Chapter #2 “Between the Devil and the Desert”


10 September 1942, early afternoon

I needed to see Robert 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 while she confirmed what my training made obvious even while I denied it.

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

No. Not dead. Please, no.

I instinctively reached out to prove her wrong. But withdrew the arm in defeat.

Who could I plead with? Nothing overturns death.

I shut out the world.

“Eleanor!” Gail’s voice was barely audible, as if it came from far off.

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

“Lieutenant Bowman!”

I opened my eyes to find Gail was shouting right next to my ear.

“We need to get out. Petrol might explode.”

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

My father’s voice from my childhood followed hers: Responsibilities take precedence over wallowing in failure.

“Right,” I told them. “Go. I'll catch you up.”

Gail backed out.

Now, that it was no longer urgent, I easily unbuckled the damned belt. I took another look at Robert with his seat belt dangling. I twisted sideways to put fingers to his neck to double check. Even through a shaking hand there was clearly no pulse. The window next to him told the story: blood smeared on the glass.

Robert, you wouldn’t be dead if I’d been able to turn the crank with more strength. And to do it faster. It’s my fault. If I’d given up sooner, you could have finished sooner and had time to get your seat belt back on.

My thoughts went on in a loop adding new things each time it went around. I’d taken too much time fastening my own belt before reaching to give him the half of his. I’d looked at the military patrol when he first saw it instead of staying with the crank.

Less than one minute might have given him enough time to finish and belt back in. Surely I could have done something a minute faster.

My weak, shaky legs took me to the outside door.

A wall of heat slammed me back. I grabbed the door frame to pull myself forward and keep my balance then backed down the metal ladder. The metal rail was warm but not too hot to hold.

Across the plateau, Gail had an arm around Mary, who was rubbing her right wrist..

Before I reached them. Gail released Mary and limped forward to meet me. She reached toward my forehead. “Are you all right?”

“A bit dazed.”

“I think you must have hit your head.”

Her touch hurt.

“My head may have slid along the window, I don’t really remember.” My arms automatically moved toward the pain, but I stopped that as useless. My attention needed to be elsewhere. “How are you two? Any bones broken? Injuries?”

“Just bruises, mostly where the rope bit into us.” She stared back and forth at my eyes. “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. Lieutenant Jones. I can’t get over it. He had to finish locking the landing gear down after I failed to, then he never got his seat belt back on.”

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

“Not worried about others blaming me.” I said it with enough force to make her take a step back. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap at you. He was a great guy. Full of life.” A chill spread out from my spine. How can I have a chill in this heat? “He was a wonderful pilot who escaped enemy fighters through a sandstorm and without landmarks navigated to this specific spot where we’d have a chance to be found.”

The chill passed to be followed by my stomach contracting. I drew back my self-control with deep breaths.

Gail took two steps toward the plane and pointed. “One of the front wheels is stuck.”

I moved towards her, concentrating on the plane, and nearly lost my balance when I stepped into a depression. Holes were everywhere and one front wheel of the plane had been mostly swallowed by the biggest one around.

I looked away, then walked over to where the ridge dropped off. I glanced down the cliff then stepped back and looked at the sides of our plateau both rose to where we were. Traffic had destroyed the vegetation across the middle. Beige, withered, bleak, tough, dead-looking plants sprouted sparingly out of the rocky ground around that semi-barren path.

We weren’t that much higher than the ground but I felt safer up here.

The top was the only flat area within sight. One could weave lorries around the boulders on the ground below, but only here was there a straight strip for landing. Camel trains might have liked to camp on this high ground from which they could see in all directions.

Our survival was Robert’s accomplishment.

I yearned for a way to make amends for my part in his death. Father, I mentally called out to the Spirit World, what can I do? I didn’t normally ask the dead for help, at least not since I’d gotten no help after my grandmother was killed. But the past day or so was the first time since then that I’d felt so very helpless.

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

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

“Right here.”

I ran a few steps, but dizziness slowed me back down to a walk. Up the ladder----the rail had heated up in the few minutes since I’d come down it.

I squashed my queasiness as I reached around Robert to grab the maps and papers. I gathered strength knowing he’d want me to do it. I pulled the heavy canvas dispatch bag to the door and dropped it to the ground then used the papers in my hands to grab the rail on the way down. I found a sturdy rock to break the lock then dragged the bag over to the small pile of brush the others had made.

By that time my exertions had me taking loud, short breaths.

