The Wall: A Short Story
“The Wall,” a short story by Dylan Luongo drawing inspiration from the events of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during the Second World War.
It was early in the morning, pre-dawn, when we assembled.
The fighting on the other side of the wall had started sometime in the night, possibly even earlier. We’d likely never know for sure. It was a different world on the other side of that damn wall. Information, people, nothing crossed it for the most part. A large concrete bastion with razor wire wrapped along its top. Gun emplacements, trenches, hedgehogs, razor wire clumps and a no-man’s-land formed its bleak perimeter. We gathered who we could a few hundred feet from the wall, hidden in an alley with a building obscuring us. Close enough to hear the fighting. Close enough to know our comrades on the inside were dying.
There were only twenty of us at first, all former soldiers who would prove capable in a firefight. Everyone bore the scars of a long and brutal occupation, both physical and mental. Wounds from the war, or in previous clashes against the occupying forces. Smiles long faded to blank expressions or pained looks as relatives and friends disappeared with little warning. Everyone had reason to fight, reason to bring that wall down.
We had access to some small arms: several rifles, submachine guns, sidearms, and explosives. What we lacked were anti-tank and other heavy weaponry, as well as any dedicated suppression weapons — all equipment our enemy could readily bring against us. We huddled together in the alleyway, distributing the equipment we had. Frank, an aged soldier, produced a hastily scrawled map of the enemy position on the other side of the building. He had scouted the wall roughly thirty minutes earlier to produce the map.
The sounds of the fighting grew louder from within the ghetto, the occasional explosion reminiscent of the sound of distant thunder before a storm. Several other resistance fighters, mostly civilians with minimal training, began to arrive. Rachel, a former army lieutenant, appeared.
“Rachel, take a few of the men and approach from the right. You need to eliminate that gun emplacement before this goes to shit,” Max ordered.
Max, a large man and the natural commander, stood in the center of our huddle. He had been a captain in the army before the occupation. His company had not made it out during the military’s retreat. Many of those who had been under his command were prisoners on the other side of that wall. He was the de-facto leader for our resistance cell.
“A petrol bomb should do the trick. Can’t spare any of the bigger stuff anyways,” Rachel replied, gesturing to Frank for one of the petrol bombs.
Frank opened his jacket to produce several glass bottles filled with petrol, soaked rags stuffed into the bottle tops. Most still had the label on them, Frank must have enjoyed his whiskey. His poorly shaven beard likely attested to that fact. He gave Rachel three, one of which she passed to me.
“Make it count,” she said.
I nodded and quickly checked if my old lighter still worked.
Max continued laying out a battle plan to attack the wall. Our numbers continued growing throughout Max’s briefing. By dawn, we were fifty strong, though most were civilians. We decided we couldn’t wait any longer. Our plan was simple. We were to assault the wall, gaining a foothold at its base to plant explosives and create a breach. With the wall breached, those on the inside might be able to affect a breakout. Max put us into three units, each approaching from a different alley. I found myself in what was dubbed unit “A,” led by Rachel. We were counting on catching the soldiers along the wall perimeter by surprise — hoping they wouldn’t expect an attack from outside the ghetto.
Johnny, a young man who had been a college student before the occupation, was our wireless operator. The kid had been a radio jockey when he was in school and was a wiz with communications equipment. He was to stay back and coordinate our three units as well as try to get the word of the attack out to the other resistance fighters. We’d need others to know about this operation for it to succeed. I gripped the homemade petrol bomb tightly, my rifle slung over my shoulder as we moved to our assigned alleyway. Before us lay a road with a small embankment followed by no-man’s-land to the wall. The look of resolve on Rachel’s face marked her out as a veteran. The others in our unit chafed with a mixture of fear and anticipation.
“Squeeze that any tighter and you’ll break it,” Rachel chided, placing a hand on my shoulder.
She too had a rifle, and one of the others in our group had a submachine gun. Both were to provide covering fire after I threw the bomb. With a quick nod to Rachel, I lit it up with my old lighter and sprinted for the emplacement. A rush of adrenaline came over me as I felt the breeze against my body, the heat of the lit bomb still in my hand. I fixed my vision on the gun emplacement and the two enemy soldiers manning it. The rest of the world seemed to fade away as I made for my target.
The two soldiers manning the gun emplacement let out a yell to raise the alarm as I rushed forward.
