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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 21

Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 21

“Hum unhen khoj nahin chahie, sarjent?” one of the other soldiers said.

Benghazi. December 11th, 1941


Try as she might, Maria found that sleep was almost impossible. There were no lights to keep her awake, and the sounds of the guards outside as they changed watch were barely audible.

No, it was the situation that kept her awake.

After a few hours she decided that a brief walk in the cold night air might help shake off the constant thoughts and fears that wouldn't allow her to relax so, as quietly as she could manage, trying not to disturb the others, she carefully and slowly opened the front door.

It was far colder than she expected, so she pulled the blanket tightly around her shoulders, stepped down into the sand and gently closed the door behind her.


For a moment she stood by the bus and stared up into the pitch black sky, The sight that greeted her took her breath away. There was a myriad of silver stars filling the darkness as far as her eyes could see. It was one of the most beautiful sights she had ever seen and for a few minutes her mind was filled with the glory of the Galaxies.

She didn't know very much about the heavens, but she remembered things she had been taught at school, and as she stared, she could see the shape of the constellations her teacher had shown them.

Their names she couldn't remember, and she wished she had paid more attention. On paper, the stars hadn't interested her much but now, staring up and seeing how beautiful they were in life made her heart pound with joy.

A small streak of light appeared and disappeared high above. She watched enthralled as another and yet another shot silently across the darkness. Something else she had never seen before, shooting stars. Again she remembered her teacher telling them about the small pieces of rock, debris from far, far out in space which, when reaching Earth would burn up in the outer layers of the atmosphere.

Maria wondered if her teacher had ever actually experienced the sheer wonder of the display she was now seeing because his description conveyed nothing of the breathtaking beauty of what she was now experiencing.

There was one star which was brighter than all the others and this one she did know the name of, Jupiter. It was about the only thing she remembered from her lessons that she could put a name to as it was one of the nine planets of our own solar system.


So taken was she with this magnificent vista, that she failed to notice something moving not three metres away from where she was standing, something that was watching her intently.

The silence was so complete that the slightest movement could be heard and Maria became aware that she was not alone when she heard the almost inaudible shift in the sand so close to her.

She froze and then, very slowly looked down from the stars and across to where she thought the sound had come from. Her heart felt as though it had stopped as she strained her ears because now she was sure that someone was watching her and her first instinct was that they were about to be attacked.

Still straining to see into the darkness she could see nothing, but then, another sound, another tiny movement and she saw him!

She knew he could see her and so she moved very slowly and turned to face him.

What she saw made her jaw drop, not with fear but with wonder. Facing her, just metres away was a small dog-like creature but not like any she had seen before. It was about the size of a cat but in the gloom she could see it had a very thick furred tail. What struck her the most though, were its ears. She had never seen ears so big for a such a small animal!

Without moving a muscle she stared at the small fox which, equally still, stared back at her. She knew that the slightest movement would frighten it and she was so enthralled by it that she wanted the moment to last a little longer.

Unfortunately, the movement of one of the guards nearby startled the little creature, and with one last look back at Maria, it darted back into the darkness from whence it appeared.

Maria sighed. In the midst of this raging war which seemed to be enveloping the whole world things of beauty and wonderment could still be seen, if one was fortunate enough.


The blackness of the desert night was beginning to give way to a velvet blue, and soon the stars would fade as the fiery sun rose towards the horizon.

It was time to prepare the convoy for its continued journey, and she re-entered the bus and roused everyone inside.

Once she was sure they were awake, she then walked along the length of the convoy, opening doors and calling the medics to wakefulness.

Before long the line was a hive of activity, engines starting and a cold breakfast taken as they prepared themselves to move on towards the field hospitals.


From a point a few miles ahead, the convoy was to disperse and the vehicles were to go to different places to collect casualties and take them back to Benghazi from where they would return to Germany. All the nurses dispersed to their allotted ambulances and Maria took her place in one of the purpose-built vehicles.


