fleet was doing the same, rushing forwards to try and deliver their precious cargo of men and equipment. He winced as he saw several nearby barges disappear in sudden explosions, or get swamped by water and rapidly sink, and could barely hear the voice of the coxswain bellowing a warning – “Zwei minuten!”
Hans gave silent thanks to the skill of the Kriegsmarine in getting the first wave so close to the beaches before they had been engaged by the British, and quickly worked his way to the very front of the barge. He made sure his squad were as ready as they could be – a quiet word of encouragement, a shared joke, a slap on the shoulder as he passed through. They’d been through a lot in the past two years – the fight through Poland, the fall of France, and now the beaches of East Sussex, and he was proud of each and every man. At the front of the boat stood Hauptmann Muller, the man who had led them since the war began, always with the same calm demeanour. He was shouting to be heard above the shells and the gunfire, giving last-minute orders, reiterating the need to always keep moving, no matter the cost. He nodded at Hans as the NCO approached, and then suddenly there was a sound like God ripping apart a huge piece of fabric, and the officer’s body disintegrated, spraying Hans with gore. Men were screaming and dying, and something exploded, knocking Hans to the floor of the boat, and he lay stunned as a Spitfire roared overhead.
Clutching the side of the hull, feet slipping in gore and offal that had once been his comrades, Hans hauled himself to his feet in time to see the British fighter hit several more barges with similarly devastating results. But then, like avenging angels, two Me-262s hurtled down from the sky with cannons blazing, and the Spitfire burst into flames and cartwheeled into the sea. Seconds later came the coarse cry of the coxswain - “dreißig Sekunden!“ – and Hans training kicked in, hauling men to their feet, taking stock of who could fight and who wouldn’t live through the next minute. The harsh crack of rifles and the guttural snarl of machine-guns merged with the shelling to form a hellish symphony, and then the barge grounded on the beach with a tremendous shudder, the front was lowered, and Hans and the remnants of his squad were wading through water and onto the yellow, sun-kissed sand of Eastbourne beach.
The sand was inviting, but it was the only friendly part of the British reaction to the first wave hitting the beach. Men barely made it out of the barges before being ruthlessly cut down or blown apart, and many of the transports erupted into balls of flame as they sluggishly backed away after delivering their cargo. Within seconds of hitting the sand, Hans could hear nothing but frantic screaming, the roar of machine-guns, and the vicious express-train roar of incoming shells. Urging his men forward, he managed to scramble into the cover of a conveniently-located anti-tank trap. Three more men joined him, only one of them having held onto their rifle, and a quick glance backwards confirmed that they were the only ones from the squad who were still alive. The edge of the sand was already stained red, and mutilated bodies littered the water’s edge. Over the cacophony came the familiar roar of a diesel engine, and out of the sea drove a Schwimmpanzer; Hans turned back to order his men to advance behind the tank, but by the time he had turned back it was already aflame, a hole in the turret testament to the accuracy of British gunnery.
The entire first wave looked like it had come to a halt, the surviving landser crouching behind beach obstacles or fiercely-burning barges, and Hans could only stare in horror at the butchered remnants of his friends and comrades. But then, just as all seemed lost, he saw a figure moving near the knocked-out Schwimmpanzer. Dodging bullets and shells, the man deftly clambered onto the top of the panzer and, in one swift motion, pulled the detachable machine-gun from the top of the turret. Leading a charmed life, the man then zig-zagged towards Hans and his men, and as he got nearer Hans couldn’t help but let out a cheer, which was shortly taken up by his men, and others in nearby cover. For it was none other than Hauptmann Johann Richter, the most famous man in the Heer, a face instantly recognisable from endless Signal covers. The Hero of Warsaw, the man who had personally led the first tanks through the treacherous Ardennes forest, an officer personally decorated by the Fuhrer himself for endless feats of bravery and courage. If he was here, then surely there was a chance of advancing off this godforsaken beach.
Richter slid into cover next to Hans and nodded genially, looking for all the world as if he had simply gone for a morning constitutional down the Unter den Linden rather than cross a corpse-covered beach miraculously unscathed. The officer smiled affably, and cocked his head towards the top of the beach, rounds ricocheting off the top of the anti-tank obstacle.