They shouted in a language I didn’t fully understand, but their intent was plain. One made for the machine gun while the other raised his rifle. I threw my petrol bomb, hurling myself towards the ground once it was away. The soldier making for the machine gun gave a bloodcurdling scream as the bomb crashed across his chest. The glass bottle shattering on impact, spewing the igniting petrol across the two soldiers. It would be a slow death as they burned alive, but they were disabled immediately and that emplacement was toast. Rachel let fly several shots, downing a soldier attempting to fire from cover alongside the wall. I scrambled back towards the embankment by the road to rejoin the group. Gunfire blazed from both sides as the battle began in earnest.
The remaining defenders, entrenched behind sandbag positions, had called in reinforcements as soon as I destroyed the emplacement. An infantry fighting vehicle, whose top machine gun brought a hail of fire down on our positions, arrived within minutes of the start. Several attempts to eliminate the vehicle failed with casualties, explosive-tipped munitions from the gun turning the fallen into little more than gore. Standish, an older man whose bakery had resided within the ghetto before the occupation, managed to land a grenade on top of the vehicle. The explosion annihilated the gun fixture, though the vehicle remained functional. It pulled back fast, smoke billowing from its top. But we continued suffering losses by the moment as the enemy soldiers pinned us down with gunfire. Johnny coordinated between our three positions via the wireless. We had now or never to make a push. If we waited any longer, we’d have too many casualties to do anything. Max’s order came, and the charge for the wall began. Standish was the first from our position, breaking cover with a shout.
“For Agrippina!” he bellowed while making for the wall with all the haste his old body could muster.
The rest of our comrades charged as well, crawling from the cover of the embankment by the road. The enemy soldiers cut several of us down early as we moved across the unforgiving no-man’s-land. Standish didn’t make it to the wall — a well-placed grenade threw his lifeless body backwards like a ragdoll. Frank landed a petrol bomb into one of the sandbag positions before taking several rounds to the chest, falling with a thud. Another from his unit died trying to pull Frank to cover. Max and several from his unit managed to take one of the sandbag emplacements, but a grenade detonated soon after. All that remained was a red mist mixed with falling earth. The man with the submachine gun in my unit fell as we reached the wall, a round finding the back of his head. Only Rachel and I survived from unit “A. “B” and “C” had fared no better. But despite the losses, we had secured a position at the base of the wall. Fifteen of us in total were still standing.
Rachel led the survivors in establishing a firing perimeter while I took two of the surviving civilians to set the charges. I didn’t know their names, only that they had both been construction engineers with explosives training before the occupation. We placed the charges as best we could along the segment of wall we had “captured,” pushing several enemy bodies out of the way first.
“Don’t place the charge on the support, we haven’t enough to break through there!” one of the engineers exclaimed as the other started to place a charge on one of the buttresses reinforcing the wall. “Set it over here.”
“We want to level the thing, right? Need to knock out the support,” the other snapped.
“Idiot!” cursed the first engineer, under his breath.
I took the charges from the two men, placing them myself while they helped me rig the detonators. The first engineer was right, we didn’t have enough explosives to do this job properly. The best we could hope for was a hole about the size of a double doorway. I conveyed as much to the two engineers while we worked. Twangs from gunshots and explosions blasted all around us. I occasionally turned to take stock of the battle behind us.
More of our fighters fell when the enemy regrouped, pushing on our position with far greater numbers.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. An enemy tank crashed through some parked cars down the road from our position against the wall. It was bearing towards us with menace. The main gun wouldn’t be an issue, they’d make the hole for us if they fired that thing. Its machine guns, however, would be more than enough to kill the lot of us while its armor meant we had nothing to stop it. Most of those still alive at this point were former soldiers, and the finality of our mission was not lost upon us.
The tank blasted a hail of gunfire across our position when it came into range, killing another four.
Johnny called out over the wireless that Radio Free Agrippina was blasting the news of the uprising across the airwaves, including that brave resistance fighters were currently attempting to breach the ghetto wall. There had been a call for anyone able to join the fighting. He was cut off by the sound of gunfire from the alleyway as static filled the wireless, but his parting news filled us with renewed zeal. The charges had been set. We’d bought enough time. Even in death we’d succeed. We’d make the opening, and others would use it.
