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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 23
By
AnnaMayZing

Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 23

As she read the words her tears flowed steadily...

Tripoli. January 29th, 1942

 

Katarina opened her eyes as the loud roar of the three Junker's engines suddenly diminished to a more subdued rumble. The pilot had pulled the throttle levers back onto their stops to allow the engines to idle as the camouflaged transport plane followed the glide path down towards the runway at Tripoli.

Christmas day was dawning but, for the first time in her young life, that not insignificant fact was lost to her.

Having received the urgent message the previous evening she wasted no time in getting several nurses together and they had boarded the waiting medical flight in the early hours.

It had been a long and tiring journey, some six hours in all and sleep had been nigh impossible.

Although uneventful the slow, lumbering transport was crammed to its maximum capacity with medical supplies and stretchers which made the available space for Katarina and her ten companions very cramped indeed.

The relief as the wheels bumped gently onto the concrete runway was tangible to all of them and they began to stretch their arms in anticipation of being able to move freely once again.

 

The sun was only just beginning to appear and its heat had not yet begun to drive away the cold night air so, when the cabin door swung open, the small amount of warmth these few passengers had managed to generate between them was instantly lost.

Katarina stood up and led her nurses down the steps and into the sand coloured bus that had pulled up beside the aeroplane.

 

It was an exhausted young woman who, having got her charges billeted, reported to the Chief Medical Officer, an Oberstabsarzt who she estimated to be in his forties.

“Good morning, Matron Langsdorff,” he greeted her warmly, “I trust you had an uneventful flight?”

“Oh yes, thank you, Sir,” she said and then raised her hand to her mouth to stifle a huge yawn.

“Oh, please forgive me. I haven't slept properly for over twenty four hours,” she apologised.

The Major raised his hand.

“Please,” he said. “There is no need for apologies. I appreciate that you were called at very short notice.”

“Ah, yes,” Katarina came straight to the point. “I was informed yesterday that a convoy had gone missing, possibly lost in the desert. Was that from here?”

“No, from Benghazi. I have received word that it returned safely a few days ago but now Benghazi itself has been taken which means that we now have a greater responsibility. Most of the wounded were taken there for transfer to ships so now we have that extra load which is why I needed more help.”

Katarina listened carefully but one question was uppermost in her mind.

“Who was lost?” she asked.

“Oh, I don't know, I have only been here a few days myself. Does it matter?”

“It does to me, Sir. My, erm, friend was Matron here before being sent to Benghazi.”

The Major took a file from his desk drawer and briefly scanned its contents.

“A Matron Kaufmann and twenty nurses...”

“Damn it!” Katarina interrupted. “I knew it!”

“Matron?”

The Major frowned.

“Oh, I'm sorry, Sir. It's a long story. Do we know whether they are all right, taken prisoner or...?”

“I'm afraid not. I haven't anything about them. All I know for certain is that Benghazi is now in British hands. The problem being that since all the casualties are now coming this way we are going somewhat overwhelmed. I was hoping for more than just ten of you.”

Katarina's thoughts had wandered a little, worrying about Maria.

“Erm, yes,” she replied a little absent minded. “I'm afraid that was all I could muster at such short notice. I believe the DRK are looking for more as soon as possible though.”

The Oberstabsarzt nodded.

“I am sure we will manage for now. You get something to eat and sleep. Report to me when you are rested and we will discuss the plans when you are refreshed.”

Taking her leave, Katarina followed the orderly who had appeared to show her to her quarters.

 

The room she was given was plain but functional containing just a bed and small table with a reasonably comfortable looking chair and a small wardrobe. In the corner was a small wash basin.

The orderly had explained how to get to the officers dining room, but she was so tired that after removing her coat and starched, white cap she lay on the bed hoping to catch a few minutes rest before taking breakfast.

When she next opened her eyes the sun was already low in the sky.

She looked at her watch. Four O'Clock! She had slept most of the day away!

Quickly she tidied herself, washed at the basin and fixed her hair and only when she considered herself presentable would she then head out into her new surroundings.

 

The hospital was a hive of activity. Katarina had never seen so many injured men before. Even the corridors had patients on stretchers.

She met the chief surgeon outside the operating theatre. |He looked tired and his apron was completely covered with blood.

“Ah, good afternoon, Matron. I trust you are rested?”

“Yes, thank you, Sir,” she replied.

“Have you eaten?”

“No, Sir. Not yet.”

“Well, get something to eat and then meet me in my office where I shall bring you up to date.”

 

And so it began. From that moment, Katarina would barely have a moment to herself. She could now see how. Compared to this, Athens had been a holiday.

Out in the dessert the battles were raging. Men lay dead and dying under the desert sun as the allies advanced and then were repelled. Back and forth they moved until, ultimately, the Afrika Corps prevailed.

Having been pushed back and his supply lines shortened, Rommel was able to regroup and resist the advancing troops, culminating in a tank battle at El Haseila which forced the Eighth Army to withdraw.

Although hundreds of kilometres away, Tripoli was the main port and now that Benghazi had fallen it was now the main port for embarking the wounded for repatriation.

