Norway. The war. It had
taken place over sixty years ago! What had happened to me? What was I
doing in Narvik in a war which had long ago faded into history. How had
I been transported back in time? And why me?
It was nothing but a very
vivid dream, I decided for the hundredth time, a bad dream, a nightmare.
I would wake up any minute now and find myself back home. But I was
wrong. I did not wake up and it was no dream.
For one thing it was
perishing cold. My unit was stationed halfway up the mountain. There
were few trees about. Most of the plant growth consisted of scrub,
gnarled birches between one and two meters in height. We had a shelter
of sorts, of course, but it was drafty and its ability to retain heat
was close to zero.
The next day on orders from higher up our entire unit was moved across
the Ofotfjord to the north shore. The fjord was quite wide where we,
that is the British, had set up a ferry service of sorts. I believe the
spot was picked mainly because it was far enough away from the German
positions so that they could not reach it with their artillery and their
naval units had all been destroyed in the battles of April 10th and
The actual crossing of
the fjord was accomplished before noon. The march to our new post took
all afternoon and most of the evening. Not until it was almost dark did
we begin to dig in, once again halfway up the mountain, but this time we
were facing southeast and it promised to be warmer here, even though it
did not feel so that evening. At any rate, there was less snow of the
The next morning dawned
bright and clear. Far below us were the waters of the Ofotfjord, dark
blue in the middle and leaden near the shores. The mountain opposite us
looked sombre and gloomy. A cold breeze blew in from the ocean, tempered
by the rough peaks of the Lofoten, a group of mountainous islands
forming the northern border of the Vestfjord.
From our position we
could see the railway to Kiruna in neutral Sweden in the distance.
Kiruna, of course, was the site of Europe’s largest iron ore mine. And
Narvik, being the closest ice free port, was the place from where it was
shipped to market. Germany badly wanted the ore and it was our job to
deny it to the enemy. The Swedish border was only a few kilometers away
from here. If one stood on top of one of the peaks one could see Sweden,
so I was told.
During the next several
days there was almost no enemy activity near where we were stationed. We
carried out constant patrols which were tremendously difficult in the
deep snow and along the steep mountainside. Elsewhere some of our units
were overrun by the enemy. Not so here. By the time the Germans came
within a thousand meters of our position we had them pinpointed. It
almost appeared as if we were the forgotten front.
And then it was time to
see the medics again, to find out how my injury was doing. It had caused
me considerable pain at first. But by now I had gotten used to it, in a
manner of speaking.
Sergeant Johnson pulled
up with the Landrover. We would be gone for no more than a couple of
hours. Corporal Litvak again took up his position in the back at the
machine gun. And so we bounced down the trail towards the road. The city
of Narvik lay to our right. We could oversee part of the port for a
brief period before the fog and clouds closed in again. Even during the
past four days the nights had grown noticeably shorter. We were far
above the Arctic Circle and the two months long day would soon begin.
Even now the nights were not as dark as they used to be.
Like always Bill Johnson
drove at a reckless speed. There was far less snow at the lower
altitudes and the air felt distinctly warmer. Soon we were bouncing over
a track with all the snow gone. I was thankful that visibility was only
about a kilometer. Across the fjord artillery shells burst now and then,
the sounds magnified by the mist.
It took us a good half
hour to reach the medical station. They had moved it much closer to the
front in preparation for the offensive to drive the enemy out of the
vital port of Narvik. Meanwhile our High Command had changed leaders and
General Auchinleck was now in charge. To the north and east of us the
French were dug in along the mountains bordering the Herjangsfjord and
beyond it Norwegian troops had their positions. Across the Ofotfjord our
own 24th Guards Brigade was deployed, supported by some Polish units.
Due east, at the tip of the peninsula formed by the Beisfjord to the
south and the Rombaksfjord to the north lay the city of Narvik, still
firmly in German hands under the command of General Dietl.
We reached the medical
station without any problems and without any challenge. A number of
things had changed here as well. It was far more accessible, just off
the main road and there was more personnel available. Johnson stopped
the vehicle right in front of the door.
“There you are, Sir,” he
said. “We’ll wait at the vehicle park over there.” He motioned with his
head to the west of the level area which fronted the small building. A
half-track and an armoured car were partly hidden among the scrubby
birch trees. I nodded and jumped to the ground. A big red cross on a
white background was roughly painted on the front door and on the wall
between the windows. Medical Field Station No. 2, I read on the sign
above the entrance. In small letters underneath it said Narvik. Somebody
had scrawled Norway behind it.
The first thing which assaulted me when I opened the front door of the
building was the smell. The odor was of disinfectant and salves and
medicines. I had barely closed the door when I was confronted by a
nurse. A nurse? Here near Narvik less than a kilometer from the forward
positions of the Germans? I blinked and then brushed my right hand over
“Yes, Captain?” she asked
in a broad accent.
