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Kindred Spirit, Distant Hearts. Chapter 17

Tags: news, ww2, sadness
“Ma'am, I'm sorry,” he wheezed breathlessly. “I found this under your bed.”

Benghazi. June 15th, 1941

 

After Maria had left the Chief Medical Officer, she didn't return directly to her room. Instead, she set about finding all the nurses that were to accompany her to Benghazi so that she could give them as much notice as possible and to ensure that their wards were not left unstaffed when they left.

That task alone took several hours. Some of them were off duty but, as was her nature, she tracked down every single name she had on her list and so she could return to her room satisfied in the knowledge that all of her charges had at least one day to prepare for the long journey.

 

By the time she was finally able to return it was late evening and with a wad of paperwork to read through she sat on her bed and placed the file beside her.

Her back was aching quite considerably now, and she swung her legs up onto the bed and lay back for a minutes respite.

As she relaxed, she became aware of the letters on the small table beside her and reached out to pick them up. Unfortunately, as she did so she knocked them to the floor, and with a sigh of despair she reached down and picked them up by feeling with her fingertips.

She looked at the front of each of the five envelopes in turn. Four were from her mother at home, she easily recognised her handwriting, and the fifth was also from Munich, a letter from her friend Romy at the hospital.

Maria's heart sank when she realised that none were from Katarina. She was certain that her sister would have written if she had been able but after double checking the envelopes she had to resign herself to the fact that there was nothing from her.

She looked over the side of the bed at the floor and sighed nothing. She didn't see the one letter which had drifted under her bed when it fell.

Each one was postmarked with the date they had been sent, so she opened them in that order.

 

The letters from her mother were nice and full of hope that they would see her again soon and all was well with them. One of the elderly neighbours had fallen and had been taken to hospital, the prices in the shops were getting higher... of the items that were still available. The garden was looking nice, and they had even bought some chickens so they could have fresh eggs.

As she read each of the short notes, Maria could visualise everything in her mind, and although she wished she could be there, it made her feel warm inside that her Mama and Papa seemed to be coping well enough.

The letter from Romy told a different story, however. Although she wrote about nothing, in particular, she including several coded words which, to anyone who didn't know her would go unnoticed. Maria though knew her very well, and she could tell that nothing had changed there, at least for the better. There were several references throughout the letter to things coloured black, and Maria was painfully aware that regardless of what each item was, Romy was referring to the SS.

“We still suffer the many Black-outs,” she wrote. “We just have to work on through the darkness.” Romy had always referred to the SS raids on the wards as 'Black-outs.'

 

Maria sighed as she finished reading and decided that she would write letters tomorrow before they leave for Benghazi at first light on Thursday.

 

The following morning Maria awoke thoroughly refreshed. Her back was still stiff and painful, but it eased considerably as she went about her ablutions.

In the Mess Hall, she checked with all the chosen nurses as they appeared that all was well and urged them to relax for the day and reminded them to get an early night as they were to be at the assembly point for departure at first light.

Maria, as usual, didn't follow her own advice, instead busying herself with the preparations. She even went to the transport section to familiarise herself with the bus they would be taking.

It was mid-afternoon before she gave herself the time to sit quietly in her room and write the letters back to her parents and to Romy.

There wasn't much to tell them, and she used the official forms that were provided for that purpose.

She told them that she was well, deliberately omitting the air raid to save them worrying about her. She also told them that she was, once again, moving to a different hospital but no more than that because she knew the letters would be censored anyway if she told them where she was going.

 

When she had finished, she turned her attention to Katarina.

The last letter she had received from her had been posted from Berlin before she left for Trieste, so she addressed her letter to 'Lazeretteschiff Aquilea.'

She began to write.

 

My Dearest Katarina

It has been so long since we saw each other and seems even longer than it actually has been.

I have not heard from you since May and trust that it is due to the difficulties with the postal system.

I hope that you are recovered now. I am addressing this letter to your ship because your parents wrote to mine to tell them where you were going.

