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Numbers Game

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It was times like these that Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart wished he was still a regimental officer. Being responsible for only a single company was something he missed, not least because being so low on the ladder meant he was spared headaches of this magnitude. Opposite him at the table, Général de brigade Félix Lamarque flicked silently through the sheaf of papers Scobie'd handed him. It was the formal estimate Lethbridge-Stewart and Major-general Scobie had bashed together, laying out the proposed strength and equipment, and desired funding for the British UNIT establishment.

He hoped to have those estimates accepted without argument or dispute, but the chances of that were low. If Lamarque raised no objections, the florid-faced Paolo Bernotti almost certainly would. There was some comfort in that Lamarque was a soldier too; before relocating to Geneva, he'd commanded the 2e Brigade Blindée. Bernotti, on the other hand, was an accountant. He saw numbers, not people. Convincing him would be the challenge.

'You intend raising a battalion, then?'

'Near enough,' Scobie replied. 'There are certain sites around the country that need a dedicated presence. The Army has enough to contend with elsewhere and cannot devote sufficient attention to the problems we would handle.'

'A battalion is still a large formation,' Bernotti put in, peering at the papers Lamarque had just passed to him. 'They are expensive.'

'Adequate defence is never without cost,' Lethbridge-Stewart remarked.

Bernotti didn't dignify that with a direct reply. Instead, he perused the pages for a moment before asking, 'What is this here, the provision for 'discretionary funds'? It is not included with the rest of the estimated total budget?'

'That's for occasions when the ordinary budget cannot cover necessary expenses. An emergency purse, you might say.'

'I do not approve. You are already asking for a considerable sum.' Bernotti turned to the final page. 'What savings are possible to make in this, Generale?'

Nobody answered for a second, none of them being sure who was being addressed. Bernotti was obliged, with evident annoyance, to add, 'It is Generale Lamarque I ask.'

Lamarque managed, somehow, to remain cool. 'I would suppose it is reasonable to limit vehicles to seven and restrict them to nothing larger than a Bedford lorry.'

'Hm.' Bernotti did some calculations on the page he'd just been reading. 'What is the normal cost of operating seven vehicles for a calendar year?'

Scobie removed a couple of papers from his satchel and passed them over. They'd anticipated these questions. To a degree. Maintenance costs for their desired vehicles would cost approximately £55,000 a year. If they were very careful with how those vehicles were used. That figure included the expected cost of fuel as well, which made Lethbridge-Stewart inwardly wince. Still. Since they'd known there would be resistance to any numbers they offered, it had been decided to overestimate the figures for vehicles and equipment, and hope to not have their final budget not be too shoestring. Bernotti seemed likely to batter this proposal down to its barest bones, though.

'I do not agree with this. You may have five vehicles and none may be lorries. For heavier transport, you may share with the host Army.'

'That is entirely too restrictive, Commercialista Bernotti,' said Scobie evenly. 'In order to be most effective in our intended purpose, we must be as independent as possible.'

Bernotti shook his immaculately styled head. 'It is not a concern to me. I am here to be certain this proposal asks for nothing unreasonable. This is not reasonable.' He flicked his fingers against the papers that lay on the table before him.

'What do you suggest instead?'

'I have told you what I suggest. Five vehicles only. No lorries.'

'What of the rest of it? Personnel and so on?'

The Italian looked grumpy. 'A battalion is very large. It is too much men. I cannot approve such expense. Two companies will reduce the estimated cost to an acceptable level. You may agree terms of support with the host Army to make up any shortfalls.'

'You are too harsh, perhaps, Commercialista Bernotti,' Lamarque said. 'The operational range of this formation will be too limited to permit it to function if it has only two companies. A battalion is perfectly reasonable.'

'It is not. They ask for four hundred thousand pounds per year. That is too much. I may consider half of that sum but not a pence more.'

Scobie and Lethbridge-Stewart exchanged glances. They could not support a full battalion on that small a budget. There was simply no way. Nor could they manage with just two companies, as Lamarque pointed out. This was always going to be a difficult meeting but neither of them expected it to be this difficult this quickly.

'Three companies and a headquarters platoon,' Lethbridge-Stewart suggested abruptly. 'We will have considerable difficulty operating with such reduced manpower, of course, but if it will make our anticipated budget acceptable...'

Lamarque lifted an eyebrow at him, while Scobie simply looked thoughtful. Neither offered their own thoughts. For his part, Bernotti did more quick calculations on the topmost paper in front of him. The silence wasn't long. Blessedly.

'I may allow two hundred and fifty thousand,' the accountant said finally. 'This must cover everything. Personnel, vehicles, and equipment. Equally, I accept three companies only. Everyone must remember, this is not the only UNIT formation we must maintain. There is only so much to go around.'

That was true enough. Lethbridge-Stewart nodded. 'Other formations will have struck on their own operating rhythms. We are starting from scratch, so our initial costs will be inflated by simple necessity.'

'We will also take on more recruits than we'll ultimately need, because the nature of our operations will naturally cull the ranks.'

A shiver went down his spine at that. It was a crass, thoughtless way to describe casualties. 'There will also be men who decide this is not the type of soldiering for them.'

Judging by the expression on his face, Scobie recognised his own gaffe. It was a horrid thing to make a mistake with. Lethbridge-Stewart was disgusted by it.

'That will increase your proposed budget in which way?'

'If we recruit excessively, we'll need more money to clothe and arm them. Initially, at least. After the first raft of stores are received, we ought to have sufficient stocks to kit out everyone with a little to spare.'

'Further,' Lamarque put in, 'it is often necessary to overestimate at the beginning of a budget cycle. That is usual business. I have done it myself.'

'You are not asking for the moon, Generale. These gentlemen are.' Bernotti shrugged expressively. 'But I must consider quickly. I am expected in Stockholm in the morning.' His pen scritched over paper. 'I will accept two hundred and fifty thousand per year and three companies. A British company is... one hundred men, yes? Yes. That will suffice.'

'Commercialista – '

Bernotti waved a hand. 'It is that or nothing, Maggior Generale Scobie. How you manage your operations is not of my concern. It is my responsibility only to keep costs minimal. Do you agree or do you not?'

There was nothing they could really do and they both knew it. Scobie sighed. 'We agree. Thank you, Commercialista Bernotti.'

'Prego. Mi excusi.' The round-bellied Italian was already on his feet. He was gone out the door without waiting for responses or even acknowledgement. With his departure, the mood of the room eased almost tangibly.

Lamarque smiled slightly. He must have longer experience dealing with Bernotti, or with men like him. Certainly, he seemed less flustered by the accountant's unyielding stance. 'Now, my friends, we may perhaps talk real details, yes?'

With pleasure, thought Lethbridge-Stewart in relief. With definite pleasure.