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The Long Road Home. Chapter 3
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 3

The six, wing-mounted machine-guns barked for a brief moment...

As the Allies tighten their stranglehold on Tripoli, Maria is left behind when the last ship leaves without her. Now she and her commanding officer are left alone to find their own way out and to avoid the approaching firestorm...

Taranto. January 17th, 1943

 

Maria stood on the quayside and watched the ship slowly disappearing into the distance, unaware of the approaching danger.

Suddenly, her superior officer, Oberstabsarzt Bernhardt Ritter, grabbed her arm.

“Come on,” he said as he pulled her urgently towards the small Kübelwagen standing silently behind them.

“What?” she said, puzzled but then, the distant drone of approaching aircraft dragged her from her unhappy reverie and she turned her face towards the sky.

“Yes,” he continued. “We have to go!”

Together, they ran back to the small, sand coloured car and the surgeon turned the key. The noisy little air-cooled engine rattled into life and, with the rear wheels throwing up a cloud of dust, they raced back towards the town.

They had barely reached the perimeter of the dockyard when all hell was let loose. Bombs were falling ahead of them as well as behind them and all around but the Khaki-clad officer kept his foot planted firmly on the accelerator pedal, swerving this way and that to avoid the flying debris that seemed to rain down from the sky.

Maria clung on for her life as she was thrown around. More than once she was thrown against the surgeon as he swung the wheel suddenly.

As they drove down a narrow alley, still driving as hard as they could, a huge explosion ahead of them brought down a building in a cloud of dust and smoke, blocking the alley completely. Bernhardt Ritter stood on the brakes and crunched the gears into reverse as quickly as he could.

Turning around to look behind them, he again floored the accelerator and, with the engine screaming in protest, reversed out of the alley as fast as the little car could go.

At that moment, unbeknown to them, a Royal Air Force Kittyhawk fighter aircraft was about to pass overhead at low level. The pilot immediately saw the German Kübelwagen appear and dipped his nose towards it, pressing the red button at the top of his control column with his thumb.

The six, wing-mounted machine-guns barked for a brief moment and two distinct lines of dust were kicked up as its Allison V12 engine roared over the little car.

The surgeon gunned the engine again and the little car shot forwards once more.

High above them, the Kittyhawk circled back and was coming in again. This time, Maria's attention was fixed on it and as the Kübel swerved to the right she clearly saw the brief flashes along the wings.

The turn came too late and the machine guns' bullets thudded straight across the little car as it screamed into another narrow alley. The windscreen exploded into a myriad of tiny fragments and the spare tyre on the front erupted, throwing rubber fragments into the air.

Maria screamed aloud.

A few metres into the alley, the car rolled to a halt but Major Ritter didn't turn off the engine. Instead, he just sat, gripping the steering wheel in silence and staring straight.

Maria opened her eyes and wiped the back of her hand across her face to wipe away the blood that was trickling into her eye and down her cheek.

For a moment she remained still, taking deep breaths and trying desperately to calm her pounding heart. Slowly she turned her head to the left and saw the Surgeon slowly slump forwards onto the steering wheel.

“Sir. Herr Major...”

She put out her arm and touched his shoulder. She was relieved when he turned his head towards her.

“Well, we made it,” he said, sitting upright again but then exclaimed, “You're bleeding!”

“Oh, it's nothing much,” she replied, touching her forehead. “I think it was glass from the screen. What about you? Are you all right?”

“Yes, I think so. Left leg hurts a bit but otherwise...”

“Let me look at it,” Maria said and began to open the door but it wouldn't move more than a couple of centimetres and screeched in protest when she tried to force it. When she looked down she saw a gaping hole and twisted metal next to the handle. The damage was such that the metal frame of the door was so twisted that it couldn't move far. Her heart missed a beat when she realised that a bullet had passed so close to her knee that... well, it didn't bear thinking about.

The Major put out his hand to stop her.

