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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 15

Tags: ww2, tripoli,
“...and please, Lord,” she pleaded, “Don't keep us apart forever."

Tripoli. June 10th, 1941

 

Maria emerged from sleep to find the sun shining through her window.

At first, just for a moment, she wasn't sure of what day it was, but when she rolled over onto her back, she took a sharp intake of breath as the pain of even the slightest movement shot through her.

And then she remembered.

It was bearable, but as she resumed the effort of turning over and trying to sit up, she found that she was so stiff that any movement was immediately painful.

She waited, lying still and then, taking a deep breath and clenching her teeth she forced herself to a sitting position and swung her legs over the side of the bed.

There she stayed, allowing her aching muscles to relax before attempting the walk to the window to draw back the thin curtains and open a window to allow some air in.

Looking out over the town towards the harbour, she sighed at the scene of destruction that was the result of yesterdays raid.

What she had hoped to see, however, wasn't there. No big white ship with a green stripe and red crosses.

Her first thought was that she had missed it and also, therefore, her sister.

Her heart dropped with disappointment, but then she noticed the activity beyond the harbour entrance. Many small boats were surrounding a freighter which appeared to be partially submerged.

“Of course!” she thought. “Maybe the Aquilea couldn't have entered with that blocking the entrance. It must be waiting outside!”

 

Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, Maria washed and dressed and walked slowly and painfully to the canteen for breakfast.

As she entered she was greeted by Agathe who jumped up from the table, she was sharing with the other ward nurses.

“Matron, How lovely to see you this morning,” she gushed. “We were so worried about you. Come on, sit down with us, I will get you some breakfast.”

Gerthe pulled out a chair for her and helped her to sit, but as Maria leaned back, a sudden agonising pain reminded her of the bruising to her back which just happened to coincide with the height of the solid chair-back.

“Oh, Matron! I'm sorry!”

The young nurse clapped a hand to her mouth, but Maria took her free hand.

“Don't worry,” she smiled. “I'll be fine in a day or two, but for now I suppose I will have to be extra careful.”

 

Maria suddenly found that she was quite hungry and remembered that she had been taken straight to her bed after the raid and had missed dinner so, after a good meal and some not so good coffee she felt ready to face the day ahead.

The first thing she would do, she decided would be to go straight to the harbourmaster's office and find out where the hospital ship was. She wasn't due on duty until the afternoon, and so had a few hours.

 

The walk to the dockyard seemed to get easier as she went, the stiffness in her muscles slowly eased but the sharp stabs as she used certain muscles in her back were quite tiring.

Nevertheless, by the time she got there, she felt so much better about herself.

The scene that greeted her, however, was not what she expected. The building which housed the Harbourmaster's office was badly damaged, and she had to carefully pick her way around the rubble to find the entrance.

That end of the building was still intact, although there wasn't the tiniest fragment of glass remaining in any of the windows.

The outer door was missing totally, so she walked straight into the apparently empty office.

“Hallo!” she called out.

Suddenly, a voice from behind the desk.

“If it isn't urgent then go away, I'm busy!”

Maria took a moment before answering. A young man showed his head above the edge of the desk, a Kriegsmarine Ensign who looked very flustered.

“Well?” he pressed her, “I don't have all day!”

Realising that this young and probably inexperienced junior officer was under considerable pressure, she asked politely,

“I'd like to speak with the Harbour-Master please.”

“Well, you can't so please state your business or go away, Sister.”

Pressure or no pressure, one thing Maria didn't like was arrogance, so she slipped her rank arm-band on.

When she didn't reply the young officer looked directly at her for the first time and immediately stopped what he was doing.

“I... I'm sorry, Frau Leutnant, I didn't realise...”

His words trailed off with embarrassment.

“You may well be busy, but a little respect would save a lot of trouble, don't you think?”

“Yes, Ma'am! Sorry Ma'am!” he replied sharply.

“Good,” she said gently. “Now, shall we start again? Where is the Harbour-Master?”

“Dead, Ma'am. Killed in the raid yesterday.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. He was a nice man.”

Maria thought back to their conversation just two days before.

“Yes, Ma'am he was, but I really do have a lot to do. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Erm, oh, yes, maybe. The Hospital Ship Aquilea was supposed to arrive here yesterday but obviously didn't. Do you know where it is?”

“No, Ma'am, I don't. I know about today's arrivals, and it isn't listed but give me a few minutes, and I'll see what I can find. I'm afraid everything got a bit messed up during the raid.”

