Chapter #2 “Between the Devil and the Desert”

10 September 1942, early afternoon

I needed to see him better before grabbing him, but my seat belt buckle stuck

Gail's voice came from the cockpit doorway inches behind me. “You two all ri?” She put fingers on Robert's neck. Seconds ticked by.

“He's gone, Eleanor. The other side of his head is bashed in.”

I reached out to prove her wrong.

No. Not dead. Please, no. 

Who was I pleading with? Nothing overturns death. 

I shut out the world.

“Eleanor!” Gail‘s voice sounded like it came from far off. “Lieutenant!” 

I wanted to be anywhere but here, to be anyone but myself. 

Still, I opened my eyes and looked up. 

“Eleanor, we need to get out. Petrol might explode, even if there are just drops left.”

Mary called from behind Gail, “I thought I smelled fumes so I opened the door and put down the ladder.”

“Right.” Responsibilities must override failures. “Go. I'll catch you up.”

Gail backed out of the cockpit. I unbuckled then took another look at Robert with his seat belt dangling. I twisted sideways to put fingers to his neck to double check. Although my hand shook, I could tell there was no pulse. Nothing. Blood on the window showed why. 

Robert, you wouldn’t be dead if I’d been stronger. Or faster. It’s my fault. Maybe I looked at the sand being kicked up for a few extra seconds. Maybe I should have given up sooner so you could finish sooner and have time to get your seatbelt back on. Maybe I took too much time fastening my own seat belt. Less than one minute might have made a difference. I surely could have done something a minute faster.

I stopped the circle of thoughts, the cycle of guilt. On weak and shaking legs I stepped to the outside door. A wall of heat slammed me back a step. I grabbed the door frame for security then pulled myself to the ladder. I climbed down and walked over to the others.

Gail had an arm around Mary, who was rubbing her right wrist. Both were sweating already. Gail released Mary and limped over to me. She touched my forehead. “Are you all right?”

“A bit dazed. I may have hit my head. How are you two? Any bones broken? Injuries?”

“Just bruises, mostly where the rope bit into us.” She stared at my eyes, back and forth. “But you may have hit your head harder than you think. Your pupils are slightly different sizes.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s Robert’s death. I can’t get over. He had to lock the landing gear down after I failed, and he never got his seat belt back on.”

"Yes, we heard something of that.” She stood in front of me looking into my eyes. “No one will blame you."

“Not worried about others blaming me. He was a great guy. So full of life.” A chill ran up my spine. How can I have a chill in this heat? “And he was a wonderful pilot. He flew through that sandstorm and without landmarks navigated to this specific spot.” The chill passed, leaving behind a violent urge to throw up. A deep breath helped me resist that urge, but I still felt weak.

Gail stepped toward the plane. She pointed. “One of the plane’s front wheels is in a hole.” 

I walked towards her, looking at the plane and stepped in a small hole nearly losing my balance. I pulled my leg up and dug the toe of my shoe into its edge. The hole the front wheel was stuck in was far deeper than this one. Deeper than any of the others that pockmarked the landscape.

I turned the other way to move to where the ridge dropped off. I looked down the steep cliff then stepped back and looked around the other three sides They rose gently to the height we were on. I could even make out a cleared path on each side where traffic had destroyed the vegetation. Beige, withered, dead-looking, bleak, tough plants sprouted out of the rocky ground everywhere else. 

This plateau was the flattest thing around. One might be able to drive around the other ground I could see below us. One could weave a lorry. But only on the top of the ridge was there a straight path for a landing strip. Our survival was Robert’s accomplishment. 

I wished for a way to make amends for my part in his death.

“No fires.” Gail interrupted my thoughts. “I think we’re safe from an explosion.”

“Fire? Wait a minute! Robert told me to burn the papers. Quick, gather brush. Do you have your lighter, Gail?”

“Right here.”

I rushed to grab the maps and papers from the cockpit squashing my queasiness as I reached around Robert. Then I broke the lock on the heavy canvas dispatch bag and dragged the bag over to add paper to the pile the others had made a distance from the plane. Gail lit it, and I fed the fire with paper every few seconds making sure everything burned and the fire didn’t go out.  

Heat rose in waves to scorch my throat. Smoke swirled and I had to breathe it in.

