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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 6

It was six o’clock in the morning. We had been slugging it out on the steep mountainside since sunrise. That had been over four hours ago. The attack had not come an instant too soon. Just past the medical station we had run into a strong German force whose objective, it seemed, had been the medical station. At least that was what the few prisoners we had taken had told us.

I was cold and wet. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie and his squad were deployed to my left even higher up, just beyond the tree line. Sergeant Bill Johnson was in charge of the squad to my right. Lieutenant Hiber had been our first casualty when a sniper’s bullet had hit him in the chest as we made contact with the enemy. He was dead before his body had crumpled to the ground. He had not felt a thing. Johnson had taken over his squad.

The ground was rocky in places. Where there was soil it had turned into mud by the melting snow. The gnarled birches and aspens reached up to my hip. I was leaning against a rock face. The tree line snaked across the mountainside like a line drawn by some omnipotent being. On one side of it were the scrubby trees and on the other lichen and a few hardy grasses. While the line was not straight it was nevertheless a clear demarcation. In the distance to the east I could make out the waters of the Herjangsfjord, grey and menacing.

Although we held the higher ground it did not appear to be much of advantage. The enemy was well concealed in the denser ground cover below us. For the hundredth time I swept my binoculars over the rocky area in front of me. A cold wind blew in from the northeast, right down the Herjangsfjord. To the southeast across the water I could just make out the peninsula where Narvik was located although I could not distinguish any buildings nor any port facilities.

Every few minutes the Germans would send a round over from the opposite side of the fjord. Their field guns could just reach our positions. The shells landed mostly in the no man’s land before us or behind the line we held, but occasionally they were right on target. I had already lost six men to their gunnery. It certainly kept us on our toes.

Before me the mountainside seemed deserted right down to the water’s edge. But I knew that at least a company of trained mountain troops faced our position. We had made contact with them almost from the instant I gave the order to advance. Despite their fierce resistance we had forced them halfway down to the water. I swept my field glasses slowly over the scrubby birch trees. The Germans seemed to have left, so perfectly did the grey green of their uniforms blend into the grey green of the landscape.

“Mackenzie, over here,” I yelled. I waited. After a couple of minutes heard a noise on top of the rock face. Somebody slid down its left side and then jumped the last meter, rolling under a scrubby tree as he landed. A series of splinters showered down on me. The Germans were there, on guard and alert. A volley of small arms fire concentrated on the area where Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie had been just a fraction of a second ago. A stray bullet caught the end of my collar. I could feel it as a tug close to my throat. I flattened myself against the ground. Then I carefully crept towards the gnarled tree behind which Mackenzie was crouching.

“That was a close call, Sir,” he said to me when I faced him. He pulled on my collar and a piece of cloth came loose in his hand.

“I guess my time isn’t up yet,” I said.

“You were just plain lucky, Captain.”

“We have been pinned down here long enough,” I said to Mackenzie. “ We shall have to figure out a way to take the initiative again.”

An artillery shell whistled over and landed some ten meters above us. We both hugged the ground. The explosion hurled metal splinters in all directions and showered us with dirt.

“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered and slid down the hill. Mackenzie moved like a snake over the uneven ground. We both halted some twenty meters away between two boulders as another shell announced its arrival with a brief whistling sound. We both pressed against the rock. The shell burst in exactly the location we had just vacated.

“I guess you are right. Your time isn’t up yet,” Mackenzie said in a low voice. His teeth were chattering and he was shaking. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was the cold. A third shell burst farther up the mountain.

I worked myself around the boulder so that I could look down the slope. My field glasses were covered with dust. With the cuff of my sleeve I wiped the lenses and then raised the glasses to my eyes. Something moved. It appeared so close that I could almost touch it. Lowering the glasses I strained my eyes to see where the movement was. Every­thing down slope was grey, different shades of grey. I could not make out anything in detail beyond thirty meters. Hastily I raised the field glasses again.

The terrain sprang back into sharp focus. Very slowly I moved the glasses, studying the field from close by to the far distance. And there it was again, the faint motion. It was an arm, an elbow, braced on the ground. There was another arm, a hand holding a rifle. And then came the head, covered by a helmet, a German helmet. The gun swung around and steadied, pointing to the south of me. There was a flash, a puff of smoke. I lowered the binoculars once more.

It seemed like an eternity before I heard the report of the shot. A single shot. I heard a scream. And then there was silence.

Several other shots rang out. Far away to my right somebody yelled for a medic.

“They are there,” I heard Mackenzie say next to me. I nodded.

“We shall have to flush them out. Johnson over here.” I shouted the last three words.

It took some time before Johnson arrived.

“Smitty bought it,” he said hoarsely as he slipped around the boul­der and faced me.


Johnson grunted. “He did not even cry out.” He shuddered. “I was right next to him. The bullet grazed Muldoon, ricocheted off a rock and caught Smitty in the ear. He just toppled over.”

Johnson groaned. For a moment I thought that he was going to be sick.

Two artillery shells came whistling down. They landed higher up to my right, behind our lines.

