Chemnitz, February 14th 1945
Katarina was sitting in the cab of the third lorry of the convoy. A few minutes after the air raid sirens began, they tailed off into silence. She couldn't be sure whether it was because they had sounded the warning for long enough, or because the convoy was leaving the city behind. Either way, the only sounds she could hear, now, was the engine of the truck. The driver, a young soldier of no more than twenty, she imagined, turned to her.
“You look worried, Matron.”
Katarina didn't answer but just gave him a weak smile.
“Don't worry about the raid. The Allies won't do too much harm. They know that Dresden is a beautiful city and, Churchill has an aunt who lives there.”
“What?” Katarina thought she had misheard him,
“It's true,” the young man assured her. “They will drop a few bombs on the marshalling yards, as they did last October, and in January. Other than that, though, Dresden is quite safe.”
“Hmm...” Katarina was doubtful, but she held her tongue. Although she thought that he may have a point. On the day that she and her sister had arrived, there had been a raid. It had caused little damage away from the railway and few casualties. Other cities had fared far worse, as her experiences in Innsbruck would testify.
Twenty minutes later, the first bombs fell on Dresden. Within minutes, the sky above the city glowed with an orange hue. Although now several kilometres away, Katarina and Maria could see the glow, and hear the explosions of thousands of bombs. Even the roar of hundreds of enemy planes passing overhead could not drown out the nightmare cacophony of sound.
Maria was several vehicles behind her sister. The ambulance was like so many she had encountered over the years, an Opel Blitz. Originally designed to be a bus, it carried stretchers as well as having seats. Even though the windows were white, she could still hear the terrible noise from beyond them. She tried not to look back and busied herself by checking on the patients.
Suddenly, an explosion ripped up the road in front of them, destroying the two vehicles ahead. The driver hit the brakes and swung the wheel, but it was too late. In the darkness, the ambulance slipped over the edge of the ditch and left the road. It rolled onto its side as it crashed through a hedgerow, and collided with a tree.
For a moment, everything seemed to happen in silent, slow motion. As Maria regained her senses, the noise returned, seemingly ten-fold. Men were shouting, others groaning and, beyond it all, the perpetual drone of the bombers.
It took a little time for her to realise what had happened. She felt strange, and something was pressing against her back. She reached beneath her to find something rough and jagged. No matter how hard she tried to stand, she couldn't. Somehow, she was unable get a grip onto anything solid enough to support her. It was as though something was holding her down. Moments later, she felt strong hands pulling her up, and she realised that she had been laying on a shattered bush which had come through the broken window.
“Are you hurt?”
Maria shook her head.
“No, I don't think so. Well, maybe a few cuts and bruises but nothing worse, I'm sure.”
The scene which presented itself to her was one of utter destruction. The front of the vehicle was crushed against the tree trunk. She didn't need to look closely, to see that the driver and orderly at the front, were dead.
Soldiers from other vehicles were climbing through the wreckage, helping those who had survived. Sadly, there were not many. Maria began to understand that she had survived because she had been standing. The collision had thrown her against some of the patients who had been seated, which had lessened the impact. Had that not have happened, she may well have been impaled upon the spear-like branches of the mangled hedgerow.
The soldier who had helped her assisted her to climb out of the rear door. Due to the vehicle lying on its side, the door was like a ramp to the ground. Since the window in it was broken, another soldier helped her to climb down to the frozen earth.
As the adrenalin began to subside, Maria began to shiver. The bitterly cold air began to chill her, and shallow, rapid breaths hung in the air before her face.
The soldier hurried her to the nearest lorry and helped her to step up into the cab. He found her a blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“You all right?” he asked.
She nodded gratefully and smiled.
While she sat, trying to calm herself, she surveyed the scene around her. It began to dawn on her that it had not been a bomb which had caused the explosion, as she had first thought. There was a swathe of wreckage, only part of which was the two lorries. To her right were the burning remains of a big, black aeroplane. Part of one of the sheared-off wings was standing up amongst splintered tree trunks. In the flickering light of the flames, she could just make out a blue circle with a red centre, near the tip. For a minute, she wondered whether the crew were inside still, or whether they had somehow managed to escape the inferno.
Her thoughts were cut abruptly short as the cab door opened and the driver climbed into his seat. Without a word, he slammed the door closed, crunched the gearbox, and began to turn the lorry around.
“What are you doing?” Maria asked him. “Where are we going?”
Not taking his eyes from the dark road ahead, he answered her question.
“Well we can't go on, can we? We have to find a way around this mess.”
Maria thought it prudent not to ask anything else, at least, not just then.
Katarina tried not to look back. Already, the horizon was glowing bright orange.
“So,” she said, her voice barely audible above the noise of the engine and the roar of the bombers flying overhead. “This is the Allies not bombing Dresden then.”
The driver didn't answer but kept his gaze upon the lorry several metres ahead.
Such was the violence behind that neither noticed the Lancaster bomber crash across the road behind them. The flash of the explosion was lost against the savage backdrop of the burning city, many kilometres away.
