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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 14

"She knelt beside him and placed her fingers against his bloodied neck. She found a pulse!"

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Levan, Albania. June 10th, 1941


It had been a strange day. Late in the afternoon she had been summoned to the dispatch office and given further orders. To her dismay, she was told that the invasion of Greece had been a success and the Aquilea had been diverted there to recover casualties. The war in North Africa was also going well, and under the guidance of General Field-marshal Rommel the British had been pushed out of Libya with the exception of a small area of resistance at Tobruk, but the dispatch officer was confident that the General would push them into the sea. However, all this meant that the Aquilea would not return to Trieste for quite some time and so he had received new orders for her.


Whilst he spoke, Katarina gasped as a sharp pain shot through her back, and she looked around thinking that someone had bumped into her, but there was no-one else in the room.

“Is something wrong, Matron?” the dispatch officer asked seeing her sudden loss of attention.

“Erm, no, I don't think so...” she replied, but as she flexed her back, it gave a sharp twinge and caused her to take another sharp breath.

She was puzzled and wondered if she had unwittingly strained her back in some way, but she couldn't think how.

“Do you need to sit down?” the dispatch officer asked, pointing towards a chair beside his desk. “You look quite pale.”

As he spoke, a wave of nausea passed over her.

“Yes, thank you,” she said slowly and carefully sat down.

The officer, a suave middle-aged Kriegsmarine Kapitan-Leutnant stood up and drew a glass of water from a tap above the hand-basin in the corner of his office and handed it to her.

She took it gratefully, and after a few mouthfuls, she began to feel much better.

“I'm sorry about that,” she said. “I don't know what came over me. It felt as though someone had punched me between the shoulder blades. It made me feel quite sick, but it has gone now.”

“Would you like me to call a medic?” he asked, but Katarina refused.

“No thank you. I am sure I am fine now. I must have twisted it somehow. If it happens again, I will get it looked at.”

The officer nodded uncertainly.

“All right,” he said. “If you are sure.”

“Quite sure,” she replied, brightly. “Just one of those odd things I expect.”

He waited until she had taken a few more sips of the water before revealing the purpose of her being summoned to his office.

He turned to the window and looked out over the busy harbour, hands clasped behind his back.

“Because you missed the Aquilea,” he began. “The DRK have found themselves with a spare Matron in this region.”

“Isn't it coming back then?” she asked.

“Probably,” he replied. “The thing is that they have found a need for someone like you elsewhere.”

“What do you mean, someone like me?”

Katarina was on her guard suddenly. Surely they didn't blame her for missing the ship?

“It seems that you are very highly regarded in Berlin.”

The dispatch officer turned from the window and faced her.

“So much so that they want you to go to the Kriegsgefangenlazerett in Kokkinia.”

Katarina had never heard of it.

“A prisoner of war hospital?” she asked. “What is that and where is Kokkinia?”

“Apparently it is a hospital filled entirely with prisoners of war and is run by Australian and New Zealand medical personnel who were captured when we overran Greece. It is in the Piraeus district of Athens.”

“Oh, I see and what exactly am I to do there?”

“Your orders are to take charge of the medical personnel there and liaise between the Army and the Prisoners on medical matters.”

He pushed the grey folder over his desk towards her, and she stood up and went over to read it.

When she opened the cover, lying on top of the paper contents were two Wehrmacht armbands.

They didn't look at all like the armband she had received when she and Maria had left Karlsruhe. These were green and had three star-like patterns embroidered on them.

“What are these?” she asked. “They are not Leutnant insignia.”

The dispatch officer smiled.

“No, they are the insignia of Hauptmann. As you will control much of the medical work at Kokkinia, then you are to have the status it requires. It says so in your orders.”

Katarina indicated the chair against the desk.

“May I?” she asked politely.

“You are a Captain now. Who would I be to refuse?”

She pulled out the chair, somewhat relieved that this was not a punishment for missing her ship and sat down to scan the documents inside the folder.

She was not overly excited to discover that her journey to Athens was to be by road. A convoy was to leave the following morning, and she would travel in one of the Ambulances which would form a part of the column.

What she didn't know at that point was that Athens was some one thousand seven hundred Kilometres in the distance and would take about three days.


The following day, Katarina reported to the muster point and found the convoy commander who directed her towards a group of ambulances standing side by side. There were also several men standing by them all dressed in the grey uniforms of the Wehrmacht except that some wore white helmets. All of them had white armbands on their left arms which prominently displayed a red cross. Those wearing the white steel helmets also displayed a larger cross on either side of them.


