VE Day—May 8, 1945
Victory! In Europe, the guns fell silent, and all of Great Britain poured out into the streets. In London, a jubilant crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square.
In its midst, Gillian Somerville stood lost in thought. Abruptly, someone seized her arm and spun her around. A soldier, obviously intoxicated, pulled her to him and pressed his mouth hard on hers. She pushed him away, then winced a smile so as not to hurt his feelings. Rebuffed, he lurched toward another young woman, who accepted his attentions more warmly.
Wiping her mouth, Gillian gazed at the conga lines, the tossed hats and easy embraces, and shared the general relief. But melancholy tainted her joy, for the Blitz was too strong in her memory, and as she swept her glance around the crowd, she kept seeing the faces of her parents.
She still bore the horror and guilt of knowing that she’d cowered in an air-raid shelter while they burned to death in their own home. Shaking with fear, she’d heard the incendiary bombs detonate and, like everyone, fervently hoped they fell elsewhere, not on her house. Her father was an invalid, and her mother would never leave him. But when she emerged to the smoke and screaming sirens of the fire rescue, she learned she’d lost this roll of the dice. Everything on her street was gone. Incinerated.
Life went on, for her as for every other survivor, but serving as a military transport pilot became her sole purpose, the closest she could come to vengeance, and for five years, she flew with a seething bitterness toward Germany and its murderous Luftwaffe.
She tugged at the hem of her tunic and brushed her fingertips over the insignia on the chest pocket. The dark-blue uniform represented her dedication, as if to holy orders. She’d learned to pilot a plane in imitation of her brother, outdid him in fact, for he’d never made it to the war, never flown anything larger than a sports plane. But once she qualified as a pilot, she’d worked her way up from simple one-engine planes to big bombers. She ferried them from the factories to the air bases and transported supplies all over the UK and later, as the Allies advanced across Europe, into Germany. Climbing out of the cockpit, then having an RAF pilot replace her for the very last leg, made her feel part of the machinery of defense, for they both wore uniforms identifying them with air power. Only hers was about to become obsolete.
Life had been both achingly difficult and morally simple. Work for freedom or die for it. The Air Transport Auxiliary had made up her whole identity, and now that it was to be disbanded, that identity was about to collapse into ashes, like London buildings in the Blitz.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” the elderly man standing next to her said, pink-faced from cheering and slightly pathetic in his ill-fitting Home Guard uniform.
“I’m happy, too. Relieved,” she added. “I just hate giving up air transport and the sense of doing something vital for the cause.”
“Let the men take care of that, my dear.” He nudged her softly with his elbow. “Pretty girl like you should go back home, marry one of the lads returning from the front, and start a lovely British family. That’s the way to show your patriotism.”
Was that her future? Her duty? To build a nest and satisfy the desires of some hero, instead of being one?
She shook her head to clear away the dread. It was ruining a glorious day, a once-in-a-lifetime day, that she’d want to remember. She smiled good-bye to the home guardsman and strolled toward the fountain where two young women splashed knee-deep in the water. Groups of sailors and soldiers took turns posing with them for photographs. The women got wetter and wetter, and the frolicking became more boisterous, until a man seized one of the women around the waist and they fell back together into the water.
Her feet were beginning to hurt now, though she didn’t want to leave the festivities, so she edged toward the periphery of the square and its row of pubs. All were packed, but she elbowed her way inside one. When she reached the counter and called out for a beer, one suddenly appeared in front of her. “On the house,” the bartender said, placing a row of bottles along the counter, where hands snatched them up within seconds. She took a gulp, and the cool liquid felt good going down.
“Bloody great day, eh?” someone next to her said. A slender, dark-haired man in an RAF uniform, someone she might have served with, though the unbuttoned jacket would have put him on report.
“Cheers,” she said, tapping bottles with him. “I’m a pilot myself,” she added. “Air Transport Auxiliary.”
“Freight haulers, huh?” he said with faint condescension. “I’m a fighter pilot.” He took another long pull on his drink and seemed to wait for some sign of admiration.
“Not just freight.” Gillian felt suddenly defensive. “We flew VIP passengers, war materials, medicines, fuel, everything to keep the boys in the field going.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Don’t get me wrong, miss. The lads couldn’t’ve done it without you. But it’s not the same as combat or flying over enemy territory.”
“I flew over enemy territory all the time. And along border areas where shooting was going on. I was even shot at once.” She stopped. Why was she trying to impress this lout?
He snorted and leaned on one elbow on the damp counter. “I’m sure you were very brave, miss. But let’s face it. You were ‘auxiliary,’ while we were doing the fighting and dying. I lost six of the best chaps I ever knew.” He knocked back the last swallow of beer as a sort of exclamation point.
She suddenly felt small. How had the conversation become a pissing contest? He’d played the dead-comrades card, and she had nothing to counter it with.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and changed the subject. “But we both know what it feels like to be up there, the exhilaration of flying a two-engine at top speed. I’ll miss that, now the war’s over.”
“Not me. We still have bases all over Western Europe. I’m off to Germany in a few days.” He leaned conspiratorially toward her. “They say the German birds are hungry for attention, with all their men dead or in POW camps.” He raised an eyebrow in an obvious attempt to be lewd.
She ignored it. “Do you think they’ll let women pilots fly? I mean, if I joined the women’s RAF?”
He shrugged, his expression hinting at disinterest, slight ridicule. “Probably not. Plenty of good men there to do the job. But the RAF always needs…you know, secretaries and nurses.” He seized another bottle from the line the bartender had set up. “You’d be around pilots and maybe meet some nice chaps.”
To hell with that. She turned and began to elbow her way back through the euphoric crowd. Since the day her older brother had taken her up in his Miles Hawk and let her soar and swoop through the air, she craved no other pleasure. For the duration of the war, she aspired to be like him; she was like him.
Now she could already sense herself being pushed to the side of events and robbed of that identity. She grasped at only one thin straw: joining the women in the WAAF.
May 8, 1945
Erika Brandt stood for a moment paralyzed on the staircase.