“Don't worry, it'll be fine. We need to move on before our luck runs out.”

She pulled the protesting door back and just about managed to get it to latch. She hoped it would remain closed if they had to drive like that again.

 

The surgeon went to lift his foot onto the clutch pedal but cried out in pain.

“Erm, Maria, I think that you maybe should take a look at my leg. I can't move it.”

This time, she didn't try to open the door but stood up and climbed over it instead. When she ran around to the other side she gasped as she surveyed the damage. The front tyre was gone, just like the spare, and there were several large bullet holes through the thin metal of the bodywork!

The driver's door opened easily and what she saw made her jaw drop.

“How could you not have felt that?” she exclaimed. A quick glance had revealed that a bullet had passed through the car's body just below the windscreen hinge, through the surgeon's left leg and embedded itself in the canvas covered seat cushion between his legs!

He looked down.

“Oh, Hmm... Adrenalin, I suppose,” he replied with a shrug. “I can feel it now, though.”

“It doesn't look good, Herr Oberstabsarzt,” Maria told him, “Although I think it missed your femur...”

“Bernhardt.”

“Sorry?” she said, without looking up from the wound.

“M... My name, Bernhardt,”

Something wasn't right about the way he sounded and Maria looked up at him. His face was ashen and he was beginning to tremble. She had seen it before, shock was beginning to set in.

Without further delay, she reached into her shoulder bag and took out a pair of scissors. Carefully, she began to cut the fabric away from the wound which was bleeding profusely.

“Your field, dressing. Where is it?”

Moving slowly, he fumbled with the pouch attached to his belt but he was shaking so much now that he struggled to open it.

“All right, Sir...” she paused when he looked at her, “...Bernhardt. Let me.”

She tore open the sand coloured package and began to wrap the linen bandage tightly around his leg, finally tearing back a strip at the end with which to tie it off.

“Right, then. I need you to slide across to the other side, I'll have to drive.

With every gramme of strength he could summon, and with Maria guiding his leg, he moved slowly and painfully across to where she had previously been sitting.

“It's f... funny, you know,” he stammered as she climbed in behind the wheel. “I... I have... have repaired s... so many such w... wounds and... and yet...” Maria let him speak as she turned the key. “Per... perhaps I can... I can underst...stand j...just how the pa... patient feels...”

Maria realised that the sounds of the air raid had finally died away and the drone of the aircraft was fading into the distance. The only sound that concerned her now was the shattering of the officer's teeth.

She crunched the gears into reverse and carefully backed out onto the main street.

“Where are we heading?” she asked, realising that she hadn't even considered their alternatives having seen the ship leave without them.

“The... the airf... field,” came the shaky response. “It's our o... only chance.”

She put her hand on his arm, knowing only too well how serious shock can be.

“Stay with me, Bernhardt, we'll be all right. I'll get us there, you'll see.”

 

With only three good tyres, Maria picked her way carefully through the debris-strewn streets and crowds of people who were now appearing from their shelters. Already, the light was fading but Maria didn't dare use the one remaining headlight. On the other hand, the damaged wheel also meant that she couldn't drive any faster than she already was.

Taking her eyes from the road ahead for just one glance, she saw that the major had closed his eyes.

“Sir! Sir!Bernhardt!” She shook his arm to awaken him. “You can't sleep. I need you to help me!”

“I'm sorry,” he replied so quietly that she could barely hear him above the noise of the engine and the clattering of the damaged wheel.

“I don't know how to get to the airfield!” she lied, shouting above the racket.

With difficulty, the major pushed himself up in his seat.

“Just keep on this way.”

Maria could barely make out the slurred words. He had stopped trembling now but he was so close to unconsciousness that he could barely form a sentence.

“Come on, Bernhardt! Stay with me, stay awake!”

She went to shake his arm again but as she released her grip on the wheel the car tried to turn to the left and she had to grab it again, quickly, just to keep going straight ahead.

