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The Nurses. Chapter 29

“Don't worry,” he said, grinning as she rubbed her knee, “You stalled..."

Karlsruhe. January 15th, 1941.

Maria watched as Katarina left the garage, making sure she was wrapped warmly with cape and gloves and even a woolen scarf which was not strictly regulation, but it was so cold that she couldn't imagine that anyone would be too concerned about it.

Although she couldn't hear anything outside, she could see her friend climb easily into the truck and the instructor standing alongside.

It was a short while before she saw the vapour puff from the exhaust pipe and her instructor close the door and disappear around the front.

She wondered what her friend was learning as nothing seemed to happen for quite some time but then, suddenly, the truck lurched forwards and stopped, the white vapour from its exhaust having vanished.

Moments later, the vapour reappeared and shortly after that the truck moved forwards very slowly and quite jerkily.

It didn't go far, just a few meters and then stopped again, another few seconds and it moved forwards once more.

Maria had been so engrossed in her friend's progress that she hadn't realised that all the other five trucks were performing much the same manoeuvres.

As she peered out, something small drifted past in front of her.

She barely noticed, but then there was another and another.

It was snowing!

After a short reminder about the gears, Katarina's instructor finally decided she was ready to move.

She pushed down the left pedal as far as she could, pushed the long metal gear lever forwards and very slowly raised her left foot until she felt the truck trying to move.

Following the instructions, she was being given, she pulled back on the handbrake lever, pressed the little button on the top and pushed it forward as far as it would go but then ... Disaster!

As she leaned forwards to release the brake she relaxed her pressure on the clutch just enough for the pedal to suddenly spring upwards and the truck lurched forwards! The engine stopped.

“Ouch!” she cried as her knee hit the edge of the steering wheel.

The instructor began to laugh.

“Don't worry,” he said, grinning as she rubbed her knee, “You stalled. It will probably happen a few more times until you get the hang of it.”

“No it won't!” she replied, grimacing. “That hurt!”

“We'll see,” came the amused reply. “You just need to press the accelerator a little harder. Right, handbrake back on, gears to neutral. Now, let's restart the engine.”

With the engine running again, Katarina repeated the process and the truck began to move although somewhat jerkily and the engine revving a little more than it needed to but at least it didn't stall.

They only moved a short distance.

“Carefully depress the clutch pedal with your left foot and do the same with your right on the brake pedal.”

Katarina followed his instructions but nothing happened at first, so she pressed harder until the truck stopped with a jolt and she pulled on the handbrake.

From the garage, Maria was watching intently, but suddenly her view was blocked by one of the other trucks pulling up at the edge of the square, blocking her view of Katarina's progress.

She sighed and turned away.

“Matron Kaufmann?” the Obergefreiter who had appeared at her side asked politely.

She smiled and nodded,

“Yes, Corporal. My turn?”

An hour later, Maria returned to the garage and found Katarina waiting for her, a huge grin on her face.

“Wasn't that fun!” she declared.

Maria replied with an equally wide smile.

“I should say so!” she laughed, “I have never done anything like it.”

“Nor me, but I think I shall ache tomorrow. That clutch is so heavy!”

Maria rubbed her knee momentarily and Katarina laughed out loud.

“You did it too!”

“The steering wheel? Yes. You too?”

It didn't take them long to realise that they were not the only ones as several of the other nurses had the same tale to tell except that some of those had done it more than once!

The following morning all the nurses waited patiently in the classroom, chatting easily amongst themselves.

At eight precisely, the door opened, and Feldwebel Steiner appeared.

“Good morning, Ladies,” he greeted them cheerily.

“Good morning Sergeant Steiner,” they replied as one.

“Did you all have fun yesterday?” he asked, knowing already that some of them had not enjoyed it one little bit, but Katarina and Maria just looked at each other and smiled.

He waited for a moment, smiling until the murmur had died down a little then began in a more serious tone.

“All right. There will be a small change to the groups today. Some of you, I have been told, did not take too well to this and will need some further tuition before I allow them to leave the confines of the parade ground.”