I am fine but about to move on to another hospital here in Libya. If you get this, you can still reply to the address at Tripoli from where it will be forwarded to me.

Please write to me soon, Katarina. I miss you so much.

Your loving friend,

Maria.

 

Maria looked at the completed letter form on the little desk in front of her and a lump formed in her throat.

She wanted to sign off as 'your loving Sister,' but rumours had been circling that twins had become of special interest to the Nazis. She couldn't imagine why but since neither of them wanted to get involved with the authorities she decided it was best to keep it secret, at least for the time being.

She took a deep breath, closed the letter and then took all three to the Military Post office before it closed for the day.

 

Her final task before she retired was to go to each of the wards she had been overseeing to check that all was in order and to say goodbye to all the nurses she had been working with.

The most asked question was, when will she return?

That was a question that she couldn't answer as she had no idea when or even if she would come back to Tripoli.

 

The following morning she was awoken by a knock on her door. It was the night orderly who opened the door just a little, so he didn't disturb the residents in the other rooms.

“Four O' Clock as requested, Ma'am,” he called softly. “I have brought coffee.”

Maria pulled the sheet up to her neck.

“Oh, lovely. Thank you. Would you put it on the desk please.”

The Orderly did as he was bid and as he returned to the door, he stopped and then looked back at her.

“If I may be so bold, Ma'am...”

He waited for her consent to continue which she duly gave.

“I just wanted to say that it has been a pleasure having you here these past few weeks. You are not like the other officers and Matrons. Please take care and return safely.”

He didn't wait for her to reply but quickly and quietly closed the door behind him as he left.

Maria smiled to herself and quietly thanked him as the door clicked shut.

 

She took her time in preparing herself for the long journey ahead of her.

She took a shower and set her hair in plaits in the way she usually did and took the sheets and blanket from her bed and folded them neatly for the Orderly to collect after she had gone.

With one final glance around the room, she sighed and then closed the door for the last time.

 

The black of night was just beginning to give way to the deepest blue, a thin line along the horizon as the sun approached when she arrived at the muster point.

Most of the of the nurses were already there and the remaining few arrived shortly after her.

“Good morning, Ladies,” she greeted them cheerily and was pleased with the ready response from them all.

She checked that they were all prepared and had everything they needed and then went to find the convoy leader who handed her the keys to their vehicle.

Maria was familiar with the bus. She had seen others like it many times now, as ambulances.

This one was the same type of vehicle, but instead of having whitened windows and stretcher racks, it had only the wooden pairs of seats that the ambulances had retained in the front section.

The rearmost pair had been removed to make space for the food and water supplies they would need along the way, but there were still twenty-four seats for the twenty passengers, not including the two more comfortable, upholstered front seats for the driver and one other.

During her look around it the day before, Maria had decided that the nurse who would be the next to take the driving seat could relax at the front until she took her turn at the wheel.

 

Once everyone was on board and seated, she stood at the front.

“Is everyone ready?” she asked and they each nodded. “Good. I shall take the first two hours and would you like to take the next two, Agathe?” she asked the young nurse who was seated nearest to her.

“Yes, Matron, if you wish,” she replied.

“Then you can sit there when you are ready,” Maria indicated the leather seat beside the driving seat.

Through the open door, she heard shouts from outside,

“Start your engines!”

She gave a final smile of encouragement to the others, took her place behind the wheel and pressed the start button.

Immediately the engine roared to life.

 

The sky had become much lighter now and with more shouted orders she could see the vehicles that were leading the convoy begin to move.

Maria depressed the clutch, selected a gear and then began to move the bus into position behind a sand coloured truck and then waited for the column to depart finally.

As the truck began to move, she was about to follow it when a sudden and urgent thumping on the door beside her startled her.

It was her room orderly frantically shouting.

The door opened, and he pushed the envelope towards her.

“Ma'am, I'm sorry,” he wheezed breathlessly. “I found this under your bed.”

