Chapter #2 “Am I (Black and) Blue”10 September 1942, mid-afternoon
It wasn't quite a run, but I was moving. I heard the order not to shoot. The “nicht schiessen!” sounded like Kirchner's voice, and I was glad to hear it, but I committed myself completely to the mortar. It no longer mattered that I had no hope of success.
I bent to pick up a shell firmly with both hands then continued on two steps. Without straightening up, and without a pause, I slid it smoothly into the tube and dropped it.
Not expecting to have gotten this far, I had not realized that my momentum would carry me in front of the mortar or over the cliff. Either way I was dead.
Terror flushed through me with a gasp. I tried to lean back, but it wouldn't be enough.
I teetered inches from the edge. Everything turned blurry. My legs couldn’t hold me up.
In the split second before the mortar fired, Someone grabbed my arm, pulling me back and down into a slide.
The sound of the explosion roared in my ears and the world went silent. The heat of the shell burned my cheek as it missed me by less than an inch.
I couldn't see who grabbed me but knew it was that captain. I knew before I saw him a few seconds later. He was now fighting the laws of gravity, using his whole body, along with my extra weight, digging in his feet against the inertia that propelled both of us towards the edge. Searching for any foothold, he hit the mortar knocking it off the ridge.
When we came to a stop—our feet hanging over empty space—the captain pulled his legs back under him and swung himself up, then struck me before dragging me away from the precipice. Already stunned by the explosion, the blow to the side of my head dazed me further as I bit the inside of my cheek. Blood filled my mouth leaving me choking.
Kirchner grabbed my hands, dragging me two more steps back to solid ground. He twisted my hands forcing me to TURN over. Pulling upwards he forced me to my knees on the hot sand. I whined in pain but was able to spit out blood.
The lieutenant ran up. My battered brain missed his first few indignant German syllables, but my hearing was coming back, and I heard Kirchner’s interruption.
“This was all my fault. She is my prisoner. My guard was assigned to her. I am the highest ranking officer here. And it was my choice not to just shoot her. I thought she was only going to try to attract attention by waving and that would hardly have been seen. But had she fallen off the cliff, the British would have seen that, stayed out of range and followed us to hell. I prefer to fight where we have more of an advantage. And then there would be Rommel to face afterwards. Women shouldn't be out here. None of this will be blamed on you or your men.”
By the time he finished, I had stopped spitting out blood and my brain could deal with the world again. The lieutenant had obviously been worried that he would be blamed since it was his men who had put up the mortar and left it unattended. The captain’s detailed explanation—more than he had any right to expect—mollified him.
Captain. Kirchner glanced below us and told the lieutenant, “The British column has stopped out of range. I think we are going to have to call it a standoff. We are double their number, but it would take us at least half an hour to drive down to them from each side giving them time to prepare, maybe even ambushing us on our way. We would all lose men for no purpose. If we just drive off, they may see our dust, follow and attack where they have the advantage. I cannot see the purpose to a real battle here. Instead, we can bargain with them and hold them here by giving them the nurses, who do us no good anyway.“
“Not her!” The lieutenant’s tone made it a demand although he had no right to make such a demand of his superior. Kirchner ignored the tone, kept his temper and agreed.
“No. She will remain a prisoner of war, no longer to be regarded as a non-combatant. She’ll go with my prisoners back to base. Let headquarters deal with her.”
He brought me to my feet by painfully pulling my hands upward. He switched languages. “Well, Fraulein Bowman, do you want to free your nurses and get the British out from an attack by two German columns?”
I summoned whatever resources I retained. “That’s. . . why. . . did. . . .”
“Hmm. I thought you were just juggling ammo for practice.”
It wasn’t a good joke, and I wasn't tempted to laugh, though, because I was a fairly good juggler, it was more appropriate than he could know. But I was surprised at even a hint of humor after I had put him in this position.
“Practice. . . needs. . . daily. . .”
He didn't have patience enough to wait for me finish. “You will remain a prisoner.”
“'Course, . . angry.” He’d hardly not be angry.
“'Angry’ doesn’t cover it, but the rules of war do. You need to convince your team to give us no trouble over you not going with them to the British column.”
“Right.” I meant it to be a strong affirmation, but it came out with a weak squeak.
Back in German he called over a Leutnant — a second lieutenant — and changed languages back into German asking for handcuffs which his younger officer supplied but said, “Do you think those are necessary to control a woman, Herr Hauptmann?”