She turned to flee, but the Russian soldiers rushed up and seized her, dragging her to the bottom of the steps. The largest of them, square-faced and with a wide, rapacious mouth, kicked open the door to the empty ground-floor flat. He wrestled her inside, followed by three of his mates, who grasped her legs and threw her down. She thrashed, begging in German and Russian for them to let her go, but they ignored her.
They were on their knees in a circle around her now, smelling of sweat and urine. The square-faced one who’d captured her shoved the others back and growled, “Me first.” They grunted agreement, and while two of them held her down and the third waited behind him for his turn, he dropped on top of her. “Frau gut,” he babbled drunkenly in German as he tore at her underwear. “Sehr gut.”
When it was over, she gathered the tattered remains of her clothing and stumbled back up the steps to her attic room. She locked the door, knowing it would keep out no one who really wanted to get in. But at that moment, she wanted to be alone and couldn’t bring herself to beg at the door of the cellar where her neighbors still cowered. Then she staggered to the toilet and vomited.
She washed the best she could, using the last of her allotment of the water the boy had hauled in from the central pump the night before. Still breathless and aching, she collapsed on the sofa and huddled in a trembling cringe that wouldn’t stop.
So, the reckoning had come, and it was going to be like this. For a week, as the Soviets advanced, she’d heard the shelling and rifle fire grow louder each day. Extraordinarily, the authorities had managed to provide daily reports on a one-page “newspaper” of the fall of each district—Müncheberg, Rudersdorf, Ahrensfelde—while the remaining parts of Berlin waited their turn.
The old, the very young, and the lame that made up the Home Guard had put up pathetic resistance, but the Red Army swept over them like a tidal wave. The lucky ones like Wilhelm, her white-haired neighbor from the first floor, had deserted in time, but most simply died under the unstoppable force, if the SS didn’t execute them as cowards.
Now the enemy had reached the Adlerstrasse, no longer killing—for no one was left to fight—but pillaging. Shops, abandoned apartments, everything within easy reach fell to the soldiers, who snatched up anything they could carry.
Besides Erika, only three families remained in the building, and at first, they’d all hidden in the barricaded cellar. Over their heads, they could hear the invaders burst into the two ground-floor apartments. But on the second day, sixty-five-year-old Wilhelm and the boy Hanno had ventured out, unmolested, and fetched water from the one pump on the street that still functioned.
Gerda, Erika, and Hanno’s crippled mother Magda had stayed behind, but Erika could not bear the damp odor and the constricting darkness any longer. When the noise from the street had quieted, she’d made a run for her upstairs apartment to grab the last of the winter apples she’d stored. It had been a grave miscalculation.
Footfall on the stairs outside her door sent a jolt of terror through her, but it was only Gerda, who normally lived on the floor below. Though she was no older than fifty, her graying hair, now as filthy as every other woman’s, and the soot she deliberately smeared over her face to discourage Russian attention made her vaguely witchlike.
“I’m sorry about what happened, but you know we couldn’t help you. After the soldiers left, we ran from the cellar and gathered in the Metzger apartment on the second floor, where we found some food. Come on back down. We’ve barricaded the door so no one can come in unless they use a cannon. You’ll be safe there. I promise.”
Benumbed by her ordeal, Erika followed, docile. On the second floor, Gerda knocked dadadadum at the door on the left, obviously a pre-arranged knock. She heard the sound of some heavy object, probably a cabinet, being dragged, and finally the door opened.
Erika crept in and looked around at her neighbors, and none of them made eye contact with her. Yet even in her stupor, she understood the advantage of moving into the Metzger apartment, provided they could keep it secure. Why hadn’t they thought of it before? The Metzgers, outspoken Nazis, had fled a few days earlier, leaving a new stove, fine curtains, and a heavy, luxurious sofa. Though the second-floor apartment was only one level above the ones that had been looted, it seemed to hold no interest for the Russians, at least while others were easier to reach.
She huddled on the sofa, arms and legs tightly crossed, and Magda brought her a man’s shirt to cover her bare shoulders. “The Metzgers left it, but you can put it to good use before I burn it.”
Erika glanced up at the light-brown shirt of the Sturmabteilung. She snorted disgust but drew it on nonetheless. She had a sweater she could change into later, if someone would go down to the cellar to retrieve it.
“We found beans and canned beets in the cupboard,” Gerda said. “But they won’t last more than two days. Wilhelm and Hanno can fetch water, but sometime soon we have to go out and forage. That means we’ll have to deal with the Russians.”
Erika still held herself in a knot, sullen. “I’ve already ‘dealt’ with them, thank you. Someone else will have to do the rest.”
Wilhelm sat down gently next to her on the sofa and stared at his feet. “We know that, Erika,” he said softly. “But you’re the only one who speaks Russian. They’re not all rapists, and maybe we can find one to talk to. You can clear the way for us to enter the buildings.”
“I won’t. You can’t make me do it.” She drew up her knees and turned away. The others were silent for a while.
Magda broke the tension when she limped on her crutches to the window that looked out onto the rear court. She tilted her head as if listening. “Have you noticed? You don’t hear any birds. The bombs scared them away, I suppose.” She took a breath. “But the war’s over. The birds will come back. We just have to hold out.”
Erika closed her eyes. “With no plumbing, no lights, no food.”
Magda set aside her crutches and dropped down next to her. “Look, we’re sorry for what happened to you. It can still happen to us. But we have to make a plan.”
Magda was right. Gerda’s soot-smeared face and gray hair provided only so much protection, and Magda, although lame, was still young and attractive. With only a grizzled old man and a ten-year-old boy to protect them, their situation seemed hopeless.
Wilhelm stood up from the sofa and paced, scratching his white stubble. “Obviously, we have to avoid confronting the Russians when they’re drunk and they break off into twos and threes, as Erika just found out. But when they’re all together, like when they set up camp on the street yesterday, they seem calmer. They just sit around their little fires and smoke or tend their horses.”
“They have nice horses.” Ten-year-old Hanno spoke for the first time.
Gerda snorted. “The whole street stinks of horse manure.”
“They were nice to me,” Hanno said. “One of them even helped me carry the water bucket. They laugh a lot.”
