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The Nurses. Chapter28

“Don't worry,” Maria said, smiling even more to try and ease his mind. “We won't bite.”

Karlsruhe. January 13th 1941.

The time with their families had passed by all too quickly and now, Katarina and Maria were reunited once more.

They had travelled the previous day and had met as planned for dinner.

It turned out that the facility was not, as they had both imagined, a hospital but a large military training camp outside the city.

On their arrival at the station they had been met at their respective trains and driven into the city to a hotel which had been commandeered by the army with the instruction that they were to report to the reception desk at Eight the following morning for onward transport to the camp outside the town.

They had spent the evening together enjoying the dinner that had been provided for them and just chatting about the things they had done whilst at home.

Over dinner, Maria went suddenly quiet for a moment and then asked her friend,

“When this war is over, do you think we will see each other again?”

Katarina stopped eating.

“I hadn't really thought of it,” she replied, frowning. “What makes you ask?”

“Just my parents mentioning how far apart we live,” she answered thoughtfully.

“Oh yes, mine said the same but I am sure we will,” Katarina said brightly. “We will cross that bridge when the time comes though, yes?”

Maria nodded her agreement and the matter wasn't brought up again.

The following morning, Monday, they had breakfast together and then waited at reception as ordered.

On the dot of eight, the front door swung open and a smartly dressed soldier walked over to the desk.

“Matrons Langsdorf and Kaufmann,” he said brusquely to the middle aged man behind the desk who waved a hand in the direction of the two young women sitting on the sofa across the lobby.

Having heard their names being mentioned, Katarina and Maria stood and identified themselves then followed the soldier to the waiting car which took them directly to the camp several kilometers out into the countryside.

Neither of them had seen anything quite like it.

At the main gate they were required to show their identity papers and then the car took them to a large wooden building and dropped them at the entrance where they were shown to an office which had on the door a plate with the title Chief Medical Officer.

The CMO was, in fact an Oberstarzt or Senior Physician of the Wehrmacht, in his early sixties they thought, and he stood as they entered and directed them to be seated on the two chairs in front of his desk.

“Good morning, Matron...?” he paused as he looked at Maria.

“Kaufmann. Good morning, Sir,” she replied and he smiled then turned to Katarina,

“And Matron Langsdorf.”

Katarina smiled politely.

“Good morning, Sir.”

He looked at them carefully for several seconds, switching his gaze from one to the other and back.

“Hmm,” he said eventually, rubbing his chin. “You do look very much alike and very young too.”

Neither of the two young women spoke but smiled and waited politely.

“Hmm, so,” he said at last, “I am Oberst Schenk. Do you know why you are here?”

Maria answered first.

“We were told at Amiens that we were to undertake field hospital training.”

The Oberst nodded.

“Well, that is certainly true but there is a little more to it than that. You two have been sent here not just to learn how to work in a field dressing station but also to take charge of the staff.”

He looked down at his desk upon which were two open folders and placed a monocle to his right eye.

“It seems that the two of you are very highly regarded. I have various reports here to that effect.”

He paused whilst he perused some of the documents, turning pages and glancing at various entries.

“There is a report here that says you each took charge of a ward at Amiens and ran it efficiently under some very trying conditions despite interference from certain, shall we say, agencies?”

“We did our best, Sir,” Katarina ventured but the Oberst raised a finger whilst he continued to look at the papers in front of him.

Eventually he closed the files and looked at each of them in turn.

“In spite of your tender ages, twenty-two I believe, you have proved yourselves time and again.”

The two friends found themselves blushing furiously now.

“All right, to business then.”

The grey haired officer lowered hi momocle and stood up, placed his hands behind his back and began to pace slowly back and forth.

“What I am about to tell you is confidential. You may not tell anyone. Is that understood?”

He turned and looked directly at them, waiting whilst they both replied,

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Now, the reason you are here is not just to learn about Field Dressing but to learn it before you are sent out into the field.”

Katarina and Maria looked nervously at each other. They were being sent to war!

“As we speak, there has been a campaign unfolding in North Africa between our Italian Allies and the British Eighth Army. Our Allies are being overrun so it has been decided to send a force of our own under the command of General Rommel.”

He paused for a moment to allow this information to sink in.

“Whilst this force is assembled we have been tasked with training several nurses to set up a hospital in Tripoli, which, in case you are unaware, is in Libya.”

He walked across to a large map of the world which was hanging on the wall behind his desk, picked up a wooden pointer which was standing against the wall and placed the tip directly on the coast of North Africa.

“Now, as you see, it is but a short distance across the Mediterranean from Italy and so, the intention at this moment, is for you to travel by train down to Taranto from where you will sail overnight across to Tripoli.”

