Chapter #2 “Between the Devil and the Desert”

Historical Note
A quarter of a million Brits practiced Spiritualism between the World Wars.: 

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 nurse’s brain knew, even while my personal brain was denying it.

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

I reached out to prove her wrong, but then dropped my arm.

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.

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

“Lieutenant Bowman!” This sounded closer, more demanding.

I opened my eyes and looked up.

“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.”

I heard my father’s voice telling me, Responsibilities takes precedence over wallowing in failure. “Right,” I told them. “Go. I'll catch you up.”

Gail backed out of the cockpit. 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. Although my hand shook, I could tell there was no pulse. Nothing. I could now see the blood on the window which showed why.

Robert, you wouldn’t be dead if I’d been stronger. Or faster. It’s my fault. If I’d given up sooner, you could have finish sooner and had time to get your seat belt back on. Maybe I took too much time fastening my own seat belt or looked at the military patrol instead of staying with the lever. Less than one minute might have given you enough time. Surely I could have done something a minute faster. In addition what killed you was September aiming at me. My fault.

I stopped the cycle of thoughts, the circle of guilt. My weak and shaking legs took me to the outside door.

A wall of heat slammed me back a step. I grabbed the door frame for balance then pulled myself to the ladder to back down. When I turned around, I saw Gail and Mary a prudent distance away and walked over to them.

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

“A bit dazed.”

“Could you have hit your head?” she asked.

Only after she mentioned it, did I notice the pain and a vague sense that I might have hit my head during the whiplash spin. I started to reach up to my forehead, cancelled that and instead I focussed on them. “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. Lieutenant Jones. I can’t get over. He had to lock the landing gear down after I failed to, and 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 with enough hostility to make her take a step back. “He was a great guy. 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 a sandstorm which he ran into after escaping enemy fighters. Then without landmarks navigated to this specific spot where we’d have a chance to be found.”

The chill passed, leaving behind a violent urge to throw up. My self-control threatened to slip, and I drew it back carefully with deep breaths.

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

I took a step towards her, looking at the plane and nearly lost my balance almost falling into a hole, almost spraining my ankle which hurt but held. I pulled my leg up and dug the toe of my shoe into the edges of the hole. The hole the front wheel of the plane was stuck in was far deeper than this one which had only half swallowed my foot. The deeper one swallowed half the tire.

I turned the other way walking over to where the ridge dropped off. I looked down the steep cliff then stepped back and inspected the other directions. Two sides rose gently to the height we were on. I could even make out a path where traffic had destroyed the vegetation cutting from west to east. Beige, withered, dead-looking, bleak, tough plants sprouted here and there out of the rocky ground around the barren path.

This plateau was the only flat area within sight. One might be able to weave lorries around the ground below or any place I could see. But only on the top here was there a path for a landing strip.

Our survival was Robert’s accomplishment.

I yearned for a way to make amends for my part in his death. Father, I called out to the Spirit World, what can I do?

“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 hit me until I slowed back to a walk. Up the ladder to grab the maps and papers from the cockpit, squashing my queasiness as I reached around Robert. He wanted me to do this. Then I broke the lock on the heavy canvas dispatch bag and

I dragged the bag over to the pile of brush the others had made away from the plane. I struggled to breathe by the time I threw in the maps and papers from the cockpit. Gail lit a corner and the paper went up quickly. I grabbed handfuls of envelopes from the bag to add to the flames. The plants weren’t burning well so I needed to keep adding paper to make sure the fire didn’t go out while also watching so that every piece burned completely.

Heat emanated in waves to scorch my throat. Smoke swirled. I coughed and struggled to get enough oxygen. I was too dizzy to stand so I crouched down to avoid the worst of the smoke.

“You might want to move away from the fire,” I told Gail and Mary. There was no reason for them to stay close to the smoke. “Check the horizons, especially to the southwest. We flew over an Afrika Korps patrol headed this way.”

The summer Sahara sun, directly overhead, seared us. The sand below us shot heat upward as if from coals in a pit. The fire spat sparks that bit like hungry insects at my face and hands. I mechanically added papers a few at a time.

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

Even without enough oxygen my mind continued to call out to my father’s spirit for a way to ease my guilt. But even while he lived, he’d never found a way to atone for his own guilt in 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 that even if spirits existed, they’d probably not be able to affect this world. But in the years since his death, I’d felt my father’s presence. Certain coincidences had left me convinced that he hovered and might be able nudge things to continue those tests he’d always put in front of me as his way to teach.