Another hail of gunfire from the tank left both of my engineers dead, their bodies barely recognizable from the anti-personnel flachette rounds fired from the tank’s forward guns. Only five of us remained alive, all injured. I gave a nod to Rachel, who returned it as the blood ran down her face, a final affirmation of success. I pressed down with all the force I could muster on the detonator. A resounding click filled my ears.
This story takes place in a setting that I have toyed with for years, though I’ve never actually published anything for it. The setting itself is a sci-fi one in which humanity has expanded beyond the solar system, colonizing several planets including Agrippina, on which this story takes place. Agrippina has been occupied for roughly two years by a brutal autocratic empire that is at war with the alliance that Agrippina had been a part of. The characters (resistance fighters) are assaulting a walled “ghetto” where the occupiers imprison a myriad of people. Political prisoners, “dissidents,” professors and other educators, as well as former government officials all now find themselves within the ghetto. At some point during the night before the start of the story, open resistance began within the ghetto and the characters are desperately trying to aid those within by breaching the wall. While you can safely assume that the characters are successful in detonating the explosives, killing themselves in the process, it’s unknown as to whether they actually breached the wall. Furthermore, the characters may have died with the belief others would come to join the battle, but this is not a foregone conclusion. The occupiers are rapidly gaining control of the situation, possibly quelling the uprising before it can gain momentum.
This story is inspired by and heavily based on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of World War II, specifically the actions of several groups of the “Polish Home Army” who had attempted to break through the ghetto’s walls during the early portion of the uprising. Despite a valiant effort, the resistance fighters were not able to breach the wall. Most perished as Nazi forces began to lock the ghetto perimeter down, completing the blockade around the ghetto. Despite calling for aid, there was no larger uprising or “second wave” of resistance fighters during the event. You can chalk this up largely to the reality that the Nazi military and SS forces had too strong a grip on the area. There was no real chance of “victory” in a traditional sense during this uprising. Nazi forces would later regain the initiative and purge the ghetto, most of the inhabitants that survived the uprising would later die in one of the extermination camps. Those who managed to survive the war have often stated that they did not believe the uprising would succeed or even spare their lives. Rather, they felt that they wanted to die on their own terms and send a message to the world that the Jews had not gone quietly into the gas chambers.
Petrol Bomb – Often called a Molotav Cocktail, made famous during its use in the siege of Stalingrad during the second world war. It consists of gasoline or other combustible fuel poured into a glass bottle. A rag doused in flammable liquids is used to cork the bottle, acting as a few. When thrown, the bottle shatters on impact igniting the fuel and spreading across the targeted area.
Infantry Fighting Vehicle – An armored vehicle that serves as a troop transport as well as fire support. Once it disembarks its soldiers, the vehicle then uses its anti-personnel weaponry in support of the soldiers.
No-Man’s-Land – A term used to describe the region between two fronts, best typified by the strip of land between opposing trenches during the first world war. In modern use, it means any area around a secured perimeter that may not be entered. Prisons often use these to mark a space before the wall where a prisoner will be shot if they enter.
Wireless – A catchall term used by the military to describe wireless communication equipment. Most modern military units have an individual dedicated to managing communications for the units who would coordinate with other units or headquarters.
Firing Perimeter – A term used to refer to a group of soldiers who each cover only a portion of the area around a defensive point. Similar to a “firing” line.
Hedgehog – An object made of several small steel beams arranged to resemble a “jack” from the game “Jacks.” The idea is that a vehicle, typically a tank or other heavy armor would sustain massive structural damage trying to cross a group of these. Hedgehogs are considered part of the classification “Tank Trap.”
Explosive-Tipped Rounds – A type of munition that has a small explosive charge in the tip so that when it impacts a surface the charge detonates. Some may also include fragmentation components to better kill infantry. Such rounds are employed often to maximize damage to groups of infantry or against heavy armor that might have reactive armor (Armor that uses shaped explosive charges to “deflect” incoming fire).
Anti-Personnel Flachette Rounds – Similar in concept to the munitions used in shotgun shells, flachettes are steel projectiles with a vaned tail for stable flight. They are often used in an anti-personnel capacity by loading many flachettes into a single shell fired from a larger weapon. The shell features a timed detonation, exploding to shower an area with the flachettes similar to a fragmentation grenade. These are sometimes referred to as “sub-munitions” when used like this.
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