• 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 5: No Sign of Victory

"When one man says to another, ‘I know what let's do today, let's play the war game.’... everybody dies."

-General Stanislaw Sosabowski



September 17, 1944



Field Marshal Model was everywhere at once – the man raced about the command center, cursing, shouting orders, and trying to make sense of the madness. Knowing the hammer would fall at the bridges, he had moved his headquarters several miles from Arnhem. The next day, his lunch was interrupted by the sight of Allied paratroopers descending all around his new base. He and his aides raced out of town, leaving much of their radio equipment and paperwork. It wasn't a good start to the battle.

The impromptu headquarters was far from ideal, but he'd just have to make do. That was hours ago, and there were still planes passing overhead, disgorging tiny white parachutes to the ground below. Worse, panicked reports further west indicated a similar scene was being played out in at least two other areas. Front-line forces were being brushed aside as British armor surged down the highway. There was no longer any doubt: Model was facing the next great Allied offensive, and he was already on the back foot.

"I knew this was coming, too." He grumbled, stepping outside to look once more to the sky. The sheer scale of the operation had caught him off guard. What had started as another overcast day cleared quickly as pegasi did their damnable work. And now the sky was darkened instead with clouds of planes, polka-dotted white by thousands of parachutes.

Here and there, flashes of other bright colors could be seen. The winged Equestrians were still at work, guiding gliders and controlling the air traffic.

Model smiled, but today it was a grim, warrior's smile. Black explosions were erupting among the attackers, downing planes and crumpling parachutes. At least his efforts to get the flak cannons in place yesterday were paying dividends. A few of the pegasi specks went down too, even when some distance from an explosion.

No plane hulls to protect them, he mused. And they're very light to begin with. The shockwaves from the explosions knock them about like a sparrow in a hurricane. So much the better.

As his attention shifted closer to home, he frowned, brow furrowed in thought. Fire had slackened badly from the battery closest to Arnhem.

Worry gripped his mind as he strode quickly to the radio room. Have the enemy seized that position? How could they be that close already?

Model tapped the desk impatiently as the operator hailed the battery commander. He dimly recalled the man as dough-faced and shock-bald: hardly the kind of face to inspire martial zeal.

He didn't have time to be nice when the colonel picked up the receiver. "Derek, where are your damn guns?!"

"Uh, here," the voice on the line said nervously. Model felt his face twist into a sneer. Probably some Luftwaffe reject, terrified at the idea of actually seeing battle. "We'll have them back to full rate of fire briefly, Sir."

"What's the hold up?!" Model was snarling now, though still glanced at his papers for the exactly location. The guns were near Driel – a town on the wrong side of the river, but crucial nonetheless.

"Uh, pegasi, Sir."

That gave Model pause. Were the Equestrians rushing the guns? He didn't think they could contend with the armed crews, but maybe if there were enough of them…

Colonel Derek continued, dispelling the thought. "A number of them were lightly injured by cannon blasts and forced to land. We're rounding them up, but there are over a hundred now, and some of my gunners are having to watch them."

The sheer idiocy of it caused Model to hesitate a moment, mind reeling. If men this incompetent were colonels, it was no wonder they were losing the war. His temper flared back hotter than ever as the man continued his rambling excuse.

"With pegasi, you know, we have to stop them from flying. Standard policy is to pinion them or break their wings, and I have a few men on that but we're getting two prisoners for every one they-"

"STOP! Stop, just stop!" Model roared, incredulous and enraged. He didn't have time for this. GERMANY didn't have time for this. If he survived the battle, Derek wouldn't be a colonel for long.

"Don't bother with prisoners, get those guns firing!" He had a million other things to do, and couldn't waste any more time with this idiot.

True to form, Derek completely missed the point. "What, do I just let them fly away?"

Embittered though they were by war, the staff hustling about the radio room gave pause at the damning words that followed.

"Shoot them, you idiot!" He was screaming now, red in the face and spittle flying from his mouth.

"Sir?"

No stomach for real war. "Shoot them or you'll explain it to the firing squad!"

"Y-yesir."

Model slammed down the receiver and stormed out. A stronger, better man would've refused him. Weak men like Derek would just carry it out, telling themselves that orders were orders. But Model didn't spare it another thought. There was a battle to fight.

A rumbling shook the floor. He glanced outside and smiled darkly, graced by the sight of several dozen SS panzers beginning to stream towards Arnhem. The British paratroopers might take the city, but they wouldn’t hold it for long.

Well. Maybe it isn't all bad. And Model was on the move once more.