Maria sat down on the same chair she had used when she felt nauseous during her previous visit and waited patiently, being careful not to lean back.

The young Ensign disappeared again behind his desk and shuffled through the stack of loose papers on the floor.

After several minutes, during which Maria could hear various unintelligible words being muttered he suddenly reappeared holding what appeared to be some message form.

“Found it!” he said, holding it up as he got to his feet. “She's not coming!”

“What?” Maria replied, somewhat dismayed. “What do you mean 'not coming'?”

“This Signal, Ma'am. Says she's been diverted to Athens.”

“Athens! Why? Will it still come here?”

“Sorry Ma'am, I can't say. Just says arrival canceled.”

Her stomach felt as though a lead weight had suddenly fallen to the bottom of it.

“Oh, I see,” she replied sadly. “All right, thank you.”

With great care, Maria rose to her feet.

“Are you all right, Ma'am?” the young officer was suddenly concerned and stepped forward to assist her.

She nodded.

“Yes, I suppose so. Just a little disappointed.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were in pain.”

Maria smiled.

“Oh that. It's nothing that won't heal.”

She smiled again.

“Thank you for your time, I realise now how busy you must be.”

The young man looked at her but didn't like to press her further.

“You are welcome, Ma'am,” he said instead and added, “I will try to be less abrupt in future.”

 

The walk back to the hospital passed in a haze. Her heart was heavy, and she wondered if this lousy war was going to keep her and Katarina apart forever.

As she walked, she asked God to keep Katarina safe.

“...and please, Lord,” she pleaded, “Don't keep us apart forever. I have not yet known her as a sister, only as a friend.”

She wondered if God would hear her, amongst all the prayers that must be heading his way.

 

The streets of Tripoli were quite busy by this time. The noise from the market was loud, but she was lost in her thoughts until, without any warning, a small Arab boy ran around the corner closely followed by an Italian sailor.

The boy ran straight into her and knocked her against the wall of the building she was passing.

The pain in her back was excruciating, and she struggled to catch her breath.

The boy fell into the road, and the sailor grabbed his collar and hauled him to his feet whilst shouting loudly in Italian.

Maria felt sick and slid down the wall, gasping for air.

Still shouting in Italian, the sailor looked at her and only then saw her distress. Quickly, he grabbed something from the boy's hand, kicked him hard in the rear and pushed him away.

“Signorina! Signorina! Stai bene?”

She looked up at him. She didn't understand a word he was saying, but she couldn't answer anyway.

The Italian realised that she was German and saw the perspiration running down her face.

“You are 'urt? I 'elp?” he asked in heavily accented German.

Slowly the pain subsided along with the nausea, and she shook her head carefully.

“I'll be alright,” she answered with difficulty, “Give me a moment.”

The sailor sat down beside her and waited patiently.

“'e took my wallet,” he said, carefully searching for the words.

“I see,” she said and took a deep breath as she regained something close to normal breathing. “Could you help me up please.”

The sailor got up and held out his hand, giving her something to grip as she got to her feet.

Seeing the pain etched on her face, he then offered her his arm.

“I 'elp you?” he asked. “Where you go?”

“Just to the hospital. Thank you.”

“Bene,” she took his arm. “Molto bene!”

They walked in silence. Every step was agony for her, and since she didn't speak Italian, there wasn't much said until they reached the hospital entrance.

 

It hadn't been a long walk but had taken several minutes, and she stopped him at the door.

“Thank you,” she said. “I am very grateful.”

“Is alright, I do... no less,” he replied slowly with a shrug. “You, erm, be... alright, now?”

Maria smiled.

“Yes, I will be alright now, thank you.”

“Maybe I...”

Maria didn't let him finish. All she wanted to do was rest for the short time she had left before she went back on duty.

“Thank you,” she repeated and turned away leaving the sailor scratching his head.

 

Her work that night passed without incident. There were several new dysentery cases, replacing those who were sufficiently recovered to return to their units and there were also some casualties from the raid, but with the constant pain in her back, Maria found that the time passed incredibly slowly.

 

The following morning, just before the end of her shift, the doctor arrived slightly earlier than normal. He didn't generally carry out his rounds until the night staff had left and the morning crew had taken over.

“Good morning, Matron Kaufmann. How are you today?”

“Good morning, Doctor,” Maria replied, a little curious. “What brings you to us so early?”

The Doctor seemed to be studying her as he spoke.

