Berlin, February 14th 1945
The convoy moved slowly through the oppressive darkness. The presence of the Allied bombers precluded that the vehicles could not use their lights. Since the bombers were protected by fighters, the line of trucks and cars would be an easy target if they were spotted from the skies above.
Katarina pulled her collar tightly around her neck and tried to get a little sleep. The driver was concentrating so hard that he never once took his eyes from the road nor uttered a single word.
Eventually, she began to doze.
After an hour or so, she awoke with a start. A feeling of dread overcame her. The driver was still hunched over the wheel, staring out into the darkness. Looking through the windscreen, she could just make out the rear of the lorry ahead, moving slowly along the road, as it had been before she slept. Her heart was pounding like a drum as the adrenalin flowed through her veins. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Sensing her discomfort, the driver spoke without taking his gaze from the road.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
Katarina stared at him.
“Yes, there is... but... well, no... Damn it, I don't know! Is there?”
The driver looked surprised and raised his eyebrows.
“Not that I know of. We are still heading towards Berlin. Nothing has changed.”
Katarina didn't reply, but the feeling of panic just wouldn't leave her. She felt as though she couldn't breathe, and yet, there was no reason for it.
She tried to think of what had spooked her, but there was nothing. Everything was just as it had been. Thoughts ran through her head, remembering that she had experienced the very same emotion before, but when and why? Slowly, an unwelcome idea came into her mind, Maria! Had something happened to her? Or, worse still, was something happening to her at this moment?
She turned suddenly to the driver.
“What happened to the rest of the convoy?” she asked. So abruptly that the driver actually looked at her in surprise before quickly returning his attention to the road.
“I already told you,” he replied calmly. “I have no idea. All I know is that there was probably some delay. The outrider said we were missing about five vehicles from the Berlin bound section.”
“Did he say they would catch up, or was that just you saying it?”
The driver shrugged.
“He said we had to keep on. I just assumed they would catch up.”
“Did he mention the ambulance?”
The driver shook his head.
“No. The rider didn't mention any of them. He said he didn't know where they were as he was riding ahead of us. Why the concern?”
Katarina couldn't bring herself to tell him that she had a bad feeling. He would think she was crazy but, nevertheless, that feeling persisted in its intensity. Even by taking deep, slow breaths, she couldn't shake it off.
Once more, she pulled the collar of her coat around her neck and closed her eyes.
Startled, she sat bolt upright.
“What was that?”
The lorry squealed to a halt somewhat roughly, the driver struggling with the steering wheel.
Once stationary, he took a deep breath.
“Front tyre's blown out,” he finally responded.
Katarina allowed herself to breathe again and exhaled loudly.
“Thank goodness,” she sighed. I thought we were being shot at.”
The driver laughed.
“Been shot at before then, have you?” His voice was heavy with sarcasm.
She stared at him for a moment, about to explode but, he didn't know her. For all he knew, she could have spent the war in a cosy hospital.
Instead, she smiled sweetly.
“More than you will ever know,” she thought as she opened the cab door.
The spare wheel was located between the chassis and the load bed. By the time the driver had walked around to her side of the lorry, Katarina had opened the tool cabinet. She was already releasing the spare wheel.
He stared at her in amazement as she dragged the heavy wheel down to the road.
“Well, don't just stand there,” she said, feigning an authoritative voice and throwing the spanner to him. “Release the wheel nuts and start jacking it up!”
“Yes, Ma'am!” he replied, too stunned to think of a retort.
A few minutes later, whilst the driver pumped the handle of the hydraulic bottle-jack, there was a sudden roar. It was the outrider. The motorcycle slid sideways as it screeched to a halt beside them. The rider glanced at the shredded tyre still on the lorry.
“Puncture? Need any help?”
The driver shook his head and continued pumping.
“Quick as you can, then. Don't want to lose any more.”
Katarina grabbed his arm.
“What do you mean, lose any more? Isn't the rest of the convoy following?”
“Not anymore. One of the British bombers crashed. Smashed straight through them. The road's blocked so the rest have separated to head for their original destination via a different route.”
