• Published 16th Nov 2012
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A Great Endeavor - Rune Soldier Dan



On July 3, 1943, Equestria declared war on the Axis Powers. These are the stories of those times.

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Chapter 4: Arnhem Awaits

The Allies love their air power, but even that can be used to our advantage. Watch for the pegasi – that's where they'll hit us next.

-Field Marshal Walter Model



September 12, 1944



The pavilion was alight with cheerful chatter. As he stepped in, Soarin let himself imagine he wasn't in Europe. A host of pegasi stood inside, laughing, talking, and taking snacks. They might have been gossiping after a race, or before a Wonderbolts trial. Faces were light, and eyes were shining.

The familiar innocence made him happy. The "Cloudkickers" had directly fought the Germans on D-Day and paid a steep price for it. But time was healing the wounds. In the months that followed, they stuck with what they were best at: clearing clouds. It was important work and it came easily to them. There was vague sadness on some faces as they recalled a fallen sibling or friend, but it was a distant loss that they've had plenty of time to mourn. "Spitfire's Charge," as the Americans called it, was over, and ponies were moving on.

Expect for me, he thought with a twinge of grief and shame.

No. On second thought, it wasn't like home at all. There were two humans here: a British major nibbled politely on a hay sandwich, and a Pole studiously stripped his weapon on a table in the back. The papers tacked on billboards had maps and weather forecasts instead of racing charts and statistics. And no matter how hard Soarin looked, there was no sign of a tussled gold and orange mane to be seen.

Not like home at all.

He coughed loudly and began striding to the front of the room. Most ponies fell silent, though a few side conversations carried on. Flitter giggled and whispered something to her sister, who laughed and called out to him. "What's with the cough? You've got a popcorn kernel in there?"

A ripple of laughter flowed through the room, though both humans scowled. Soarin had quickly learned that human officers expected stiff respect from their subordinates. He had no idea why – cringing underlings would desert when things got rough, but friends would stay by you no matter what. He wasn't happy being an officer, so he might as well be liked.

"No popcorn," he flashed a grin at the sisters. "Just a briefing I really gotta hack up."

That drew more laughter, but it quickly subsided along with the rest of the chatter. They were informal, not stupid. The pony in the know was about to tell them something, and they'd better listen.

Soarin stepped onto the small stage and stamped his foot once. A pony in the back clicked on the projector at the signal, displaying a map of the Franco-German border behind him.

The talking part came easily – he wouldn't get anypony killed doing a briefing. "Okay, ponies, here we go. I'm pleased to confirm what many of you already know: the German army in France is defeated. Parts of Belgium and Holland have been liberated as well, putting us in a position to invade Germany directly. The greatest challenge remaining to this and total victory is the Rhine River. It's the last major obstacle before Berlin, but it's a doozy: over a mile wide at some points."

"The place…" he tapped his hoof on the ground again. With an audible *click,* the projector switched to the next picture, a more narrow one of Holland. "…Will be here. The enemy doubtless expects us to lunge directly for Germany. Instead the blow will fall in Holland, on their extreme northern flank. In five days, paratroopers from America, Britain, and Poland will begin landing here, here…"

Soarin flapped his wings, floating up to the northernmost objective. "And here. The Rhine is broken up into smaller rivers in this area, making six bridges in total that they will have to secure. We expect them to be engaged by German garrison troops and some remnants from France. They will be relieved by ground forces coming up…here, on this highway. The name of the game will be speed. The paratroopers will be there to prevent the Germans from blowing the bridges, and the main army will relieve them and exploit the opening."

So far, so good. He rapped his hoof on the wall, signaling the next slide to show: a town, dominated by a massive bridge. "The crux of the matter will be here, at Arnhem. It will be the furthest from the ground attack, and it'll be the last chance for the Germans to stop us on this side of the Rhine. The whole thing will be 'Operation Market-Garden,' 'Market' being the airborne part. That's us – the Cloudkickers will be doing our usual jobs: clearing skies, shifting clouds, and acting as runners for the various segments. The most important part will be making sure the landing zones are clear for the paratroopers, which means round-the clock flights over the battlefield. Particularly at Arnhem."

