Chapter #1 “Between the Devil and the Desert”10 September 1942, North African Theatre of War #1
Trapped in the steel and concrete maze of bomb-proof, underground, government offices, I ignored military protocol and challenged an admiral.
“Fly? All the way to Cairo? Through Malta?” I clasped my hands in my lap to hide their shaking. “Are even birds getting through to Malta?”
I sat across an empty desk from Admiral Hickman. Without a London office of his own he often commandeered one of these common-use rooms for meetings when he was in town. I had known him for six years and had worked for him, unofficially, before the war..
“Nurses don’t fly to Cairo.” I said. “It would raise questions.about me taking this minor administrative position to see what I could find out about the leak from headquarters there.”
“All questions will be answered before they are formed. I will handle everything.”
“Yes, of course, you will. The way you even handle co-opting an Army nurse.” He had at least a finger, in every aspect of the war and even maneuvered around the strict military structure. “And now you order me to fly.” I could talk to him as I always had as long as we were alone. “I’m a nurse not an intelligence agent.”
“Eleanor, you’re all I’ve got. That old woman who trained you has been dead for ten years.”
“Ah, you’re lucky you never tried to manipulate my grandmother onto an airplane.” It was cruel of him to remind me of her death.
I cut him off. “I joined the Army instead of the Navy so I wouldn’t be working for you.”
“And all this time I thought it was because you were afraid of deep water.” He didn't fool me into thinking he had any feelings to be hurt.
“That, too.” I slumped down. I had failed to change his mind.
“Lieutenant Bowman, you leave on a mail run to Gibraltar in three days. You and two other nurses. They are heading for battlefield hospitals in Egypt near the front lines. Orders will show there was space on previously scheduled flights and after you missed the troop ship, some clerk decided you three would take that route.” He softened his expression. ”Eleanor, please give my regards to your aunt and uncle.”
He had manipulated me through my relatives before. But with this dismissal at least I could leave. I clamped my jaw, stood, saluted and walked out. Once in the hallway, I leaned against a cold steel wall. Then I rushed to find a loo, discovering why having control of your guts related to bravery.
The admiral called my belief that the spirit of my father watched from beyond the grave, a superstition. Then he routinely used it to manipulate me. I lived with my aunt and uncle who were the living stand-ins for my dead English father, my aunt’s half-brother. When Admiral Hickman told me to give them his regards, he was reminding me that I didn’t want to disappoint my father.
I had met Admiral Hickman upon returning from Germany in 1936. He had dragooned me into helping him even when I was only 16, trying to catch up in school. He should worry that I had an alternative to Churchill's offer of nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Forcing me to fly pushed me too far. I didn’t want to be a hero. So, I toyed with thoughts of going back to the remembered safety of my mother’s family’s German estate. Toyed with choices lost when my mother’s country attacked my father’s.
I worried for three days. The evening before the flight, my aunt and uncle offered to drive me to the aerodrome. I didn’t have enough courage to tell them I was still considering alternatives.
So, in the chill darkness of the early morning of September 9, 1942, I found myself in front of the mail plane to Gibraltar. No prisoner ever walked the plank with any more dread than I experienced dragging my feet forward to step into that plane. The door slammed shut behind me, sealing me inside a dark metal coffin.
I could barely make out my traveling companions: two non-commissioned nurses. I distracted myself by finding out about them. Gail was older than me with a dozen years more experience. Mary, a tad younger, recently graduated. It seemed strange having Gail call me Lieutenant Bowman so, against regulations, I invited them both to call me Eleanor, when we were alone on this trip.
The plane continued to sit still, so I asked Gail and Mary, “How do you feel about flying. Have either of you ever flown before?”
“I have never even been near an airplane,” Mary said. “But it’s like a grand adventure, isn’t it?”
Gail shrugged. “I did wonder what it felt like.”
