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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 9

We had captured Narvik. While the damage was considerable the port facilities could be repaired and the railway to Kiruna in Sweden could be put back in operation with a delay of only a few months. By autumn the ore trains could be running again, dumping their valuable cargoes into the holds of British freighters to help the war effort on our side. That was the way it looked to us as we marched up to the railway station.

Looking north across the tracks one could just see the highway leading to Bardu and Tromso and on to Alta and Hammerfest. Some day in the future it would be numbered E6. And between the highway E6 and the railway tracks they would put up a monument and build a war cemetery where many of the German soldiers would find their final rest­ing place. And there would also be the graves of young women, nurses, who would lose their lives in the years to come in this cruel war. But for now it was just land lying idle, for it was only the end of May 1940.

With the fall of Narvik the enemy was forced back towards the Swedish border. My company had not suffered any casualties since - well, it seemed like ages ago when we had fought our way down the mountain­side towards the Herjangsfjord. We had not even participated in the fighting for Narvik. But now we approached the front lines. General Dietl’s forces were by no means beaten yet.

My left hand had not bothered me for a long time. The finger had healed up very well and was only a little tender when I bumped it inad­vertently. Under the primitive conditions Doc Pershing with the help of Petra Baird had done quite an acceptable job on it.

“Fall out,” I shouted to my tired troopers. We had been marching since early morning with only a short rest for lunch. I had felt more than once that they could have ferried us across the Beisfjord closer to our destination instead of way down the coastal highway. It was not until early evening that we entered Narvik proper.

The troopers dropped as if they were dead. After having spent a couple of weeks just lying around most of the time, the all-day march had been hard on them.

I looked at my watch. Almost ten o’clock. And it was still bright. The clouds had gone. To the north the sun was just touching the distant peaks across the Ofotfjord. Officially the sun would not set now until late in July.

Suddenly I heard a burst of machine gun fire.

“Seek cover,” I yelled and threw myself into the lee of a shed. In seconds my lethargic troops had disappeared. Once more I heard the rat-tat-tat of machine guns, a lot closer now. A German twin-engined fighter plane came skimming over the railway tracks, not more than a couple of hundred meters high. I could distinctly see the pilot and the gunner through the plexiglas of the nose cone. The pilot veered off to his left, gunning the engines of his craft. The rat-tat-tat of the machine guns faded. Seconds later I heard a couple of explosions somewhere in the distance behind us. Then the plane was back. Flying even lower it dis­appeared up the rail line towards the enemy positions. I could distinctly see the black and white crosses on the wings and the fuselage and the swastika on its tail.

After that it took only a couple of minutes to deploy my unit around the railway station which was our objective for the day.

By now the sun was half covered by one of the mountain peaks across the Ofotfjord. The field kitchen did not arrive until midnight. It was the first hot meal we had since the previous day.

Narvik was securely in our hands. All we had to do now was follow the railway line to the Swedish border and the battle was won. Although General Dietl had received reinforcements dropped by parachute his position was hopeless. According to Major Yonge the Germans had taken Trontheim far to the south and were pushing up the road and rail lines towards Narvik. They could not possibly get here before the middle of June, perhaps even later. By that time we would have defeated General Dietl. It would be us who would then push south and squeeze the enemy right out of Norway.

It did not get quiet around the railway station until well after mid­night. I watched the sun in the twilight. It disappeared behind the peaks across the water and then reappeared in the valley between. Thus far only the upper portion of the sun was visible, but in another week the entire ball of fire would remain above the horizon, so I was assured. It was an eerie feeling to stand there a quarter hour after midnight with a long shadow behind me.

Finally I also lay down, the strange phenomenon of the midnight sun notwithstanding. I must have fallen asleep immediately for I do not recall anything after bedding down on the floor of the waiting room in the railway station.

I awoke with a start as bright sunshine poured through the window. With a shudder I sat up. All around me the men of my unit were sound asleep, several of them snoring loudly. Glancing at my watch I heaved a sigh of relief. It was only a quarter after three in the morning. I stretched out again and was asleep in seconds.

It was almost seven o’clock when a loud droning noise awoke me a second time. At first I thought that we were being attacked again by an aircraft. But then I realized that it came from some distance away. Evidently the legionnaires of the French Forces were bringing up some of the field guns General Dietl’s soldiers had had to abandon when we squeezed them out of Narvik.