She closed her eyes, so tired that even the noise and movement of the lorry would not keep her from dozing.
The next time she opened her eyes, it was still dark. The lorry had stopped in a large open area surrounded by buildings. Other vehicles from the convoy were arriving and parking alongside each other.
“Where are we?”
“Leipzig,” the driver replied as he pulled back on the parking brake lever and stopped the engine.
“Leipzig?” she repeated. “Why? That is not on the way to Berlin.”
The driver shrugged.
“Don't ask me. The convoy is catching up, I suppose. Maybe this is where we divide.” He looked at her askance. “You did know that we are not all going to Berlin?”
“Yes, I knew,” she agreed as she watched the others arriving.
After a few minutes, she asked,
“Where are the others? The ambulances?”
The driver frowned and scanned the courtyard.
“There are only about fifteen here. There were more than forty when we left. There must be some delay, a breakdown, perhaps.”
Without another word, he opened the cab door and jumped to the ground. Katarina was about to speak, but he slammed the door and walked away.
She watched as he went across to another driver and began talking. Soon, they were joined by another and then another.
One pointed back towards the road from which they had entered and another towards the opposite way. There was much shaking of heads and shrugging of shoulders.
Suddenly, their animated conversations were cut short by the roar of a motorcycle. The rider pulled up beside the small group, and he too began pointing. Firstly, back from where he had appeared and then, like some of the other drivers, seemingly indicating that they continue on.
Shortly after, the motorcycle left. Returning the way it had come. Katarina's driver climbed back into the cab beside her.
“There is a problem. We've lost the rest of the convoy.”
Katarina stared at him.
“Lost it?” she asked in disbelief. “What do you mean, lost it? You can't lose two-dozen lorries!”
The driver rounded on her.
“Did you see they were missing?”
She shook her head.
“No? Well, neither did I. Nor did the rider. He has gone back to find them. Meanwhile, we have to go on.”
“We can't just go on. Not without the others.”
The driver turned back and pressed the engine start button. As the engine shuddered back to life, the drive mumbled.
“Stay here and wait, then. I have my orders.”
Katarina thought carefully.
“What happens when the others get here, and we are gone?” she asked.
“The riders know where they are going from here. I imagine they will just keep going.”
She fell silent, unsure of what to do.
The lorries began to move.
“Well?” her driver urged.
“Fine, go. I'll wait for my sister when we arrive in Berlin!”
The vehicle alongside them began to move, so the driver pushed the gear lever forwards with a nerve-jangling crunch. Soon, the lorry moved out behind the others.
Maria sat huddled in her seat, and pulled the woollen blanket tighter around her. The canvas roof of the cab did nothing to keep out the cold. She stared out through the windscreen, her eyes straining to see the narrow road they were following. The vehicle she was now in was far larger than any she had travelled in before. It felt very powerful with a very heavy engine tone. In the darkness, she could barely see beyond the end of the very long bonnet.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a small light appeared, moving from side to side. The driver braked.
It was one of the motorcyclists who had been riding with the convoy. He was holding a baton and indicating to them to turn right. Pulling hard on the wheel, the driver took the lorry slowly around the tight turn.
“I wish they wouldn't do that,” he hissed between clenched teeth.
Allowing him a moment to complete the manoeuvre, Maria asked where they were going.
“Chemnitz,” he replied.
“And then to Berlin?”
“Berlin?” he looked surprised. “Good grief, no. I have to get these tanks to Paderborn! We rest and refuel at Chemnitz and then, tomorrow, head to Kassel and then Paderborn. Why did you think we were going to Berlin?”
“Because that is what I was told in Dresden. That is where my sister and I are going!”
The driver looked at her and then back to the road.
“Oh yes, you were in the ambulance. That was the last vehicle of the Berlin section. We were supposed to stop in Leipzig and then separate.” He scratched the back of his head, “Where was your sister, then. Was she not in the ambulance with you?”
Maria shook her head vigorously.
“No, there wasn't room. She was in a lorry further ahead.” As she spoke, she began to realise that she might not see her sister again. She had never been to Berlin, and Katarina's words echoed in her ears.
“If we are separated for whatever reason, you must go home. If you follow me to Berlin, you may never find me.”
She fell silent and pulled her knees up to her chin.
The heavy rumble of the engine continued unabated but the drone of the bombers had long since ended. Maria looked down at her watch, it was just after midnight. She realised that the raid on Dresden had lasted for only about thirty minutes and yet she could still see the orange glow in the distance.
Finally, the heavy lorry arrived in Chemnitz. The driver parked it in a large open area as directed by the outriders. He pulled out a lever from the dashboard, and the engine shuddered into silence.
As Maria climbed down on to the cobbled surface, she could hear a distant drone and, before much longer, the thunder of more bombs exploding on Dresden. She stood and watched the orange glow on the horizon as more heavy lorries arrived. When she had seen enough, Maria turned and only then realised just what size of a vehicle she had been travelling in. It was indeed carrying tanks. One was on a trailer and the other, she assumed, was on the back, although it was hidden by the canvas. No wonder the driver had cursed at the tight turn he had been forced to make!