I outlined my plan to both my squad leaders. I would feign a frontal attack. Mackenzie would infiltrate the enemy and attack from the north. Johnson would lead his team down slope and attack from the south. We synchronized our watches. I gave them fifteen minutes to get into position.

Both Johnson and Mackenzie returned to their respective squads. They moved so stealthily that I could not see their progress. Evidently the Germans did not see it either. There was small arms fire but it was far away.

A good ten minutes had gone by without a shot having been fired in our sector. The sky was beginning to clear. As I swept my glasses over the waters of the Herjangsfjord it was taking on a blue color. To the southeast the city of Narvik was emerging from the haze. Closer at hand everything seemed dead. Nothing moved. Some distance below me a German mountain trooper lay quietly as if he were part of the scrubby trees or a boulder. I had to look very carefully to make him out and even then I was not quite sure. Thirty seconds left.

The mitten on my left hand was awkward. Things were hard to grasp. I sat up between the rocks, then rested on my knees. Fifteen seconds. One last glance through the binoculars. Nothing had changed before me. I fixed the location of the enemy trooper in my mind. Then I took my submachine gun in my left hand and released the safety catch. I pulled a grenade off my belt with my right hand. Ten seconds. I crouched on the tip of my feet, ready to spring up, the grenade held close to my mouth. Five seconds, four.

“Follow me,” I yelled at the one second mark. With my teeth I pulled the pin out of the grenade and flung it down the mountainside to where I figured the enemy trooper was hiding. Simultaneously I jumped diagonally to my right from between the two rocks. After three giant strides I dropped to the ground behind a couple of trees. Then came the explosion of the grenade.

There was shooting all around me now as well as farther down the slope. I took the submachine gun in my right hand again. On my elbows and knees I wriggled forward to the protection of another large boulder.

Straight down in front of me I could hear the bursts of a machine gun. From close to the ground I could not make out its exact location. It had us pinned down and had to go. Way up ahead a shadow flitted from tree to tree. I lined up my weapon and waited. After two seconds the shadow moved again. I pressed the trigger.

There was a scream and something staggered and then fell to the ground. Meanwhile I rolled another three meters down the hillside to come to rest against a small mound. There was water in the depression in which I had landed. My left upper arm and thigh got soaked. The feeling was highly unpleasant and the urge to find a dry place was very great. But I stayed put. Again I heard the bursts of the machine gun. It was a lot closer now. Strangely I had not been shot at so far. I held my breath and waited.

A short distance to my left was a small stand of tall grasses. I wormed my way towards it. An eerie silence had descended on my immediate surroundings. The ground became dry and rocky. Cautiously I made my way through the grasses. Abruptly they came to an end. Reaching ahead with my left hand I felt empty space. I was on top of a small precipice. I crept to the very edge of it and peered through the last few blades of dried grass.

Below me nothing moved. All I could see was the grey of the ground and the grey of the scrubby trees. Here and there a few rocks came to the surface, also grey. I retreated a step and grappled with my field glasses. Lying on the partially frozen ground at an awkward angle, my fingers stiff from the cold, I encountered some difficulties in pulling the glasses out of the carrying case. But at last I succeeded.

Back at the edge of the precipice I carefully scrutinized the ground before me once more. It still looked grey and deserted. Some distance to my right I heard the report of a rifle. Suddenly I noticed the most minute movement about thirty meters away. In a brief burst the machine gun spat out another couple of dozen bullets.

I lowered the binoculars in order to get a better view of the machine gun nest relative to my position. Yes, there it was. Right next to the clump of gnarled birch trees, hidden by the low branches and the dried grass. One more quick peek through the field glasses to make sure I had the place correctly located. As I raised the glasses a tremendous force yanked them out of my hands. There was the sound of metal banging on metal, of splintering glass. I dropped back and for a moment lay on the dry grass. I had two grenades left. I took one, pulled out the pin and flung it over the precipice.

The machine gun was starting up again when there was a muffled explosion. I rolled over on my stomach. I crept the short distance to the edge of the precipice. Where the machine gun nest had been I saw only broken trees and some smoke. Nothing moved.

I slid back and quickly worked myself around the precipice, sliding down the steep rock and gravel to the north of it, firing short bursts from my submachine gun at the scraggy birch trees below. Then my feet hit a narrow stretch of level ground. I let myself collapse and rolled behind a clump of trees, still firing short bursts without aiming at anything.

Suddenly small arms fire exploded from everywhere behind me as my troopers jumped up and advanced. I quickly rose and raced from cover to cover, firing at anything that moved. In no time we had covered a hundred meters, then two hundred. The enemy was thoroughly con­fused. From all around the Germans rose, their hands held high.

We took a large number of prisoners. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie to the north of me and Sergeant Bill Johnson to the south had just gotten into position when the action came to an end.

The enemy still sent occasional rounds of artillery shells over, but they were not aimed and did no damage. By noon we reached the shore of the fjord. There were a few snipers to be flushed out here and there but we lost no more soldiers. Late afternoon saw us make contact with a French unit. Our objective had been achieved.

Not until the supper hour did our field kitchens catch up to us. The sun had broken through the clouds and the city of Narvik stood out clearly on its peninsula across the water with the tall mountains as a backdrop.

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