“This is no place for the finest men in the Heer to be crouching, Gefreiter! I know we’ve had a warm reception, but if we don’t get moving, there’s only going to be two types of men on this beach – the dead and the dying! So come on, kameraden, let’s go and kick those arrogant Tommies off our property!”
There was something about Richter, some strange charisma, that suddenly filled Hans and his men with hope. They picked up their weapons and steeled themselves, while Richter suddenly reared up above the meagre cover and shouted out a challenge that echoed around the battlefield.
“Men of the Reich! Do you wish to live like heroes – or cower and die like cowards? CHARGE!”
Richter immediately began running up the beach, dodging obstacles and jumping over shell-holes, machine-gun spitting fire as he went. With a great roar, the survivors of the first wave went with him, a great mass of grey-clad figures advancing on the British positions. Hans was there, right next to Richter, assault rifle cracking as he poured fire on the enemy troops. Men were cut down as they moved, but now nothing could stop the German troops from closing the remaining distance and hurling themselves into the trenches and defensive works the British were holding. The fighting quickly devolved into an ugly brawl, as grey and khaki clashed together in a desperate close-quarters fight.
Hans kept close to Richter, watching the Hauptmann’s back as he fought peerlessly, using the machine-gun as a club once the ammunition had run out. Hans shot down British troops as they came close, and then suddenly the defenders were breaking, climbing out of their trenches and fleeing. Richter laughed and turned to smile at Hans, and then suddenly gave an inarticulate cry and hurled them both to the blood-soaked bottom of the trench. The enclosed space suddenly filled with smoke and flames, and the agonizing cries of men burning to death, and scrambling backwards Hans could see the source of the attack – a British Sherman flame tank, grinding its way down the beach towards them. Two men wielding Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons moved up to try and engage the tank, only to be cut down, and suddenly Richter was there, bounding through smoke and flames to pick up one of the rocket tubes.
Hans would always remember the next few seconds. The way Richter effortlessly hefted the Panzerfaust and set it to his shoulder. The way he shifted slightly to take aim at the tank. The errant rock, under his left foot, which the officer hadn’t seen through the smoke. The face Richter made as he suddenly slipped and fell, ankle twisted underneath him, and the Panzerfaust which flew up in the air, sparks suddenly coming out of the barrel. The British tank, which abruptly exploded anyway, turret flying off and smoke pouring from all angles. The god-like voice which suddenly rang out across the beach, amplified mechanically, laced with anger.
“Cut! Cut! Gänschen, you fucking dummkopf, what the hell was that?”
The explosions and gunfire abruptly fell silent, and the combatants on both sides lowered their weapons. Men who had been dead mere seconds ago stirred and sat up or got to their feet, and all watched as an incredibly irate man wielding a megaphone, and wearing a cap prominently emblazoned with ’Director’ and the logo for the ReichsMinisterium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda stormed through the drifting banks of smoke and fell upon the unfortunate actor playing Hauptmann Johann Richter.
The unbroken string of expletives that could be heard throughout the set was impressive, both in terms of their imagination and the distinct lack of repetition, hesitation or deviation as they rang out. Jack Cole - Gefreiter Hans Ulrich when the cameras were actually rolling, and their star actor hadn’t screwed up once again – couldn’t help smirking at the display of verbal fireworks as he sat down on the edge of the trench and pulled out a battered pack of cigarettes. A box of waterproof matches came out of another pocket, and together they produced a satisfying hit of nicotine that surged through his body. The cigarette also produced some particularly noxious smoke, but Cole didn’t mind – in his eyes, it was just another carefully-crafted element of authenticity that he constructed in all of his characters that appeared on screen.
The cigarettes were Trommlers, the same smoked by the SA bully-boys over in the Reich, and they matched the period-accurate uniform that he was wearing, right down to the buttons on his tunic. Putting it all together over the years had cost him a significant number of Occupation Marks, but the uniform and props – together with his readiness to travel across-country – meant that he was always in the first pick for extras for the seemingly endless number of war films produced by Propagandaministerium. He was always featured prominently in action scenes, to the extent that he had picked up a reputation as ‘that guy’ with a small but enthusiastic group of war film fans, but he had yet to manage to pick up any kind of speaking role that had survived to the final cut. That meant he earnt a pittance compared to those who had their RMVP card, and without that card he couldn’t get any better roles or insurance benefits. He probably qualified for a Screen Actor’s Guild card in some way, but why would he want to join up with the negroes and the lefties and the black-listed? No, he needed that card from the ReichsMinisterium, and to get that he needed a role with lines that he could be assured wouldn’t be absent from the final cut. Thanks to the gossip from last night’s poker game, he finally had a chance – but he needed to collar a producer, and couldn’t do that with HerrDirektor Bay chewing out his lead actor and anyone else in the vicinity.