As the Oberst spoke, he tapped the map at the various points he had mentioned.

Katarina and Maria just sat and stared. They hadn't even heard of the places he was telling them about!

The only thing they knew for sure was that is was going to be hot!

The Colonel returned to his desk and sat down. He could see that the two youngsters were struggling to apprehend the enormity of what he was telling them.

“So, what do you think?”

Neither of them spoke but stared intently at the map before them.

“All right,” he continued. “You have about six weeks before you leave. In that time I need you to mould your nurses, whom you will meet shortly, into an efficient team. You will all learn how to work in field conditions under canvas because part of your duties will be to set up temporary dressing stations wherever the course of the battle dictates.”

“I have one question, if I may ask, Sir,” Katarina ventured and waited for an acknowledgement to her query.

The Oberst looked at her.

“Yes?” he said.

“Our parents,” she continued, “Are they permitted to know where we are going?”

“No, I am sorry,” the Oberst replied, “As I told you, this mission is classified and any letters you wish to write will be checked and censored as necessary. When you leave here for Taranto you will be allowed one final correspondence and then no more until you reach Tripoli and even then, only at the discretion of the Commanding Officer.”

This bombshell was met with a sad silence from the two young women although they understood perfectly the need for such caution.

The Oberstarzt waited for a moment and then held out his hand to each of them.

“Then I wish you both good luck and a safe return.”

Katarina and Maria both stood and thanked him for his confidence in them and shook his hand in turn.

The door opened and an orderly waited patiently for them to follow him and, as they turned to leave the officer suddenly stopped them.

“One more thing!” he began and they turned to face him. “Your nurses will be informed of the reasons for being here only when you are ready to leave so please, tell them nothing of what you have learned.”

They both nodded their understanding and then followed the orderly out.

Their guide took them to another of the low wooden buildings which were arranged in neat rows.

They didn't speak for the few minutes it took to reach their destination and they were introduced to a Wehrmacht Leutnant.

“Good morning,” he greeted them, quite formally they thought, with a click of his heels and a small bow. “I am Leutnant Fischer and I am the Officer-in-charge of the training section here.”

“Good morning, Herr Leutnant,” the two Matrons answered politely and introduced themselves.

The Young officer was around their own age and appeared to be quite new to the army.

“Have you been in the army long?” Katarina asked when her curiosity got the better of her.

Maria nudged her and frowned, clearly surprised at such a question.

The young man blushed.

“No,” he replied, appearing somewhat embarrassed. “I have come here from the academy and it is my first posting. Is it so obvious?”

“No, of course not Leutnant Fischer. Please forgive my friend,” Maria answered quickly to try to ease his embarrassment.

Katarina laughed gently.

“I am sorry,” she smiled, “I didn't mean to embarrass you but your greeting was so formal and polite and your uniform looks so new and shiny!”

The was a pause, the young man not sure what to say next.

“Don't worry,” Maria said, smiling even more to try and ease his mind. “We won't bite.”

Katarina added,

“No, we won't. If you need anything, don't be afraid to ask us.”

“Thank you,” the young officer replied, “I appreciate that.”

Without further discourse, he led them into a large room where they found some thirty nurses all seated in rows facing a desk.

Maria immediately noticed that there was a large poster on the wall behind the desk which appeared to depict various parts of the inside of a lorry cab.

As they entered all the nurses stood up.

“Please be seated,” Leutnant Fischer said to them.

Once they were settled he continued,

“Good morning, Sisters,” he began, “I am Leutnant Fischer. Before we start, may I introduce you to Matron Langsdorf...”

He paused suddenly, realising that he wasn't sure which was which as they looked so similar.

Quick as a flash, Katarina stepped forwards and smiled, wishing them a good morning.

“...and Matron Kaufmann.”

Maria did the same, seeing the relief in his face.

“These two will be your senior officers from this moment on.”

He indicated two chairs on the front row which had been left vacant for them and then waited whilst they sat down.

“They are here to learn,” he continued. “Just as you are and there will be time later to introduce yourselves to them but now, we must begin.”

The Leutnant studied his audience for a moment.

“I am aware that you are here to learn all there is to know about the primary care of wounded soldiers as they come from the field of battle but first, “ he paused for effect, “You will all learn to drive!”

Whispers began to be heard amongst the group and Katarina looked at each other, frowning and mouthing the word 'drive?'.

The Leutnant smiled, seeing their surprise.

“In the field, it is important that ambulances keep moving. During the next few weeks you will be learning all the principals of medical care, including the immediate treatment of victims in the ambulance, which could be little more than a truck with stretchers. However, if your driver is incapacitated for whatever reason, you need to be able to take over and get the casualties to safety so, for the next two weeks you will learn to drive.”