What could I say to their acceptance?. Finally the plane started down the runway. I became incoherent and spent the flight pulled apart by the reality that we were in the air, and the fact that I knew this thing couldn’t fly and expecting the real laws of nature to take over at any time.
In Gibraltar we got tea, crumpets, sandwiches and relief from the noise and shaking. I stomach and ear drums had just calmed down when soldiers crammed us onto an emergency supply flight to Malta. As packed in as we were, the flight must have been overloaded so even if the first plane hadn’t crashed, this one surely would.
And we were headed for a tiny British island near enough to Sicily that that Italians and Germans had laid siege to it for years, bombing it and anything getting near it constantly. Unbelievably, we landed safely. An hour later we met the pilot for the third leg of our journey, Lieutenant Robert Jones. The decrepit plane he was to fly looked less air worthy than the other two planes but by this time I was too tired to care.
We took off before dawn in a lull between waves of enemy bombers. It was a small plane and nearly empty so I encouraged Gail and Mary to use the few bags in back, including the locked dispatch bag, to make nests for a bit of sleep. Being the officer, I made do sitting among some coiled rope.
The long hours traveling had pushed me past fear. The darkness in back lulled me and I dozed. showed that you cannot stay afraid forever. My mind drifted toward my unobtainable alternative. I found myself enveloped in the safety of my mother’s family estate in the middle of Germany. I had lived there until the age of seven and then from 12-16. My mother’s brother, my German uncle, insisted it was my home. My father’s presence was strongest there. I spent every day with him until his death. Stuck in a strange country whose language he never learned, he devoted himself to me.
The plane bounced me awake dragging me from my memory or dream. Then the plane dropped several feet. I fumbled for my always-present pocket compass. We were heading south. We couldn’t have gone far enough in any direction for Cairo to be anywhere but eastward.
Although I had no right to question our pilot---or any male officer---I crept towards the cockpit doorway. Blue sky brightened the opening showed. Once I stuck my head through, though, something far more ominous filled the side window past the pilot’s head.
“What is that thing?” The squeak in my voice revealed near panic. “It’s the size of a mountain, but it’s swirling and moving. Towards us.”
“Actually, Lieutenant Bowman, that is a larger sandstorm than any of our people have ever reported.” Lieutenant Jones shouted at me without taking his eyes off his flying. “Sit down there. You can help me.”
I dragged my gaze away from the sandstorm to focus on the tiny five foot square cockpit. The only place for me to sit would be copilot’s seat. I took a deep breath to remind myself that my father might be watching how well I had learned his lessons about facing the inevitable. My pretending I had choices for the past several days would have caused me to flunk a test in that.
I twisted into the seat behind a half wheel thing like the one the pilot gripped. I kept my hands off it.
“We may face gusts and downdrafts. But we’re almost to the southern edge of storm.”
I couldn’t see an end. “Why aren’t we still over the Mediterranean?” I had to almost shout.
“I turned away from enemy fighters coming out of Italy. If they followed, the storm will eat them alive.”
I shuddered and blinked away the sight of a huge mouth opening in the sand cloud. Anything that could swallow them, would devour us.
“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you;” I could hear him, but barely.
A belt across his lap held him to his seat. Ah, 'seat' 'belt', I found the ends attached to my side and fitted the prong into an eyelet. I turned my head to yell to the back as loud as I could. “Gail, Mary, hold on tight. Violent upheavals possible!” They had none of these seat belt things.
The swirling brown cloud turned black and, its blackness enveloped us. Only faint lights from the unintelligible gauges remained. I recognized the compass and the petrol gauge.
Lieutenant Jones struggled to keep us aloft. Airborne debris invaded the aircraft’s machinery adding grinding screeches to the sound of the engine. We shook.
I assisted as if with a surgery, following orders, providing a third hand, an extra pair of eyes. We bounced in downdrafts and spun in wind gusts. I found a rag to wipe sweat from his forehead before it dripped into his eyes. He strained his muscles, fighting sand and wind and gravity.
