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The Nurses. Chapter 25

“I found him here, alone,” Maria said, “I thought you would like to see him again.”

Amiens. December 29th 1940

Whilst this night night had been so traumatic and highly emotional for her friend on Ward Seven, Katarina had also been kept busy.

She had not had the Gestapo or the SS to contend with but she had, nevertheless been kept hard at it.

Some of her lesser wounded patients had been moved to smaller hospitals in the area and their beds made available to several wounded airmen.

Unlike the French civilians, her patients had been taken in ambulances and cared for, not just bundled into a truck and carted off like animals.

The remaining four SS soldiers had been moved as soon as they were stable and returned home to Germany by train rather than road and Katarina had been relieved to see them go. So long as they remained in her care there was a constant watch kept on them and since the remarks from the Gestapo agent, she had felt decidedly uneasy. They had been particularly unhappy about losing one of their own and Katarina heard through the grapevine that five Frenchmen had been arrested and shot as a warning to anyone who attacked any German soldier.

She noticed when the constant droning of the bombers finally faded pausing only for a moment to enjoy a little of the peace before the promised casualties appeared.

As ambulances arrived she went out to meet them to assess their passengers requirements, accompanying them back to the ward.

It had been on one of these moments that she had seen Maria seeing of a truck loaded with her own patients.

Maria had looked so unhappy that it broke her heart and made her want to help her as much as she could but her friend had done all that was possible and, as Katarina returned alone to the ward, the Gestapo man had glared at her when they passed in the corridor so she made a point letting him see her clearly. Maria had already warned her of him and she knew that when he saw Maria outside he would be confused as hell.

The regular staff had got used to seeing them now and most, although not all, could tell which of them was which but still, they were wary of getting the wrong name when they spoke.

After the fun of the first time of wearing their hair in the same style they did it more and more, sometimes in Katarina's way and others in the Bavarian style that Maria preferred.

She was glad they had chosen her way today because she was the one who had crossed swords with the Gestapo agent and so compounded his confusion.

By the time Ailise and her girls arrived, Katarina was exhausted and more than ready for her bed but she was also hungry as she hadn't stopped at all for anything to eat, just keeping herself going with lots of black coffee and, several minutes later, she walked into the mess hall and collected some breakfast from the servery and a jug of coffee.

Looking around she spotted Maria but she was not alone. At her table was a tall soldier with his back to her. She could see from his sleeve he was a sergeant in the Wehrmacht but, other than that, nothing.

She was a little disappointed but if Maria had a male friend to share breakfast with she would not be rude and disturb them so she headed for another, vacant table.

She was about to place her tray on it when she heard the familiar Bavaria accent call to her.

“Hey, Katarina! Over here!”

She turned and saw that Maria was waving at her to join them so she went over and as she approached the soldier stood up and pulled out a chair for her.

“Sergeant Steiner!” she exclaimed, “Michael!”

He smiled and waited politely for her to be seated and then returned to his own place.

“I found him here, alone,” Maria said, “I thought you would like to see him again.”

The last bit, Maria whispered directly into her friends ear which made her smile.

“I have been hearing that you have been having a very difficult time of it here.”

The soldier spoke with some concern in his voice.

“Well, we've been kept busy,” Katarina smiled as she spread what could only be described as grease onto a slice of bread.

“You two are amazing,” he laughed, “I know what's been going on here and Maria said much the same thing as you.”

He grinned at her and then at Maria.

“Busy indeed!” he chuckled, “You two are famous for what you have done here. Not to mention the mayhem you have caused by looking the same!”

He looked at their hair and chuckled.

“I'm sure we don't know what you mean,” Katarina looked innocently at her friend and both sniggered gently.

“Oh, you two are incorrigible,” he laughed, “No wonder they call you the terrible two.”

“Michael was just going to tell me about the bombing last night,” Maria said quietly.

“Hmm, yes,” Sergeant Steiner replied, “I don't think we will see such a force again.”

“Why do you say that?” Katarina asked.

Michael looked around like a conspirator.

“Because,” he said quietly, “No matter how many planes we send over there, their Air Force is always there, as strong as ever.”

“One of my patients said the same,” Maria agreed, “He was one of the bomber pilots.”

“I think this war will go on for quite some time,” he said. “There is trouble in North Africa too. I have heard that the Italians are taking a beating and there is talk of us sending reinforcements to aid them.”

Maria shook her head in amazement.

“I can't believe that the whole of the western world is at war,” she said, “It's horrible.”

Katarina nodded silently in agreement.

They chatted for about half an hour before Michael lifted his cup and drained the last of the now lukewarm coffee.

“I think you two ladies had better get to bed,” he said with a smile, “You looked drained.”

“Oh no, Michael, we are fine,” Katarina tried to say but the last word trailed of as she yawned widely, quickly covering her mouth with her hand.

“Oh gosh, excuse me!” she said as Michael laughed.

“Not at all,” he said “But I have to go anyway. I have a convoy to prepare. Some fresh troops going to Paris.”

“Do you think we will see you again?” Maria asked, casting a sideways glance at her friend.

“I hope so,” came the reply, I shall be back, I am sure.”

