The Mediterranean. January 15th, 1943
Matron Katarina Langsdorf leaned on the rail at the stern of the old tramp steamer, the coast of Libya having long been lost to her sight by distance and nightfall. Her eyes were moist and red from the tears she had finally allowed to flow, once her fury at being dragged aboard without her sister had subsided.
Almost as soon as the ship cleared the harbour at Tripoli, the raid had begun. Bomber after bomber had flown over them after releasing their deadly cargo of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the port. More than one had flown low over the ship as it returned to its base and strafed the decks since it carried no identifying marks to show it was carrying casualties but she had been oblivious of the danger and hadn't moved in two hours.
Slowly, she became aware of a gentle hand being placed on her shoulder and she turned to see young Anneliese Schröder, one of the nursing sisters who had worked with her since her arrival in Tripoli a little over a year earlier. She looked troubled and sad.
“Matron, you can't stay here all night.”
“No, I suppose not,” she agreed.
“Matron Kaufmann will be all right, I'm sure. She is just like you, you know. Not just in looks but in strength too.”
Katarina turned back and stared blindly out into the darkness. She remembered the distant glow of the burning port as the last light had faded leaving just the flickering glow of the fires which grew smaller and smaller until they too vanished completely, leaving just an inky blackness that enveloped everything but the shining pinpoints of the stars which still shimmered above.
“Didn't you see the bombers?” she asked quietly. “She could have been killed for all we know.”
Deep inside, however, she didn't believe that at all. Surely she would know, she thought, if indeed such a thing had occurred.
Anneliese frowned and scolded her, albeit in a gentle manner.
“I don't believe that any more than you do. You have to be strong now. Don't forget, I was with her when she led us away from Benghazi. She will escape Tripoli too, you'll see.”
Katarina turned sharply and stared at the young nurse.
“Damn it, Anneliese, you're right!” she said so suddenly that Anneliese jumped. “I am sure I would know if she had been hurt. I have felt it before and I am certain I would feel it again!”
Anneliese smiled widely.
“That's the spirit, Matron. Come inside with me. There is still work to be done and you need to eat and drink, you must be starving, surely?”
Katarina smiled a sad smile.
“Truthfully?” she asked. “No, not really but you are right again, it is better to eat and maintain my strength.”
“Exactly! Ilsa and Hanna are inside somewhere too.”
The scene that greeted her as she stepped over the coaming was like that of an overwhelmed first aid post. Every inch of space was taken up with wounded soldiers of varying degrees of incapacity. Some on stretchers, conscious, unconscious, delirious or cognisant. Others were seated, leaning against bulkheads or just resting where they could find space.
Anneliese led her through to the makeshift galley, a small room which was separate from the main galley where the crew and medics could eat.
The only available hot food was a thin, almost flavourless soup made from potatoes with a small amount of meat and some freshly baked bread. Although lacking in taste, Katarina barely noticed as she tore off a chunk of the grey bread and dipped into the metal bowl from her canteen.
Just as she placed the dripping bread into her mouth a familiar figure appeared at the door, the same Kriegsmarine officer who had dragged her bodily, contrary to her protests, aboard this very ship and held her until the gangway had been removed so she couldn't run back to the dockside.
Seeing her there, he walked directly towards her and stood in front of her. He gestured the vacant chair beside her.
Katarina shrugged but said nothing, returning her gaze to her soup.
He sat silently for a moment, unsure of what to say and Katarina did nothing to ease his discomfort. Eventually, he broke the difficult silence.
“Look, Matron, I'm sorry.”
Katarina didn't reply but swallowed her bread and placed her hands in her lap.
“No, actually, I'm not sorry at all,” the young man continued with a sudden change of timbre. “I saved your life. What do you think would have happened to you if I had left you. There was no time to wait for you!”
Katarina raised her head and stared at him.
“Thank you!” she said rather testily. “That is just what I wanted to hear.”
The Officer looked puzzled.
“What do you mean? You saw the raid as we left. How long do you think you would have survived that onslaught?”
“I don't know, do I! That's the whole point though, isn't it, I don't know anything!”
“Matron, I don't understand. Why are you so angry with me? Did you want to stay and wait for the British to arrive?”
Katarina clenched her fists and banged them down on the table.
“Didn't you listen to me, out there on the quayside? I told you. My sister was in the next ambulance. You don't think I would have survived there? Well, how the hell do you think that makes me feel? She is still there and I have no way of knowing whether she survived, do I!”