So he finished the first cigarette and stubbed it out on the lip of the trench and lit another one, trying to relax and enjoy the warmth of the sun on another glorious day in Protektorat Kalifornia. He shivered slightly from the cold water that had seeped through his uniform from the beach landing, but reflected that it was probably nothing compared to the icy waters of the real English seaside. Not that anyone was ever going to film anything there – even if the weather hadn’t been shit, the St Crispin’s Day uprisings and the subsequent firestorms had left the whole region a desolate hellhole. He was considering starting to chainsmoke, expletives still coming from the site of the burning tank, when a grunt and the thud of booted feet to his right announced the arrival of one of his fellow extras.
Unlike Cole, Hynes was a newbie to the world of acting, lured in by the glamour of acting, especially compared to being in a labour gang. He was affable enough, but his eye for detail was sorely lacking, and he never seemed to care that he was imperfectly representing the Wehrmacht soldiers they were portraying. That grated on Cole’s nerves, and there was always something on the kid’s kit or equipment that was wrong. As Hynes moved towards him, Cole could instantly see that several tunic buttons weren’t polished, and used the cigarette stub in his hand to jab at them aggressively.
“Just do up your damn buttons, kid, you’re a disgrace to the profession – acting and historical re-enactment. What’s wrong with you?”
Hynes looked down at his tunic and shrugged, a look of indifference on his face, and then sat down opposite Cole and reached into a pocket. He pulled out a vape, drawing another withering look from the veteran actor, and started smoking some Prussian Blue. The swearing in the near-distance abruptly escalated in intensity, and the two men turned just in time to see the actor playing Richter storm off in the direction of his trailer, the Director and a gaggle of aides trailing in his wake. Hynes grinned at the display, and Cole couldn’t help but join in, the ludicrous display temporarily overriding his disdain with the younger man.
“Not the first time he’s screwed up, you know?”
Hynes turned back to look at Cole, who smirked and took the opportunity to indulge in his second-favourite topic of conversation, just below historical accuracy – Hollywood gossip, especially gossip he could supply first-hand.
“I’ve done loads of these films, and Gänschen has starred in most of them. The audience love his looks, you know? But he’s clumsy as fuck – I got the part of his standard-bearer in Fall of Amerikka and he nearly fell off the roof of the White House twice when I gave him the Parteiflagge, even with the safety rigging he was wearing. Reckon that cost a good few thousand Marks to reshoot, but I made a nice bundle in overtime.”
Hynes laughed at the thought of the high-paid actor dangling helplessly in rigging at the end of a crane, and Cole chuckled as well. Noticing that Gänschen and the Director had finally disappeared from view, he stubbed out the last cigarette and put the pack away in his tunic. He stood up to leave, but couldn’t help himself. He reached over and tried to correct the buttons on Hynes’ tunic, only for his hands to be slapped away by the indignant youth, who dropped his vape in the mud in the process. Hynes swore under his breath and backed away a few steps, and glared at Cole.
“Why the hell you gotta be a prick like that, Cole? It’s just a goddam jacket, after all. I don’t see you complaining about the assault rifle you’re carrying during the landing.”
Cole frowned and looked at the FG42, propped up against the side of the trench. The kid was right, it did grate on him quite significantly – the rifle wasn’t introduced until years after the original Sealion invasion. But it wasn’t something he could control – it was a deliberate inaccuracy introduced by the Director and his team, just like the jet fighters, amphibious tanks and aircraft carriers, none of which had been around at the time either. He picked the rifle up and looked at Hynes, voice rich with disdain.
“Yeah, this ain’t right, and neither are the jets and shit. But it’s the same with all of these propaganda movies kid, you’ll learn in time.”
He could see the questioning look on the younger actor’s face, so he continued, warming up to his theme as he did so, putting the rifle down again and starting to use his hands to articulate his points.
