Chapter #1“September in the Desert”

10 September 1942, North African Theatre of War #1

The plane from London to Gibraltar did not fall into the sea during the flight. Then by some miracle we landed safely on the tiny island of Malta—the most bombed place in all of Europe. Everything that had haunted my imagination before starting this journey hadn’t happened. I began to relax.

Two other nurses had joined me on this second leg of my journey andwe ate and washed up for a few hours then dozed in relative safety. Before dawn we met Lieutenant Robert Jones, the pilot for the last leg of our journey. He was a fountain of good cheer, with light brown hair, ruddy cheeks, dimpled chin, and protruding ears. A little taller than average, he seemed about twenty-one, perhaps a year older than me. Gail, Mary, and I responded to his enthusiastic charm

We took off in a nearly empty cargo area of a smaller aircraft than in the planes of the previous two legs of my journey. I encouraged Gail and Mary to use the dispatch bag and our belongings to make cushions for a bit of sleep. I nestled in the middle of a coil of rope. I had met them just about a day before and we had barely had time for more than a few sentences of introductions between us.

We shouldn’t be flying to Cairo. Nurses normally go by troop ship around Africa. But Admiral Hickman had a scheme and it involved me finding leaks in Cairo headquarters personnel where I was to take a job in medical administration. He had at least a fingernail in all aspects of the war so he could arrange for me to catch flights that had some space and for two other nurses to come along as camouflage.

One doesn’t seem able to stay afraid forever, or even however long I’d been on that journey. The engines and the darkness lulled me, and I dozed. My mind drifted towards the safety I’d known on my mother’s family estate in the middle of Germany where my father, stuck in a country whose language he never learned, devoted himself to me. He had applied for my British citizenship when I was born and he made sure that his daughter, born in Germany to a German mother surrounded by German culture was just as British as she was German. It was the happiest time of my life: magical, joyful, enveloping, constantly learning more than most children would be exposed to from the earliest age. A good thing since I missed so much schooling later.

I jolted awake as the plane fell away beneath me. A scream came from behind me as I grabbed for a handhold. Probably Mary. I was glad it wasn’t me. Once I had a grip on something solid, I checked to find the other two bracing themselves. The rising sun streamed through the cockpit doorway, illuminating their faces and their fears.

Although I had no right to question our pilot—or any male officer—I crept forward toward the blue sky before us. But as I ducked through the doorway to the left, past Lieutenant Jones’s head, brownness blocked the horizon.

“What is that thing?” The squeak in my voice revealed near panic. “Can’t be a mountain. Wait, it’s swirling and whirling. And moving towards us.”

“That may be the largest sandstorm since the one that swallowed the Persian army 2500 years ago.” Lieutenant Jones’ lighthearted tone suggested he was enjoying himself, but he never took his eyes off his flying. “Tie yourselves to the frame. You won’t be able to hold on. Brace yourselves, heads down, tucked in.”

I tore myself away from the sight of the threat and stumbled back. We should still be over the Mediterranean

The rope limited how far we were thrown against the walls and each other, but it also cut into us whenever we reached its limits. Not knowing what was happening made everything worse.

>“Are we going to crash?” Mary’s voice carried within it all the terror I felt.

“No,” I said

Gail glared at me. “You don’t know any more than we do.”

She was right, of course. She was ten years older than me, had ten years more experience in nursing and living. She should be the officer in charge instead of me.

The plane fell suddenly, and we almost hit the ceiling. Then it rose, dropping us to the floor. And all this repeated again. And again. I didn’t count how many times we were thrown this way and that. The engine grated and complained louder and louder.

When the jolts finally lessened and smoothed out, I untied myself, crawled forward and gripped the doorway using it as if it were a lifeline to pull myself upright.

Lieutenant Jones smiled when he saw my reflection. “Glad you came up. Sit there.”

I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel thing like the one he gripped.

“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you.”

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

“Take the yoke,” he said.

“Yoke?”

“That half-wheel in front of you.”

My left hand rose between us as if it could block his words. “But. But I can’t fly an airplane.&rdquo

“Can you drive a car?” he asked.

“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly lie.

For some reason, he took that as a yes though few women would have known how to drive before the war. More were learning these days. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but you’ll just be keeping it steady forward and back as well as side to side. There’ll be some slight adjustments, but I can direct you on those.” He held up a swollen finger and looked at it accusingly. “I’m afraid I jammed my finger between two levers. My own fault. I’ll be fine, but I want to take my hands off the yoke for a few minutes. So, if you’ll hold it.”

