Niqabs and niqab bans: Both are wrong



You know the phrase “fashion statement.” The clothes we wear can be as much an attempt to draw attention, to attempt anonymity or to fit into a tribe.

Most men my age, at least in Canada, are attempting that anonymous-member-of-the-tribe look with our golf shirts and jeans. We’re saying “We’re regular guys, just give us what we want without wasting time trying to connect with us.”

Niqabs, the traditional face veils worn by some Muslim women, do all three jobs: call attention to the wearer, identify their membership in a group and produce anonymity.

In Canada and in most of the West, they also have another effect: they make most other people deeply uncomfortable. Hence the restrictions imposed on them in several jurisdictions, most recently Quebec.

The Quebec National Assembly just passed Bill 62, banning public workers as well as anyone receiving services from provincial or municipal officials from wearing any kind of face covering. That means that a woman wearing a niqab will not be able to borrow a library book or get on a bus or metro.

It’s a controversial decision. Its supporters say it enforces Quebec’s secular culture and it is not aimed at any particular religious group.

That’s transparently false. It’s anti-religious for the simple reason that there is one particular, if small group of Muslims who believe that wearing a face veil is a religious practice.

And as for not allowing ostentatious religious symbols on public property, when will those who want to enforce Quebec’s secular nature take down the giant crosses in the National Assembly or on Mont Royal?

I’m opposed to both sides

Personally, I don’t think anyone should wear a face-covering except for protection from the environment. Have you ever waited for a bus in Montreal in February?

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a Muslim, and I will not pretend to understand the faith. At the same time, I do not believe that any piece of cloth can bring a person closer to God. Not a niqab nor a hijab, the head scarf, nor a kippa nor a plain black suit nor a beard nor a turban.

“It’s a sign of my faith.” Exactly: an outward signal that you choose to display. To the women who say not being allowed to wear a niqab in public means they won’t be able to go out at all, I say: That’s your choice. Don’t expect me to cry about it.

I’ve heard the arguments by women who choose to cover up that doing so forces men not to look at them as sexual objects, but to focus on their words, behavior and character. That’s the same argument that women are to blame for sexual harassment and rape. No. It’s up to men to respect women and treat women as people. It’s not women’s responsibility to hide part of themselves in order to force men to respect them.

Some countries that have banned face-coverings have done so because they are part of a culture of oppression of women. And there are countries that force women to cover their faces in public. It’s an oppressive, hateful practice that dresses itself up as “religion.” I reject that idea.

This is the double-edged sword of this debate: the niqab is a symptom of an oppressive society. Even women who choose to wear them have to acknowledge this.

And it’s unequal. Men don’t have to wear them. And we in Canada believe in the equality of men and women. If you don’t believe in that, you’re out of step with Canadian society.

What problem does this law solve?

Quebec’s law was not written to prevent people from wearing balaclavas or scarves. It’s intended to prevent women from wearing the niqab. The language about any face-covering and support of the secular culture is spin, designed to dance past the issues that blocked previous attempts to legislate the niqab out of existence.

Is this what we want? Image from Pinterest

Less than a century ago, cops would patrol public beaches to measure the length of women’s swimwear, to make sure they weren’t offending public decency. Is that where we want to go back to?

No. This law is about the niqab, and it will probably be struck down by the Supreme Court in a couple of years.

The bottom line

Women, if you want to wear a face covering for whatever religious reasons you have, I believe you should go for it. I reject your justification and reasoning, and you’re going to have to accept the criticism and judgement of the rest of society.

I support your right to wear, or not to wear, whatever you want. But I don’t have to respect what you wear, nor do I have to agree with your reasons for wearing it.

And if any government truly wants to be secular, they’ll take down all religious symbols, including giant crosses.

There. I think I’ve offended everyone.

Writing amid calamity



Redwoods in the Muir Woods, Marin County, California.

California is a land of extreme beauty and extreme horrors. From the contrived glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles to the awe-inspiring majesty of the redwood forests. From the unique personality of San Francisco to the wind-blasted isolation of the northern coast.

It’s also home to disastrous extremes. For the past three days, I’ve been at the Lei Crime World Authors Retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet between the devastated Santa Rosa and the rocky coast of Bodega Bay. From day to day, the skies can be high and blue or a low, gray-brown haze as wildfires tear through the Napa Valley and leap over mountains into Sonoma. As I write this, more than 25,000 people have had to abandon their homes and flee the fires, thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, more than 200 people are missing and 31 people killed.