Uncounted minutes later, light drifted back. We spiraled away from the edge of cloud. Jones said had caught a remnant of the storm wind when the storm broke up at the edge.
I pivoted to shout to the back. “You two all right back there?”
“A tad bruised up, Lieutenant, but no broken bones,” Gail yelled.
Jones raised his voice to its highest level. "It might be worse when we land so make yourselves some braced positions. Use ropes to tie yourselves in."
I glanced at the petrol gauge. “We have no chance to make Cairo?”
“To be honest, Lieutenant,” he said in a voice that wouldn’t reach the others, “We cannot even reach any German bases, and they are much closer. I have heard of a ridge with a mostly flat, hard surface. It is a crossroads for three trading routes. We’d have a chance of being found there. Now that we are heading toward it, we are steady enough for you to take the yoke.”
"Yoke? But. But. But I cannot fly an airplane."
"Can you drive an automobile?"
"The half wheel in front of you is a yoke and it moves in more directions than a steering wheel. You will only be keeping it steady, making sure it does not move in any direction. I will be right here directing you. This plane has no auto-pilot. That leaves you.“
A slight tremble started in my hands and spread out from there. I could get us all killed, but I saw no choice. “Your arm muscles must be locking up. Are they in spasm?”
“A bit. I will be fine if you will just hold the yoke for a little.”
I took a deep breath and put my hands on the wheel in front of me.
He watched me with suggestions rubbing his strained arms, stretching, and drinking water.
Half an hour later.m he took back control and handed the water bottle to me and I took the opportunity to drink as well
We talked as much as we could straining our voices to reach each other across two feet. We were soon on a first name basis if only to save the each syllables for rank and last name. He recognized that I was less optimistic than he and commented, “Airplanes were invented by optimists, parachutes by pessimists.”
I laughed and relaxed a bit.
As the petrol gauge moved toward empty, he spoke of what I would need to do if he didn't survive the landing including conserving water and burning the papers in the dispatch bag. Before I could object that he would survive if we did, he reached down to lower the landing gear only to discover that the lever wouldn't move. He made me take the yoke so he could jiggle it with both hands, and still it wouldn’t move.
“Must be encrusted with sand. You try. Since you are smaller and more flexible, you might be able to get in back of it for more leverage. Slide the gear until you can move it into the slot at the other end.”
I unfastened my seat belt glad to be wearing the new uniform trousers I had initially complained about. Facing the back, I called out “Gail, Mary, prepare for a rough landing.”
Robert's voice roared as if his body wanted to jump with joy. “That sand being kicked up to the northeast must be from military patrol vehicles.” I twisted my neck to look out the front window. “Any chance it is our own people?”
“This far from British lines that would be miraculous. Maybe Italians. But my money's on Germans.”
“Great.” I had too much to hide from Germans. No way could I go home again except in dreams.
“Quite. Better Rommel's Afrika Korps than the Sahara. The Germans will have water, food, transport, the necessities of life. And see that ridge jutting out of the desert that the patrol is heading towards. That must be the place I said would be a good landing spot.”
In between blowing into and jiggling the lever, I said, “You actually found that in the middle of the Sahara. I am deeply impressed.”
Still grinning, he said, “Now, Lieutenant Bowman, the landing gear lever."
His use of military rank signaled how serious and urgent this was. I dismissed my doubts and pushed with all my might. Unbelievably the lever moved. I kept the momentum going. The lever slid down the run.
My relief vanished a few seconds later. “I can't move it into the slot.” Frantic pushing accomplished nothing further. I switched positions. No change.
“Eleanor, sit back down and keep us steady.” He unbuckled his seat belt.
I took the yoke. A one-second glance out the window as we flew over the patrol showed it to be half a dozen German vehicles.
After jiggling the lever with much more force than I had been able to apply, Robert folded himself into a spot too small for him, made himself into a spring with his knees at his chin, pushed with a foot against the front panel, grunting with the effort, breaking a gauge.
A second later, back in his seat, he took control.