"Hey, where will the landing zone be at Arnhem?" A white pegasus called out, raising her hoof as an afterthought.

"It's…" Soarin hesitated, and his eyes slid to the humans. The British man looked stiff and uncomfortable. The Pole had his eyes closed and was pinching the bridge of his nose. Both men knew the answer, and weren't happy with it.

"On this map," Soarin continued, and immediately regretted the choice of words. "Well, there are no suitable landing sites in and around the city. It's about seven miles to the north of this map."

None of the other ponies seemed share the humans' discomfort. To pegasi, seven miles was the work of a moment. A little extra distance for a little extra safety seemed the most logical thing in the world. They nodded at his explanation, and the briefing concluded on an even higher note.

"If this is successful, it will be the last campaign." Soarin's voice grew more solid, and for the first time he had everyone's undivided attention. "We will be in the German heartland, and there will be nothing between us and their factories, people, and leaders. The war will end at minimal cost in life, and we will be home for Hearts' Warming. Along with all the friends we free from the Nazis."

The reminder of the camps dampened the mood, but it helped to remind them of the stakes. Ponies scattered, talking with each other in low voices, eyeing weather charts, and doing their part ensure this would indeed be the last battle.

Soarin breathed a sigh of relief as their attention left him. He held his head up as he walked off the stage, though couldn't shake the niggling doubts at the back of his mind. Some of them were new, some had been with him ever since Spitfire went MIA.

As he trod out of the pavilion, a gravely, accented voice called after him. "You need to look confident when you're leaving, too. The performance you give to your soldiers begins the moment they see you, and only ends when you're alone."

It was the Pole, walking quickly to catch up. He was past middle aged, though retained an athletic frame and salty black moustache. He looked at Soarin like he was reading his mind, and didn't approve of what he saw.

Soarin gave a sharp exhale that may have been a laugh, and shook his head. "That obvious, huh?"

"You're lucky they didn't pay any attention after you dismissed them. Veteran soldiers would keep watching, gauging how much faith they should put in you. Come – let's walk further away."

They walked into the surrounding fields. Soarin let his head droop low. "They don't have any reason to have faith in me. Spitfire knew how to be a leader. I don't."

"She didn't know shit," the man grumbled, drawing an angry glare from Soarin until he continued. "None of us do. Leadership is all about convincing your men you know exactly what you're doing, then taking a guess. Who can say whether a choice will prove brilliant or stupid? Have confidence, or at least learn to fake it. The rest sorts itself out one way or another."

Soarin looked at him a long moment and proffered a hoof. Humans knew a lot more about commanding soldiers, and hearing one treat it as just a matter of attitude was heartening. "I'll try."

The man gripped the hoof readily and pumped it once. "That's all anyone can do." Then almost as an afterthought: "General Stanislaw Sosabowski, Polish 1st Parachute Brigade. At your service."

"Captain Soarin," Soarin returned. His mind tumbled over the Polish name for a moment before giving up. Simple or common human names he could follow, but not something like this. Why do humans make up nonsense words to call themselves?

"Why the doubts now, Captain?" The gruff general wasn't shy about digging into others' feelings. "She died in June. You've had time to settle in as leader."

"She went MISSING," Soarin corrected him defensively.

Sosabowski rolled his eyes, but made no move to argue. The pegasus sighed and continued. "That was the last really hard thing we did. My job's been easy since. Officer X calls me and says they need clear skies in Sectors Y and Z, I send ponies out, and they all come back when it's done. The spotter and medic pegasi manage themselves. But this 'Market-Garden' thing is big. We'll be doing all our usual work plus keeping skies clear above an ongoing battle, running between isolated positions and the main column, doing recon, relaying orders…it's enough to make my head spin. The success of this could depend on me. ME! And I've never done anything like this before!"