“A shame we can’t all be ten-year-old boys,” Gerda observed. “Then we could go out and dig around in the basements of the wrecked buildings in this quarter. People were hoarding like crazy the last few weeks. There’s bound to be coal, at least. You just have to tunnel through the rubble.”
“Yes, but we’re not,” Erika grumbled.
“You know…” Wilhelm stepped back and appraised her, squinting. “You could be. Not ten, of course, but your face doesn’t have a bit of girlish fat left, and you have no hips, really. If you cut your hair, you could pass as a young man. Maybe seventeen, eighteen. Lots of them don’t have beards yet.”
“What are you talking about?” Erika ran her hand over the top of her head. Her hair was gritty, badly in need of washing. She’d always kept it blond, but now, an accumulation of soot and grime had made it dull brown. “I don’t think so.”
Ignoring her, Gerda marched toward the wardrobe and rummaged through the clothing the Metzgers had left. “There’s an old suit here, pretty shapeless. I can take in the trousers for you on my sewing machine. It’ll still be big, but everyone’s clothing is too big now, and Hanno’s jacket will fit your shoulders.”
“Are you sure?” Erika still held on to her hair.
“Absolutely. This way, the four of us can go and forage, and if the Ruskies stop us, you can talk to them.”
“I can cut your hair,” Wilhelm said, warming to the idea. “I used to be a barber.”
“A barber? I thought you were a violinist?”
Wilhelm laughed. “And a soldier, too. A man can be all three.”
“What do you think?” Wilhelm held up a mirror in front of her.
Erika peered at the glass and saw a gangly boy with uneven hair. Gerda was right. The absence of fat in her cheeks added to the masculine look, and only her slender chin gave one pause. How old was she pretending to be? If sixteen or so, she could pass for some lad from the Home Guard, though only if she could drop the pitch of her voice.
She stared at herself in the mirror. Her dark-brown, slightly hooded eyes lent her a sadness that could come as easily from military defeat as from sexual abuse. She nodded. “It might work. Maybe now they’ll stay away from me.”
Erika remained folded up on the sofa of the Metzger apartment, while Wilhelm fetched Gerda’s sewing machine from the fourth floor, and she began to sew. The monotonous sound of the treadle soothed her, and surrounded by friends now, she was finally able to sleep.
The next morning, she awoke rested, if still sore and shaken. Gerda was already active.
“Here, try these on,” she ordered, handing over the promised trousers. “Hanno and Wilhelm also donated to the outfit.” She held up an old and oft-mended shirt and jacket.
Erika obeyed, stepping into the trousers and drawing on the jacket. She stared down at her feet. “The pants are too long.”
“Yes, yes. I see.” Gerda knelt and rolled them to the appropriate height.
“You look very convincing,” Magda said. “Dashing, almost.”
“All you need is this.” Wilhelm handed over a large cloth bag with a shoulder strap. “And now that we have another ‘man’ on the team, we can forage. Gerda has the candles.”
Erika was still reluctant, but hunger overrode her misgivings. She followed the others down the stairs to the ground floor, where Wilhelm pressed a bucket into her hand. “In case we don’t find anything, we can at least bring back water.”
They crept from the apartment, leaving Magda alone, and filed out of the building in a single line. Erika kept her eyes lowered, but in her peripheral vision, she caught sight of the soldiers squatting on both sides of her, warming their hands at bonfires, rolling cigarettes, cleaning their rifles. Their chatter died down as the group passed, and one or two looked up.
Wilhelm leaned toward her and murmured, “Take bigger steps. You walk like a girl.”
“Oh,” she muttered back, and lengthened her stride.
No one blocked their way as they edged toward the middle of the square. They passed the pump where old men and children stood in line to draw water for the night, and she felt a surge of confidence. In the open space, with a hundred idle men around, calm prevailed.
They marched into the next street, where the Allied bombs had reduced most of the houses to hills of rubble. Wall fragments jutted up from them like shards. Their cellars were inaccessible, deeply buried under debris and pulverized concrete, and she was almost relieved. Surely they held not only supplies but also the bodies of dead Berliners, and she had no desire to deal with rotting corpses.
Yet at the end of the street, a building still stood. Its top floor had been blasted away, and the floors below had lost the wall that fronted on the street. Erika halted, gawking. It was like an enormous dollhouse, with all its rooms open on one side. They still held furniture, and in a tiny water closet at the far end, a toilet was suspended in midair by its drain pipe.
Hanno had turned the corner ahead of them but now reappeared. “Looks better on the other side,” he called out, then took off again.
They scurried after him, and when they reached the rear of the building, he was already on his knees, clearing an opening with his hands. Wilhelm joined him, scooping up the powdered brick, and after a few minutes, a cellar window emerged, its glass unsurprisingly broken.
“Why hasn’t anyone discovered this yet?” Erika asked.
“Probably because people are still afraid to go out.” Wilhelm used a whole brick to tap away the remaining shards of glass. “But in a few days, everyone will be doing the same thing we are.”
Hanno slipped in first, and after his reassurances the others followed, dropping into near darkness. The dim light coming through the broken window allowed them to make out only the vaguest forms, of each other and of a doorway on the other side.
“Time for the candle,” Gerda said, igniting it with one of her precious matches. She held it over her head, illuminating the whole space in a dull orange-gray light. It was a coal cellar with the concrete bin in one corner half full. That would be a good find, even if they discovered nothing else, and she kept the open flame at a distance.
The second door held out even more hope, and Wilhelm pushed it open. Mice scuttled away as they stepped inside with their light.
“Ah, that’s more like it,” he said.
Shelves lined two of the walls. One side held rows of glass jars, and closer inspection showed they contained pickled cucumbers, beets, and onions. A half dozen smaller jars were filled with fruit. Without even waiting to examine the other side, Gerda handed Erika her candle and began loading some of the jars into her sack.
“Here’s a treasure,” Hanno said, drawing attention to a ring of dried sausages that hung from a nail. He unhooked it and crammed it inside his sweater.
Erika spied a slab of dried bacon and tucked it into her belt, where her jacket would conceal it. The thought of the fatty meat for supper lifted her spirits for the first time.