“Look, it’s simple. These Nazi jackoffs won, right? The Limey’s fell in ’41, the Commies in ’45, and then there’s mushroom clouds over half the fuckin’ Eastern Seaboard in the fifties and Hitler swaggering down Wall Street. Deutschland Uber Alles, right? But, shit, a lot of eggs got cracked along the way. Metric fuckton of bodies, and that’s before you start wondering where that nice Mr and Mrs Streisand and their yellow stars went one day, and them without their luggage or a return address. The term ‘War Crime’ don’t even start to describe what the Reich has done over the past seventy years.”
Hynes looked like he was about to interrupt with a question, his face pale from the way that the conversation had suddenly escalated, but Cole shot him a look, not even close to finishing his little speech.
“And now we’re, what they called, ‘vassals’ of the Greater German Reich and god help you if you look at ‘em funny, because they’ll nuke or burn or gas you and your family and anyone nearby. And everyone knows that, from Alaska to Tokyo, but it ain’t something you want to dwell on, because if you do then maybe putting your mouth around a pistol or an exhaust pipe starts to look downright appealing? Or maybe picking up a rifle and shooting the nearest Aryan sonofabitch and to hell with everyone in a three-block radius.
So the RMVP start making all of these blockbuster films, and like fuck are they gonna be historically accurate – at least not in the big picture. Oh, they want people like me who know a Luger from an SS Ehrendolch, but they’re not gonna admit on the silver screen that they dropped an H-Bomb on Jersey City after we’d surrendered, just because they could, are they? Or that the barges they used for Sealion were pieces of shit that sank the moment you looked at ‘em, and it was only von Gablenz getting lucky at Lewes that meant the Brits collapsed – right?
Nah, instead of that, they fill the movies with clichés and tropes, because clichés and tropes and shit are comforting. They’re easy to go along with, they make you feel good, they don’t make you think too much, and instead make you go “Hoo boy, I’m glad we didn’t follow FDR and mess with the Reich” because look at all of these advanced guns and boats and shit they had even back when Churchill wasn’t dancin’ the jig in Berlin. Clichés mean never having to admit that you’re living in a goddamn dystopia, and you, and your family, and your friends, and your masters and commanders are standing on top of a pile of corpses a hundred miles high.”
As he finished speaking – or rather, ranting by the end of it – he realised that he’d worked up a sweat, and that he’d scared Hynes shitless. Poor kid looked like he was about to have a stroke, or a heart attack, or maybe both at once. The truth wasn’t easy to admit, or handle when you finally realised it. Cole sighed deeply, cuffed his brow with a sleeve, and grabbed the younger man gently by the shoulder.
“Look kid, it ain’t easy suddenly figuring out that the bad guys won a long time ago, and there ain’t no such thing as a good guy anymore. Or rather, there is, but now he wears a fuckin’ Heer uniform and a swastika and looks like Richter of the Reich. And that shit ain’t ever gonna change, no matter how hard you try or how often – ask a Canadian, if there are any left. So you just put your head down and try and make the best of things, right?”
He looked Hynes deep in the eyes, as if trying to physically impart some level of knowledge, some token of the way the world was these days; and when the kid didn’t look like he was going to die in a few seconds, he clapped him on the back and moved away. He picked up the assault rifle and slung it over his shoulder, and gave a friendly wave as he departed.
“Do up those fuckin’ buttons, kid, and you’ll be fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go try and get my RMVP card at long last. They’re shooting the scenes of No. 10 surrendering soon, and I hear that the guy playin’ Ambassador Kennedy has a little secret in his family tree. A Yid secret, to be exact – he didn’t cover it up properly, and I’ve got the names and dates to prove it. Bet I look good in a suit and all dolled up, and with lines that ain’t gonna be cut out of the film at the last second. Anyway, have fun kid.”
Taking another cigarette from his pocket and lighting it, Cole walked away trailing wisps of smoke, leaving Hynes to stagger to his feet and rush in the direction of the latrines. He ran past the Sherman tank was being reassembled for the reshoot, and figures in Heer grey and British khaki ambling back to their positions. In the distance, a huge blood-red and white Swastika banner was being laid out, in preparation for it flying above the faux-English soil.
Adam Selby-Martin has written short stories for several Sea Lion Press anthologies and also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews