Rome. November 28th 1943
As the sun began to set, Katarina and Maria continued with the task of ensuring that the patients were ready for the big move the following day. According to their orders, ambulances would be provided at first light ready to begin the transfer to the railhead where two hospital trains would be waiting to take them on the long journey back to Germany.
The two young Matrons, along with Nurse Ilsa and the orderlies worked long into the night to ensure that everything and everyone was prepared.
When they were satisfied that everyone was settled and the night orderlies clearly understood their orders, the two of then retired to their room and to bed.
Katarina was the first to speak.
“Are we in trouble, Maria?” she asked quietly.
Her sister didn't answer immediately.
“I mean, have we gone too far this time?”
Maria shook her head slowly, thoughtfully but still didn't answer.
“I know we did the right thing, you know. We had to ask Giuseppe, didn't we? Mahler would have had sent him away like all the other Jews we have ever met, wouldn't he?”
“I didn't see Giuseppe,” Maria whispered.
Katarina stared at her, open-mouthed.
“What do you mean, didn't see him? How could he have arranged for Larry to escape if you didn't see him?”
“I don't know, Katarina. I went into Rome, as I said I would but Giuseppe wasn't at the hospital. He was away. No-one knew where he was.”
“Are you saying that Larry wasn't taken by the Italians?” Katarina's eyes were wide with horror. “Are you saying that they really were our own soldiers who took him?”
Maria nodded at first but then shook her head.
“Yes... No... I don't know. I called the Chief Medical Officer when Mahler's men turned up but he said there was nothing he could do. Orders had been issued for Larry's transport to the Prisoner of War camp tomorrow and it was too late to change them.”
Katarina went over to her sister and sat beside her on the edge of her bed.
“Oh my Lord, Maria. Who took him? Where is he now?”
“I don't know, I honestly don't. They quite clearly weren't Mahler's men and they can't have been Italian partisans...”
Katarina put her head in her hands and sat silently for a minute.
“I don't know what to do, Maria,” she said at length.
“There is nothing we can do,” her sister replied sadly. “What's done is done. We may never know what happened. We should get some sleep. We have a very busy day tomorrow and then who knows what?”
Sleep was not easily achieved for either of them that night but, in the small hours, they finally succumbed to an overwhelming weariness. It was not to be a long sleep, however, because, after what seemed to them to be just a few minutes, they were rudely awakened by the blaring of the air raid sirens.
“Oh no, not now, please...” Maria grumbled in a sleep befuddled voice.
Within a few minutes, explosions rocked the camp as the first of the allied aircraft began their bombardment.
Instantly awake, the two young women leapt from their beds and immediately ran to their respective duty stations. There was nothing they could do. The patients were not fit to be taken into shelters, even if there had been any to take them to.
The bombs were falling accurately across the airfield and so close that windows rattled in the huts and the ground shook violently.
Suddenly, all the windows in Maria's hut were blown in and she could feel the air being forced from her lungs as shards of glass brushed past her in the darkness. She gasped for breath but she remained standing, holding on to the door frame at the end of the ward.
The terror seemed to go on and on but, in fact, only lasted for a few minutes. Unbeknown to her only thirty-nine Royal Air Force bombers dropped their load onto Ciampino that night but, to the recipients on the ground, it felt like hundreds.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun, the ear-shattering cacophony stopped and a deafening silence returned. Moments later it was shattered once again by the banshee wail of the all-clear.
Tentatively, Maria tried the light-switch on the wall next to the door. Nothing! She called out,
The various replies reassured her that the hut had not suffered a hit and, at the far end of the room, a dim, yellow light appeared, its thin beam accentuated as it illuminated the dust in the air. It was one of the orderlies.
“Over here,” she called and the medic made his way carefully towards her. “We need lanterns from the store. Help me get them.”
The store was in another hut across from the one she was in and together, with the orderly lighting the way, they went outside.
As her eyes adjusted to the flickering light, the scene that appeared horrified her. At least one bomb had landed inside the compound and where two huts had stood at the end of the row was now just a debris-filled crater.