For the past three days, I have been participating in the first Lei Crime World authors’ retreat in Monte Rio, a hamlet halfway between the devastated city of Santa Rosa and the coast at Bodega Bay. It’s safe, for the moment, anyway, although the first thing we all do when we get up in the morning is look to see whether the sky is blue or hazy, and sniff for the odour of smoke. From time to time, ash drizzles down, coating surfaces with gray. As another participant, Erin Finigan said, “That could have been someone’s home falling on us.”

A terrible juxtaposition

It’s not guilt that I feel, but there is relief mixed with helplessness. We gather in the the hotel bar to watch the news on the big TV. In night scenes, the fires dance bright orange among the trees. Day scenes show destroyed towns and weeping, shell-shocked residents. Stories people who left everything to the flames, grateful for having their family alive. Others crying because they cannot find a mother, child or sibling.

The situation, only a half-hour’s drive away, comes even closer when an evacuated family arrives at the hotel: wife, husband, daughter, son, dog and cat. They had minutes to gather family, photos and pets ahead of the fire when the power went out. In the dark, they found the cat, jumped into their car and fled before the fire consumed their home. They had to leave their computer behind, which held more precious family photos and memories, because it was in another structure which housed their family business, and which was already burning. They arrived at the hotel, shaken, pale, their faces drawn, their eyes wide but dull.

We writers, nine of us, pool what cash we can to help console them. It’s a moving moment, and one that underlines how small each of us is in the face of an elemental force like fire.

We are safe. For now. But we keep our suitcases packed, ready to go.

The most compelling stories

Today, I look out over my hotel balcony. The leaves on the trees that I cannot identify are turning red. Above, orange-tinted gray clouds accent the blue sky. Is that smoke? Or just a cloud? The news reports that the situation has become worse. The fires continue to grow. Long-time residents recall fires in 2007 and 2008 that were extensive, but not as bad nor as deadly.

We prepare to leave, to head south to Santa Cruz and Monterey. We will escape the fire zone easily, and in a few more days, will fly home to Ottawa. We may face other dangers there, but from everything I can gather, no existential threats.

We are all writers here at the Russian River town of Monte Rio. We tell stories for a living. We strive to make our books engaging and immersive, entertaining and evocative. We have come to reinforce our ability to write new stories.

But there is nothing that we could write to rival what evacuees are living now, whether they’re from Napa and Sonoma, or Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, the Congo, Libya, Syria and many many more are living now.

They have lost everything. The rest of us are unscathed purely through luck, or the grace of whatever god you believe in.

Let’s remember that.

Last week, three-quarters of a century ago



Last week in Second World War history

Those who know their history know that the Eastern Front was by far the largest theatre of operations during the Second World War. The Soviet Union put more men and women into the fighting than all other Allies combined, and the countries of the Eastern Theatre suffered over 11 million casualties.

The Germans also put far more men and resources into the Eastern Front. The launch of the war in the east, Operation Barbarossa, sent nearly 4 million men across the Polish frontier, overwhelming—at first—a Soviet strength of under 3 million.

Source: Britannica.

In comparison, the western Allies sent 1.3 million men into Italy between 1942 and 1945, and 156,000 stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

On Facebook and Google+, I’ve been posting daily updates on “on this day in the history of the Eastern Front of the Second World War.” And here, I’ll post a summary of the previous week in history, three-quarters of a century ago.

September 25 – October 1

1939:

September 25:

  • Hitler arrives in Poland to observe the bombing in Warsaw.
  • Soviet troops capture Bialystock, Poland.
  • Stalin proposes to Germany that the USSR take over Lithuania, giving Germany areas near Warsaw in exchange.

September 26:

  • Insignia of the Polish Home Army, Armia Krajowa.

    The resistance Polish Home Army, Armia Krajowa, established in Warsaw.

September 27:

  • Polish government in exile sets up in Paris, France.
  • After a 2-week siege, Warsaw falls to Germans.
  • Soviets execute 150 Polish policemen.

September 28:

  • Estonia and USSR sign a 10-year mutual assistance pact, allowing Soviet troops to be stationed in Estonia.
  • Germans and Soviets sign agreement denoting common border in Poland.
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop, Reich Minister of Foreign Affairs.

    German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop arrives in Moscow to announce joint Soviet-German negotiations for peace with Western powers.

September 29:

  • Hitler orders repatriation of ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to Germany, as he knows the USSR will soon demand control of the Baltic States.
  • Formal surrender of Poland and division between Germany and USSR

1940:

September 26:

  • German ambassador to the USSR tells Soviets that Japan would join alliance with Germany and Italy.

October 1, 1940:

  • Erich Hartmann in 1944.

