No official record of Winston Churchill’s disastrous attempt to take back the port of Tobruk in Libya suggests a nurse was with any of the teams involved in the September 1942 mission. But then no official record was released until twenty years after the operation. By that time much information would have been lost, or maybe deliberately hidden.

9 September 1942, several hours after sundown

The solid ground finally beneath our feet was Malta, the most bombed place in the war.

Soldiers pulled Gail, Mary and me out of the plane and rushed us straight away into an underground bunker. They made it seem as if they were entirely focused on our safety, but I suspected they were sprinting us out of the way so they could most efficiently retrieve the supplies that were the important part of our flight. Those vital materials would help the British colony, a mere dot in the Mediterranean Sea, hold out against the enemy which flew out of airbases in Sicily, a mere sixty miles to the north. British newspapers were filled with the story of heroic Malta.

Once underground we were directed to a loo, then handed warm tea in quantities to gulp to ease the dehydration required to fly with no facilities.

The glorious warmth which surrounded us was a welcome change from the unheated plane. We were given a room with three beds and a table with steaming plates of a vegetable stew. I appreciated the efficiency with which they provided everything, though I wasn’t too keen with the way the British Army—probably as any army anywhere would—managed what we did, when and where we did it, and who we did it with. I missed having a sense of control. I’d even lost what every two-year-old felt empowered with: the ability to say ‘no’.

We three nurses had met in Gibraltar, just long enough for them to salute me with introductions as I switched from the London mail run.

Hunger overrode my exhaustion. Barely. I was definitely too knackered to talk as neither of the planes I’d been in had allowed for sleep due to the temperature and general discomfort. Earlier on, before getting on the first flight, I’d had nightmares—ones that felt like premonitions—of crashing in flames into the sea. So, I hadn’t had a decent night's sleep even before leaving home.

But I also felt guilty since, unbeknownst to Gail and Mary, they’d been sent on the dangerous trip across the enemy-infested Mediterranean to make it seem less suspicious that I was flying to Cairo instead of taking a troop ship around Africa, which is how everyone, other than generals and prime ministers, got there.

I mentally cursed Admiral Hickman. I’d known that his willingness to sacrifice anyone to protect Britain would include me, but I’d joined the Army, not the Navy. Trouble was I hadn’t anticipated the series of events that had put me under his direct command.

I'd wanted to help the war effort, but I’d known since I was eleven that I was a coward: someone not only afraid of danger but who would freeze in a crisis.

But when Churchill offered us nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, all the death and destruction was in some far off future, while the sense of courage around me was contagious. Every other leader was telling his people that war would be easy. Only the new British Prime Minister told us what it would really be like.

I’d always been a sucker for honesty, even though, maybe especially because, I lived in a world of lies and secrets. So, I signed papers committing myself to join army when I finished my nurses training.

As soon as done, I'd regretted it.

Mary’s use of my name interrupted my thoughts. Her dark blond hair, modern haircut, and makeup gave off an aura of femininity, but her tone was one of earnestness. “Lieutenant Bowman, I’m just a year out of nursing school, but did you know that Gail, here, has been nursing for donkey years? She was in Queen Alexandra’s Corps before they were incorporated into the Army last year.”

I’d noticed Gail’s confidence when they saluted me in Gibraltar. Her hair was unusually short and streaked with grey as she sat smoking, just watching me. She hadn’t given the slightest hint that she thought she should have been in charge, although she must have a dozen years more nursing experience than me.

Both of them must have wondered why I was the officer amongst us. I didn't think my rather unusual memory fully justified it. Gail was obviously ten times the hands-on nurse I’d ever be, so so I didn’t want her to be deferential to me. “Look, why don’t you both call me Eleanor during the rest of our trip.”

“Oh, that wouldn’t be right, Lieutenant Bowman,” Mary said.

“I’d prefer it, and since our assignments won’t put us together afterwards: me going to medical administration in Cairo and you two headed for the front lines at El Alamein. I can’t see how it would hurt anything while we’re just among ourselves.”

The flash that scrunched up Gail’s face for the briefest moment showed her disapproval.

Oh well, it would make me more comfortable.

We collapsed onto the beds and I, at least, slept soundly for maybe five whole hours which was marvelous even if it hardly made a dent in what I needed. Breakfast hit the spot, and as if I had used up all my fear during the last two flights, my hands didn’t shake as they had before the previous ones.

