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The Nurses. Chapter 30

Maria and Katrina stared at each other in surprise. Now they were army officers?

Karlsruhe. February 24th 1941.

The six weeks since their arrival at Karlsruhe had passed very quickly. All the nurses had learned the rudiments of driving in the most difficult conditions.

There had been a few minor accidents due to the snow but no damage or injuries had occurred and the instructors were generally pleased with all of them.

The training for the field work had passed without any problems and both Maria and Katarina felt that they would all be able to cope well with whatever situation would face them, although only time would tell for sure.

It was Monday morning and all the nurses were assembled in the classroom where they had originally arrived. There were no diagrams of lorry cabs or driving controls.

Instead there was just one large map on the wall behind the desk, very much like the one they had seen in Oberst Shenk's office on their first morning. Maybe the same one, they thought.

This time, instead of being seated in the front row with all the other nurses, Leutnant Fischer had arranged chairs for them beside the desk along with two others.

One for himself, they thought but the other?

They didn't have to wait long to find out for, as soon as everyone was assembled and seated, the door opened and Oberstarzt Schenk entered.

Leutnant Fischer faced the Oberst, clicked his heels sharply and raised his right arm in the Nazi salute.

The Oberst responded simply by waving him away.

“Yes, yes yes,” he sighed.

“Please be seated Ladies,” he continued, addressing the classroom and then to Katarina and Maria he indicated the chairs which they immediately occupied.

He looked around the room for a moment, studying each of the young women's eager faces.

Finally he spoke.

“Good morning,” he began and then, without pausing for a reply. “For those of you who do not know me, I am Obersartz Schenk. I have been sent here to oversee the training of medical personnel such as yourselves who have been especially chosen because of the excellent work each of you have done in your various hospitals. You have all been recommended by your immediate superiors.”

He waited to allow this statement to sink in. Like Katarina and Maria, none had been told why they were chosen and assumed it was just 'one of those things'.

“I have to say that the reports I have been given by your instructors has shown that the right people were indeed chosen and I am very pleased with your progress here which includes you all learning to drive to a good standard in such a short time. Well done.”

Again he paused, waiting for the whispers reach a crescendo and then fade.

“Now, to business. The reason why you are all here.”

He turned to face the two matrons as though asking a silent question and both shook their heads in reply.

“As you all know, we are fighting a war against the English. Our friend Mussolini has been engaged also in this conflict, trying to retain North Africa which the British Eighth Army have been making every attempt to take from him.”

There was total silence in the room now.

“Unfortunately, the Italians are not having much success and the Fuhrer has decided to send our own soldiers to ensure that the area is not lost to us as it has very important oil reserves that are needed by both ourselves and the enemy.”

He now had everyone's undivided attention attention, including the two Matrons who were well aware already as to where they were going.

“You ladies,” he continued, a little more slowly, “Will be the first medical personnel to be sent to Libya from Germany where you will be required to work alongside the Army medics in setting up field hospitals wherever they are needed. Generalleutnant Rommel has already been dispatched, along with the Deutsches Afrika Korps and today, all of you will be leaving here to join them in Tripoli.”

There was a stunned silence as each of the young women tried to take in what all of this meant and the Oberst waited patiently until he had their attention once more.

“No doubt you will want to know how long you will be away from home and I am afraid that is a question that cannot be answered but I am sure that it will not be for very long. The British will not be able to hold out against the might of Germany I am sure and when they are defeated you will be brought home as soon as is possible. Now, are there any questions?”

The room erupted with questions about home leave, letters and pretty much all the questions that had concerned Katarina and Maria and all received the same answers.

Once again, when the room had finally calmed he continued.

“From this moment you will be under the control of the army, the Heer until you reach Taranto and the Afrika Korps from arrival in Tripoli but your immediate superiors will be Matrons Langsdorf and Kaufmann who will be assigned the honorary rank of Leutnant to enable them to more easily work with the hierarchy of the military.”

Maria and Katrina stared at each other in surprise.

Now they were army officers?

Leutnant Fischer, seated beside them handed them an armband each which contained their insignia.

They took them silently.

The Oberst looked once more at each of the twenty eight stunned faces and said,

“I wish all of you a safe journey and a swift return home.”

With that he turned and left the room.

Leutnant Fisher then took his place at the desk and cleared his throat.

“I will now inform you about your posting,” he said.