    Erich Hartmann, greatest fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare, begins basic training in East Prussia. He would shoot down 345 Soviet planes and never be shot down himself. After the war, he was wrongfully convicted of war crimes and served 10 years at hard labour in Soviet prisons. After his release, he joined the air force of the Federal Republic of Germany.

  • Hitler orders Polish gentry exterminated and civilians’ living standards in Poland reduced, as they are now “workers” for the Reich.

1941:

Einsatzgruppen killing unarmed civilians in 1942. Wikipedia.

Karl Jager, commander of Einsatzkommando Group A, a Nazi death squad, begins keeping detailed records of numbers of Jews and other civilians his team murdered each day. These became known as the “Jager Reports.” The Einsatzgruppen were special detachments of the SS, specifically charged with killing civilians. For example, during this week in 1941, he reports killing:

  • September 25: 575 Jews in Lithuania
  • September 27: 3,446

September 25:

  • Hitler orders cease of attacks on Leningrad, in favour of starving the city.
  • German and Romanian troops reach Perekop Isthmus to cut off Crimean Peninsula

September 26:

  • German battleship Tirpitz joins naval manoeuvers in the Baltic Sea.
  • Free French sign alliance with the USSR

September 27:

  • German truck stuck in the mud in Russia. Pinterest.

    Rain begins on the Eastern Front, making mud a problem for German invaders.

  • Lord Beaverbrook and U.S. diplomat Averell Harriman arrive in Arkangelsk.
  • 23,000 Jews murdered at Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine.

September 28:

  • US and UK officials travel to Moscow to discuss western aid to USSR.
  • Soviet General Gregory Zhukov announces that family members of captured Red Army soldiers would be arrested and shot.

    Georgy Zhukov in 1944. Wikipedia.

  • Jews in Kyiv, Ukraine order to gather at Dorogozhitshay Street at 7:00 the next morning.

September 29, 1941:

  • Reinhard Heydrich named Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.
  • Vyacheslav Molotov, Lord Beaverbrook and U.S. representative Averell Harriman discuss Western aid to the USSR.
  • Soviet submarine ShCh-319 attacks German ships off Latvia, then strikes a mine and sinks.
  • Hitler orders Leningrad wiped out by bombardment.

    Leningraders during the siege. Source: Daily Chronicles of World War II.

  • Einsatzgruppen death squads murder 50,000 – 96,000 Ukrainians at Babi Yar near Kyiv.
  • Red Army prevents German forces from entering Crimea.

September 30, 1941:

  • Military photographer and long-time Nazi Johannes Hahle turns over some photos in a folder marked “in the East” to his superiors, but keeps photos of the Babi Yar massacre a secret.
  • Soviet Black Sea fleet begins considering transferring from Odessa to Crimea.
  • German Operation Typhoon begins with early assault on Moscow.

October 1, 1941:

  • US-UK-USSR aid conference produces protocol for immediate, long-term aid deliveries to the USSR.
  • Finnish troops reach Petrozavodsk, capital of Soviet Karelia, further isolating Leningrad.
  • Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland begins operations.
  • Soviets release over 50,000 Polish POWs to form a Polish unit of the Red Army to fight Germany.
  • Soviet POWs in 1941.

    Germans launch Operation Typhoon, attack on Moscow.

  • Panzergruppe 2 splits into two to advance on Orel and Bryansk, Russia.

1942:

September 25:

  • Hitler sacks Colonel-General Halder as Chief of the Army General Staff and replaces him with General Zeitzler

September 26:

  • Soviet ace Lydia Lytvyak, the first female ace. She made as many as 14 kills.

    Red Army launches offensive in Tuapse region in the Caucasus.

  • German forces begin new offensive in Stalingrad.
  • Soviet ace Lydia Litvyak shoots down German bomber over Stalingrad, and shares credit for downing a second.

September 27:

  • Sgt. Jacob Pavlov and three other Soviet soldiers attack an apartment block in Stalingrad with hand grenades, expelling occupying Germans and freeing wounded Soviet soldiers. This building became the iconic “Pavlov’s House.” The men defended it for 58 days against infantry, artillery and tank attacks.

    “Pavlov’s House” in Stalingrad, where a handful of men under Sgt. Jabo Pavlov defended the building against repeated attacks for two months.

September 29, 1942:

  • Sigmund Freud’s sister Esther Adolphine dies in Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.

September 30, 1942:

  • Soviet forces cross the Volga River near Moscow.
  • Due to a typhus epidemic in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Commandant Rudoph Hoss forbids guards from consuming any raw foods.
  • 610 Jews arrive at Auschwitz from the Netherlands. 454 gassed immediately.

