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The Nurses. Chapter 13.

Katarina leaves for the airport. The beginning of her new life.

Berlin. June 8th, 1940

 

 

“This is all you are taking?”

 

Magda Langsdorf stood beside her daughter, looking into the open suitcase she had placed on the bed. 

 

"Yes, Mama, I am afraid so.”

 

Katarina smiled. She had thought carefully about what to take and when the time had come to leave, she had decided that it was better to carry as little as she could so she had packed plenty of underwear and toiletries, a little make-up and accompaniments such as a small hand mirror, hair brush and the like and a couple of books.

 

She enjoyed reading and when she wanted to relax she would pick up a book and just sit quietly with it.

 

Tucked into the corner of the case were two empty boxes, a long thin one and a square one. They were the containers for her most treasured possessions. One she wore at her throat and the other on her wrist. To herself, she had vowed that she would never ever go anywhere without them.

 

All that was hidden under the two spare uniforms that took up the remaining space in her suitcase.

 

Satisfied that she had all she needed, she leaned over and flipped the lid closed, clicking closed the two latches and turning the little key in the lock of each one and pulling the metal buttons outwards to ensure they were locked.

 

Finally, she straightened up and stood, looked around the small room which had been her world since the day she was born.

 

She turned to her mother, and the two looked at each other for a moment, neither one knowing what to say to the other.

 

Instead, they embraced quietly until Katarina's father gave a little cough from the doorway.

 

“We should think about leaving,” he said softly, “The car is here.”

 

“Car, Papa? What car?” Katarina was puzzled as she expected to use the trams and buses.

 

“I have a friend in the motor pool,” her father answered, He has to collect Herr Goering from Templehof later today, and he said he didn't mind leaving earlier to take us.”

 

“Us? Are you both coming with me?” she asked, excited. Her eyes twinkled as she looked from one to the other of them.

 

“No, Sweetheart,” her mother replied apologetically, “I cannot come to the airport, I will say goodbye here if it is all right with you.”

 

“Oh, Mama. Of course, it is.”

 

Katarina took her mother's hands and squeezed them as she spoke.

 

Siegfried lifted the leather case from the bed.

 

“Not very heavy, Liebchen, are you sure...? he stopped as Magda touched his arm and gave him a look which said, 'No'.

 

Seeing the exchange, Katarina smiled but said nothing.

 

They walked together to the door where she turned to her mother and saw that her eyes had filled with tears, leaving little streaks in the powder on her cheeks as the salty water ran down to the edge of her lips.

 

“Mama,” she whispered, “Please don't cry, I will be back to visit, you'll see, and this war won't last long.”

 

Magda dabbed at her eyes with a small embroidered handkerchief.

 

“I know,” she said, smiling weakly, “Please be careful and write to us regularly.”

 

“I will, Mama, I promise,” Katarina replied and kissed her tear stained cheek before turning away and stepping through the door.

 

She had heard her mother sob before the door closed behind her with a gentle 'click' and she took a deep breath, and then, with a last look at the shattered, boarded door across the landing, followed her father down the stairs.

 

At the bottom, she paused whilst her father opened the big solid door that led out onto the street and, for a moment, thought of the wretched Frau Muller. The door to her apartment was ajar as, already, a new concierge had been installed. No-one knew her, and all assumed she had been given the place by the Gestapo. Katarina had not met her and knew nothing about her but wondered if she knew of the events of recent days and the part her predecessor had played.

 

“Katarina...”

 

She was pulled from her thoughts as her father called her name and she turned away and followed him to the waiting car.

 

She gasped when she saw it, the gleaming black Mercedes and the SS driver in his pristine black uniform standing beside it, holding the rear door open for them.

 

“Papa...” she hissed.

 

“I will explain in a moment,” he whispered, “Get in, quickly.”

 

Without another word, she followed her father's instruction and stepped into the car. Siegfried followed and sat down beside her, placing the case on the floor between them.