Half an hour later Major Yonge showed up. There were some minor changes in the battle plan. We would still advance towards the Swedish border along the railway. But now the objective was to split the German troops and then eliminate each half. We would get under way at nine, a mere hour and a half from now.

The food we received for breakfast was not exactly a culinary delight but it was plentiful. We were quite stuffed when I gave the order to move out. I for one was glad of the exercise. It was a very unpleasant feeling the way my full stomach pushed against my rib cage.

I split my unit into three groups. I would lead one squad along the north side of the railway track, stretched out in a line from a hundred to two hundred meters away from the rails. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie would lead his squad an equal distance to the south of the tracks, and Sergeant Bill Johnson would follow with his squad along the railway right of way. At exactly nine o’clock we started out.

For a kilometer everything went fine. As we approached the first tunnel progress slowed down quite a bit. It was the perfect setting for a trap. I had my squad deployed in an arrow formation, myself being the leading point. To my right were the rusty looking rails, and far to the left the waters of the Rombaksfjord. Beyond the point of land due north was the Herjangsfjord and beyond it the still snow-capped mountains where we had first fought the enemy such a long time ago.

The exercise of the march had done my full stomach a great deal of good. No longer did I feel overly satiated. I felt downright good.

Taking advantage of every available cover I gradually approached the tunnel entrance. Silently I slipped from tree to tree, my submachine gun ready to fire. Halting behind a stand of four birch trees I tried to see how Mackenzie was progressing. There was no trace of him or his squad. I could not very well remain where I was, so I continued on.

Fifty meters from the tunnel entrance I stopped. For a long time I watched the black opening before me. There was no movement of any kind. Not even the tufts of grass swayed in the wind. I removed my helmet, hung it on the barrel of my gun and raised it as high as I dared. No bullet struck it. No flash of a discharging gun was to be seen. No puff of smoke rose from the entrance of the railway tunnel.

I lowered the gun and put the helmet back on my head. Jumping from cover to cover I bridged the fifty meters to the concrete retaining wall at the edge of the tunnel. I peered inside. I could not see a thing, no enemy soldier, no ambush, nothing. Stepping between the rails I waved at my troops. From everywhere they rose, from behind trees, from behind tufts of grass, from behind boulders, even from behind a low ridge.

Johnson led his squad through the tunnel while Mackenzie and I stumbled and climbed over the mountainside with our troopers. By early afternoon we were once more deployed along the railway line. The city of Narvik lay some distance behind us and could no longer be seen.

Our first contact with one of General Dietl’s patrols came in the early evening hours. There was some small arms fire at Second Lieu­tenant Earl Mackenzie’s flank. Nobody got hurt and contact was soon lost again. Thereafter our advance fell to a snail’s pace. Also the terrain became more difficult and besides, we were not trained mountain troops.

Shortly before midnight we made camp, still straddling the railway. I set out guards and the rest of us fell into an exhausted sleep.

By six o’clock the next morning we were on the march again. We had not even covered half a kilometer when a grenade exploded a short distance to my left. I dived to the ground into a depression behind a medium sized boulder. Across the railway tracks I saw another explosion as I wormed my way from the muddy location I had picked. Then there was small arms fire. We had run into another patrol of General Dietl’s forces.

To our left the mountains fell away steeply towards the coastal road and the waters of the Rombaksfjord beyond. The enemy was lodged on the high ground south of the railway line which had been blasted into the side of the mountain. We could not move without giving our positions away. There we were, trapped and pinned down, unable to extricate ourselves without considerable losses.

Three or four meters away a corporal was hiding behind a tree. It took some time but eventually I was able to attract his attention.

“Stay put,” I hoarsely said to him in a low voice. “Shoot at any enemy you see moving. But be sure it is the enemy. Pass the word.” He waved in acknowledgement.

There was more shooting up the mountain. Short bursts of German machine gun fire alternated with the replies of our own weapons. The differences in sound were unmistakable. Gradually Mackenzie pulled back from his exposed position. Not until noon did we receive reinforce­ments in the form of two French companies. They also brought orders for me to move my company down to the coastal road skirting the south shore of the Rombaksfjord and to prevent the Germans from breaking through our lines there. Consequently I began my withdrawal.

It was a considerable distance to go and the ground was treacher­ous. We were within sight of the road when the soldier to my right dropped to the ground. He never made a sound. One instant he was walking along and the next one he pitched forward, hitting the rocks with a dull thud and sliding down the incline for another couple of meters until a tree stopped him. I jumped over to help him up, thinking that he had stumbled and fallen. As I bent down I faintly heard the sound of a machine gun burst far away. I looked up briefly. Where I had been standing an instant ago a series of splinters were thrown up as the bullets of another machine gun, this time much closer, chipped away at the rocks. I threw a quick glance far to the left. In the distance I saw some movement. I lined up my submachine gun and pressed the trigger.