1943

September 25:

  • Red Army captures Roslavl and Smolensk.

September 27:

  • German forces in Ukraine begin withdrawal to western bank of Dnipro River.

    An iconic war photo of the Red Army preparing to cross the Dnipro River in 1943, chasing the retreating Germans. From Bill Downs, War Correspondent.

  • Red Army captures Temryuk, Russia, the last Black Sea port held by Germans.

September 28:

  • Germans recapture Split, Yugoslavia from partisans

September 28:

  • Minesweeper USS Aspire transferred to the USSR under the lend-lease agreements.

September 30, 1943:

  • Red Army expands is bridgehead over the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine to 500 km.
  • U-boat “wolfpack” in the Kara Sea north of Russia sink freighter Arhangelsk.

October 1, 1943:

  • German U-boat, circa 1942. Pinterest.

    German u-boats sink Soviet freighter and escort ship in the Kara Sea, off northern Russia.

1944:

September 25:

  • Soviets trick Slovakian Captain Frantisek Urban to visit Moscow, then arrest him, sending him to Lubyanka Prison.

September 26:

  • Red Army completes occupation of Estonia.

September 27:

  • 2000 soldiers of Armia Krajowa, Poland’s resistance army, surrender in Warsaw

September 28:

  • Germans begin transferring 18,000 prisoners from Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland.
  • Josip Tito authorizes Soviet troops to enter Yugoslavia. Red 57th Army begins moving toward Belgrade.

September 29:

  • US OSS agents parachute into Bucharest to liberate 1,888 Allied POWs, and take Romanian diplomatic documents to prevent their capture by Soviets.

October 1, 1944:

  • Slovak resistance fighters name themselves the Czechoslovakian 1st Army.
  • Hungarian delegation comes to Moscow to discuss armistice separate from Germany.
  • Red Army crosses Danube into Yugoslavia.

October 2, 1944:

  • Boy Scouts in the Armija Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, during the Warsaw Uprising. Wikimedia Commons.

    Warsaw Uprising ends after 63 unsuccessful days of fighting. 15,200 Armia Krajowa insurgents and 200,000 civilians killed, along with 16,000 German forces.

This is the history that I cover in the Eastern Front trilogy, through the eyes of a man who was there: my father-in-law, the late Maurice Bury.

Check out the books from their page on this website, or on Amazon.

Have anything to add about last week in history? Leave a Comment!

 

Welcome to the Dark Age



 

As you know, I’ve been working on The Triumph of the Sky, the sequel to my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. And I thought I should familiarize you with this fantastic, yet historical universe so you’re ready to find you way around when the book comes out.

The Byzantine Empire

The setting is the Eastern Roman Empire, which most of us in the West call the “Byzantine Empire.” But to the people who lived in it, it was the Empire of the Romans.

The story of The Triumph of the Sky begins five years after the end of The Bones of the Earth, so that’s 603 CE. The Empire had just been through a particularly tumultuous period, even for the Roman Empire.

I learned in school that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CD, when Odoacer, a Germanic soldier in the Roman Empire, deposed the teenaged last Emperor, Romulus Augustus. A year later, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths killed Odoacer and conquered most of Italy. Other “barbarian” tribes took over Gaul, Iberia, Britain and most of the rest of the Western Roman territories.

But the Eastern half of the Empire continued for another thousand years. In the sixth century, its capital Constantinople, on the narrow straits that separate Europe and Asia, was the largest and wealthiest city in the world. With walls six metres thick and 12 metres high, sea walls and the natural protection of the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn on two other sides, it was considered unconquerable. Indeed, it would fend off all attacks for another 600 years.

An ancient drawing of Constantinople, facing roughly west, showing how the city was roughly triangular shape with water on two sides. On the right, northern side is the Golden Horn, a huge harbour. A heavy chain stretched across it at night or when the city was under threat, which would prevent ships from entering.

The walls of Constantinople: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eastern Roman Empire in 600 stretched from the Caucasus Mountains, east of the Black Sea, all along the southern Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic Ocean, and included Egypt, and as far north as the Danube River. Emperor Maurice, who ruled from 582 to 602, reconquered parts of Italy that had been lost to the Ostrogoths and Lombards.

The Roman Empire in 600 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 602, troops revolted against Maurice. Their leader, Phocas, butchered Maurice’s family in front of him, then killed the Emperor and took the throne.