She thanked him as the nurse sitting nearest to the door took the errant letter from him and once again pulled away to follow the rest of the convoy out onto the open desert road.

 

The next two hours passed uneventfully with the nurses chatting as Maria tried to see through the dust that was thrown up by the vehicles ahead.

She kept sufficient distance to allow the dust to drift away in the gentle breeze that blew across the road. The temperature inside the bus was warm and with the windows and windscreen all open, the air remained fresh.

 

Agathe took over at the agreed time, the bus stopping only momentarily to allow the exchange and Maria went back to relax. It would be several hours before she would be required to return to the driving seat. She had enjoyed the drive, even in such grim conditions and Agathe had chatted freely with her. The time had passed quite quickly.

 

“Your letter, Matron.”

“Oh, yes. Thank you,” Maria replied with a smile as she took the proffered envelope. “I almost forgot.”

She sat in a vacant seat and opened it.

Her heart soared when she saw that it was from Katarina.

In the limited space available, Katarina wrote about the delays and problems which had plagued her journey and caused her to miss the ship's departure. She told how she was to take charge at a hospital but couldn't say where but would write again when she arrived there.

She finished by telling Maria how much she missed her and hoped they would be together again.

 

“...We have so much to talk about and every day that passes brings even more to tell you. Stay safe, Maria and always know that wherever in the world you may be, you are always here in my heart.”

 

Maria closed her eyes and remembered the last time she had seen her sister on the flight back from Spain. She could still see the dressings and the pain on her face each time she moved. It had been only three months since she had been stabbed and yet, here she was writing from Trieste in the north of Italy.

Although she was sure that her sister had recovered from her injuries she had a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that she hadn't left Berlin so soon out of choice. She thought about the letter from Romy in Munich. Things there were bad, and she considered that maybe Katarina had taken the posting because the same was happening in Berlin.

 

“Are you all right, Matron?”

Maria opened her eyes to see one of the nurses looking back at her from the seat in front.

“Oh, yes. Thank you, Madeleine.” She looked down at the letter in her hand. “Yes. A letter from my sister. I haven't heard from her for quite some time.”

“From Matron Langsdorff? How is she?”

Nurse Madeleine Schröder had been aboard the Meer Koenigin and had shared a cabin with Agathe when she had been sick. She always admired the way that Katararina had been so patient and cared towards her.

“She is well,” Maria told her. “She is, well was in Trieste when she wrote but that was a few days ago. She said she is moving on but couldn't say where.”

Madeleine's eyes opened wide.

“Could she be coming here, do you think?”

Maria sighed whistfully,

“I don't think so. I am sure that she would have given me a clue if that was so.”

 

The journey along the coast road continued without event. When they stopped for fuel, it was a not a leisurely affair and the nurses were not allowed to stray far from the vehicles, going just far enough to be out of sight for their personal needs.

At a little more than a thousand Kilometres, Maria knew that it would take around twenty-four hours to reach their destination and sleep would be difficult as there was insufficient room for everyone to lay down but, when darkness fell, she and the others tried to get just a little sleep.

With a little rearrangement the four nurses who would be driving, one of which was herself, occupied the front seats thus; one driving, the relief in the seat beside and the next two with the front pairs of seats to themselves so they could lay across them to rest more comfortably.

Maria took over in the early hours, after the second fuel stop. She had never driven in the dark before. The sky was completely black with a myriad of tiny silver stars, but she could not look at them, her concentration was fixed on the only thing she could see which was the faint red spot of light on the rear of the truck she was following.

By the time that Agathe took over from her, she was exhausted, and her head throbbed with the constant strain of trying to see where she was going.

As Agathe moved off, Maria woke the girl who was next to take over so she could move to the passenger seat and tried to make herself comfortable in her place.

 

The pitch darkness was just beginning to recede when suddenly it seemed that all the demons of Hell had been let loose! Guns were firing into the sky, and there was a brief roar as an aeroplane passed low overhead.