On their way to the dispersal point Maria sat in the cab with her driver as they drove slowly along the sandy ridge. They couldn't have far to go, she thought as in the distance she could see the blue sea and, nearer still, the plumes of black smoke, the signs of battle.

“Stop!” she shouted suddenly and the driver hit the brakes hard as first one and then another tank appeared in front of them and passed quickly either side of them.

They were soon followed by more vehicles, half-tracks, and lorries all heading towards the west, the direction of Benghazi.

Maria climbed out of the cab and tried to stop one of the fast moving trucks but several passed her by until, finally, a sand coloured Steyr staff car stopped alongside her. A young Leutnant addressed her before she had a chance to ask what was happening.

“The enemy have taken Kambut and are heading this way. There is heavy fighting at Tobruk, and we are being withdrawn to Benghazi.”

Maria was momentarily at a loss. Her orders were to go to El Salloum but if that was now lost, what should she do?

She opened he mouth to speak but as she did the car suddenly drove away leaving her speechless.

In an instant, she made up her mind. She was in charge, and so she had to do what she thought was right.

The second vehicle in convoy was the bus, and she went and told the occupants to go back along the other vehicles and inform them that the plan had changed. They were going to Tobruk!

Opening the map she plotted a new route. They were close to a place called 'Adam' so she directed her driver to continue to there from where they could take the road to Tobruk but, no sooner had she made the decision and everyone was back in their respective vehicles ready to move on that more vehicles appeared. This time however, there was not a black cross to be seen. The convoy was surrounded by the enemy!


Maria opened the door to get out, but she was immediately prevented from doing so by a dark-skinned soldier who was pointing his rifle directly at her.

She froze and stared at him fearfully.

He indicated that he wanted her to climb down and so she very slowly and deliberately slid from the seat and stepped down into the sand being very careful not to startle him.

“English?” he demanded, and she shook her head.

“Deutsch,” she replied.

He shook his head.

“I mean, do you speak English?”

“Just little,” Maria answered truthfully as she only knew what little she had learned during her time on the British warship.

“Who is in charge here?” the soldier asked.

Maria didn't understand.

“What is, 'in charge'?” she asked.

The soldier thought for a moment.

“In charge,” he repeated but slowly, “Who is the officer here?”

“Oh, I am, how do you say, 'in charge'? My English, erm, nicht gut, erm, no good'.

“What is your name?” the soldier persevered.

“I am Matron Maria Kaufmann, Deutsches Rotes Kreuz,” Maria replied nervously. “Wir sind...” she shook her head apologetically, “We are, erm, how do you say... erm... medizinische Konvoi?”

“Anyone inside?” he asked, tilting his head towards the rear of the ambulance body.

“Nein,” Maria replied with a slight shake of her head.

By this time the soldier had been joined by others and he indicated one of them to check.

Whilst one pointed his rifle towards the door beside her another slowly opened it and gingerly peered inside.

All the while the first soldier kept his rifle trained directly at Maria. She was all too aware that if this man got nervous, he would surely kill her.

“We are...”

She tried to tell him they were not soldiers and not armed but her captor simply said,


“Hum unhen khoj nahin chahie, sarjent?” one of the other soldiers said. “Way kuch chipa ho sakata hai ।.”

Maria didn't understand what this man had said. He hadn't spoken in English and his skin was as dark as the sergeant's. She wondered whether they may be Arabs in British uniforms but she had seen many locals over the past few months and these didn't look like any she had seen nor did he sound like them. Although dark-skinned they had more western features.

The sergeant rubbed his chin as though thinking and then grinned, handed his rifle to his companion and stepped towards her.

She began to panic. What was he going to do? She had heard of some of the things that soldiers did to women and she pressed herself back against the warm steel of the ambulance.

“Put up your hands!” the sergeant ordered her, but Maria held them close to her chest in a desperate form of protection and shook her head vigorously.

“Nein,” she whispered, “Bitte nicht...”

She was terrified now and clasped her arms even tighter to her body.

