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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 12

Katarina was losing her mind. For three days she had no-one to talk to and nothing to do.

Trieste. June 8th, 1941

 

As promised, on the morning of her departure, Willi had arrived at the front of the building on the dot of nine. The black SS staff car shone like a mirror in the sunlight and Katarina watched from her window as the Mercedes came gently to a halt.

Across the street, she had noticed a man in a doorway who was reading a newspaper. She knew who he was and she could see that he was more interested in the arrival of the car than reading whatever propaganda was in front of his face.

Behind her, she heard the familiar click of her bedroom door being opened.

“It's is time, Sweetheart,” she heard her father say.

“I know, Papa,” she replied sadly, turning away from the window.

Siegfried Langsdorff took his daughter in his arms and held her tightly then took up her suitcase and carried it through to the hallway as she followed.

Magda Langsdorff was waiting by the front door. With tears in her eyes she held out her arms to her daughter, and the two of them embraced.

“Write to us when you can, Katarina.”

“I will, Mama, I promise.”

Siegfried opened the door, and with one final tight hug, Magda released her daughter allowing her to leave once more.

Together, Katarina and her father went slowly and in silence down the staircase and towards the main door to the street and as they reached it, the door to the apartment that was occupied by the concierge opened.

“Going away again, Sister Langsdorff? Where is it this time?”

Katarina froze and, without turning towards her said,

“Yes, Frau Hofstadter, I am going away again, and you know that I cannot and would not tell you where I am going. All I can say is that I am going somewhere where I can help people.”

Suddenly, she straightened and turned to face the middle-aged woman standing in the doorway with folded arms.

“Do you like to help people, Frau Hofstadter?”

Siegfried gripped her arm.

“Come on, Katarina, let her be. The car is waiting.”

Katarina didn't resist the gentle guidance and stepped out into the street closely followed by her father.

Across the other side, through the throng of people and traffic, she could just about make out the shady character with the newspaper. She didn't let him see that she was aware of him and quickly climbed into the back of the Mercedes whilst the immaculate SS driver stood stiffly to attention whilst holding the door open for them.

The car moved smoothly away from the kerb and Katarina turned and watched the Gestapo spy close his newspaper and leave the perceived concealment.

He didn't take a second glance at the car so was totally unaware that he had been seen as he strode purposefully towards the highly polished front door of the apartment building.

Potsdamer Strasse was a very straight road, and Willi deliberately drove slowly so she could watch the spy until he disappeared inside.

“Thank you, Willi,” she said, turning back to face forwards once again.

“You're welcome, Sweetie. Your Papa and I have been at this game long enough to know what's what. Isn't that right Siggi?”

Siegfried snorted and turned towards his daughter.

“I'm afraid Willi is right. You have to stay one step ahead these days. You saw what happened to the Metzlers. They had done nothing, and yet someone still informed on them to the Gestapo without knowing the truth. It doesn't do any good trying to beat them because they will always have the upper hand. There is no justice anymore, only that dished out by the Nazis and they only believe what it suits them to believe.”

The drive to Tempelhof was uneventful, and because of the pennants on the front wings of the car showing it to be in diplomatic service, they were not stopped at the gate.

The aerodrome was busier this time than when she had left for Amiens, and her orders were to report to the military controller in the main building.

Willi stopped the car directly in front of the main entrance and waited behind the wheel until his passengers had said their farewells and then got out to open the door for Katarina.

“Good luck, Miss Langsdorff. Take care and look after yourself.”

Katarina smiled being careful not to appear to be too friendly with this giant of a man in the pristine SS uniform.

“Thank you, Willi,” she said as she took her case from inside. “Thank you for being Papa's friend and for all you do.”

She couldn't be sure, but she could have sworn that Willi blushed.

“You're welcome, Miss. It's a pleasure,” he replied through stiff lips.

She didn't look back as she passed through the doorway. She didn't want to see her papa's face as he left and only paused for a moment when she heard the car pull away behind her.

 

It had been a matter of minutes to report to the controller who was less than jovial as he informed her that her flight had been delayed and she would be called as soon as she was required.

That call had come three hours later, and she was shown to an exit where a small grey Kubelwagen was waiting.

It wasn't the easiest thing to get into with her long dress, but she managed, and they headed out towards some parked aircraft.

She noticed that they were driving towards a large, four-engined transport plane which looked pretty impressive to her. Until then the largest aircraft she had flown in was the JU52, but this one looked so much bigger and more streamlined. It also had two fins at the rear instead of the single one that she was used to seeing.

“What is this one called?” she asked the driver as they approached.

“Ju290, Ma'am,” he answered abruptly, as though he was speaking to his commanding officer.

Katarina loved aeroplanes and flying, but her excitement was short lived. The noisy little car drove straight past this beautiful looking machine and squealed to a halt around the other side where an old looking twin-engined aeroplane was parked surrounded by a hive of activity.

The driver jumped out and ran around to open the door for her.

“This is yours, Ma'am,” he said almost apologetically.