He looked at each of them before going on.

“There are nine of you in all so I would like the following to form two groups in trucks One and Two. Those of you who are displaced from those groups may take the places which are vacated.”

He read out a list of names and then, whilst they took a few minutes to organise themselves he went and spoke to Maria and Katarina.

“You two did very well yesterday, so it is a shame that I need to ask a favour,” he began. “I believe that those nurses who didn't would benefit from a little gentle guidance as it was their nerves that held them back.”

The two friends looked at each other and back to the sergeant.

“You would like one of us to join them?” Maria asked, already knowing the answer.

“If you wouldn't mind,” he said.

“Not all,” she answered, “But what about my own training.”

“I have spoken to both your instructors, and they agree that you have learned well enough and will have no problem catching up but also, you will get some further training of your own for the last hour.”

Katarina looked at Maria.

You don't have to do it,” she said, “I will stand in if you wish.”

“No, it's alright,” Maria answered, “I don't mind at all. Besides, with you out on the camp roads, I will be safer here!”

She smiled and winked as she spoke.

“Hey, cheeky!” Katarina made an exaggerated pout and then playfully nudged her friend's arm.

As a group, they trudged through the fresh snow to the garage. It had been falling continuously throughout the night and was a few centimetres deep now, but the parade square had been cleared and groups of soldiers were goose stepping smartly as they had been the previous morning.

The six grey trucks were also parked in the places they had previously been.

Katarina and Maria fussed about the nurses who were to board four of the trucks, ensuring that they were well protecting against the cold as they sat in the back awaiting their turn to drive and that they had their blankets.

When all was ready, Katarina bid her friend goodbye until lunch.

“Be careful,” Maria urged her. “It is still snowing.”

“I will,” came the reply. “Have fun.”

Katarina was to be the first one to drive in her truck and, as before climbed nimbly up into the cab.

Once her instructor was beside her, she started the engine.

“Before we move,” the middle-aged soldier began, “We need lights ...”

He pointed to a white knob on the dashboard to her right which she pulled out,

“...and wipers.”

Again he pointed to the white knob alongside the light switch which she also pulled out.

The windscreen wipers moved slowly back and forth across the screen.

She depressed the clutch, selected first gear, and the truck moved slowly away.

Back in the garage, Maria did not watch her friend this time. She had other things to take care of.

She had gathered her new charges together and explained to them that they had nothing to fear from driving. There was no exam to pass, and they would not be removed from the course, but nevertheless, it would benefit them and others if they managed to learn.

She also told them that, if their instructor permitted, she would accompany any who wanted her to.

That seemed to do the trick because as each of them returned every hour, they seemed to be smiling and a little more relaxed.

The snow continued to fall in large fluffy white flakes and even with the passage of the trucks the roads were completely covered.

Just before lunch, as they headed back towards the garage, Katarina sat huddled with her three companions on the bench in the canvas covered space behind the cab.

No-one spoke, it was too cold, and the warm air of their breath turned to a thin mist as it left their mouths.

Without any warning at all the truck suddenly lurched to one side and then the other whilst the engine revved wildly. There was a sharp thump, and the four of them were thrown to the side of the truck which then juddered violently to a stop!

For a moment there was silence which was broken by screaming from inside the cab.

Seeing that the other three were unharmed, Katarina ran to the back and jumped down into the snow.

Immediately she realised that the truck was no longer pointing in the direction in which they had previously been traveling and behind them, the tyre tracks were not straight but twisted and turned.

The truck itself was half on the road and half buried in the undergrowth beside it.

In the cab, the young nurse who had been driving was screaming hysterically and didn't seem to notice the door beside her open and her matron climb quickly up beside her.

The instructor was trying his best to calm her but to no avail.

“Gerta! Gerta!” Katarina called her name gently as she took her hands from the steering wheel where they had been locked solidly, knuckles white with the pressure. “Come now, Sweetheart, it's all right, no-one's hurt. Take a deep breath, come on, breathe for me.”

