Athens. June 15th, 1941
The sun was high in the sky, and the air that rushed around the open sides of the ambulance's hinged windscreen was warm.
Katarina steadied herself by holding on to the wooden arm of the stretcher. It had been placed in the purpose-built rack in the rear section of the bus conversion where there was provision for four stretchers with casualties. In the front half, five pairs of the bus seats remained for the lesser injured casualties, the walking wounded as they were known.
She was concerned that the soldier wasn't responding to her care. Although he didn't appear to be seriously wounded, he needed to be in a hospital.
For an hour now, she had tended the gaping wound in his side where the bullet had emerged, and she couldn't stop the dark red blood oozing out and worse, his breathing was becoming shallow and coarse.
“How much longer before we get to Athens?” she shouted to the driver.
He didn't reply; her voice lost over the whine of the transmission and the wind through the screen.
The other medic walked down to the front and spoke with the soldier behind the wheel.
When he returned, he looked grim.
“He reckons another half a day at least,” he told her.
“I don't think he has that long. He will bleed out in that time.”
“He says there are almost six hundred kilometres still to go and the roads are not good enough for much more that thirty-five kilometres per hour, sometimes less.”
She thought for a moment.
“Right, then we have no choice. I will have to find the bleed myself and stop it.”
“Can you do that, Ma'am?”
The medic looked at her, his jaw open.
“I don't know,” she admitted, “But it is the only chance he has.”
She looked down at the recumbent casualty.
“What equipment do we have on here,” she asked the medic without looking up.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“I will need swabs, bandages, pads, clamps, scalpel, needles and thread.”
“I think we should have those,” he answered. “We also have Ethyl Alcohol for sterilisation and morphine.”
“Good, so be it then. Go and tell the driver to find a level place where he can stop whilst we work.”
The medic looked aghast!
“Stop? We can't stop. We'll lose the convoy. We'll have no protection.”
Katarina stared at him.
“Can you guarantee that we will all die if we stop?”
“Well, I... we... that is...” he stammered. “No Ma'am. I suppose not.”
She pointed to the casualty lying motionless on the stretcher.
“Well, I can guarantee that he will if we don't! Now get down there and tell him and don't even consider taking no for an answer!”
She watched as the two soldiers had an animated discussion. She saw the driver look up into the mirror and the other point back down the ambulance towards her.
Eventually, the medic returned.
“He will stop as soon as he can find a level spot, Ma'am.”
The driver was true to his word and pulled over into a large flat space which had been cleared in the trees.
Katarina was confident that since the vehicle was marked on both sides with a large red cross in a white circle, they would not be attacked.
With all the required equipment assembled, Katarina washed her hands with water from a jerry can and asked the medic to close all the windows. She needed keep the air still so that dust and dirt was not disturbed and find it's way into the open wound.
The area where the vehicle had stopped was bordered on one side by a dense forest and the other side of the road fell steeply into a valley. None of this was visible to Katarina through the white painted windows of the ambulance and as the medic helped her to remove the soiled dressings and the young man's shirt the air was still and the heat oppressive.
Very carefully, she cleaned around the damaged tissue with a wad of cotton doused in alcohol until the dried blood was removed and the gaping wound was clearly defined.
In striking the canister on the soldier's back, the bullet had deformed and the wound was worse than she first thought. The entry point was fairly small and clean but as it passed through the soft tissue the damage was far greater and the exit wound was some fifteen centimetres in diameter and still oozing fresh, dark blood which slowly dripped onto wadding she had tucked below.
“I need a probe,” she said, peering into the mess of flesh and blood.
Immediately the medic handed her a short metal rod with which she began to poke gently around the wound, carefully searching for the damaged veins.
Her patient began to groan, softly at first and then more loudly.
“Give him some morphine,” she said without breaking her concentration. “This is such a mess.”
With great care, she continued to search for the source of the bleeding.
“I can't find it,” she said as she continued to search. “It must be much deeper.”
More searching and then;
“Wait, I have something, give me a clamp!”
Once again the medic was ready and handed her the scissor-like clamp which she inserted into the bloody wound and quickly attached it to something out of sight.
Again she cleaned the wound, but still, it oozed the thick, sticky blood.
Wiping the probe with the Ethyl Alcohol, she continued her search, but it was only a moment later that she put out her hand and before she could speak there was another clamp in her hand.