“Hey. Come look at this.” Gerda had ventured into a third room, and when Erika followed her in, melancholy seized her. An upright piano stood against a wall, with books and newspapers piled on top of it.
She set down the candle and uncovered the keys. After brushing off a layer of grit that had seeped in, she played a few bars of Für Elise and the opening measures of her favorite Chopin nocturne. But the piano was so dreadfully out of tune, she cringed.
“We might as well take these too,” Wilhelm said, sweeping a dozen heavily sprouted potatoes into his rucksack. “We should go now, before it gets dark, and come back tomorrow for more.”
Erika glanced around for anything else they could carry out. Coal could wait till the next day. But bottles on an upper shelf caught her eye, and she gingerly took one down. Schnapps.
“This could be good for barter,” she said, and slipped it into her jacket pocket, though its top half jutted out under her arm.
Without further conversation, they passed through the coal cellar and clambered up through the window into the half-light of dusk. They hurried back along the rubble-strewn street, avoiding the pits and protrusions.
As they passed the pump, Hanno stopped and filled the bucket that would serve them for drinking, cooking, and a single use of the toilet, and then they covered the last distance to their building.
Emboldened by their success, Erika strode with some confidence past the soldiers camped in front of their door. As before, a few glanced up but seemed to find them harmless, and looked away again.
But not all. Erika’s heart quickened when one of them, a lanky fellow with several days’ beard growth, got to his feet in front of them. He stood for a moment with his thumbs in his belt, then poked Wilhelm on the chest and tapped his own wrist with one finger.
“He wants a watch,” Gerda whispered.
Wilhelm pulled up his sleeve on both arms, showing he had none.
The Russian made a circle around them, obviously bent on procuring something. He touched the lumpy potato sack on Wilhelm’s shoulder and grunted, glanced down at the bucket that held only water, and examined Gerda’s sack full of jars. None of it interested him, but stopping in front of Hanno, he ran his hand over the lumps under the boy’s sweater. His eyes brightened when he discovered the sausages, and he yanked the entire string out from under the sweater. “Gut,” he said and hung it over his own shoulder.
The sight of their lost dinner was too much for Erika, and she spoke up. “Please. We’re starving,” she said in Russian, pitching her voice as low as possible. “Let us keep the sausage and take this instead.” She drew the bottle of schnapps from her pocket and held it out to the soldier.
“Ah, the lad speaks Russian,” he said, accepting the bottle. “Where’d you learn that, my boy?”
“School in Saratov,” she said.
He nodded understanding. “Volga Germans. I heard about your lot. I thought we moved you all to the East.”
“I don’t know about that. My family came back here before the war.” That explained her knowledge of the language, and she saw no reason to tell a stranger that her parents had been good socialists and had died for their beliefs in a concentration camp. Conquering soldiers didn’t want personal histories of the defeated.
He seemed satisfied. “Well then, since you’re such a well-bred young fellow, I’ll let you keep your sausages.” He tossed back the ring of meat, pivoted around to his comrades who had been watching, and held up the schnapps bottle. While the soldiers were distracted, the band of scavengers slipped back into their building.
Once inside, Erika smelled again the rank odor of urine in the corridor and recalled the assault of the day before. She shook her head to dispel the memory. But her new guise seemed to protect her, and her fear lifted. It helped that they would soon all sit down to a good supper of sausage and potatoes for the first time in weeks.
And they had water for her to wash. Would she ever feel clean again?
The haircut and pants were in fact liberating, and in the next days, she ventured out more often, making two more trips to the basement larder before other foragers discovered it as well. She also fetched water, along with Hanno and Wilhelm, and passed unmolested through the ranks of the Russian soldiers along the street. She never saw her four rapists again, which was a relief.
It was strange to hear the men banter with each other and talk to their horses. She still hated them, but they were becoming individuals, little different from German men. More primitive, perhaps, and they defecated like animals in empty corridors rather than in latrines, but perhaps Wehrmacht soldiers had done the same thing in the cities they’d invaded.
Once the men knew the “lad in the baggy trousers” spoke Russian, they asked for a name, and she said Erik. She was an amusing novelty, their only link to the local population. When they engaged her, she usually managed to brush them off and return to her building, but finally some of them followed her up the stairs to the Metzger apartment, setting a dangerous precedent.
The soldiers weren’t much older than “Erik” pretended to be and were curious about him. “Were you in the army?” one of them asked.
She had a ready answer. “No, too young by a year. They forced me into the Home Guard, but I ran away when your troops got near Berlin. I’m not stupid.”
The soldiers laughed. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
The thought amused her. “No. Nothing like that. Besides, I never see any girls. They’re all hiding.”
The younger soldier looked hurt. “They don’t have to do that. We’re all very nice. Besides, if they can love us, we’ll pay. With food. Other things, too. If you know any, tell them that.”
She grunted softly. Of course they could pay with “other things.” They’d pillaged the entire city, and all of them had loot they could exchange.
But now they came more frequently into the building. Word seemed to have gotten out of the “boy who speaks Russian,” and off-duty soldiers stopped by to investigate. The makeshift “family” kept the apartment blockaded, and the soldiers never forced their way in, but with the relaxing of vigilance, the inevitable disaster came.
Early in the morning, the street camp was usually tranquil, as the soldiers who weren’t on any duty slept in. On the fifth day after her assault, when a certain normalcy seemed to have been established and the foragers had happened upon a stock of laundry powder, Erika decided to wash her coal-dust soiled trousers and shirt. She drew them off and soaked them in a washtub, while covering herself with an old dress. She craved fresh underwear, however, so risked leaving the fortress and hurrying up the stairs to her apartment.
The trip upstairs went well, but during the return, she once again faced a gang of soldiers. She recognized them from the street, and they stood aghast, seeing the boy Erik in a dress. This time there were five of them.
She fled again, and once again a soldier seized her by the arm and dragged her down the stairs. A second soldier held open the door to the empty apartment where she had been raped before. She convulsed at the thought.
Almost spontaneously, she pulled the man who held her into her arms and whispered into his ear. “You, yes. Anything you like. But not the others. Only for you.”
