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EXCERPT

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Chapter 1

They
came in fast, loud and with thunder clap surprise, the engines of the three hovercraft roaring like sea demons. The two smaller craft led the way, speeding in north of the main harbor to find narrow strands along the shore. Hovercraft 639 was up near the rail yard, landing on a narrow beach just south of a small oil loading area. The rail lines ran very near the coast here as they bent south toward the main harbor and the front ramp slowly descended as the craft stormed up onto the beach under the watchful guard of the twin 14.5mm machine gun turret. To anyone that saw it that evening, it may have appeared like a wrathful beast from the sea, 280 tons of metal roaring beneath the grey, low hanging gloom.

The plan was to hit the coast fast, and seize key objectives before the advancing German formations could reach the port. Hovercraft 640 landed about 200 meters south on a narrow gravel embankment fringed by a long stone jetty. Within seconds the front ramps were down and the rumble of the PT-76 tanks added to the cacophony of noise. They were relative relics by the year 2021, withdrawn from active deployment over seven years ago and replaced in all main line Naval Marine units by the T-80. But that new tank weighed over 42 tons, and the PT-76s scrounged up at the naval base at Kaspiysk weighed only 14 tons. Admiral Volsky had opted for anything he could get on the hovercraft, and so the legacy tank did the job better than anything new in the Russian inventory. It was actually designed to work with the old hovercraft they were using, and they went with it.

The two tanks moved quickly down the ramps followed by scores of black booted Marines with assault rifles who rushed ashore and went to ground to take up firing positions. The two tanks turned left and headed inland, flanked on each side by a squad of Marines.

Troyak had studied the map carefully to devise his plan of defense. There were only two likely avenues of approach to the harbor. One was right along the northern coast where the hovercraft landed, on a narrow strip of land that was flanked on the left by a long salt lake that ran roughly parallel to the shore. There he deployed the bulk of two platoons of Naval Marines, one landing with each hovercraft. Each platoon would deploy three RPG-7V shoulder-launched, anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launchers as their main tank defense, and three mortars for fire support. The platoon also carried three RPK-76 light machine guns, and the rifle sections were armed with AK-74 assault rifles.

Their first objective was the main rail yard building, which dominated all the rail spurs feeding in to the yard, with good fields of fire in all directions. Others infiltrated into the built up area between the coast and the lake, occupying the buildings to the surprise of any remaining residents still lingering in the area.

After the shock and surprise of the landing, the locals soon came to understand that these were Russian troops, and not some new fangled weaponry deployed by the Germans. They gaped at the hovercraft, astounded by the roar of the engines and amazed to see how the craft could move over land or sea.

One man was a garrison officer in the NKDV unit assigned to the area. “Reinforcements!” he cried at the top of his voice. “Reinforcements from Baku!”

That was how they had planned it, to present themselves as an elite force dispatched from Baku to stop the Germans and save the day. The two PT-76 tanks seemed more familiar to the locals, about the size of the T-34s they knew well enough, though the sharp front amphibious bow and low profile drew many second looks. Apparently Baku had new tanks as well!

Troyak came ashore with the two lighter hovercraft, debarking from the number 640 boat and leading the Marines ashore. He waved his men inland with a sharp whistle and motion of his brawny forearm, and then watched as the two tanks turned south to their assigned positions. He wanted them at the base of the long salt lake, were the second road approached the harbor from the west. It ran past the flat height of a low hill, passing right through a densely wooded park before it reached the coastal rail lines. The coastal road ran past the lake on elevated ground , and from that wooded area the two tanks had perfect fields of fire to interdict that road. They would also serve as the main bulwark to block the inland road, and they would be supported by a full platoon of Marines landing with the 609 Aist class hovercraft with Fedorov.

The larger hovercraft landed just south of the main harbor on a narrow beach at the base of a long jetty. It carried the mechanized platoon mounted in two PT-50 amphibious Armored Personnel carriers. They were supported by a ZSU-23-4 air defense vehicle where Fedorov held sway, riding with command headphones on so he could remain in constant contact with Troyak. This hovercraft was big enough to carry two more platoons of Marines, one moving forward with the APCs and the second being held in reserve near the ZSU-23.

Scouts quickly learned that the local forces in the area had been ready to retreat, but now, with the arrival of Fedorov’s little invasion force, they took heart and were seen in small groups of three and five men, urged back to the front line by barking sergeants. Fedorov dismounted and quickly had his men round up one of the locals, a man named Kulikov, who greeted him with a warm, ruddy cheeked smile.

“Good to see you. Where did you get that!” he pointed at the big hovercraft, a lumbering behemoth still roaring near the jetty, its twin 30mm gun turret slowly rotating on overwatch.