Her blood ran cold, icy cold.
“Two lorries and an ambulance, I'm told. The trucks were obliterated. Couldn't tell which bits were them or the plane!”
Hand trembling, her grip tightened on his arm.
“What about the ambulance?” she urged him. He shrugged.
“No idea. The rest of the convoy is probably in Chemnitz by now.”
Katarina could hardly breathe as she released his arm. Without another word, the motorcycle revved loudly and sped off into the darkness.
“I knew it...” Her words were so quiet that they were almost silent. The driver stopped working and looked up at her.
“I had a feeling. I knew something was wrong...”
He stood up and went to her side.
“What are you talking about? What's wrong?”
Katarina looked at him, her eyes moistening and fearful.
“My sister. She... she might be...” She put out her hand to steady herself against the truck. “I felt something inside. She may be hurt or... or worse.”
“What do you mean? How could you possibly know that?” The young driver was puzzled.
“I don't but we are close, Maria and I. It has happened before, to both of us. Somehow we just know when the other is in danger. Don't ask me to explain it.”
“Is that why you have been so jittery since we left Leipzig?”
She nodded, and then,
“You had better get on with this wheel.”
Whilst they toiled, the remainder of the convoy slowly drove by. The crews and soldiers cajoled as they passed.
“Come on, you'll get left behind!” some shouted. Others made disgusting suggestions and laughed.
By the time the damaged wheel was secured to the chassis, they were alone.
“Come on then,” Katarina urged, “We don't want to get too far behind.”
The driver pressed the starter button, but the engine turned too slowly to start. He tried again but still no better.
“Do you have a lamp?”
The driver stared at her.
“Yes, of course I do,” he exclaimed. “What of it?”
Katarina took a deep breath.
“Just get it for me, please.”
“I think it's in there,” he said, pointing to the glovebox in front of her.
She opened the metal door and took out a small grey lamp. It was little larger than a cigarette pack but with a glass lens on the front. There was a cover over it with a slit, much like those fitted to headlights.
Quickly, she jumped down from the cab and lifted the bonnet side, latching the support bar.
The driver joined her, but he didn't appear to recognise anything they were looking at. He seemed to know nothing about the engine, not even how to put oil and water in it.
Katarina pointed the lamp at the engine. Although having seen many like it, she didn't know much about how they worked. So instead, just looked for anything that didn't seem right. Nothing appeared wrong, so she closed the bonnet and looked at the other side. Still, there was nothing obviously wrong, but then, as she was about to give up, she saw something. Reaching out, she touched a cable attached to the dynamo. It was loose and sparked as she moved it!
“Do you have a spanner?” she called out.
There was no response, so she shouted.
“Did you hear me? I need a spanner!”
“And why, exactly, would a nurse require a spanner?”
The voice was menacing and not that of her young driver!
Katarina backed out from under the bonnet and was confronted by a tall officer. She couldn't see him too well in the darkness but enough to tell that he was no ordinary soldier.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Feldgendarmerie!” he snapped. She saw a flash of silver at his neck, in the light of the lamp. He was, indeed, wearing the dreaded gorget! “Papers!”
As she went to put her hand into her pocket to retrieve her identity card, he reached out and struck her arm with his baton. “Stop!” He stepped closer and patted her pocket with his hand. Satisfied, he nodded for her to continue.
Katarina having extinguished her lamp, the Gendarme studied her card under the light of his own torch. He looked up and shone it in her face. Satisfied, he returned the card.
“Why are you here?” he asked in a none too friendly tone.
“The lorry got a puncture, and now it won't start.”
“What is on the lorry?” he persisted.
“I have absolutely no idea!” Katarina snapped. “As you correctly pointed out, I am a nurse. I am on my way to Berlin and was allocated a seat in this lorry. Other than that, I don't know.”
The officer studied her for several seconds, seemingly deciding whether to believe her story.
Just then, he was joined by another soldier, a sergeant wearing the same gorget.
“The driver says they were left behind by the convoy when they got a puncture, Sir. It's loaded with medical supplies.”