A few minutes before we took off, we met Lieutenant Robert Jones, the pilot for the last leg of our trip. He was lanky with a touch of gawkiness—as if he’d recently gone through a growth spurt. He sported light brown hair, ruddy cheeks, a dimpled chin, and protruding ears. I thought him about twenty-one, right around the same age as me.

“Doesn’t Malta need all its planes?” I asked.

“We get to keep the plane you came on which is bigger and newer, and we have fighters on the way. Spitfires, I hear. So no room to protect an older cargo plane.” He looked at us and obviously decided a little more reassurances was called for, “It’s a perfectly good plane. I plan to fly it back with more supplies.”

Even if I thought his attitude of optimism and good cheer wasn’t fully justified, I could hardly hamper his effort to make the other two nurses feel safer.

Our plane had an almost empty cargo hold. Gail and Mary stretched out against our personal luggage and the canvas dispatch bag.

I curled up in a large coil of rope. Once in the air, I dozed as my mind wandered to images of the German estate I grew up on: peaceful, quiet, safe. My British father, stuck in a country whose language he never learned, devoted himself to me as nanny and teacher, as well as parent. I loved my mother, but she had a life among her friends, in her native land. My father’s life became raising me. He trained my memory making learning fun and games educational.

I usually avoided dwelling on the memories of my early years, but during that third flight I felt the need for comfort, and I allowed myself to luxuriate in feelings I’d missed. My father’s spirit seemed to hover, surrounding me with the safety I craved. In times of stress, I still sometimes felt him watching me.

The plane banked, then plunged.

Gail, Mary, and I flew upwards, banging against the metal above us. I finally found something I could grasp and noticed they’d also grabbed various handholds. I then wished for a way to cover my ears as the engine noise had become far worse than fingernails on a blackboard. And it went on an on.

Having just felt my father’s spirit so close, my soul cried out: Please don’t let us die in a fiery crash into the sea.

After a while sand seeped in and circulated around our cargo hold making it harder to breathe. Sand?

Finally the plane leveled off. A few minutes later, I motioned to Gail and Mary that I was going to the cockpit and crawled forward from one hand or foothold to the next, always prepared for another sudden dip or turn. I hoped that Lieutenant Jones might answer questions, though I’d learned that many male officers acted as if women officers should just do as they were told and treated questions from them as a form of defiance, and offering information as insurrection.

I pulled myself upright by leveraging my body against the frame of open cockpit doorway. 

Lieutenant Jones smiled when he saw my reflection in the front window. “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to the second seat, shouting over the screech of the engine noise.

I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel like the one he gripped. “Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you,” he said.

A belt held him to his seat. Ah, seat belt. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet. 

 Sand was hitting the front window and flying around the outside of the plane. “Shouldn’t we be over the Mediterranean? Where did all this sand come from?”

“I turned south to avoid enemy fighters then hit a sandstorm soon after crossing over land. This is merely the tail end of it. I think it was as big as the one that swallowed the Persian army more than two thousand years ago.”

I only vaguely knew what sandstorms were. All my nightmares about the upcoming trip had involved burning crashes into the sea. “I’m glad you avoided fighters.”

“Well, things aren’t great. We’ve been driven pretty far south into the Sahara. And I’ve injured my finger. I need you to take the yoke.”


“That half-wheel in front of you.”

I threw up my hand between us to block his words. “But, but, but… I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted, although he wasn’t much more than a foot away, and the engine noise had lessened somewhat. He needed to hear my objection.

“Can you drive a car?”

“Well…” I paused, trying to think of a way to deny it without telling a direct lie.

For some reason, he took my hesitation as a yes, although before the war few women drove. “You’ll only be keeping the yoke steady, neither moving it side to side nor front to back. I’ll make adjustments as needed. Some newer planes have an instrument called an auto pilot and you’ll just be doing what it would do.” 

He held up a swollen finger, looking at it accusingly. “I jammed my finger between two levers. My own fault. It’ll be fine, but I want to take my hands off the yoke for a few minutes. So, if you’ll hold it.”

I put my hands on the wheel in front of me, swallowed hard, took several deep breaths, and tried to suppress my worry that I’d make a mistake that would kill us all. A wave of fear travelled along my back.

When he took his hands off his wheel, I realized I controlled the plane. I gripped the wheel harder as my distress grew.

“I checked the finger before it started swelling,” he said. “No major break. Maybe a slight crack or a sprain. I jammed it pretty hard. Either way, there’s no treatment except ice and immobilizing it. We have no ice, and it has immobilized itself by swelling.”

I’d have told him the same thing if he’d asked for my medical opinion. But he didn’t even ask me for confirmation. I wondered, as I had in the past, why men expected to know more about something than a woman who’d studied the subject. 