------

September 18, 1944


"Sunoffa…ga…fu…"

Tex finished his stammering with a heartfelt "Dammit!" and kicked the side of the wrecked Sherman.

He wasn’t on the firing line, sure. But this entire attack was turning into a SNAFU and he was frustrated as Hell. The "highway" the ground forces were attacking down had turned out to be a two-lane strip of dirt. Traffic was backed up as far as he could see behind them, and before them stood God-knows how many Krauts.

Probably not that many, actually. A few hundred at a time had tried to make stands, but had been quickly swept aside by the mass of tanks. The last batch, though, had brought a few flak cannons to the party. The 88mm guns were even better at killing tanks then they were planes, resulting in several leading Shermans being knocked out. One of them right in the middle of the so-called “highway.”

Tex kicked the damn tank again.

Other vehicles were moving around it as best as they could, though the traffic jam sure wasn't getting smaller. Sergeant Phearson's detachment had been sent to clear the debris, but it was a friggin' tank! Nothing for them to do but call a tow truck and wait.

A lot of the Limey soldiers were shooting him dirty looks as they passed by. Any caught his eye, Tex flipped them the bird. YOU try clearing a thirty-ton wreck by yourselves, jerks.

One of the unicorns had at least tried to help: a white-coated dame accompanying a Limey company. Tex didn't think it was going to work – if unicorns could toss around tanks, this war would've been over by now. And he was right. She strained for a few minutes with her telekinesis, but only managed to shake the wreck and clog up the traffic even more. The officer with her company coughed meaningfully, and she was off after him with an apologetic shrug.

Voices on the other side of the wreck grabbed his attention. Tex stepped around to see two guys from their platoon harnessing a pony to it.

Tex snorted. Sure, the pony was the big, red one he met on the beaches. The goddamn enormous one, who apparently thought nothing of injuries that would disembowel anyone else. But shifting a tank? Yeah, right.

Of the two humans, this stunt seemed right up Fred's alley. The skinny little kid was slow in a 'dropped on his head' kind of way. But Big Lee Paulson? Physically the man was a rock, and Tex always figured he was a rock of common sense, too. Guess he was wrong.

Laughing, Tex climbed up the tank and stood atop the turret. He looked down at them, arms akimbo. "Lee, you are gonna give that pony an aneurism!"

"He says he can do it," the granite-faced soldier said with a shrug. "You got a better idea?"

"I think standing around seems like a better idea thanJESUS!"

Ignoring the conversation behind him, Big Macintosh began walking forward. Not heaving, not straining, just walking. He was putting some effort into it with his legs, but the tank was moving. It was moving SIDEWAYS, far faster than it had any right to. Tex wobbled and fell, catching himself on the bent cannon.

With the tank off the road, traffic once more resumed its steady march forward. Luckily, neither of the three others seemed inclined to let Tex have it for his mistake. Big Lee was giving him a 'you were saying?' smile, but the pony was content to ignore him. Fred was smiling and looking off to the side, spacing out.

Tex lowered himself gingerly from the tank and shook his head. Thirty tons. Just like that.

He eyed Macintosh and shook his head vigorously. There was something he really needed to do. He sprinted back to the platoon and found Applejack, trotting alongside the truck the humans were in.

"You can ride with the rest of us, you know," he offered with a wide smile, fumbling with his pack.

"Too stuffy," she grumbled.

Tex continued speaking very quickly. "You know, I've been thinking. I know I'm a jerk sometimes, it's just my personality. I just wanna say I like you just fine. You know all those pony jokes I made in France? I take them all back. You're good in my book. Here – it's chocolate. Peace offering. Sorry for everything."

He shoved a few Hershey's bars in Applejack's saddle bag. She nodded her thanks, but she wasn't an idiot. She knew the abrasive American didn't go around apologizing to people for no reason.

After a few awkward moments walking alongside her, Tex sighed. "Your brother is terrifying."

"Oh, that's the reason." She said it in a grumbling tone of voice, but her smile gave away her good humor.

------

September 19, 1944
Arnhem, Holland


"You're late!" Lt. Colonel John Frost barked at the newcomer. He regretted the outburst immediately – shouting didn't do either of them any good. Besides, the whole army was late. Why yell at her?

The rainbow-maned pegasus had sat down the moment she came in, using the short reprieve for all it was worth. "Oh will you just give me the message?" she snapped back. "Things haven't been great on our end, either."

Frost would bet his soul things looked worse for his paratroopers than the Cloud Kickers, but he didn't have the will to argue. His radios didn't survive the trip down, leaving him reliant on pegasi messengers to connect him to the rest of the army. It wasn't something they were originally supposed to do, but Soarin managed to shake a few loose for him. A lot was being asked of them already, and the strain was starting to show. Bags were under this one's eyes, and her wings were drooped to the ground.