He leaned back, obviously surprised, then seemed to conclude that exclusivity was better than sharing. Twisting sideways toward his comrades, he barked, “Go find your own. This one’s mine.”
A moment of tense silence followed, while the deprived men seemed to weigh his authority. Perhaps he outranked them, or perhaps they merely concluded that she wasn’t worth a fight among themselves. In any case, they filed grumbling out of the building, leaving her captor to draw her into the empty apartment. He closed the door and slid a small table up against it. Then he turned around, grinning.
But her tiny victory, reducing gang rape to a single assault, gave her confidence. It was still rape, but she could negotiate it.
“Over there, on the sofa. More comfortable. Okay?”
He nodded and let himself be led. They sat down side by side, and he lunged for her, clapping his hand over her breast. She shoved him away gently. “Wait. Let me take off my clothes so you don’t tear them,” she said, maintaining a frozen smile.
He allowed it, removing his boots in the meantime, and then, gritting her teeth, she submitted to his clumsy, hurried lust.
Afterward she sat up and drew on her dress while the soldier pulled on his boots.
“Um, my name is Stepka,” he said. “What’s your name? Your real name.”
“Why do you care? I’m not your girlfriend.”
Curiously, for a man who had just committed rape, he dropped his glance. “You’re right, of course. But you’re different from the others. How do you know Russian?”
“A long story, and you don’t really care, anyhow.” She was feeling truculent, and after all, what else could he do to her?
“I suppose not.” He stared into the distance for a moment. “You know, I have a wife back in Voronezh, but I haven’t seen her in four years. It’s been that long since I touched a woman.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel sorry for you?” She buttoned her last button, a gesture of withdrawal from him.
“No. I guess not. Only to explain. We’re not all animals. Not most of the time, anyhow.” He stood up and strode toward the door, sliding the table aside so he could open it.
She nodded dully. “Thank you for sending the others away.”
“I did that for me,” he said over his shoulder as he exited. “But maybe I’ll come back tomorrow with something to eat.”
The door closed behind him, and mercifully, none of his comrades burst in to claim their portion. She sat for a while, staring at the space where he had stood. How much longer would she be at their mercy? How long would rape be part of the victory?
She felt conflicting urges—to scrub herself clean, to scream reproach at her neighbors for abandoning her again, to collapse into tears. But after a moment, she realized she’d gained a slight victory. She’d learned she could negotiate.
And if she could choose where and how to be raped, she could also choose her rapist.
The stately Adastral House, which housed the Air Ministry in Kingsway, radiated the dignity of an earlier age that both intimidated and reassured. But the damage from the VI rocket attack of 1944 had not been fully repaired. The concrete on the exterior of the building was soot-stained and pitted, and reminded Gillian how close Britain had come to losing the war.
Inside, she located the office of recruitment where her interview was scheduled and knocked. At the “Come in,” she entered and took a seat in front of the desk.
The WAAF warrant officer, a narrow-faced, no-nonsense woman, leafed through Gillian’s application papers, her lips twitching slightly.
Gillian fidgeted for a few moments and then spoke. “I was a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, as you can see.”
The warrant officer ignored her, as if the remark didn’t merit a response.
Gillian clasped her hands more tightly and pressed ahead. “Is that possible? For me to fly, I mean? Theoretically?”
The officer glanced up coolly from the application. “The WAAF offers more than fifty possible areas of service, but piloting is not one of them. We are an auxiliary to the RAF, created specifically to free the men to fly while we carry out other less critical tasks.”
“I just thought perhaps there might be, well, transport, navigation, that sort of thing. Anything associated with the planes.”
The warrant officer closed the application form, a gesture of forced patience. “WAAF make up some of the ground crews, electricians, signals, traffic control.”
“That would be all right, I suppose. How can I qualify for one of those duties?”
The officer pursed her lips. “That would depend largely on your aptitude and performance in basic training. And, of course, what’s available at the time you graduate. Since demobilization, some positions are closing, with so many women going back to civilian life to rebuild for the next generation.”
Gillian fell silent. Another variation on the theme of “marrying one of the lads back from the front and starting a lovely British family.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said finally. “I want to be in the WAAF, not make babies.”
The warrant officer scrutinized her for a moment, then seemed to soften a little. She lifted a loose-leaf binder from a drawer and began to leaf through it. “Well, then. Let’s see what we can do for you.”
Six days later, all papers signed, all previous commitments terminated, Gillian sat in an early morning train to Gloucester, then a military bus to Innsworth Airfield.
The bus held scarcely a dozen women, suggesting that the zeal and patriotism that had brought so many women into the services had abated. What had moved the other women to enlist? Were they all as troubled as she was? She stared out the bus window into the persistent rain that seemed to conspire against any attempt at good cheer.
After mustering in a large hall, she and the other recruits marched in a line toward their barracks—a hut with some thirty beds. It was drab and damp, and had only a single coal stove at the center.
Gillian examined her assigned bunk, which had no actual mattress, but three square blocks, hard as wood, instead. Laid in a row and covered with gray blankets, they’d be her bed for the coming weeks of training. She sighed. What did she expect? She’d contracted for the military life, and this was it.
“Fall in, ladies, at the front of the barracks,” a sergeant ordered them, and the motley group of recruits hurried to obey.
The adjacent hut, she saw, was a sort of medical center. Following another set of orders, she undressed to her underwear and passed through several stations, the first being a humiliating examination of her scalp and pubis.
“No sign of infection,” the examining orderly said in a monotone, and her colleague noted that fact on a clipboard.
Gillian continued along the line to a chair, where a dentist poked and prodded with a spiked instrument in her mouth. “No decay,” the dentist reported, and that, too, went onto the clipboard.
At the third station, she passed through a double line of orderlies, who jabbed her forcefully from both sides. Diphtheria, typhoid, and smallpox inoculations, she later learned.
A bit dizzy from the shock of multiple injections, she lurched into the adjoining room, which held shelves stacked with uniforms.
The WAAF at the counter handed her a pile of clothing. “Here’s your kit, soldier. You’re to change into ‘regulation’ right now.”