For a moment I lost my
ability to speak. She was exceedingly good looking.
“Yes, Captain?” she
repeated, her voice a shade firmer.
“Oh,” I stammered, still
not fully recovered. “I am here to see Major Pershing about this.” I
thrust my left hand forward. My submachine gun hung loosely from my
right shoulder, the muzzle pointing to the floor. It was quite warm in
The nurse walked over to
a table and picked up a clipboard. “Are you Captain Kester?” she asked.
I still had not placed her accent.
“Yes, that’s me,
Lieutenant.” She wore lieutenant’s insignia on her uniform. She exuded a
charm which captivated me. I had a hard time pulling my eyes off her
“Hm, you’ll have to wait
a few minutes. The doctor is busy with a seriously wounded German. It
should not be long, though.” There was a twinkle in her eyes.
“I don’t mind waiting,” I assured her, “as long as I can enjoy your
“You are not from
England,” I said. “I am hard pressed to place your accent.”
“Would you believe
“Really? Well, imagine
“And you are not from
England either, are you Captain? I should guess America.”
“You are almost right.
We gazed at each other
for a minute.
“Well, Captain,” she said
at last, “shall we take a look at your injury?”
“Oh, by all means. That’s
the reason I am here.”
Deftly she began cutting
the bandages away.
“It is rare that we get
somebody with a minor injury, Captain Kester. Most of our cases are
severe enough to be sent back to England. How did it happen?”
“A splinter. We were
lucky. The shell could have burst on the truck. The poor devil who was
brought in after me lost a leg. A mine.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear
that. Did he belong to your unit?”
“No, I didn’t know him.”
I could feel fresh air
getting at my finger now where the nurse had cut away the bandage.
“There we are,” she said
in her cheerful way. “It’s coming along fine. Another week and we can
take out the stitches. In a month you’ll be as good as new.”
At that moment the doctor
came into the room.
“Well, what do we have
here?” he said, walking over. He took one look and then nodded. “You’ll
live. Come back, let’s see, on the seventh. Bandage him up again,
He was about to go back
to the room from which he had come when there was shouting and banging
on the front door. It flew open and a soldier staggered in.
“Where’s the doc?” he
“What is it, son?” Major
Pershing asked. He was the doctor who had just looked at my finger. He
still wore his white smock.
“You gotta come and save
my mate,” the soldier gasped, grabbing the major’s arm and pulling him
through the entrance. I heard the banging of the spring loaded outer
The nurse took my arm and
put it on the table.
“Sit down here, Captain,”
she ordered, but in a friendly fashion. “Look elsewhere. It’ll be easier
on you.” She must have noticed my pale color. I feel ill at the sight of
It only took a minute or
two and she was finished.
“There we are, Captain,”
she said, standing up and taking the clipboard. For another long moment
she looked at me.
“Thank you nurse, I mean
Lieutenant - - “
“Baird,” she volunteered.
“Thank you, Lieutenant
Baird,” I repeated. “Do you mind if I call you Petra? In private, of
course. My first name is Carl.”
For a few seconds she
looked at me as if to evaluate me. Then she nodded. She marked something
down on her clipboard and then walked over to the desk at the opposite
side of the room, lightly brushing against me as she did so.
“You are finished,” she
said. I was still standing by the table. I took the four steps which
“Thank you,” I repeated.
“Will I see you again, Petra?”
“If you survive until the
seventh and come to this same field station, I imagine so.”
I put my hand on her arm.
“I’ll survive, Petra. I’ll survive.”
On looking closely I saw
her eyes glistening. Was it moisture? Were there tears forming in her
eyes? Abruptly I turned and left.
“Take care, Carl,” she
shouted after me as I walked through the entrance. I waved.
As I stepped outside I
saw Major Pershing bend over a figure lying prone in the back of another
Landrover. He looked up briefly when he heard the banging of the spring
“Go and fetch nurse
Baird,” he shouted at me, “and tell her to bring my instruments.”
I turned and went back
into the house again. Lieutenant Baird was still standing by the desk,
looking at the entrance.
“The major want you
outside and he said to bring his instruments.” And then I noticed that I
had forgotten my submachine gun. I grabbed it while the nurse snatched a
medical bag. Together we went through the entrance. For a moment we
halted at the outer door.
“Take good care of
yourself, Petra,” I said to her, gently stroking her hair at the side of
“You too, Carl,” she
replied, patting my left arm. Then I opened the door and followed her
Bill Johnson had the
Landrover running and was waiting a couple of meters away. The soldier
who had brought his wounded comrade was talking to him. Corporal Litvak
was standing in the back of the vehicle, playing with the machine gun.
“All ready, Sir?” Johnson
asked as I approached.
