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«Potsdam Station», David Downing

Franco's furniture April 6 – 7

As they walked south towards Diedersdorf and the battalion command post, Paul Gehrts realised that he and his companion Gerhart Reheusser were grinning like idiots. The cloudless blue sky, warm sunshine and dust-free easterly breeze were responsible, banishing, if only for a few minutes, the grim anxiety that filled their waking hours. For the moment the occasional rattle of a distant machine-gun, the odd boom of a tank cannon or gun, could be ignored.

About five kilometres behind them, the Seelow Heights fell sharply away to the Oderbruch, the meadowlands which lay between the escarpment and the Oder River. Soon – in a few days, most likely – the men and tanks of the Red Army would storm across those meadows and throw themselves at the German defences. The Russians would die in their thousands, but thousands more would follow. It would only be a matter of time.

But a sunny day was a sunny day, with a power all its own.

The two men were approaching the first houses of the small town when they came upon a large group of soldiers spread out along the side of the road. Few looked older than fifteen, and one boy was actually passing round his army-issue bag of sweets, as if he were at a friend's birthday party. Most had their panzerfausts lying beside them on the grass, and all looked exhausted – the disposable rocket-launchers were a crippling weight for all but the strongest children. Their troop leader, who was probably almost out of his teens, was examining a weeping blister on one of his charges' feet. As Paul and Gerhard walked past he looked up, and offered them a brief rueful smile.

Almost all of Diedersdorf's usual residents had left or been evacuated, and were now presumably clogging the roads leading westward, but the town was not being neglected – in the small central square an overzealous staff-sergeant was supervising another band of young recruits in sweeping the cobbles.

'The madness of the military mind,' Gerhard muttered, not for the first time.

As if prove his point, a half-track drove across the square, sending eddies of dust in every direction. The sergeant endured a violent fit of coughing, then ordered his boys back to work.

The division mechanics had set up shop in the goods yard of the town station, close to where a large dug-out had been excavated in the railway embankment for the battalion command post. The corporal at the improvised desk in the goods shed groaned when he saw Paul's machine-gun. 'Don't tell me – it jams.'

'It does.'

'How often?'

'Too often for comfort.'

The corporal sighed. 'I'll get someone to have a look,' he said. 'Come back in an hour.'

Two bench seats from the nearby railway station had been left outside the battalion command post entrance, offering a place to wait and watch the war go by. The two of them had only been sitting there a few minutes when a captured Red Army jeep pulled up. A Wehrmacht major and two NCOs leapt out, shoved their manacled Russian prisoner onto the other seat, and disappeared into the dugout. He looked like an ordinary rifleman, with dark dishevelled hair and vaguely Mongoloid features. He was wearing a blood-stained kaftan above badly frayed trousers and worse-worn boots. He sat there with his mouth slightly open, his eyes gazing blankly into space.

But he wasn't stupid. Catching Paul's look he returned it, and his eyes, once focused, seemed full of intelligence. 'Cigarette?' he asked.

That, at least, was one thing the Reich wasn't short of. Gerhart got up and gave him one, placing it between the Russian's lips and offering a lighted match.

' Spasibo. '

'You're welcome, Ivan.'

'No, he fucking isn't,' another voice exploded behind them. It was one of the NCOs who had brought him in. He knocked the cigarette from the Russian's mouth, throwing sparks all over his face, and swung round on Gerhart. 'What the fuck do you think you're doing?'

'What I hope…'

'Shut the fuck up. And get out of my sight.' He turned away, grabbed the Russian under one arm and hustled him through the curtained door of the dug-out.

'Wonderful,' was all Gerhart said. He looked at the still-swaying curtain, as if contemplating pursuit.

'Let's try and find some hot water,' Paul suggested.

'I'm not going anywhere,' Gerhart told him. 'I'm not going to let a shit like that order me around.'

Paul shrugged and sat down again. There was no use arguing with Gerhart at times like this.

They'd been sitting in silence for about a quarter of an hour when shouting started inside. This went on for several more minutes, and culminated in a gunshot. A few moments later, there was another.

Gerhart leapt to his feet.

'Let's go and find that hot water,' Paul said quietly.


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