“Put on your seat belt,” he told me then yelled to reach the women in back. "Brace yourselves. Lower your head to your knees, now.”
“What about your seat belt?” I fumbled with the ends of mine. When I fastened it, I grabbed the part of his belt that dangled on my side and lifted it to him.
He took his left hand off the yoke to grope down for the other side but withdrew his arm without it. “No time. We land now.”
The left engine coughed. Then the right. The ridge rushed toward us. I lowered my head to my knees, braced myself and closed my eyes.
Left wheel touched ground, we bounced. Right wheel hit followed by another bounce. Both skidded momentarily and again we bounced. Only the belt had stopped me from hitting the ceiling the first two times.
Once firmly down, both front wheels moved over the rough ground as if they were shaped like squares. Tail wheel hit the ground with a screech. I squeezed my eyes tighter. The braking that slowed us pushed me against my belt.
Seconds later our forward motion jerked to a stop. I gasped.
The tail rose to whiplash around. My neck strained against centrifugal force. My seat belt and my braced arms barely kept my head from hitting the side window.
The airplane stopped whirling, and the tail dropped back down.
I gulp in air and opened my eyes. Voices from the back reassured me that Gail and Mary survived. I turned to Robert, “What happened? Did a front wheel hit something or get snagged in a hole?”
He didn’t move, and his head rested at an unnatural angle.
I tried to reach out, but my seat belt held me back. I moved to unbuckle it; the prong stuck.
Gail's voice came from the cockpit doorway inches behind me. “You two all ri—?” She moved her hand to check Robert's neck for a pulse. My hands stopped fumbling. Seconds ticked by.
“He's gone, Eleanor.”
NO! Not dead. Please, no.
I pleaded to the Spirits, the universe, whatever gods exist. But no matter who or what might be listening, nothing had power over death.
An emptiness started in the center of my being and expanded in all directions. I dissolved into it blocking out the world in which I had again proven inadequate. Another death on my conscience.
“Eleanor!” Gail, trained to deal with recalcitrant patients, spoke in her strongest nurse's voice. “Lieutenant!”
Against my will, I looked up, forcing myself away from self-pity and self-condemnation and self-loathing, and my desire to be anywhere but here, to be anyone but myself.
“Eleanor, we need to get out. If any petrol is left, it might explode.”
Mary spoke from behind Gail. “Do I smell petrol? And smoke?”
I took a deep breath, pulling myself more completely back to where I didn't want to be. “Right. Go! I'll catch you up.”
The other two backed away from the cockpit. I finished unbuckling then took another look at Robert with his damn, double-damned, bloody seat belt dangling.
I set my jaw and twisted myself out of the seat.
Robert is dead, and it is my fault. My brain circled back to that thought..
As I stepped up to the open outside door, heat slapped me, and I stumbled back. I grabbed the door frame and used it to pull myself forward to descend the ladder. Heat blasted down from a flame-throwing sun, reflected up from sand like burning coal, and radiated through air almost too hot to breathe.
I joined the other two.
“Are you all right?” Gail asked.
“I am still dazed by the crash and the lieutenant's death. I failed to lock the landing gear into place. He had to do it and never got his seat belt back on. So the centrifugal force must have thrown his head into something.”
"We heard. You cannot blame yourself."
“Yes, I can. It was a simple procedure, I didn’t do it right. And if I had worked faster, he would have finished earlier and had time to refasten his seat belt.” I realized I was whining. I didn’t care.
Gail frowned. “You do not have time for this.” She looked around. "Stay here while I check out the airplane.”
Mary remained with me, rubbing her arm.
“Is it broken?” I asked.
“No just bruised. Gail shouldn’t be giving you orders.”
“I may need a few minutes to come to terms with all that happened since I was so involved. Maybe I shouldn’t have suggested to you two that we use first names during this trip. Guess regulations have a purpose.”
