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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 26

"“That's it then,” she said, with a great sadness. “Captivity.”"
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Benghazi. January 30th 1942


Maria sighed sadly as she took one last look at the bomb damaged port of Benghazi. The final First Aid Carrier was waiting at the end of the jetty for her and her colleagues, the last of the German prisoners, to board so they could leave for the Hospital Ship moored outside the harbour entrance.

“Come on then, we 'aven't got all day!”

The British soldiers who were following them were getting impatient.

She turned to Anneliese and Hanna.

“That's it then,” she said, with a great sadness. “Captivity.”

As she spoke she became aware of a distant drone which was getting louder.

Suddenly, the water before them erupted in a plume and soaked them with spray. A high pitched whine followed by an explosion tore a dockside crane from its mounting and toppled it into the harbour. With a screeching of twisting and tearing steel, it fell forwards on to the wreckage of an already sunken ship. The noise was deafening as the air around them erupted with flame and debris. The drone of the Italian bombers was lost now, in the firestorm that was raining all about them.

Maria grabbed an arm of each of her colleagues and shouted.

“Come on, run! This way!”

They immediately ran as fast as their legs would allow, back along the jetty towards the dockside. One soldier tried to stop them but in his haste, he found himself off balance and as the three young women barged past he toppled backwards through a hole in the damaged railing and into the water several feet below.

Had they taken the time to look back they would have seen the Carrier cast off from the jetty and head out towards its mother ship. Not a moment too soon as seconds later the centre of the jetty lifted bodily and then exploded into tiny fragments under the force of a direct hit from a five hundred kilogram bomb.

Maria had no idea where they were running to, all she knew was that they had to get away from the port. As they ran she realised that the bombers seemed to be concentrating their attack upon the port area so, in her mind, it seemed that the best area to seek shelter, at least whilst they regained their senses would be the town itself.

Once clear of the port and the immediate danger, however, the heat and effort began to get the better of them. Anneliese was the first to slow and although she kept going, Maria soon realised that she and Hanna were now pulling Anneliese behind them.

They slowed to a walk whilst Maria looked around for shelter. Across the street, she saw an open door which appeared to lead into an alleyway.

“Come on,” she urged. “Over there.”

Once inside, they closed the door and immediately the narrow space darkened to an almost impenetrable darkness with only the thin shafts of light from around the poorly fitting door to illuminate the space. What they had found was a covered alley through some buildings. Maria had no idea where it went but it was cool. In the darkness, she could just make out another thin rectangle of light which she guessed would be the door at the other end but she couldn't exactly tell just how far away it was.

After a moment or two to regain their composure, Maria asked,

“Do either of you smoke?”

It was Hanna who answered first.

“No, Matron. Neither of us do.”

“I never noticed that you did, Matron,” Anneliese added.

Maria chuckled in the gloom.

“I don't,” she replied. “I just wondered whether either of you had a lighter or matches so that we can see where we are.”

“I have matches.”

The three young women froze. It hadn't occurred to any of them that there may be someone inside the tunnel.

A brief rasping sound and a sudden, intense flare of light which very quickly died away to a small flickering flame revealed a shadowy figure sitting further down the alley. They stared at the light as it moved slightly and then grew into an intense flame which lit the whole space with a warm yellow light.

The voice was that of a weathered looking Arab man, dressed in the clothes of a Bedouin who was holding up a paraffin lantern. He was sitting cross-legged, leaning against the wall a few feet away from them.

The noise of the raid was forgotten briefly as Maria asked,

“You speak German?”

The man tilted his head to one side and shrugged a shoulder.

“It would seem so,” he replied with just the tiniest hint of sarcasm.

He wasn't the only one there, several men all dressed in similar fashion were sitting at the far end of the alley, which Maria could now see was around fifteen meters long.

To her great concern she saw that they were all heavily armed, mostly with machine guns but two, at least were holding rifles. She counted ten men altogether and they were all pointing their weapons directly at her and her companions.

“We have no guns,” she told them, her voice betraying the fear she felt.

“What are you doing here? All the prisoners were supposed to be evacuated.” The man with the lantern got slowly to his feet whilst he spoke.

“Who are you?” Maria asked him.

“Never mind who we are,” he snapped. “Answer the question!”

In the light from the lamp which he was now holding aloft with his left hand, she could see that he had drawn a revolver and was pointing it directly at her. Over the past years, she had seen many guns but this was not like the ones that she was familiar with. It looked older but somehow she felt she had seen one like it before.

Outside, another violent explosion shook the walls causing dust and pieces of plaster to shower them.

Hanna and Anneliese were huddled together, unsure of what to be more afraid of... the bombs or the men.

Maria suddenly seemed to grow taller somehow as she regained her inner strength.