As she approached they all looked at her, a little too appreciatively, she thought.

“Good morning, Sister,” some of them greeted her. “Coming for a little ride with us then?”

She didn't like their tone at all. They were staring at her as though undressing her mentally and she suddenly felt uncomfortable.

“Which of you is...” she unfolded the piece of paper in her hand and read the name. “Feldwebel Gunther Lange?”

One of the older men drew himself up.

“You don't want to ride with him, Sister. You'll have much more fun in my truck.”

Katarina straightened herself, standing upright and looking this foul mannered pig of a man directly in the eye.

“Do you know me?” she asked him.

“Nope, can't say I do but I would certainly like to get to know you.”

She smiled sweetly.

“I think that over the next few days that could become a distinct possibility,” she said. “My name is Katarina.”

The medic wiped his hand against his tunic and held it out to her.

“Pleased to meet you, Katarina,” he said gruffly, and they stared at her arm as she slipped on the armband which the dispatch officer had given her.

He suddenly snapped to attention, quickly joined by the other soldiers as she continued.

“Hauptmann-Matron Katarina Langsdorff.”

“I, I'm sorry Ma'am, I didn't realise. It... it was just a joke... I...”

“Let me explain something to you, Soldier. I and my nurses have quite enough to contend with as it is and having to fend off unwanted advances from our own soldiers does nothing to help make their lives any easier. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Ma'am, perfectly clear, Ma'am!”

At that moment another soldier appeared from behind one of the ambulances and approached Katarina.

“Is everything all right, Ma'am?” he asked, shooting a curious sideways glance at the soldier standing in front of her.

“Sergeant Lange?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma'am. Is there a problem?”

Katarina looked once again at the soldier before her, but this time he stared straight ahead, not daring to catch her eye.

“No, Sergeant, I don't think so. I was just getting acquainted with your men. I am to join your convoy to Athens.”

She showed him the order.

The Sergeant didn't look at the paper she was holding out.

“Yes, Ma'am. I was informed this morning. You will be riding with my crew and me in that ambulance over there.”

Katarina looked in the direction to which he was pointing, one of the larger vehicles. She recognised the type having seen them before. It looked very much like the Opel trucks but with the body of a small bus.

She smiled, thinking that it looked somewhat more comfortable than the trucks. At least it had proper seats rather than the wooden benches that the trucks she had experienced had.


By mid-morning, the convoy was underway and beginning to climb the mountains that surrounded Trieste.

The speed at which they were travelling made Katarina wonder whether three days would actually be all it would take but the scenery was so beautiful that she soon relaxed and actually began to enjoy the drive.

She sat in the front seat beside Sergeant Lange. The fact that she was an honorary officer certainly had an advantage because inside the ambulance there were two rows of wooden seats, much like the ones fitted to the buses and trams she had travelled on at home and it was on those seats that the two medics who were accompanying them had to travel.

Behind those seats were four stretchers in racks along with cases of medical equipment. Dressings drugs, and so on.


After some two hours, Katarina was the first to break the silence.

“How long before we stop?” she asked, more from curiosity than from any great need.

Sergeant Lange didn't take his eyes from the road.

“The first big stop will be Gospić in Croatia. There are fuel and food there, but that is some hours away yet but for, erm, personal needs we can stop anytime.”


The day wore on, and it was late afternoon when they finally arrived in Gospić.

Katarina was pleased to see that a field kitchen had been set in the village square and whilst the drivers went about the task of refuelling the vehicles everyone else filed slowly past the steaming boilers with their plates held out for the cooks to slop into them a ladel full of stew and dumplings.

Although there had been bread available along with cheese and ham, she was very glad of the hot meal and found it quite palatable.


They did not stop for long before the column moved off again. This time one of the medics took the wheel whilst Sergeant Lange took a break on one of the wooden bench seats.

Katarina sat beside him.

“The dispatch officer at Trieste said it would take around three days to reach Athens.”

The Sergeant laughed lightly and replied without looking at her.

“Three days?”

She nodded.

“Will it be more then?”

This time he turned to face her.

“We have covered little more than five hundred kilometres in ten hours. At that rate, we won't arrive in Athens for another three days!”

“So we are driving through the night then?”

“Definitely. There are partisans active through pretty much the entire route so we cannot afford to stay in one place for too long and besides, at an average speed of fewer than fifty kilometres per hour, it would take until next week to get there.”

