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The Long Road Home. Chapter 6.

Tags: ww2, history, rome

“They have big stars under the wings with stripes either side. What else could they be?”

19th July 1943... The first major allied air raid on Rome. Three waves of more than 500 USAAF bombers attacked three targets. The first, San Lorenzo freight yard. The second, Rome Termini railway complex and the third... Ciampino Airfield!

Rome. July 19th 1943

 

The visit to the Vatican seemed to have a profound effect on Hanna. As soon as she passed through the great doors and entered the Basilica, she became calm and appeared to be at peace.

Maria took the lead, Katarina not having been inside a church for many years.

Taking her arm, she led Hanna to a row of pews immediately opposite the confessional boxes.

They had never discussed religion and Maria had no idea how Hanna felt but as the three of them went to sit, Hanna suddenly stopped and looked at the box which had a small candle burning above its entrance.

She turned to Maria.

“It's been so long,” she said quietly, “I think I should... I mean... do you mind if...”

Maria smiled.

“We only brought you here, Hanna. What you do here is entirely up to you. If that is what you want then...”

Hanna opened the wooden door and disappeared inside whilst Maria and Katarina sat in the pew and waited.

Without taking her eyes from the great Alter ahead of them, Katarina spoke in little more than a whisper.

“I have never really been a great church-goer, you know. That doesn't mean I don't believe in God, of course, but sometimes, when you consider the things we have seen, it can be really hard to understand why a God who is supposed to be so loving and generous... I mean, why does he let such awful things happen?”

Maria thought for a moment.

“I don't blame God, Katarina. People cause all the ills in the world. Their greed, their desire for power. People often blame religion for the terrible things that happen but really, it is just an excuse used by certain people to get what they want. Even the administration of my own religion relies on the fear of God to get the faithful to do as they are bid. I believe that God is good. I don't believe for one minute that he would turn away anyone who lived a good and thoughtful life just because that person didn't believe in him or go to church every Sunday, do you?”

“But you always attend church when you are at home, don't you?” Katarina replied.

“I know but that is because I want to. I want to worship him with everyone else, not because of fear but because I like the atmosphere and the happiness that comes with being in church. I don't imagine He will think any less of me just because I haven't been to church whilst I am away from home. It doesn't mean that my faith in him is less.”

“I can see that,” her sister agreed.

Maria turned to her.

“Just sitting here, you and I, can't you feel his presence, the peace and tranquillity that fills you?”

Katarina took her hand.

“Yes, I can,” she whispered. “It fills me. I can understand, now, why you brought us here.”

They fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts until the door to the confessional box opened and Hanna appeared once more. She sat beside the sisters and bowed her head.

Katarina looked at her but she didn't speak. Maybe Hanna didn't want to tell her what she felt or maybe she was praying but, whichever it was, Katarina decided that she would talk to them in her own time. Instead, she reached across and took her hand, holding it gently to reassure her.

After a moment, she slipped to her knees, clasping her hands in front of her and began to pray almost inaudibly;

 

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.

Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostræ. Amen.

 

As she whispered the Latin words, both Maria and Katarina knelt beside her and clasped their own hands together.

Katarina was enthralled as she strained to hear what the young nurse beside her was saying. Although she didn't understand a single word, somehow, it had a profound effect on her.

Hanna repeated the prayer and then began another;

 

Pater noster, qui es in caelis,

sanctificetur nomen tuum.

Adveniat regnum tuum.

Fiat voluntas tua,

sicut in caelo, et in terra.

Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,

et dimitte nobis debita nostra,

sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,

sed libera nos a malo.

Amen.”

 

Finally, she fell silent but remained, head bowed. Since Maria didn't move, Katarina also remained motionless. To her, they seemed to remain thus for quite some time but she didn't mind. Although this was so unfamiliar to her, she felt at peace within herself, as though the war and everything that was happening in the world was locked outside. Here, she felt safe.

Hanna looked up and, gazing at the great crucifix, she made the sign of the cross and sat back on the wooden bench. Maria then did the same and, with a little uncertainty, Katarina emulated them.

When she turned to Hanna it was as though there was a different person sitting beside her. The sadness was gone and she appeared serene and relaxed.