Maria was thrown to the floor as the bus suddenly lurched to the right and stopped almost instantly as it ran into the soft sand at the side of the road.

The cacophony of gunfire continued a few minutes longer and two, maybe three more aircraft, Maria wasn't sure, roared overhead and then silence fell.

The pain in her back was intense as she pulled herself up to her knees but the sight that greeted her put it right out of her mind.

The windscreen was all but gone, just a few shards of glass remaining and Agathe was slumped against the side wall, unmoving. The other nurse was on the floor, equally immobile.

Outside, the convoy had scattered, and several of the vehicles were ablaze, but Maria was aware of none of that because inside the bus several of the nurses had begun to scream hysterically.

She slowly got to her feet and, with a quick glance around her to assess the situation, saw that the calmer nurses were already trying to pacify those who were panicking. She turned her attention to Agathe.

What she found broke her heart. Agathe had been hit twice and was drenched with her own blood.

The first bullet had struck her in the chest, tearing through her rib cage and right lung and the second had shattered her right shoulder.

This brave young woman, barely out of her teens was dying, and Maria could do nothing to prevent it.

There was no point in trying to move her so Maria wedged herself in beside her as much as she could and held her hand gently.

Agathe opened her eyes and saw the tears streaming down Maria's cheeks.

“D... don't cry, Matron,” she said quietly and with great effort. “I am... not afraid.”

Maria was unable to speak.

“You... and... Kat... Katarina...” The young nurse struggled to form the words. “F... find... each... other. I... I... l... love you... both.”

As the final word passed her lips, Maria felt her hand relax.

“Agathe...” she whispered, but she knew it was no good, the young nurse would suffer no more.

 

“Matron.”

She felt a hand touch her shoulder and looked up.

“Trudi is dead, Matron.”

She looked sadly over to the other nurse who was still lying on the floor in a pool of thick blood.

“Thank you, Gerthe, Agathe too. Is everyone else all right?”

“No, Matron. Madeleine was hit in her arm, I think it is broken, and Lilli has a small wound to her head. It looks as though she hit it on the back of a seat when we crashed.”

 

At that moment the door just behind the driver's seat opened, and an Afrika Korps Officer looked in.

“I came to check on you but...” His voice trailed off when he saw the carnage. “Are they...?”

Maria nodded.

“I'm sorry, Matron. Truly I am.”

There was a short moment and then,

“We will have to bury them as soon as we get to Benghazi. Is the bus still drivable?”

“I don't know. Will you check it, please? I will take care of my girls whilst you do it.”

Maria wanted to scream out loud at the utter senselessness of the deaths. She wanted to damn Hitler and all his Nazis to rot in hell, but it wouldn't have helped, and so she calmly organized her girls and kept them busy looking after the injured and checking that they were all safe and well.

 

Two soldiers came to help them take care of the bodies of Agathe and Trudy and, as they went to move Agathe from the driving seat, Maria stopped them.

“Please,” she said, desperately trying to hold back her tears. “Please be careful with her; she is little more than a child.”

 

The bus was relatively undamaged aside from the shattered windscreen along with a side window and a couple of holes in the roof. The army pulled it out of the soft sand with a half-tracked truck which looked to Maria like the front of a truck attached to a tank!

 

Two days later Maria and the other nurses attended the funeral for Agathe and Trudi. It was a sombre affair and was also attended by some of the soldiers from the convoy. 

They were laid to rest in the hospital cemetery side by side and marked with simple crosses. Agathe's friend, Nurse Madeleine Schröder, her arm plastered and secured with a sling, read from the Bible and cast the first soil into their graves.

Maria attached their Red Cross collar brooches to the top of each and vowed that when the war was over, she would return and personally ensure that they were given proper recognition for their bravery and achievements.

 

Between the graves, she had arranged a wooden board with the words,

 

'If proof were ever needed of the futility of war then look no further than here.'

 

 

 

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