Facing me as he put on my handcuffs, Kirchner's eyes narrowed and he took a deep breath. “Leutnant Fuhrmann, she is to be treated as if she is a male enemy commando. She must never be given the chance to do anything like that again.” His voice was hard, cold, and menacing. “Take her back to her nurses. Watch her. Since she is a woman, neither her honor nor her word should be relied upon even if she offered her parole. Who knows how to treat a woman who acts like a soldier?”
Switching back to English, he told me, “Your nurses must be ready to walk down to the British column. My men will find a path they can use.”
“I might send you off with no arrangement for water, but I will not send them that way.”
“How... talk to British?”
“If they were Americans or Canadians, I might try smoke signals, but I doubt the British could read them.” He lit a cigarette.
He must be a fan of American Westerns. Movies? Books? Karl May, perhaps? His mood improved as he drew on the cigarette. If he was angry, he controlled it well and adjusted quickly, with a measure of grace, to the set-back.
“I suspect we can find their radio frequencies,” he continued. “Or we will flash Morse code signals at them or something. That is my job. Your job is to prepare your nurses. If all goes well, we will all live to try to kill each other some other day.”
I nodded to spare my voice. He had spoken of my lack of honor in German. I bit my lip to stop myself from defending myself which would reveal that I had understood.
Many lives depended on my convining my nurses. The problem was walking across the ridge to where they waited. Where would I get the strength for that? My legs felt as if the bones were melting.
“I. . . need. . . water.”
Kirchner nodded to Fuhrmann, who offered me his canteen. The two patrol commanders left.
It was awkward holding the canteen to my lips with the handcuffs and it took several rinses before I no longer spit out much blood, Then I drank deeply, twice, and another. I handed back his canteen. He motioned me to walk ahead of him and made it clear he would obey orders and treat me as if I were dangerous.
Leutnant Fuhrmann spoke English. He understood when I asked Kirchner for water and the captain would have assigned someone who could report back on what I said.
Both nurses stood when they saw we were headed for them. Mary took off to rush to me. I used some of my renewed strength to say, “Back! Sit down!” Although my voice wasn't strong, its tone stopped her.
I spoke more normally. “Go on. We need to talk.”
The water had helped, but I could only get enough air by breathing through my mouth and the loud, heavy breaths interrupted my speech.
“You are to be repatriated. A British patrol is down over that ridge out of range of those mortars.”
“So that’s what you were doing,” Gail said.
“Yes, I fired a warning shot before the British drove into range." My voice cracked. "I need you to prepare to walk in the heat of the afternoon sun.” If I didn't pause every few words, my voice would just stop on its own for a moment. “Make sure you have no sand, not even a grain, in your shoes. Make a thickened head covering, maybe a cotton scarf or handkerchief under your cap. The Germans should provide something. It will be an ordeal.”
“Do you have to walk in handcuffs?” Gail asked.
“I am not going. Gave up my non-combatant status.”
“We will not go without you!” Only Mary said it but Gail’s face showed the same determination.
They didn’t realize that I should be dead. At the very least, I should have a broken jaw. The captain’s restraint had been extraordinary.
“You will do as I order!” I said it quietly but with all the sense of command I could muster. I paused to let that sink in. “I am your commanding officer until you reach the British column. I said we’d use first names until we landed. Well, we have landed. Add it up, two of you, maybe 12 to 20 British soldiers down there, versus two columns of Germans who have the high ground. I am one person. If you cannot control your emotions maybe you shouldn’t be front-line nurses.”
Waiting for Mary to finally slump slightly,. “I will remain a prisoner whether you stay captive or go free. So, why would you not be repatriated? Make what I did worthwhile! Do the rational thing! And. . ." I paused for both breath and to gather strength for emphasis, ". . .follow my orders!”
It took me a moment to gather enough oxygen to continue. “In addition, I am not sure a battle can be avoided without the British being promised two British nurses. Once you reach the British column, remember that if they try to attack the Germans, they are likely to get me and the other British prisoners killed. So, do not pressure them to follow us. In fact actively discourage it to the best of your ability. They may not listen, but try.” I just breathed for a moment.
“This engagement is over. You are to play your part to save lives. I will go with these British prisoners and see if they need a nurse. When you get back to our lines, you can find out if they can arrange a trade for me. It will be easier after these officers turn me over to people who were not involved with the ambush.”
The captain’s words echoed in my mind. “Let us all live to fight another day. I risked my life for just this kind of outcome. I will not allow you to foul things up thinking you are helping me.”
They were quiet in the face of my firmness, probably especially because I had not seemed so firm in our previous interactions.
“Eleanor... eh, Lieutenant Bowman, I don’t like it.” Mary was more subdued.