With a little hesitation, Katarina spoke.

“I didn't know that you could speak other languages.”

Hanna smiled benignly.

“I don't,” she replied. “I am Roman Catholic. All our services are in Latin. I understand the prayers such as the Hail Mary and The Lord's Prayer, which I just recited but, to be honest, not much else.

Katarina was puzzled,

“I don't understand,” she said. “What is the point of blindly reciting words that you don't understand?”

“It doesn't really matter what the words are, Matron,” Hanna told her, “It is what is in your heart.”

Katarina took her hand again.

“You don't need to call us 'Matron' when we are alone, you know.”

Hanna smiled.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

Katarina had so many questions, so many things that she didn't understand that she could have sat there all day. Instead, though, she asked just one more.

“Did the priest speak German, you know, in there?”

Hanna smiled as though she were thinking of happier times.

“No,” she said introspectively. “He didn't but, really, it didn't matter. He just allowed me to talk. He didn't interrupt me or ask me anything but just sat patiently and quietly whilst I talked. Just letting it all out was so... well... liberating, I suppose. I know someone was listening and understood. It was as though all my hurt was being drawn from me. Nothing has changed but I somehow feel more able to deal with it. Does that make sense?”

Katarina nodded.

“Yes, oddly, it does,” she replied.

 

The following day, Hanna decided to accept Major Ritter's offer to return to Günne. Both Katarina and Maria went with her to the airfield where the major and the leutnant boarded a large Junkers JU52 transport for Berlin and Hanna, a much smaller, single-engined aeroplane bound for Dortmund after promising to write and let them know how things go for her.

 

 

 

The subsequent days were a little subdued for the two matrons after Hanna left. The whole incident had made them realise that no-one was safe from the perils of this war.

One morning, whilst taking breakfast together, Katarina was a little concerned to find her sister somewhat subdued.

“Is something wrong, Maria?” she asked. “You seem a little preoccupied this morning.”

“I'm alright, 'trina,” she replied. “It's just that business with poor Hanna. I hadn't thought much about what could be happening at home. I always had it in my mind that the war was fought on foreign soil and that the countries that were invaded would just defend themselves. I suppose I have been quite arrogant really or, at least, very naïve.”

“I think we both have,” her sister agreed. “It is only fair to think that way, though. Until now, that is exactly how it has been but...” her voice dropped to a whisper lest she be overheard, “... I think that Herr Hitler has drastically underestimated the British. The Americans are fighting as well, now, and they have massive resources coupled to the fact that they are so far away.”

“Have you heard from home?” Maria asked.

“Funny you should ask. Just this morning, actually.”

“That was why I asked!” Maria chuckled. “I had a letter too. I haven't opened it yet, though.”

“Do you have it with you?”

Maria nodded and produced it from her pocket.

Katarina did the same and, together, they sat in silence whilst they opened and read them.

Looking up, Katarina was the first to speak.

“Mama and Papa have been to visit Anna and Herman.”

She still couldn't imagine her mother and father as anything but just that and so they had agreed that she would call them by name instead.

“Yes, Maria affirmed, “Mama says so here too. I'm glad they have been able to be close again but it can't be easy for them.”

“No, I suppose not but, when this war is over and we can go home, things will be different, you'll see. We will still be the same people we ever were but like one big extended family. Perhaps Mama and Papa could move back to Munich?”

Maria smiled.

“Yes, that is a nice thought but maybe we shouldn't assume too much yet. After all, we haven't been home since all this happened. We don't really know how our parents are feeling about everything.”

“That is true,” Katarina agreed. “It doesn't hurt to hope though, does it?”

“Not at all,” her sister conceded.

They folded their letters and stood up. Although the movement of patients had slowed, there was still plenty to keep them busy. They were the most senior of the German staff and keeping the camp running smoothly was no easy task.

 

One morning, several weeks later, the two young women took a delivery of mail which had been collected from the railway station by the Italian Liaison officer.

Katarina was checking them against the names of those who were still with them when she came upon one which was addressed to both Matron K. Langsdorff und Matron M. Kaufmann.

She turned it over and looked at the rear to see where it came from.

“Maria!” she called to her sister who was preparing some transport documents. “There's a letter from Hanna!”

