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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 19

Tags: desert, sand
"There was one nurse in particular who we all admired and heard so much about"

 Benghazi  . December 08th 1941


After the death of her friends, Maria threw everything she had into her work. She knew deep inside that she could not have done anything to prevent their demise. Two people had died that day and the more she thought about it only brought the conclusion that the outcome of anything she could have done differently would have been that two other nurses would have died.

In all her years of nursing, she had never experienced the death of a colleague and in such a way. It was something that would remain with her for the rest of her life.


Time, however, is a great healer they say and sure enough, Maria was gradually able to put it to the back of her mind and think more positively about the work she had yet to do.

For the three days before her arrival, Benghazi had been bombed continuously by the Royal Air Force. Much of the port area had been severely damaged, and she and her remaining nurses were kept very busy caring for the casualties. Unbeknown to her it was during one of these raids that her convoy had been strafed and Agathe and Trudi had become two more of its casualties.


The British Eighth Army had launched its attack on the Afrika Korps on the day she arrived. The fighting continued for two days and resulted in many casualties on both sides, but Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel had blocked the advance, and the British had retreated into Egypt.

Many hundreds of the battle's casualties passed through her hands on the way to being repatriated, some of whom were 'enemy' soldiers. That fact made no difference. To her, they were men, people. There were no uniforms in her hospital.


The days passed quickly, and one morning, towards the end of June, one of the nurses caught her arm as she began a morning ward round.

“Matron, have you heard the news?”

Maria was startled for a moment.

“Not recently, why?” she replied.

The young woman looked around as though she was checking that no-one could hear her before continuing in almost a whisper.

“Herr Hitler has invaded Russia.”

Maria's eyes opened wide.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “The Russians are our allies, why would he turn on them?”

“I don't know, but I am told it began a few days ago, on the twenty-second. Crossed over the Romanian border apparently.”

“What is happening?” she sighed. “Now the whole of Europe is at war. Have people lost their senses?”

She shook her head sadly but then,

“Isn't Romania near to Greece?” she asked.

“I don't think so,” the nurse pondered. “No, I think Bulgaria is between, and the border with Ukraine is on the northern side.”

She looked curiously at Maria.

“You are thinking of your sister?” she asked, and Maria nodded. “Because I think that Athens is a thousand kilometres from that border, maybe nearer to two.”

“What times we live in, Erika,” Maria replied with another sigh.


The fighting had been a short affair, lasting just three days but as the days became months, there was a constant stream of patients passing through her wards. There were skirmishes and air raids from which there were always victims ranging from minor to serious, life-threatening injuries.

Then, there was the sickness, always the sickness.

Maria wasn't surprised by it. By day the temperature was hot and the sun relentless. Flies plagued them incessantly.

Hygiene was a constant chore for her nurses and trying to keep everything clean and free from infection was an on-going battle. They had to deal with everything from minor wounds and burns to amputations and gangrene.

Maria and her girls worked tirelessly to look after their charges and make their stay as comfortable as possible until they could be sent to the hospital ships or recovered sufficiently to return to duty.


The war in the desert didn't stand still either, and in mid-November, the British forces launched a full-scale attack which began to force the Afrika Korps back from the Egyptian border.

The ensuing battle was intense, and for weeks the fighting raged across the burning desert sands resulting in hundreds of casualties, many of which passed through Maria's already overstretched wards.


On the morning of the seventh of December, Maria was called to the Commandant's office.

There she found the Chief Medical Officer along with an Afrika Korps major.

When she entered the office, both of them respectfully stood. It was the CMO who spoke first.

“Ah, Matron Kaufmann. Please, come in and take a seat.”

He gestured to the upholstered chair on the opposite side of his desk.

When she was seated, he introduced the other officer.

“This is Major Roth of the Fifteenth Panzer division.”

Maria smiled at him.

“Major Roth.”

The major didn't smile back.

“I will come straight to the point, and none of what is spoken of here is to go beyond this room.”

He stared at her for a moment.