“Is that so?” He looked sideways at Katarina. “You say that you are a matron with the Red Cross, yes?”
Katarina nodded, wondering what he was asking.
“And yet, you said you didn't know what was on the lorry. Surely, you would know if you were who you say you are. Isn't that so?”
“I told you, I joined the convoy in Dresden. I was at the Diakonissen Krankenhaus there. I received orders to go to Berlin, and this convoy was the only transport available. I am merely a passenger. I have no knowledge of what any of the vehicles are carrying.”
The Leutnant glared at her, his eyes mere slits. Suddenly, he turned to the young driver.
“What is wrong with this vehicle?” he snapped.
“I... I don't know. I... I...” he stammered.
“Are you or are you not the driver?” the officer demanded.
“Y... yes, Herr Leutnant, b... b... but I have not...”
“You are a Wehrmacht driver, no? And does not the Wehrmacht teach its drivers the maintenance of its vehicles?”
Without waiting for an answer, the Leutnant turned back to Katarina who had slipped the Hauptmann insignia onto her sleeve.
“What do you know about truck engines, Matron Langsdorff? You are a Hospital Nurse, are you not?”
By this time, Katarina had heard enough.
“I, Herr Leutnant, have served in North Africa where I was responsible for ambulances recovering the wounded from the front line. I was taught vehicle maintenance and driving at Karlsruhe. I served in Greece and Italy. I save lives, Herr Leutnant, not threaten them. And you? What have you done in the service of your country?”
Before he had the opportunity to respond, the convoy outrider screeched to a halt beside the truck.
“What's going on here? I thought you just had a puncture.”
Katarina spoke quickly to prevent either the driver or the gendarme from replying.
“We have a minor problem,” she said, keeping her eyes on the officer in front of her. “These gentlemen are preventing us from effecting a simple repair so that we can rejoin the convoy.”
“Is there something wrong then?” the outrider asked, a little nervously. He had met the field police before, and they were known for their aggression and roadside executions.
The officer maintained eye contact with Katarina.
“It would appear not,” he said with a menacing tone. He paused for a second and then turned on his heel and stomped away, back to his Kubelwagen.
Immediately, Katarina stepped towards her driver. Without warning, the young man vomited onto the road. He was trembling with fear.
Concerned, Katarina placed her hand upon his shoulder.
“I thought they would shoot us,” he whispered, his voice quivering and laboured.
“Why would they do that? We have done nothing wrong.”
The young man wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“You may not have...”
Katarina was taken aback.
“What do you mean?” she asked, but before he could say any more, she said,
“No, let's get moving. Where is the spanner.”
She was more puzzled when he shrugged his shoulders.
“I don't know,” he replied.
“Really? All right, get in the cab and wait.”
As he reached up to the door handle, Katarina grabbed his arm.
“No, the other side. I'll drive from here.”
As she suspected, the spanners were in the same locker as the jack and wheel wrench. It took just a moment to tighten the connection to the dynamo. When she pressed the starter button, the engine cranked very slowly but, this time, it was just enough, and the engine coughed into life.
Katarina drove carefully along the dark road. Such conditions were not new to her, but the last time had been on a desert road. The ice and snow made this night quite different. Trees and bushes would suddenly appear as if from nowhere, like ghostly apparitions alongside the road. She was tired and easily startled.
After a while, she asked the young man beside her what he had been afraid of.
“I am not a soldier,” he began. “I stole this lorry.”
“What!” For a second, Katarina looked at him, stunned, and then back to the road. “Then, who are you?”
Katarina stopped him sharply.
“No. Don't tell me. It is better that I don't know. Just tell me what is going on.”
After a moment to collect his thoughts, the young man began his story.
“My father is a doctor at the Charité. He would come home exhausted and sad. He said that they couldn't cope with all the casualties from the bombing and that there were not enough supplies. People were dying whom he should have been able to save. I sometimes heard him crying in his room.”
“Do I know him? I trained at the Charité but had to leave in nineteen-forty.”
The young man shook his head.