I added the papers from the cockpit to the vegetation and Gail lit a corner of a paper which went up in a flash. I rushed to add the official government papers from the top of the bag.

Then I reached for the private letters people were sending to their loved ones. How much distress, how many misunderstandings, how much personal turmoil was I causing while following Robert’s request. But something might have gotten through the censors, and there was no longer a way for these to continue on to Cairo, anyway.

The plants didn’t burn well so I kept adding paper to keep the fire going. Every piece needed to turn to ash just in bloody case.

Heat waves scorched my throat. Smoke swirled, so I crouched to avoid the worst of it and even so coughed and struggled for breath.

“You might want to move away from the fire,” I told Gail and Mary. “Check the horizons, especially to the southwest. We flew over an Afrika Korps patrol heading this way.”

The summer Sahara sun, directly overhead, seared us. The sand below shot heat upward as if from coals in a fire pit which kept me from relieving my feet by sitting. Sparks from the fire flew at my face and hands. Through it all, I mechanically added papers a few at a time from the canvas bag that I kept upright so I could easily get out more papers. That also kept it from getting too hot.

Gail shaded her eyes with her hand. "Eleanor, I do see a dust cloud.”

“Good. That will be from our German rescuers.”

My mind, unneeded for the task at hand, continued to call out to my father’s spirit for a way to ease my guilt. Since he’d never found a way to escape his guilt in not being able to protect his nephew in the last war, he’d understand my need.

I’d been told that even if Spirits existed, they’d probably not be able to affect this world. But certain coincidences left me convinced that my father hovered and might be able to nudge things. And I was more desperate at the moment than any other moment since my grandmother’s deaths. All the crises in between had an obvious opening which, after a little resistance, I had taken.

But since nothing affects death, what could mitigate the guilt surrounding it? And I saw no options surrounding the approaching German patrol which would take out of my hands all the options. Prisoners, by definition, have no options.

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

I opened my mouth to answer her only to find I needed to clear my throat before any words could emerge. “To die of heat and thirst is worse than any treatment we might expect from Field Marshal Rommel’s troops.”

“Haven’t you heard about the atrocities on the Eastern Front?” Both fear and rage colored her words.

“This isn’t Poland or Russia,” I told her. “Rommel controls his Afrika Korps, and they follow the rules of war. That’s been in the news, and Lieutenant Jones said the same.”

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

I chose to side with Britain but didn’t feel that had completely dissolved my connections to the country of my birth where I’d spent my earliest years. Nor my ties to my mother’s family. Her brother, Werner, a general somewhere in the Wehrmacht, had always been kind to me.

A few weeks after my parents died, I ungratefully paid him back by running away after hearing a myth that the dead went off to the west. And still he had welcomed me back when I showed up again five years later.

Were there atrocities where Uncle Werner was fighting? Would even a general have the power to stop them? Was his adjutant, Hans, still with him? Hans, who’d sort of courted me by demonstrating the military weapons he loved. That was before I overheard him bragging to his fellow officers about routing a Gypsy camp. It was 1936 and that was the spur that caused me to leave Germany for the second time.

“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.”

I looked up gratefully. Then realizing the fire was about to go out, I turned back to hastily add more papers.

The similarities between my mother’s and father’s peoples meant they were equally flawed. Much of the difference, I’d come to suspect, was leadership. Hitler preached the natural superiority of one group and the merciless degradation of others through laws and even sending people to camps. Not that Britain didn’t have camps for enemy aliens who might be spies. I’d heard rumors that America was creating camps for Japanese residents and citizens after Pearl Harbor. Still, the rumors about the German camps suggested they were worse.

Still, war seems to degrade even the most idealist. It was Churchill who ordered the attack on the French ships peacefully sitting in port in Algeria after France surrendered to Germany. Those soldiers had been our allies just weeks before and had promised to stay neutral. Over a thousand killed, just in case.

And it had been English hooligans who killed my grandmother, and afterwards their community lied to protect the gang: “they’d all been home when the outsider had been killed.”

Can any group be trusted? Can any person be trusted? And how do you find safety when there is no one to trust?

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

I didn’t bother looking. Gail could tell one dust cloud from another as well as I. “Probably more Germans. One group or two shouldn’t matter. Keep an eye on them. Lieutenant Jones offered little hope that our own people might be in this area. We’re helpless no matter who they are.”

Realizing that we were about to deal with the hard-nosed German military, I thought I’d better change how we addressed each other. “Oh, I think you both should go back to calling me Lieutenant Bowman.”