Possibly a bust of Emperor Phocas

Phocas was especially brutal, even for a Roman Emperor. He used mass torture to rule, and became the object of many plots and intrigues. Eventually, he was deposed and killed by the next emperor, Heraclius.

During Phocas’ rein, though the Sassanid Persians attacked in the east, taking Syria and Mesopotamia, raiding Anatolia and even at one point setting up a military camp within sight of Constantinople. On the north, Avars and Slavs, or Sklaveni, were conquering deep into imperial territory.

This is the political and military situation that surround Javor and the other characters of Triumph.

The people of Constantinople

The people of Constantinople were cosmopolitan, with a great range of ethnicities represented at every social stratum—even the Emperor. About 30 percent were literate, far ahead of western Europe and the rest of the world at the time. There were renowned schools and universities in many of Rome’s cities.

The key to Constantinople’s wealth was trade. It was located at a crossroads: where the land route between Europe and Asia crossed the major sea trade route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As a result, it had several huge markets, great ports and incredible numbers of people moving in and out all the time. Wealth brought about great demand in the city for art and other luxury goods.

The Christian Church dominated social life in Constantinople. The Emperor was the head of both the Church and the Empire, although the bishop, called the Patriarch, wielded a great deal of power.

Leo VI Prostrating before Christ, Mosaic c.900 CE, Hagia Sophia / Creative Commons

Byzantine Mosaic with Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus – Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child.

Even though the Church dominated social and moral life, there were still many slaves in the Roman Empire. At that time, most of them were prisoners of war, and their children. But another source was poor parents who sold their children into slavery to pay their debts and feed the rest of their children.

Politics: Blues versus Greens

The people of the city generally divided into two groups: the Blues and the Greens. This originated as racing teams in the Hippodrome, and like today’s sports fans, they could be fanatical. There were times after races when one team would massacre thousands of members of the other. The rivalry between the two sides reached a peak in the Nike riots in 532. I’ll go into that in more depth in a future blog. But the Blue-Green divide went far beyond the horse races: neighbourhoods could be Blue or Green, and there were social and religious divisions between them, too.

In short, the early 7th century in Constantinople was a complex time — arguably as complex as our own, in its way, with political intrigues, wars on more than one front, social divisions, and contradictions between religion, society, politics and money.

Till next time … keep your paddles in the water.

 

Army of Worn Soles: Battle of Poltava



On this day, September 18, 1941, the German forces invading the USSR captured the city of Poltava, Ukraine. My father-in-law, Maurice Bury, was in that battle. I wrote what he saw and experienced in Chapter 10 of Army of Worn Soles, the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy. Here’s a sample. 

 

Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Panzers

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave permission to General Kirponov, head of the Soviet 5th Army, to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than twenty-four hours.

But the withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10. On the September 14, the two generals shook hands a hundred miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, more than half a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last. The Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped near Uman in mid-August. And after the Wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

General Kirponos had fought hard against the encirclement in September, but a landmine killed him. Only a few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement. Maurice and his men joined the retreat, heading southeast to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans sent more Panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the Red Army pulled back another one hundred kilometres. Soldiers dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol River to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain. The soft soil of the trench walls crumbled. The food was bad or there wasn’t enough. But they could not complain for long. The Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counterattack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Maurice’s fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons. The lines stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast, alert and fearless like a predator.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads. The drivers down-shifted and continued on.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’ bodies fling up out of destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” Andrei and Orest pulled their triggers and the kick-back of the rifles geysered dirt into the air. Damn, Maurice thought. If that doesn’t draw the Germans’ attention, nothing will.

The shells went wide.

“Reload.”

Machine guns erupted from behind and a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded, throwing bodies high into the air.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time one shell hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank. The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting.

All at once, shells began falling behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans had turned their heavy artillery guns on the Red Army.

“Down, boys,” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire relented, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, a heavy anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

But more Panzers splashed through the river. Behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit landmines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

To his right, eastward, came a deep rumble. Maurice saw hulking Soviet KV heavy tanks, looking twice as high as a man, crawled forward on their wide treads, firing cannons and machine guns.

Why are they moving so slowly, he wondered. He saw their tracks moving, churning the earth and sinking into it. They’re too heavy for the soft ground. They were impervious to enemy fire unless it was point-blank on, but they were soon immobile. The Panzers just went around them.

“Pull back,” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the guns and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the guns and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late.

The tanks swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. Andrei and Nikolai swung their gun around. “Aim at its back,” Maurice said. “FIRE!”

The gun whooshed and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical fuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned. The explosion rang in Maurice’s ears for minutes.