“All ready,” I confirmed.
I climbed into the left front seat.
With a jerk the vehicle
began to move. Just before we reached the road Johnson jammed on the
“Sir?” he said looking at
“What is it, Sergeant?”
“I was talking to
Corporal Mellaby at the medical station. He was the driver of the other
Landrover, the one which came in after us.”
“Yes, I know. I saw you
when I came out of the building.”
“What I mean to say is,
you are so different from our former C.O. I thought that I could - well,
you know ...”
“What is it, Johnson?”
“We’ve only been together
for less than a week. I don’t want to appear to tell you what to do ...”
he trailed off again.
“Listen, Johnson, what’s
on your mind?” I sat up, looking straight at him.
“Mellaby’s mate is going
to die.” Johnson looked down at the gearshift in his hand. “He was
“We are in a war,
Sergeant. Casualties happen. It is sad, but we can’t do anything about
“I am not afraid,
Captain, not much, anyway. Mellaby’s mate was to deliver a message. And
now he is going to die. They were ambushed by a patrol less than half a
mile from here. And we’ll have to pass the spot. I just wanted you to
His words had tumbled out
as quickly as he could talk. “You can do with me whatever you want,” he
added, looking dejectedly at the floor of the Landrover.
“There is nothing I am
going to do with you, Sergeant,” I replied.
“But if you keep staring
at the rubber mat between your feet the enemy is surely going to get you
too. At the front we all have to be alert all the time. And that also
means you. Now let’s get back to our position. Maybe the Germans are
trying to feel their way about and infiltrate our lines. Let us be extra
vigilant on our way back.”
I took my submachine gun
and released to safety catch.
Johnson put the vehicle
in gear and tramped on the gas pedal, at the same time letting out the
clutch. We shot forward onto the road and began our return trip.
Visibility was not too bad here near sea level. The road twisted and
turned so that we had a hard time maintaining a speed of twenty miles
per hour. We had gone about a kilometer when the car swerved to the
right. I thought that we had hit a mine but what sounded like an
explosion was only the right front tire blowing. We came to halt a
hair’s breath away from a giant boulder.
In the back Corporal
Litvak was thrown against the front seats. Johnson jumped to the ground,
grabbing his Sten gun in doing so and crouched behind the rock. I dived
over the side and landed on my back beside the left front tire.
Everything was suddenly
quiet. Nobody moved.
“Anybody hurt?” I
whispered, hoping that is was loud enough for Johnson and Litvak to
“I’m all right,” Litvak
mumbled through the space beneath the vehicle.
I looked around. There
was no sign of any enemy. Carefully I turned over. Both Litvak and
Johnson remained motionless. A minute went by, two minutes. I heard a
scraping sound from the back of the Landrover. Slowly I worked my way
around the front tire. The bumper almost touched the boulder. With the
greatest care I levered myself up to a crouching position, making sure
that I was well protected by the rock. My eyes searched the scrubby
growth of gnarled birch trees and aspens before me.
And there, in the
distance, perhaps hundred meters away I saw what looked like a grey
mound of dirt. I was going to disregard it when it suddenly quivered. I
was not going to take any chances. Slowly I raised my submachine gun. I
could not aim it properly without giving my position away. When I had it
lined up as well as I could I touched the trigger and sent a short burst
at the grey mound. There was a scream, the mound jumped up and then fell
back to the ground.
At almost the same
instant Litvak fired the machine gun into the hill before us. I could
see him crouched behind the weapon. Johnson leaped to the back of the
vehicle and leaning against a small tree took pot shots at the thicket
we had passed before the front tire blew.
There was another outcry
up the side of the mountain, close to the thicket. I worked my way
around the boulder and was crawling over the wet ground when I put my
left hand into a puddle of muddy meltwater.
It was icy cold and I
pulled my hand back quickly, but not quickly enough. I felt a tug at my
left arm and a portion of the sleeve was gone. There was shooting all
around me now. Then I felt another tug at the side of my collar.
Occasionally I could hear a German bullet strike the Landrover.
There up ahead something
moved. Without thinking I brought up my submachine gun and pressed the
trigger. That something up ahead fell down and slithered downhill a
couple of meters and then was stopped by a tree.
I stayed where I was,
searching for more movement. I surveyed the terrain. Some considerable
distance to my right I saw the trees sway but could not make out
anything. I sent a short burst from my gun on its way, but did not seem
to have hit anything. After a minute or so I slowly stood up. Litvak’s
machine gun had also fallen silent.
“I guess we drove them
off,” Johnson called after a short while from his hiding place by the
side of the road. With three giant strides he was at the back of the
car, keenly studying the thicket, his Sten gun at the ready.
Litvak rose as well. He
stayed behind the machine gun, his finger on the trigger.