“Check the horizons, especially to the southwest.” I told them. “We flew over an Afrika Korps patrol headed this way.”

Gail shaded her eyes and looked west. "Definitely a dust cloud.” The summer Sahara sun, directly overhead, seared us. The sand shot heat upward as if from coals in a stove. 

We had crash-landed on a plateau, a table rising from the desert floor positioned like a shelf of a gigantic oven set to bake. If that wasn’t enough to cook me, a foot away was a small fire into which I kept adding papers. 

“Check the horizons, especially to the southwest,” I told Gail and Mary. “We passed over an Afrika Korps patrol headed this way.” They stood some distance from me and the fire though even they were sweating heavily.

Gail shaded her eyes. “Eleanor, I do see a dust cloud.

Lieutenant Robert Jones lay dead in the pilot’s seat after landing on the flattest land arvailable. Boulders of varying sizes littered the desolate desert below, as far as the eye could see. The top of the plateau had seemed more like a landing strip except that it turned out to have at least one crater, which had caught a front wheel whiplashing us into a death dealing spin. 

Jones had been the pilot for the last leg of our journey: Malta to Cairo. He turned south to avoid enemy fighters putting us into the path of a monstrous sandstorm. Flying through that weakened his arm muscles and caused him to smash one of his finger. 

So, he asked me to sit in the co-pilot’s seat to show me how to hold steady what looked like half a steering wheel. He called it a yoke and while I held it, he talked and we switched to first names since we were the same rank. My fear of making a mistake eased even before he took back control. Robert had been twenty-one, only a year older than me.

When he tried to lower the landing gear he discovered the waves of sand had clogged the mechanism, he asked me to help. But I couldn’t move the lever. So, he left me steadying the yoke while he unbuckled and braced himself against the instrument panel to force the handle past the blockage to lower the wheels and lock them in place. We touched down moments later, on our last drops of petrol with no time for him to refasten his seat belt.

If I’d only pushed harder or repositioned myself like he did later, I might have succeeded, and he’d never have needed to remove his seat belt. 

My entire being called out to my father’s spirit for a way to ease my guilt. But while he lived, he’d never found a way to atone for not being able to protect his nephew in the last war. And as a spirit he hadn’t been able to find a way for me to make amends for my grandmother’s death. I’d been told spirits couldn’t affect this world, but in the years since his death when I was seven, I had felt his presence. And I knew that if possible he’d help in undetectable ways. Coincidences often protected me from dire circumstances convincing me that he hovered above.

But nothing affects death. It is forever. So, what could mitigates the guilt surrounding it? 

The fire spat sparks that bit like hungry insects at my face and hands. Robert had mentioned not letting any papers fall into enemy hands. Carrying out his duties was little enough to offer after he died protecting us. 

“I would rather die out here than be captured by Huns.” Mary interrupted my cycle of thoughts. “My father was in the last war, and he told me what they’re like.”

I’d met these two nurses less than a day before. We’d spent most of the time since on noisy, vibrating planes with little ability to exchange personal information. But I already had the impression that Mary, younger and shorter than me, saw multitudes of absolutes. Whereas death was the only absolute I’d ever seen.

Smoke blurred my vision. Inhaling it left me dizzy and affected my voice. “To die of heat and thirst is worse than any treatment we’d expect from Field Marshal Rommel’s troops.”

“Haven’t you read about the atrocities on the Eastern Front?” Fear and rage permeated her words.

“This isn’t Poland or Russia. The Afrika Korps follows the rules of war. That’s also been in the news, and Lieutenant Jones said the same.” 

I wanted to tell Mary that Germans were much like the Brits. 

When the two countries declared war on each other in September 1939, I had been forced to choose between my father’s people and my mother’s. I’d spent half my life in each country. But since Germany’s government had been hideous since 1933, and since I then lived in London with my father’s sister and her husband, I decided to stay in Britain to become a nurse and save lives. 

But that didn’t dissolve my connections to the land of my birth in which I’d spent my earliest years or to my mother’s family. Her brother was a general somewhere in the Wehrmacht. He’d always been kind to me, though less so to my father who’d never learned the language so had never found work. After my parents died when I was seven, my uncle had done all he could to take their place. I ungratefully paid him back by running away after I heard a story that claimed the dead went off to the West.