“I wanted to catch you before you went off duty,” he said. “You took quite a thump yesterday. How is your back now?”

Maria chuckled.

“Sore,” she laughed gently. “I will live. It's not so bad really.”

The doctor nodded but seemed to be deep in thought.

“Good,” he said eventually. “I would like to examine you if I may. Would you come to my office please and bring one of your nurses with you.”

Seeing her reluctance, he explained,

“I need to examine the injury before you go off shift so please if you would. Five minutes, my office.”

Without further discourse, he turned and disappeared from the ward.

“As if I haven't got enough to do,” Maria thought but called over one of the nurses nearest to her.

“Helene, would you come with me please.”

The young nurse looked puzzled.

“What have I done, Matron?”

Maria grinned widely.

“Nothing that I know of. I just need your assistance for a few minutes.”

The young nurse seemed relieved and mirrored Maria's grin as she followed her from the ward.

“The doctor wants examine my back,” she explained as they walked. “I imagine that you are to be my chaperone.”

 

In the privacy of the Doctor's office, Maria lowered the top of her dress and sat in her underwear whilst he gently examined the damaged area.

“There is evidence of further bleeding under the skin,” he said as he looked carefully at the huge purple bruise on her back. “It is slightly darker here.”

He touched the raw flesh gently with his forefinger, and she winced.

“I think that will be from yesterday morning,” she offered. “I was knocked over by an Arab boy and hit my back on a wall.”

“Hmm, well, yes, that could be a reasonable explanation.”

Maria felt that the Doctor was talking more to himself than to her.

She flinched again as she felt the sudden touch if his stethoscope against tender skin. It didn't hurt so much rather than was unexpected.

“Deep breath please... and out. Once again, please. Good, good,” he muttered as he moved the bell carefully around her torso.

Finally, he stood up.

“I am pleased to say that all seems well. You may get dressed now.”

Helene helped her to pull her dress back over her shoulders and once it was fastened also helped with tying her apron behind her.

Maria was not surprised at the verdict. With the exception of the stiffness and pain, which was no more than she would have expected from such a large contusion, she felt perfectly well.

“Thank you, Doctor,” she said as soon as she was ready. “Will that be all?”

Without looking up from his desk, he replied,

“For your chaperone, yes but I have something to discuss with you before you leave.”

The two nurses looked at each other and, thanking her; Maria gestured for Helene to return to the ward.

 

As soon as the office door was closed, the doctor removed his spectacles and looked at Maria.

“I know you haven't been here long,” he began, “But I am afraid that you will be moving on again.”

Maria opened her mouth to speak, but the doctor stopped her, raising his finger.

“I am a little short staffed here, as you know but you were sent here to work with the army, and it seems they have need of you.”

“I see,” she replied. “So where am I going?”

“I don't know. I was asked to report on your injuries from the raid, and I am satisfied that you are fit enough. The bruising will heal fairly quickly, and the pain will subside in a few days, so I am confident that you are fit to work.”

“Well, yes, I agree with you but when will I find out where I am going?”

“I have to report immediately to the army medical officer about your fitness to travel, so I imagine that he will call for you.”

There was no more to be said, and Maria returned to the wards for one final check before she returned to her quarters and some much-needed sleep.

 

To her, it felt like a few minutes but five hours had passed when she was awoken by an urgent banging on her door.

“Alright, just a minute!” she called out drowsily. She rose stiffly and donned her robe before opening the door to an orderly who handed her a sheet of paper and several letters.

“Sorry, Ma'am. I was told to wake you.”

She took the proffered bundle and thanked the orderly, trying to put him at his ease, but in her weary, half-awake state she wasn't sure if she had succeeded.

There were six letters which she put on the night-stand whilst she looked at the flimsy sheet. She could tell from experience that it was some kind of order. In fact, it was a request from the Chief Medical Officer to report to his office at 'your earliest opportunity' which, in military language meant right away.

As quickly as she could, Maria washed and dressed and was soon on her way.

 

The CMO was quite young for a man in his position, probably in his late thirties, she guessed. She hadn't met him before but he was known amongst the nurses to be rather authoritarian but then, to reach the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel by such an age, she thought, especially within the Nazi regime it was hardly surprising.

Oberfeldarzt Marcus von Oldenburg was the youngest son of a long line of military surgeons. His family could trace it's lineage back to the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Otto the first.

His demeanour and appearance fitted that of German nobility perfectly although in stark contrast to the Nazi ideal of blond hair and blue eyes.