Maria screamed, “Katarina!”
To her relief, she heard a familiar voice from the darkness.
“I'm all right, Maria,” her sister called back. “Where is Ilsa?”
“I'm all right, too,” The young nurse responded invisibly from the other side.
Maria and the orderly continued to the store from where they collected several hurricane lamps. The orderly produced a box of matches from his pocket and they began to light them. He then made use of the situation and used the last lamp to light a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and as he exhaled, Maria coughed as she became enveloped in an asphyxiating haze of blue smoke.
“Oh, sorry, Ma'am,” the soldier apologised and turned away before he took the next draw.
“It's alright,” she said gently “Just don't make me breathe it as well, please.”
With several lamps lit and emitting an eerie glow, the two of them headed towards Katarina and Ilsa who had both come out into the courtyard.
“I think it was just the one hit,” Katarina said. “The other huts seem generally intact, apart from the windows.”
They began to walk towards the crater and were met by another of the orderlies.
“The two huts are destroyed,” he reported. “No-one has survived from them. There are not even any recognisable bodies, just pieces everywhere.”
“Are you sure?” Katarina asked. “Couldn't any of them have survived at all?”
“No, Ma'am, not a cat in hell's chance.” His voice was cracked with emotion. “The bomb must have gone through the first hut and exploded directly between. Nothing left but matchwood and body parts.”
“All right, I understand. Matron Kaufmann and I will take another look, just in case.”
The orderly sighed, shrugged his shoulders and turned back towards the bomb site. Maria stopped him with a gentle hand upon his arm.
“You stay here,” she said. “You have seen enough, I think.”
With Ilsa's help, the two Matrons walked carefully through the wreckage, peering into the gloom and holding their lanterns out in front of them. The orderly was right, there was nothing left.
As they searched, soldiers from the garrison began to arrive with equipment and electric portable lighting. There was nothing much that they could do. Of the eight remaining huts, only three had any windows left and so, Maria and Katarina made the decision that now would be a good time to get the ambulances in and begin the evacuation.
In the time it took to get everything ready and the vehicles had arrived, dawn was breaking. The sight that began to appear was like nothing any of them had seen before. They had all seen the results of the fighting and the injuries that were received and they had all been caught in air raids before but this was different. This was carnage.
The soldiers from the Garrison were hard at work clearing away all the debris and respectfully recovering the pieces of the bodies which were strewn far and wide.
At her request, any identifying tags were collected and handed to Maria so that their relatives could be informed.
By mid-morning, they were ready to leave with the last ambulance when a small grey Kübelwagen, drove into the compound and stopped beside them.
“Leutnant Mahler,” Maria greeted him with a somewhat obvious lack of enthusiasm.
Mahler stepped out of the car and surveyed the scene from where he stood.
“Any casualties?” he asked.
Maria looked at him without emotion.
“What do you think?” she asked sarcastically. “Some forty patients and medics were in those two huts. Not one of them survived.”
Mahler didn't respond but put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a necklace. He held it out to her.
As she took it she recognised the chain and small metal tag immediately and examined the writing stamped onto one side, Lawrence T. Bowman.
“You found him then,” she said, struggling to appear unconcerned but inside, her heart was beating like a drum.
The Leutnant nodded.
“An ambulance was discovered near the railway yard after the raid. It had suffered a direct hit and there was nothing left of it or its occupants. This tag was recovered from the wreck along with some body parts which still had the remnants of an American uniform. We also recovered three Wehrmacht identity cards.”
Maria was a little puzzled.
“What exactly are you trying to tell me, Leutnant? That you did sign the order for the American's transfer?”
“Oh, no, Matron. Although the cards were, without doubt, genuine. No German soldier posted to this theatre has been reported missing. No, I just wanted you to know that the prisoner was found, that's all. The circumstances don't matter.”