The sergeant stepped closer to her, and she could smell his pungent breath as he spoke menacingly just centimetres from her face.

Staring directly into her eyes he repeated his orders,

“I said, put up your hands!”

Maria resisted, shaking with terror now and shook her head slowly.

Suddenly her head erupted with pain as the brutish soldier slapped her hard across the cheek.

Her driver, who had been brought around from the other side suddenly stepped forwards and shouted.

“Nein! Lass sie in Ruhe!”

Immediately, the soldier beside him slammed the butt of his rifle into the side of the medic's head, and he dropped like a stone.


Slowly, Maria did as she was ordered and raised her arms above her head and closed her eyes tightly, resigning herself for what was to follow.

At first she felt the sergeant's hands on the sides of her ribs below her arm pits and he then patted all the way down her until he reached her hips, paused far longer than was necessary and then back up again. There was a pause and then she felt physically sick as he began to paw her breasts, roughly squeezing them through her clothes.

Suddenly her sense of self-preservation took hold, and she brought her knee up sharply between his legs!

She heard him scream and opened her eyes in time to see him drop to his knees in the sand clutching his groin with both hands.

She wanted to run but where to? The other soldier was nervously pointing his rifle at her and she couldn't just abandon her nurses to these barbarians. Although she was breathless with fear she would not leave them.

The soldier with the rifle stared at her and then at the Sergeant who was still kneeling and groaning in pain.

The sergeant slowly came to his senses and looked up at her. She had never seen such hatred on a man's face, not even from the SS soldiers she had dealt with.

He rocked back and forth for a moment until the pain had subsided sufficiently for him to recover and began to get to his feet.

Maria's eyes were wide open now, and she was trembling violently, afraid of what he would do to her.


“Sergeant Singh! What the hell is going on here?”

Unnoticed in the commotion, a small tracked vehicle had pulled up, and a British officer was standing in it, glaring at the sergeant who tried to stand straight and salute, but he was still in too much pain.

“Nothing, Sir!” Sergeant Singh replied as steadily as he could. “I was searching the prisoner for hidden weapons when she attacked me, Sir!”

In that moment, Maria had momentarily lost the strength in her legs and slid down the side of the cab door. She crawled across to the medic who was still lying in the sand with a trickle of blood oozing from the side if his head.

“And him?” the officer demanded.

“Trying to escape, Sir!”

The officer narrowed his eyes.

“I will speak to you later, Singh. You know damned well that medical staff are not to be treated as prisoners. If I find out that you have laid so much as one finger on that woman I will have you court-marshalled now get out of my sight!”

As Sergeant Singh slunk away towards the truck in which he had arrived followed by the other soldiers, the officer climbed down from the Bren carrier and went over to Maria. He helped get her now conscious medic into a sitting position against the rear wheel of the ambulance.

“Did he hurt you?” he asked gently.

Not wanting him to see her tear-streaked face she shook her head whilst attending to the cut on her medic's head.

The officer hooked his finger around her chin and gently turned her head towards him. His heart melted when he saw the tear tracks in the dust on her face.

“Did he do that?” he asked referring to the angry red weal on her cheek.

She nodded.

“And him?” he indicated the medic.

She shook her head.

“Nein. He try help me. Soldat hit him with gun,” she answered slowly, trying desperately to remember the words in English. “I am sorry. Mein englisch ist... is not good.”

The British officer smiled.

“Don't worry,” he said softly. “My German is not good either.”

For a moment the officer held her gaze, noticing for the first time her beautiful, ice blue eyes.

“Are you sure he didn't hurt you?” he asked eventually. “Did he do anything, erm..?”

Maria saved this gentle man's embarrassment and shook her head.

“Nein. You come here before he...”

They fell silent.

“So,” Maria asked. “We are your, erm, gefangenen... pri... pris...”

“Prisoners?” the officer helped her, “No. You can go on. Where were you heading?”

Maria thought for a moment. Should she tell him?