Observing the women ahead of her in line, Gillian concluded that meant putting on the military bra and gray woolen knickers, beige stockings, uniform skirt, shirt with tie, and tunic. She had to reassemble the remaining articles—duplicate skirt and shirt, striped pyjamas, cap with brass badge, great coat and tin helmet—into a neat pile.
“You will now stand in your shoes, in the trough outside the hut, and then march back to your quarters for inspection,” the sergeant barked.
After a puzzled glance at her colleagues, who all obeyed, Gillian stepped into the trough and cringed at the icy violation of her warm feet and brand-new shoes.
“You will wear these shoes, wet, until after the evening mess,” the sergeant ordered them, and Gillian could only surmise the process would mold the stiff leather to their feet. But the shoes began to chafe immediately, and she was sure she’d wake up the next morning with blisters.
Once again in line, she marched to the canteen, as dilapidated as the barracks had been, staffed by cooks in sagging hairnets.
After the meal, they marched in their now-abrasive shoes, back to quarters for inspection—of themselves and their newly made beds, and of every article issued to them, including cutlery, mug, and toothbrush. They had to fold their towel and all parts of their uniform precisely for presentation alongside the cylindrical canvas duffel bag meant to carry them.
Instruction followed on how to knot the black regulation tie, how to polish brass buttons and black leather shoes, and how to stand at attention. Then the order came to file into a lecture hall for a talk on service history and discipline. Others followed in the next days, on current affairs, first aid, appropriate WAAF behavior, and hygiene.
The latter two were related, the instructor cautioned, for one’s deportment, if it was not impeccable, could bring disaster. Specifically, careless use of public toilet seats could expose her to sexual disease or pregnancy just as much as physical intimacy with other personnel.
And, horror of horrors, fraternization with an American GI, most especially the Negro ones, could result in any number of disasters that need not be named. The instructor shuddered.
Lectures were interspersed with exercise and drills, sometimes in pouring rain, and Gillian learned the term “square bashing” for the endless marching in blocks back and forth across the parade ground.
Exhausted and largely discouraged by the apparent uselessness of it all, she was tempted to leave training. But on the third evening, as she polished her uniform buttons for the hundredth time, a voice beside her said, “Dunno about you, but I’ve ’ad it to ’ere with these fuckin’ buttons. And all the bleedin’ square bashin’ has fuck-all to do wi’ th’air force. I didn’t join up for this shite.”
Gillian glanced up, blinking toward the source of the string of obscenities, a plump and rosy-cheeked redhead in the next bunk.
Apparently seeing Gillian’s shock, the woman chuckled and leaned toward her, holding out her hand. “Elizabeth Geary. Me mates call me Betsy.”
Taken aback by the mismatch of coarse language and cherubic appearance, Gillian set down her can of brass polish and offered her own hand. “Gillian Somerville.”
“Nice to meet you. Strange, innit? I mean how we’re all thrown together here. High and low, from all over the country. Me, I’m from up north. Spent the war in the land army. Repairing bloody tractors. Four years with black fingernails. What about you?”
“I’m from London. I was in the ATA until they demobbed us.”
“You were a pilot?”
“Yes. For three years. I was flying four-engines at the end.” Gillian heard the boasting in her own voice and grew slightly embarrassed. Showing off was not a good way to get on with new people.
“Well done, you!” Betsy gave a single clap. “What’d you carry? Where’d you fly? Bet it was fun.”
Gillian set aside her tunic with its well-polished buttons and drew up her knees, suddenly more cheerful. “You never knew what they’d assign you. Only the kind of plane, and that depended on your qualification. I started with two-engines, ferrying mostly. New craft from the factories to airfields near the front. Sometimes passengers, but not often.”
“Bloody hell! Ever get shot at? I mean, like, by the Luftwaffe?” She pronounced the German word with only two syllables.
Gillian winced at the sound, and in her head she heard the word correctly. Luft-vaf-feh. That arm of the German military had touched her personally and always sounded like an expulsion of air ending with a soft hiss.
“Nothing like that. Hardest thing wasn’t the delivery. It was getting home again. In the UK, you’d come back on a train, but taking a plane to France or even Germany meant you had to wait until someone was headed back in the other direction. Sometimes you’d have to sleep on a cot in a back room at the airport.” She hung up her tunic and stowed the polish and brush.
Betsy had already slid into her bed and lay supporting herself on one elbow. “Crikey. What made you choose a job like that?”
Gillian slid under the rough covers and pulled them up to her shoulders. “My brother Alastair flew in competitions all over the world. He even took me up once to give me a taste of being airborne. But that one time was enough to make me barmy for it. Always pictured myself in jodhpurs, jacket, leather flight helmet, that sort of thing.”
“Is he still flying?”
“No. He was killed in an accident. Trying to land in a fog.”
“Bloody hell. I like planes, too, the way they’re put together, like super-tractors, and I don’t mind getting me hands dirty. I just want to be part of the RAF.”
The sudden buzzer signaling lights out terminated their conversation, and Gillian settled in for the night. The twelve hours of drilling, exercise, and marching from parade ground to class, to mess had worn her down and made her blistered feet ache. She’d have no trouble sleeping.
But she lay awake for some ten minutes, watching the dull orange glow from the coke stove and listening to the coughs or snores of the other recruits. She could not have said her new comrades gave her a sense of family, or even community, but their simple presence softened her sense of homelessness.
The coal hissed softly, and as she dozed off, she thought she heard the whispered word, Luftwaffe.
After the evening of their conversation, she and Betsy were allies in cynicism, though Betsy’s foul language toned down a notch. At the end of the first two weeks of training, they received a four-hour pass and fled together down the road to the village.
The pub, or what passed for one, was a pre-fab hut left from the war and devoid of character or decoration. Its single virtue was that it offered a public space with rickety tables, a counter, and a beer tap.
After collecting their pints, they sat at their table and surveyed the room. It was as drab inside as it was outside and smelled of damp wool, cigarette smoke, and ever so slightly of urine. The noise, which Gillian remembered from pub evenings with the ATA as sometimes deafening, was subdued and consisted mainly of jeering from the far side where a circle of men played darts.