The arrogant expression on his face told her far more than mere words could have done as he turned and stepped back into the Kübel. He slammed the door closed and looked up at her. “I nearly forgot,” he said with a smug smile playing on his lips. “I found out what the 'H' means on the tag. Maybe it is just as well that his own comrades killed the filthy Jew before I got my hands on him.”
Maria clenched her fists and fought hard to remain outwardly calm but, as the little car sped away, she stared angrily after him.
“Filthy bastard!” she cursed through clenched teeth.
Throughout the conversation, Katarina had remained silent and still. Maria turned to her.
“Katarina?” she asked gently, seeing the distress on her sister's face.
“What is wrong with these people?” Katarina whispered.
Maria took her hand. “They will be punished. In my heart, I know it.”
Katarina looked at her.
“Oh, Maria,” she sighed, “I wish I had your conviction.”
Without another word, they turned towards the waiting ambulance but, before they climbed aboard, Maria pressed the chain into her sister's hand. As her fingers closed around it, Katarina allowed a single tear to fall from the corner of her eye.
“I will write to his mother,” she said.
When they arrived at the railhead, Maria was reminded of the day, just a few weeks ago, when her young nurse, Anneliese, had lost her life during the first raid. She shuddered at the still-fresh memory. Much work had been carried out to repair the damage from that raid but now, again, the whole site was littered with debris and bomb craters. By some miracle, however, the tracks had not been badly hit and the two hospital trains, neither one coupled to a locomotive, were waiting as promised.
Maria, travel orders in hand, went in search of the officer in charge. She found him in the rearmost carriage of the second train.
“Ah, Matron, we meet again.”
“Leutnant... ah, Oberleutnant Bernauer, I see. Congratulations, you got promoted.”
The young officer smiled. “Yes, I have learned a lot in the months since we first met. You and your sister made me take a good look at myself and Oberstarzt Ritter also helped me by...”
Maria interrupted him,
“Oberstarzt Ritter? He is a full Colonel now?”
“Yes, for his service in North Afrika, I believe.”
She smiled. “He certainly deserved it,” she said and breathed deeply. “It is so refreshing to hear something good for once. How is his leg?”
“It has healed well, I believe. He has a pronounced limp still but no longer needs the cane that he used, although...”
His voice trailed off.
“Although?” Maria prompted him.
“Well, between you and me,” Bernauer lowered his voice to little more than a whisper. “He still carries the cane. I think he feels it suits his position.”
Maria laughed gently. She could almost see her old friend in his new uniform with his silver-handled cane at his side.
“Does he have a monocle?” she asked with a giggle.
Now it was Bernauer's turn to laugh and shook his head.
“No, he hasn't gone that far.”
Maria smiled again and then handed him the envelope.
“Here are the travel orders for the patients.”
Bernauer took them.
“Thank you,” he said. “I also have an envelope for you.” He handed her the one which he had been holding. She had noticed it but just assumed it was more of his paperwork.
“The Oberst asked me to give you this personally. He said not to open it until the trains have departed and only in private.”
“Oh,” she frowned as she scanned the front. “All right.”
At that moment, Katarina joined them.
“Leutnant Bernauer!” she explained. “How nice to see you again.”
“Oberleutnant now, 'trina,” Maria grinned.
“Good morning, Matron Langsdorff... assuming that you are Matron Langsdorff and my eyes are not playing tricks again,” he grinned.
The three of them laughed, enjoying an all too rare moment of frivolity.
Along with the remaining one-hundred-and-twenty casualties from the Ciampino transfer station, many more casualties were arriving from the south and east. By mid-afternoon, both trains were loaded and, with locomotives finally attached, were ready to leave.
The railway crews began to check that all the doors were closed.
Maria and Katarina stood by the end carriage with the Oberleutnant and Ilsa, the latter being somewhat tearful.
Maria hugged her.
“Enjoy your break at home, Ilsa and when you get to Guernsey, you will write to us, won't you?”
“I will and please look after yourselves,” she begged, “I know how easily you get yourselves into trouble.”