Water! That was it!

“Bernhardt, where is your canteen?”

“Behind you,” came the croaked reply. “In my pack.”

Damn it! She couldn't reach round get to it and control the car at the same time. He would have to drink hers.

“Take my canteen and drink some water!” she demanded. “You'll have to get it yourself.”

This time, he didn't respond and she saw that he had closed his eyes again.

“Bernhardt!” she yelled.

“All right! I... I'm all right,” he mumbled.

“Get some water, come on, please. Just do it!” she urged him and this time, he reached across and took the canteen from her belt, removed the cap and raised it to his lips. He took a mouthful and lowered the canteen back to his lap.

“More!” Maria urged. “You need more than that, come on!”

Once again, Major Ritter raised the canteen to his lips and drank, the vibrations causing as much water to run down his chin as he actually drank. Maria made him drink half the contents of the canteen before she would allow him to return it to her.

 

By the time they had reached the road to the airfield and left the city behind, it was quite dark and Maria's arms were growing very tired with the constant struggle with the steering wheel.

She screamed as a loud bang shook the little car. It dipped to the left as the damaged wheel finally gave up and broke free, taking the whole hub with it. The front corner immediately dug into the dirt road and the car slewed around sideways and tipped over onto its side, throwing both of them into the road.

Stunned but not badly hurt, Maria got to her hands and knees and crawled over to the surgeon. He was lying still, just where he had fallen.

“Herr Oberst'...” she whispered.

To her relief, he answered immediately.

“I'm all right,” he said. “At least, I'm no worse...”

“Thank goodness.” She breathed a sigh of relief but now they had another problem. They had made it to the perimeter of the airfield but how was she to get him any further? He had obviously overcome the shock of the original injury but he was weak and there was no way he would be able to walk.

Maria turned and leaned back against the overturned wreckage. She too was weary and just at that moment, she was at a loss as to what to do next. Just up the road were the British, maybe they should just wait for them.

She shook her head. Of course, that wasn't an option.

She cocked an ear as she heard a distant sound. It was like...

She listened more carefully.

A Lorry, maybe more than one!

She dragged herself to her feet and stared into the darkness, back the way they had come.

The whine grew louder and then she saw two, tiny pinpricks of light.

What if they didn't see the wreckage or run over the Oberstabsarzt in the darkness.

She reached up and fumbled a little until she found the light switch on the dashboard. She held her breath and prayed silently to herself that the battery was still working. The switch clicked and the dashboard lights glowed dimly. She breathed again.

As the approaching truck drew near, she stood beside the dimly glowing red lights at the rear and waved. She hoped that the driver would see them and stop.

Seconds later, it did just that and a large, Italian Fiat lorry squealed to a halt beside them.

The driver stared down at them and shouted something in Italian.

Maria had no idea what he had said but shouted back up to him.

“Can you get us to the airfield?” she asked.

The driver stared at her and then at the Major who was now sitting up and leaning against the overturned Kübelwagen. His heavily bloodstained dressing was clearly visible in the darkness and the Italian driver just shook his head and raised his eyebrows.

The gearbox crunched noisily and the truck began to slowly move away.

Suddenly, an unseen Italian voice shouted from the back of the truck. Another, brief squeal and the big truck stopped again.

In the back, a space appeared between two of the seated soldiers and a familiar face appeared.

“Mataron... Mataron Maria! Is'a me, Gino! Whata you do, 'ere. Why you no on ship?”

“Gino! Thank goodness!” she exclaimed. “I am so pleased to see you!”

The tailgate crashed down and Gino and a couple of the other Italian soldiers jumped down onto the dirt road and ran around to the two of them.

“Where you go?” Gino asked and Maria told him they were heading for the airport. Beyond that, she had no idea but they had to get out of North Africa before the Allies broke through.

Gino raised his arms.