Not that he disliked Equestrians, but Frost didn't trust the tired pegasus to accurately convey a message. He motioned to an aide to take notes as he spoke.

"My brigade has taken Arnhem, and we hold the bridge," he began, giving the single piece of good news he had to convey. "The First Airborne Corps has performed exemplary given the situation, but reinforcements have not been able to reach us. German forces have begun to launch strong counterattacks, including heavy armor."

"…Underline those last words will you, Jeff?" He added in a softer voice, talking to his aide. "Christ, nobody said anything about tanks in the briefing..."

Frost shook his head and continued. "The perimeter is largely intact, but we are running short of all supplies. German tanks have overrun our drop zones, please make future supply drops onto Arnhem itself. The situation is not yet critical, but will only deteriorate if our position remains isolated…"

"Er, Jeff, it's the Poles that landed just south of the river, right?"

"Yesir."

"Thank you." Frost cleared his throat. "Erhem, in addition to the change in drop zones, I ask that the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade be released to reinforce us. Also, I request some pegasi to be placed under my command to act as local aerial recon."

He turned to ask the pegasus her opinion, but saw that she was fast asleep, snoring quietly.

With a small frown, Frost leaned in to shake her awake. He was a tough soldier, but a gentle soul. There’s nothing he would’ve loved more than to give the overworked Equestrian girl time to recover.

But there was no time, no time at all.

------

September 20, 1944


As strange as humans were to Soarin, Sosabowski was the strangest of all. Every other human he talked to over the last four days was locked in a frenzy of activity. Even those idling on the road were screaming orders, cursing, and frantically trying to speed the advance. There were a lot of delays, and many yelled at Soarin like it was his fault.

Since the offensive began, a dozen new responsibilities had been heaped on the pegasi: recon, relaying messages, traffic control, even cloud clearing in Britain for supply planes. He handled them as best as he could, but the exhausted Cloud Kickers were starting to fall down on the job. Such was the workload that a quarter of his pegasi had toiled through the night to ready the weather for the dawn.

They slept the next day, obviously, but one British officer wasn't so understanding. "Sleep?!" He had roared. "Brave men are cut off at Arnhem, and you ponies want to sleep?!"

It stung Soarin, but what could he do? He frantically wrote Princess Celestia, asking her to send pegasi from other parts of the front. But there was no telling when they would arrive.

And in the midst of all this panic, it came to the Cloud Kickers to tell the Poles the boats they needed to reinforce Arnhem were stuck somewhere in the sprawling traffic jam. Soarin opted to bring the message himself, hoping their personal relationship would shield him from Sosabowski's inevitable rage.

Instead, the man shrugged. One hand was casually in his pocket, the other produced a carton of cigarettes. "Smoke?"

"N-no." Soarin shook his head, looking away. "The boats might not come too soon, either. The Americans need them first to take the next bridge south. It's still strongly held, so they'll try to come at it from both sides."

"Hm." The Pole shrugged again. "When are they attacking?"

Soarin sighed, feeling the strain of the last few days pushing him down. "It was supposed to be tonight, but they're still trying to get the boats up the road. Tomorrow morning, we think."

He stomped a hoof on the ground with a sudden burst of anger. The frustration at the stalled offensive was getting to him, too. "That human, that American colonel, he cursed me out when I told him about the holdup! I'm doing the best I can, but I'm getting sick of people yelling at me for things that aren't my fault!"

Sosabowski gave a harsh laugh. "Ah, the bastard Westerners. First in line for the credit, last in line for the blame. Don't take it personally. They're just lashing out."

"So what makes you so different?" Soarin asked, glancing at him through the corner of his eye. Sosabowski was friendlier to him than he was to humans, Soarin had learned that by now. It was worth a shot to learn a little more about the man.

The Pole shrugged again, lighting a cigarette for himself. "Eh? Maybe I just don't have the energy for it, anymore. Getting in a panic over things you can't change is just a waste of time. I've learned to force myself to relax. I'm almost as cut off at the British in Arnhem are. If those panzers overrun them up north, my position is next in line. But what can I do about it? Nothing. The boats are late, and a lot of those boys are going to die because I can't reach them. But what can I do about it? Nothing. So I make sure I've done all I can, then I settle back and have a smoke. You should try it, it's relaxing."

Soarin ignored the cajoling. "Well…thanks for understanding."