Seeing the concern on her face, he smiled more benignly.

“Don't worry,” he continued. “It's not so bad, and I am pretty sure that even they would not attack an ambulance.”


Hour after hour they rumbled on along the coast road, and Katarina could only marvel at the wonderous scenery until darkness began to swallow its beauty.

Suddenly, she felt a gentle movement beside her, and she realised that she had fallen asleep with her head against the sergeant's shoulder.

“I have to drive now, Ma'am,” he said apologetically. “Why don't you lie down on one of the stretchers and get some sleep that way? Far more comfortable than sitting on this hard bench.”

She looked at the four stretchers and saw that one was already occupied by one of the medics.


She felt as though she had been asleep only a few minutes when she awoke again. The ambulance was stationary, and there was no sign of the sergeant or either of the medics.

Although it was still dark, she could see the thin blue line of the dawn far away on the horizon.

She looked at her watch, Three-thirty. She had slept, on and off for a good six hours!

A little disoriented she climbed from her makeshift bed and rubbed her eyes. They burned and felt gritty due to the lack of sleep.

Through the windows, she could make out the buildings of a town and remembering the conversation earlier with Sergeant Lange, guessed that they must have reached Dubrovnik, the next refuelling stop. Indeed, when she stepped down into the warm night air, she could see barrels everywhere. Soldiers were rolling some towards their vehicles and others away. Yet more, like the sergeant were turning handles attached to the drums, no doubt pumping Benzine into their vehicles tanks.

A further hour passed, and with the sun beginning to make an appearance above the horizon the convoy moved off once more.

This time it was Sergeant Lange and the other Medic who took the bottom two stretchers to try and catch a few hours sleep and once again, Katarina occupied the more comfortable leather upholstered seat beside the driver.

She wasn't sure, whether it was because of the encounter with the offensive medic on the quayside at Trieste or whether he was just afraid of her rank, but this one barely spoke, answering her questions with a simple, 'Yes Ma'am' or 'No Ma'am' until in the end she just sat quietly and watched the road slowly unfold ahead of them.

As she sat, Katarina suddenly hit on an idea and a few hours later, when Sergeant Lange appeared from his slumber she smiled and said.

“When we next stop to change drivers...”

“You want to, erm... go?” he replied, cutting her short and appearing slightly embarrassed.

“I want to have a go,” she said sweetly.

The sergeant was baffled.

“You want to have a go?” he queried with a deeply furrowed brow. “Have a go of what... Ma'am?”

He had almost forgotten to address her rank and added it quickly.

“To drive!” she retorted. “Do you think I could?”

Sergeant Lange pushed his forage cap back and scratched his head.

“I, erm, well, I...” Lost for words he finally asked, “Can you drive?”

“Yes, of course, I can drive. I was taught at Karlsruhe.”

From the edge of her vision, she could see the medic behind the wheel staring at her open-mouthed.

The sergeant had noticed too.

“Eyes on the road, you!”

The medic did as he was told and stared straight ahead.

Katarina persevered.


“Do I have a choice, Ma'am? After all, you are a Hauptmann. I can hardly refuse can I?”

Katarina stood up and placed her lips close to his ear and whispered.

“Sergeant, I am a nurse first and an officer of the Wehrmacht only if I need to be, If you don't want me to drive then I will respect that, all right?”

“In that case, Ma'am,” he whispered back, “I am happy to let you take over but only for a couple of hours.”


And so it was.

For just two hours Katarina drove, what felt to her this huge bus and the time passed in a flash. Driving around the camp roads at Karlsruhe was fun, but this was exhilarating. She quickly mastered just where and when to change up and down the gearbox according to the gradients and by lunchtime, when the next change over came she was in seventh heaven.

How she wished Maria could have been here with her. She would have enjoyed it too, and her happiness would have been complete.

Sadly, though, she wasn't, and now Katarina wondered once more how she was and just when she would see her again.

Discovering that the village they were now in was Levan in Albania, Katarina wondered just how many countries would become occupied by the Nazis before the war ended. She imagined that Herr Hitler would not be satisfied until he ruled over the entire continent!

Like every other town she had visited lately, there were soldiers everywhere. Here, as in Dubrovnik and Gospić, the soldiers were Italian, and it was they who served lunch, just as they had at the previous stop.

It was a beautiful day, and Katarina perched on the front bumper of the ambulance whilst she peeled an orange that she had taken from a crate on the back of one of the Italian trucks.

