Benghazi. January 29th 1942
Maria stared at the men who had crashed onto her ward so abruptly. The officer she remembered from the incident in the desert but the others were not the ones who had assaulted her and her medic.
“Was passiert?” she asked nervously and then remembered they probably didn't understand.
The sergeant looked blankly at her but the officer answered in halting, uncertain German.
“Es tut mir leid für die... erm... der... erm eingang? Matron. Wir mussten... erm... Oh damn it, we had to be safe!” The officer finished in English, frustrated at the inadequacy of his schoolboy German.
“So...” Maria began slowly, accepting his apology. "Now we ist, erm, what was the word... prisoners?”
“Yes. I am afraid so,” he replied.
There was a brief pause whilst Maria waited patiently for the officer to continue and then,
“Kapitan Daniels, what will happen to us?”
Before he answered her, the Captain turned to his Sergeant.
“Take your lads and search each bed for weapons. Guns, knives, anything they can use.”
Immediately the sergeant and four of his men marched purposefully towards the German soldiers, some of whom were so sick that they had no notion of what was happening around them.
The other nurses immediately tried to protect them but were pushed aside.
“Kapitan Daniels!” Maria shouted, horrified that the soldiers would harm her patients in some way.
“These ist sick men!”
The officer shrugged.
“Alright, Men,” he called out. “Take it easy now. Just be alert.”
Maria was fully aware there were no firearms on the ward but some of the patients retained knives and these were swiftly removed by the English soldiers.
She watched carefully whilst each bed was searched.
One of the soldiers was checking under the pillow of a motionless patient when suddenly he shouted out in pain. The seemingly comatose German had been anything but and as the Englishman had leaned over he had thrown his arm around the neck of his unfortunate captor and plunged his knife into his side.
The Englishman struggled but the German held on tightly, choking him as he withdrew the knife and plunged it into his neck.
Without delay, Captain Daniels took out his revolver and fired at the German.
From point blank range there could only be one outcome and the assailant fell lifeless onto his blood splattered pillow.
Another soldier caught the wounded man and lowered him to the floor whilst Maria ran to his side yelling for her nurses to get dressings.
Pressing her hand firmly against the bloody wound in his neck she used her free hand to tear open his once Khaki shirt but then, suddenly she flew backwards onto the floor and crashed against the bed having been pushed violently away by his mate.
A rifle was pointing at her.
Pushing the rifle away she tried to get up but the other soldiers held her back.
The stricken man was lying in a growing pool of blood with his own hand clamped to the wound in his neck.
“Er wird Sterben, du Idiot!” she yelled.
“Let her up!”
The soldiers didn't respond to Captain Daniel's order.
“I said, let her up,” he said more forcefully. “She is right, he will die, now let her help him!”
Reluctantly they let her go and she scrambled quickly back to help the victim.
She tore open the thick padded dressing that her nurse, Hanna had passed to her and pressed it firmly against the thin wound.
“Hold it there please, Hanna,” she said quietly. “I think it has missed the Carotid Artery but there is probably some nerve damage.”
The young soldier was shaking uncontrollably with the shock of the sudden violent assault.
“Hold it firmly, Hanna.” She placed her nurse's hand against the dressing whilst she further opened the soldier's dark stained shirt.
“Anneliese!” she called out to the other nurse. “Another large dressing please.”
The nurse she had called to moved slowly, staring fearfully at the British soldiers who were watching her every move.
“ Anneliese, quickly please,” Maria urged her, firmly but gently as she could see the fear etched in her face.
The young nurse did as she was bid and went to the dressings cabinet and took out a large dressing, ripping it open as she returned to Maria's side.
“It's all right,” Maria told her, “They won't hurt you but now they are nervous so just don't do anything to unsettle them.”
Anneliese smiled weakly and nodded as did Hanna when Maria looked at her.
“Good. Now, I don't think that this wound is more than a flesh wound. It hasn't penetrated too deeply.”
Maria carefully examined the angry looking slash in the soldier's side and then looked up at Hanna.
“How are you doing there?”
Hanna carefully lifted the edge of the bright red, blood soaked pad.