Her gentle encouragement seemed to work, and the screaming stopped as the frightened young woman gradually took control of her senses.

“I couldn't stop it...” she whispered slowly.

“Don't worry,” Katrarina told her, “Everyone is fine.”

She looked over at the instructor.

“She braked a little too hard for the turn and skidded,” he said. “There is no harm done. We hit a kerb and stopped in some vegetation. There is nothing solid here which is why we use these roads.”

“You see, Gerta? No damage was done and no-one hurt.”

She looked across to their instructor.

“I am sure the Obergefreiter will drive us back to the garage whilst you calm down.”

Without a word, the older man climbed down, and the young nurse slid across to the passenger seat whilst Katarina squeezed in beside her, and once the soldier had taken up his seat, he reversed the truck off the grass and drove them back to the garage.

Maria was waiting when they finally arrived and was stunned to see her friend guiding the ashen-faced young woman to the wood burner and seat her beside it.

“What happened?” she asked as she passed a mug of hot coffee to the young nurse and another to her friend. “The other trucks were back sometime before you.”

“Oh, just a little mishap,” Katarina smiled at Gerta, “Nothing to worry about eh?”

Gerta had stopped trembling now and was calm.

“I couldn't stop it,” she said quietly. “One minute we were driving along and the next...”

She sighed deeply.

“I braked for the corner but nothing happened and then It was turning the wrong way. The Gefreiter tried to help but it was too slippery, and I think we must have hit the kerb because the next thing I knew we were in the bushes!”

Maria looked up. Sergeant Steiner had appeared, and Katarina stood.

“Is she all right?” he asked her, indicating his student.

“Oh yes, she will be fine. Just a little shaken.”

She paused.

“Is the truck damaged?”

The sergeant laughed.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “Some bits and pieces stuck in the bumper and grill and a bit of mud on the front tyres but no, no damage.”

His face took on a more serious look.

“I would like her to go first after lunch,” he said, and Katarina's jaw opened, about to protest.

“It would be better for her,” the sergeant went on before she could speak. “She will see that these things happen, and if she can conquer her fears right now then it will be better for her in the future.”

Katarina looked at Maria who shrugged and looked as though to say, 'makes sense.'

Gerta, holding her tin mug tightly with both hands around it looked up nervously but nodded.

“Yes,” she said quietly, “I will try.”

Maria squeezed her arm and smiled.

“Good girl,” she said.

Lunch consisted of potato soup and chunks of bread. It was hot and filling and by the time they had all eaten Gerta was much calmer.

Katarina and Maria had both stayed with her, encouraging her and she reminded Maria of the nurse at Amiens, Renatta who just couldn't take any more.

She sighed.

“Maria, what is it?”

Katarina had noticed that something was bothering her.

“Oh, just thinking,” she replied, a little distant.

“What about?”

Katarina was concerned. She didn't like to see Maria worried, even if only about something and nothing.

“I was just thinking of Renatte and wondering how she was.”

“Oh yes, I remember,” Katarina nodded. “I am sure the break will have done her good.”

Again, Maria took a deep breath and turned to Gerta.

“So,” she said brightly, “Ready for another go?”

The young woman nodded and smiled weakly.

“Matron Langsdorf will take care of you; you'll see.”

“Yes,” Katarina agreed. “I will be right behind you so you have no need to worry and besides, now it has happened you will know how to prevent it happening again.”

The rest of the day passed by uneventfully and the final truck returned unharmed to its place on the parade square.

As the other nurses left for their walk back to their barracks, Katarina and Maria waited for the car to take them back to the hotel in town they were joined by Sergeant Steiner.

“I just wanted to catch you before you left,” he said, “To thank you for what you have done today.”

“Thank us?”

They both frowned, wondering what they had done.

“Yes because of my instructors,” he paused, “And, indeed, myself have never had to train women before. In truth, we were all a little unsure of how things would unfold.”

“We can appreciate that,” Maria responded. “But what do you have to thank us for?”

“For making things a lot easier for all of us,” he answered. “The accident before lunch, for instance. If that had been a soldier, he would have been treated very differently, but the instructor could hardly shout at a young hysterical woman. He was at a bit of a loss I think.”