Again, the end disappeared into the wound and seconds later it snapped closed.
Katarina watched intently, wiping, watching then wiping again. The wound looked moist still but blood no longer emerged.
“I think I have the worst of it,” she said eventually. “How is he?”
“I think he passed out, Ma'am but he is breathing at least.”
“Good,” she replied. “I need to tie off the damaged veins. Do you...?”
She didn't finish the sentence as she saw her assistant tip a little of the alcohol into a small cup.
“Thread, Ma'am, and needle if you require it. It's all ready.”
For just a second she looked up at him and gave a smile of appreciation.
“Not me ma'am,” he replied and nodded towards the other medic who had been driving and was now assisting, alongside his colleague.
Katarina was impressed at the efficiency of both men; they obviously were not novices.
Taking the needle, she worked the thread around the end of one of the damaged veins and tied it off, then repeated the process with the other before dropping the needle back into the alcohol.
When she carefully removed the clamps, she waited and watched for a moment or two.
It was tense and not a word was spoken.
“It's stopped,” she said finally, satisfied that she had prevented further blood loss.
As she straightened up, she stretched her aching back. She had been so intent on saving her patient's life that she hadn't realised how long she had spent stooped at his side.
Between the three of them, they covered the wound with a fresh field dressing and Katarina placed a blanket over him.
It didn't take long to clean up, and a few minutes later they were ready to resume their journey.
Katarina noticed the two medics whispering to each other at the front before one walked back to her.
“Ma'am, may I say something please?”
“Certainly,” she replied.
The man was hesitant at first, and she waited patiently for a moment.
“Well, we just wanted to say that, Heinrich and me that is...”
Katarina didn't let him finish and quickly raised her hand, hushing him as she did so.
“What was that?” she whispered.
The three of them listened carefully.
This time, they all heard it, the scrunching of a foot on the loose surface outside.
“Lock the doors!” she hissed.
Before they could move the front passenger door flew open, and they found themselves staring down the barrel of an MG-42 machine gun.
“Stand still, or I fire!”
The two men stopped in their tracks and looked as dumbfounded as the SS soldier facing them.
“All clear!” he suddenly shouted back through the door, but the gun remained pointing in their direction.
“What on earth are you doing?” Katarina asked in as calm a manner as she could manage. “I have a sick man here!”
As the words left her, the large rear door opened and a menacing voice spoke.
“I might ask the same question, Sister. What is going on here and why have you separated from the convoy?”
Katarina spun around and her heart froze for standing in front of the open doorway was the SS Obersturmfuhrer!
Thinking quickly, she turned the question around.
“Firstly Herr... I am not Sister I am Matron Katarina Langsdorff, and we have stopped to carry out urgent surgery to save the life of one of your men! What is the meaning of you bursting into an ambulance like this?”
The SS man was not fazed and looked calmly at her.
“I am SS Obersturmfuhrer Gerhard Holz, and I am in charge of the security of this convoy.”
As he climbed the three steps into the vehicle, he looked at the recumbent figure in the stretcher and then back at Katarina.
“I know you...” he began, narrowing his eyes.
“Do you?” she asked slowly. “From where?”
As she spoke she pulled on the rank armband, she had been given at Trieste along with the shoulder flashes.
Holz looked at her arm and then back at her face, but he remained unimpressed.
“Munich,” he said as though thinking out loud. “Yes, that's it, you are from Munich. You are the Matron at Ludwig-Maximilian Hospital who tried to prevent the arrest of several 'patients' there!”
Her heart missed a beat; he was talking about Maria!
Summoning all the strength she could, she kept her face absolutely straight as she replied,
“Obersturmfuhrer Holz, I don't know who you think I am but I am from Berlin, not Munich. My father is a diplomat. Now, if you have quite finished...” she indicated the soldier who was still pointing his weapon at them, “I have a very sick man here who needs urgent hospital attention.”
Again he looked down at her arm.
In a tone tinged with doubt, he stepped down from the ambulance, turned toward her and snapped his heels together.
“As you wish, Frau Hauptmann-Matron but I have a good memory.”
He slammed the door shut.
Simultaneously the soldier at the front lowered his weapon and left.
For several seconds the three remained in stunned silence until Katarina brought them to their senses.
“Come on,” she said. “We had better get on.”