Most of the other pub visitors were civilians, the men in mud-brown trousers and shapeless jackets, the women in heavy tweed skirts and oatmeal cardigans that rose high in the back and hung low in the front. Some dozen airmen were scattered throughout the room, but she and Betsy were the only WAAF.
Gillian was about to remark on that fact when two airmen, sergeants by their stripes, joined them at the table.
The taller one, blond and dashingly good-looking, pulled out a chair and stood holding it. “Sad to see you lovely ladies all alone. We can’t allow that, can we?” He waited for agreement.
“We’re not alone, we’re—” Gillian never finished her remark.
“Well, then,” Betsy exclaimed. “You lads better sit down then, before we break into tears of loneliness.”
“Righto!” the blond one said as they both seated themselves, setting their beer glasses on the table. “Jack Higgins,” the good-looking one said, holding out his hand. “And this here’s my mate, Nigel Katz.”
The second airman, swarthier and with a narrow prominent nose that seemed to cancel out his rather pretty eyes, simply nodded, confirming he was, indeed, Nigel Katz.
Betsy took Jack’s hand cheerfully. “Elizabeth Geary, but you can call me Betsy,” she said, ignoring the other man.
But Nigel glanced toward Gillian. “And you are?”
“Gillian Somerville,” she said neutrally, sizing up the two sergeants. They were of the same rank, but their personalities and appearances could not have been more different. She didn’t particularly warm to either of them, but Nigel, at least, wasn’t pushy. One of the effects of being less attractive, perhaps, or of a lifetime of rejection by pretty women.
Jack already had one arm over the back of Betsy’s chair. “This is almost our last leave before deployment, so you should be kind,” he said, affecting a mournful expression.
It was bait and she bit. “Where are they sending you? Or is it secret?”
“Germany,” Nigel said simply, ruining the game. “In three days.”
“Yes. Into the mouth of the enemy. Anything could happen.” Jack stared with feigned distress into Betsy’s eyes. “Can I get a kiss to remember you? In case I don’t make it back?”
“You’re not going into battle, silly sod. War’s over.” Betsy poked him on the shoulder.
He flinched theatrically. “Well, it’s still dangerous over there. And lonely.”
“Not with a million German women,” Betsy countered. “All the men are in POW camps. It’s a bloody paradise for randy airmen.”
Jack persisted. “I’ve never been in Germany, but I bet they’re nothing like our pretty English girls.”
“I have,” Gillian said. “Been in Germany, I mean. In the ATA. As far as Cologne and Frankfurt. You’re right. They’re in a pretty sorry state, and they should stay that way.”
Jack seemed to see her for the first time. “You’re being a little hard on them, aren’t you?” He finished his beer and glanced at their still half-full glasses, seeming to consider the cost of a second glass of the unrationed but very expensive drink. Finally, he signaled the waiter for another.
Gillian snorted. “Not nearly hard enough. I lost my family in the Blitz, and as far as I’m concerned, they can all go back to the Stone Age.”
An awkward silence followed, which Nigel finally broke. “I lost relatives, too. But it’s not up to us to decide what happens to Germany.” He scratched the side of his jaw, a gesture that rendered his remark tentative.
“Do you know where you’re assigned in Germany?” she asked, and Nigel glanced toward her.
“They don’t tell us. Security, of course, though I don’t know who we’re protecting ourselves from. Bad Eilsen, Fassberg, or Berlin. One of the bases. We’re replacing two men being discharged for bad conduct.”
“Nancy boys,” Jack explained contemptuously, letting his hand flop on a limp wrist. “Don’t know how they got in.”
Nigel glanced away and said nothing.
Everyone’s glass was empty now except Jack’s, his second, and Gillian didn’t intend to sit idle until he finished it in front of them. She checked her watch. “Oh, dear. It’s already nine thirty, and we have passes only until ten.” She turned to Betsy. “We should go now. It’s a long walk back.”
“Righto.” Betsy agreed hesitantly and stood up with her. Gillian strode toward the door, and a quick glance over her shoulder revealed Betsy planting a quick kiss on Jack’s cheek.
How easy it was for some people.
Basic training lasted three weeks, and in July, Gillian was summoned to report to the section officer for assignment. The door was already open, so she tapped lightly, saluted smartly, and stood until invited to sit down.
The section officer had a round face and a sort of maternal plumpness, emphasized by hair parted in the middle and drawn into a bun at the back. She ran the tip of her pencil down the page as if rereading it, then looked up. “Your aptitude, depth perception, and mechanical skills are all good,” she said, “so it would be a shame to waste you in clerking, record-keeping, driving, that sort of thing, wouldn’t it?”
Dear God, don’t send me to any of those. “I was hoping for something that would connect me directly with the aircraft. Even if I can’t fly them.”
The section officer tapped the pencil gently on the paper, moving into the next part of her thought. “Well, given both your ATA experience and the current postwar needs of the RAF, we might assign you in several areas. Those would be as flight mechanic, radio technician, or air-traffic controller.”
Gillian tried to imagine herself in any of those roles. “What would that entail, exactly. I mean, for my day-to-day job?”
“Well, they all have to do with flying, one way or another. But, to reduce them to their basics, they would mean repairing aircraft, repairing radios that talk to the aircraft, or directing aircraft by radio from the ground.”
Two manual and one…not manual. It was an easy choice. “I’d like to do the air-traffic control.”
The officer smiled. “I would have chosen that as well. It’s an interesting field, and with the new radar, it’s developing all the time. I’ll do the paperwork, and we’ll send you off shortly to school. Congratulations, Aircraftwoman Somerville. You have your specialty.”
They shook hands and Gillian left, slightly uplifted. Directing planes from the ground was a long way from piloting them, but it kept her in the game. Fair enough.
The barracks were sweltering in the July heat, and Gillian removed her tunic immediately upon returning. Betsy was already at her bunk polishing her shoes. “So, what’s the verdict?”
Gillian dropped onto her bunk and kicked off her shoes. “Air-traffic control at Watchfield.”
“Watchfield. Jolly good. I asked to be assigned there, too. Engine mechanics. Someone’s got to get the plane into the air so you can bring ’em down again, eh?” Betsy beamed.
“At least until the day they let us fly again ourselves.”