 Lieutenant Jones vigorously rubbed his arms, while safely making sure the injured finger never touched anything else.

My fears prompted my curiosity. “Shouldn’t a second pilot be sitting here?”

“Out of Malta, we make do. No extra pilots and our planes are often old, incomplete, a mishmash patchwork of salvaged parts. A tanker limped through last month which gave us the aviation fuel to fly what we do have. Things are easing.” 

 He looked out the side window then turned back to lean over to check the compass. “You’re flying perfectly. You’re a natural.” He hesitated before adding, “We’re far off course. This is a barren part of the Sahara. We actually don’t have enough fuel left to make Cairo or any of the British lines.”

I struggled to keep my voice level. “So where can we land?” The swirling sand had cleared, and I could see the ground. “It looks awfully rough down there. I never pictured the desert with so many large rocks and boulders.”

“Even if we saw a flat area with hard sand, we wouldn’t want to land where we have no hope of being found within a few days. The Sahara is deadlier than the Germans. Since not even an enemy base is within reach, we’re now headed towards a crossroads of two major trading routes. Military patrols use those same routes. That crossroad is sort of the Piccadilly Circus of the deep Sahara.”

“Sounds a bit tenuous.”

“The possibility that someone will come by before we dry up is more likely there than anywhere else within our range. It’s a tabletop plateau that can be seen from afar. On the way we’ll look for signs of life, but we’ll be lucky to spot a decent-sized bush. This area is fairly devoid of water. I’ll be glad to see the enemy.”

“You aren’t afraid of the Germans?”

“Not here. Things may be different in Europe and the Soviet Union, but Field Marshal Rommel and his Afrika Korps fight a gentleman’s war.”

“Yes, the newspapers back in London call him the Desert Fox.”

“It’s almost an affectional term. Though, of course, he's a bit too nimble and dodgy for our tastes. But he follows the Geneva Convention. His troops will kill you in battle, of course, but once you’re a prisoner, you’re safe.”

I nodded. I’d heard the same. I didn’t fear for the safety of myself or the other two women. But with my fears of crashing easing, I worried about making problems for my German relatives. My Uncle Werner’s rank might protect him to some extent and also his sons, my cousins, who I assumed would be officers by then. But the name Eleanor Bowman with my birthdate was in German, as well as British records. Surely they’d not be held responsible for a half-British relative, especially since she was just a nurse.

My hands weren’t shaking as I glanced at the fuel gauge. I resolved to keep my eye on it. It and the compass were the only two gauges that I understood among what seemed like hundreds—probably not much more than a dozen gauges—in a dashboard array below the front window.

Funny. I would’ve expected to be more scared than I actually was. I suspected having a job to do helped, and at least we wouldn’t crash into the sea. I sent thanks upward. Somehow having someone to thank also helped.

Lieutenant Jones reached over to make a tiny adjustment to my yoke. “So, how do you like flying? I loved it from the first moment the instructor let me take the controls like you’re doing now. You’d be a great pilot.”

“You’re an optimist, aren’t you?”

“Most pilots are.”

“Well, that rules me out.”

“Pessimists are also useful. Someone said—Shaw maybe—airplanes were invented by optimists, parachutes by pessimists.”

He laughed, and I joined in though I searched my memory of the plane and concluded that there wasn’t even one parachute aboard. Not that they’d be useful as, they would only allow us to jump from our metal flying pan into the Sahara’s fire.

I aimed another curse at Admiral Hickman but became distracted by something Lieutenant Jones had said. “Women can be pilots?”

“Not in combat. But many flew before the war. Like Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham. Now women deliver planes from factories to airfields and do other non-combat flying.”

“I’ve heard of those two women, but I guess I thought they were unique. You speak as if there were many more.”

“At least several dozen, and we may be adding new female pilots all the time as we find more with experience or aptitude. There’s also a rumor the Russians are training women to drop small bombs from older planes like we did in the last war.”

My world expanded.

“Saw a great landing in a bad storm once,” he continued. “I was glad I wasn’t flying. I expected a guy to get out of the plane. Instead out climbed this tiny girl pilot.”

He took back the yoke.

Perhaps to take his mind off the finger pain, he talked about his life, especially flying. He told me he’d been a farm boy who’d wanted to fly since he first saw a plane overhead. The war offered him an escape from the life he’d been born into. His stories made me doubt my own fear of flying. For a minute. Doubt came easily to me, but fear came more easily still.