“Then probably not, he was sent there in nineteen-forty-three, from Dresden. Anyway, My mother and I went back home two months ago. My father said we would be safer there. I heard about this convoy, and I hung around near the barracks for a couple of nights. No-one saw me. When I saw that this one was loaded with medical supplies, I decided to take it to my dad.”
Katarina was astounded.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen? She exclaimed. “Where did you get the uniform from?”
“Oh, that is mine. It is my Hitler Youth uniform that I altered a little. You can't tell in the dark.”
She shook her head. Of all the people she had met and all the unbelievable things she had witnessed, this probably was the most frightening.
“How do you propose to get it to the Charité? Do you know where the vehicle was supposed to go? My goodness, if you get caught, they will shoot you on the spot! It is no wonder you were sick!”
The boy remained silent but looked down at his lap. His fingers remained so tightly interlaced that his knuckles glowed white in the dim glow from the speedometer.
“What about your mother? Won't she be worried? Does she know about this?”
“She is dead.”
Katarina reached across and briefly squeezed his arm.
“I'm sorry,” she said gently. “When did that happen, and how?”
“The raid in January. She had gone to the railway yard because we heard there was a train coming with food. She hoped...”
His voice faded to silence, and she could tell that he was crying.
“I knew something was wrong when you didn't seem to know anything about the engine or wheel tools.”
As she spoke, he wiped his sleeve across his eyes, drying them and his nose.
“Don't worry, I won't turn you over to the Feldgendarme, but you have put me in a difficult position.” She shrugged and smiled. “Still, I suppose that's nothing new.”
In the road ahead, Katarina spotted a faint light. It was swinging towards the right. She slowed the truck and, as she approached, she saw that it was the outrider. The motorcycle was blocking the road ahead, and he was indicating that she should turn to the right.
The boy looked nervous.
“Where are we?” he asked as he stared out into the darkness.
Katarina couldn't say, but she had no option but to follow the direction she was being given.
The dark sky was beginning to lighten to a deep blue, and the ghostly shapes along the way were starting to take on a more natural form.
A few minutes later, the road passed over a railway and through a village. The outrider overtook them and waved that they should follow him as he turned left.
“I'm not sure, but I think that was Michendorf. We must be near Potsdam.”
The boy continued to stare through the windscreen.
“Then we are almost in Berlin?” he asked.
“Yes, but maybe another hour or so. Do you know where the convoy is going to stop?”
He shook his head.
“No, I was just following the others.”
She thought for a moment.
“We will have to play it by ear. Whatever I tell you to do, you must do it, or we will both be in trouble, right?”
The boy nodded his agreement.
As the kilometres passed by and the light grew brighter, Katarina began to get the idea that they were heading into the centre of Berlin. The route they were following could be very advantageous. She noticed that the road had turned to run alongside a canal.
“Do you know, I think that the Gods may be watching over us.”
“We have just driven through Tetlow. That canal is the Tetlow canal. It passes close to the Charité. All we have to do is cross to the other side, and we can go straight there!”
The boy frowned and pursed his lips.
“How do we do that without him noticing?” He indicated the outrider, ahead.
“The road is not straight. I will drop back, increase the gap a little, and maybe we can find a bridge near a bend.”
After a pause to consider the plan, the boy nodded.
“Yes, I suppose it could work,” he allowed.
The closer to the city they got, Katarina noticed the destruction. She had heard about the bombing but she had no idea of the level of devastation they had inflicted. Kilometre after kilometre, they drove in silence, Katarina too shocked to speak. The ruined buildings like jagged teeth in the mouth of a slain monster.
Ahead, the outrider slowed and stopped. Katarina braked and brought the lorry to a standstill. She wound the window down, noticing that they were at a crossroads.
“What's wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing's wrong,” came the surprising reply. “You're heading for the Charité, aren't you? Left here, over the bridge, and then right. There is no point in you going to Tempelhof just to come all the way back, now, is there?”
Katarina did her best to hide her surprise.
“Erm, no, of course not. Thank you.”
The outrider waved, turned his motorcycle around, and sped off.
She looked at the boy seated beside her, shaking her head in dismay.
“I suppose it didn't occur to you to find out where it was going before you stole it?”