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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 22
By
AnnaMayZing

Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 22

Tags: desert, lost, ww2
“But Ma'am, the engine is going to seize it's too hot!”

Benghazi. December 24th, 1941

 

Maria stared intently at the terrain unfolding before her whilst trying to avoid all the rocks and holes that made the track so uneven. She was acutely aware that she had three soldiers behind her who were probably in considerable pain and every bump would exacerbate that greatly.

She glanced increasingly often at the fuel gauge, willing the needle not to move but already it was touching the 'L' on the left side of the gauge.

“Konrad,” she said to her companion. “The Benzine is almost gone.”

Konrad nodded.

“I know, I have been watching the gauge. We have twenty litres in the can but that won't take us far. Even so, we should stop and put it in and check our position too.”

Maria agreed and stopped the ambulance. The rest of the convoy stopped behind her.

“Please take care of the fuel. I will speak to the others.”

 

After several minutes of discussion it was decided that the only option was to keep going. Maria even had one of the medics climb onto the roof of her ambulance but he could see nothing.

“There is a ridge ahead of us, Ma'am. If we continue west we will have to climb it.”

She studied the map carefully and then called the other drivers to her side.

She pointed to the position that she estimated them to be.

“If we go south to go around this ridge we will surely run out of fuel, yes?”

All agreed.

“And the same if we go north since we are too far from Benghazi?”

Again, a unified nodding of heads.

“And if we go west and climb the ridge?”

Konrad spoke up.

“We have no choice, Ma'am,” he stated. “We may not have enough fuel as the consumption will rise with the extra effort of the climb. We may even overheat the engines but the other options are just not possible.”

Maria thought carefully. She was a nurse not a navigator or mechanic but she was in charge and the decision was ultimately hers and hers alone.

“All right, so we are all agreed. We continue west, yes?”

“Yes, Ma'am,” came the chorus of voices.

Maria checked the compass against the map but as she looked at the needle something didn't appear quite right. If they were heading west then the needle point should have been pointing away from the ambulance but as she moved it kept trying to point towards the ambulance.

She frowned and then suddenly,

“Konrad, when you and Hans were driving did you check the compass often?”

Maria's stomach seemed to suddenly have a lead weight in it.

“Did you stop and check it?” she asked tentatively.

“No Ma'am,” was the reply. “I placed it on the dashboard so I could keep an eye on it.”

With a feeling of deep trepidation she walked a few steps away and looked down and waited until the needle settled. With the large 'N' pointing at ninety degrees to the direction that the ambulance was facing, the red tip of the needle was pointing to the north east.

She felt sick.

Inside the steel body of the ambulance, the compass needle was attracted to the nearest metal instead of due north. They could be anywhere!

He turned to the others.

“At the moment,” she said, “the vehicles are facing south-west. Since I have no other information I have to assume that is the direction we have been travelling and I pray to God that we are not further south. Since we have so little fuel we have no choice now but to head due west and hope that we can get to somewhere before we get stranded.”

There was some muttering, but no-one disagreed.

“All right then. The patients need the water more than us so make sure they get most of it but remember, it is not unlimited. We have to make it last.”

 

Maria was not going to take any more chances, and under her watchful eye and careful supervision, the patients were checked, and the last of the fuel was poured into the tanks.

Some of the wounded were in a critical situation with large quantities of blood lost. Those were the ones whom Maria prioritised for the water. She was determined that they would all survive this ordeal that they found themselves in and, once again, the small convoy of four vehicles moved off and headed towards a point in the distance that Maria had chosen.

They had agreed that if any vehicle failed to reach the top then the others would keep going. At least one had to get through so help could be sent back.

 

Some forty minutes later the ground began to rise quite steeply and the engines began to labour under the increased load. The high air temperature and slow speed soon caused the temperature gauges to rise slowly but remained below the critical temperature which was marked in red.

Maria was worried and although Hans was driving her eyes flicked nervously from one gauge to the other, willing them in her mind to remain steady.