She turned to the medic who had assisted her.
“You drive first, and then I will take over when I am sure that our passenger is alright.”
A few minutes later, the engine roared to life, and they returned to the road and after the convoy.
Another check of the patient that the movement wasn't disturbing any of the work she had done and then Katarina finally sat down, allowing herself a moment to relax. Having tidied away all the equipment they had used, the other medic, Heinrich, sat on the seat on the other side of the aisle to her.
Neither spoke at first, both catching their breaths for a few precious minutes until Katarina's curiosity got the better of her.
“Heinrich, I believe?”
“Yes, Ma'am,” he said, looking somewhat puzzled. “How did...?”
“Your colleague,” she smiled and immediately Heinrich relaxed.
“Of course,” he said. “Hans.”
“Anyway, Heinrich. Do know the route that is planned for us or was Sergeant Lange the only one with the plan?”
“Oh no, Ma'am, we both know the route. The maps are in the locker at the front. Our next refuelling stop is Arta in Greece, about another seven hours I reckon. Most of the route is through the mountains.”
“If we keep going we should make it around dusk then.”
Heinrich thought for a moment and then nodded slowly.
“Possibly, Ma'am. Provided we don't have anymore any problems.”
True to her word, Katarina shared the driving, taking the hours that the deceased sergeant would have been behind the wheel.
Just as the last vestiges of daylight were fading and the first stars began to twinkle in the sky, the ambulance rolled into Arta.
Katarina was disappointed to find it deserted. The convoy had left without them.
Bringing the vehicle to a halt in the town square, Hans kept the engine running and turned around to face them.
“What do we do now, Ma'am? We don't have enough fuel to get to Athens.”
Katarina scanned the square. In the far corner, a lorry was parked.
“Do we have any hose on board?” she asked.
“Yes, Ma'am for syphoning Benzene from drums. Why do you ask?”
“As much as I hate to do it,” she replied, “We could take some from that lorry. Will it have enough?”
“Possibly, Ma'am if it has a full tank, but we have no protection if we are caught. No guns.”
Katarina thought for a moment.
“A chance we'll have to take. How do we do it?”
“We have the spare can on the side, that holds twenty litres. If we empty that into the tank, I reckon that four trips will be enough. A hundred litres in total.”
“I can't help you,” she told them, almost apologetically. “I am not strong enough, but if we put the ambulance right behind the truck, we will have more cover.”
With Katarina in the seat, they moved the ambulance behind the apparently deserted lorry just far enough away that they didn't have to reverse if they needed to leave quickly.
They had agreed to wait until the daylight was finally gone before they started but in the dim light remaining, Heinrich suddenly pointed.
“That's an Italian Army truck!” he exclaimed.
As the words left his lips the door of the truck's cab swung open and a somewhat overweight soldier almost fell out rather than climbed out and walked towards them.
His heavily accented German perfectly clear.
“I fall asleep waiting. You 'ave been 'ere long?”
Katarina was dumbfounded.
“Waiting for what?” she asked. “Us?”
“Si, Sure. Who else? The SS say you coming, I wait.”
As he said 'SS,' he spat into the dirt. Katarina noticed but said nothing. She felt much the same way.
“I 'ave Benzene, I 'ave good food.”
“Good, then we need to hurry. I have a wounded man who needs a hospital.”
As they talked, they were joined by another Italian soldier who appeared from the other side of the truck and proceeded to pull the canvas cover to one side and then jumped inside.
At the rear of the truck was a large, two hundred litre steel drum. It was on its side and had a tap of some kind at the bottom.
The taller, thinner soldier disappeared into the darkness and returned moments later with a large wooden crate.
The fat Italian had a grin as wide as the Tiber.
Katarina sighed with exasperation.
“We don't have time!” she insisted, “Please give us the Benzine, now!”
The big man shrugged and turned to his colleague, speaking quickly in Italian.
The other man shrugged and put the crate on the edge of the load bed then disappeared again returning moments later with a hose over his shoulder.
Without a word he jumped down and began to screw the attachment on the end of the hose onto the tap. When it was secure he turned the lever ninety degrees and then dragged the remaining pipe to the ambulance.
Katarina was fascinated. She watched intently as the scrawny looking Italian unfastened the cap on top of the fuel tank and placed the nozzle attached to the other end of the hose into the aperture and pulled up the lever in the hand grip. Immediately she heard the fuel begin to pour into the tank.