“You’ll like it less walking in the hot sun. Don’t expect it to be easy. But that is what will save British lives. You’ll envy me sitting up here while you find your way down that cliff. You must not dawdle, but you must not exhaust yourself or take any risks. When you reach the bottom the British commander would be smart to get away quickly. Make yourself ready. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you.”
Gail cleared her throat as if she wasn’t sure she should speak. “Actually, Lieutenant, although you are in worse physical shape, my impression is that you feel better. Even when we first met, you seemed. . . subdued”
I had won their obedience, now I could cement it with a piece of the truth. “Don’t tell anyone, but my fear of flying interfered.”
“I can believe that.” Mary said. “I have never even known anyone who has been in an airplane. But it was a bit of an adventure, don’t you think?”
“I don’t tend to seek out adventures, and I am still sure that nothing as big and heavy as a modern airplane can fly. You probably picked up on that, Gail. And then Robert’s death, of course.”
I turned both arms out and both palms up and shrugged my shoulders to her as we separated.
When we returned to Kirchner, Fuhrmann summarized everything.
When he finished I asked the captain, “Did you contact the British?”
“Didn't you see the smoke signals?”
Still on his American cowboys and Indians motifs.
I rephrased. “Did they agree to the trade for two British nurses?”
“I don’t think they really believe yet that I have two of their nurses, but when they see them start down the path, they will have to wait until the two women get to the bottom. We will give the two a canteen each to take with them. I will treat them like non-combatant nurses. Like ladies.”
“You broke the rules.”
Rules, rules, rules. How very German of him.
“My men found a decent path that is not too steep and will be partially in the shade.” Looking over the edge he continued, “The British are sending a vehicle now to set a soldier with binoculars and water at the bottom of the path. While your nurses start down, let me introduce you to the ranking officer of my British prisoners. One of my men had to knock Major Cleere down to keep him from rushing to protect you from my un-chivalrous behavior.”
When I moved my handcuffed hands up to my jaw, he asked, “Does it hurt?”
“May I have a bit more water to rinse with.”
He handed me the canteen from his belt. “Now, I am properly shown to be what you British call a boor. I should have made sure you had enough water after hitting you.”
“Of course, a gentleman wouldn't have hit me even if I was ruining his ambush.”
“Hm. You think I should have shot you instead? No, too noisy. But you wouldn’t have been difficult to bring down with a thrown knife.”
“I take your point.”
The water I rinsed through my mouth and spit out still showed a light pink. I took another drink and this time swallowed it. And another. And a couple more.
Gail and Mary waved at me just before disappearing over the edge on a path they seemed to feel comfortable with. Since both of my hands were on the canteen, I merely nodded back then handed the canteen back to its owner.
The lieutenant’s column began taking down the mortars and packing up.
When we got to the British prisoners, they started tp clap. The major walked forward slightly bent over clutching his side. His sandy colored hair and tan uniform made him blend into the landscape.
His voice carried serious concern. “Are you all right?”
Instead of answering, I stopped and saluted. He paused. At first I thought it was because I had saluted so badly with both hands in handcuffs and not at all straight, but then I decided it because he had been here for more than a year and so hadn’t become used to women officers. Rising to the occasion, he straightened up and saluted back. At his full height he towered over us all.
Captain Kirchner lit a cigarette while he watched, then said, “I think it is my place to introduce you: Fraulein Eleanor Bowman, allow me to present Major Charles Cleere of the Long Range Desert Group.” He stopped. “Or should it be the other way around? By English custom you introduce a man to a woman but by military rules a lower ranking officer to a higher ranking one. Which should prevail here?”
Major Cleere ignored both Kirchner’s comment and my rank. “Miss Bowman, allow me to tell you how impressed the other chaps and I are by what you did. It took a lot of pluck. Damned fine show and all that. But are you all right?”
“No permanent damage. Are you all right? I hear you tried to come to my rescue.” I paused to take a breath, “That was gentlemanly of you.”
Cleere's crisp, precise, upper-class, or maybe academic, pronunciation reminded me of the way my father had spoken, but except on the BBC wireless programs, I had rarely heard anyone else speak like that. Around the people I usually associated with, the accent and word choices would sound affected. Out here, it sounded like a caricature.
He wouldn't talk to his men like that, surely? Must be the surprise.
“I feel absolutely dreadful that I couldn’t come to your aid.” The major turned to Kirchner, “Captain, I protest your beastly treatment of this lady. It was shockingly bad form. Unpardonable. You had no right to hit her.”
“If you had done what she did, would I have had the right to hit you?”
“Of course. But that is not the same thing at all. It is a ludicrous comparison. Miss Bowman is a woman, a nurse, and a non-combatant.”