She decided that since El Solloum was now in the enemy's hands, it would make no difference.

She shrugged.

“Was to El Solloum,” she said. “Now...?” she shrugged her shoulders. “I hear much trouble Tobruk so...”

“Then I wish you good luck, Miss...?”

“Maria,” she replied, “Thank you.”

“George,” he replied and reached out to gently brush away a tear stain from her face. “And once again I am sorry for...”

Maria smiled and nodded that she understood.

The officer then took his leave of her and ordered his men to leave.


With a roar, the little Bren carrier accelerated away and was followed by the other soldiers in their trucks until, once again, all was quiet.

Maria took a deep breath and then called across to the nearest nurse.

“Emilia, stay with Hans, please, in the back and watch that he does not have concussion. Konrad, ride with me now, and we will head for Tobruk.”


It was another hour before they arrived at the front line field hospital to find that the Afrika Korps had been defeated and the long siege had been broken. There were, however, many casualties and by the time they had treated as many as they possibly could they were ordered back to Benghazi so their patients could be evacuated.

Already, the daylight had faded into darkness but they had to keep going. Many injuries were so severe that they couldn't wait until morning to make the long trek and Maria made the decision that those ambulances with the most seriously wounded must travel through the night.

Her driver, Hans had recovered well from the blow to his head and he insisted that he join Konrad in the night-time drive so they could take it in turns. Maria remained with three seriously wounded soldiers in the back.

She left the remainder of the convoy, the less capable vehicles such as the buses and bus-based ambulances along with the two supply trucks to await daybreak under the leadership of two Feldwebels.


Because of the ever-changing front line, Maria had been advised to return along the inland road rather than risk the coast road. All the vehicles had four-wheel drive and were capable of coping with some quite rough terrain but, it was very dark and the only lights they could risk using were the hooded headlamps and very dim tail lamps which were almost impossible to see farther than a few metres away.

The ambulance body was completely separate from the cab and the only communication was via a small sliding window, one in the rear of the cab and another adjacent to it in the front of the body. It was also the only view she had outside. There was nothing she could see anyway in the darkness and so she concentrated her mind on caring for the three patients in the stretchers.


It was very slow going along what was little more than rough track. They travelled no more than thirty kilometres each hour and sometimes less so, by sunrise, almost twelve hours later they had covered less than three hundred of the four hundred and fifty kilometre journey.

Maria slid the window open and called through to stop the ambulance. In the growing light, she gathered everyone for an assessment and update.

She spread a map on the ground, studied it for a moment and then placed her fingertip on a point a little way inland from Benghazi.

“As far as I tell we should be about here. Do you agree, Konrad?”

The medic studied the map and then stood up to look at the surrounding landscape.

“I... I'm not sure, Ma'am.”

“Konrad! How can you not be sure? You and Hans have been driving, and the other three ambulances have been following you!”

“Yes, Ma'am, I know, and we have been following the track as best we could, but it is so dark.”

“Didn't either of you check the compass?”

The two medics looked at each other rather sheepishly.

“No, Ma'am,” they replied in unison.

Exasperated, Maria returned her attention to the map and compass then she too stood up and studied the landscape.

Eventually, she came to a conclusion.

“I think...” she began slowly, “That we have come too far south.” She pointed to a position on the map.

“I think that you have followed this track here which takes us to Az Zuwaytinah some one hundred kilometres from here. We will have to refuel there and then make our way north to Benghazi, agreed?”

There were no arguments.

“Good. Hans, in the back. I will drive for a while. Try to get some rest.”


Once again, the small convoy began to move. At least Maria had light enough to see now but, although she had appeared confident about where they were, inside she was anything but. The worst thing that could happen would be getting stranded without fuel, food or water and a glance at the fuel gauge confirmed that if she was wrong they were in serious trouble.

As they rolled slowly along the rough track Maria searched desperately for a glimpse of the Mediterranean but the only sea for miles around was a vast sea of sand and Maria was beginning to worry.







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