As she slowly stepped from the car, she looked at what seemed an ancient aeroplane.

“What is it?” she asked slowly. “Will it get me to Trieste?”

“It's not as old as it looks Ma'am,” the driver told her as though he could tell what she was thinking.

“It is an Aero A304. It came from Czechoslovakia. No-one actually wanted them,” he added almost apologetically.

 

The door to board was just behind the wing, and she stood back whilst her driver passed her suitcase up to the airman at the doorway who took it and then offered his free hand to steady her as she stepped up.

 

 

The interior was sparse, to say the least. There were no seats, and she had to be careful not to catch herself on any part of the contraption that supported the machine gun above as she entered.

The Airman explained that this strange aircraft was actually not meant for passengers but was a bomber and she had been put on board because it was the only flight that was going to Trieste that was available.

There was somewhere for her to sit though, more of a makeshift perch than a proper seat which didn't look too comfortable for several hours flying.

“What time will we get into Munich?”

Already she imagined the numbness she would feel before very long.

The reply she received surprised her.

“We are not flying to Munich, Matron. There has been a change of flight plan.”

“Oh! I thought I was to stop over there?”

The Airman shrugged his shoulders.

“Not now,” he replied. “Is that a problem?”

Katarina took a deep breath.

“No, I suppose not,” she sighed. “Is there a reason for this change?”

“They want this crate in Linz for some reason. It's all right for you,” he snorted. “We have to get a train back to Berlin. At least you will fly on to your destination.”

She looked around for a moment. There was no crate to be seen. She was about to ask, but then she realised from his mannerism that he was referring to the aeroplane.

There was no time for further discourse as it turned out that the airman was, in fact, the pilot.

It was a further thirty minutes before the aircraft lifted from the runway and the noise was awful. The vibration from the two seemingly enormous engines wasn't as bad as the JU52 transport plane she had flown into Amiens, however, and after a short time, she began to relax.

 

After about an hour she became aware that they were descending!

She could see the two pilots from where she was sitting, and they seemed somewhat agitated and pointed to the instruments panel.

The navigator suddenly got up from his chart and moved across to her.

“We have a problem,” he shouted. “One of the engines is losing oil pressure. Not a problem but we have to drop into Prague to take a look at it.”

There was no point in asking anything about it as she would have to shout too loudly and so she just shrugged and pursed her lips and resigned herself to the fact that nothing ever seemed straight forward these days. She wondered if she would ever again travel anywhere without something happening. Still, she thought, at least they weren't being hammered with bullets this time.

Minutes later they touched down on the runway and taxied straight towards a large hanger. On the way the pilot switched off one of the engines, the one with the oil pressure problem, she assumed.

 

Once the aircraft was secured, a soldier guided her out of the door and towards a waiting car. It was open, like the Kubelwagen that had driven her out in Berlin but there the similarity stopped. This was considerably larger, more like a big car from which the roof had been removed leaving only the windscreen.

As Katarina climbed up into the car, the pilot suddenly appeared beside her.

“I'm sorry,” he said, breathlessly. “I should have explained what is happening.”

In her head, Katarina agreed wholeheartedly, but she kept that opinion to herself as the pilot continued, gesturing towards the stricken aeroplane.

“That thing has been nothing but trouble since I first set eyes on it and now we are stuck here until it can be repaired. Hopefully not too long. When we are ready to leave I will send the Skoda back for you.”

Katarina frowned.

“Skoda?”

The pilot grinned.

“The car.”

“Oh, all right.”

 

Not more than half an hour could have passed when Katarina saw the car approaching which made her think that it wasn't such a serious problem after all.

Unfortunately, she couldn't have been more wrong.

The driver gave her a sheet of paper which informed her that the engine would not be repaired as it was too badly damaged and as a result, the flight to Linz was canceled.

“So what do I do now then?” she asked.

The driver, a Czech who spoke little German replied,

“Come, I take you.”

Exasperated, she picked up her baggage and followed him through the airport building to an office which turned out to be an admin office where she found to her utmost disbelief that she was to continue her journey to Linz by train!

It took nearly an hour of telephone calls and form filling before she had all the paperwork she needed and as a result, there was even worse news to follow. It was now so late in the day that there was no train that would get her there before the early hours and so the administration officer had booked her into a hotel in the town near to the station.

The gruff Czech driver had waited outside for her, and he drove her to the hotel.

 

One thing she noticed as they drove through the city streets was the abundance of SS uniforms. What with that and the giant Swastika adorned banners hanging from almost every building there was little difference to being in Berlin. For some reason she found it very unnerving and the sooner she could be away from here and back on her journey, the happier she would be. It was one thing living in a country where the Nazis were the 'elected' government but this was not Germany and, for the first time she did not feel safe.

She determined then that beautiful though this city appeared to be, she would not leave the hotel until it was time to leave for the train.

 

The following morning another Czech driver took her to the station where the next part of her ill-fated journey began.