I barely listened and instead found a tiny shaded piece of sand against a lorry tire and collapsed.
“She was a non-combatant. I had to take note of her sabotage. I did not hit her to punish her but to stop her from any additional shenanigans since we were right on the edge. Didn’t have any kid gloves to use with her.”
Shenanigans? I bet I know what movie he picked that up from.
The major, a few feet away, addressed me from his towering height. “Captain Kirchner is an appalling barbarian with no pretense of chivalry, I’m afraid. German colleagues I knew a decade ago were civilized, really quite decent fellows. But, let me be honest and admit to you that Captain Kirchner has been quite decent to us.”
“Maybe you didn’t ruin his plan of conquest, glory and promotion.”
“Well, no, we surrendered to an overwhelming force from which he was assigned to escort us back to his base. Hardly a shot was fired before the capture since it was obviously hopeless. Field Marshall Rommel’s prisoners are treated decently, so our men have little enthusiasm to fight to the death. Both sides feel that way.”
Resting in the shade gave me a touch more strength. “You an expert at military tactics and strategy, then?”
“What me? Certainly not. Taught archeology before the war. Only started studying warfare after I joined the army. I have been reading up on it all the way back to the Trojan Horse trick.”
The Trojan Horse trick? Probably something every school child knows, but I missed in not having gone to school while searching for the dead.
“Reuniting the British is really a charming part of my job,” Kirchner said. “But we need to be going. See if you can find an extra pair of goggles for her and whatever else she might need.” To me he offered, “Do you want to take any personal items with you?”
Kirchner called over Fuhrmann to take me to the crash site. “She can tell you where to look and what she wants, but she cannot touch anything until you have checked it first.” Fuhrmann helped me up, and we headed toward the airplane. Kirchner and Cleere continued to argue facing each other and looking very mismatched with the height difference between them.
“Really, Captain, you are treating her as if she is a poisonous creature. That cannot be necessary. And you should take off those handcuffs.”
“Major, I really would like to treat her delicately, but I am concerned for the consequences. I would feel more comfortable with her chained in a dungeon.”
“That is not a seeming image.”
“Why, Major, whatever do you mean?”
Laughter permeated the captain's voice but I wasn’t sure if it was good-natured or sinister. From the subject matter, I suspected sinister, but I didn’t have the strength to try to read him using my grandmother’s systems. It couldn’t matter, anyway?
The two officers were almost chummy. Funny how some men can shoot at each other one day, and the next discuss military tactics dispassionately as if they had just been playing football the day before.
The Lieutenant’s column moved out to the west and kept going away from the British. We passed close enough to the edge that I could see the vehicle at the bottom. It will take hours before Gail and Mary could get down to that. The Germans would have a commanding head start by that time.
The Germans had buried Robert near the airplane. The handcuffs made it too awkward for me to reach out toward the grave.. Guilt flushed through me. But at that moment the present pushed its way to the forefront.
"That bag has a second uniform in it. And some other useful things." It lay open. He checked through the clothing and brought them to me. I cringed when he handled my personal items, but I would need them.
"You should also take this heavy coat," Fuhrmann told me.
That must have been Robert's.
"Why would I need that in this climate?"
"It’s a great insulator. The Sahara gets cold at night: nothing here holds heat."
Cold? Here? But life had taught me to accept advice that didn’t benefit the advisor or hurt me, so I nodded.
Fuhrmann also brought over a small valise just the right size for everything I was taking except the coat. I kept out a scarf as he packed.
He carried the valise and the coat and led me to the command vehicle. My foot refused to lift high enough so he and Major Cleere joined forces to push/pull me into the backseat after which Fuhrmann left.
I sat next to the major. Behind us was an armed guard. Kirchner sat in front next to the driver.
"You will need these,” Cleere said handing me goggles. “I wasn't able to talk the captain into taking off your handcuffs, I am afraid. We can share this canteen."
I had the thick cotton scarf in hand but was too weak to figure out how to wrap it, especially with handcuffed hands. The major saw my dilemma and wrapped it under my cap and around my nose, mouth and neck. "Sorry you have to go through this. You look quite exhausted. Guess you couldn't join your nurses even if the Germans would release you. You must just want to go home to safety."
"Would love to go home. But safety is out of reach these days."
The heat seeped into me. I rapidly fell into a state of complete mental, emotional and physical oblivion. I had done enough for the war . For Gail and Mary. Not enough for Robert, but something. Had he been alive, the British in the patrol would have been dead. I was too knackered to decide what would have been better. Better would probably be different for myself or for the war or for the world.
Apprx 4900 words (Last updated March 19, 2016)