“A gift from Baku,” Fedorov said quickly. “Who is in charge here?”

“In charge? That would be Commissar Molla, in the holding facility. You can just follow the rail line north and you will see it on your left. They were preparing to move south soon. Some have already gone. The Germans are coming!” The man pointed.

“Yes? Well, we’ll see about that. How many are you?”

“We have a single battalion, but the Germans are coming in strength, at least one full mechanized battalion on the inland road, and many armored cars and motorcycle infantry on the coast road to the north. We were ordered to retreat, until we saw you come in off the sea. Amazing! I had no idea we had such machines!”

“Stalin has more in the cupboard than you may realize,” Fedorov smiled. The man gave him an odd look, but said nothing more, still gaping at the ZSU-23.

“We are occupying all the ground between the central park and the rail yard,” said Fedorov. “Get your men on our left flank. Can you hold the ground between the city and that hill?”

“We can try, comrade. Yes. We will fight!”

“Good. Get word to all your officers. Tell them we stop the Germans here and now. If they take this place, the road to Baku is open. Here we stand firm!”

The Sergeant nodded heartily and ran off, yelling to round up any men he could find. Fedorov climbed back up onto the ZSU-23, a vehicle using the same chassis as the PT-76 tanks, though it was not amphibious, with a big upper turret housing quad 23mm cannons. Known as the Shilka, and often referred to by its nickname “Zeus” it was the God of air defense for Russian ground battalions. The quad 23mm guns could range out 3000 meters, with precision radar controlled fire that also included a laser rangefinder and a sensor pod with a day/night optical camera that could use infrared night optics to spot targets 600 meters away.

The ZSU moved off with a low growl, its metal tracks rattling on the rail ties as it followed the lines north. Fedorov was going to head directly to the detention facility and conduct the search for Orlov while Troyak organized the defense against the Germans. The vehicle soon reached a point between the park and the main harbor where the squat shape of the thick walled facility could be seen to the west. Two NKVD Guards waited by the main entrance, and one man held up an arm to signal the vehicle to stop.

Zykov was riding in the ZSU as Fedorov’s tactical advisor, and the two men emerged from the open hatch jumping down and walking boldly up to the gate.

“Who are you?” the guards asked. “What is happening?”

“We are reinforcements. Where is your Commissar Molla?”

“Molla? In there, of course. His staff car came in just a few moments ago.”

“Very well,” said Fedorov. “Open the gate. We have orders for the Commissar.”

“But we were told—”

“I don’t care what you were told,” Fedorov said quickly. “The situation has changed. The Germans are coming, and I am now in full command of the defense of Makhachkala and the harbor. It must not be taken. Now open that gate or stand aside and I will have my men do it. And be quick about it!”

The guards saw the insignia on Fedorov’s Cap—an NKVD Colonel—and the decorations on his chest. They were not inclined to argue further. The growl of the ZSU rumbling in the background was more than persuasive in any case. They ran to the gates, opening them wide and saluting.

Fedorov turned to Zykov. “Corporal. Take two squads. Go get our man.”

“With pleasure, sir!”

“And Zykov…Be firm. Take no guff from anyone. I’m going to find this commissar and see what he knows. Conduct your search and signal me the moment you locate Orlov.

They started through the gate, but Fedorov soon heard Troyak’s voice in his earbud, calling from the defense perimeter. “Colonel Fedorov—we have company. Germans are on the north road by the oil tanks. They are coming.”

* * *

Oberleutnant Ernst Wellman was leading Kradschutzen Battalion 3, two platoons of motorcycle infantry out in front supported by three armored cars. Behind them came the bulk of the fast moving motorcycle infantry in a long column. At intervals there would be other larger vehicles, trucks and half-tracks hauling heavier weapons—a 75mm infantry gun and two 37mm light anti tank guns.

One platoon of motorcycle infantry roared up to the oil tank farm north of Troyak’s main line of defense, dismounting and rushing to secure this vital area, not knowing that the tanks were empty, drained long ago. Other troops were dismounting at the edge of the main rail yard, and with well practiced skill they began sending sections of three man teams into the open yard, heading for the main building where Troyak was watching with binoculars. The dour Sergeant pinched off his collar microphone and gave an order.

“Litchko—sniper rifle!”

The crack of the rifle opened the engagement with a single round that dropped the lead German scout right by the main rail tracks and announced to all the rest that the area was held against them. It was to be one of the oddest engagements of the war, with the veteran German infantry opposed by Russian Marines from the 21st century, men who would not be born for another fifty or sixty years!

The first kill sent all the remaining infantry to ground, some crawling to look for any cover available—old rusted barrels, stacks of wood pallets, bailing wire, and old crates. The men shouted, and one squad was up, rushing forward.

