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The Long Road Home. Chapter 13.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 13.

They could see the tiny clouds of smoke bursting in air. The guns at Brenner were no longer silent!

December 1943. Maria and Katarina are looking forward to being home for Christmas. Now they are on the train, all is well... or is it?

Innsbruck, December 15th 1943

 

The night wore on. Huddled together for warmth in the now freezing carriage, Katarina and Maria dozed fitfully. The hours seemed to pass by so slowly but, eventually, the cold, grey dawn began to push away the darkness. As the light grew in intensity, a few white snowflakes began to fall past the window.

Maria wiped her hand across the glass, causing the condensation to run in rivulets.

Suddenly, she put her hand to her mouth as she yawned uncontrollably.

“It's snowing, Trina!” she mumbled through her wool-covered fingers.

Katarina pulled her coat more tightly around her.

“I'm not surprised,” her sister replied, stifling an equally uncontrollable yawn. “It's so cold in here. Let's see if we can find some breakfast.”

One after the other, they climbed down from the carriage and onto the wet ground. The few flakes that fell melted almost instantly.

Arm in arm, they walked alongside the train towards the front where they found a few men standing together, chatting. One pointed down the line and the others looked and nodded.

“Excuse me,” Maria spoke politely but firmly. “We are looking for somewhere to get some breakfast.”

The man who had been pointing looked at her and lowered his arm.

“Aren't we all, Fräulein!” he said with a sneer.

Maria stared at him defiantly.

“Over there,” he said, indicating a concrete building on the far side of the mass of railway lines.

“Thank you,” she replied with an exaggeratedly mocking tone.

Very carefully, they made their way across the rails, watching where they stepped and looking out for moving trains.

 

The building turned out to be offices for the railway yard, the entrance to which was guarded by two Wehrmacht soldiers.

“Papers, please!” the nearest one demanded.

Maria took her Identity card from her bag and gave it to him.

The guard studied it momentarily and then looked at her.

“You have no authority to be here, Ma'am,” he said slowly, having noted her rank.

“No, We know that. We are travelling to Munich but since we are delayed here we hoped to find some breakfast. Not just for us but all the casualties travelling with us.” As she spoke she turned to indicate the train on the furthest track.

The guard handed her card back.

“Wait here.”

He then turned and stepped inside the door, picking up a telephone handset from the wall. He cranked the handle a couple of times and waited. Maria could see him talking but she couldn't hear what he was saying.

After a brief conversation, he returned the handset to its cradle and returned to them.

“I spoke to the Transport Officer, Ma'am. He said that if you return to the train he will send a field kitchen over as soon as one is available.”

 

The officer was true to his word and, some two hours later, all the passengers had been given rations of hot, coffee and bread with sausages. It wasn't the best breakfast either of them had enjoyed but it was very welcome and it did, at least, drive out the cold from their bones.

 

During that time, it hadn't gone unnoticed that a large, black locomotive had arrived and been coupled to the front of their train and, no sooner had the train's guard checked that everyone was aboard, that they began the next part of their journey.

Once again, it began slowly, clattering across the multitude of points and crossings before picking up speed.

The sky had already brightened and the grey clouds were breaking up, revealing the bright blue sky beyond.

Neither Katarina nor Maria spoke as the Brenner Pass was revealed in all its beauty. Although Munich was not too far from the Alps, Maria had never been through them and the only time that Katarina had seen them had been from an aeroplane. Both were stunned by the magnificent scenery that they could see from the windows.

Although neither mentioned them, they had both noticed the numerous Anti-aircraft guns that surrounded the yard at Brenner, their huge barrels pointing menacingly skywards.

The train wound its way slowly through the pass, the rails following the natural contours between the tree-covered, towering mountains.

As they watched, a shadow passed across the side of the mountainside, causing both of them to look skywards.

“Oh my goodness, Maria. Look at that!” Katarina exclaimed.

It was a sight that they had both seen before and it filled them with dread. Passing overhead was wave upon wave of American bombers, their bright silver wings glinting in the sunlight.

In the distance behind them, they could see the tiny clouds of smoke bursting in air. The guns at Brenner were no longer silent!

“There must be hundreds of them,” she continued. “I wonder where they are heading.”

Maria sighed. The memories of the raids on Rome came flooding back to her.

