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The Flare Path: A Rumble Of Thunder (Part Two)

2-1 up with 45 minutes left to play

The samovars have gone cold. The cigarette-smoke butterflies have dispersed. The commissar is starting to scribble names in his little red notebook... it's time my intrepid but incompetently led Combat Mission: Red Thunder Soviets roused themselves and got on with the second part of the Battle of Baronovichi.

Last Friday when we parted, there were 45 minutes left on the clock. Reduced to six T-34-85s, one T-70 and around 120 infantry, my mauled Soviet cavalry force was celebrating the conquest of the Old Defensive Line (a transverse trench-scarred ridge roughly three-quarters of the way down the battlefield) and fretting about possible counter-attacks. Beyond the ridge lies the southern edge of Baronovichi, the ultimate objective. Hopefully, by the time this AAR shuts down its engine and throws open its hatches, that objective will be 100% fascist-free.

My plan is really too crude to be called a plan. In the pine needles at the feet of my platoon leaders I've scribed a broad east-west line with a big north-pointing arrow projecting from it. After occupying the trenches of the Old Defensive Line (currently there's only one T-34 on the high ground) we will push on to the last VL. As before, pockets of light resistance (I gesture towards some agitated wood ants) will be bypassed, tougher obstacles (I gesture towards a root-gripped rock) swept away with 85mm brooms and mortar deluges.

Eleven seconds into turn 1, a wood ant decides to bite the behind of that ridge-conquering T-34. It seems the trenches up there may not have been cleared quite as thoroughly as I first thought. A lone German grunt has just appeared from nowhere and immobilised my Pak pulveriser with a deftly lobbed Steilhandgranate. He's coax-ed within seconds, but it's hardly an encouraging restart.

Yep. Take down the 'Mission Accomplished' banner. My description of the Old Defensive Line as conquered was definitely premature. Red infantry ordered up the western slope are currently pressing their belt buckles into the soft Belorussian sod after straying into the fire lane of a previously undetected MG 42. A mix of mortar-delivered smoke and HE should allow the advance to continue.

Hmm. There's unexpected trouble in the east too. Its vulnerable GAZ troop transporters raked by small-arms fire, Eastern Element is forced to pause, unload, and clear German stragglers from roadside woodland. Damn these distractions.

The white shroud now draping the western end of the Old Defensive Line is disappointingly ragged but I really can't afford to linger any longer. With one eye on the clock I group-select a scatter of tanks and infantry, and drop waypoints in the midst of the smoke. Slapdash order selection means a T-34 reaches the summit first. By the time the crew notice that they're sharing a trench with a trio of machine-gunners, a potato masher is already arcing through the air. Hell's teeth, a kill! Enemy grenades seem awfully potent today.

German glee is short-lived. The same curtain of murk that blinded my tank, allows the friendly assault squad scampering along behind it, to arrive at the trench unnoticed. In one of the most brutal CM scenes I've witnessed in ages, the surprised and surrounded tank killers perish in a frenzy of close-quarters PPSh-41 fire.

While the submachine guns chatter, a short distance to the west another equally eye-catching encounter is playing out. After cresting the ridge, a tankodesantniki-laden T-34 spots a Hetzer in the forest below. Before the turret has stopped turning, the passengers have alighted and one of them, a chap toting an absurdly long PTRD anti-tank rifle, is on his belly delivering wonderfully accurate 14.5mm rebukes. Whether it's ATR rounds or 85mm near-misses that finally persuade the squat TD to retreat into the shadows, it's hard to tell, but retreat it does. The Old Defensive Line is finally and unequivocally, in Soviet hands.

But, crikey, it's taken twenty-five gruelling minutes. With a mere twenty turns left, the shingled dachas of 'To Baronovichi' are looking further away than ever. If I'm going to take that last objective I must rediscover some of that Hussar vigour. Sorry lads, souvenir hunting and view contemplation will have to wait. Down the hill you go.

As men and machines gallop down the slope, I see an icon I've never seen before in CMx2. A foe with a knapsack flamethrower strapped to his back, is 'hiding' behind one of the hedges in the hamlet up ahead. I'm curious to see his fire-spitter in action, but not that curious. Waypoints are tweaked, suppressive fire focussed.

Possibly the most painful turn of the battle thus far. Two of the four T-34s covering this final phase of the advance, are now as dead as Red Thunder's comedy cow carcasses. One, on the trail of that vanished Hetzer, got too close to an unscouted hedgerow and was rocked by an explosion so loud it had to be caused by a grenade bundle. The other was slain on the central road by an unknown assailant. I'm now convinced there's something big, fierce, and festooned with branches, waiting for us at the northern end of the map.