“No problem! We fly to Brindisi in one hour. You come and the doctor, 'e get 'elp at 'osipital.”

“Ayy, Moretti!” The driver gesticulated animatedly and tapped his wristwatch.

Gino dismissed him with a wave of his arm and the two soldiers went over to Major Ritter and lifted him between them. They carried him to the rear of the lorry and, with the help of some others already in the back, got him aboard and made him relatively comfortable whilst Maria climbed up into the open cab beside the driver.

 

She was amazed that they had got so close when, just five short minutes later, the truck pulled up alongside an Italian transport plane. The three engines were already running and the Italian soldiers dismounted the truck and began to board through the narrow doorway at the rear of the cabin.

Before the two Germans left the truck, Gino went and spoke to the load-master. Maria watched from the cab and there appeared, to her at least, to be a heated exchange during which Gino, more than once, gestured towards her.

Eventually, the conversation ended with the load-master raising his eyes and shrugging his shoulders before turning and going back inside the cabin.

Gino was grinning as he walked around to Maria.

“Is all good,” he grinned. “'e say 'no' but I explain that you are not like other German, that you always look out for others, 'oo ever they is.”

Maria smiled warmly.

“You are a good man, Gino, thank you. If I can't get Oberstabsarzt Ritter to a hospital, I am afraid he could die.”

“Si, si. There is 'osipital in Brindisi. We will be there in few hour.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“And so, 'trina, that's how I got here.”

Katarina and Maria sat alongside each other on a block of concrete, watching the wounded being embarked to the train.

“My goodness, Maria. I thought I had a rough time getting here. And what about the Oberst? How is he?”

“Well, by the time we landed, he'd become rather unwell. I kept him hydrated but the whole thing had become too much for him.”

“Maria! You mean he didn't make it?” Katarina put her hand to her mouth.

Maria smiled.

“Oh no! He made it all right. Sorry, I didn't mean to... No, he's fine. We got him to the hospital but he had lost a lot of blood. He only came round last night. The Italian surgeon did a great job with his leg, it should heal well although I imagine he will have a hell of a scar.”

Katarina looked at her sister.

“So many cuts and bruises,” she whispered and gripped Maria's hands tightly.

Maria shrugged.

“Cuts and bruises heal,” she said. “When I stood on that quayside watching your ship disappearing in the distance, well that was just...”

Katarina squeezed her hands even more tightly.

“I know,” she agreed. “It was the same for me. I wanted to wait for you but...”

Maria placed her finger against her sister's lips.

“Katarina, you don't have to explain. I know you wouldn't have left me willingly but you couldn't put the ship at risk, I understand that.”

“I would have let it go without me but they dragged me aboard...”

“'trina, stop. I understand. It really doesn't matter. We are together now, just as we are meant to be.”

Katarina threw her arms around Maria's neck and began to cry softly. Maria, too felt the tears begin to well-up.

They remained thus for a few moments.

“So, Maria,” Katarina asked hesitantly. “How did you know I would be here, tonight?”

Maria laughed.

“Actually, I didn't. Gino... you remember him, don't you? He heard about a train that was being marshalled here to take casualties back to Germany. Bernhardt was too sick to travel so he signed me off to go with this train.”

“Oh, Bernhardt now, is it?” Katarina raised an eyebrow and smiled.

Maria punched her sister on the arm who suddenly squealed in pain.

“Oww...! You're not the only one with bruises, you know!”

“Oh, gosh. I'm sorry. How did you get bruises?”

“Hanna fell on me.”

Maria stared incredulously at her sister.

“She fell on you? How on earth did that happen?”

“The ship lurched just as she went to come down a ladder. She fell down the steps and I was at the bottom.”

“My Goodness!” Maria was shocked. “Is she all right?”

Katarina smiled.

“Well, let's just say that if you think your bruises are bad... but, she'll be fine. Although I think she will be in some considerable pain for a few days.”

 

 

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