“Let’s get them, Lieutenant,” Orest said. He stood to pick up the gun, and Viktor, his loader, looked at Maurice wide-eyed. “We killed one tank. Let’s get more of the bastards.”

Big Eugene stood too, submachine gun at the ready. “Get down,” Maurice said. He grabbed Orest’s uniform and pulled him to the ground. Big Eugene dropped as a shell burst thirty metres away. Maurice saw him crawl back to the trench, flat on his belly.

Army of Worn Soles

A Canadian is drafted into the Soviet Red Army during World War 2, just in time to be thrown against Nazi Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa. Caught in the vise of the Nazi and Communist forces, Maurice Bury concentrates on keeping his men alive as they retreat across Ukraine from the German juggernaut. Now the question is: will they escape from the hell of the POW camp before they starve to death?

Army of Worn Soles is the first book in the Eastern Front trilogy, which tells the true story of Maurice Bury’s experiences in the Second World War.

Find it on Amazon.

Sample Sunday: The Red Army takes Estonia from the Nazis



Today in the history of the Second World War on the Eastern Front

1944: The Red Army breaks through near Narva, Estonia. — World War II Database 

A description of the following events from Walking Out of War.

From Walking Out of War: Book 3 in the Eastern Front trilogy

Battle of Narva, 1944 Image source: Wikiwand http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_Narva_(1944)

When the train passed a station with a sign that read Narva, Maurice realized they had reached Estonia, which the Germans called Ostland. Its history was complex. Home to a sizable German elite minority for centuries, Estonia had been independent after the fall of the Russian Empire during the Great War. In 1939, the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact ceded the Baltic states to the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and Germany evacuated tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from Estonia and Latvia before the Soviets took over. The Soviets deported thousands of Estonians to Siberia and killed thousands more.

When Germany invaded in 1941, many Estonians saw it as a liberator from Stalin, as many had in Ukraine. And as in Ukraine, the hopes for independence were soon proven to be lies. Germany set up Reichskommissariat Ostland, a huge buffer zone between “greater Germany” and the occupied areas of the USSR. Nazi Germany confiscated all the state property that the Soviets had confiscated a year earlier and imprisoned or killed the Estonian political, intellectual and commercial leaders that had not escaped. The German Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories began “germanizing” Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Nazis set up concentration camps and murdered tens of thousands of Estonians, including over 4,000 Jews. By the end of 1944, the Reichskommissar could declare Ostland “Jew-free.” The Nazis exploited Estonia’s resources for their war effort and used Estonians as slave labour.

Which means the country is filled with partisans fighting both the USSR and Germany. Just like Ukraine.

As evening fell, the train stopped at an improvised army base, a muddy field in the midst of forests. The crops that had once grown there had been burned by war and churned by vehicles and marching feet. A few trees still held leaves, colourful in the fall, but most had been blackened and broken. Skeletal ruins of a town and farm buildings were grey against the red sunset.

Red Army soldiers in Riga, Latvia, 1944. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

“The Estonian-Latvian border is ten kilometres west of here,” said the earnest Lieutenant Vasilyev. “The Germans hold the border town of Valga. We’re going to take it in the morning.”

Maurice looked at Mykhailo. He was shaking. Old Stepan looked glum, as usual, and Young Olesh was pale even in the red sunset.

Maurice took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ve been in action. I’ve been in far worse situations, when we were running from the Germans. I survived. I will survive tomorrow, too.

They camped, groups of three making little tents of their chenilles, or greatcoats: one on the ground, two draped over their rifles, propped up as poles. They would sleep alongside one another in shifts: every few hours, they would change around, so each of the three had a few hours in between the other two, and thus the warmest place in the tent.

The sergeants woke them quietly before dawn. They packed their gear, pulling on their greatcoats against the chill. Maurice tightened his helmet strap and checked his rifle magazine was full. The sergeant led them to their starting position. Groups of two odalenye, or twenty-four in total, would accompany a tank. “Let the tank do the hard work,” said Nikolaev. “Your job is to protect it from enemy infantry. The tank will be your protection, but remember that it’s also the target for Fritz’s artillery. In the town, watch the windows and don’t trust the civilians. A lot of partisans favour the Nazis and will kill any socialist comrade they can.”

Or maybe they just want to be free from both Germany and Russia, Maurice thought. “Keep low, boys, and keep your eyes focused ahead for Fritz in hiding places,” he told his comrades.