“I'm not sure, Matron but I think the flow might be easing.”
“Would you get me a stethoscope please, Annaliese.”
Placing the bell against his chest, she listened carefully then nodded.
“His heartbeat is good,” she said. “And his pulse strong but we need a doctor.”
She stood up and turned to Captain Daniels.
“He will live,” she told him. “Now we need a doctor. There is one here still?”
Daniels nodded and sent a soldier to find someone.
“And be careful!” he added. “I am not sure that the hospital is clear yet.”
Maria indicated the bed where the corpse of the German soldier remained.
“We need the bed for him,” she said. “Please do not frighten my nurses anymore. No guns... please?”
“You two!” Daniels pointed to two of his men “Remove the corpse. Put it on the floor over there.” he indicated a space out away from where Maria was working.
Without looking up she said to the captain,
“Ich brauche zwei Männer...” she shook her head in frustration. “I am sorry, I need two men to help him.”
The two nearest immediately stepped forwards and knelt either side.
“Hanna, keep the pressure on his neck. Anneliese, help me get fresh linen.”
In no time at all the two of them had pulled the blood stained sheets from the bed and replaced them with a fresh one. Without further delay, whilst Hanna maintained the pressure, the two soldiers, aided by Maria and Anneliese lifted the casualty and placed him gently in the bed.
“Kapitan Daniels, a doctor... Now, please!” she urged.
The Captain looked towards the door and back to Maria but didn't answer. He had already sent someone to find a doctor so there was nothing to do but wait at least long enough for him to find one and bring him back.
Although it seemed like a long time, it was actually only a few minutes before the door crashed open and the surgeon appeared, propelled through the door at the end of a rifle.
Maria looked up, appalled at the way he was being treated.
“Kapitan Daniels!” she exclaimed. “We ist not soldiers, not enemies!”
Daniels didn't flinch at her outburst, nor did he make any effort to chastise his soldier who continued to direct his captive with the muzzle of his weapon.
“I am sorry, Herr Doktor,” Maria said when he arrived beside her. “They don't seem to appreciate that we are not a threat.”
“It is not your fault, Matron,” he answered her as he examined the wounded soldier. “This is not so bad, who did it to him?”
She tilted her head towards the corpse, now covered with the blood stained sheet she had removed from the bed.
“Hmm... just as well he was sick then as this one would more than likely be dead now, also.”
The doctor worked quickly and before much more time had passed he had stabilised the patient and stitched the wounds.
Finally, he stepped back and turned to the British captain.
“He will live,” he said in perfect but accented English. “The wounds are quite deep but not life threatening providing...”
“Providing what?” Daniels asked warily.
“Providing that he is not moved until he is fit. He has lost a considerable amount of blood and if those stitches break he could bleed to death.”
The British Officer rubbed his chin as he considered the situation and after a moments thought he responded.
“Good. I shall arrange some medical staff to look after him.”
“Captain Daniels,” the doctor replied. “I know that we are on opposing sides but we are not your enemies. I think Matron Kaufmann has already shown that our only concern is to preserve life, to whomsoever that life belongs. We are not soldiers, Captain. I may wear the uniform of the Wehrmacht but I can assure you that your soldier will be well cared for.”
Daniels smiled. At least, his lips smiled but his face remained impassive.
“You give a good speech, Doctor,” he said and the smiled vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Corporal Symonds!”
A soldier wearing two chevrons on his on an armband turned to face him.
“Find a medic to keep an eye on Jackson and be sharp about it!”
“Yes, Sir!” the corporal responded and went quickly from the room.
Daniels returned his attention to the doctor.
“I am Oberarzt Klaus Hahn, I am...”
The doctor was silenced and more than a little puzzled by the captain's sudden laughter.
“What is funny, Captain? One of my patients is dead, one of your soldiers is fighting for his life...”
The laughter died away.
“Your name, Hahn.”
The doctor frowned.
“Yes, Doctor, your name. Chicken! Apt for a non-combatant, wouldn't you say?”
At this, the other English soldiers joined in, laughing loudly, some even making clucking sounds.