I moved away from her, distracting myself with an investigation of the ridge. I walked toward the edge to look over the cliff which was steep. A siren call drifted up from the bottom, but I resisted and backed away. Death might be easier but I had obligations.
I dug the toe of my shoe into the edge of one of the many sharp, deep holes in the hard ground. The crashed airplane had one of its wheels in just such a hole. The hole and I killed Robert. Nothing is as great as the guilt of causing a death.
Robert, I am so sorry.
I forced myself to move further away from the edge. I concentrated instead on checking the landscape. Although the ridge dropped off to the north. The other three sides rose to it gently. Vegetation sprouted out of the rocky ground. Beige, withered, dead-looking, bleak vegetation which blended in with the sand-colored land, air, sky. The ridge was the flattest thing around. Robert made the best choice of landing site. Our survival was his accomplishment..
Father, Grandmother, give me a way to make up for this!
But no one can ever make up for causing a death.
Gail came around the airplane and reported. “No fires. I think we’re safe from an explosion.”
Fire? Burning. "Wait a minute! I need to burn the papers! Quick, gather vegetation. We need to make a fire. I'll fetch the dispatch bag. Do you have your lighter, Gail?”
I rushed to the crash to pull out the dispatch bag. I broke the lock with a hammer from the toolbox. It was some tough lock and took five double handed blows to break. Before I pulled it half way to the pile of vegetation they had made, Gail rushed over to help me drag the heavy bag.
Gail lit the pile, and I carefully added papers and kept adding papers to keep the fire going. My throat burned from the hot air my exertion caused me to breath in through my mouth.
“While I burn these papers, you two will be better off if you move away from the fire.” I coughed while I spoke. “Check the horizons, especially to the southwest. An Afrika Korps patrol is headed this way.”
"I do see a dust cloud,” Gail said.
“I would rather die out here than be captured by Huns,” Mary said.
The fire added to the heat surrounding me. My eyes blurred. I felt dizzy from breathing hot smoke instead of oxygen. Sweat poured down my forehead. I kept adding paper. Still coughing, I said, “To die of heat and thirst is surely worse than any treatment we can expect from these troops.”
“Haven’t you read about the atrocities on the Eastern Front?”
“This is not Poland or Russia. Field Marshall Rommel's troops have a reputation for following the rules of war.” I took a deep breath although I mostly took in more smoke. I forced a shaking hand forward with more paper.
I am being cooked.
My mother’s brother was a general. He would be in one of the theaters of this war. Where I didn’t know. He couldn’t possibly be part of the kind of atrocities reported from the Eastern Front. Was his adjutant, Hans, still with him? Hans had sort of courted me by showing me the military hardware he really loved.
I forced my hand again toward the fire to deposit more papers. “I have not found any nationalities free of individuals with tendencies toward atrocities when they think they can get away with them or when their fear and anger rise together. But didn’t the idea of hell as hot and fiery arise from people living near here? The Sahara is more deadly than this particular enemy.”
“Eleanor!” Gail's commanding voice exuded calm insistence. She pointed to the east. “See that plume of dust? It may be a second patrol.”
"Maybe they’re British," Mary said.
"Lieutenant Jones didn't think any British troops would be out here." I continued to focus on the papers and fire.
The final papers curled to become black flakes as the hum of the German vehicles we had flown over, reached us from the west.
I walked over to join Mary and Gail. The hum became a roar.
I removed my cap and took out the hairpins holding up my braids. “We need the enemy to recognize us from a distance as women and nurses.” The other two fluffed out their hair.
I pointed my large Red Cross arm band toward the vehicles. We needed to make sure we looked like women, nurses, innocent, non-threatening, obviously surrendering. I glanced in the other direction. A smaller German patrol approached from the opposite direction.
The commander of the first column to reach us, a captain, stood in the front compartment of his command car holding binoculars trained on the patrol coming from the east. He reached out to point at us as his vehicle passed. A half-dozen Germans jumped down from the following lorry to surround us. Two became guards. Others brought out Robert's body along with equipment, belongings and materials, They searched everything.