“Right, Lieutenant.” Gail’s voice held a touch of bitterness, or at least I thought it did. I actually agreed that she should be the officer in charge. She might have been able to crank the landing gear all the way.

The hum of the vehicles from the west, the ones we’d flown over, reached us as the final papers turned black and curled into flakes. By the time I moved away from the dying fire to join Mary and Gail, the noise of those German engines had become a roar.

I removed my cap and took out the hairpins to let down my brown braids. “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 avoid even the slightest chance of a misstep.

Of everything I’d imagined, I’d never anticipated a crash in the Sahara. Maybe my wish not to plunge into the sea was too specific; not that the Spirits could be depended to do what I asked.

Reality is often worse than any horrors my imagination can conjure up.

A second German patrol began its the ascent from the opposite direction. The two columns headed for each other from opposite ends of the plateau.

The commander of the column we’d flown over stood in the front passenger seat of his uncovered command car as it passed us about twenty feet away, spraying us with tiny rocks and sand. While his binoculars were trained on the other patrol, he put out a hand to point at us as his open car passed.

Three soldiers jumped down from the next lorry as it slowed a bit.

I smiled innocently at them.

Without touching us, they circled checking for arms or anything that might indicate we weren’t what we appeared. We had no bulges where we would’ve hid weapons. One of the men guarded us while the other two entered the plane and brought out materials and our belongings.

The final vehicles from their patrol drove onto the ridge. Shouts pierced through the roar of the 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.” Although several armed German guards surrounded them, they pretty much ignored them in their enthusiasm.

Their presence made me feel safer still. Their presence would likely also reassure Mary and Gail.

The British prisoners’ non-coms and their German guards quieted them. With one motion I waved and slowly 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 further along our make-shift runway, and a few minutes later the two German officers laughed and lit cigarettes, and their patrols relaxed and those from the command cars mingled a bit.

The soldiers searching our plane carried Robert out to lay him on the ground. Everything between his body and me blurred. Between one breath and the next my grandmother’s body appeared at my feet just as it had been ten 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, some kind of blow to the head, sleep deprivation, and emotional turmoil left me unsteady. The short walk across the plateau strained my body, the midday Sahara sun evaporated what had to have been my remaining reserves, and the roasting air seemed to be trying to cook me. I wanted to rebel against being called upon for any additional duties.

My required salute to the enemy officers wasn't regulation straight, and my right arm shook as I held it to my temple. I hoped at least one of them understood English as I didn’t plan to reveal that I spoke German. “ Eleanor Bowman, Lieutenant. We are medical nurses, non-combatants. My service number is 97063—.”

Herr Hauptmann.” My escort interrupted me when his commander reached for the dispatch bag. He told him that the pilot was dead, the plane carried no military equipment, the papers were burned beyond recovery, and I was the only officer, and the one person covered in ash.

I’d dropped my arm unable to wait for a return salute. Just as well since none ever came.

The Hauptmann—no, an Army Captain! I needed to weed out facts about the German military as well as the German language that most British women wouldn't know—finally turned to me and threw the bag at my feet. “If you’re 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. “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.” He waved away any military status I might have. “You—you confuse the normal rules of war.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do about that?” I bit my lip. Verbal defiance—unlike physical courage—came easily to me. This was no place for it. I strained for the energy to switch to a more conciliatory tone. “British nurses were...” I took a deep breath as my steamed, oxygen-deprived brain tried to think of the right word. 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.”

“You’ll have to take that up with British Army Headquarters. However, my grandfather would agree with you. The trousers seem to be a new experiment, issued for flying.” As I finished I realized he might be offended by my equating him with someone two generations older. Oh well.

The second patrol’s commander, was an Oberleutnant, a first lieutenant. He watched us, and I caught a half-smile flash across his face.

I wasn’t finding the conversation all that amusing, but at least it wasn’t really an interrogation–I wasn’t sure if I had enough stamina to think clearly in a real interrogation. This captain obviously didn’t expect nurses to know any military information. I merely tried to keep my demeanor neutral, bordering on hard. Like what I thought Gail would be doing.

I had no faith in the good will of this captain, who seemed to be trying to live up to the Aryan ideal. He looked the part: blond-haired, blue-eyed. Had he been closer to twenty than thirty, the Germans might have put him on a recruiting poster. But I estimated from my five-and-a-half foot height that he was at least an inch short of the six feet the Aryan ideal called for. Maybe two inches.