A moment later I bent down to see whether the soldier at my feet required medical attention. He still lay there, face down, his left arm at an unnatural angle. There were corporal’s stripes on his upper sleeve. He did not move.

“Are you hurt?” I asked. There was no answer. Somewhere ahead along the side of the mountain I heard the rapid fire of a light machine gun.

I reached out to turn the prone figure of the soldier over on his back. My hand touched something wet and sticky. Quickly I pulled it back. It came away red. When I finally had the corporal lying on his back I could see that he would never again need medical attention. His face was scraped raw on the left cheek and part of his brow. His eyes were half open, unseeingly staring at the sky. There were a series of blood soaked bullet holes across his upper torso.

To the east the small arms fire was rapidly moving down the moun­tainside towards the coastal road. It was picking up in intensity. I closed the corporal’s eyes. For a moment I crouched there. I did not even know his name. He was one of the replacements we had received while at Ankenes. I pulled off his dog tag and slipped it into my pocket. And then I slid down the side of the mountain towards the road, angling in the direction of the small arms fire.

Behind me I heard a whistling sound followed by an explosion. We had been pinpointed and the enemy was beginning to pound our position with field guns. There was another whistle, followed by another explo­sion. The range was wide. I was in no danger. But then a new sound entered the picture. There was the dull noise of exploding mortar shells all around.

“Medic. Help, medic,” someone called out some distance ahead and below. “Help me. Medic.” The voice weakened. I spotted movement a short distance away. A soldier, a private, was holding his chest. I jumped over to him and bent down, then knelt by the wounded man.

“Where are you hurt?” I asked. The soldier stared at me uncompre-hendingly. Suddenly he gasped, convulsed and let go of his chest. Red foam came out of his mouth and nostrils. He twitched once more and then lay still.

I thought that I was going to be sick but I overcame the urge to vomit. I did not know the private either, not even by sight. I yanked off his dog tag and spat on the ground. Before slipping it into my pocket I briefly glanced at it. Chester Gerald Smith, I read. He could not have been a day over twenty years old. What a rotten war!

I stood up again, holding myself with my left hand on a birch tree. The small arms fire was sporadic now. Was the enemy gaining the upper hand? I took a deep breath and jumped to the next clump of trees. The body of Chester Smith could be recovered later, and also the body of the corporal farther up the side of the mountain. Right now it was important to defeat the enemy patrol.

For a moment I stopped, trying to determine exactly where our line was and where the Germans were approaching. Ten meters to my left was the road. A short distance farther away, maybe two hundred meters or so, the ground dropped off rather steeply to the waters of the Rombaksfjord far below. Straight ahead on this side of the road was a house. It was of a rather imposing size, but I could only make it out indistinctly through the trees. Maybe the enemy was hiding there. It would be best to detour around it.

Up the mountain to my right I saw Sergeant Johnson scanning the terrain. The men of his squad were strung out in an irregular line. I could also make out a few men of my own squad. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie and his group must be where the small arms fire was picking up in intensity again. The enemy field guns were still pounding the ground behind us. Maybe the French were sending reinforcements but I doubted that.

My number one concern was to prevent the Germans from break­ing through my line and attacking us from the rear as well as the front. We would have to cross the road and advance on the other side of it. If we met with no resistance there we could always cross back and link up with my other two squads.

“Squad A, follow me,” I shouted.

I jumped the ten meters or so down in several giant strides and hid in the underbrush by the pavement. Everything seemed clear. To my left, in the direction towards Narvik I heard scraping sounds and the breaking of twigs as the men of my squad complied. I waited a few seconds longer. Nothing moved on the opposite side and as far as I could see along the road in both directions.

“Now,” I yelled, “across the road on the double.” And I dashed across the pavement to fling myself into the ditch on the other side. The men of my squad followed me. Way ahead I heard the faint sound of an engine straining. It quickly swelled up as the aircraft came into view. It was following the road at a height of about three hundred meters.