 

The driver closed the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel where he selected a gear and accelerated smoothly away.

 

Once they were clear of the apartment building her father leaned forwards and tapped on the glass partition behind the driver who reached back and slid it open.

 

“Well done, Willi! Thank you, it was perfect,” he said, his hand on the driver's shoulder.

 

“No problem, Siggi,” the driver replied, looking back through the interior mirror and smiling broadly.

 

Katarina was aghast, and her mouth opened to speak, but she really didn't know what to make of it all.

 

“Don't worry,” her father said, “Willi isn't really SS. The motor pool is run by the SS, so he just wears the uniform for appearances sake. Can you imagine what Herr Goering would say if a civilian turned up to drive him?”

 

“But won't he get into trouble, Papa?” Katarina asked.

 

“Well, he is technically in the SS. He had to swear the oath and so on, just as I did but... well, it's a long story; anyway, the point is, I arranged this as a show for the new concierge as well as to get you to the airport. Did you see the curtain twitch?”

 

Katarina thought for a moment and decided that she hadn't.

 

“No? Well, it did. I wanted her to think I was well connected with the SS, which she will probably pass on to the two goons who have been causing trouble here.”

 

“And are you, Papa. Well connected I mean?”

 

There was a loud guffaw from the front, and the driver received a light-hearted cuff across the shoulder.

 

“The important thing is that she thinks I am,” her father replied.

 

“Oh Papa, is it really so dangerous here now?”

 

“Sweetheart, Germany is a dangerous place in general nowadays. We all have to be on our guard.”

 

Katarina noticed Willi nodding as her father spoke.

 

“That is why I am glad you are going to France. I know there is war there, but at least, you will be away from the fanatics and the Gestapo and all the suspicious prying eyes.”

 

“But what about you and Mama, You will still be here?”

 

Siegfreid took her gloved hand in his.

 

“Don't you worry about us,” he assured her with a gentle squeeze, “I will take care of your mother.”

 

Willi looked at them through the rearview mirror.

 

“You father is very smart, we all have to be, as you can see,” he said with a wink and smile.

 

Katarina smiled too, but her heart was heavy.

 

“Yes, so it would seem,” she answered.

 

They sat in silence for the remainder of the journey, and when they arrived at Tempelhof, the guards at the entrance opened the barrier as they approached, standing smartly to attention, right arms outstretched in the Nazi salute as they passed.

 

“Why are they saluting us, Papa and why didn't they want to see our papers?” Katarina asked.

 

“Because of the pennants on the front wings. This is an SS staff car, and they wouldn't dare delay it in case there is a high ranking official on board,” Her father replied.

 

Katarina craned her neck to look around the driver, and she could just make out the triangular red flags showing the Nazi Swastika flapping in the wind as the gleaming black Mercedes sped along the airport road.

 

Although Katarina had flown from here before, on several occasions, Tempelhof seemed different now. The buildings were the same, but there were far more military aircraft now, and Willi took them straight to an aeroplane that was parked on the concrete a little away from the other aircraft.

 

It was quite a large, transport plane which appeared, to her, to be made from corrugated iron and had three round engines, one of which was right on the front, in front of the cockpit. The colour was a rather drab shade of green and on the side, a black cross with letters on either side of it. She had seen similar ones belonging to the state airline Lufthansa, but they were silver and black.

 

Siegfried saw her staring.

 

“Yes, Sweetheart, I am sorry,” he said. “There are only military flights to France at the moment, and this is the only one that will get you there on time. The Luftwaffe are flying supplies to the troops at the front.”

 

“That is all right, Papa,” she smiled, “It is still better than spending days on a train.”

 

“Will you be all right on your own now?” her father asked and then, “Yes, of course, you will.”

 

He moved across and hugged her tightly.

 

“Don't forget to write.”

 

“I won't, Papa,” she said, taking a small lace handkerchief from her pocket and wiping a little moisture from his eye.

 

They sat for a moment until Willi opened the door for her and she stepped out, taking her small case.