Troyak knew they intended to draw fire from his main defensive positions, but the men had been ordered to wait and Litchko’s sniper rifle barked again, two rounds in quick succession dropping two of the three men. The third man made it to cover, then poked his head up to try and locate the sniper and received a bullet for his trouble.

The Germans were back to square one, but now they heard the harsh call of orders, and soon the infantry in place began to open fire on every building within site. Troyak’s Marines watched while small teams again began to rush forward across the tracks, and again the sniper rifle snapped off shots to thin their ranks. Yet this time too many were moving, at least fifteen men rushing forward behind the base of rifle fire provided by the remainder of the German platoon. Troyak gave the order to return fire, and the Marines opened up with their fully automatic AK-74s, firepower many times in excess of the incoming German rifle fire. They cut the German advance to pieces in sharp, well controlled bursts of fire, until all the infantry had gone to ground again, surprised by the withering automatic weapons of the Russian Marines.

Wellman was close enough to see what was happening and he immediately knew he had run into some real trouble here. He began to order up his armored cars in support. There were three at hand, an SdKfz 221 mounting an MG-32 and two SdKfz 222s with 2cm KwK 30 autocannons. The smallest tank gun designed by the Germans in the war, it was initially mounted on their old Panzer II recon tanks. The armored cars began to fire, though the weight of their additional guns soon proved ineffective against the well positioned Russian Marines. Their armor was soon found lacking as well.

“D section,” Troyak ordered through his collar microphone, “take out those armored cars.”

The Russian Marine squad laid out intense covering fire and the RPG-7Vs opened up at a range of just under 100 meters, and scored quick hits, the tandem HEAT rounds blasting completely through the thin armor of the German ACs and wrecking them in a short, violent minute.

Wellman was watching from the rear and now knew he had a real battle on his hands. He had never seen such a violent reprisal from what looked to be a hand held anti-tank weapon! He had seen an early prototype of the new Faustpatrone AT weapon for infantry, but it was still in development. It would be another long year before this weapon, and its successors, became the Panzerfaust that was so effective for the Germans later in the war. Even that could fire no more than 30 meters, but this new Russian weapon had knocked out his armored cars with lethal accuracy at least 100 meters away! He immediately radioed back for additional support.

“Becker? Where are you. I need tank support on the coast road north of the rail yard. The Russians are dug in and putting up quite a fight!”

“We’re five miles behind you,” came the reply. “But we will hasten up as quickly as possible. Get some artillery on them!”

It was good advice, and Wellman cranked up his radio to get hold of Kersten’s artillery battery, deploying north of the city for just this purpose.

There was a brief lull in the action as Wellman sized up the situation. In ten minutes time he had his A platoon chewed to pieces and all three armored cars put out of action. B Platoon was in the oil tank farm to the left of the main rail yard building, which looked to be the Russian strong point at the moment. It was a good position, with excellent fields of fire in all directions and little cover for infantry trying to advance across the rail yard. Who were these troops? The volume of machine gun and automatic fire they could put out was far beyond anything he had seen from Russian infantry before. Not even the NKVD or Guards units were so lavishly equipped.

Under other circumstances he might consider simply swarming the position, but the rate of defensive fire coming from the building was intense. He reasoned they must have a machine-gun platoon in there, and perhaps a few small AT guns. He needed to put strong suppressive fire on the position to have any chance of taking it with infantry. His only other option was firepower from heavy weapons.

“Heintz!” He shouted at a nearby sergeant. “Get the Schwere platoon up, and be quick about it!”

Word soon came in from the regimental headquarters under Franz Westhoven. His column, dubbed KG Westhoven had met with similar stiff resistance on the main road to the town. “We are south of the salt lake now, and they have tanks and APCs blocking the advance. I’ve lost two half tracks. This is a well defended position. We will not be able to take it in an attack from march. I suggest you bring up the remainder of your Kradschutzen battalion and then let us plan a deliberate attack. I’m sending out the Cossacks to scout that low hill south of the city. We may be able to work around that flank as well. Hold on. Kertsen’s guns will be ready in five minutes.”

“They should have been ready before we made contact, Generalleutnant Westhoven. We underestimated the Russians here. They know there is nothing to stop us if we take this place.”

“Then take it we will,” came the voice on the other end of the line. “We have the entire regiment at our disposal, Wellman. Plan your attack.”

Troyak’s well positioned Marines had stopped the German advance cold, just as he had promised Fedorov. But the 23rd Panzer Division was a tough and experienced formation. They had fought their way across Russia for well over a thousand hard miles, and this was just one more battle. Troyak had 180 men, lightly armed by modern standards with just two tanks and a few APCs in support. The Germans had considerably more at hand, and the battle was only just beginning.

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