Shouts pierced through the roar of the transport motors as some of the final vehicles from the west, drove onto the ridge, "Nurses! Hi, Sisters." Two lorries of British prisoners waved enthusiastically until their guards quieted them.
I waved back and with the same motion, put my cap back on. I relaxed my arms to my sides, always keeping my hands visible. Gail and Mary did the same.
The commanding officers of the two patrols met in the middle. After talking a bit they laughed. Everyone relaxed.
As our guards finished their search, one grabbed the empty dispatch bag. He looked at me and my rank insignia then pointed his rifle to motion me towards the officers.
The short walk across the ridge strained my body. The midday Sahara sun evaporated my remaining reserves of strength. The roasting hot air seemed to have started to cook me. My legs were barely able to keep me upright. Mouth dry. Thoughts moved through molasses to arrive sticky and misshapen.
Both brain and body rebelled against the notion of being called on for any additional effort.
My required salute to the enemy officers wasn't regulation straight. My right arm shook for the second I was able to hold my hand to my temple.
“Eleanor Bowman, Lieutenant. Service number 97063722.” I dropped the arm to my side unable to wait until I got a return salute. No return salute ever came. My voice also refused further service and cracked when I said. “We are medical nurses, non-combatants.”
The German army captain, of the patrol from the west, barely glanced my way. Before I finished he reached his hand out for the dispatch bag the soldier had brought from the crash site When he handed it over he reported that the pilot was dead, all the papers were burned, and I was the one covered in ashes.
At least they knew I was the one to blame.
The Hauptmann, No, 'captain'—--I needed to weed out of my thinking facts about the German military a British nurse wouldn't know--—finally turned to me. He threw the bag at my feet. “If you are non-combatant nurses, what are you doing in military, trouser uniforms with rank insignia?” His Americanized English had only a slight German accent. “And why did you burn every paper in that bag?”
“Our pilot told me to destroy the papers if he couldn't.” My voice cracked again and I no longer cared that I slouched. “You would expect your own nurses to follow such orders.”
“German nurses would be in proper dress. You—--you confuse the normal rules of war.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do about that?” I bit my lip. If I were less exhausted, I could have controlled my defiance better. I used up energy switching to a more conciliatory tone, “British nurses were..." I took a breath trying to get my overheated, oxygen-deprived brain to think of the right word. After several heartbeats, it came to me, "...incorporated fully into our military last year although, of course, we are not in the battlefield chain of command."
"Women are not supposed to dress like soldiers. It's unnatural."
My eyes focussed on him. Don’t you have better things to worry about? I’m too tired to banter with you.
Using up more of my last drops of strength, I said, ”My grandfather would agree with you. The trousers seem to be a new experiment by headquarters, issued only for traveling.”
The captain’s demeanor never changed. He attacked from a different direction. “You flew over us and landed in our path.”
“Well, of course we did. We were running out of petrol, and our pilot didn't want to land in the middle of nowhere with no hope of survival. You are our rescuers.” I nodded to the Oberleutnant, who commanded the second column, to include him. A first lieutenant, I reminded myself.
“If I decide to take you with us,” the captain said.
“You’re collecting prisoners. You already have two lorries of British soldiers.”
He wouldn’t leave us. He couldn’t. He’d not be able to defend such an action.
I was losing faith in the good will of this captain. He must be trying to live up to the 'Aryan' ideal. He looked a bit like that ideal although he didn’t seem to be quite six feet tall as it required. I wondered if that 'defect' might be making him try harder.
The lieutenant asked the captain in German if 'lorry' was a word for 'truck'. After the captain nodded, he then got permission to questioned me, and in broken English asked, “British send nurses by air? Why? Medical crisis in Egypt? Or expect extra wounded from a coming battle?”
“We received orders to take this flight. Explanation are not included with orders. Is it different in the German army?" I knew it was worse for them. "We did miss our troop ship through no fault of our own and I figured they had space on some flights and stuck us on them. I never wanted to fly.”