The young man's faced flushed and his jaw dropped as he realised just how insensitive he had been.
“Oh my Lord, I am so sorry, really I am. I honestly thought that you meant one of your nursing sisters. I didn't realise you meant your actual sister. Please... forgive me?”
“Would it have made a difference, knowing that?” she asked him through clenched teeth.
“No, I suppose not but it would have made a difference to how I approached you just now. Again, I can only apologise for my insensitivity.”
Katarina took several deep breaths in an effort to regain her composure at which moment, Anneliese returned with her own soup.
“Matron! Is something wrong? What's happened?”
The First officer answered immediately.
“It was my fault, Sister. I'm afraid I upset her with my thoughtlessness.”
Katarina took one final slow, deep breath and then exhaled.
“It's all right, Anneliese, it wasn't really his fault. I am just a little sensitive at the moment.”
Still looking somewhat embarrassed, the young man stood up and introduced himself.
“I am Oberleutnant-zur-See Gunther Rath. I am the First Officer of this ship.”
Katarina offered her hand along with a half-hearted smile.
“I am Matron Katarina Langsdorf. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so angry with you. It really isn't your fault.”
Oberleutnant Rath was about to protest that he wasn't entirely innocent and should have thought before he made such comments when Anneliese, seeing his discomfort, broke in.
“So... what ship is this?” she asked.
“Oh, I'm sorry. It's the SS. Aegean Sea.”
“An unusual name for a German ship.”
“Ah, no. Actually, it's Greek. Myself and the Captain are the only German crew. All the others are Greek. She was requisitioned as a supply ship.”
Katarina looked up at Anneliese who returned her gaze with an equally nervous look and then asked;
“In that case, where are we heading?”
“Piraeus?” Katarina exclaimed.
The young man smiled.
“Yes. It is...”
“I know where it is, Oberleutnant, I came from there a year ago. I never expected to return there, at least, not like this. What exactly is planned for the wounded when we get there?”
Gunther Rath screwed up his face.
“The only order I am aware of is to disembark them into the care of the military. I have no idea after that.”
“Hmm... Perhaps they will go to the hospital in Athens. It is certainly big enough.”
Gunther Rath shrugged.
“I really couldn't say,” he said and smiled. “I wouldn't worry too much about it though, it will take us another four days to get there so you have plenty of time... and work, before then.”
Katarina stared hard at him.
“Four days? Really?”
Gunther was surprised.
“I thought you said you went to Tripoli from there. Have you forgotten?”
Katarina took a deep breath and gave a rather exasperated response.
“I didn't say that I sailed, did I!” she said tersely. “I flew. It only took a few hours.”
“Ah... all right... I see,” he responded carefully, not wanting to aggravate her again. “Sorry... Again”
“No, I'm sorry,” she sighed. “I am trying really hard not to be so tense but it really is difficult, you know?”
“I know. Look, I'll leave you to your soup but I will come and see you again sometime... If that's all right of course. Just to check that all is well.”
Katarina smiled and nodded.
“Yes, that's fine. I'll try not to be so unpleasant next time.”
“If I hear any news...” he began, and then added, partly to himself, “Probably unlikely though.”
After he left, Katarina and Anneliese sat quietly and finished their meal, such as it was. They were both exhausted but due to the number of soldiers embarked during the evacuation, there were no cabins, they had been given to the most serious cases, and so they looked for a corner to rest and hopefully catch a few hours of sleep.
The SS Aegean Sea was an old ship and the passenger quarters, which were situated amidships, were small and very limited. It was, essentially, a cargo vessel with four large holds accessed by huge hatches on the deck. She had been bringing supplies to the Afrika Korps but because they were in full flight against the onslaught of the rejuvenated allied forces, she had been unable to unload the cargo she had arrived with and so still had full cargo holds. Even so, there were casualties in every space they could fit but that still left the cabins and gangways crammed with men who cried out in pain.
Katarina and Anneliese did manage to find a quiet corner in a small storeroom which was stacked with life vests and, climbing on top of the stack, found that with a little wriggling and adjustment, they could get something akin to comfortable and soon began to doze.
Some hours later, as the dawn began to illuminate the porthole in the steel wall, Katarina awoke suddenly! Something was wrong but in her sleep fuddled state and the still very dim light, she couldn't tell what it was. She felt as though she was lying at a weird angle and something was on top of her. For a moment she panicked.