He had been shouting to be heard over the engine noise. I swallowed stomach acid, put my hands on the half-wheel in front of me, and tried to suppress my worry about making some mistake that would kill us all.

“I checked the finger before it started swelling and there was no major break,” he said. “It may have a slight crack or maybe its a sprained. 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 would have told him the same thing if he’d asked for my medical advice. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him rubbing his arms, avoiding the injured finger.

My shoulders relaxed a tad, enough for my curiosity to pop through my fears. “Shouldn’t there be a second pilot, and haven’t I heard of something called an auto pilot?”

“Out of Malta, we make do with what we have. No extra pilots and the planes are old, incomplete, a mishmash patchwork of salvaged parts. At least the tanker that limped through last month gave us the fuel to fly what we do have.&rdquo

Lieutenant Jones had been looking out the side window, but turned back to lean over and check the compass and other gauges. “You’re flying perfectly. You’re a natural.” He hesitated before saying, “We’re too far off course to have enough petrol left to make Cairo.”

I struggled to keep my voice level. “So where can we land? The land below looks pretty rough. I’ve never pictured the desert with so many boulders.”

“If the enemy had a base we could reach, I’d aim for it. We cannot land where we have no hope of being found within a day or so. The Sahara is far more deadly than the Germans. I’ve changed course towards a crossroads of three trading routes. It’s the Piccadilly Circus of the deep Sahara and is often crossed by military patrols. Can’t promise something would come by before we dried up but it is more likely than any other place. It is a tabletop ridge that can be seen from far off. On the way we’ll look for signs of life, but we’d be lucky to spot a decent-sized bush..”

My hands didn’t shake. Maybe I’d already used up my supply of fear. Or maybe I was saving it up until the danger was eminent. The fuel gauge was not near empty, no need for panic. Yet. I resolved to keep my eye on that one gauge, the only one I understood. Funny how now that I knew the crash I had had nightmares about was coming I perversely felt calmer. At least we’d not crash into the sea.

It was a strain to talk over the engine noise, but my curiosity came back. “Shouldn’t we have stayed over the Mediterranean until Cairo? How did we run into a sandstorm?”

“I turned south to avoid enemy fighters. When I saw the sandstorm, I raced and almost reached the southern end of it. I hope those fighters followed and were swallowed up in it. But it left us far off course, deeper into the most barren part of the desert.” He reached over to make a tiny adjustment to the yoke I held. “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. I heard someone said, Shaw maybe, that airplanes were invented by optimists, parachutes by pessimists.”

He laughed and I joined in although I saw immediately that even parachutes wouldn’t help. I’d never be able to jump. And sticking with the plane and this young man who knew something of the area would give us some chance.

I changed the subject. “Can women actually be pilots?”

“Not in combat, but many flew before the war, and now they deliver planes from factories to airfields and do other non-combat flying.”

“Really?”

“I hear in Russia, they have women flying in combat.”

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, and instead there was this tiny girl pilot.”

Finally he took back the yoke. Perhaps to take his mind off the finger pain, he talked about his life, especially flying. We were soon on a first name basis without me having to tell him much about myself which would have taken more concentration than I had energy for.

Each time I checked the fuel gauge it showed a decrease. Robert spoke of what we would need to do to survive after landing: get away from the plane at first, conserve water, burn papers. I hardly listened. He’d be there to direct everything.

He reached down for a lever in between the seats. He pushed it sideways; nothing happened. He jiggled it and shoved it in all directions. Still it didn’t budge.

“This lowers the landing gear,” he said. “Sand must be gumming up the mechanism. You try. With my finger so swollen, I can’t get a good grip on it. See how it’s stuck in the notch at the top? That locks the wheels up. Blow into the notch and along the runner, then slide the lever out and down the runner and into the slot at the other end.”

I unfastened my seat belt, glad to be wearing uniform trousers. Trousers I had initially complained about, never having worn them before, nor seen any other women wear them. I’d heard people say they’d seen women in trousers. War caused disruptions, but that was a big one.

“Prepare for a rough landing.” He yelled.

“Right.” Gail yelled back.

I had no sooner positioned myself and gathered breath to blow into the mechanism than Robert gave a whoop. “Well, look at that. Our rescuers. That sand being kicked up to the northeast must be from military patrol vehicles. And they’re headed in the same direction we are.”