His height might be making him try harder, to prove himself.

The captain’s eyes narrowed. “You seem very cold-hearted. Do you even care that your pilot is dead?”

Grief and guilt hijacked my consciousness as bile rose to my throat. I couldn’t control the situation, so 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 I went on. “He 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 need to wait until I followed his request to destroy the papers and now to deal with the situation my nurses and I are now in.”

A muscle in my upper right leg twitched in strain or fear or a combination of everything.

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 a few minutes later.

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.” It was a relief, even if some heat got through the bag. I no longer had to compel my legs to keep me upright. I was solidly grounded which did lead to feeling trapped, however, since there was no chance I could stand up by myself.

The captain shook his head. “Get used to the heat. You’d feel better if you hadn’t stood next to a fire burning those papers. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. Seems Englishwomen go even further to stand next to a fire in the afternoon heat.”

Hm. Kipling.

The lieutenant interrupted in German, reminding the captain about Rommel’s orders on the treatment of prisoners. That the nurse at their feet was in uniform no matter how inappropriate that was.

He used the name, Hauptmann Kirchner: Captain Churchman/Sexton/Gravedigger. I pictured him digging graves, but that would have been for an ancestor centuries before.

A soldier ran up, pointing over the cliff. “Die Englander. Britische Truppen Spalte.”

British troops? Driving through the desert below? Had they seen our plane go down?

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 ridge, binoculars pointing northeast. Captain Kirchner motioned for quiet, though I doubted a shot would be heard over the roar of British Army lorry motors. The patrol was still so far away that no sound of their engines had yet reached us.

The lieutenant’s men set up mortars along the edge, then hurried back for bomb shells.

I shielded my eyes while I looked around and saw one soldier priming the mortar nearest us, the last in the line. I soon dropped my arm, too exhausted to continue holding it up.

If I hadn't used up all my strength and wasn’t trapped on the ground, I might have been able to fire a warning shot from that mortar, especially since my captors saw me as helpless. Mortars were among the military hardware Hans had demonstrated to me years ago. German ones. Like these. Once aimed and primed they’re easy. One dropped a shell down the mortar’s tube, and the firing pin at the bottom automatically expelled the bomb back upward, outward.

Any able-bodied person could do it.

But that left me out. I was as helpless as my captors assumed.

Robert had probably been as exhausted when he fought the sandstorm after he squashed his finger. But he continued to do what was necessary. His actions were an ideal for me to reach toward or would have been if I weren’t stuck on the ground.

I flashed back to the scene I’d relived for the past decade: I should have figured out how to stop the British bullies from stabbing my grandmother.

And a few hours or so ago I should‘ve worked harder in turning the crank so Robert could have stayed securely belted for our landing. Or maybe asked for help sooner. Come to think of it, I should have been able to protect that patient from the doctor who wasn’t open to hearing new research reported by a mere nurse.

Those deaths were past. What about the deaths about to happen?

Doing nothing was usually the worst choice. Though not always. If I did find a way to commit sabotage, would they punish the two nurses with me?

Wby worry about the impossible. And if Robert were still alive, he’d never have been left this close to a mortar with only one guard, so he wouldn’t have had a chance either.

I drew a deep breath and kept breathing deeply, adding as much oxygen to my body as possible in case some miracle happened.

A faint rumble drifted from the sands below. Soldiers hurried to bring more shells before the British drove into range. I clenched my hands in frustration. I was useless. I couldn’t even stand up.

Captain Kirchner stage-whispered an order for my guard to take me back to the other nurses. The soldier offered me a hand up then motioned with his rifle towards the most direct route, which would take us maybe a dozen feet behind the last mortar. I dragged my feet in the sand wishing for time to think. Time to gather extra breath. Time to create courage.

Is my father’s spirit testing my desire for a way to atone for Robert’s death?

Nothing would bring Robert back. However, if I didn’t at least try to stop this ambush, I’d also have to live with the guilt of those additional deaths

For the rest of my life.

If I even live that long.

The stack of shells next to the mortar was knee high.

If I had the energy to walk past the mortar, I surely had a tad extra to move sideways a bit faster to lift one shell and drop it down the tube before they got to me.

To at least try.

My guard walked on the far side of me. I wanted time, but we were as close as we’d ever be to the mortar.

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

Robert, this is for you.

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Apprx 4600 words (Last updated May 31, 2020)