It was the driver who now stood beside her.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You are shivering.”
Maria looked up at him and shook her head.
“No, not really,” she answered. “I am cold, tired, hungry, and to make things worse, I have lost my sister.” She turned, then, and looked up at the orange sky.
“We are alive, though, and reasonably safe, for the moment. That is more than can be said for those poor souls.”
“If I may be so bold, Ma'am,” the driver stepped closer. “I have supplies and a small paraffin stove. I can make us something hot if you would like. Then, after some rest, you may feel a little more clear-headed to think about what you need to do.”
Maria didn't have to consider her reply. The thought of being warm, even if only for a short while, was too much to resist.
With his help, as he held the heavy canvas curtain to one side, she climbed up into the back of the lorry and, in the darkness, squeezed herself between the tank wheels and the wooden side-boards. Once inside, and the curtain re-secured, he lit a paraffin lamp. There was a small amount of space at the front of the tank, and there they sat down. The driver, from his pack, produced a small rectangular tin. Maria thought that he was going to light a cigarette before he did anything else.
She watched fascinated as he opened the tin, one half at a time. Inside was a red and blue box. The top part had opened in the centre and then each side opened to ninety degrees to form some kind of a stand. He then produced a block of what appeared to be white wax, from the packet, which he placed onto the tin before standing it on the floor between them. Next, he struck a match and touched it to the block. It ignited readily!
It didn't take long to boil a small amount of water in a mess tin to make something that resembled coffee.
Whilst Maria sipped the steaming brew from the cup of her canteen, she watched as he boiled more water and placed a couple of sliced potatoes into it along with an onion and a little salt.
“It's not much, I'm afraid, but at least it is hot.”
Maria smiled, the warm drink made her feel so much better, and any food was better than none.
“Do you have a mess tin? Eating implements?”
That was something she had never needed, having never been away from camps for any significant length of time. She shook her head.
“No, I haven't,” she replied. “Don't you have anything that I could use?”
The driver put his hand into his tunic pocket and pulled out a somewhat misshapen spoon which he wiped on his sleeve.
“You can use this,” he said, handing it to her. “I'll use my fork.”
Inside, Maria's stomach churned, but she was too hungry to pass up the offer. She took it gratefully.
As the driver looked down to stir the thin broth, she surreptitiously wiped the spoon on her blanket.
By the time the soup was finished, she felt warmer. The stress of the crash and separation from the convoy had subsided considerably, and now she felt able to think more clearly.
She handed the spoon back to the driver, thanking him for his hospitality. He took it and put it into his mouth, sucking on it for a short time before wiping it on his sleeve and returning it to his tunic pocket.
Again, her stomach churned at the thought of having had to use such an unclean item.
From another pocket, he produced a crumpled cigarette packet which he turned upside down and tapped. A single cigarette appeared. He reached over, offering it to her,
Maria shook her head.
“No thank you, I don't...”
“Mind if I do?” he asked and slid the white stick from the packet without waiting for a response. A match flared, and he sucked the relaxing smoke deep into his lungs. When he exhaled, Maria tried to stifle a cough. She had never liked the smell of cigarettes, but she couldn't complain, under the circumstances.
She pulled her blanket tighter around her and leaned back against a roll of canvas sheeting. Slowly, her eyelids drooped, and she slipped into an uneasy sleep.
She awoke suddenly, feeling the blanket being pulled from her. She could smell the sickening, cigarette breath of the driver close to her face. In a panic, she pushed herself backwards, but the canvas didn't allow it.
“What are you doing? Stop it!” she yelled at him. He quickly clamped his rough hand over her mouth so tightly that she could hardly breathe.
“You've shared my hospitality,” he growled. “Don't you think it fair that I should get something in return?”
She tried to respond, but all she could manage was a gurgling sound. With one finger against his lips, he slowly removed his hand.
“I don't have anything to share,” she hissed. “It was all lost when the ambulance crashed!”
“Oh, I'm sure we can think of something you can share...”
The man was strong and heavy. The harder she tried, the heavier he seemed to get.
Suddenly, he gripped her by the throat.
“You know what I want.”
His fingers tightened around her neck. She couldn't breathe, and her head was spinning. She mustn't pass out!
With a swift movement, she raised her knee. Nothing happened! He was expecting it, and had trapped her legs with his own!
He released his grip slightly, and she gasped for air, but still, he held her neck, his hand like a vice.
With his other hand, he began to fumble with the buttons of her greatcoat.
“Get... off...me...” she hissed. The pressure on her throat was forcing her jaw closed.
She felt his vile lips press against her own as his tongue tried to force its way between her clenched teeth. With great effort, she opened her jaw just enough to clamp down on his lip.
“Aaargh!” he yelled and slammed the back of his hand across her face so hard that her ears rang and her eyes blurred.
“Oh, now you're going to get it! I'll make you wish you hadn't done that!”