“I don't know but one thing is for sure, wherever the target is will soon be a Hell on earth.”

Suddenly, the carriage was plunged into darkness as their train ran into a tunnel. The brakes squealed loudly and the train stopped with a jolt just a few seconds later.

Katarina fumbled blindly for Maria's hand, looking for as well as offering some degree of reassurance.

After a moment, the dim carriage lights illuminated, shedding some of their glow against the rugged, hewn rock of the tunnel wall outside.

Katarina was afraid. Although she didn't say so, for fear of upsetting her sister, the thought of being trapped beneath this mountain, or worse, crushed to death, filled her with unimaginable terror.

The train remained motionless for, what seemed to Katarina, hours. The longer they sat there, the harder it became for her.

“Katarina, are you all right?” her sister asked after a while. “You're trembling.”

Although she wasn't aware of it, she had been gripping Maria's hand more and more tightly and now that Maria had spoken she quickly released her hand.

“Oh, yes, s... sorry,” she replied with a little hesitation. “I'm just a little nervous.”

Maria put her arm around her and pulled her tightly against her.

“I think you are a little more than nervous,” she said softly, “You were crushing my hand.”

“Oh yes, sorry about that. It's the darkness and uncertainty. I feel trapped in here but I'll be fine, don't worry about me.”

“It's not our time yet, 'Trina,” Maria reassured her with a gentle hug. “Don't worry, I am here with you.”

After a little more time, the train suddenly jolted and began to move but slowly. As they emerged from the darkness, the bright sunlight hurt their eyes, forcing them to squint whilst they became accustomed to it.

Katarina sighed audibly. “Thank goodness,” she whispered.

They didn't seem to travel for long before the train stopped again.

Wiping away the condensation, Maria peered out. There were no buildings visible and they seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

Several minutes passed before they moved again but very slowly indeed. A few more kilometres along the line the train turned from the main track and into a side loop, once more coming to a stand.

“What's going on?” Katarina asked but Maria just shrugged. “No idea,” she replied.

They didn't have to wait long to find out. Some fifteen minutes later, the compartment door slid open. The same man in the Deutsche Reichsbahn uniform entered.

“We will be here for some time,” he began. “Did you see the American bombers?”

Katarina was about to respond but he continued before she had a chance to open her mouth.

“We stayed in the tunnel for protection but their target was not us or Brenner, it was Innsbruck. It appears they have inflicted major damage, not only on the town but the railway too. We may be stuck here for a long time.”

Once again, Katarina opened her mouth to speak but the train-guard stepped back and quickly slid the door closed again.

The two young women stared at each other in dismay.

Suddenly, Maria jumped to her feet and ran after the guard.

“Hey!” she shouted as he disappeared through the door at the end of the corridor.

The Guard reappeared just as Maria ran through the door. He grabbed her as she ran into him.

“Slow down,” he told her, looking a little perturbed that she had delayed him in his duties.

“How far are we from Innsbruck?” she asked him.

The Guard frowned and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don't know,” he replied. “Five, maybe ten kilometres. I really don't know.”

“Can you find out? We should get there.”

The Guard's eyes opened wide.

“Get there?” he repeated, incredulously. “How are you going to get there? I mean, why? Why do you even want to?”

Maria raised her eyes.

“Look at me!” she told him. “What am I? What is my sister?”

The man stared at her. What exactly did she want him to say?”

“Oh, for Heaven's sake. We are nurses! They will need every little bit of help they can get and we cannot help if we are stuck here!”

Katarina had not been far behind her and tugged at Maria's sleeve.

“How will we get there?” she asked, barely louder than a whisper.

“How did you know about the raid?” Maria asked the Guard.

“The driver told me.”

“Don't make me drag it out of you,” she sighed.

The Guard seemed nervous now.

“The controller told him when we stopped. There is a telephone at the signal.”

“Good. Then go and tell the controller that we need to get to Innsbruck to assist with the casualties. Tell him that we are both experienced Red Cross Matrons and, if that is not enough, we also hold the rank of Hauptmann.”

He seemed to hesitate, unsure of what was happening or what he was supposed to do.

“Go on then,” Katarina urged.

That seemed to clear his mind somewhat and he jumped from the carriage step and walked quickly towards the front of the train.

