Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three.
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
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Duty Station 2: Trud Gornyaka, June-August 1942
Welcome to the Churn
Two months have passed. The 588th has relocated to a remote field in the middle of nowhere, within striking distance of active combat zones on three sides. The thunder of artillery is constant. The badly battered Red Army is in retreat; communication and supplies are erratic. It’s time to earn first blood in the Don river basin.
The summer weather is good for flying and the Fascist scum have not quite learned how to counter harassment bombing. The biggest dangers come from inexperienced crews and your own primitive airfield, which is made of split logs and mud. Hay bales line the runway and are set on fire to guide damaged planes home. Circumstances are … not ideal.
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I have Darren read the Duty Station 2 introduction for us. We also work out that:
- Capt. Lobodeva is currently sick and in no condition to fly.
- The cows keep eating the rope that's supposed to keep them from wandering onto the makeshift runway.
- And the 218th Regiment, also based nearby, has already seen some action and has nicknamed a particularly persistent FW190 "Yellow-Tail."
The supply situation is very bad, and our crews get a -1 ongoing for Scrounge and Repair at this Duty Station. Find it and fix it yourself. Welcome to the war.
On the train to Trud Gornyaka, Sasha asks Eli why she never writes home. "To my mother, I am as good as dead. My sister was always the favourite. I was only expected to be a ballerina. When my sister died, that was the only thing that mattered. So I have no mother to write to." "That's awful," says Sasha. "I have an idea. I...I am not good at writing. Could you...write to my mother for me? And you tell her things about yourself too. Like the mother you do not have." Eli agrees to do as Sasha asks.
Lieutenant Petrova pulls Eli aside for a private word. "I'm sorry to tell you this. You've done a good job as provisional section leader, but...we need to do a favour for a general. His favourite god-daughter, whose parents were heroes of the Revolution, she joined up too late to make training with the 588th. She's being assigned to 3B to give her a chance to earn her glory, to show her leadership. Please help us to watch out for her."
* * *
We cut to the introduction of Lieutenant Elizabeta Oktobrskaya, a pint-sized blonde fireball with a perpetually raised chin and a squeaky voice that belies her ambition and ego. She is trouble. She explains that she is energetic, ambitious, driven, destined, born to natural patriotism, brave, talented, and above all, humble. She promises to speak with the Major to ensure that the Section receives enough supplies and spares. As a former Aeroflot pilot she is eager to work with Galina, who is also an Aeroflot veteran, and we know Aeroflot girls have to stick together. The two of them will fly in plane 069.
Since Mariya seems to be the poorest performer in the section and has recently lost her pilot, she will be Eli's new navigator. Meanwhile, Sasha will be assigned to be Katya's navigator in the replacement plane, 082 "Footless." And just like that, with the existing partners all split up, the section's Regard relationships are now a lot less useful.
3rd Squadron Air Section 3B:
- Plane 069 "Aeroflop" - Pilot: Sgt. Galina Mirova. Navigator: Lt. Elizabeta Oktobrskaya
- Plane 027 "I'm Fucked," the Pride of Soviet Agriculture - Pilot: Junior Lt. Elena "Eli" Sheremetova. Navigator: Sgt "Lazy Mariya" Karamazova.
- Plane 082 "Footless" - Pilot: Sgt Yekaterina "Katya" Trushina. Navigator: Sgt Alexandra "Sasha" Baranovskaya
Plane numbers may have changed due to a record-keeping mix-up. Also, Eli's nicknames for the planes are not flattering.
As Lt Oktobrskaya stomps off to see the Major, Eli quips to her deputy Katya: "I didn't know we had Zeppelins in this squadron. I've never seen so much hot air." Katya replies: "That's fine as long as she uses those connections to get Matty the spares she needs for our planes..."
Our players choose new Roles for the Duty Station. Douglas picks Adventurer for Eli, as she will be piloting now and might need to survive a tough landing at some point. Darren picks Leader for Katya since she is expected to lead attack runs. The drawback is that the only person Katya has under her command in 082 is Sasha, and Eli might not want to see her girlfriend die just so that Katya can pick up another Advance.