“Is that clear, Matron Kaufmann?”

Maria frowned.

“As crystal, Herr Major,” she replied.

“Good. For the past three weeks, we have been involved in heavy fighting with the enemy around Tobruk and El Solloum. As you are probably aware, we have taken heavy losses, as have they and as a result, we need more resources to evacuate the casualties.”

“I can appreciate that Major,” she replied, “But what has it to do with me?”

“We want you to lead a convoy of ambulances to the area to help take the pressure off the forward dressing stations,” the CMO informed her. “The Major has acquired a number of vehicles which will form a convoy at first light tomorrow. Can you organise ten of your nurses to accompany them?”

Maria considered the request momentarily.

“Yes,” she replied slowly. “That is not a problem but what about the wards here? It will leave us rather short.”

“Matron Kaufmann,” Major Roth looked at her steadily. “If we don't evacuate my men then you and your nurses will have somewhat less work to worry about.”

“Fair enough,” she replied. “How many ambulances do you have?”

“I have been promised ten along with two medics for each. I need one of your nurses per vehicle.”

“So you only need nine nurses in addition to myself.”

It was more of a thought than a question, but the Major glared at her as though she had insulted him.

“I said ten, didn't I? You cannot organise your staff if you are tied up caring for a casualty. You will have overall command of the convoy including the medics. I will give you the necessary authority.”

“You do not need to concern yourself with that, Herr Major. I already hold the rank of Hauptmann.”

Major Roth leaned back in his seat and studied her.

“I have heard about your competence, Matron. It would appear that it is not understated. So I can leave everything in your capable hands?”

For the first time, he smiled and seemed to relax as she responded.

“Yes, Herr Major, you can. If the ambulances are there tomorrow morning, then my nurses and I shall be also.”


For the next hour or so, Maria and the major pored over maps and planned the logistics.

There were to be the ten ambulances, as he had indicated but also two lorries carrying supplies of fuel, food, and water. They would be marshaled between the ambulances to deter an aerial attack on them.


The following morning, Maria and the ten nurses she had chosen met in the canteen and then went together to the transport area.

The vehicles were there as promised along with the medics and all appeared ready to leave.

There was quite a variety. The two support lorries were similar to those she was familiar with, standard canvas-covered trucks but the ambulances consisted of four buses, three lorries with large square cabins on the back which were fully equipped for two stretchers along with dressings cupboards and two further buses converted to carry stretchers. All were painted in a sandy yellow colour and sported large white circles with prominent red crosses on the sides, front mudguards and on the rear. On the roof of each, the same but almost the full width of the vehicle which should have been unmistakable from the air.

She took comfort from this, believing that the British would not deliberately attack an unarmed ambulance convoy.


As winter approached, the daytime temperature had fallen to a far more comfortable sixteen degrees but to Maria, having now acclimatized, it felt cool at times, especially when there was s breeze blowing.

This day the air was quite still and the sky a clear azure. Inside Maria's ambulance, the heat was stifling. Even with all the windows open, they were not traveling fast enough to get sufficient airflow.

The nurse whom she had allocated to accompany her in the leading vehicle, one of the buses, was Erika, the young nurse who had informed her of the invasion of the Ukraine.

They sat on seats either side of the centre aisle opposite each other, chatting easily about anything that came to mind.

Unlike other matrons, Maria didn't consider herself above the other nurses in her care. She saw herself as just a nurse who was fortunate enough to be able to help the others and organise them so that their jobs would be made easier and, she hoped, more enjoyable.

Of course, the latter was no easy task under the circumstances they found themselves in.

“Where do you live, Erika?” Maria asked as the subject they were discussing had moved round to their homes and families.

Erika smiled mischievously.

“Not too far from you, really,” she grinned. “I live in Possenhofen.”

Maria frowned as she searched her memory. The name was familiar but she couldn't quite place it but then...

“Schloss Possenhofen,” she said slowly. “Oh yes, I have heard of it. On the Würmsee isn't it?”

