Goering came and went in a whirlwind. He flew in with what seemed like a huge entourage. He waddled (that was really the only word for it) over to Jako, who stood in front of his pilots saluting. He patted him on the shoulder, apparently cracked a joke, and everyone within hearing laughed with him. Klaudia, Rosa and Brigitte weren’t close enough to hear, but they watched it all from the CC along with the NCOs on duty.
Was it less than a fortnight since Klaudia had been excited by the thought of seeing Goering personally? Was it less than a fortnight since she had been thrilled to think she knew a man who could ask favours of a man so powerful and favoured that the Reichstag had created a new rank just for him, “Reichsmarschall”? It seemed a lifetime ago. The intervening fortnight had been such a roller-coaster of alternating ecstasy and despair. The expected roses and proposal had not come, but then Jako was the Gruppenkommandeur of a crack Luftwaffe unit in the midst of war. Klaudia kept telling herself she should not expect too much. He had sent for her a couple of times after duty, and his ardour and compliments reassured her again of her place in his heart. And yet…
Now, as she watched Jako grinning and nodding beside the Reichsmarshall, she felt intense – almost unbearable – pride. That was her man that the Reichsmarshall was jesting with like an old friend! Nor had Jako ever looked more splendid than now in his tailored uniform, grey gloves and the leather riding boots that gleamed in the sun.
“He’s coming this way!” someone called out.
Instantly the personnel of the CC bolted back to their respective places. By the time the Reichsmarshall reached the door, they were all intent upon their respective tasks. A loud “Achtung!” preceded the C-in-C into the room. Everyone sprang to attention.
Staff officers poured in, and then came Goering himself with Paschinger still beside him. He greeted the staff of the CC by touching his glittering marshal’s baton to the peak of his cap. He was smiling and nodding, and then he caught sight of the Helferinnen. “Ah, so you have some of our charming, brave Helferinnen here! How are they working out?”
“Jawohl, Herr Reichsmarschall. Very well, so far. May I introduce the Herr Reichsmarschall?” Jako led Goering directly to Klaudia.
There she stood, rigidly at attention, hardly daring to breathe. What could be a better sign of Jako’s good intentions than the fact that he brought the Reichsmarshall himself over to introduce him to her? She sucked in her stomach and kept her chin up; she wanted to do Jako proud. “This here is Klaudia von Richthofen.”
“Ah ha!” Goering was delighted. “I didn’t realise Wolfram had a niece! How do you like it here, Fräulein? Are my young eagles treating you properly?”
Klaudia couldn’t help smiling. “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmarschall.”
“Good, good. Glad to hear it.” Already Goering was moving on. Turning away from Klaudia and addressing Jako, he remarked, “Seeing these lovely girls reminds me of your own charming wife, Jako. How is she doing these days?”
“In her seventh month now, Herr Reichsmarshall,” Jako answered happily, his back to Klaudia as if she didn’t exist.
“Ha!” Goering laughed approvingly. “A Christmas leave baby.”
“Jawohl, Herr Reichsmarshall,” Jako agreed, “and I hope we will have tamed the English lion in time for me to be with her at the birth.”
“Certainly, certainly,” Goering agreed as they moved away. Klaudia wanted to scream – or just fade away into nothingness. He was married. He had been married the whole time. Not once, not even for a moment, had his intentions been honourable. He had used her. That was all. Used her like a common whore! Rosa had been right about him the whole time. She couldn’t cope with the implications. She was ruined! Absolutely ruined. She could never go home and face her parents.
A sharp order from Schneider brought her back to the present. Jako and Goering were gone. She had work to do. Work. That was all that was left to her now, her identity as a Luftwaffehelferin. She was ruined socially. No man would ever marry her. A message was going in over her earphones. She had to concentrate, but her insides were tied in knots.
As always when they came off duty at 9 pm, Rosa, Brigitte and Klaudia went across to the Other Ranks Mess to get their dinner. Klaudia was still in a daze of disbelief about what Jako had done to her and wasn’t really listening to the others as they chattered, but as they entered the Mess, they could sense that the atmosphere was charged. Men were standing around talking excitedly – agitatedly – and no sooner were they sighted than someone called out to Rosa. “Did you hear what happened? Voigt was demoted and sent to a fighter squadron.” Only the infantry would have been a worse disgrace.
“What?!” Rosa came to a dead halt. Then: “Why?”
The explanations burst out from all directions as a crowd formed around the three young women. Everyone was talking at once, and it was hard to sort through it all at first. But gradually the picture formed. During his tour of the base, Goering had remarked casually to Paschinger that the ground crews and hangars “looked a bit sloppy.”
“Christ! We’d been up all night for the third time this week.”
“No one told us the Herr Reichsmarshall was coming!”
“Where are we supposed to get a haircut here, anyway? We have to go to Falaise even for our laundry!”
“If we spent our time polishing our boots, half the kites would be u/s.”
“Arschinger thinks we’re nothing but machines! He resents having to feed us or let us sleep!”
“The only thing wrong with the hangars were the tools lying around from the overhaul! What are we supposed to do? Sign them out in triplicate every day?!”
“What happened to Axel?” Rosa demanded, cutting through the resentful chatter.
“Arschinger called the crews together and said we’d disgraced him in front of Fatty!—”
“Fatty didn’t really take offence. It was just an off-hand remark—”
“What difference does that make?! Arschinger acted as if Fatty’d torn his head – or at least his Knights Cross – off! He said he’d teach us a lesson in smartness.”
“He charged up and down finding fault with everyone.”
“My hair was too long. Klein had an oil-stain on his uniform trousers. Rezka’s sleeves were frayed.”
“Arschinger screamed: ‘When I’m through with you, you’re going to be able to lick your dinner off the floor of the hangars.’”
“He said he’d inspect the hangars tomorrow in white gloves, and if the tips of his fingers were dirty when he was finished, he’d cancel all leave for the crews for the next month.”
“And that’s when Voigt couldn’t take any more. He stepped forward and saluted and then asked: “Then the Herr Gruppenkommandeur does not want the aircraft operational until the day after tomorrow?”
“Arschinger turned the colour of a boiled crab. He was so furious he was shaking.”
“He grabbed Voigt’s epaulettes and tore them off—”
“I thought he was going to choke Voigt with his bare hands—”
“He was spewing insults which I don’t intend to repeat in the presence of ladies.”
“Where’s Axel?” Rosa wanted to know. “He’s on his way to JG 23—”
“If Arschinger had had his way, he’d have been transferred to the infantry, but Fliegerkorps refused. They said mechanics were too highly trained and couldn’t be wasted.”
“He was demoted two grades! To Feldwebel—”
“And sent to JG 23, the bastards that left us in the lurch.” The contempt and outrage was blistering.
“He’s already gone?” Rosa asked, disbelieving.
“Hours ago. Paschinger said if he ever laid eyes on Voigt again, he’d shoot him.”
Rosa turned on her heel and left the mess.
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