During the Day Phase, former airwoman Sgt Lydia Kurila comes by to visit. She's now a supply clerk with the regimental quartermaster. "If you need any help with supplies, I can help." Eli asks Lydia to show her leg scars and makes sure that Mariya gets a good long look at the damage from the crash she and Lydia were in. "Remember that this is what can happen if we get it wrong."
The scare tactic might have worked a little too well. After the visit, Mariya has trouble concentrating. Eli pulls Sasha and Mariya together for a map orientation session, to identify target areas and potential landing sites. "Mariya, do not be so anxious," Eli tells her. "It is not your fault that she broke her leg. But let this be a reminder of what is at stake."
Meanwhile, Katya takes a walk outside the base to scope out the situation - an Eyeball roll. The tactical area encompasses the western gateway to the Caucasus, consisting of birch forests, marshes, and fertile agricultural lands. Most of these have been abandoned, and cultivated fields make useful landmarks from the air. A major southeast-northwest rail line from Donetsk through Luhansk to Starobilsk is also a key strategic feature and navigational reference, as is the Donets River just north of Trud Gornyaka. The navigators look for structures around the Bryanka coal mines and long fire breaks in the forests. A skilled pilot can put a Po-2 down in one of these fire breaks in an emergency. Katya also notices that two other regiments are based nearby, down the road: The 217th and the 218th. Both of them have better access to the supply depot than the 588th.
With the morning's planning and preparation done, the women get some sleep - sufficient to avoid Harm.
Night Phase. Thanks to successful a Reach Out by Eli, the section has a point of Mission Pool when the first briefing occurs. Lt Oktobrskaya declares that they will be harassing German and Hungarian infantry massing at a crossing along the Mius river. There shouldn't be too much resistance. Elizabeta Oktobrskaya will Wayfind. Katya is assigned to make the first Attack Run. Eli will be Vedomaya.
The planes are soon up in the air, soaring over the Don River basin. The first thing Lt Oktobrskaya does is point her plane off in the wrong direction, completely failing in her navigation skills. The other planes opt to find the target themselves, late and alone. Sacha's navigation is enough to get them there. As it happens, Katya is able to make a pinpoint bombing run, and the airwomen fly low enough to see the German and Hungarian soldiers scurrying like mice along the river banks. The bombing successfully disrupts the troops on the ground. However, there was one negative consequence of Katya's attack - one of the planes in her section is damaged. I choose Eli's fuel pump to crap out as a result of this mission - not instantly so it's not a cause for Wheels Down, but it definitely becomes a supply problem as the entire regiment is short on fuel pumps.
I also abstract the rest of the night, which consists of more bombing runs against the Mius River crossings. Return to base, refuel, rearm and go hit them again. Except for Lt Oktobrskaya and Galina, who end up landing at another friendly airbase and waste the whole night finding their way home.
At the debriefing, almost on cue, Galina points out the failings of her commander to the NKVD officer. Cue Lt Oktobrskaya's shocked surprise. There is much facepalming among Section 3B.
Day Phase. The fuel pump problem is Eli's top priority. Lt Oktobrskaya claims she will help pull strings to get a new fuel pump, but her words are empty boasts. Other planes in the Regiment also need new fuel pumps - at least four in total. Matty the mechanic frowns as she tells Eli that they also need more cables and other spares. Eli sits down with Matty. "I know we've had our differences, but right now neither of us can do our jobs unless I can scrounge the spare parts we need. Please, is there any advice or help you can give?" She manages to connect with Matty. who gives her some tips on whom to ask, and some snacks to keep her energy up during the day. It's almost like they're friends now.
Eli starts putting together a team to go out with her to scrounge for parts: Katya, Lydia and Mariya. They drive a commandeered Zis truck out to the nearby village where the 217th is billeted - and also closer to the supply depot. Katya finds her contact Dimitri the mechanic and finds out that the regiment is currently being inspected by NKVD Colonel Amonov - not a nice situation to be in.