“Yes, that's right,” Erika replied gleefully. “Have you been there?”

“No, not to the town but I have been to Starnberg, and on the lake boat so I have probably passed close by.”

Erika seemed to be drifting away in her mind as she took on a slightly vacant look.

“It is a beautiful place, you know, Matron. The lake and its surrounds are so very special whatever time of year.”

Maria agreed wholeheartedly.

“Yes, it is. I used to enjoy going there with Mama and Papa. We would catch the early train and stay there all day, but then the war came along...”

There was a momentary silence until Maria asked,

“Why did you become a nurse, Erika?”

Erika thought briefly.

“Oh, I don't know,” she said slowly. “I suppose I always wanted to. I never really considered anything else.”

“And did you train in Possenhofen?”

“I did mostly but the hospital there isn't the best. It's in the castle which is in a terrible state of repair. One day a week I had to go to the Ludwig-Maximilian university hospital for more advanced training.”

“That is where I trained,” Maria interjected. “I spent most of my career there... until the war called and I was sent to France, that is.”

Erika paused politely but then continued as though Maria had not spoken.

“We heard many tales, my colleagues and me. There was one nurse in particular who we all admired and heard so much about her. I am told that she left last year and that she was so efficient and caring that they say she was awarded the Red Cross Medal...”

Maria narrowed her eyes and stared at the young teenager sitting across from her.

“And do you know the name of this fabled nurse by any chance?”

Erika nodded mischievously but didn't say anything.

“Well then, who was it?” Maria asked.

“I believe she was called Maria Kaufmann, Matron,” she grinned.

“Oh, you monkey!” Maria laughed aloud; you were having me on!”

As the laughter died away, Erika continued.

“Well, in a way I suppose, but it is true, you were very highly regarded there, by those that mattered at least...”

Again, Maria was puzzled, and her forehead creased into another frown until Erika resumed her explanation.

“You were admired by the trainees and staff alike, but there was a rumour that you had in some way come to the attention of the SS and Gestapo. I heard that there was one SS officer in particular who wanted to have you arrested, but he just didn't have enough evidence. Even for a short time after you had left, I heard that he would appear on the wards watching his soldiers taking people away. He would just stand inside the door and watch the nurses, almost daring them to defy him. I think that you left just in time, Matron.”

“Do you know why he was interested in me in particular?”

Erika thought carefully.

“I don't know for sure, but I heard there was some kind of altercation between you and the SA. Apparently, you made some of them leave without the person they were looking for?”

“Hmm... yes, I did. That was why I was posted to France in such a hurry.”

“I did wonder why you left so suddenly,” Erika smiled. “At the time I thought you might have been arrested, but I figured that we would have heard if that had been the case.”

“To be honest, I haven't been back there since. Just as well, I suppose. Do you know his name?”

“Oh yes, everyone does. He is a particularly nasty character, I heard. He will shoot someone just for looking at him, I have heard.”

Maria waited expectantly until Erika suddenly realised.

“Oh, sorry. Holz, I believe. SS Obersturmfuhrer Holz.”

Maria tried to recollect the name, but she didn't know it.

“No, doesn't seem familiar,” she said. “Was he still there when you left?”

“I don't think so,” Erika answered thoughtfully. “No, I'm sure he wasn't. I think he left with his Sonderkommando. They were posted somewhere abroad, I think.”

Maria was about to speak when Erika suddenly raised her hand and pointed at something ahead.

“Matron, what's that?” she asked.

What Maria saw made her sigh. Directly ahead was a huge cloud of dust some ten metres high and stretching as far as she could see.

“That,” she said slowly, “Is a sandstorm. I have heard about these. Quickly now, we must close the windows.”

It had been some time since they had turned off the coastal road and were now heading across the desert. They couldn't follow the coast as that would have taken them to Tobruk which was still in British hands.

“Can we drive through that?” she shouted to the medic who was in the driving seat.

“No, Ma'am,” he shouted back. “We will have to park up until it passes.”