“Hmm, yes, I see,” the doctor replied softly, rubbing his chin. “Except that would be Hahnchen. Hahn is Rooster, in English or, as some of you may prefer... Cock!”
This thinly veiled insult brought even more laughter from the soldiers but Daniels' face dropped and turned purple with rage. He raised his fist and was about to strike the German when Maria ran between them and grabbed the Englishman's fist.
“Hör auf!” she shouted. “Stop it! There is enough fighting!”
Daniels stared at her in anger but seeing the distress in her flashing blue eyes, contrasting with her sun darkened face melted away the anger he had felt. He let his arm relax.
She had not followed much of the conversation they were having because they spoke too quickly and her English was not strong enough to keep up but she had heard the final exchange.
She turned to the Doctor.
“Please don't antagonise them. Don't you think it is difficult enough?”
The doctor conceded but offered no apology.
Daniels turned on his heel and as he left, called out,
“Sergeant Bagshaw, keep an eye on them!”
Several minutes passed before Corporal Symonds returned with another soldier in tow. This one, although wearing the same sand coloured uniform and wide brimmed steel helmet that the others wore, also sported a white armband emblazoned with a red cross over his left sleeve.
Immediately he went over to the casualty and visually examined him.
“Blimey!” he exclaimed, stretching up and pushing his helmet back to wipe his brow. “What d'yer want me for? 'e's all right!”
“They do not trust us,” Maria said without giving Sergeant Bagshaw a chance to speak.
As she spoke the injured man stirred and Maria and the medic turned to him simultaneously, bumping into each other as they quickly reacted.
His mouth moved but the words were very faint.
The medic bent closer.
“I've no idea, mate,” the medic replied. “You just rest up and let us take care of you.”
The young man tried to turn his head but the pain in his neck made it impossible.
Instead, he just rolled his eyes towards Maria.
“She did it...” he croaked.
The medic's eyes opened wide and he looked up at Maria with a mixture of astonishment and a little fear.
“She stabbed you?” he gasped.
“No... saved me. If it weren't fer 'er...” He took a painful breath. “She's an angel. All of 'em...”
With a sigh of relief, the medic gently patted the man's arm.
“Glad to hear it,” he replied. “Take it easy, now and rest.”
The following day, Christmas day was almost unnoticed in the upheaval. English soldiers were ever present and Maria, Hanna, and Anneliese all slept on vacant beds with rations served to them. They were as much prisoners as the soldiers they had been caring for.
Over the following days, the patients were examined by British medics and assessed for their fitness to travel and Maria constantly enquired of them about what was happening.
Each time she received the same, non-committal reply of a shrugged shoulder or two.
Nevertheless, the three young German women looked after their charges with the same devotion as they always had.
The English casualty remained. His sergeant wanted him moved to a place where he would be cared for by English medics as soon as possible. Maria understood perfectly that they wanted him away from the wounded prisoners but he told them that he was confident the Nurses would take care of him, he trusted them.
The sergeant agreed.
When she wasn't sleeping, Maria kept herself and her colleagues busy to try to stop them worrying but deep down, the constant fear of the unknown future was gnawing at her until she finally accepted that it was likely that they would all be shipped to England as prisoners of war.
That didn't worry her so much but it was not knowing when she would ever return home and what she would return to. An even stronger fear than that though was when would she see her sister. Would this accursed war keep them apart for all eternity?
She didn't see Captain Daniels again for quite a while, in fact, she didn't see any officers at all until, one morning he appeared quite unexpectedly and approached her directly.
“Good morning, Matron,” he began. “I hope you are being treated well by my men?”
“Yes thank you, Captain,” she replied in the same polite but terse manner that he had employed.
“I have come to inform you that a hospital ship is to arrive here tonight... You are to prepare your patients for transportation to the harbour first thing tomorrow morning.”
Maria frowned. The alarm bells in her mind were ringing very loudly.
“Ein Lazaretteschiff?” she said slowly. “They go home...?
As the words left her mouth something told her that she would not get the answer she would wish for.
Captain Daniels laughed out loud.
“Home? You must be joking!” he replied. “You will be going to England to be interned for the duration of the war!”