“Alright, so now we eat, Si?”
Katarina, brought suddenly back to her senses turned to the short, stout Italian.
“I need fresh water,” she told him. “I take it you have that too?”
The Italian sighed.
“Si, Signorina,” he replied somewhat dejected, “I have cans of water.”
Seeing his demeanour, she softened a little.
“I'm sorry. I need to get my patient to Athens as soon as is humanly possible. He is a very sick man.”
The soldier smiled.
“I understand,” he said, happy again. “You cannot do without your food though, or you will become sick too.”
“All right,” she conceded. “We will eat a little whilst he fills the tank, but then we must move on.”
In all they remained in Arta for just twenty-five minutes and as soon as the fuel tank was full and the water cans were replenished the ambulance, and its delicate cargo left the square and set off on the final leg of the journey to Athens.
This final part was the longest and would take them more than ten hours of continuous driving, stopping only for personal needs. The distance was such that should there be any kind of diversion there would not be any surplus fuel.
They each drove for two hours and rested as much as they could in between, but with constantly checking on her patient, Katarina found it difficult to relax and consequently slept only fitfully.
By the time they reached the outskirts of Athens, they were exhausted, and it was only by some miracle that none of them had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road.
After a few minutes, they came upon a checkpoint manned by the SS.
Hans stopped the vehicle in front of the barrier and waited.
“Ma'am, we are almost out of fuel,” he said as the guard walked towards them.
The passenger door opened and before the guard could speak, Katarina said;
“Please be quick, Soldat. I have a casualty on board, very little Benzene and we are all extremely tired.”
As she spoke, she handed over the identity papers for all three of them.
The guard checked each card against the occupants and as he did the sick soldier began to groan in pain.
“Where are you heading?” he asked her.
“I am to take up a position at Kokkinia,” she replied. “He can be treated there.”
“No, Ma'am, if you will forgive me. That hospital is for the enemy prisoners. You should take him to Ekali. We captured it in May.”
“As I said, Private, we are almost out of fuel. How far is that?” she asked.
“About thirty minutes away, Ma'am. Considerably nearer than Piraeus.”
He handed back their papers and gave them directions and, at the same time waving to his colleague to raise the barrier.
As soon as the door was closed, Hans gunned the engine and began to move forwards, giving the guard just enough time to move the wooden barrier pole.
Considering that it was almost nine in the morning, the city was fairly quiet, and Hans manoeuvred the ambulance through the streets following the directions that the soldier had given them.
Before long the large, grey concrete building loomed in front of them and the vehicle squealed to a halt in front of the main entrance.
Without any of its passengers leaving the vehicle, a team of medics and a doctor in a white coat appeared from inside.
Heinrich opened the door, and the doctor entered immediately.
“We were informed yesterday of what had happened,” he told Katarina before she had a chance to speak. “How is he?”
By this time they were at the back with the casualty, and the door was open. Outside the medics waited to take him.
“Not good I'm afraid. He has lost a lot of blood and is very weak. I have kept the wound as clean as possible, but we only have limited resources here.”
The doctor took his pulse and listened to his breathing with a stethoscope.
“I think he is a very fortunate man to have made it here at all, Matron. He is very lucky that you were there.”
He gestured to his orderlies, and they lifted the stretcher from its rack.
“Straight to theatre please,” he told them.
Katarina looked at the exhausted faces of her own two medics.
“It wasn't just me,” she said with a weary smile. “Without these two we wouldn't be here at all.”
“Have you managed any sleep at all?” he asked her, noting that she was swaying a little and seemed to be struggling to keep her eyes open.
She shook her head.
“I will get someone to take the ambulance to the motor pool and then find you somewhere that you can rest,” he said. “Bring your kit. I can't guarantee it's safety if you leave it.”
Three days later, suitably rested, she reported for duty at Kokkinia.
What she found there was like nothing she had ever experienced. The hospital was fully functioning and staffed by purely British, Australian and New Zealand medical personnel. It was run as efficiently and effectively as any hospital she had seen. The German officer in overall command was a young Hauptmann who was perfectly capable and had no requirement for her.
So, the following day, she agreed to look after a satellite facility in the former polytechnic building a short distance away.
Unbeknown to her, though was that it would remain in operation for only a few weeks...