 

As her father had instructed, she walked straight to the door at the rear of the cabin and stopping at the bottom of the steps, she turned to wave goodbye, but the big black Mercedes was already turning away, and she glimpsed her Father waving sadly from the back seat.

 

She took a deep breath. For the first time in her life, she was completely alone.

 

When she turned back to the steps, she noticed a young man in grey flying overalls standing just inside the doorway.

 

“Sister Langsdorf?” he called down, and she nodded in response. “Welcome aboard.”

 

He held out his hand to take her suitcase as she climbed the three metal steps and took it from her as she passed inside.

 

“I am afraid there is not much room but there is a seat here, next to the door.”

 

He pointed to a small canvas bench-like seat which jutted out from the cabin wall below the window.

 

“I am sure that will be fine, thank you.”

 

Her answer was polite but inside she was beginning to think that maybe the train might not have been so bad after all.

 

The cabin was full of boxes, crates and sacks and she would be sitting sideways for the whole flight! 

 

"I know this is not the most comfortable of aeroplanes, but Aunt Ju is reliable and safe,” the young airman continued as if reading her thoughts. “I put you here because if we are attacked the enemy are more likely to shoot at the engines or cockpit.”

 

“Attacked?” Katarina exclaimed, “Why would we be attacked?”

 

The young man laughed.

 

“We are flying to war, Sister, and this is a military flight.”

 

Those few words brought home just how serious things were now. She had only heard of the actions from a distance and, even though she had seen some of the casualties, never really imagined she would become involved directly.

 

To try to divert the conversation she asked;

 

“Who is Aunt Ju?”

 

“This is Aunt Ju,” the airman stretched out his arms to indicate the cabin. When he saw her puzzled expression he elaborated.

 

“The aeroplane is a Junkers JU52. Because she is so reliable and also transports the soldiers to and from the war zones, she is affectionately known as 'Aunt Ju'.”

 

Katarina nodded.

 

“Anyway, if you will excuse me, Sister, I must check that everything is ready for take-off.”

 

With a smile, he stepped through the door and disappeared down the steps.

 

A few minutes later there was a hiss and a wheeze as the first of the three engines began to come to life and soon the whole cabin was filled with noise and vibration.

 

The airman reappeared dragging two blocks of wood into the cabin, threw them inside, then turned, pulled up the steps, slammed the door closed then went forward to the cockpit.

 

The aeroplane began to move, slowly at first, as it made its way to the runway and then stopped for a moment before turning and picking up speed until it left the ground behind and began to climb high into the sky.

 

As the time passed slowly by, Katarina looked around her. The last time she flew had been when she went with her parents to England. It had been the same kind of aeroplane, as far as she could remember but it was not as noisy as this one. There didn't seem to be any interior to it, no walls or seats. She could see the outside panels and all the framework. She had no idea what all the shiny wires were for, but she was fascinated by their movement, back and forth as she flew.

 

Slowly, her eyes began to close, and she made herself as comfortable as she could and allowed herself to doze a little although it was far too loud and uncomfortable to sleep properly.

 

She woke suddenly, disturbed by something thudding into the side of the cabin and the pilot had suddenly turned, and dived.

 

Katarina was frightened. What on earth had happened? Were they going to crash?

 

As her mind focused, she saw a small round hole in the cabin wall about a meter from where she was sitting.

 

The aeroplane turned sharply again and climbed as another series of thuds echoed around the cabin.

 

“Oh my goodness!” she thought as she looked at the smoking pellet on the floor at her feet.

 

She felt sick with the fear and the constant twisting and turning as the pilot tried to maintain control.

 

Almost as soon as it had begun, all the thudding and twisting and turning stopped and once again the aircraft flew steadily again.

 

Looking about her, Katarina saw that there were several holes, all similar to the one near to where she was sitting. Through each she could see a thin beam of light illuminating the dust that had been produced and the realisation hit her like a hammer, they had been attacked!