Both the Matrons promised they would with Katarina adding,
“When the war is over, we will meet again, I'm sure of it and, if we happen to meet before then, well, so much the better. As Maria said, though, write to us. We are going to miss you after so long together.”
With a final hug, Ilsa boarded the train and disappeared inside. She couldn't bear to prolong the goodbyes.
Finally, Bernauer offered his hand to them both, which they shook warmly.
“There is another hospital train in six days which may be the last. I imagine you two will finally leave on it. Good luck, and, above all, stay safe.”
Whistles blew and flags waved, the locomotive whistle howled and the train began to slowly move.
They stood quietly and watched the rear of the last carriage disappear around the curve before returning to the nearest ambulance.
Although devoid of patients, the camp, upon their return, was a hive of activity. Soldiers were everywhere, clearing away the debris from the air-raid and removing the equipment from the operating theatre. Maria and Katarina didn't disturb them but went instead to their room.
Once inside, Maria pulled the thin curtain across the window. There was still no electricity so they opened the envelope in the dim light that the curtain allowed.
Inside, along with various official-looking documents, was a letter addressed to them both.
My dear friends.
I trust that this letter finds you both in good health. I am, after all, very familiar with the perilous activities you both seem to find yourselves in. You are probably unaware but I have been following the progress of the camp there and know about the loss of your young colleague, the air-raids and more. I would have sent you both to Guernsey also if it had been in the least part possible.
Along with this letter, you will find travel documents for your next posting. I am sure that you are now aware that the transit medical camp at Ciampino is to be withdrawn with the final hospital train leaving on the 28th November.
I think that, over the past years, you have done enough to warrant a peaceful placement but, it is with regret, that I have not found it possible to find you such.
You are to take a leave of absence for three weeks, whether you wish to or not, commencing December 12th 1943, ensuring that you will be able to celebrate Christmas at home.
You will find travel orders for Katarina from Berlin Hbf to München Hbf dated 02nd January 1944 and then for both of you dated 03rd January 1944 from München Hbf to Athens. You will receive further orders upon your arrival.
My heartfelt blessings go with you and I pray that you both remain safe until we are able to meet once again.
“Athens.” It was Katarina who finally broke the silence.
“Yes, it would seem so. I bet you didn't expect to return there.”
“No,” Katarina gave a wry smile. “I can't say I did. It was bad then and I doubt it will be any better now.”
Maria found a box of matches, struck one and applied the flame to the corner of the letter. They were both fully aware that it wasn't wise for such a close connection with a high-ranking officer to become common knowledge, especially given their somewhat tenuous relationship with the SS.
Over the next few days, only two of the huts were repaired to cater for a handful of severely wounded men who arrived from the airport. Those few were cared for in the same way that all of their predecessors had been and, as expected, they were transferred to the railhead where the final train was waiting. It was already busy when they arrived, with ambulances which had come directly from the front lines.
After supervising the transfer, Maria and Katarina returned to the now empty camp. The debris had mostly been cleared away and only a few soldiers remained to guard the compound until all the equipment was finally removed.
That night, they were disturbed yet again by the wailing sirens, warning of another raid. This time, without any patients to care for, they made their way to the sandbagged shelter which the guards used.
The raid seemed to go on longer than the previous one and was more intense. The two young women held each other tightly, trembling. Without their patients to occupy their minds, they found this raid terrifying in the extreme and, when the final explosion rocked the shelter and brought dust and tiny fragments cascading down on them, it was as much as they could do not to let out a little squeal of fright.
Following a short period of silence after the last of the bombers' droning engines had faded away into the distance, the all-clear sounded once again. Shakily, Katarina and Maria emerged into the dark night. This time, no bombs had fallen into the compound but the last one had fallen across the road, just inside the airfield perimeter. Where the emergency gate had been was a smoking crater. There was no sign of the sentry post that had been just inside the barrier and the guard post at the entrance to their compound had been blown over in the blast.
As they looked they heard a voice behind them shout,
“Yes, Sergeant!” two voices replied simultaneously.
“Just as well you joined us, eh?”
“Yes, sergeant, definitely!”