A group of babushkas from the village approach Eli's group. "The soldiers are ruining our village, taking all the houses and looting everything. Please, can you get them to at least spare our farmhouses?" When Katya reports back about the presence of Colonel Amonov, Eli already knows what she must do.
Amonov is pleasantly surprised to see Eli, and immediately lights up and offers her a drink...some food...and all his hospitality. He's immediately distracted from his mission to find traitors in the 217th, to Dimitri's relief. He takes Eli upstairs for an hour or so, and Eli obliges him without question...fade to black.
Meanwhile, Katya is able to arrange for the 217th to spare some fuel pumps and supplies in exchange for Eli's diversion. And she even gets the soldiers to give the local villagers some peace. Everyone gets what they want.
Driving back, in a truck laden with spare parts, Eli straightens out her uniform, while Mariya and Lydia try not to stare at her. Then the truck lurches and jolts and plunges into a mudhole in the dirty road. It takes precious time and energy to get the truck un-stuck, by which time the women have taken Harm from exhaustion and lack of sleep time.
While Matty and the others unload the fuel pumps and get them to the planes, Eli sneaks into quarters and strips down, then starts towelling herself off (not enough water for a bath here) to wipe off the smell of the Colonel. Which is when Sacha walks in, sees Eli, and realises what has happened. "Sacha -" Eli starts to speak. But her lover leaves in grim silence.
Night Phase. Tonight, Lt Oktobrskaya tells Section 3B that they will undertake the bombing of the railroad crossing at Likhaya. 40th Army has requested the destruction of enemy rolling stock in advance of an attempt to retake the railroad. The Lieutenant explains her bright idea. "We had some...problems with navigation last night. But I have come up with a brilliant solution! We will switch all of the crew assignments in the planes!"
Eli and Katya share a worried sidelong glance.
3rd Squadron Air Section 3B:
- Plane 069 "Aeroflop" - Pilot: Lt. Elizabeta Oktobrskaya. Navigator: Sgt. Galina Mirova.
- Plane 027 "I'm Fucked," the Pride of Soviet Agriculture - Pilot: Sgt "Lazy Mariya" Karamazova. Navigator: Junior Lt. Elena "Eli" Sheremetova.
- Plane 082 "Footless" - Pilot: Sgt Alexandra "Sasha" Baranovskaya. Navigator: Sgt Yekaterina "Katya" Trushina.
Katya gets the role of Wayfinder, while Lt Oktobrskaya will lead the attack run. Eli's crew gets assigned to as Vedomaya for Oktobrskaya's plane.
The section takes off into the night, and at first, things go well. Katya navigates perfectly and they find the railroad crossing with ease. But Lt Oktobrskaya flubs the bombing and fails to hit her targets. All along the rail, German troops light up the searchlights and truck-mounted flak guns start firing.
As Oktobrskaya turns back, her bombs expended, Katya takes action. "We're going in!" she tells Sasha. Surprisingly their luck holds, and the bombs strike true, destroying the targets and even some of the flak trucks. But some stray shrapnel damages the controls, and Plane 082 sputters further east into enemy territory and is forced to land in a firebreak. It's not a clean landing. Both Sasha and Katya take Harm and they attract a truck full of German gunners.
"Go after them," orders Eli to her pilot. Lazy Mariya is extremely reluctant. "But...standing orders say we have to go back to base..."
"You felt guilty about Lydia's leg? That wasn't your fault. But if you turn back now, if you don't go after Sasha and Katya, what happens to them will be your fault!" Eli's words convince Mariya, and they fly in, right over the German gunners. Eli's bold attempt to Tempt Fate is, again, astonishingly lucky. They drop their unexpended bombs ahead of the German truck, dropping shattered trees right into its path. Then they make a desperate landing right by the crash site, administer first aid to the wounded, and pack them onto Plane 027 as best as they can.
As Eli and Mariya's plane returns to base near the crack of dawn, they narrowly avoid being sighted by a sinister FW-190 with a yellow tail...and once again they've managed to escape disaster.
How long can their luck hold?
As it turned out in the next session, not long.