Were there atrocities where my uncle was fighting? Would even a general have the power to stop them? Was his adjutant, Hans, still with him? Hans, who had sort of courted me by demonstrating the military weapons he really loved.

“I had a patient,” Gail said, “who’d been a prisoner of the Afrika Korps for a short time. Reading the news later back in Britain, he couldn’t believe the reports coming out of Eastern Europe. He said such things didn’t happen in North Africa.” 

Heat baked my face as I forced my hand back to the fire with more papers.  

The similarities between my mother’s and father’s peoples meant they were also equally flawed. The current British leadership helped it maintain a semblance of the high moral ground overall. But it had been English hooligans who killed my grandmother, then their community lied to protect them: ‘they’d all been home when the outsider had been killed.’

 Can any group be trusted? Can any person be trusted?

“Eleanor.” Gail pointed east. “See that plume of dust? Might be another patrol?”

I didn’t bother turning to look. Gail would have as much skill at telling one dust cloud from another as I would. “Probably more Germans. One group or two shouldn’t matter. Keep an eye on them, but Lieutenant Jones offered little hope that our own people might be in this area.” 

Gail had been a nurse for more than a decade longer than I had. Her aura of authority came from experience. I hadn’t felt comfortable with her calling me by my superior rank when we met in Gibraltar so I suggested that we three call each other by first names while we traveled. But we were about to deal with the hard-nosed German military so I thought I’d better change that. “Oh, I think you both should go back to calling me Lieutenant. The trip has ended.”

“Right, Lieutenant.” Gail’s voice held a touch of bitterness. I really did agree that she should be the officer in charge. I also knew, though she didn’t, that I lacked the education to be an officer. Admiral Hickman must have pulled strings to arrange it for his own purposes. He may also have faked some record of where I was born. Damn him. I didn’t want the responsibility or to be part of any of his schemes.

Shortly after the hum of the vehicles we’d flown over reached us, the final papers turned black and curled into flakes. By the time I joined Mary and Gail, the noise of the German engines was more like a roar. 

Robert told me that several trading routes crossed at this plateau which was why he headed for it when we didn’t have enough petrol to reach any British or German bases. We’d needed to find a place where people might come upon us. Even if we‘d seen other land flat enough to land on, we would have just died there since help would be unlikely.

A ridge lined the northwest of this plateau and a path climbed to the top from each side. The back edged an impenetrable area. Sparse, dead-looking vegetation sprouted along the top except in the center of the path. We had used some of that vegetation as the foundation of the fire. Fortunately Gail was a smoker and had a lighter allowing us to easily light a fire. 

I removed my cap and took out the hairpins letting my brown braids down over my uniform. “The enemy needs to recognize us from a distance as women and nurses.” Gail and Mary fluffed out their hair. We raised our hands holding our caps.

I pointed my large Red Cross armband toward the oncoming vehicles. At the same time, I checked that we looked innocent, non-threatening, obviously surrendering. I was certain—well confident—that we’d be safe with these troops, but I wanted to make doubly sure. 

Again I cursed Admiral Hickman for sending me on this trip. With at least a fingertip in every aspect of the war, he could send an Army lieutenant off on a crazy scheme to search for leaks out of Cairo headquarters as if I’d even meet enough people there to have any chance of discovering who might be passing along information. 

Well, the plan crashed when the plane did. I’ll revert to focusing on allowing no one else to die, or be seriously injured. Even if there is a bloody war on. 

I’d feared traveling in these new flying contraptions. Damn Admiral Hickman. He must have manipulated someone to change something somewhere to put us on the flights. Nurses normally took troop ships to Cairo. 

Even though the enemy approached, I felt more free of fear and horror than I had since the admiral had handed me my orders. During the three days I prepared for the flight from England, nightmares plunged me into the sea whenever I closed my eyes. Once locked into the plane’s coffin-like belly, I feared suffocating. Once in the air I expected to be shot down on our way to Gibraltar and when that didn’t happen I was sure I’d freeze while being bounced around in darkness. 

But I’d never anticipated a crash in the Sahara. 

Reality is often worse than any horrors my imagination conjures up. I’d never have thought I’d fail to move a lever which would lead to the death of a charming young man.

The dust cloud from the opposite direction had turned into another German patrol. The two columns headed for each other from each end of the plateau.

The commander of the column we’d flown over stood in the front seat of his uncovered command car. He held binoculars trained on the other patrol but put out a hand to point at us as his vehicle passed. 