The two sisters returned to their compartment where they had been comparatively warm but in their haste, they had left the door open and now it was just as cold as the corridor. After having spent so many months in hot countries, Libya and then Rome, they were now very grateful for the thick Grey-green overcoats they had been issued with. Almost simultaneously, they pulled their collars tightly around their necks, trying desperately to keep warm.

They waited patiently but the guard didn't return. Maria checked her watch.

“Two hours!” she grumbled. “Do you think he got through to anyone?”

Katarina shrugged.

“Probably didn't even try,” she said. “He'll be with the drivers, keeping warm by the fire, no doubt.”

Maria nodded.

“Maybe. Can't say I blame him though, I'm frozen.”

As she spoke, the carriage suddenly jolted and, at the same time, they heard a faint whistle from the engine.

“We're moving again. They must have cleared a route.”

Very slowly, the train passed over the junction and back onto the mail line. To their consternation, however, it didn't pick up any pace, they were moving at little more than walking speed.

A further hour passed before they discovered the reason for their lingering rate. As they entered the urban districts of Innsbruck, they were stunned to see the devastation that the recent raid had inflicted. Buildings were demolished and some were still burning. The railway yard had several deep craters and the rails were bent and twisted, their jagged ends pointing skywards and all about them was the smashed remnants of wagons and carriages. The wheels of their carriage squealed in protest as they rolled over weakened structures which had been hastily repaired to allow them to pass. Even at such a slow speed, the carriage tilted first one way and then the other and, for a moment, they were worried that the weight would be too much and the train would tip over.

They wondered, although neither mentioned it, how long it would take to get through but, without warning, the train stopped dead! Both Maria and Katarina were thrown from their seats and onto the cold hard floor. It was as though something had run into them but they were sure that could not be so.

Maria picked herself up and put out her hand to help Katarina.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Katarina nodded and stood unaided. “We'd better check that everyone else is unharmed.”

 

Because of the slow speed, there were very few further injuries and those that there were had not been significant, rather more painful than harmful.

Whilst they went from compartment to compartment, the train guard appeared from the front. He was looking rather flustered.

“What happened?” Katarina asked him, rather sharply, Maria thought.

“The loco,” he began. “A rail broke and derailed it. Is anyone hurt?”

Maria was about to tell him when he interrupted her. “You have to come. The Engineer is hurt badly. When the rail broke he was about to shovel coal into the fire and the sudden movement threw him forwards against open firebox. He is burnt!”

Without another word, the three of them ran to the front and down the carriage steps. Both Maria and Katarina gasped at the scene that appeared before them.

The huge, black locomotive was leaning over at an unbelievable angle and at forty-five degrees to the rest of the train. How it hadn't fallen onto its side astounded them!

The whole scene was shrouded in white steam and thick, black smoke rose lazily from the chimney.

Maria started towards the cab but the guard grabbed her.

“No, you can't go up there. You'll never get up the steps. Besides, he is on the other side. He was thrown from the cab when the loco tipped!”

The two young women, guided by the railwayman, picked their way carefully around the stricken locomotive, across the adjacent tracks and back round to the other side.

Katarina looked up and couldn't help but think that the great, black monster looked like a dying dragon breathing smoke and steam as it took its last breath.

There were many workmen around but there was no sign of the Engineer.

“There he is!” Maria grabbed Katarina's arm and pointed towards a dark shape lying on the stones. They began to run.

“Hey, Wait! No! stop! You can't go under there!”

Strong arms grabbed and held them.

Katarina struggled free. “He needs help,” she shouted above the general hubbub.

The workman who had grabbed her took hold of her sleeve.

“No, you can't go under. It could fall at any moment. We need to support it before anyone can go under.”

Again, Katarina pulled herself free.

“We can't wait for that, we'll just have to take that chance,” she yelled and ran towards the prone Engineer.

The injured man was lying, trembling violently, on the cold ballast stones. He looked up as they approached, his eyes a stark white contrast to his burnt-black face.

Kneeling beside him, the sharp stones digging almost unnoticed into her knees, she took his hand and felt for a pulse. She found it almost immediately as her sister joined her.

Maria waited silently until Katarina released his wrist.

“He has a good pulse,” she reported. “A little weak but steady.”

“That will be the shock,” Maria agreed. “What damage has he done?”