He stood and held out his hand,

“Take care and keep yourselves safe,” he said.

“That goes for you too, Michael,” Katarina replied and Maria added,

“Until the next time, my friend.”

“I am so tired,” Katarina yawned, “I think I will head for my bed.”

“Yes, me too,” Maria agreed and together they walked wearily back to their respective accommodations in the officers quarters.

Several hours later, Katarina was awoken by a loud knocking on her door. She looked at her watch on the night stand beside her bed, Two-twenty!

She hadn't planned to sleep so long today because she would not be tired when she went to bed later at a more civilised time.

She sat up and swung her legs to the floor, pulling her robe about her before standing up and fastening the cord.

Before she had a chance to take another step there was another knock, more urgent this time and she went quickly to the door and opened it.

“Yes?” she said to the Orderly who was standing there patiently waiting.

“Matron Langsdorf?” he asked, standing stiffly to attention.

“That is me,” Katarina affirmed, “What is it?”

“The Duty Medical Officer wishes to see you in his office.”

As he spoke the Orderly handed her an official looking envelope.

“What, right now?” she asked, taking the envelope but not looking at it.

“Oh, no, I'm sorry, Ma'am, I should have said, at Fifteen Hundred hours, please.”

He looked embarrassed.

“All right, I shall be there, tell him. Thank you.”

“Yes, Ma'am,” the orderly replied, cracking his heels together and bowing his head sharply before turning to leave.

“Oh, do you know what it is about?” Katarina asked before he had a chance to take a step.

“No, Ma'am, I'm afraid I don't,” he said, turning back briefly before she she smiled and nodded allowing him to return to his duties.

Thirty-five minutes later she rounded the corner of the corridor and was surprised to see a group of nurses all waiting outside the DMO's office.

She didn't know any of them personally although she had seen most of them around the hospital and in the mess hall but not to speak to other than to pass the time of day.

As she approached she greeted them with 'good afternoon' and was about to ask what was going on when the glazed office door opened and the DMO's Orderly appeared.

“Ah, Matron, please come in,” he said upon seeing her.

Katarina followed him into the office and was surprised to see Senior Matron Eberhardt and Maria already seated there.

The DMO greeted her and indicated her to sit beside Maria. Both he and the Senior Matron sat expressionless and looking very solemn.

As she pulled up a chair beside her friend she cast a sideways glance at her and frowned, silently asking what was happening but Maria just shrugged her shoulders and shook her head slightly as she was as totally in the dark as Katarina was.

The DMO shuffled a few pages in the folder on his desk and then slid open the drawer to his left and took out two small boxes and placed them in front of him on top of the sheaf of papers.

He looked first at the boxes, then at the Senior Matron beside him and then at the the two young women seated at the opposite side of his desk, first at Katarina and then at Maria.

He didn't speak immediately but scrutinised them carefully and then, slowly and with great uncertainty, slid the two boxes across the desk towards them.

Before he let go of them she said,

“It is with great pleasure that I...” he looked at Matron Eberhardt who was smiling broadly now, “That we,” he went on, “have been asked to present you with these awards.”

Slowly he slid one box the last few inches towards Katarina,

“Matron Kaufmann,” he said carefully and uncertainly before moving the other towards Maria, “Matron Langsdorf.”

The two of them looked at each other and, seeing their names on the boxes, simultaneously moved them across to each other with a smile.

“I never can tell which of you is which,” the DMO sighed, shaking his head resignedly.

They pried open the boxes and inside was a medal.

Both were identical, a circle of about 38 centimetres in white enamel and inside the hollow ring, a red enamel cross with a centrepiece of a black eagle holding a swastika in laurel wreath in its talons.

Attached was a red ribbon with gilt edging.

Katarina stared in awe at her medal, as did Maria and then took it out and turned it over.

On the reverse was the inscription,

'For Merit with the German Red Cross'.

The young women looked at each other again and then replaced the medals into their respective boxes.

“But why?” Maria finally asked. “What did I do to warrant this? I haven't done anything.”

“Neither have I,” Katarina agreed, a puzzled look creasing her forehead.

The Senior Matron looked at the Medical Officer and both shook their heads.

“I knew you would both say that,” the Matron sighed.

The Doctor agreed, smiling,

“The pair of you have been here for six months now and barely taken a day off. You have taken charge of your respective wards and run them efficiently under the most difficult conditions, especially you, Maria considering what happened yesterday,” he added. “Despite all the trials and tribulations you have maintained the morale of all those around you with good humour.”

The doctor paused and narrowed his eyes,

“Even if sometimes it is at our expense...”

Their faces were burning with embarrassment and Katarina, speaking for both of them, said,

“We really only do what anyone would do. We are here to look after our patients and that is what we do.”

“Yes you do,” the Senior Matron agreed, “And those are to show our appreciation.”

“Anyway, that is not the only reason we had you come here.”

They looked at the DMO.

“I am afraid you have to leave us.”

“We do? Why?” Katarina asked.

“Because the Red Cross want you elsewhere, Katarina. We do not have a say in the matter I'm afraid otherwise we would keep you here.”

Maria's heart suddenly missed a beat.