"It depends on all of us," the general said. "If you excel and the rest of us fail, it will still be a disaster. If we all perform admirably…"

He hesitated a second too long before continuing. "It may succeed."

The Pole didn't sound convinced at all. Soarin shuffled his hooves as the conversation faded to silence. Sosabowski lit a cigarette and offered the pack to the pegasus, who shook his head.

"Can't stand those," Soarin said.

The general shrugged, pocketed the pack, and spoke again. "You ponies…I can tell this 'war' business doesn't come naturally to you. You all get this terrified look on your faces when you hear a Limey refer to it as 'the game,' or an Ami brag about how many Germans he killed. You should've stayed in Equestria. Stayed in your own world, and left war to us."

"We can't do that."

Sosabowski just looked amused at Soarin's response. The pegasus felt his cheeks redden with embarrassment and anger, and continued without the slightest doubt. "No, we couldn't stay home, knowing what the Nazis were doing to the ponies of Europe. Especially knowing what we know now, what they're doing to the unicorns. But even ignoring the magic, what about the camps? The prisons?"

He stomped a hoof into the ground and stared at the dirt, tears starting to come down. "The graves? THE OVENS?! We couldn't turn our back on it all. You're right, we don't like going to war. We're bad at it. We couldn't do anything without you humans helping us. But we have to be here, to do what we can. We just have to, I, I can't explain it better than that. If there's one, if there's even one earth pony, or pegasus, or human I can save by being here, I'll do it. Now that I know about this murder, I can't just go about my life like nothing's wrong."

The amused look had vanished from Sosabowski's face. The human puffed on his cigarette silently, and they quietly watched the bustle of a populated campsite. A nearby exchange between two pegasi caught their gaze, owing to the volume of the first speaker.

"Derpy?!!"

"Here's your mail, Rainbow Dash!"

"What in Celestia's name are you doing here? I thought they said you couldn't enlist!"

"I couldn't! But I did join the Overseas Equestrian Mail Service! I take care of distribution here."

The blue pegasus groaned and barrel-rolled lazily in mid air. "Great, even here I can't get away from you."

Derpy grinned. "We go together, like apple pie!"

"WE ARE NOT LIKE APPLE PIE!"

The ridiculousness of the lines weren't lost on the officers: Soarin and even Sosabowski snorted at the same time and doubled over with a burst of quiet humor.

"You ponies are so strange." Sosabowski shook his head, face returning to its natural frown. "I've heard a few say that humans and you are the same inside, but I don't believe it for a second."

"Yeah, me neither." It was true – despite fighting above them for a year, humans still remained a mystery to Soarin. Many of them were like ponies, but no equivalent to the Nazis had ever risen in Equestria. There were a few bad apples among them, but to slaughter the defenseless, or greedily lunge for all around them? Ponies wouldn't think of it. They couldn't even understand it, and Soarin thought that was for the best.

Yet it was some humans' propensity for evil that brought out the best in others. During the sweep through France, he had spoken with ponies that had hidden from the Nazis. Some had spent nearly four years in a single cellar. Others had been sequestered in a convent, or guarded in a forest stronghold by resistance fighters. In each and every case, humans had put their lives on the line to protect these strangers. Soarin loved those stories. They kept him from hating the humans, even a little bit.

"Good intentions," the general mused, his own thoughts returning to the conversation. "Now that you know, you can't pretend nothing's wrong, hm? That'll get you killed, but ah, what a better world it would be if we all had such hearts!"

He smiled sadly, casting an inward glance at his own motivations: bitterness for Poland lost, and hatred for those that killed it. No, the world needed more like Soarin, and fewer like him.