But nothing affects death. ISo, what could mitigate the guilt that surrounded it?

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

I opened my mouth to answer her but had 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?” I noted both the fear and rage that colored her words.

“This isn’t Poland or Russia,” I told her. “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 most Germans were much like the Brits.

I chose Britain but didn’t feel my choice had completely dissolved my connections to the land in which I’d spent my earliest years. Nor my connections to my mother’s family. Her brother, a general somewhere in the Wehrmacht, had always been kind to me. After my parents died, he had done all he could to take their place.

I ungratefully paid him back by running away. At the funeral a distant relative had tried to make me feel better by telling me the dead went off to the West. A week or so later, my uncle took the family on a vacation. And he chose a destination to the west, not knowing what the relative had told me. My father had taught me how to use a compass, so one night while we were further west than I had ever been, I took the compass and went off to find my parents, especially my father, who had been my world. My mother had a life in her native land. My father, however, had devoted most of his waking hours to me.

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.

Before, he routed a Gypsy camp thus proving he had no interest in who I was.

“I had a patient who’d been a prisoner of the Afrika Korps for a short tim,” Gail said. “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 smiled at Gail then realizing the fire was about to go out, I turned back to my duty and hastily added 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. Afterwards 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? 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 turning to look. Gail would have as much skill at telling one dust cloud from another as I. “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.”

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. I actually agreed that she should be the officer in charge. She might have been able to get that lever into the slot.

I wondered what happened to the birth certificate sent to the British government by my father, who had made sure that his daughter—born in Germany, to a German mother, surrounded by German culture—was at least equally British as was his right as citizenship travelled through the father.

The hum of the vehicles 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 the German engines was more like a roar.

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 avoid any misstep.

Of everything I’d imagined, I’d never anticipated a crash in the Sahara. Maybe my desire not to crash into the sea was too specific, not that the Spirits usually did what I wished.

Reality is often worse than any horrors my imagination conjures up.

The dust cloud from the opposite direction had turned into another German patrol. 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 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 next lorry as it slowed a bit more. 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 was sure 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 toward the other side of the plateau. Our plane might have stopped about there if we’d made it to the end of our runway. 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 brought out all our belongings. 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, a 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 must have been my remaining reserves, and the roasting air began 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 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 guard’s report that the pilot was dead, the plane carried no military equipment, the papers were burned beyond recovery, and I was the only one covered in ash.

The Hauptmann—no, he’s an Army 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...” I took a deep breath as 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. I could expect that 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.

His height might 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. “Get used to it. And you wouldn’t be so overheated if you hadn’t stood next to a fire burning those papers. Only made dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. Seems Englishwomen also go even further: to stand next to a fire in the afternoon heat.”

Hm. Kipling.

The lieutenant interrupted to mention, in German, Rommel’s orders that the treatment of prisoners needed to be strictly according to the Geneva Conventions. He mentioned that 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. The church run by the minister who’d tutored me before I took his information and escaped had a caretaker with that traditional last name for people in his position. But the Kirchner in front of me came from people more educated, I suspected.

A soldier ran up, pointing over the cliff. “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 ridge, 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 edge. They primed them and hurried back for the bombs shells.

I held up a hand to shield my eyes while I checked out the mortars and saw one of them priming the last mortar. Before I saw much more, I dropped my arm, exhausted by the effort of holding it up.

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 after he squashed his finger.

I flashed back to the scene I’d relived for nine years: I should have figured out how to stop bullies from stabbing my grandmother when I was twelve. Now, I’d have to live with knowing I should have figured out how to unjam the mechanism so that Robert could stay securely belted for our landing. I should also 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 many deaths. If only that was possible.

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 behind that last mortar. I dragged my feet in the sand wishing for time to think.

Did the Spirit of my father arrange 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, if I didn’t try to save these British soldiers, I’d have to live with that additional guilt for the rest of my life.

If I live that long.

Bomb shells lay next to that last mortar. A nagging thought came to me that I should be too afraid to consider what I was considering. But if I had the energy to walk past the mortar, I would think I had a touch extra to move sideways a bit faster and lift one shell and drop it down before they got to me.

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.

Apprx 4500 words (Last updated November 28, 2018)