For the next hour or so, the young officer talked to them of how they should behave to remain safe and how the enemy were not to be trusted. He told them about how the British hated Germans and would treat them very poorly if they were captured.

“You have to be aware that whilst you are not soldiers, you are women, German women and therefore have be very aware of what could happen to you if you fall into enemy hands!”

In fact, he painted a very grim picture of what they were heading to.

Finally he looked at them and admitted that although he had never actually been to a war zone, he did have the latest information and they should heed very carefully the instructions he had passed on to them for their own safety and that of their colleagues.

He then showed them, using his pointer on the big wall map to illustrate where their journey would take them.

He drew an imaginary line with the tip, following the route across Germany and through Austria and then down into Italy, finally stopping at the very edge of the Mediterranean.

The women watched silently as he began with Karlsruhe.

“After you have eaten, you will gather all your belongings and board three trucks that will take you to the station where you will board the train. This train will be a troop train and you have been allocated a carriage. The reason for this is that once aboard you will not leave the train until you arrive in Taranto.”

He paused to allow this to sink in.

Maria looked at Katarina but neither spoke.

“From Karlsruhe, then, your train will proceed via Stuttgart, Augsburg, Munich...”

Maria gasped almost inaudibly but Katarina heard and looked at her sadly, knowing how hard it would be for her to pass so closely to her home without being able to see her parents.

“...Innsbruck, Bolzano,Verona, Bologna, Rimini, and then follow the coast until you reach Taranto. The only stops will be for a change of locomotive, and to replenish coal, water and food. If you are permitted to leave the train at all it will be only for a stroll on the platform.”

A murmur began as the nurses all began whispering to each other.

“I have heard of many of these places,” Katarina whispered to her friend.

“Yes,” Maria replied. “I never thought I would see them though but it would seem that we may not now, anyway.”

Katarina smiled and as Maria looked away she saw the young Leutnant look at his watch.

She stood up and faced the other nurses.

“Sisters, please,” She said loudly. I think that Leutnant Fischer is waiting to conclude this briefing.

“Um, yes, thank you, Matron...”

“Kaufmann,” Maria whispered immediately as she returned to her seat.

“Yes, Matron Kaufmann is right, I do need to conclude this now or there will be no time for you to eat so, if there are any questions?”

He waited for a moment and seemed relieved that there were none..

“Good. Then I bid you a good journey and hope that you all return safely home. Good luck, Sisters.”

Lunch was a noisy affair with the nurses chattering away excitedly. Most seemed a little worried about what they could expect but generally there was mostly excitement, as though they were setting off on an adventure.

“Do you know what concerns me the most?” Katarina said to Maria and as it sounded more of a statement that a question, Maria just replied 'what?' and waited for her friend to tell her.

“My Parents,” she told her. “I am afraid for them living in Berlin. I hope they will be all right.”

Maria put her arm around her shoulder and hugged her.

“I am sure they will,” she said, “Your Papa knows how to take care of himself and your Mama.”

“I know but, just the same...”

“I am worried too,” Maria confessed. “As you know, my Papa has so much to do and things he sees the he really doesn't want to.”

“Well, from what you have told me, I think yours will be all right too. You showed them how to share their problems so I think they will be fine.”

Maria nodded her agreement and sighed.

“I know but, like you, I will always worry about them. I wish this war would end soon.”

Before long it was time for all them to board the trucks for the station.

Twelve nurses sat in each of the first two whilst Maria rode in the cab of one and Katarina in the other. The final four went in the third truck with all the baggage.

During the final week of their course they had all been issued with the uniforms and equipment they would need for such a hot climate, along with a canvas kitbag to carry it in.

Although the snow had gone, it was still bitterly cold and they were all very grateful that the journey to the station was short.

Maria remembered the journey to Amiens and realised how much worse that trip would have been in winter.

All the same, it was almost an hour later when they were permitted to board the train which was not a great deal warmer!

When the train finally began to move, Maria checked her watch and saw that it was Two-thirty. She realised then that it would be very late when they passed through Munich and, in a way, she was quite pleased that she would see very little of it.

There was very little chatter as the journey began. Most of the nurses, like their matrons, were lost in their own thoughts about how their lives were changing.

The picture painted for them was of a short war with the English being quickly defeated once the lazy Italians were replaced by a full strength German army but Maria and Katarina had seen too much already to believe that.

The English were far from beaten and while they hoped with all their hearts that it would indeed be short they knew that they were going to see yet more horrors of war, worse maybe than they had yet seen!