Maria's jaw dropped.
“Captain Daniels! I am a not a soldier or too are my nurses. We are Deutsches Rotes Kreuz nurses. You can not take us prisoner!”
“So what do you propose I do with you then? Give you a truck to drive across the lines?
“I am sorry, you talk too fast. Was meinst du?”
Daniels raised his eyes and shook his head.
“You will be interned in England and that is that!”
“Das kannst du nicht tun, Kapitan,” she shouted, completely forgoing any effort of try to translate her thoughts to English.
“I can't do it, can I? We'll see. Just get them ready!”
She stood her ground and in a calmer tone said,
“I... I thought you are good man, Captain Daniels... George. You are nice to me in... in...”
He looked at her and smiled.
“The desert? I respect you, like any woman. That does not mean I like you any more than any other German.”
Without any further discourse, he turned on his heel and left, leaving the guards to watch them.
Maria was devastated. All she could think of was being alone and caged, unable to get home. Trapped in a hostile country and for how long? The war had been raging for more than two years now and Germany was still expanding. Britain couldn't hold on forever though, she thought, but they were showing no signs of capitulating either. It could be years until she was free again...
A gentle hand on her shoulder and a soft voice brought her sharply back to reality. She looked round slowly.
“Oh, erm, Anneliese...”
“Are you all right?” she asked carefully. “You look a little shaken.”
“Erm, no, not really,” Maria responded. “Daniels is sending us to England with the patients...”
“Matron! We are not soldiers. Why would he do that?”
Before she could answer her, Hanna joined them having overheard the conversation.
“He can't,” she said sharply. “The Geneva Convention forbids it.”
Anneliese spoke the question that Maria had been pondering herself.
“But then, what can he do with us. He can't just leave us here...”
“I don't know...” Maria sighed. “I really don't know. Look, let's just do as he asks and get the patients prepared. At least they will be looked after.”
As Daniels had promised, the mass evacuation began the next day. The order had been given that all German wounded were to be transferred to the hospital ship without exception, an order which included all the medical staff.
It was not until later in the day that Maria, Anneliese, and Hannah were finally called upon to vacate their station and go to the waiting trucks with their patients.
The English soldier who had been stabbed had made a good recovery and, although not yet fit for duty was eager to help them in any way he was able, such was his gratitude to his saviours.
Since it had been just four weeks since the incident, his wounds had healed exceptionally well, notwithstanding the heat and he helped Maria climb into the rear of the truck which was to take her to the harbour, along with the final two German casualties. He bid her a safe journey.
“Matron Kaufmann...” he said hesitantly as she placed her foot onto the first step.
She paused and turned to face him.
“I... I just wanted...” He fumbled to find the words he wanted but they just wouldn't come out. “Thank you,” he said finally. “I hope you and your nurses survive this war. If only there were more like you who...” His words trailed away as Maria took his hand and squeezed it gently.
“Keep safe,” she said, "and thank you." She stepped up into the truck.
With a crunch of gears and a lurch, the Bedford moved slowly away from the hospital.
As it worked its way through the town towards the harbour, Maria could barely believe her eyes. The town was a mess. Streets were blocked with the rubble of ruined shops and houses and the big lorry could only move at a snail's pace as it weaved between the piles of debris.
The local inhabitants seemed to be carrying on as usual though, bartering and arguing in their melodramatic animated fashion with heads shaking and arms waving. She could hear the babble of their voices even above the whine of the gearbox and engine.
It wasn't far to the harbour but the journey took several minutes and the sight that greeted her was that of a ships graveyard. The whole port was cluttered with the remains of sunken ships. It reminded her of a graveyard with ruined superstructures looming out of the water. Some were in shallow water and had it not been for the bomb damaged steelwork and the crazy angle at which they were leaning, she could have imagined them still afloat.
Because of this, the hospital ship was anchored just outside the port area and the casualties were being ferried on hospital carriers which were small enough to get though to the dock side.
There was nothing more that either Maria or her girls could do now but watch as the British orderlies took the last two stretchers aboard the carrier. Any hope of seeing her sister and parents again faded and was lost.