Nothing moved nor could I
hear anything. I slid down the incline to the road and walked back to
the Landrover. Coming around the back of it I could see at once that the
right front tire was a total loss. The windshield was also shattered,
with a large part of it lying on the two front seats. The rest of the
vehicle appeared to be in working order although there were bullet holes
in the right door, the sides and both front and rear fenders.
“Do we have to walk,
Sir?” Roy Litvak asked, still watching the thicket from behind his
“I think that we stand a
good chance of getting mobile again. You and Sergeant Johnson best
change the tire. I’ll keep an eye out for the Jerry patrol.”
Johnson came to the front
of the vehicle, leaned his gun against the boulder and set to replacing
the wheel. Corporal Roy Litvak jumped down from the back and gave him a
hand. I climbed back up the incline to check whether we were really
alone or whether the enemy was laying a trap for us.
Systematically I strode
through the scrub, my right index finger on the trigger of my gun. The
magazine was still more than half full. Behind me I heard the banging of
tools as Johnson and Litvak began replacing the tire.
I had climbed about fifty
meters when I saw a dark grey-green patch lying on the ground another
thirty meters ahead and to my left. Cautiously I approached it. But I
need not have worried. The young German was dead. What a waste, I said
to myself, to destroy such a promising life up here in the wilderness,
and for what? Still, it was better him than us. Ye t deep down I felt a
loathing and repugnance for the persons who had set this war in motion.
After all, I was not of this period and I knew in broad terms what would
take place over the next five years. This war was madness, yet while it
went on I was just as vulnerable as any other person.
I continued my search.
Another thirty steps to the east I found one more young German, also
dead. I bent down to turn him over. He could not have been any older
than twenty years. For a moment I knelt there wondering how his mother
would feel when she was told that her son had given his life for the
I got up again. Turning
away I cleared my throat and spat on the ground. I felt ill. I would
never make a medic.
Looking around I tried to
get my bearings. Down by the road Johnson and Litvak had the front of
Landrover jacked up and the old tire and wheel off. They were just
putting on the spare. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me. I whirled
around, dropping to the ground, my gun pointing in the direction of the
noise. But there was nothing there except scrubby, gnarled birch trees,
a few aspens and some bushes. After a long minute I relaxed. Down by the
road I could hear the clanking of tools and an occasional curse.
I crept towards the stand
of knotty, twisted trees. Once more I inadvertently put my left hand
into a puddle of meltwater. The cold felt as if I somebody was cutting
my injured finger with a knife. Mud and debris clung to the bandage. But
there was no time to clean it. It would have to wait.
I raised myself to my
knees and then stood up, crouching behind the one and a quarter meter
high clump of birches. There, a short distance ahead and a little bit
down, lay a grey mass against the trunk of an aspen. It seemed to quiver
now and then. Keeping my gun trained on it and slipping from cover to
cover I approached. There was the noise again, coming from the grey
lump. It sounded something like “helf mir”. And then I recognized it as
another German. I jumped over to him, still keeping my gun trained on
“Do you speak English?” I
He groaned, slightly
moving his head in what I took as a negative gesture. “Helf mir,” he
His uniform was torn in
several places and there was blood all over. He held his left hand to
his right side and his right hand to his upper left arm. He looked at me
with big, wide eyes, full of fear and pain.
“We’ll get you to a
medic,” I told him but he did not understand. He groaned again.
I walked a few steps
uphill. There his rifle and his helmet were lying on the ground. As I
picked up the gun I heard Johnson shout: “All finished here, Sir.”
“Right you are,” I called
back and made my way down.
“Did you find anything,
Sir?” Johnson asked when I was ten steps away.
“Yes, two dead Germans
and one wounded.”
“Oh, well, we’ll report
it,” Litvak suggested, climbing into the Landrover to take up his
position behind the machine gun again.
“We’ll take them to the
medical station,” I ordered.
“But Captain, Sir, they
are the enemy!” Litvak seemed stunned.
“They were the enemy,
Corporal. Two of them are dead and the third is an injured human being.
He’ll bleed to death if we don’t help him.”
“But he is a German,
Sir!” Litvak could not fathom that I was prepared to go out of my way to
help the wounded enemy soldier.
“Suppose you were in his
place, Corporal Litvak. Suppose you had been shot and we would leave you
here to die. How would you feel?”
“But I am English. I am
not the enemy!” He was genuinely surprised by my question.
“That young soldier is
only a boy. Somebody gave him a gun and told him to shoot at us. We are
his adversary. He is no different than you. That he is German is merely
a quirk of fate. He could no more pick his parents and his nationality
than you could. He is injured and he needs help. Our help.”
“Yes, Sir.” Litvak
reluctantly climbed down again from the vehicle. Ten minutes later we
were on our way back to the medical station.