Although only a little more than two hundred and fifty Kilometres, the train was so slow and stopped so frequently that it was late afternoon by the time she arrived in Linz where she was again booked into a hotel until a flight to Trieste was available.

 

The journeys to this point, whilst being disagreeable were not eventful. Katarina's biggest problem was boredom. She had not prepared for such a long and tedious journey, and all she could do was sit patiently and watch as the countryside passed slowly by.

Between Linz and Prague, the railway had wound back and forth, following rivers and terrain which, at first was beautiful but after several hours she needed something to occupy her mind, and by the time she reached Linz she would have given a years pay just or find a book or magazine, anything.

 

What dismayed her the most about this whole debacle, however, was the total lack of organisation. What had began as a simple flight had turned into an expedition!
Linz had been little different from Prague, another city under the Nazi rule. It made no difference that it was in another country, in this case, Austria. What the Führer wanted, the Führer took.

As in Berlin and Prague, no-one smiled and, as she was again driven to her hotel, she could see people walking without looking at each other. It was as though they didn't want to be noticed.

 

The following morning she was again collected from the hotel and this time taken to the airfield outside the city.

There was no good news there. Because she was late, two days late, the flight she would have been on had left without her, and the officer in charge had said that all she could do was wait and he would get her on a flight as soon as he could.

It was mid-afternoon before she was finally informed that there had been some progress but, unfortunately, she would not be going anywhere until the following day. The Transport clerk had managed to get a flight diverted to pick her up on its way to Trieste but since it was an unscheduled stop she had to be ready to leave at a moment's notice so, another night in the hotel and back to the airport first thing the following morning for more waiting.

 

Katarina felt as though she was losing her mind. For three days she had no-one to talk to and nothing to do but read. The book she bought had kept her going for a while, but now it was finished, and she really hadn't enjoyed it enough to read it again.

She had begun to pace the airport lounge, watching people come and go but no-one took the slightest interest in her.

Time and again she returned to the office of the transport officer and time again she left without a straight answer.

Towards the end of the third day she returned to the office and instead of asking the fresh-faced Leutnant she told him that should she not arrive in Trieste in time to board her ship then he, and he alone would be held responsible for the resulting storm.

“But Matron,” he began. “What can I do? I ask, and they tell me wait.”

Katarina stared at him for a moment.

“Your telephone please, Herr Leutnant,” she demanded, and he obediently passed her the handset.

She tapped the cradle and waited.

“Ah, yes. This is Matron Langsdorff of the German Red Cross. Please connect me with the DRK headquarters in Berlin.”

She waited some more until,

“Good afternoon. This is Matron Langsdorff. I have orders to sail with the hospital ship Aquilea, but I am stranded in Linz with no assistance from the Transport Officer here. Could you possibly make arrangements to get me to Trieste please?”

She paused and then passed the handset to the worried looking officer who held the receiver to his ear.

Katarina could hear a distant voice angrily berating him until he finally replied,

“Yes, Sir, I will do my best, Sir!” and then sat motionless with the handset held in mid-air after an ominous click was heard as the senior official at the other end slammed the phone down.

As if in slow motion, the young man in the black SS uniform lowered the handset to its cradle.

He got up from his chair and went over to a steel filing cabinet in the corner of the room and opened the top drawer.

Returning to his desk, he sat down again and filled out the blank form he had extracted and pressed the official stamp onto it.

As he handed it to her, he said,

“You will leave at Ten tomorrow morning...”

He paused as she took it from him whilst he glared at her, eyes narrowed.

“...and my replacement will arrive on that same flight.”

Katarina looked at him.

“Replacement?” she asked.

“Replacement,” he repeated. “I am being posted to a panzer regiment in Romania!”

She had heard of Romania but knew only that it was a country to the East which bordered Ukraine. Other than that it meant nothing.

“Well, I hope you enjoy it,” she replied with simple honesty and without further discourse, returned to her hotel.

 

The following day saw Katarina back on course. She boarded the flight at Ten as planned and without any further complications arrived at Trieste just two hours later.

With the efficiency to which she was normally accustomed, a car met her and took her directly to the dockside at breakneck speed. It was all she could do to hang on to her seat as the Italian driver honked and gesticulated at every slight impedance.

 

Driving along the quayside to the Harbourmaster's office brought back some sharp memories of her arrival at Taranto, but this time she was totally alone. There were no nurses to look after and no Maria but, over the water, she could see the huge white ship berthed at the dockside.

A further week had passed, and now Katarina stood and leaned on the rail looking out over the water. She felt so lonely now, so far from home. She had written letters to Maria and her Mama and Papa, but had received nothing from them as yet, and with nothing to do but think about the past few weeks, she had played back in her mind, over and over again the extraordinary journey that culminated with the Harbour Master telling her she was too late.

“But the ship is over there!” she had exclaimed, pointing towards the huge white liner, with two funnels, which was adorned with big red crosses painted on the hull.

“No, Matron, that is the Gradisca!” he told her firmly. “Aquilea sailed with the afternoon tide yesterday. You should have been here yesterday morning!”

 

 

 

 

 

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