There was no other option but to keep moving even though the speed was now little more than a brisk walking pace. The engine was revving as though it was driving along an open road at full speed because of the very low gear Hans had to use to get enough power to the four wheels struggling to drag the weight up such a steep incline and not slip on the loose surface.

She realised after a time that she had begun to develop a repetitive routine. First she would check the temperature gauge and then the fuel gauge. Next she would look up at the horizon trying to judge how much farther it was to the summit. Finally she would look into the mirror beside her to check that there were still three more ambulances behind hers.

It was a constant cycle, temperature, fuel, horizon, mirror. Temperature, fuel, horizon, mirror.

With still a little way to climb Maria's legs were jumping with nerves. Temperature... into the red now, Fuel... covering the 'L', horizon... still not near enough, convoy... still three following.

Her hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists, and the muscles keeping her teeth clenched together were beginning to ache, but she didn't notice, her mind was too busy elsewhere.

 

“Ma'am, we have to stop!”

Hans' pleaded urgently with her.

She remembered the classroom at Karlsruhe where she learned all about the trucks. She understood Hans' fears.

“No, we have to keep moving.”

“But Ma'am, the engine is going to seize it's too hot!”

Without taking her eyes from the gauges she repeated. “No.”

There was a moment's silence before Hans opened his mouth to protest again, but Maria stopped him.

“If we stop now and the engine seizes then it's over. If we get to the top and the engine seizes then we still have a chance... don't we?”

Hans scratched his head.

“A very slim one, I suppose but...”

“Slim is better than none, isn't it?” Maria interjected.

Hans sighed but said nothing and the ambulance continued to whine its way up the steep rise.

 

Ten long minutes later the Opel dragged itself over the rise and onto level ground. Maria and Hans breathed a huge sigh of relief. Above them the sky was a beautiful clear blue and, ahead was more sand but in between, in the near distance was the deep, shimmering blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

With the terrain now level and flat Hans was able to make more speed and he dipped the clutch and changed gear, once, twice and... the engine coughed as he let the clutch out. The tired, overheated ambulance jolted, shuddered and then rolled to a halt.

“That's it, Ma'am,” he said resignedly. “The fuel's gone.”

It was not something she wanted to hear, but she climbed from the cab and, shielding her eyes from the blinding, scorching sun scoured the landscape ahead. She could see nothing.

As she scanned the second ambulance pulled up beside her, the engine also silent.

“Where are the other two?” she asked its driver.

“They didn't make it up, Ma'am,” he replied. “They are just below the crest. Out of fuel I imagine, like us.”

“How far back?”

“Couple of hundred metres roughly.”

Maria thought carefully.

“Our engine temperature is very high,” she said. “Could they have seized?”

The other driver pondered the question.

“They could have,” he answered slowly. “Are you thinking they may have some fuel left?”

Maria nodded.

“Yes. Go with Konrad. Take a can and see what they have.”

She turned to Hans.

“Get on top and see if you can see a village or anywhere we might get fuel and water.”

 

Without further conversation, the two men lifted the empty fuel can from its cradle and set off back along the tracks that had been left in the loose sand.

They were still in sight when Hans called down from the roof.

“Ma'am, there is something ahead. I think it's a camp. Hard to tell but there is movement.”

Maria shielded her eyes and stared in the direction that Hans was pointing. At first she could see nothing but as her eyes became accustomed to the light she saw movement. There were several vehicles moving towards a shape that she could barely make out, something large and irregular.

Hans called again.

“Yes, I'm sure it's a camp but...”

“But what?” she shouted back.

“Is it ours or theirs?”

Hans jumped down, and they stood side by side in the shadow of the silent ambulance, still straining to see what lay ahead.

 

A few minutes later, Maria lowered her hands and went to check on her passengers. She had opened all the doors and windows to allow what little air there was to circulate but it was still stifling hot.

Using a little of the precious water to wet a pad she bathed their foreheads and allowed them to sip a little. It was then that she noticed that one of the soldiers had a small leather case amongst his equipment.