Together, they examined him and quite soon realised that there were other injuries beyond the burns.

Katarina leaned towards her sister and spoke quietly.

“The burns are not too bad, considering. Most of the black is coal dirt but I am concerned.” Maria leaned closer as her sister whispered directly into her ear. “I think his neck is broken. I hope I am wrong but I have a feeling that when he was thrown from the cab, he landed on the rail.”

Maria winced.

“Ouch! Are you sure?”

Her sister shook her head.

“No. I can't be sure but when I was checking he didn't even so much as flinch when I touched the areas when his overalls are torn. I don't think he can feel anything. Do you see his hand? The one that is not burned? It is badly grazed and yet there was no reaction when I lifted it to take his pulse.”

Maria leaned towards the engineer whose eyes seems to stare out of the blackness.

“Do not move a muscle but just blink if you can hear me.”

The man blinked, twice.

“Again, do not move your head but do you have any pain anywhere?”

“My face,” came the almost inaudible reply through barely moving lips.

She rested her hand gently on his shoulder.

“Anywhere else?”

“No.”

“Stay very still and try not to move. We will get you to a hospital, alright?

As she was speaking, Katarina jumped up and called to the workmen.

“Who's in charge here?” she asked.

A middle-aged man stepped forward.

“I am. Is he all right?”

She walked towards him, shaking her head.

“No. He needs a hospital urgently. Can we get an ambulance?”

“Not a chance,” came the unexpected reply. “Have you seen the state of this place? They are all busy.”

Katarina pursed her lips. “A lorry then, something with a flat floor!”

The foreman turned and called into the group of onlookers.

“Boris! Get the maintenance truck up here, quickly!”

Katarina quickly regained his attention.

“I need a wide but solid plank of wood. Do you have one?”

The foreman looked confused. “Yes, on the truck, why?”

“Because he may have a broken neck and we need to move him without disturbing it.”

He stared at her but said nothing and moments later the truck appeared, reversing towards them.

Immediately, the foreman dropped the tail-board and climbed up onto the open load-bed.

“There are two planks, each about thirty centimetres wide but two metres long. Will they work?” he shouted to her.

“Yes, if we can keep them solidly together.”

“No problem,” he shouted back. “I'll fix them to a couple of posts, like a stretcher.”

He called for two men to help him and in no time at all had fixed up what, to Katarina, appeared to be a fairly solid board.

The three men jumped to the ground, slid the makeshift stretcher from the back of the truck but then stopped, looking up at the severely unstable locomotive.

“Come on, damn you!” Katarina shouted. “We have to get him to a hospital!”

The foreman looked at her and then tugged at the board, encouraging his men to follow him.

Taking control, Maria, who had been kneeling beside the badly injured engineer, guided the foreman to place the board on the ground behind his head.

“Good. Now, Katarina and I will support his head whilst you slide the board beneath him very carefully. Do you understand?”

The foreman nodded and Maria turned to the two workmen.

“You two will be either side of him and, as the board slides under, you must lift him as little as possible to get it in, all right?”

 

The whole operation seemed to take an eternity. The board was a little rough and caught on the victim's overalls constantly but, with gentle encouragement, they got it under.

Katarina held his head whilst the three men gently lifted the makeshift stretcher and carried it slowly and with great care to the waiting lorry.

Maria climbed onto the back and, as they lifted the casualty up into the load-bed, took over from her sister to keep his head perfectly still.

By the time they were ready to move the sun was setting and, on Maria's instruction, the truck moved as slowly as it could to avoid jolting them.

 

When they finally arrived at the hospital, the scene was one of absolute chaos and they were stopped at the hospital gates by a policeman who looked exhausted.

“You can't come in here!” They heard him tell the foreman. “We need it clear for the ambulances.”

“I've got a casualty,” the foreman insisted.

“Then you'll have to carry him. You can't bring the truck in.”

“Officer!” Maria shouted.

The policeman looked around and then spotted her in the back.

“This man has a broken neck, we cannot carry him. I and my colleague are frozen and we can't feel our hands any more so let is through!”

“But Sister, I have orders to only let ambulances through...”

“An ambulance is a vehicle for transporting casualties, is it not?”

“Well, yes, but...”

“Then this is an ambulance!” Maria responded angrily. “Move or I will have him run you down!”

 

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