Maria immediately stopped what she was doing and looked up, suddenly attentive.

Katarina tore open the envelope and began to read.

Her curiosity getting the better of her, Maria couldn't wait.

“What does she say? Is she all right?”

Katarina held up her forefinger until she finished reading.

“Yes she is,” she said eventually. “In fact, she is better than all right... here, you read it.”

Maria took the letter.

 

Dear Matrons

I am sorry I have taken so long to write but it has been incredibly busy here.

When I arrived, I discovered that, although my father had indeed perished, he had managed to save my mother, although no-one could understand how. The house, which was only some two hundred metres from the dam, was completely destroyed, along with so many others. She was the only member of my family to survive, albeit only just! They were found together some six kilometres away from where the house had been, at Niederense.

I don't know when, or even if I will return to you as the Red Cross has agreed to let me stay and help here. Already they have begun to repair the dam and homes need to be rebuilt.

I know you will be fine without me but I want you both to know that I will never, ever forget what you did for me that day. Without you, I could not have got through it.

You will be in my heart forever and, perhaps one day, we will meet again.

God bless you both.

Much love,

Hanna.

 

Maria folded the letter.

“At least she is not alone. I am glad she has someone, still. I miss her.”

Katarina agreed.

“Yes, me too. She is a very good nurse and a lovely person.”

 

Tensions between the Italians and the Germans were rising. It seemed that the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini was losing his grip on the country. A wave of labour strikes throughout March had crippled the country and, by mid-July, news was beginning to filter through that the Allies had invaded Sicily.

 

A few days after hearing of the invasion, Katarina was checking on some new arrivals along with one of her nurses whilst Maria was at the railhead, having received notification of an unscheduled arrival from the south.

Maria was sitting on the rear step of the ambulance, enjoying the early morning sunshine when her companion, Anneliese, suddenly looked up.

“Can you hear something?” she asked.

Maria listened carefully.

“Yes,” she replied. “It sounds like aircraft in the distance. Lots of them too, from the sound of it.”

Anneliese scanned the clear blue sky.

“Is that bad?” she asked upon seeing the concern on her Matron's face.

“I don't know,” Maria answered slowly. “I hope not, especially considering the raids on Benghazi and Tripoli.”

Anneliese shuddered, the memories still fresh in her mind.

“They... they wouldn't bomb Rome, would they? Surely the would have to consider the history here and...”

“And what?”

“Well, the Vatican. They wouldn't bomb the Pope, surely?”

“Hmm... I would hope not,” Maria agreed.

The steady drone became gradually louder and, within a few minutes, the sky was filled with huge, silver bombers. Wave after wave filled the sky, darkening the ground with there shadows.

“I... I think they are American,” Anneliese shouted above the roar of so many engines.

“How do you know?” Maria shouted back.

“They have big stars under the wings with stripes either side. What else could they be?”

For a few minutes, they stared silently until they began to hear the whistles and explosions of hundreds of bombs being released onto the far side of the city.

The noise seemed to go on and on as the two young nurses watched in horror as great plumes of dust and smoke arose.

Gradually, the noise died away as the great bombers, relieved of their burden, finally turned for home.

The respite was short-lived, though, as very soon after a second wave of these terrifying machines appeared heading in the same direction only this time, they released their load sooner.

“I think that is the area of the Termini, the main station,” Anneliese shouted. “Why are they doing this, to Rome of all places?”

Maria didn't have an answer to that. In her wildest imagination, she couldn't find a justification for destroying such a beautiful and historically important city as Rome.

As they watched in dismay, the train for which they had been waiting pulled into the platform and the two women, along with the Italian orderlies who had been assigned to assist them, ran to the carriage which, they had been informed, contained the German casualties.

Above them, without them realising, a third wave of the giant American bombers was approaching.

The first Explosion was so close that the windows in the station building shattered.

The whole area around them shook as bomb after bomb whistled down on the airfield and its surrounding district.

The nightmare that she had endured in Tripoli was nothing compared to this. She dragged Anneliese to the ground and they cowered in fear as the earth shook and rubble rained down around them.

Maria had never been so afraid and she covered her ears with her hands and tried to make herself as small as possible, convinced that all the demons of hell had been unleashed!