The captain, maybe frustrated by not being able to leave us, attacked me personally. “You seem to be an unnatural woman. Your pilot is dead, but I see no caring.”
My guilt came back in a rush. Not from my brain but from my stomach. The guilt moved up, down and sideways from there. I stopped the threatened tears with the trump card of emotions: anger.
“We are nurses. We see death most days and have for all the years you’ve been bombing us: dead soldiers, dead civilians, dead children.” Anger gave me extra strength but the searing air cut into my vocal cords when I inhaled. I fought the urge to cough. ”You call me unnatural and uncaring? I knew this bright, witty, charming, optimistic young man for about four hours. Had he been my brother, however, what mourning would I have had time to do?”
Heat rose from the sand at my feet. Sand too hot to be touched. But I was done in. Between the captain and me lay the dispatch bag which didn't look hot yet. I considered my options for maybe a whole second before deciding that a controlled collapse onto the bag was better now than a faint in a few minutes. I tried to make it look less deliberate than it was.
“Sorry,” I said once I was down. “The heat.”
The captain shook his head showing no sign of feeling sympathetic. “You wouldn’t be so overheated if you hadn’t stood next to the fire burning all those papers.”
The lieutenant called the captain Kirchner and went on to remind him about Rommel’s orders about prisoners. Within a minute he was interrupted.
A soldier ran up. “Die Englander. Britische Truppen Spalte.” He pointed towards the edge.
British troops driving in at the bottom of the ridge? NO!
Visions of horror unfolded. This wasn't our rescue. It was their doom. The Germans had the high ground and would be unsuspected.
The two German officers rushed off to lie flat at the edge of the ridge, binoculars pointed northeast. Captain Kirchner motioned for quiet although I doubted even a shot would be heard over the roar of British army lorry motors so far away no sound from them yet reached us.
The lieutenant’s men started setting up mortars along the edge of the ridge..
Soldier’s primed their mortars then hurried back to their transports for more shells.
If I hadn't used up all my strength already, I might be able to fire one of those mortars as a warning shot. Hans had demonstrated mortars to me years ago. German mortars. Like these. Once primed they are easy to use. One takes a shell and drops it down the tube, the firing pin at the bottom, expels it back upward. Any able-bodied person could do it. I was not able-bodied.
I held up a hand to shield my eyes from the sun. Within seconds I dropped it exhausted by the effort. Robert was probably this exhausted when he fought the storm.
Flashing into my mind was the image of myself at 12 standing mentally paralyzed when bullies stabbed and killed my grandmother.
Doing something can go wrong. So can not doing anything. Not doing anything can kill.
I harbored no hope of doing anything and wished my brain would let go of the idea. My thoughts circled around jumbled and chaotic, getting me nowhere. I took in a deep breath as if I was preparing to do a magic trick.
Distant sounds of approaching lorries rose from the bottom of the cliff. The Germans hurried to bring more shells over. The British patrol was not yet in range.
Captain Kirchner stage-whispered an order for my guard to take me back to the other nurses. The guard offered me a hand up then motioned with his rifle towards the most direct route to the others. The last mortar was close.
Did the Spirits arrange all this to test whether I meant it when I cried out for a way to partially make up for Robert's death?
Still, one can never depend on the Spirits. Not only does everyone say they don’t exist, but even if they do only two or three would be on my side.
Nothing would bring Robert back. Nothing would rectify my failure. Nothing would cleanse my guilt. To save a dozen soldiers would, however, be something.
A few shells lay next to that last mortar. Both operators were off getting more. Whatever I did or didn't do would affect the rest of my life. If I live that long.
I wanted more time to think. But at that moment we were as close as we would get to the only mortar in our path. My guard walked on the other side of me instead of behind me.
He looked away. Only then did I make my decision.
Robert, this is for you.
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.
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.
Apprx 5500 words (Last updated April 10, 2016)