I jumped up again and dashed deeper into the trees. After twenty meters I came to a small outcropping of rock. I dived to the ground, coming to rest beside a large weed full of burrs. From here I watched the approaching plane. It was a twin-engined craft. Then I saw the tiny explosions at its wings as it began its strafing run. I could distinctly make out the black and white crosses on its wings. And then the aircraft was past us. Tw o more planes came up the road, one behind the other. But they did not shoot at us.

Nobody got hurt. For once we had been lucky.

As fast as we could we worked our way through the trees between the road and the drop-off to the water. As I passed the house on the other side I noticed the dirty, white flag with the red cross in the center nailed on the door of the front porch. It was good to know that medical help was available, even if it was German. Although they were the enemy they also subscribed to the Geneva Convention and would treat our wounded the same as their own, the way our side had treated the injured Germans.

I was about a hundred meters past the building when I heard the clanking of metal a short distance ahead. There was the guttural sound of speech. It was neither French nor English. Could it be Polish? Or was it German? Silently I slipped forward. Tw o soldiers were setting up a machine gun. And then I knew that they were not Polish. Their helmets identified them as the enemy. Suddenly both of them left. One of them said something to the other one and he halted and then turned around to come back to the weapon. Now was the time to disable it.

I yanked a grenade off my belt, pulled out the pin and threw it. The German must have heard something for he flung himself to the ground an instant before the explosion. When the smoke cleared there was the twisted metal of what once had been a machine gun, a small crater and nothing else. There was no sign of the crew.

With the greatest care I worked myself around the emplacement. When I reached the edge of the trees I found that the road made a sharp bend to the south and a short distance away it turned back again to the east. Looking in the other direction I could follow the pavement for a good half a kilometer before it veered off to the left. I also had an extra­ordinarily good view of the driveway to the house and the front porch of the building with the Red Cross flag nailed to its door.

Keeping behind the trees I advanced uphill, following the road. I had gone about half the distance to where it turned east when I caught a glimpse of an orange flash in the foliage across the road. Almost instinc­tively I hurled myself to the ground. I felt a slight tug at the back of my uniform. Thirty meters behind me I heard a scream.

Wriggling along the depression I came to a clump of several trees amid tufts of dead grass a quarter meter high. I lay there, waiting. The ground was cold and damp and the moisture was seeping through my trousers, but my attention was caught by the slight movement behind the screen of bare trees and bushes across the road.

“Medic, help,” a voice shouted from some distance to my rear.

Across the road a shadow flitted from one bush to another. Without giving my position away I slowly raised my submachine gun. Another shadow dashed from behind a tree to the same bush.

“Help, medic,” the same voice called out again. It seemed to come from about thirty meters down the road. It was followed by a loud sigh. And then a twig cracked behind me among the trees.

I quickly turned around. Somebody wearing a light brown uniform was moving through the scrub. I did not recognize the person but he was British.

I paid no attention to the call for help. My eyes were glued to the bush harboring the two enemy soldiers. Another twig snapped behind me, a little farther away.

Suddenly the two German soldiers behind the bush on the other side of the road rose as one, each one holding a hand grenade in his out­stretched hand behind him, ready to throw it. I squeezed the trigger of my gun. A quick burst, and the two soldiers sank behind the bush. Two seconds later there was a terrific blast. When the dust and smoke drifted away the bush was gone. I sprinted across the road and dived into the shallow ditch on the other side. Unfortunately I had not counted on the puddle of water lying there. I got soaked to the skin. For an instant it felt as if my heart was going to stop. Of all the rotten luck!

“Medic, help,” that same voice called from across the road, a shade weaker now.

I rolled out of the puddle of water onto drier ground and then worked myself up the bank of the ditch, expecting a bullet to come my way any instant. Abruptly a light machine gun clattered away in a long burst, no more than fifty meters up the road. The rat-tat-tat of a German machine gun answered at once. Then there was more small arms fire.

I had reached the top of the ditch. Peering over its rim I glanced at the remains of the bush behind which the two enemy soldiers had hidden. There was a small crater there, more a depression than a hole. My brief glimpse did not locate any bodies, but pieces of grey green cloth covered the bark of a nearby tree. Here and there were dark spots scattered randomly about, and some lighter pieces, halfway between pink and white. Bones and flesh and blood?

I slithered back into the ditch, making sure I avoided the puddle of water. Then I dashed across the road again and sought cover behind the trees. I quickly made my way to where I had heard the voice of the injured man.

A corporal was already attending to him.

A short distance to the south I heard somebody giving orders. He spoke English. The small arms fire had ended.