“We are not prisoners!” she said forcefully. “We are nurses of the German Red Cross!”

She had remembered where she had seen that type of gun before. It was very much like the one that Captain Daniels had been holding when he and his men burst onto the ward little more than a month before.

“You are German, nevertheless,” he replied. “For the last time, what are you doing here?”

Before she could reply another bomb exploded, much nearer this time, and the door nearest to them burst open under the enormous pressure of the blast.

In the ensuing confusion, Maria grabbed Hanna and Anneliese and pushed them forcefully through the dust and smoke, back out into the street.

“Run!” she shouted. “Down there!”

They didn't need to be told twice and as they darted around the corner that Maria had indicated they winced as the sound of machine gun fire rattled behind them.

They ran as hard as they could, the fear of being caught and shot kept them going as Maria guided them through the maze of streets and alleyways.

When they finally succumbed to exhaustion, they sank down against a wall in a shadowy nook out of sight from the street. It was several minutes before any of them could actually say anything. It was Hanna who spoke first.

“Matron, where are we running to?”

Maria didn't answer. The question had been like an arrow. Until now she hadn't considered where they could go, all she could think of was getting away from the British and avoiding spending the rest of the war caged in some miserable camp in England.

Both Hanna and Anneliese were looking at her, waiting for her to guide them and she realised that she had to take care of them and make sure that they all survived, hopefully unscathed.

“We have to get away from Benghazi,” she said at length. “We need to get away from the British and back to our own people.”

“But how, Matron?”

“I don't know, Anneliese, I really don't, but we can't stay here.”

Although it seemed to go on forever, the air raid only lasted some thirty minutes and soon, silence reigned.

Maria, Hanna, and Anneliese found a space in a bombed out building and hid themselves, hoping to remain undetected until nightfall.

Outside they began to hear the clamour of Arabic voices chattering unintelligibly as searchers sifted through the damaged buildings looking for any signs of life. They remained silent, hardly daring to breathe, huddled together in the small space that sheltered them.

In the distance, they could hear the sounds of further explosions and sporadic gunfire and the babbling voices faded away as the searchers moved on in there quest to find survivors.

Maria opened her eyes suddenly. The confined space coupled with the warm air and the close proximity of her two companions had conspired to make her fall asleep. When she looked around she saw that Hanna and Anneliese were also dozing.

The light beneath the rubble had been restricted anyway but now it was almost black as the sun had dipped below the horizon. Worse than that though, it was cold, very cold.

She woke the other two.

“Come on,” she whispered, hoping that there was no-one around to hear her.

Carefully, she crawled out from their hiding place, her ears tuned for the slightest sounds. They were alone.

The building they were in had once been a house which was destroyed long before the raid they had just survived. As the last vestiges of light faded into total darkness, they searched for blankets to keep them from freezing in the night air and containers to keep water in.

Those things they found but the water itself was not so easy, neither was food.

“Do either of you have money?” Maria asked.

“I have a few Marks,” Anneliese told her.

“Me too,” Hanna agreed.

“Good. I have a little as well so we should head for the market. It should be busy enough for us to blend in with the crowd if there are not too many English soldiers about.”

Helping each other, they wrapped the blankets around themselves after having removed their caps. They carefully covered their heads, Maria being especially careful to ensure that none of her sun-bleached, blonde hair was visible.

Creeping stealthily through the dark streets they were careful to avoid any house that was lit, or crouched and crawled beneath window openings to avoid being seen.

One house they found had no door, just an opening where the door should have been. Instead, there was a beaded curtain hanging across to provide the occupants a little privacy.

With great trepidation, Maria peered inside. So far as she could see, the room beyond was empty but she could hear the steady drip, drip of water.

She stepped inside, beckoning Anneliese and Hanna to follow.

Suddenly, a burst of machine-gun fire startled them but it was not close, although much closer than previously.

At the far end of the room, Maria could just make out a hand pump.

“Water!” she breathed. “Quickly, fill your bottles and let's get out of here!”

Maria pumped the cast iron handle as Hanna held the bottles under the thin flow of cool, clear water.

“Matron, Bread!” Anneliese called softly from across the room.

“How much?” Maria hissed back.

“Enough for all of us,” came the muted reply.

“All right, grab a loaf each, I'll leave some money for it.”

Moments later, with water and bread enough to last a couple of days, and a few Deutsch-Marks left on the table, the three fugitives disappeared once more into the darkness.

Again, Maria guided them through the maze of back streets until they were far from the centre.

Maria looked at her fob watch and she could just make out the time in the dim light from the moon. It was almost midnight.

She had no idea how they had managed it but somehow, the three of them had reached the edge of town without being seen. She could only assume that the soldiers had been busy fighting to even consider looking for them, or, maybe, they thought they had been killed in the raid.