 

As the days passed, Maria was uppermost in her mind. Whenever new arrivals came in from that area she would ask them if they had any news but none had. She heard many tales of fighting in the desert, of exploding tanks, men cut down by bullets and saw some horrific injuries but no-one knew anything about what had happened to the medical team at Benghazi.

Until that is, one badly wounded tank gunner was brought in.

When she first saw him he was being brought from the theatre and the whole of his upper torso and a large part of his head was wrapped in pristine white bandages.

Katarina glanced at him as she passed but he was just another of the many casualties and so drew no further attention than for his welfare and to direct his orderlies to the ward.

As she walked on she heard a weak voice call out.

“Wait, come back.”

She stopped and turned back to him as the orderlies waited patiently.

“You made it out then?”

Katarina frowned.

“What do you mean?” she asked him.

“Benghazi. You got out.”

“No, I...”

She wasn't allowed to continue as the sick man continued.

“It was hell. They made us abandon the town but the medics weren't able to get the hospital cleared in time. We left them. I thought you would all be taken prisoner...”

Katarina suddenly realised. He thought she was Maria!

“No,” she began, “I wasn't...”

The tank-man was beginning to ramble.

“I heard all about you. You are a hero. So many lives saved and getting everyone back alive. I'm glad you are all right.”

“What happened to the town?” Katarina asked, letting him believe that she had escaped.

“It was a mess,” he answered. “The constant bombing and street fighting. Such a beautiful city...”

He coughed and winced with the sudden strain. “There were several air raids and nowhere to hide. We fought as much as we could but we couldn't hold them and then they had us retreat, leave the town. I saw you in the hospital as we passed...”

It took all of her strength of will to remain calm as she asked him,

“What happened to the hospital. Was it bombed too?”

“I don't think so but there was some damage. My tank was hit by a shell as we withdrew to El Agheila, everyone killed but me. I should have been too... why wasn't I killed?

The young man was beginning to become agitated, and Katarina spoke calmly to him.

“Because you were lucky, that's all,” she said softly. “It wasn't your time to die. You must relax now, get better.”

She placed her hand gently on his arm, and he nodded.

“You are right. I am glad you are safe, Matron.”

He closed his eyes as his words trailed off and she nodded to the orderlies who continued to the ward.

The exchange hadn't helped her at all. All she now knew was that her sister was still alive when the troops withdrew but she had no way of finding out what happened after. Now her heart was heavy and she was afraid that she was never going to see Maria again.

She was certain that had her sister escaped, she would have heard from her unless... No! The thought of Maria lost in the desert was abhorrent and besides there was no way that she would leave her patients.

All she could do now was hope that the British would look after her as they had on the warship.

 

The days passed and the first day of the new year, Nineteen-forty-two had passed almost unnoticed. The war didn't stop just because the year had changed.

For Katarina, one day was the same as the next and the next and the next one after that. Casualties seem to be coming from everywhere, from the land and from the sea.

 

One evening, around the middle of January, she was sitting in the mess room having finished her meal. She filled her cup with coffee and sat back, reaching into her pocket to retrieve some crumpled letters. She had been given them that morning but had not had time to look at them until now. Her sudden departure from Athens had caused them to be re-routed and delayed but now they had finally reached her.

There were three, all from her parents in Berlin. None were from Maria.

She sighed and tore open the first which was the earliest dated.

 

Berlin

6th December 1941

 

My sweetest Katarina.

We are thinking of you today, especially as it is the feast of St. Nikolaus. I know it is silly but I have polished a pair of your old shoes and put them outside your bedroom door, as we did when you were a child. In a strange way it helps us feel that you are still here at home, even though you are not.

It is quite cold here. I think winter is coming early. We are keeping warm, but coal generally is scarce.

We are always thinking of you, your father and I and eagerly await your safe return.

Your loving Mama and Papa.

 

Katarina sat quietly, just staring at the wrinkled letter form. St. Nikolaus day was over a month ago and the letter had only just reached her.

She sighed deeply and opened the second. It was a Christmas card. The picture was of a Christmas Tree with two cherubic looking children looking up at the star at the top with their smiling faces illuminated by its light.

When she opened it, the simple words brought a lump to her throat, and a tear began to form.

 

Frohe Weihnachten, Katarina. Immer in unseren Herzen”

Mama und Papa

 

“You are always in my heart too,” she thought as she brushed away the single tear which had escaped to run down her cheek.

 

With a heavy heart, she opened the third and final letter.

 

Berlin

2nd January 1942

 

Happy New Year, Katarina.

We so wish that you were here with us at the beginning of this new year. We have received your letters and greetings and hope that you have received ours.

It is bitterly cold now, the coldest that I can remember for a very long time. We have had snow already! Papa has not been well but he is over the worst of it now and should be back to his old self in a day or two.

We hope that you are keeping well and we are sure that you are warm, Papa has told me about the weather in ======.

You are always here with us in our hearts.

Come home safely, Sweetheart,

Your ever loving Mama and Papa.