 

When the nightmare finally ended, she lay still for a while, wondering whether it really was over or was there to be a fourth or even fifth wave.

Slowly she got to her knees, the dust and dirt clattering noisily as it fell from her clothes.

Anneliese remained still.

Maria touched her gently.

“Anneliese, it's all right now. They've gone.”

Still, the young woman remained motionless.

Brushing her hair back from her face, Maria felt something warm and sticky on her hand. Anneliese's hair was matted with blood!

There, on the side of her head, Maria could see the glistening blood oozing slowly from a deep cut.

A good sign, she thought, at least she was still alive.

With two fingers she searched for a pulse in her neck. Happily, she found it easily and it was strong and steady.

“Anneliese.”

She gently shook the young woman's shoulder.

“Anneliese, wake up.”

The young nurse didn't stir so Maria jumped up and shouted, “Stretcher, here, now!”

The ambulance, behind which they had sheltered, was wrecked. All the glass was gone and the door had been partly torn from the back, leaving it hanging on just one hinge. Nevertheless, Maria climbed inside and found an undamaged stretcher which she slid from its rack and took it back to Anneliese.

Having checked that she was otherwise uninjured, Maria struggled to get her colleague onto the khaki canvas unaided.

“Matron?” a tiny voice whispered.

“Anneliese, thank goodness.”

“What happened and why is it so dark?”

“I think you were hit on the head by something,” Maria replied but then, “It isn't dark though.”

Maria was worried.

“Can't you see?” she asked.

Anneliese moved her head slightly. “My head is pounding,” she said.

She tried to reassure her but Anneliese knew as well as she did that head injuries could be deadly.

“I think you have concussion... Medic!” she shouted, and then again but none appeared.

Anneliese tried to get up but Maria stopped with gentle but firm pressure on her shoulder.

“Try not to move,” she said, handing her a dressing pad. “Can you hold this to your head? I don't want to dress the wound yet until I can be sure of the extent of your injury.”

As she spoke, an Italian soldier appeared and Maria grabbed his arm and pointed to the stretcher.

“Help me get her into the ambulance!” she demanded but the Italian just glared at her and tried to walk away.

Maria clung unto his sleeve with determination.

“Aiutami! Ora!”

The Italian shrugged resignedly and bent down to take hold of the handles at one end. Maria took the other end and between them, they lifted Anneliese into the rear of the damaged vehicle.

There was no sign of its driver but fortunately, he had left the keys in the ignition when the bombing started. Maria quickly removed them and told Anneliese that she had to find the casualties who had arrived on the train. She wouldn't be long.

True to her word, she returned in just a few minutes with the two Luftwaffe airmen. One had lost an arm and the other had various burns to his head and hands. Maria learned later that they had crashed into the sea just off the coast near Tripoli.

Anneliese had slipped back into unconsciousness and so, without further delay, Maria jumped into the driving seat and turned the key.

Not knowing how much damage the vehicle had actually suffered, her heart was in her mouth. The engine turned once, twice and then, much to her relief, it started.

She crunched the gearbox and let out the clutch and the battered Fiat lurched forward. She drove slowly and carefully through the debris that was strewn about the station yard but once clear she accelerated a little in order to get them back to the camp as quickly as she could.

The camp was only a few minutes from the station and the road had been damaged in the raid. It wasn't easy for her maintaining a reasonable pace but avoiding the debris and craters.

As she wrestled with the wheel to avoid a large hole in the road she was alarmed to hear a sudden scraping sound and a crash from the rear of the vehicle. She hit the brakes but, to her relief, she heard one of the airmen shout through the open window.

“Keep going, Sister. It was just the door falling off!”

Skirting the airfield perimeter, the sight she saw was one of carnage. The runway was cratered and some of the buildings were ablaze. There were several wrecked aeroplanes too. Worse was to come, though, the Lazarette compound had not avoided the destruction and some of the huts were totally destroyed, whilst others were also ablaze.

Maria stopped the ambulance and stared at this vision of Hell, her heart pounded as she stared at the figures running around with buckets of water and hoses.

The one person she couldn't see, though, was her sister, Katarina...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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