Ahead of them was a gateway through a high wall, some kind of park or large garden, Maria thought. She led them inside and they sat down behind the wall.

As they drank a little water and ate some bread, Maria tried to formulate a plan.

After several minutes of silence, broken only by the chirping of crickets, Maria let her thoughts out.

“We need transport,” she said to no-one in particular.

“And where will we get that from?” Hanna asked her.

“Well, we can't exactly walk to Tripoli, now, can we?” Anneliese retorted with more than a little irritation

“Come on, now,” Maria chided her gently. “Let's not fight. I will get you through this, one way or another... unless you want to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp?” she added.

“I'm sorry, Matron,” Anneliese apologised. “I am afraid and so tired.”

Maria took her hand. “I know,” she said softly. “We'll be all right, you'll see. Anyway, I have an idea. If we head back to the hospital, maybe we can steal an ambulance!”

“What?” Hanna and Anneliese hissed in unison. “Are you crazy?”

“Do you have a better plan?” Maria asked them.

“Well... No... but even so...”

“We know where the motor pool is, right?” They both nodded that they did. “The raid and all the fighting means they will be extremely busy and they won't be looking for us.”

She waited patiently, hoping that they would either agree or come up with something better. In the end, both the young women agreed.

Just as they were about to move they heard voices, English voices! Maria couldn't tell how far away or from which direction the sound came from so she put her fingers to her lips and indicated to Hanna and Anneliese to remain still.

Suddenly, a burst of machine gun fire and the wall behind them erupted, showering them in dust and debris from the other side.

They huddled together, frightened and shaking as another burst raked the other side of the wall.

“What the 'ell yer shootin' at?” The hissing voices were closer now.

“I told yer, Sarge. I saw sumink move over there...”

They were so close now that Maria could hear every move they made. They must have been just the other side of the wall!

She willed them desperately to keep going past and not come through the gate.

“You Berk, Jenkins! You saw something all right, a bloody dog! Blimey. If you do that again I'll 'ave you court marshalled. If it 'ad been Jerries we'd be as dead as it is, right now, understand?”

“Yes, Sarge,” came the dejected reply but then, “But I did see sumink, dint I? I told yer, good eyes I got! Carrots wot does it. My old Mum always used to say...”

“Shut up, Jenkins...” the voices faded away into the darkness as the soldiers moved on.


Maria, Anneliese, and Hanna remained silent, unmoving until they were certain the soldiers were gone.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Time we weren't here.”

Hanna moved immediately but Anneliese seemed reluctant. Maria could feel her trembling.

“Come on,” she whispered gently, soothing. “I won't let anything happen to you. I will get us all home safely, I promise.”

It was all the encouragement she needed and together, the three of them left the shelter of the wall and headed back into the ruined city.

It took over an hour to get back to the hospital which was a hive of activity but to Maria's great disappointment there wasn't a single vehicle in the motor pool!

“So what do we do now?” Anneliese asked.

Maria thought hard.

“We'll have to brazen it out,” she said at length. “We'll watch for an opportunity and see what happens.”

They didn't have to wait long. As they crouched in the shadows of the trees a few metres from the entrance, an ambulance stopped almost in front of them. The driver and his mate both jumped out and ran around to the rear as the doors swung open. Inside were two casualties on stretchers and the two medics took one whilst an orderly and the medic from inside the ambulance took the other and together they ran quickly towards the waiting hospital staff at the entrance.

In his haste, the driver had neglected to stop the engine and, without a word being spoken, Maria, Anneliese and Hanna left their hiding place and ran towards the unattended vehicle.

Each closing a door, Annaliese and Hanna climbed into the rear of the Ambulance whilst Maria ran for the driving seat. For a moment she hesitated as she put her foot onto the running board and looked inside. There was no steering wheel! She had never seen the cabin of an English vehicle before and it had never crossed her mind that other countries drove on the other side of the road!

Containing her surprise she jumped inside and climbed across to the opposite side, being careful to not get tangled in any of the levers which were protruding from the floor between the seats.

It took just a second to realise that, although, on the opposite side of the vehicle, the controls were all much the same as those she was used to.

She depressed the clutch, throwing off her blanket at the same time, thinking that in the darkness and confusion, a nurse driving an ambulance would be less likely to draw attention, selected a gear and swung the heavy vehicle around and out onto the road.

Maria found it very difficult trying to manoeuvre around the dark, debris strewn streets but she didn't dare use the headlights, even though they were probably hooded, covered to leave just a slit of light.

Every time she ran over a chunk of rubble she cringed visibly, afraid of puncturing a tyre or breaking an axle but also considered the poor girls behind her, hanging on as tightly as they could.