“Are those binoculars?” she asked and when he nodded, said, “May I borrow them?”

Again, the soldier nodded, so she took the case and took out the black glasses.

Holding them to her eyes she scanned the area where they had seen the movement. After a while she handed them to Hans.

“I can't find it,” she said.

Hans scanned the foreground.

“Ah, I have it,” he said at long last. “Yes, it is ours, there are a couple of Eighty-eights there.”

Maria was baffled.

“A couple of what?” she asked.

“Eighty-eig... oh, sorry, anti-tank guns, Ma'am. Eighty-eight Millimetre.”

“Right, yes well, I'll take your word for that but does that mean fuel?”

“I imagine so, Ma'am.”

“Hmm, good. Well, there is little we can do until they return so we will rest awhile. At least it will give the engine a chance to cool a little.”

For the next half hour, Maria and the other nurse remained with their respective patients whilst the two medics rested in the shade.

The silence was so calming that for a while Maria forgot her fears and immersed herself in the care of her three soldiers.

The two medics slept.

 

On their return, Konrad and the other medic were carrying what looked to Maria to be an empty fuel can, but she waited patiently for them.

It was Konrad who spoke first.

“One was out of fuel, ma'am but the other has seized solid. It has boiled dry.”

“So no fuel then?”

“Not really. Less than a quarter of a can. Four litres if we are lucky.”

Maria smiled and turned to Hans.

“Four litres,” she repeated. “Enough to get us to the other side do you think?”

“Probably, Ma'am,” Hans replied slowly and then his face lit up as he realised what Maria was thinking. “Yes, Ma'am and then gravity will take us the rest of the way!”

Konrad looked at his colleague who was equally puzzled.

“There is a camp down there,” she said. “Hopefully, if we can get one vehicle to it we can get help.”

 

Without further ado, the small amount of fuel was poured into the tank and Konrad jumped behind the wheel. When he pressed the starter button the engine turned over slowly but wouldn't fire.

Hans opened the bonnet and reached in.

“Try it now!” he shouted.

This time the engine spluttered into life.

“Go with them, Hanna,” she called to the other nurse, and once she was aboard, they moved slowly away.

 

There was nothing more that Maria could do now but wait. She knew they could be gone for quite a while so she tasked the two remaining medics to look after the patients in their own ambulance while she walked back to the other two a little way down the hill.

There was nothing to do there either. The six casualties were being cared for as far as the crews were able so she remained with them for a while and explained the situation to them.

The sun was high in the sky and there was little shelter from its merciless rays so Maria urged all of her charges to remain in the ambulances as much as possible but it was so hot inside and there was no air movement. Each ambulance had a twenty litre water can but since they had been on the road since the night before they were somewhat depleted.

 

Time passed by slowly and when Maria checked her watch it was as though time was standing still. An hour had passed but to her, it felt more like three and the perspiration that had been soaking into her clothes was dry once again. She hadn't realised that she was no longer perspiring.

Another hour passed.

She ran her dry tongue over her cracked lips as she wet the casualty's brows and was about to check her watch again when she heard the sound of an engine. It grew louder but it didn't sound like the ambulance that had left so long before. It sounded heavier and was accompanied by a squealing, rattling sound rather like a tank!

Quickly she jumped out and began to walk back to the top of the ridge.

Every step was an effort but what she saw lifted her spirits. Next to the remaining ambulance at the top was a half-track and already its occupants were lifting fuel cans from it.

Her relief was so strong that she wanted to run, but as soon as she lifted her foot from the ground her knees buckled, and she sank, exhausted to her knees then fell sideways into the hot sand.

Hans was at her side in an instant.

He placed his hand upon her forehead.

“I don't believe it!” he exclaimed, quickly taking the cap off his water bottle a pouring a little over her forehead. He then tipped the flask to her lips and allowed her to drink but not too much.

“You have been telling us all to look after ourselves and you haven't been looking after yourself!” He shook his head in disbelief. “You haven't been drinking at all, have you?”

Maria had been so concerned with looking after everyone else that she hadn't considered her own needs at all.