The sun was high in the sky, and its hot rays warmed her face as she pulled at the waxy peel.


So sudden that it startled her, the crack of a single shot rang out and, to her astonishment, a soldier who was just walking away from the field-kitchen suddenly fell forwards and landed face first in the dirt, his plate and its contents splashed to the ground.

Maria dropped her orange in her haste to run to him but as she took her first step a strong hand grabbed her and pulled her roughly to the ground beside the ambulance.

“Wait!” a gruff voice hissed. It was the soldier whom she had rebuked at Trieste.

“What happened?” she asked nervously.

“Partisans!” he hissed again. “Stay here out of their sight.”

Another shot rang out followed by a volley of machine gun fire. It was brief, but another three soldiers were hit, one of them Italian.

There was silence for a moment and then another shot which ricocheted off the rear corner of a truck.

“Up there!” an anonymous voice shouted and all hell let loose. The front of a three-story house erupted as hundreds of bullets buried themselves in the dry plasterwork and then an explosion as a Panzerfaust was fired into one of the windows.

The firing stopped, and an eerie silence returned to the village. No-one spoke.

Katarina watched from behind the ambulance as a group of grey-uniformed soldiers half ran, and half crawled towards the destroyed building and disappeared inside the smoking ruins.

More shots were fired, and muffled shouts were heard and then silence once more until the small force of soldiers reappeared dragging the limp bodies of three young men dressed in civilian clothes.

There were more shouted orders and several more groups dispersed amongst the remaining buildings.

Despite the warnings from the soldier beside her, Katarina jumped up and ran over to the soldier she had seen fall. He had remained motionless throughout, but she couldn't leave him a moment longer.

She knelt beside him and placed her fingers against his bloodied neck. She found a pulse!

“Stretcher here, now!” she yelled out towards the ambulance and, spurred into action the two medics dragged a stretcher from inside the ambulance and ran over to her along with a medical bag.

The soldier began to stir. The bullet had hit him square in the back but had been deflected by the cannister he carried in his pack and had passed through his side. Blood was still oozing from the wound, but Katarina was able to stem the flow.

“Get him into the ambulance!” she ordered, “I will look after him there. Where is Sergeant Lange?”

As the two orderlies lifted the wounded man onto the stretcher, she heard a scream from behind her and turned around just in time to see the convoy leader, an SS-Obersturmführer raise his arm and fire a single bullet into the cowering body of the one partisan who had survived the onslaught. His body jumped with the impact, twitched once, twice and then lay still.

Before he lowered his arm, the Major turned his head and looked at her as though he sensed her watching. The look he gave her was chilling and seemed to dare her to criticise him.

With years of experience in dealing with such hardhearted men she sighed and turned away shaking her head.

Once again, as she climbed up into the ambulance, she called urgently to the medics as they hooked the stretcher into the support brackets.

“Where is Sergeant Lange!”

“I'll find him, Ma'am,” one called back and as soon as the stretcher was secured he disappeared.


Between them and under Katarina's experienced guidance, she and the Medic cleaned and dressed the injured soldier's wound. It was quite a mess, and although in itself not life-threatening, he still needed hospital treatment. The convoy was beginning to move out, and there was still sporadic, muffled gunfire from inside the houses.

“If they don't return soon we are going to be here alone,” she thought, but just then, a lone figure appeared, running towards them. It was the medic.

Katarina pushed open the door as he approached and the breathless soldier leapt up the steps and slammed the door closed behind him.

Katarina gave him a minute to regain his composure before asking,

“So where is Sergeant Lange?”


She was stunned.

“Dead?” she repeated, “How?”

“The SS are clearing the village. I found him by one of the houses beside a young girl who was also dead. They said he stopped to help her, and she shot him, but I don't believe it.”

Katarina frowned, puzzled.

“Why not?” she asked.

The young man appeared scared and lowered his voice.

“Ma'am, the wound looked like the he had been shot from above and from the side. As far as I could tell the bullet entered just behind his right ear. The left side of his face was gone. think he was trying to save her life and the SS shot him.”

Katarina was stunned into silence.

“Ma'am, we must go. If the Obersturmführer finds out that I was there...”

He didn't finish the sentence, and she suddenly turned to the other medic.

“Drive!” she said sharply.

When he didn't respond, she shouted,

“Drive! Now!”

Coming to his senses, the shocked medic jumped into the seat, started the engine and pulled out behind the last of a line of trucks.

“Murderers!” she thought to herself. “Bloody murderers, every last one of them!”






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