“We're sinking!” she gasped aloud.
“What? Sinking?” Anneliese's weary voice responded. “Matron? Where are you?”
“Oh... I'm... erm... here.”
Katarina suddenly felt embarrassed as she realised that the ship was not sinking at all. In her sleep, she must have become restless and the life vests had shifted underneath her. It seems she had slipped down amongst them with some falling on top of her. She must have been so tired that the movement hadn't woken her.
Anneliese jumped down began to laugh as Katarina pushed the errant jackets from her and fought her way out from within the stack.
“It's not funny, Anneliese,” she said. “I thought we were sinking!”
The young nurse stared at her dishevelled superior but she couldn't hold her amusement and began to laugh once more.
Katarina looked at the now untidy pile of life preservers and began to smile. Within seconds the two were laughing so much that the tears ran unchecked down their faces.
“I haven't heard the sound of laughter in what feels like forever!”
They both turned to see two familiar faces peering around the door.
“Matron, Anneliese,” Hanna replied, still smiling. “What is so funny?”
Anneliese explained briefly and Hanna and Ilsa chuckled along with them when they saw the discarded life vests.
Together, they made their way to the makeshift galley. They didn't have a great deal of time to eat since there were so few nurses on board. Most of the hospital staff had been Italian and had remained in Tripoli.
They decided, as they ate the eggs and bread that the cooks had supplied them, that they could share the storeroom to sleep in as no-one else had discovered it.
“Is it comfortable?” Hanna inquired to which Anneliese replied,
“If you tidy it up it will be,” and grinned at Katarina.
“Hmm... Very funny!” she growled, trying to sound annoyed but couldn't stop a smile appearing on her own lips.
Hanna tore off a piece of bread.
“I haven't seen Matron Kaufmann since we left,” she said absently. “Where is she?”
Anneliese kicked her and shook her head whilst glaring at her colleague.
Katarina touched her forearm.
“It's all right,” she whispered softly and then looked across to Hanna and Ilsa.
“The truth is I don't know,” she began, “She was in the last ambulance when we left the hospital but I didn't see her after that. They were following us but never arrived at the docks.”
Hanna wanted to ask more but seeing the distress in the Matrons eyes she thought better of it and they lapsed into an uneasy silence.
Katarina pushed her plate away and stood up.
“I am going to take a look around, see what I can do for the casualties, you know? Make sure they are as comfortable as we can make them.”
Anneliese stopped Ilsa from saying anything more.
“Let her go,” she whispered. “She needs to be busy right now.”
Katarina left them to talk between themselves and made her way slowly back through the wounded men. Stopping and checking the ones which appeared to be struggling. Eventually, she stepped over the coaming and out onto the deck.
The area in which she had spent her first few hours aboard were the crew quarters, situated at the stern of the ship and she now had a few metres to walk to the centre island where the officers and passengers quarters were situated.
As she walked slowly along the steel deck she couldn't fail but notice the sun rising from beyond the horizon and she stopped and looked at the orange orb as it gradually appeared and grew in size. Watching its slow progress gave her hope that maybe her sister had survived unharmed and as the sun grew then so did her own strength to keep going. Every day that the sun rose was another day that brought her nearer to her sister and she couldn't help but hope that she could also see this same sunrise, wherever she may be.
The sky was cloudless and blue now and already she could feel the warmth of the sun on her face. She took a deep breath and turned from the rail. Ahead of her was the rust-streaked, once white steel of the centre superstructure. Katarina wondered how many oceans this elderly steamship had crossed in its long life.
She pulled down on the lever and pulled as hard as she could. Although old, the ship had been well maintained and the big steel door, although heavy, opened easily if not without a squeal of protest as it swung towards her. She stepped inside and saw, in the light which flooded through the open doorway, that the conditions inside were no better than in the crew quarters at the stern. The stench of sickness and infection was strong but nothing more than she was accustomed to and certainly no different to the rest of the ship's accommodation.
She pulled the door closed behind her and lifted the latch to lock it and then, for the next hours, made her way through the casualties, stopping constantly to check dressings and sometimes just to give gentle reassurances.
By late morning she was satisfied that everything that could be done in such difficult conditions was being taken care of and she found herself at the bottom of a stairway which led up to the bridge.
She looked and, for a moment, considered going up but she had no authority and really, there was nothing they could tell her that would change anything so she turned away and followed the corridor that led to the passenger cabins instead.