 

With that thought, she felt very cold and began to tremble with fear.

 

Before she had the chance to think any more about it, the young airman appeared before her.

 

“Are you all right, Sister?” he shouted, trying to make himself heard above the roaring of the engines and the wind whistling though the holes.

 

“Y... yes, I th... think so,” she shouted back, “What happened?”

 

“We were jumped by a French fighter! Can you come to the cockpit, quickly? The pilot was hit!”

 

Katarina jumped to her feet and followed him. Through the window, she could see a thin trail of blue smoke coming from the engine. She didn't say anything about it as she could see the crew had enough to do without her poking her nose in and now she had something to take her mind off her own precarious situation, the fear was gone.

 

The sight that greeted her when she stepped up into the cockpit was terrifying in itself. The screen around the pilot was shattered, leaving jagged shards around the frame and the wind was screaming through so loudly that speech was impossible. Worse, though the pilot himself was slumped in his seat covered with blood and the aircraft was being flown by the navigator who appeared to be fighting hard with the controls.

 

It was very difficult for her to see where the pilot had been hit as his flying suit was soaked and, together with the airman, she unfastened his thick coat and saw that a bullet had entered his chest. The blood was frothy and bright indicating his lung had been pierced.

 

She placed her fingers on the vein in his neck then looked up at the airman and shook her head, the pilot was dead.

 

Beside him, the navigator began to gesticulate, pointing to the dead man and indicating to the airman who touched her arm and guided her back into the cabin.

 

“He wants me to take his place,” he shouted, “He needs my help.”

 

She nodded and between them they managed to move the body through the door and strapped it into Katarina's seat then they returned to the cockpit where the only seat now available to her was that of the radio operator who, she discovered, was the young airman now strapped into the pilots seat.

 

From where she was now sitting, Katarina could not see any of the outside of the aeroplane but by wearing the headset that was connected to the radio set she could, at least, get some respite from the wind noise and listen to what the crew were saying. She garnered that the engine from which she had seen the smoke had been hit and would not last much longer as it was losing its oil. Additionally, the fuel tanks had been punctured, and one of the control wires had been severed which, it seemed, even with her total ignorance of all things mechanical, meant that they had to land and soon!

 

She watched silently as the two men fought, both holding onto the little wheel on top of the stick in front of each of them. They seemed to be pulling back hard on them, and the wheels were turned fully to the left.

 

Occasionally, the Radio Operator would turn to her and smile, trying to silently reassure her and she would smile back and nod to show she was all right.

 

They were descending slowly now and turning towards the airfield for which they had been heading anyway before the attack.

 

Without looking back, this time, the young Radio Operator yelled they would be landing soon and to hold on tightly as it was likely to be a bit bumpy.

 

She laughed inwardly, 'a bit bumpy' would be more than acceptable under the circumstances.

 

The final minutes seemed more like hours to her as she watched, mesmerised, while the pilots pulled and turned, grunting with the effort of keeping the stricken aircraft level to give then any chance of survival.

 

The whole machine was trying to shake itself apart, trying to turn anywhere but where they wanted it to and suddenly... they hit the ground with a heavy crash, bounced back up again momentarily then crashed once more onto the firm ground, bumping and jolting along the grass beside the concrete runway where they would have a better chance if the undercarriage had been damaged.

 

Gradually, the bumping and rattling stopped, and the aircraft came to a halt.

 

No words were spoken for a moment until both the pilots let out a huge sigh of relief and went about switching off the two remaining engines.

 

Katarina tried to get to her feet, but she found that her legs were too weak to stand right away, so she waited. The Radio Operator looked back at her and grinned, raising his thumbs towards her.

 

She took a deep breath, smiled, nodded slowly and shakily raised her own thumbs to show that all was well with her too.

 

“Didn't I say?” he said with with a grin as wide as the Rhine, “Aunt Ju is safe and reliable!” which made Katarina laugh out loud with relief.

 

 

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