"The attack is already fifty hours behind schedule," Sosabowski muttered, glancing at his watch. "What's another ten?"

He managed to keep his nonchalant attitude until Soarin left. My men found the Driel killing fields. But you've got enough on your mind right now.

The chatter of nearby machine guns drew his attention back to his own men. The battle was on over here, too.

------

September 21, 1944


“Out of ammo. God save the king."

-Note found on a pegasus casualty outside of Arnhem, bearing the signature of Lt. Colonel John Frost.

------

September 22, 1944


"How they doing?"

Soarin shook his head at the question. Neither of the two pegasi had the endurance left for extended flying, but they forced themselves into the air to watch the night battle unfold.

"Not good at all, Rainbow Dash. Not good at all. You know what the crazy thing is? Those aren't Germans. That's pro-Fascist Dutch down there, fighting them off."

He and the cyan pegasus watched the moonlight scene below them. The boats had finally arrived, and the Poles made their move that very night. But it was too little, too late. The SS panzers were grinding the Arnhem defenders into paste. The Allies held most of the highway, but the Germans were in the countryside on either side. They were counterattacking with abandon, throwing the logistics into even more disarray. More and more troops were being peeled off from the offensive to guard the line of supply. On the other hand, more and more Germans were arriving to strengthen the resistance. The army was one mile from Arnhem, just one mile! Rainbow Dash could TASTE it – breakthrough, victory, a swift end to the war. But it was one mile too far. The allies were stalemated outside the town, and weren’t getting any closer.

More than enough Germans and Axis-Dutch had arrived to contest the river as well. Somewhere down there, Sosabowski was shouting profanities and working in a frenzy to make the doomed offensive succeed. For all his friendliness towards Soarin, the man was a roaring volcano when the shooting began. Machine guns were raking the Polish boats as they tried to move forward, sinking some and casting corpses into the water. None had even made it halfway when the Poles gave up. The fight lasted under an hour. Some might say Sosabowski called it too early, but for the men resting below the water, it was far too late.

Rainbow somehow still had the energy to be angry. She looped twice quickly in the air, groaning in frustration. "So, why the hay didn't we give them cloud cover? I heard that mustached guy ask you for it!"

Soarin glanced back with resignation at the waxed moon. "Couldn't get enough pegasi together in time."

"Dang it. DANG IT!" Rainbow ground her front hooves together. "We're THIS close. What am I gonna tell Frost?"

------

September 24, 1944
Arnhem, Holland


"One mile," Frost rasped as loudly as he could manage. His throat was sore from too much shouting and not enough water. "One mile, one bridge. Is that really too far?"

Tired as she was herself, Rainbow Dash was sympathetic. She could fly out of Arnhem. Lt. Colonel Frost and his men…not so much.

Things hadn't gotten any better. The Poles had made another attempt to cross, but it was beaten back even more easily than the first. The front line was going backwards. Backwards! German heavy armor was arriving in force, and Allied commanders were now more worried about defending their gains than relieving Frost and his men.

"I can't hold out any longer!" Frost slumped in his chair, despair weighing down every limb. "They told us relief would come in two days. Two! It's been eight! We're at rock bottom, Rainbow Dash. No food, ammo, medical supplies, nothing."

He groaned loudly – an elongated, exhausted gesture of anger. "I'm sorry…I'm sorry, you know all this already. H-how's the rest of the First Airborne doing?"

Most of the First weren't able to reach Arnhem before being bogged down by German resistance. They were on the wrong side of the river too, cut off and struggling to stay alive. Still…

"Better than you," Rainbow admitted, though the words seemed to lift Frost's spirits a little. "Bad, but they've got their backs to the river."

Rainbow took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "…Tomorrow night they're going to evacuate. The Poles are going to launch another raid, but it'll just be a diversion this time. The First's wounded are going to hold the perimeter while the rest cross to the Allied side of the river."

"So we've well and truly failed then," Frost rested his face in his hand. "And us in Arnhem are well and truly doomed."

There was no question of Frost's men leaving with the rest. The Germans had retaken most of Arnhem, and his battalion was square in the middle of it. They still clung grimly to the north end of the bridge, staring down panzers with empty rifles. One more day, maybe two, then it would be all over.

Frost felt a fuzzy limb push his hand from his head. He opened his eyes to see the pony staring right at him, inches away. Her large, maroon eyes were tired, but they radiated heartfelt concern.

It was a bit too close for comfort. Frost felt his cheeks flush a little and leaned away from her. She kept that same, serious gaze on him.

"Listen," Rainbow said. "I'll be back tomorrow night with as many pegasi as I can round up. We'll ferry you guys out as best as we can."