 

As she read the words her tears flowed steadily and now she made no effort to wipe them away. Even with the word 'Greece' hidden under the black line of censorship couldn't prevent the love that these few simple words conveyed from breaking her heart.

The thought of her beloved father being unwell and her not being there to nurse him only served to make the feelings of homesickness and isolation so much worse.

 

“Matron?”

Katarina looked up.

“Are you all right?”

She wiped her eyes and sighed again, deeply.

“Yes, Helene, I am fine. Just some letters from home made me feel a little, well, you know.”

The young nurse sat down beside her.

“Yes, I do. It is only natural considering how far away from home we are... and the circumstances.”

There was a moment of silence which was broken only when Katarina asked;

“What about you, Helene. How are things with you?”

The girl shrugged resignedly.

“I am all right I suppose. I had a letter from home too. My brothers are fighting in the East but that was all the censors would allow on that subject.”

Katarina blew her nose, thoughts of home banished for now.

“So you don't know any more than that?” she asked.

The young nurse shook her head.

“No. I worry every day for them.”

“I suppose we all have something to feel sorry about, these days,”Katarina replied. “I am luckier than some and shouldn't dwell on my own silly fears.”

“Oh no, Matron, I didn't mean that to sound...”

“I know, Helene but I have to be strong. I am responsible for all of you and your welfare. It isn't good for any of us if I let my own selfish feelings get in the way.”

Helene touched her arm.

“And if you don't? If you bottle it all up inside and try to hide it, what then? You have a breakdown and then you become a burden instead of the great help that you are to us. No, Matron, sometimes you have to let it out, release the pressure, otherwise...”

“You are sweet, Helene. Not a word though, yes?”

“You underestimate us, Matron. No-one would respect you any less, but I understand. I won't tell anyone.”

There was a moment of thoughtful silence between them and then,

“You know that if any of you want to talk to me about anything you can, don't you? Maybe we can help each other.”

“We know,” Helene assured her. “There is one more thing though.”

Katarina frowned.

“What?” she asked.

“Matron Kaufmann. Those of us who were with you on the ship know how worried you must be about her. Some of the nurses who were with her are our friends too. We understand your fears.”

 

It was strange but the simple reassurances that the young nurse had given had seemed to take a great weight from her. Even though she had got on very well with her charges she had always felt a little isolated but Helene had changed all that and Katarina felt as though her burden was not on her shoulders alone and she could relax a little knowing that she had strong and efficient staff that she could trust entirely. Not that she had really thought otherwise.

 

And so the war continued unabated. Katarina pushed all thoughts of home to the back of her mind and concentrated on her work as she always did.

As soon as she had a moment to herself she wrote to her Mama and Papa to reassure them that she was well and not to worry about her. She hoped that papa was alright now and back to his old self.

The letter forms didn't allow for too much but she had little to tell them anyway. The weather, how she was keeping busy and so on but she hoped it would be enough to keep them from worrying too much about her.

For a moment she stopped writing and looked out towards the ocean. The sky had darkened.

Within a few minutes it began to rain, gently at first and then more and more until the large drops were splashing against her window and running down the glass taking the accumulated dust with it.

She watched, fascinated. She had seen rain before, many times but at home. Here she had become accustomed to the dry, dusty air and so she was not surprised to notice that the water didn't immediately soak into the ground but formed rivulets before finding cracks and fissures to disappear into.

As suddenly as it had begun, it stopped raining, and the clouds dispersed leaving behind the clear blue sky that she was used to seeing.

Even as she watched, the ground began to dry out with the water evaporating in a thin haze.

She wondered whether Maria could also see the rain. She hoped so as it would mean she was still near. She was sure she was still alive as she hadn't felt the dreadful sensations that she had experienced before she came here but she could have been sent to England or to some prison camp.

If only she had a way of knowing. It had been two months since she had received any letters from her and they had been written in October.

 

One afternoon, during the final days of the month, Katarina was assisting one of her nurses when she heard two soldiers talking as they passed the ward outside the open window.

She leaned out.

“Hey! you two!” she called and they stopped dead and stared up at her. “Wait there a minute!”

Leaving the young nurse to finish tying off the dressing she was assisting with, she ran outside.

The two soldiers were still waiting.

“I'm sorry,” she said as they saluted her, arms outstretched in deference to her rank. “I heard you talking as you passed. Did you say that the Afrika Korps is breaking out from El Agheila?”

The two men looked at each other.

“Well, yes, Ma'am... although not exactly that. The offensive began a week ago, on the twenty-first. They have taken back much of the ground lost back in December already. Why do you ask?”

“What about Benghazi?”

The older of the two continued.

“I have no idea about that, Ma'am. We were just discussing the situation so far. We don't know anything about the plans that the Field-Marshall may or may not have but it is an important port....”

Katarina smiled.

“Thank you, gentlemen. I am sorry to have delayed you.”

The older one shrugged and looked puzzled but did not press her.

“Erm, you are welcome, Ma'am.”

The two of them then turned away, whispering something to each other that Katarina couldn't hear but it didn't matter, and she returned to her work with a slightly lighter spring in her step.

It wasn't much, just a snippet of information but at least it was something.

 

 

 

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