Three soldiers jumped down from the lorry that followed. I smiled innocently at them. Without touching us, they made sure we weren’t armed then one guarded us while the other two brought out materials and belongings from the plane. 

The final vehicles from the west drove onto the ridge. Shouts pierced through the roaring motors. “Nurses!” British soldiers—they must be prisoners—stuck their heads out the back of two lorries calling out to each other, pointing at us. When their lorries stopped, they jumped out shouting and waving. “Hello, Sisters.” 

Their call and presence made me feel safer still. And I was glad Mary and Gail would also have been reassured.

The British prisoners’ non-coms and their German guards quieted them. With one motion I waved and put my cap back on for some protection against the relentless sun. I relaxed my arms to my sides, keeping my hands visible. First Gail then Mary copied my actions. 

The commanding officers of the two patrols met toward the other side of the plateau. Our plane might have stopped about there I heard again the crack of Robert’s head hitting the side window. Saw again the smear of blood across the glass.

I cannot be sick here.

The two German officers laughed and lit cigarettes and their patrols relaxed and mingled a bit.

The soldiers searching our plane went through everything. Then they carried Robert out to lay him on the ground.  

Everything around his body blurred. Between one breath and the next my grandmother’s body appeared at my feet just as it had been eight years before. I blinked and reality came back into focus. My grandmother’s body disappeared; Robert’s remained.

One of our guards grabbed the empty dispatch bag and came over, checking our rank insignia. He caught my eye and pointed his rifle to where the German officers stood.

Heat, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and emotional turmoil left me unsteady. The short walk across the plateau strained my body, the midday Sahara sun evaporated my remaining reserves, and the roasting air continued to cook me. Every part of me rebelled against being called upon for any additional duties.

 My required salute to the enemy officers wasn't regulation straight, and my right arm shook for the second I held it to my temple. “Eleanor Bowman, Lieutenant. Service number 97063722.” I hoped at least one of them understood English as I didn’t plan to reveal that I spoke German. I dropped my arm unable to wait for a return salute. Just as well since none ever came. “We are medical nurses, non-combatants.” 

The highest ranking officer of the two Germans was a Hauptmann. It was his men who had guarded us and searched our belongings. He reached his hand out for the dispatch bag his soldier handed over. Then without glancing my way he listened to the report that the pilot was dead, the plane carried no military equipment, the papers were totally burned, and that I was the one covered in ash.

The Hauptmannno, he’s a Captain! I need to weed out facts about the German military as well as the German language that most British women wouldn't know—threw the bag at my feet. “If you are non-combatant nurses, why are you in military trouser uniforms with rank insignia?” His Americanized English had only a slight German accent. “And why did you destroy all those papers?”

I focused on his last question trying to answer without too many halting gasps for breath. “Our pilot told me we’d need to destroy the papers after we landed. Your own nurses would follow such directions.”

“German nurses would be in proper dress.” His tone contained a cold dismissal of my military status. “You—you confuse the normal rules of war.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do about that?” I bit my lip. Verbal defiance came too naturally to me. This was no place for it.

I strained for the energy to switch to a more conciliatory tone. “British nurses were...” A deep breath helped my steamed, oxygen-deprived brain think of the right word and after several heartbeats, it came to me. “...incorporated fully into our military last year. Though we’re not, of course, in the battlefield chain of command.”

“Women shouldn’t dress like soldiers.”

“My grandfather would agree with you. The trousers seem to be a new experiment by army headquarters, issued for flying.” As I finished I realized he might be offended by my equating him with someone two generations older. Oh Well. 

The lieutenant commanding the second patrol watched us. I caught him hiding a second-long, half-smile. 

I  wasn’t finding  the conversation all that amusing, but at least it wasn’t really an interrogation. This captain obviously didn’t expect nurses to know any significant military information. That was good because I was in no shape to hide what I did know from any serious probe. That I could expect later when we were interned.

I lost faith in the goodwill of this captain who seemed to be trying to live up to the 'Aryan' ideal. He could have posed as one of those blond-haired, blue-eyed recruiting poster soldiers. But I estimated from my five-and-a-half foot height that he was an inch short of the six feet the ideal called for.

Could his height be making him try harder, to prove himself?