Frost shook his head and smiled sadly. "I think it's too late for that. I need to keep my men on the perimeter, or the Germans will know something's up. There are so few of us left, I'd only be able to sneak back maybe sixty to be evacuated."

"Then we'll rescue those sixty." Rainbow Dash countered his despair with unwavering determination. "It's more than zero."

Frost smiled gently back at her. A night evacuation would be extremely dangerous for the pegasi involved, but here she was, the first in line to help total strangers. Somehow, it helped to know there were people like that in this army. It relit the flame of resolve that had waned in his heart – he would fight until he could fight no more, then surrender with head held high. A mission like the one she proposed…

"I doubt we'll even last to tomorrow night," he said with a chuckle. "And if we don't, you'd just fly right into Jerry's arms. Thank you, but don't return."

------

September 25, 1944


The perimeter had shrunk to a tiny ring around the bridge, and half the men he had yesterday were dead or captured. But somehow Frost had held on one more day, clinging to the last shred of hope that the ground forces would break through to him.

It hadn't happened, of course. Frost went to bed exhausted, knowing that tomorrow he would sleep on a train to a POW camp. That, or with the angels above.

Instead, Jeff awoke him scarcely an hour later with word that twenty pegasi had swooped down under the cover of darkness and wanted to talk to him.

Frost stormed out of his headquarters and was greeted by the most exhausted, battered Equestrians he had ever laid eyes on. But there was tired determination in their eyes as they looked back at him.

Tired determination, and a scrap of smirking defiance in one pony with rainbow hair.

"I told you not to come back," Frost groaned, but relief was showing on his face. So long as they were here, he wasn't about to turn down a ride out. "What if the Germans had overrun us and were waiting for you instead?"

"Eh, I figured you had already held out eight days, what’s one more? Besides, I don't take orders from you." Rainbow Dash tossed back her filthy hair and allowed another pony to strap a hammock-like sling to her. "It'll be a bumpy ride, but it's better than getting shot. Round up as many men as you can."

The site erupted into a quiet flurry of activity, Soarin calling out orders and directing the evacuation. "Come on, Cloud Kickers. One more mission, then we can put this all behind us."



Going into Market-Garden, decisions were made based on optimism and preconceptions rather than sound judgment. Reports of enemy tanks in the area were ignored or actively suppressed by leading officers. No one scouted the highway to ensure it could support the advance, and information passed by the Dutch Resistance was routinely ignored. The attack still came very close to breaking the weakened Germans, but it also came very close to being a disaster. With lightly-armed paratroopers against heavy armor, it was only through heroic action that the British Airborne Corps wasn't utterly destroyed.

Montgomery's conduct following the defeat was the subject of significant controversy. Publicly, Montgomery lauded his brainchild, calling it "90% successful." This was sheer spin-doctoring – the operation’s goal was to win the war, and it failed. The territory taken proved unimportant.

When pressed, Monty bizarrely blamed the battle's failures on two of the smallest forces involved: The Poles and the Cloud Kickers. He harshly criticized the former as unwilling to exert effort to support the beleaguered British Airborne, needing everything "their way" first, and then tepid and cautious once their needs were finally met. The list against the Cloud Kickers was even longer. Of Soarin, he said, "The pony frittered away his assets. The pegasi were absent when we needed them, present when we didn't. After the operation began, no more than a handful of exhausted fliers could ever be gathered in one place. The rest were always on meaningless errands somewhere unimportant. Soarin is an inadequate replacement Captain, and I wouldn't trust him to oversee another major operation."

Stung by the criticism and shaken by news of the Driel Massacre, Soarin immediately offered his resignation to Princess Celestia. She sent him on leave, but declined his request to resign. Of Montgomery, she confided that, "He has his own rank to worry about."

Despite Celestia's comment and some of his peers' private feelings, Montgomery retained his rank. Churchill detested him, but had no better option, and the diplomatic Eisenhower wasn't interested in persecuting a popular and skilled leader. With general hard feelings all around, the Allies settled in for the winter. Although victory had eluded them, they were confident that 1945 would see them crush the flagging Germans once and for all.

Author's Note:

The opening quote is from the 1977 film, "A Bridge Too Far." While not 100% accurate, it does well show the failures and victories of the operation. Also, Sean Connery looks dead sexy in a red beret.

As a side note, historically, Frost and his command were crushed, with him and the survivors made prisoners until the war's end. But they didn't have pegasi to help bail them out, making this sorta the first "real" divergence from history.

Thanks for reading.

-Dan

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