Well, if nothing else, maybe he could stop the world from losing one like Soarin too soon. Sosabowski leaned in conspiratorially, growling lowly into the pony's ear. "You watch yourself going into this. There are a lot of things wrong with this 'Market-Garden,' and come Hell or high water we'll be in the thick of it. My men will be stuck, but your pegasi? Scramble if things look bad. Don't let the Germans catch you on the ground. If some prick American or Limey tells you to do something stupid, you tell him to shove it."

The cynical advice took Soarin aback. "Are you THAT certain things will go badly?"

"I'd say the same if we were going on a picnic," Sosabowski's growl maintained its low pitch. "There are a lot of proud men in this army, men who'd rather see us all dead than sully their pristine 'honor.' Do your duty, but keep both eyes open. You staying alive is more important than some fool's…"

He caught himself and shook his head. Soarin looked at him oddly. The old Pole was done with the tirade: his cracked lips had pressed together, and he was glaring off into the distance.

Another silence descended, and he spoke one last time. "I've seen too many good men die. Don't be one of them."

And he strode off, into the setting sun. Soarin stood alone in the field a long while longer, musing on his own fears and the human's words. When Luna's moon rose, he trod slowly back to his tent. He didn't feel like sleeping, but he needed his rest. There was an offensive to plan.

------

September 16, 1944

Arnhem, Holland



Field Marshal Model was a hard man, made harder by years of bitter war. But he smiled all the same at the spectacle above him. It was hard not to smile at pegasi at work. They were graceful and colorful, like woodland birds given sentience.

It was an open, genuine smile on his face. He could admire beauty in all its forms. The simple prettiness of a flower. The majesty of a great wave. The awesome power of a thunderstorm.

…And the pegasi as they clear the skies for the bombers of our enemies. Model thought wryly, and he slowly put his hat on.

With one last glance up, he turned and strode inside. His footsteps were quick and purposeful. The moment of sentimentality had passed, and he was a soldier again.

"Send a message to the general staff," he barked as he entered the radio room. "I want every flak cannon we've got deployed and pointed upwards. I want all formations to prep for air assault. Tell the officers to hold every bridge and town in force."

"What should we tell Berlin?" One of the operators asked.

Model took a deep breath and shook his head. "Nothing yet."

Nothing to tell. Is this preparation for a bomber raid? Air support for a ground attack? A paradrop? A bluff?

The orders given, he found himself without a thing to do but wait for the Allies to make their move. Model strode back to the balcony and placed both hands on the railing. He glared up at the pegasi now, ignoring the sun shining down into his eyes.

"Come on," he called out, though they were certainly too high to hear him. "Come at me! This war has not yet ended. Germany is holy land, and shall not be lost so long as one among us draws breath!"





As 1944 neared its end, total victory seemed within grasp. The German army was in disarray, and its best units were locked in desperate battle against the Soviets. With cautious optimism, Eisenhower asked his generals to submit plans to cross the Rhine and end the war by Christmas.

Three plans rose from this request. Patton proposed a direct assault into Germany - a move certain to suffer heavy losses, but also to deal them to the exhausted Wermacht. Bradley and Celestia co-authored a more complicated plan to strike through Southern Germany instead. Such would have bypassed major defenses, but would emerge nowhere near crucial industrial and political centers. Montgomery's idea was even more audacious: a combined airborne and armored assault to cross the Rhine in Holland.

There were major complications with each of the hasty plans. Montgomery's was perhaps the most dubious, but it also had the greatest potential for the least risk. Eisenhower gave it the nod, and scant months later Operation Market-Garden commenced.

Leading the opposition was possibly the best man for the job: Walter Model, nicknamed "The Fuhrer's Fireman" for his ability to contain disasters. Transferred to the West after the Falaise Offensive, he had worked tirelessly to rally the crippled Wermacht. When the attack began, the paratroopers found not the terrified conscripts they expected, but a skilled, bitter army determined to defend their Fatherland to the end.

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