Flammenwerfer Freddy and his SMG-armed pal are living on borrowed time. I've squads flanking them on both sides, and a medium tank battering their leafy funkhole from relatively close range. I'd suggest they surrender, but I don't think my men are in the mood for mercy.

Sorry, you're going to have to wait for a screenshot soused with searing napalm. The doomed arsonist has gone to meet The Supreme Arsonist, and I'm unwilling to push on while there are German infantry icons moving towards us from Baronovichi. Is this the counter-attack hinted at in the briefing?

If it was, it was rather a half-hearted/ill-conceived one. The counter-attackers decide to approach in single file across a field overlooked by one of my T-34s. They don't stand a chance.

But perhaps their sacrifice has delayed me for long enough. Can I bludgeon paths to Baronovichi through the eastern and western woods (I'm convinced a direct approach would be suicide) in the ten turns remaining? Let's find out.

The eastern lunge falters early on when the tank commander leading it has his scalp furrowed by a rifle bullet, and the infantry component runs into a cataract of close-range SMG fire (In this scenario, every patch of woodland seems to boast a band of Teutonic troublemakers). The western one fares slightly better, but there are angry Nazi dryads on that route too. In the end I leave my infantry to grapple with the woodfolk, and press-on with a single T-34.

2 minutes left. Still a short sprint from the seemingly deserted objective, I attach a couple of 'hunt' waypoints to a couple of 'fasts', stretch a 'target armour' arc over the village ahead, and - crossing my fingers - dab 'done'.

A minute's worth of anti-climax tiptoes past. With 35 seconds to play, a grey icon appears on the T-34's 1 o'clock.

At the 32 second mark, that icon is replaced by the angular bulk of an unbuttoned Panther tank. Has he spotted us? Yes, that turret twitch suggests he has.

At 30 seconds, our turret halts, his turret halts.

At 29 seconds, he fires.

At 28 seconds, a Panzergranate 39 round ricochets off the left-hand side of our turret, and a dazed Soviet tank commander disappears from view.

At 27 seconds, we fire.

At 26 seconds, an 85mm shell chips a chunk of Zimmerit off the Panther's upper-front hull, before leaping skyward.

At 25 seconds, birds sing.

At 24 seconds, bees buzz.

At 23 seconds, my heart pounds like a jackhammer.

At 18 seconds, a thoroughly rattled T-34 driver finds reverse gear. I grimace.

At 16 seconds, I wish CM:Red Thunder was a tank sim.

At 14 seconds, we fire again.

At 13 seconds, Mars gives me a mischievous wink. 'HIT: Front Turret. Partial Penetration' appears in red and white letters below the Panther.

At 10 seconds, with the T-34 still back-pedalling, the wounded(?) Panther disappears from view.

At 0 seconds, I brace myself for the unflinching honesty of the results screen.

At -5 seconds I remember that CM does fuzzy turn totals, and realise I can press on! The retreater is ordered to retrace its steps. On re-entering the VL it finds the Panther deceased (Hurrah!) and an extremely unobservant Hetzer awaiting slaughter nearby.

When, a few turns later, the results screen finally interjects, I'm not sure whether to feel elated or cheated. My failure to fully clear the environs of the gully (see Part 1) means I don't score for that objective, and the presence of Axis tank crewmen in the last VL means my last-minute armoured lunge garnered more glory than points. Oh well, the loss statistics aren't quite as damning as they might have been. The proud Hussar tradition may not have been enhanced on the road to Baranovichi, but it wasn't disgraced either.



The Flare Path Foxer

Dr. Awkward, Tangy Gnat, and Camp Mac, are all capable defoxers and passable palindromes, but they're not the Palindrome. Last week's parade paragon geolocated all but one of the pictured uniforms and earns a bearskin hackle made from Gloster Grebe feathers and Plymouth gin fumes for his efforts.

a. Sirmoor Rifles
b. Royal West African Frontier Force (Nigeria Regiment)
c. Coldstream Guards
d. Mysore Lancers
e. Royal Malta Artillery
f. Irish Guards
g. Governor-General's Bodyguard (Canada)
h. Australian Light Horse
i. Welsh Guards

When I suggested 'Mesopotamian deities' as this week's foxer theme, Roman, my Chief Foxer Setter, snatched the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer I was eating and began stamping it into the carpet. Hence...

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