Since we were technically of the same rank, we were soon on a first name basis. And I hadn’t needed to tell him much about myself, just the information I usually recited which left out all of my life before I turned sixteen.

Each time I checked the fuel gauge it showed a decrease.

Robert said, almost in passing, “Eleanor, after we land, we’ll need to get away from the plane until we’re sure there’ll be no fire. We’ll need to conserve water and burn all the maps and the papers in the dispatch bag.”

I hardly listened. I wouldn’t be in charge. He’d direct everything when the time came.

Robert reached down for a hand crank in between the seats and tried to turn it; nothing happened. He jiggled it and shoved it in all directions. It didn’t budge.

“This lowers the landing gear,” he told me. “Sand must be gumming up the mechanism. You try. With my finger so swollen, I can’t grip it well. Do give it a go. You’ll probably need both hands.”

I unfastened my seat belt and moved so I could use both hands for as much leverage as possible. Not for the first time on this trip, I was glad to be wearing uniform trousers about which I’d initially complained. I’d never worn such things nor known any other woman who’d done so.

“Prepare for a rough landing.” He yelled to the women in the rear. “Use the rope to tie yourselves to the frame.”

“Right.” Gail yelled back.

I had positioned myself, blew into the mechanism and began turning the crank with all the strength I could muster when Robert let out a whoop. “Well, look at that. Our rescuers. See the sand being kicked up to the northeast along our route? Must be from military patrol vehicles.”

I twisted to look out the front. “Any chance it’s our people?”

“Don’t expect miracles. Possibly Italians. But my money's on Germans.”


“Quite. These Germans are our salvation. They’ll have water, food, transport. Oh, see that elevated, flat plateau jutting out of the desert in front of the sand being kicked up?”

“Like a giant block?”

“Precisely. That tableland crest of ground is the ridge I spoke of landing on.”

“Impressive navigating.” I turned back to the crank.

“I do love maps. Now, Lieutenant Bowman, the landing gear crank.”

Although the turns became easier than my first round, it was difficult and it made noise that I suspected it was not supposed to make..

I noticed he had gone back to military rank. Like Admiral Hickman, he used that to signal how serious and urgent something was. I ignored fears and doubts and put my entire being into the job he’d assigned me. Soon my arms ached.

“How much longer,” I asked like a kid on a trip.

“Quite a ways. The crank will stop when you reach the end. May take a hundred turns. I can usually do it in a few minutes with one hand, but you’re dealing with a mechanism mucked up with sand.”

My arms felt heavy. My right arm throbbed. I began to huff and puff, and I was slowing down.

“Eleanor, sit and keep us steady.” Robert unbuckled his seat belt.

I let go. When I was standing, I grabbed the yoke. Before I sat, I glanced out the window. More than half a dozen German vehicles kicked up sand below us. Robert grabbed the crank with as much force as possible without using the injured finger.

Soon he was huffing. But he completed turns a lot faster than I had. Then it stopped.

A second later, back in his seat, he took control.

“Put on your seat belt,” he told me, then he yelled to the back. "Brace yourselves. Lower your head to your knees now. This’ll be rough.”

“What about your seat belt?” I said, fumbling with the ends of mine. After I fastened it, I grabbed the part of his belt that dangled on my side and lifted it to him.

He held the wheel with his injured hand and groped down the opposite side but soon gave up. “No time. We land in seconds.”

The ridge rushed towards us. The yoke prevented me from putting my head down, so I braced myself against the side and the seat back. I squeezed my eyes shut against the sight of the rising ground.

We bounced. I opened an eye a slit for a second as he maneuvered us back to the ground. Brakes slowed us.

I closed that eye and took a deep breath of relief. The tension in my shoulder muscles lessened. We were safe. All we needed to fear was the Sahara.

And the approaching enemy.

The plane stopped with a jerk.

I gasped.

The nose tilted downward, and the tail whipped around.

My neck strained against whirling forces, and my head scraped the window. A crack to my left signaled that something broke.

As abruptly as it started, the airplane ceased spinning and came to a stop.

I gulped air and opened my eyes. Voices from the back assured me that Gail and Mary survived. “Robert, what happened? Did a front wheel hit something?” He didn’t move.

“Robert?” His head rested at an unnatural angle; his body, partially out of the seat, slumped over the yoke.

“Robert? Robert?” My hand shook as I reach out. He can’t be. He can’t be. No. No. No!

Apprx 3900 words (Last updated May 24, 2020) If you would like a free copy of this novel when it is published, email me a mistake or make a suggestion that I use:

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