It was such slow going that as they, once again, reached the outskirts of the city, the new day was dawning and the darkness began to give way to a deep velvet blue. For a time, Maria found the driving even more difficult. She was extremely tired and the growing light made the contrasting shadows even blacker and she struggled to see hidden debris. Slowly, the shadows reduced as the night receded and she realised that they were now free of the damaged buildings. All she had to do now was find a place that she could hide the ambulance so they could catch up on some well earned rest.

Up ahead she could just make out a track, leading off the main road so she turned onto it. Little used, it was, for the most part, covered with sand and almost invisible but she followed it a short distance until it passed through a narrow gorge. Only a few metres long and not particularly deep, it would at least offer some protection from discovery.

There were two fixed couches in the rear and two stretcher racks but since they had stolen the vehicle, there were no stretchers to fill the racks.

Maria opted to allow her comrades to sleep and she remained in the cab, watching for as long as her eyes would remain open but the stress of the previous hours and the long hard efforts of leading them all to safety had taken its toll on her and soon she too fell into a restless slumber.

She awoke with a start. Nothing had changed, the ambulance still sat undiscovered in it's hiding place but the sun was now high in the sky. Her eyes burned and felt as though half the sand of the Sahara was in them. It took every ounce of her strength to resist rubbing them and she knew it was only because of inadequate sleep. Behind her was a narrow door which connected the cab with the ambulance body and she pushed it open.

“Girls, wake up!” she called.

“What is it, Matron?” Hanna replied.

“We slept too long!” Maria looked down at her fob watch and wound it absentmindedly. “It is past midday!”

Taking a few minutes to eat a little bread and take some water, Maria pondered their future.

“I don't know how much Benzine we have, The fuel gauge is showing less than a quarter. I know of a village, Siduq, about fifty kilometres away. We shall head there and hope that we can get fuel. Otherwise, well, I just don't know...”

Without a better plan, Anneliese and Hanna agreed and so Maria turned the key and the engine fired into life.

The steering was heavy but Maria turned the ambulance around and headed back to the road.


The road to Siduq was little used and Maria drove with her eyes constantly searching for enemy vehicles. If she saw any, she had no idea as to what she could do but, luckily, there were none.

The short distance was covered in almost two hours and when they arrived at the village they found it deserted. In the centre was a Well and she pulled up alongside it. At least there would be water, she thought.

Although the sky was clear there was a strong breeze and all three of the young women struggled to keep the sand out of their eyes as Hanna lowered a bucket into the Well.

The water she brought up was crystal clear and tasted cool and clean. As they filled their containers, Maria looked around nervously. Why was the village deserted? Where were its inhabitants?

She didn't like it.

“Come on,” she said to the other two. “We need to find Benzine then we can get out of here.

They went from house to house, searching for cans or drums but there was nothing.

By the time they had searched the cluster of deserted buildings, they were exhausted and desperate. Without fuel, they couldn't go on. The gauge had dropped to the left side, almost touching the letter 'E'. The next point Maria knew of was Az Zuwaytinah, almost one hundred kilometres on and there was certainly not enough left to get there.

Anneliese sank to her knees and began to cry.

Hanna stood beside her, staring down with her own despair showing clearly in her eyes.

“Hey, come on now.” Maria knelt beside her and put her arm around her heaving shoulders. “I promised to look after you and keep you safe, didn't I?”, she said gently and Anneliese nodded silently. “There is another town not far away, about thirty kilometres, Qaminis. I don't know whether there will be British soldiers there but at least we will be safe. We'll head there and see what happens, yes?”

Anneliese nodded and wiped away her tears.

Maria looked up at Hanna.


She nodded too but as Maria and Anneliese began to get up, they heard the roar of a powerful engine in the distance. They froze and listened as the sound grew louder and nearer.

Marie grabbed them both and dragged them to the ambulance.

“Quickly,” she hissed, the sound getting nearer.

She started the engine, crunched the gearbox in her haste and drove away as hard as the heavy ambulance would allow, throwing dust and stones into the air as the rear wheels struggled to grip the loose surface.

Within seconds the distant sound reached a crescendo as a fighter plane suddenly appeared ahead of them and roared low overhead. Maria saw the red and blue circles under each wing as it flashed past. Her heart was in her mouth as the aeroplane turned and made a second pass. Once more it flashed overhead and then disappeared from view. It then occurred to her that it was a British fighter and since the ambulance was also British it probably held little or no interest for the pilot.


Once clear of the village, Maria slowed to a more comfortable pace, a speed at which the vehicle wouldn't be thrown around so much. More importantly, however, was the need to save fuel.

“Everyone all right?” she shouted back through the open connecting door to which she received an affirmative reply but no sooner had she asked than the engine gave an ominous cough and began to lose power until it stopped altogether.

She let the ambulance roll to a halt. The fuel gauge needle was firmly against the little pin which signified the end of its travel...

...and that of the three young nurses.








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