The Lieutenant stepped in front of them. “This is our first experience in carrying out deep operations. The shock army will hit as soon as there’s light. Keep your head down as the planes strike. The tanks will move fast, striking deep. We’re the second echelon,” he said, and Maurice thought he sounded disappointed. “When they’ve broken through, we follow into the breach and occupy the town, destroy any remaining resistance and take over their bases, ammunition, vehicles. Our regiment’s specific objective is the railroad station. When we get there, we’ll set up the Maxim as a defensive weapon. If the enemy counterattacks, follow your training. Fire in short bursts. Don’t waste ammunition.”

A colonel stepped up behind Lieutenant Vasileyev, his battle uniform perfect. “We’re going to liberate Valga today,” he said, catching each man’s eye in turn. “That means we are freeing Latvia from the Nazi tyrant, restoring the rule of the people of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia, and tomorrow, Lithuania as well. Other than partisans, this town is part of the Soviet Union. Stavka will not tolerate looting or abuse of the civilian population. Is that understood?” He did not wait for a reply, but walked away to repeat his message to the next group.

Sergeant Nikolaev summed it up. “Hands off the women and especially the girls.”

The sky lightened behind them, and then a line of planes buzzed past overhead. Maurice had faced the blitzkrieg in 1941. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed by a fast, unstoppable foe.

But nothing could have prepared him for the Red Army’s assault on the German invaders in 1944. The line of planes hitting the enemy stretched in both directions as far as he could see, and explosions lit up the western horizon with a hellish light. They felt the earth vibrating, felt the heat on their faces.

Katyusha rockets. Image source: World War II today.

As the sun’s first rays lit up the field, Maurice saw the artillery raise their barrels and begin firing: mortars and cannons, long-range artillery pieces and something new: the Guards Mortars, the innovative rocket launchers that became known as the Katyusha. They looked like the pipes of a church organ mounted on cantilevered assembly on the back of one of the now-ubiquitous Studebaker trucks. Maurice watched a crew load fourteen metre-long rockets onto the rails. The rails rose, pointing at an upward angle toward the enemy. Then with an unbearably loud but almost musical sound, they fired. Rows of multiple rocket launchers sent a volley of thousands of shells toward the Germans. Nothing could survive that, Maurice thought.

Then the shock armies raced westward. First came tanks and armoured cars, all carrying men with a grim but confident air. Looking at them, Maurice knew they had no illusions that some of them were going to die, but they were going to destroy the enemy.

Soviet infantry advance alongside T-34 tanks in the summer of 1944. Image source: World War II Today.

Hundreds of vehicles poured past Maurice’s position. The Germans returned fire, but that did not slow the shock troops. As the day brightened, the men could see the German positions in the town of Valga, about two kilometres to the west. Smoke billowed up from dozens of spots. Buildings crumbled as shells from Soviet tanks and cannon struck.

Successive lines of Soviet tanks, trucks, guns and men moved across the fields toward the first buildings of the town. Men fell, trucks burst into smoke and fire but the shock troops kept moving forward.

Walking Out of War: The Eastern Front, book 3

Ukraine, 1944: After the Soviets burned the Ukrainian city of Ternopyl to the ground to crush the stubborn Nazi occupiers, they rounded up every remaining Ukrainian man around for the Red Army’s final push on Germany. Maurice Bury, Canadian citizen, Ukrainian resistance fighter and intelligence officer, is thrust once again into the death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.

Fighting across the Baltics in the autumn of 1944 is tough and bloody. Then the Red Army enters Germany, where they’re no longer liberators—they’re the long-feared Communist horde, bent on destruction, rape and revenge. The Communists are determined to wipe Nazism from the face of the earth. And the soldiers want revenge for Germany’s brutal invasion and occupation.

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Sample Sunday: A simple assignment



From The Wife Line

A Sydney Rye Kindle World mystery

Provence, France, May 2010

Mulberry had promised Sydney a simple assignment. But now, with the sweet scent of lavender filling her nostrils, the deep darkness of Provence pressing in from all sides, it did not seem all that simple. There was another aroma beside, or maybe underneath the scent of flowers. Musky, deep, dark. It was making her edgy, excited — horny?

Sydney Rye looked down at her dog, Blue. He looked back up with an expression that seemed to say “If you can’t identify scents this easy, I can’t help you.” She couldn’t see that one of his eyes was brown, the other blue, but her mind filled in those details.

Blue was the size of a Great Dane with the long, thick fur of a wolf, the markings of a Husky and the elegant muzzle of a collie. A thin whine escaped his mouth and his bushy tail went from brushing Sydney’s leg to shaking the fronds beside him.

Sydney and Blue both looked up when they heard a rustle in the branches above.  Sydney thought she could see something moving along the vines above her, but the dark made it impossible to be certain. Blue whined again, his tail accelerating to beat a tattoo against Sydney’s leg.