He was already pulling up as the storm hit. The sudden onslaught took Maria completely by surprise in its ferocity.

The wind howled and buffeted the vehicle causing it shudder and shake as though the wind were trying to blow it over.

Erika looked terrified, but there was no point in trying to speak over the racket of the wind and sand. Instead, Maria took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

The constant battering was also making Maria feel a little uneasy, and she wondered how long it go on for. She had heard of such storms going on for days.


Suddenly there was a deafening crack which was audible even above the howling winds. Moments later a bright flash closely followed by another crack which seemed to rumble on for a moment.

One of the two medics had seen her jump with alarm.

“Don't worry, Ma'am, it's just an Haboob,” he shouted as loud as he could, but Maria could only just make out what he was saying. “Thunder and lightning!”

Maria nodded and tried to smile, but all she managed was a slight upturn of her lips.


What neither Maria or Erika knew was that a Haboob is an intense but short-lived thunderstorm. Weather fronts colliding cause strong winds to lift the loose sand and carry it along and, sure enough, just over two hours later the winds dropped, and the dust settled once more. Peace returned to the convoy.

Maria looked at her young charge.

“Alright now?” she asked.

Erika nodded.

“That was unbelievable,” she replied, smiling. “What a fantastic experience!”

“Wasn't it just?” Maria agreed. “I had better go and check that the convoy is all right.”

She stood up and went to the front door, but the medic stopped her.

“That one is jammed, Ma'am, as is the other side. It will be because the sand has piled up against it. I'll just try the rear door. Won't be a minute.”

He was back in seconds.

“That one is jammed too. I'll have to go out of the window.”

Before he had a chance to move, Erika jumped up.

“I'll go,” she said quickly. I am smaller than you, and you can lower me down.”

The medic looked at Maria who shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine by me,” she said.


As it transpired, they didn't have to lower her far. The sand was more than halfway up to the windows. All they had to do was steady her until she found her footing.

“There is a shovel on the front mudguard,” the medic called to her. “Just shovel the sand from the door, and we'll do the rest.”

Erika nodded that she understood and disappeared towards the front.


Inside the bus, they waited patiently. They could hear her humming to herself and the hissing of the sand each time she moved a shovel full, and before long, the door was clear and open.

“This is some beach,” Erika beamed happily. “I can't even see the sea!”


Maria was the first off.

“Make sure you drink some water,” she said to the young woman as she passed.

“I will, Matron.”

She couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the rest of the convoy. All the other vehicles were in the same situation, buried so deep that she couldn't even see their wheels!

The medics from each were already digging out some of them out.

She walked over to the senior medic, a sergeant who appeared to be in his mid to late thirties. Old by comparison to the others.

Before she had even reached him, he had seen her and walked to meet her.

“We should be all right, Ma'am,” he said, a little grim-faced. “The two supply trucks and the dedicated ambulances are four-wheel drives. We will dig those out first, and then they can help pull the others clear. Shouldn't take long.”

Maria was relieved and thanked him, but he wasn't finished.

“We won't be free before dark though, Ma'am. We can't risk this road at night.”

“Fair enough, Sergeant. Let's get them free and then we will make camp ready to resume at first light. Can you arrange a guard roster?”

“Already in hand, Ma'am.”


Once the vehicles were free of the sand, it was already dark, and the temperature had dropped considerably, but the supply trucks had small paraffin stoves with which they warmed soup and made coffee.

Maria had blankets distributed and she and her nurses retired to her bus as she felt they would be more secure if they remained together. It wasn't that she thought they would be in any danger, but nevertheless, she didn't want anyone to feel isolated.


Trying to make herself comfortable, Maria began to regret that she hadn't chosen one of the stretcher carrying buses rather than her own which only had seats. At least she didn't have the problem of who would get to sleep in the stretchers and besides, she would still have chosen a seat anyway, rather than prevent someone else from having one.

Nevertheless, she closed her eyes and waited for sleep to take her.





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