He did have the square jaw, but his hair was jet black and his eyes a light brown.

 

Maria sat in front of his desk and waited patiently whilst he read quickly through her file.

Finally, he looked up at her.

“So,” he began. “This makes very interesting reading. I see that you have several years experience as a nurse.”

She opened her mouth to answer his question, but he continued before she had the chance to utter a single word.

“Your report from Amiens paints quite a picture of your dedication, and from what I have heard about you here that isn't going to change anytime soon, it seems. Your ward doctor tells me that you were injured in the air raid the other day but that you carried on until your shift was complete. How is your back now?”

“It's only a bruise, Sir. Nothing that won't heal with time.”

“Only a bruise?”

Marcus von Oldenburg removed his monocle and stared at her.

“Yes, I...”

“Well, you really are quite a remarkable young woman, I must say!” he said without allowing her to finish.

“Only a bruise...”

He smiled as he spoke.

“I have a report here that says it is the worst contusion the doctor had seen without being accompanied by serious tissue damage. I agree that it will heal in probably a fairly short time but the pain must be most severe... isn't it? Don't think I haven't noticed the way you are sitting, Matron, too painful to lean back, yes?”

Lieutenant-Colonel von Oldenburg leaned back, clasped his hands beneath his chin and studied her again for a moment whilst Maria began to wonder what all this was leading to.

He looked down and turned a few pages of the folder in front of him.

“How was your duty last night?” he asked her.

Maria frowned.

“My duty?” she queried, somewhat puzzled. “It was fairly normal. A little busy perhaps but quite normal. Why do you ask?”

Von Oldenburg didn't reply, appearing to be deep in thought.

“It says here that you worked continually, moving between all the wards under your control. Did you take a break at all?”

“I expect so, Sir. I don't really remember.”

“No, Matron. You didn't. I have made enquiries, and it seems that you barely do, ever.”

Seeing the protest that Maria was about to make he went on,

“Don't worry; I am not criticising you. I am just finding out for myself whether the report I have here is a reasonable representation of you since it is a pretty impressive document. You see, I have been asked to put together a team of nurses to move up to Benghasi.”

Maria frowned.

“Where is that?”

“About a thousand Kilometres up the coast towards Egypt,” he replied. “I want someone... you, to assemble twenty of the best nurses you have, ready to move the day after tomorrow. Don't worry about the wards,” he quickly added, “I have replacements arriving this afternoon so decide who you want to take and have them ready at the departure point by oh-five hundred Thursday morning.”

Maria looked at him.

“Very good, Sir. Do you have any details?”

The Oberfeldarzt gazed steadily at her.

“Remarkable,” he muttered. “Quite remarkable.”

“Sir?”

“I have just told you that you are to undertake a thousand kilometre journey less than two days after you were injured in a bombing raid and you ask for details. Most extraordinary.”

Now she was really confused.

“Isn't that why I am here?”

The senior officer chuckled.

“Well, the next thing I tell you shouldn't surprise you either, then. You are to receive the rank of Hauptmann and will organise the Red Cross element of the convoy.”

Maria looked at him with astonishment.

“I'm sorry, Sir but you are wrong. I am surprised, very surprised!”

“Well, you shouldn't be. I am confident that I have chosen the right person for this and you need that rank to work with other officers in convoy. Now, I have allocated a bus for you and your sisters which will be included in a convoy of several Afrika Korps vehicles and six lorries of medical supplies. I am aware that you have received training at Karlsruhe so I will not allocate any soldiers to your vehicle, it will be under your sole command.”

Maria listened intently.

“You will receive your final orders when you join the convoy on Thursday morning, so you have the rest of this afternoon and all of tomorrow to prepare. Do you have any questions?”

“Just one, Sir. What do I need to organise in the way of equipment and supplies?”

The Surgeon smiled.

“Don't worry about that. The bus and all its contents will be ready when you arrive at the muster point. All you have to do is be there with twenty nurses and your complete instructions will be given to you then.”

“Then thank you, sir, for your confidence in me.”

Marcus von Oldenburg got to his feet.

You have no need to thank me, Matron. Your actions have spoken loudly.”

He reached across the desk and offered his hand to her which she shook and then gasped slightly as her back muscles tightened.

“Good luck,” he said simply.

 

As his office door closed gently, he remained standing, still staring at it.

“Remarkable,” he said quietly to himself.

 

 

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