Most of the doors were latched open to give the nurses easier access to the severely injured soldiers who were laying in the bunks. She entered the first.
There were three bunks inside the cabin but the top one was empty. Too high to climb into and too narrow and short to hold a stretcher.
The soldier in the lower bunk was barely conscious and his breathing was shallow. Katarina checked his pulse. It was regular, at least. She turned to the bunk opposite. The soldier there was watching her every move with his eyes but he remained silent.
She smiled at him and lifted his wrist whilst checking her watch. His pulse was very weak but, again, regular.
She lifted the thin sheet which covered his lower body and sighed. He was swathed in bandages from his waist to his groin and below that there was nothing. He had no legs, not even stumps.
Again, she smiled, trying to reassure him, and placed her hand gently on his arm. She wasn't sure but she thought she detected just the slightest softening in his stare.
The situation was similar in the next cabin but Katarina found Anneliese there.
“Ah, Matron. I was about to come looking for you. This one has passed.”
Katarina checked and found that her young colleague was right.
“We need to get another man into this bunk then,” she replied. “We will get him out and then I will go and find someone to help us move his body.”
Using all the strength they could muster, they lifted the deceased man from the bunk and onto the floor then covered him with the same sheet that was on his bunk. That done, they went out into the corridor and brought in the next casualty and, with great care, got him onto the bunk.
“Make him comfortable and I will go and find someone to deal with him.” Katarina indicated the corpse. “I won't be long.”
The bridge was the most obvious choice, she thought and this time she didn't hesitate to go up the stairs and knock on the door.
“Ah, Matron Langsdorf I presume.”
The captain didn't move from his position in front of the window as she entered. Nor did he take his gaze from the open sea for more than the second it took to see who had come, unbidden, onto his bridge.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Good Morning, Captain...” she began and when he didn't respond, continued, “I have a deceased patient.”
“I can't say I am surprised, Matron. I suppose you want to dispose of it?”
Katarina was a little dismayed at the captain's attitude but she held her tongue as much as she could.
“Yes, Captain,” she agreed. “I would like some help with him. He cannot stay in the cabin for days, he will decompose. He needs to be removed.”
The captain turned slowly to face her and she saw that he was somewhat older than she first thought. She guessed he must be at least fifty years old. His obviously once black hair was greying but his dark brown eyes still shone.
“Let me explain something to you, Matron, that you may not appreciate. We have to get to Greece as soon as we can. The Allies have broken the siege of Malta and so the Italians no longer have control of the Mediterranean. Every hour we spend at sea puts us at great risk. If we stop to dispose of one casualty we increase our risk of being discovered and I am sure that I don't have to spell out to you what that means.”
“So what do I do with the deceased, leave them to decompose?” she asked somewhat testily, never once breaking eye contact with him.
His eyes narrowed slightly as he tried to assess this slip of a girl who appeared to have such strength of character. He breathed out at last, rather noisily as though to make a point.
“All right,” he said. “Do you expect to lose any more?”
“I will endeavour not to, Sir,” Katarina replied. “Truthfully, though, yes, I suspect we will. Since we don't have enough good medical supplies and the lack of a sickbay... a substantial one at least,” she added when she saw that the captain was about to protest.
“In that case, I will have all corpses removed to the after deck and covered until sunset each day. At that time I will reduce our speed to allow them to be disposed of, overboard. I trust that you will take care of the record keeping, Matron?”
“Of course, Sir. Thank you.”
When she didn't leave, the captain frowned.
“Was there something else, Matron?”
“Yes, Sir,” she replied. “We can't move the corpses ourselves...”
“You don't say. I will dispatch Mr. Rath to organise the physical removal of the corpses. You can liaise directly with him.”
“Thank you, Sir,” she said again, confident that she had achieved a successful resolution to her problem. This time she turned to leave.
As she went to step through the door she stopped as the captain called after her.
“Sir?” she said as she turned back to face him.
“Kapitan-zur-See Konstantinos Theodopolis,” he said and gave a half-smile.
Katarina frowned and before she could speak he answered the question which was hovering on her lips.
“I was born on Kefalonia but my parents moved to Hamburg when I was small, to escape the unrest at the time. I was sent here because I speak both German and Greek.”
Katarina nodded. “I see,” she said. “Well, perhaps we will get to talk before the end of the voyage.”
The captain didn't reply and had turned back to watch the see ahead.
Katarina shrugged her shoulders and left the bridge.