I briefly glanced up the road. Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie was just stepping onto the pavement twenty meters uphill. I turned back to the corporal and the wounded man and bent down.

“If we can get him to a medic in time he’ll survive,” the corporal was saying. As I looked up I realized that it was Corporal Litvak. The wounded man was a private, another replacement we had received at Ankenes. He looked familiar to me but I did not know his name. He held both his thighs with his hands. He groaned and there were tears in his eyes.

Litvak looked at me. “We’ll have to leave him by the road and try to get an ambulance, Sir,” he said to me. “The poor devil can’t walk. He’s shot through both thighs. He is bleeding badly.”

“Please don’t leave me here to die,” the private begged.

I rose. The house with the Red Cross flag on the door of its porch was less than two hundred meters away.

“We won’t leave you, son,” I said. And then, turning to Litvak I continued: “Come on, we’ll carry him. There is a medical station just down the road. Probably Jerries, but so what. It’s better than nothing.”

“Right you are, Sir,” Litvak agreed.

I bent down as did Litvak.

“Hold on tightly, son,” I said to the wounded man. He was quite young, certainly not much over twenty years old. “This is going to hurt, so grit your teeth. One, two, three. Heave.”

As Litvak and I straightened up I grabbed my gun with my left hand. Up the road Mackenzie was walking along the pavement towards the bend uphill where there was still some shooting going on.

I held Litvak’s hand and he held mine, making a seat on which the wounded soldier could sit. He groaned loudly as we straightened up but he held on to my coat and the collar of Litvak’s tunic. At a trot we made our way down the pavement and into the driveway of the house. We climbed the steps of the porch and Litvak opened the door. Just then the private let go of me and Litvak.

“I got him, Sir,” Litvak gasped. “If you can open the door to the inside ...”

We were in a sort of vestibule. As I put my hand on the door knob somebody yanked it open from the inside. I saw four figures standing there before I turned back to Litvak. The wounded soldier had lost consciousness and was hanging limply in Litvak’s grasp.

I took one arm of the private and put it over my shoulder. Thus relieved Litvak grabbed the other arm. The young man hung between us.

“Where to?” I queried as we dragged him inside.

“Over there on the table,” a voice said. It was a male voice with a perfect English accent.

We deposited him on a couple of tables which had been put side by side in front of a window. Then I took a deep breath.

“What’s the matter with him?” the same voice asked.

“Shot through the legs,” Litvak grunted. Like myself he was thor­oughly out of breath.

The person who had spoken was already cutting the trousers of the wounded man. I finally got enough air into my lungs to look around. The first thing I noticed was my submachine gun. It still had the safety catch off. Quickly I flipped it back on.

“About time,” the same voice said. The medic turned around. It was Major Pershing, his hands red with blood.

“Clean shot,” he said. “He’ll live. Won’t even limp when it’s healed up. Another ten minutes and he would have bled to death. He turned back to his patient.

“Nurse,” Pershing shouted. “Nurse Appleyard!”

From an adjoining room three persons emerged. Nurse Appleyard went to assist the doctor. The smaller one of the other two nurses looked at Litvak.

“Come over here and sit down,” she ordered. The words were delivered in a flawless American accent. I realized then that she was the interpreter, Louise Yasuda.

The third person was nurse Petra Baird. I was gradually overcoming my surprise.

“Are you hurt, soldier?” she inquired of me, seeing all the blood on my hands, my arms and my uniform. She did not recognize me with the mud and dirt all over me. “There, put that gun away.”

“No, I am not hurt,” I said, grinning broadly, “at least nothing that I can feel.”

“But you are - are - - - she stopped as a glimmer of recognition spread across her face. “Are you Captain Kester?” And then she slapped her brow. “Of course you are. I did not realize it was you. And the way you look!”

“What are you doing here right at the front line of the fighting?” I asked.

“We have been here since last night. We were told we were safely behind our lines.”

“You are behind our lines, I agree. I am not all that sure whether it is safe here. Be good.” I lightly patted her clean cheeks. Then I grabbed my gun and slipped out of the room. I ran down the driveway towards the road as a series of shots rang out, the bullets whipping up the dust behind me. I gained the safety of the trees by the road before they could catch up with me.

From somewhere else a soldier fired several rounds from his weapon. Litvak was just coming out to the porch when I saw the enemy soldier. Carefully I sighted along the barrel of my gun. A quick pull on the trigger and the menace was eliminated.

Late that evening the battle was over. The casualties suffered by my company were seven dead and eighteen wounded.

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