“We are going to different places?” Maria gasped, barely able to speak.

Matron Eberhardt nodded.

“I am afraid so,” she said solemnly then smiled and, seeing there obvious distress quickly added, “But only for a few days. You are taking home leave and no, Matron Kaufman, you may not give it up this time!” she added with a twinkle in her eyes.

The DMO then continued, “You have both been chosen for field hospital training, because you seen to have this ability to face just about anything that is thrown at you and work so well under pressure.

The powers that be want you to learn to take charge of front line medical care wherever it is needed and so, instead of reporting for duty on Wednesday, you will report instead to the transport office with your documents. They will take you you to the station for your trains home and then on Monday the13th you will report to the Red Cross centre in Karlsruhe to begin your training. All the information and travel documents you need are in there,” he said as he pushed two folders across to each of them, this time to the correct recipient.

There was a heavy silence as the two girls took in what had just been said which was broken only when Maria took a deep breath and sighed.

The DMO and the Senior Matron both stood up and offered their hands which they both took after standing themselves.

“It has truly been a rare pleasure to have met the two of you,” The matron said, “You are an absolute inspiration.”

Once out of the office, Katarina and Maria walked slowly together in silence, clutching their medals and documents, each trying to come to terms with what had just happened.

“Coffee?” Maria said quietly and Katarina nodded her assent.

“So...” Katarina said once they had sat down in the mess hall.

Maria had no reply and simply nodded with,

“Hmm...”

“It will be nice to see Mama and Papa again,” she said, more for want of something to say just to break the silence.

Katarina agreed.

“Yes, it will. Have you heard from yours recently?”

“Not since before Christmas,” Maria admitted, “They sent me the Rauchemann. They will be surprised when I turn up on their doorstep to give him back!”

She smiled absent mindedly as the image of them opening the door to her entered her thoughts. “What about you?”

“Oh, much the same,” Katarina replied. “I haven't really thought about seeing them as I didn't think I would for some time but I am quite excited now.”

Her eyes twinkled and her smiled broadened which Maria mirrored as they looked at each other.

The following day was spent packing up their belongings and saying their goodbyes to their colleagues and friends.

Immediately after breakfast, Maria headed for Ward Seven to tell them personally that she would not be returning.

She found Hedda at her desk, going through the paperwork from the previous night and crept quietly up behind her and tapped her mischievously on the shoulder.

Hedda jumped, physically startled.

“Maria!” feigning anger, “I do wish you wouldn't do that, you'll give me a heart attack!”

The two of them laughed.

“What are you doing here anyway?” her colleague asked, “It's your day off isn't it?”

Maria explained that she was leaving the following day and why. As she did so, the other nurses, who had seen her arrive wandered over and they all wished her their very best wishes and hoped they would see her again.

One by one, she went to each bed and bade each patient farewell and a speedy recovery until, finally she arrived at the bed of the pilot with the broken back.

“I have come to say farewell,” she said to him.

“Yes, I saw,” he replied, struggling to sit up.

Maria gently but firmly placed her hands on his shoulders to prevent him.

“You have to be patient,” she said quietly. “The doctors said that you have several cracked vertebrae which makes your back very unstable. If you keep trying to move like that you could displace one or more of them and become permanently paralysed. Didn't Matron Braun tell you that yesterday?”

The pilot nodded.

“But I am already paralysed,” he whispered.

“Yes, I know but that it is because of the bruising and swelling. If you relax you will recover far more quickly. Please don't make me worry about you when I am gone,” she added with a smile to reinforce her point, “Promise?”

“I promise,” he agreed. “I heard what you said about going to be trained for the field hospitals. Anyone who finds himself in your care will be very fortunate indeed.”

She squeezed his hand and then returned once more to Hedda.

“If I am not able to see Madeleine and my other girls,” Maria asked a little sadly, “Would you explain to them please and give them my best wishes?”

Hedda assured her they would and Maria took her leave of them for the last time.

Over in ward three, Katarina was having a similarly sad parting with Ailise and her girls.

“It won't be the same without you and Maria,” her friend told her. “You two are such fun.”

Katarina smiled.

"We will miss you all, that is certain,” she said. “We have a few days leave before we report to Karlsruhe. I think I'm going to miss her, you know.”

“Well, you two have certainly been inseparable since you met. You both have so much in common.”

Katarina agreed with a smile as she considered her friend,

“Yes we do, don't we.”

Immediately after breakfast, Wednesday morning, they reported to the transport office as instructed, with their travel documents.

They found that the small group of nurses they had seen outside the DMO's office were also there. It turned out that they too were going to Karlsruhe.

A truck had been arranged to take them to the station where they would all catch a train to Cologne and then go their own separate ways until they met once more at the training centre on the Thirteenth.

The journey was uneventful, unlike the one that Maria had taken to Amiens half a year before, but it was somewhat subdued. Both Katarina and Maria were thinking about going home for the first time in so long and that they would be at opposite ends of the country for the next ten days.

At Cologne, they wished each other a safe journey and a pleasant leave then held each other tightly in a last farewell before parting for the last time until they would meet again in Karlsruhe.

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