After a couple more mouthfuls she felt somewhat revived and more than a little embarrassed but Hans didn't press the matter. He went on to explain that the few drops of fuel had indeed been enough to get them to the edge of the escarpment and they rolled down into the camp.

The commanding officer there was more than happy to dispatch the half-track, but it had taken a little while to fill some cans and get back up to them.

Maria got to her feet.

“Where is the ambulance?” she asked.

“I left it with Konrad and Hanna,” Hans told her. “They are looking after our casualties. The half-track will tow the seized ambulance back to camp rather than transfer the casualties.”

 

Some thirty minutes later the small convoy arrived safely at the camp. Now she could see them so closely she understood what Hans had meant about the 'Eighty-eights'. There were several parked underneath a vast expanse of camouflage netting. All but one were attached like trailers to the rear of half-tracked vehicles like the one that had come up to them.

Maria now understood why she had not been able to see what the camp actually was. At the distance she was looking from, the netting just looked like a part of the terrain.

 

They didn't remain at the camp for a moment longer than was necessary. With fuel tanks full and water cans replenished they set out once again for Benghazi. At least this time they knew they were on the right course. Once on the coast road, all they had to do was keep the sea to their left side and they would reach their destination without further drama.

Even the seized engine had freed up when it had cooled. The engineers had refilled the coolant and, although a little rough were confident it would get home.

 

By the time they reached the outskirts of Benghazi night had already fallen, and without the sun's warmth the temperature had fallen dramatically.

Like everyone else, Maria was completely spent, but she refused to head to her bed until all the patients were transferred to the wards and the ambulances taken to the transport section.

Only when everyone else was relieved would she sleep.

 

When she awoke she was ravenous. The sun must be just beginning to rise, she thought since the room was rather dimly lit, which meant that she had only had a few hours sleep. She was soon to discover, though that the sun was, in fact, setting. She had slept right through the day, a full nineteen hours!

 

The following day she went directly to her office to continue her matron's duties, but she was surprised to find a note on her desk requesting her to report immediately to the Chief Medical Officer.

He had heard all about her exploits and knew that she would go straight back to work but he wanted her to rest which was why the note was on her desk rather than him sending an orderly for her. He insisted on having a doctor examine her but she was young and resilient and the doctor passed her fully fit for duty.

“If it was down to me,” he had told her, “I would recommend some home leave, but I just can't spare you at the moment.”

Maria shrugged.

“I am all right, Herr Doktor,” she assured him with a wry smile. “I know as well as anyone what is happening out there. We can't rest now even if we wanted to.”

 

Over the following days, the hospital was inundated with casualties from the fighting which seemed to be getting closer, until Benghazi itself was under fire.

The medical staff worked tirelessly to keep the stream of patients moving so they could get them to the port and onto ships back to Italy and beyond.

 

By Christmas Eve the fighting was so severe now that Maria wasn't even aware of the date. She had barely slept for some four days now and she was so tired that when the doors to the ward she was working on suddenly burst open she barely noticed, so used was she to the explosions of the bombing and the crashing of the battle in the town and the continuous stream of wounded men. However, when the next voice she heard was English she froze and turned slowly around to see three English soldiers just inside the door pointing their rifles at her.

“'andy 'ock!” one of them shouted, “Get yer 'ands up!”

All those who could complied immediately but some of the patients were slower.

“Come on, all of yer,” the soldier insisted.

At that moment an English officer appeared in the doorway.

“Yes, thank you, Corporal. I think they get the message.”

As he spoke, his eyes fell on Maria.

“Well, I'll be damned!” he exclaimed, pushing his beret to the back of his head. “Matron Kaufmann!”

The Corporal's jaw dropped.

“You know 'er, Sir?” he asked with amazement.

“Oh, I know her all right,” the officer replied. “Two weeks ago she was in the middle of the desert leading a convoy of Ambulances towards Tobruk!”

The corporal lifted his beret and scratched the back of his head whilst looking Maria up and down.

“Well I never did!” he said incredulously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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