The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Do you even care that your pilot is dead?”

Grief and guilt hijacked my consciousness. Bile rose into my throat. If I couldn’t control the situation, I needed to control myself. In desperation, I overcame all other feelings with the trump card of emotions: anger.

“We nurses see death most days and have for all the years you’ve been bombing us—dead soldiers, dead civilians, dead children.” The anger fueled me, but the searing air cut into my parched vocal cords. I fought the urge to cough. “I knew him for only a few hours. He was bright, capable, witty, charming, optimistic, and heroic. And he saved us.” 

I ran out of words and paused to breathe. “Before the crash he also flew us through a sandstorm which jammed the landing gear lever. He had to change position to fix it and didn’t have enough time to get his seat belt back on afterwards. Even if he’d been my brother, my mourning would have needed to wait until I followed his last request to destroy the papers.”

A muscle in my upper right leg twitched in strain or fear. I was done-in, but needed to resist falling onto that burning sand. Between the captain and me lay the thick canvas dispatch bag which might not yet be too painfully hot. I considered my options for a whole second before deciding that a controlled collapse was better than a faint in a few minutes. 

I made the fall look less deliberate than it was.

The lieutenant from the second patrol reached out to ease my descent. The captain frowned at him, but the lieutenant’s grip only released me when I was safely down on the bag. 

“Sorry,” I said. “The heat.”

The captain shook his head. “You wouldn’t be so overheated if you hadn’t stood next to a fire burning those papers.”

The lieutenant spoke of Rommel’s orders that the treatment of prisoners needed to be strictly according to the Geneva Conventions, saying the nurse at their feet was in uniform no matter how inappropriate that was. He called him Hauptmann Kirchner so I had a name for my nemesis: Captain Churchman/Sexton/Gravedigger. A picture flashed before me of him digging graves.

A soldier ran up, pointing over the edge of the ridge. “Die Englander. Britische Truppen Spalte.

British troops? Driving through the desert below? 

The Germans had the high ground. Out-of-sight. Probably unsuspected. These British weren’t our rescuers; we were their doom. 

The two German officers dashed off to lie flat at the edge of the cliff, binoculars pointed downwards to the northeast. Captain Kirchner motioned for quiet though I doubted a shot would be heard over the roar British Army lorry motors make. And the patrol was still so far away no sound had yet reached us.

The lieutenant’s men set up mortars along the ridge. They primed them and hurried back for the shell bombs. 

I held up a hand to shield my eyes while I checked out the mortars and discovered that the guard who had brought me over stood behind me. Before I saw much else I dropped my arm, exhausted by the effort.

If I hadn't used up all my strength, I might have been able to fire a warning shot from the nearest mortar, the last one in their line. Mortars were among the military hardware Hans demonstrated to me years ago. German ones. Like these. Once primed they were easy to use. One dropped a shell down the tube, the firing pin at the bottom expelled the bomb back upward. Any able-bodied person could do it, but that left me out. 

Robert was probably more exhausted when he fought the sandstorm, especially after he squashed his finger.

I should have figured out how to stop bullies from stabbing my grandmother when I was twelve. I should have figured out how to unjam the mechanism so that Robert would have stayed securely belted for our landing. I should have been able to protect that patient from a doctor who wasn’t open to hearing new research reported by a mere nurse. But those deaths were past. This was present and it offered the possibility to prevent future deaths. If only that wasn’t impossible.

The last mortar was close by, but there was no way to reach it so I wished my brain would let go of the idea that I could fire a warning shot. It would require a miracle.

I drew in a deep breath through my nose and exhaled through my mouth and kept breathing deeply.

The rumble of approaching lorries drifted from the sands below. The Germans hurried to bring more shells over before the British drove into range. I clenched my hands in frustration.

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, which would take us only a few feet from that last mortar. I dragged my feet in the sand wishing for time to think.

Did the Spirit of my father arrange all this to test whether I meant it when I cried out for a way to atone for Robert’s death? 

Nothing would bring Robert back. However, saving the lives of British soldiers might provide a slight counter-balance to the guilt I’d carry for the rest of my life.

If I live that long.

Shells lay next to that last mortar. My guard walked on the far side of me. I wanted time to gather courage, but we were as close as we would ever be to the mortar.

The guard glanced away. Only then did I make my decision. 

Robert, this is for you.