Sydney raised her gun, sliding the safety off with a click. Her mouth felt dry. Her pulse throbbed in her neck. Sweat loosened her grip on her weapon. That scent again, under the floral odor. Why was she thinking about sex at a time like this?

Blue growled so softly that only Sydney, standing in the shadows right beside him, could hear it. Above, the shadows no longer moved.

Probably just a squirrel, or whatever animal moves around the trees at night get in southern France. If it was a threat, Blue would have warned me, not wagged his tail.

“Stay here, boy,” she told Blue. She put the safety back on and tucked the weapon firmly into its holster, then reached up and jumped. She pulled herself into the tree and climbed high enough to look over the old stone wall in front of her.

A shadow rustled ahead, seeming to recede through the branches toward the country mansion behind the stone wall.

The mansion seemed to Sydney the epitome of France: originally constructed of light grey stone probably hundreds of years ago, it had new, modern windows that showed polished wood floors, bright lamps and modern furniture inside. The light spilling out the windows added to that from modern fixtures that lit up the manicured gardens inside the wall.

While she couldn’t see them from her vantage point in the tree, Sydney was certain there was also state-of-the-art security and surveillance technology that kept a better eye on the grounds than she had.

Sydney glanced down to the ground. She couldn’t see Blue in the shadows below her, but she could feel him there. Blue — her rock. Always there for her. He had saved Sydney’s life more than once, even took a bullet meant for her. He was better to her than she was to him, Sydney knew, but she also knew she could always rely on him.

Movement in the front yard caught her eye. A shadow slid down the wall. A tall man, or a very tall and athletic woman with broad shoulders, dressed all in black, crouch-walked to the limousine, keeping it between him- or her-self and the front door.

The slim figure vanished into the limousine’s shadow, then re-emerged a few seconds later. It took a run at the wall, sprang up, gripped the top and swung over, vanishing into the night.

Sydney jumped off the branch, landing ten feet below beside Blue. “Hunt,” she said, pointing along the wall toward the front of the estate. Blue sprang ahead, disappearing into the darkness under the trees. Sydney ran as fast as she could behind him, but of course could not keep up with the big dog.

She rounded the corner of the wall, arriving in a small clearing surrounded by bushes, still invisible to anyone in the manor. She had expected to find Blue pinning the shadowy figure to the ground, standing on his chest and growling into his face.

Instead, the wan light that filtered through the leaves from the manor showed Blue in classic play posture: butt high in the air, tail wagging, front paws and head low to the ground, head tilted to one side.

In front of him was a man in the same posture, or as close as a human being could get to doggie pose: on his hands and knees, butt high, head low. He and Blue looked at each other, sprang up simultaneously, collided, fell together on the ground, rolled over and over. Blue jumped away, giving a little, happy bark, turning to look back at the man lying on the ground. Blue’s tail was a blur in the dark.

“Are you kidding me?” Sydney stepped close, getting down on one knee to touch the barrel of her gun to his head and said “Freeze.”

The man did not freeze. Instead, he rolled over onto his back and smiled up at her. He had large, light-colored eyes under heavy eyebrows, high cheekbones, a perfectly straight nose, a full mouth and a slight dimple in his chin. The woolen cap on his head hid his hair.

Sydney leaned over to keep the gun in his face, and turned to Blue. “What is the matter with you?”

Blue’s ears drooped, his tail stopped and fell. He whined softly.

Sydney turned to the man in black. “Who the hell are you and what have you done to my dog?”

“Dogs like me,” he replied with an American accent. His deep voice stirred something inside Sydney’s chest. She swallowed. She could feel sweat on her upper lip.

He smiled broadly, his teeth shining in the wan light. That smell again, she thought. What is it? It was so faint, she wondered whether she was imagining it. Soft but irresistible. Her mouth suddenly felt too full of saliva. She swallowed again.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Sydney demanded.

“My name is Van, and I’m probably doing the same thing you are.”

What’s The Wife Line about?

Human traffickers are selling young women from eastern Europe as sex slaves and killing them when they become inconvenient. Sydney Rye’s job is only to protect her client, until a mysterious, aggravating and irresistible young crusader pulls her and Blue on a far more dangerous path: taking down the whole slaving ring.

If you like Emily Kimelman’s Sydney Rye series featuring a strong female character, her canine best friend, Blue, tons of action and a dash of sex, you won’t be able to put The Wife Line down.

Start following Sydney, Blue and Van across the seamiest part of Europe right now.

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