RAF Watchfield offered training programs in flying, navigation, maintenance, aerial photography, reconnaissance, and air-traffic control. In appearance, it consisted largely of one-story Nissen huts and cottages with roofs still painted in camouflage.
Accommodations were in one of the huts, where the rooms were set up for four. In spite of following different programs, Gillian and Betsy requested to house together. The third and fourth beds remained unoccupied.
While Betsy’s instruction took place in a hangar, Gillian’s class was in a room that held some dozen radio receivers, and wires were strung everywhere. For a teaching facility, it looked shockingly makeshift. Four of the ten students were women.
The instructor entered right after her and walked to the front table. “Good morning. I’m Flight Lieutenant Douglas, and I’m happy to welcome you to air-traffic control. We’re going to teach ground-controlled approach. Radar is at the heart of it, but much of that is still secret, so you’ll learn it under security. That is to say, you may not take notes or carry any materials with you out of the classroom.”
“Why so much security?” one of the men asked. “How can we study without notes?”
“Because radar is a powerful defensive weapon, and every military in the world would like to have it. We share information with the United States but no one else. As far as studying, you can review it among yourselves, but not with others.”
He turned toward the chalkboard, and while he drew a cartoon of a tower runway and plane, he spoke over his shoulder. “The system is rather ingenious but requires close communication between the controllers—that’s you—and the incoming pilots.”
“You mean we tell them what to do?” one of the women asked.
“In effect, yes. You guide them in based on information you receive from precise radar systems placed along the approach path, telling you their course, altitude, and azimuth.”
As a pilot, Gillian knew the word, but obviously not all the women did.
“In simplest terms, the aircraft’s horizontal location in degrees from due north. The radar allowing those measurements is called precision approach radar, or PAR. They are set up in a van or truck along the side of the runway.”
With a stroke of the chalk, he drew horizontal and vertical arrows below the plane. “Using the PAR, you can monitor descent rate and heading and, by correcting continually, guide the craft by radio to the runway.”
“So the pilot doesn’t even have to see?”
“Theoretically, no. Which makes the system invaluable at night and in bad weather. However, practically speaking, we want him to have the runway environment in sight, at least prior to arriving at one hundred feet above it.”
“But if we have radar, can’t we control the entire flight, from takeoff to landing?”
“Not in a single system. These particular antennas have a limited range, and their directional accuracy is poor. We use radar for aircraft only on their final landing track, some ten miles before the runway. The antennas measure horizontally and vertically and create a sort of cone through which we guide the aircraft.”
“So we ‘see’ the aircraft in the radar cone, even though we can’t see it in the air.”
“Quite so. And sometimes, the pilot can’t see the landing strip either and depends on your guidance.”
“What about flight beacons, sir,” one of the women asked.
“That’s a different part of the story, and I’ll explain all that in due time.”
He drew another series of sketches on the blackboard and described the functions and limitations of the new radar. To ensure they retained the information, he made them repeat back to him what he had said in different words.
After two hours, he laid down his chalk. “You have quite enough to absorb for now. Discuss it, but only among yourselves, and we’ll move on to the next level tomorrow.”
Gillian left the class energized. She rather liked the scientific side of flying, though it was the polar opposite of the seat-of-the-pants method her brother had used, which had eventually killed him. Ironic to think that some little WAAF ground controller guiding in his plane could have saved his life.
At supper, she exclaimed to the other students at the table, “I’m not giving anything secret away when I say that I’m amazed that someone outside a plane can make it land.”
An airman had just set down his tray at the end of the long table and overheard her. “They don’t exactly make it land, you know. They just tell you how.”
“Of course. That’s what I meant.” Gillian frowned, slightly annoyed at being contradicted.
The airman, a redhead with the inevitable freckles, leaned toward her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. You’re right. It is amazing.”
“I’m puzzled about the range,” one of the women said. “But they don’t give us any books to study, and I don’t know who to ask, since I’m not allowed to talk about it to anyone.”
“You can talk about it to me. I’ve been landing for weeks by ground control. You won’t be giving away secrets if you simply ask questions.” He glanced at both sides conspiratorially. “And I don’t see any enemy agents at the table.”
“Okay, then,” Gillian said. “If the approach radar has such a short range, how do we locate the plane in the first place?”
“Good question.” He raised orange-red eyebrows. “In fact, ground control consists of two separate radars—search radar, which sweeps around the horizon to locate aircraft coming from any point of the compass, and glide path, which is local. The traffic director in the tower contacts the aircraft first and steers it into the field of view of the landing system.”
“Ah. That explains a lot,” Gillian said, as the pieces began to fall into place. “Thanks for the information and for not being an enemy agent. By the way, what’s your name?”
He held out his hand. “Dickie Collins. Maybe we’ll be seeing more of each other.”
The women at the table nodded brightly at the remark, all but Gillian, who was already drawing landing diagrams in her head.
Betsy and Gillian returned to quarters and began a nightly ritual of reciting information as a means of memorizing it.
“I have the advantage that I’m allowed to bring out notes and manuals, but it helps to be able to describe things to you. So, get comfortable while I explain the hydraulic system of the Dakota DC-47.”
After she finished, Gillian recounted the principles and technology of ground-control landings, assuming that Betsy, like Dickie, was not an enemy agent. Night after night, for the next two months, they recounted the lessons of the day, until each one could—almost—do the other’s job.
Betsy also seemed to have studied the aviation mechanics who worked alongside her. “Most of them are good mates, but sadly, they don’t have that certain allure of the pilot.”
Gillian laughed. “Did you enlist to serve in His Majesty’s defense of the homeland or to find a beau?”
“How can you ask such a question, you silly bird? To find a beau, of course. What about you?”
“Well, not to catch a man, for sure. As for why, exactly, I’m not so certain. Maybe just to go back to Germany and finish what my brother started. He loved it, especially Berlin. Or maybe it’s just the hunger to go up. Per aspera ad astra.”
“Now don’t go all bloody posh on me and start spouting some foreign language.”
“‘Through hardship to the stars,’ in Latin.”
“Stars, eh? Sounds good enough for me. If you go to Germany, I’ll ask to go, too. What are mates for, eh?”