Katarina smiled.

“I see what you mean,” she said. “I did notice, but it just takes a little compassion and understanding.”

“And that ...” the sergeant replied slightly embarrassed, “...is something that the Army doesn't promote. These men are here because they have many years service in the Wehrmacht. It doesn't sit easily with them to train young women so I say again, thank you for all that you do.”

Maria and Katarina both flushed a little. They were always embarrassed when they received appreciation for something that just came naturally to them.

“Don't worry, Sergeant,” Maria assured him. “We will always look after our sisters. Don't ever be afraid to ask us for anything. You or your men.”

“I appreciate that, Matron. Thank you.”

At that moment a grey staff car pulled up in front of the garage.

“Ah, your car,” he said, as though such information was needed. “I will see you tomorrow.”

The two young women bade him good night and went out to the car.

As they stepped outside the passenger got out from the front seat and opened the door for them.

“Thank you, Leutnant Fischer,” they greeted the officer as they climbed inside.

“You are welcome, Ladies,” he replied. “Good evening.”

Once the car was moving, the Leutnant turned to speak to them.

“I hope you do not mind my sharing the car with you, but I have some business in town.”

“No, not at all,” they answered him.

Maria then spoke.

“Since you are here, I would like to make a request, that is, we would like to make a request.”

“Of course,” the officer sighed. “What is it, this time, hot water bottles?”

“Leutnant Fischer!” Katarina scolded him. “You know we are here to look after our nurses so we will always ask for what they need!”

He looked suitably chastened and apologised immediately.

“Yes, I'm sorry. They are very lucky to have you watching out for them. So what do they need now?”

“They don't need anything but Katarina, and I feel it would be better if we were billeted nearer to them if you would be so kind as to arrange it, please.”

“Oh, I see...”

Leutnant Fischer seemed to consider their request but only momentarily.

“I'm afraid that I can't,” he said. “We only have the one hut available for your nurses as this camp was never intended for women but to train soldiers.”

“That doesn't matter, surely,” Katarina interjected, “You only have to put two more beds in there.”

“It is not so simple I'm afraid. The Oberst gave me strict orders that you were not to share their quarters. Firstly because of your positions and secondly you are a party to the purpose of your training here, and he doesn't want you to let anything slip so I am afraid that you will remain at the hotel for the duration of your training.”

“He doesn't trust us?” Maria gasped, quite shocked.

“Oh no, of course, he does, but it is safer this way. He said you would probably request something along those lines.”

The two matrons frowned at each other and then back at him.

“He did?” Maria asked, “Why would he think that? He doesn't know us.”

“Oberst Schenk is very thorough. He has read your reports carefully. It is all there, your brushes with the Gestapo and SS, Matron Langsdorf...”

He looked at Maria, who pointed to Katarina instinctively.

“Oh, yes, sorry,” he said shaking his head slightly, “And yours with the SA and SS Matron Kaufmann. So you see, he has to be strict about this.”

Katarina sat quietly, just looking at her friend until they reached the hotel and as they passed through the front door Maria looked at her.

“What?” she asked, “You have been looking at me since the Leutnant mentioned the SA and SS.”

“I know about the SS,” the other replied, “At Amiens but SA?”

“Oh, well it's just that back in Munich they kept coming onto the ward looking for Jews and malingerers. I wouldn't allow them access, and that is why I was sent to Amiens because the Doctor was afraid I would push them too far. He was trying to protect me.”

Katarina nodded sagely but said nothing.

“But what about you?” Maria went on. “I suppose he meant that business at Amiens.”

Katarina smiled.

“Maybe but I had trouble at home too. I will tell you over dinner.”

Over dinner, as promised, Katarina told her friend about the night that the Metzlers were beaten and killed, and Maria told for the first and only time, how she had been caught up in the troubles during Kristallnacht.

By the time they went to bed they were exhausted, but they knew that they would be friends for life, no matter how long that would be nor how many miles separated them in the future.

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