The afternoon wore on and they passed through Stuttgart without stopping, not even slowing but before reaching Augsburg they did indeed stop. A problem with the signalling, they were told.

An hour passed before they moved again and Maria began to realize that this particular journey was going to be a very long and arduous one indeed!

They did stop briefly outside Augsburg while awaiting a clear route but, late into the night, Maria began to recognise that they were approaching Munich as they passed through small, dimly lit stations and were moving quite slowly now.

When they did finally stop it was not in a station but in a huge railway yard.

Although lit they could not see out very well but enough to work out that they were getting another locomotive.

Maria wished that they could move again. It was breaking her heart that she was so close to her home and yet may as well have been on the other side of the world.

Suddenly, the door to the compartment opened unexpectedly and both she and Katarina turned quickly to see who was there.

In the doorway stood a middle aged man in the blue dungarees of a railway engineer.

Maria gasped and put her hand to her mouth.

“Papa!”

Herman Kaufmann stepped inside and slid the door shut, holding a finger to his lips as Maria jumped up to hug him.

For a moment they remained in each others arms until Maria asked him,

“What are you doing here? Won't you get into trouble?”

“I found out about this train by accident and from what I knew of your course I put two and two together. These are my old overalls so I am all right for a short while. I won't be missed as it is my day off. I couldn't let you go without seeing you when it was possible now, could I?”

“Oh, Papa. I am so pleased you are here. I was dreading passing so close to you and Mama,” she told him.

Katarina gave a little cough and Maria looked round.

“Oh gosh, I'm sorry,” she gasped. “Papa, this is Katarina, my friend whom I told you about.”

Katarina stood up and smiled.

“Good evening Herr Kaufmann,” she said politely. “Maria has told me so much about you.”

Herman looked at her, his face ashen and serious but then he smiled.

“My goodness,” he said slowly. “You are so much alike....”

His voice trailed off.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, holding out a package wrapped in paper. “Your Mama made this for you. It isn't much but she hoped it would help you think of home.”

Maria took it gratefully. It was heavy.

“I have to go, I think the Loco is on now and I mustn't get stuck here. The next stop isn't until you enter Italy!”

He hugged Maria once more and then turned to Katarina.

To her surprise, Herman hugged her also and said,

“Take care and look after each other.”

“We will,” she said, “Don't you worry about that.”

Maria wiped a tear from her eye as her father wished God's grace upon them, hugged her once more and then turned to leave.

“Papa, wait!” Maria called to him and he stopped and looked back.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, “You have made this journey far more bearable and send my love to Mama.”

Her father smiled sadly, nodded that he would then climbed down to the track and disappeared into the shadows.

Moments later they heard shouting outside and a handful of soldiers appeared, all armed.

Maria cupped her hand to the window, hoping to see who or what they were after and after a few minutes of straining her eyes she breathed a sigh of relief and turned to her friend.

“They are posting guards on each of the carriages,” she said. “For a moment I thought they were after Papa!”

Katarina smiled, also relieved.

“Yes,” she said, “That thought had crossed my mind too.”

They didn't have to wait very much longer before there was a succession of whistle blasts and, with a jolt, the train began to move, slowly at first as it passed through the yard with much squealing of steel wheel upon steel rail as they negotiated the myriad of junctions.

At the corner of a long workshop building, standing beneath a wall mounted floodlight, Herman Kaufmann watched the long troop train snake through the yard and as the the last carriage passed by just a few yards in front of him he waved at the two sad young faces peering out into the near blackness.

He remained there until the red light at the rear of the train had vanished from view then turned away slowly to return home to his wife.

“Your father is a nice man, Maria and obviously loves you very much.”

Maria nodded and tried to smile but her muscles seemed unable to produce one.

“He reminds me of my own father,” Katarina continued. “Perhaps, when the war is over we will all be able to meet.”

This time, Maria did manage a smile.

“I really do hope so,” she replied. “Wouldn't it be wonderful?”

“I think they would get on very well, don't you?”

Maria nodded.

“Yes, I think they could become friends,” she said.

The train had picked up speed and the regular clicking of the wheels and the motion of the carriage soon made the two young women quite tired.

There were no beds but the seats in their compartment were quite wide and comfortable so they stretched out along the cushions of the opposite benches, pulled their blankets over themselves and drifted off into a difficult sleep, each of them with her own thoughts but, above all else wondering where they would be when they awoke in the morning.

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