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

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

“Great.” It might be awkward for my uncle and cousins if I were captured and associated with them. Don’t even know what part of this war any of them were in. 

“Quite.” He picked up on my sarcasm and interrupted it in the most natural way. “They are our salvation. Better Rommel's Afrika Korps than the Sahara. The Germans have water, food, transport. And see that elevated, flat-plateau jutting out of the desert in front of the sand being kicked up?”

“Like a solid giant block?”

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

“Impressive navigating,” I said before gathering my breath and blowing into the slot and the runner. I jiggled the lever.

“Always loved maps. Now, Lieutenant Bowman, the landing gear lever."

His use of military rank signaled how serious and urgent this was. I ignored fear and doubts and all bodily reactions and put my entire being into my focus. I pushed and the lever came out of the notch. I changed direction and it stumbled down the run. I kept the momentum going.

I’m going to save us all.

But a second later my body turned to stone as if my blood had thickened and stopped. “I can't push it into the slot at the end.” It wouldn’t move sideways. I blew into the slot. I repositioned myself to pull and then push. I tried pushing it with my legs against the side.  

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

I grabbed the yoke even before I sat and from that standpoint glanced out the window. Below, kicking up sand, were the more than half a dozen German vehicles, the ones Robert had seen going our way.

After jiggling the lever with much more force than I had been able to apply, Robert made himself into a spring with his knees at his chin and pushed with a foot against the front panel. Grunting, he shattered a gauge. The crack of the gauge’s breaking glass, and the click of the lever sliding into the slot, sounded together with a clank.

A second later, back in his seat, he took back 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 is going to 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 groped down on the other side but gave up. “No time. We land in seconds.” 

The ridge rushed toward us. I couldn’t put my head down since the yoke was in the way, so I braced myself against the side and the front panel. I squeezed my eyes shut against the sight of the rising ground.

We hit bouncing over the terrain.

We slowed. Without opening my eyes, I took a slow deep breath, and the tension in my shoulder muscles lessened.. We were safely down. Now all we had to fear was the Sahara. And the Germans.

The plane stopped with a jerk. Then jumped. I gasped.

The nose tilted down and the rear whipped around. My neck strained against the whirling force. My head bounced off a hard surface.

The airplane ceased spinning.

I gulped air and opened my eyes. Voices from the back assured me that Gail and Mary survived. “Robert,” I said. “What happened? Did a front wheel hit something?”

He didn’t move

“Robert?”

His head rested at an unnatural angle. His body was 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.

See Chapter 2, Mid Afternoon of Day One.


Long Line: "When the routine flight to Cairo she is on crashes in the Sahara, a World War II British nurse is too weak to even stand so her German captors ignore her which puts her in a unique position to save British troops. Doing the impossible does not lead to safety.

New Pitch:       A British nurse, who is half-German, becomes enmeshed in World War II battlefield and covert operations after her plane crashes in the Sahara. Guilt about the death of the pilot propels her past her fear of making more mistakes. In the process she rescues and is rescued by a commando posing as a German officer.
     Safety remains elusive as she finally figures out who is who and finds a spy among the British commandoes she thought were Germans. She and the officer escape to a ship after a real-life disastrous mission. They later play a German officer and his girlfriend while rescuing a scientist from Marseille. On the way home, they survive on an overwhelmed lifeboat after being torpedoed by a U-boat.
     An admiral forces their partnership. Death, destruction and danger forges it into a friendship.

Short Pitch:     A flight to Cairo during World War II crashes in the Sahara stranding three British nurses including Lieutenant Eleanor Bowman. Captured by enemy Afrika Korps patrols, she finds herself momentarily in a position to save British troops because everyone knows she is too overcome by the heat to be a threat. Her guilt over failures she feels contributed to the pilot's death, however, pushes her to do the impossible. Her action frees the two nurses with her, but she is forced to join other British prisoners under the command of a German captain who obeys Rommel's orders on the protection of prisoners while treating her with contempt and threats. 
     While suffering from the extreme heat and hiding her own personal secrets --- which include being half German ---  she misses the other secrets around her until she discovers a traitor who threatens all their lives. She then finds herself in the middle of a disastrous British military operation amidst death, destruction, and deep water. Survival and rescue do not lead to safety but to more risks and back into deep water.

Longer Pitch: See my Pitch Page     

Apprx 5500 words (Last updated April 10, 2016)

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