Unnoticed, a sergeant had entered the room and had remained by the door. Now he approached the desk where Leutnant Fischer was standing as though choreographed.

“This is Sergeant Steiner,” the young officer introduce him, “I will pass you into his care now as he will be your chief instructor for the next two weeks.”

On hearing the name Steiner, both Katarina and Maria looked at this newcomer with sudden interest.

“Thank you, Sir,” the sergeant said, clicking his heels in lieu of a salute and then turning to face his students.

“As my commanding Officer said,” he began, I am Sergeant Hans Steiner and I will be your instructor for driving training.” For the next two days, I will teach you the rudimentary workings of the Opel Blitz since that is the vehicle in which you will be learning. The principals of driving are much the same for most vehicles...”

And so began the instruction of something that neither Katarina or Maria had ever even considered before but, like everything else in their lives, they took an eager interest in this new twist.

The sergeant, although sharing the same family name as Michael Steiner, bore no resemblance to him at all and they soon learnt that they they had not even met each other.

For the remainder of that day and the next, Sergeant Steiner taught them the theory of how to drive.

He taught then the rudimentary principals of how the engine and transmission worked together because, as he said, to understand what happens when you depress the clutch, select gears and so on, would make understanding how to drive considerably easier.

By the end of the second day, their minds were awash with information and before he ended his instruction, Sergeant Steiner explained what would happen the following day.

“Tomorrow you will be going out and putting into practice all that I have shown you,” he said. “There are thirty of you so you will be divided into groups of five since we have six trucks available.”

He glanced around at his audience.

“Tomorrow morning, you will report here at Eight. There will be a list of who will be in each vehicle. Three groups will be assigned to Matron Langsdorf and three to Matron Kaufmann. I advise you to wear warm clothes as the trucks have no heating other than in the cab. We will endeavour to rotate you at least hourly.”

As was their way, Katarina and Maria had got to know most of the other nurses by name and had set about ensuring that not only did they arrive at the garage the next morning dressed against the cold weather but had gone to Leutnant Fischer and talked him into requisitioning extra blankets to wrap themselves in.

The stores had at first refused the request but as the two nurses pointed out, if they were to learn how ambulances were used in a war situation, then said ambulances would require blankets just as much as stretchers and so they were begrudgingly issued with thirty blankets!

The sight that greeted them after Sergeant Steiner escorted them from the classroom was a large parade ground where a squad of young soldiers were being put through there paces marching back and forth across the grey tarmac to barked orders.

Lined up along the edge of this area were the six trucks that they had been informed of the day before. They were grey with an open body at the rear but covered with a khaki coloured canvas cover.

Maria looked at Katarina, a grim smile on her face.

“I have experience of those!” she said, “I had to travel from Lille to Amiens in one. It was awful!”

Katarina's jaw dropped.

“It was you!” she gasped.

“What was?” Maria was puzzled.

“My first day on the ward. I was looking out of the window and I saw one of those pull up outside. Some nurses climbed out of the back looking somewhat dishevelled, it was you!”

Maria laughed.

“Well well,” she said happily “You saw me arrive. Who'd have thought?”

Although it had been several months ago, the revelation seemed to cement their friendship even more.

The air was cold but crisp and the sky above was dark with heavily laden clouds.

Maria looked up and thought how much more difficult it would be if those clouds released their content this morning.

She sighed and the two of them joined the other nurses inside the heated garage.

For the initial instruction which entailed getting these poor unfortunate vehicles just to move, only those whom were actually going to drive left the garage with their instructor. The others remained in the warm, waiting patiently for their turn and were shown around another truck which was being serviced. In this way they learned how to check and replenish the engine oil and such like.

Katarina was the second in her group and she pulled on her gloves and wrapped herself warmly in her cloak.

Her instructor was waiting for her and, as he went to assist her up the steps she waved him away.

“No,” she said, politely refusing his offer and smiling. “There will be no-one to help if I ever need to do this so I will start right now but thank you anyway.”

She reached up through the open door and gripped the steering wheel with her left hand. With her right she held onto a small panel beside the seat, pulled herself up the two steps and slid nimbly behind the steering wheel. She settled comfortably into the wide, sofa like seat which ran the full width of the cab.

“Have you done this before?” the instructor looked surprised.

Katarina laughed and replied with a shake of her head.

He shrugged and remained standing beside the truck..

“The engine is already warm now,” he began “So it will not be a problem to start. As was explained in the class room, if it was cold you would need the choke which is the the small button on the dashboard. Do you see it?”

Katarina remembered it and pointed directly to it.

“That's it, now pull it out just to get the idea and then push it back fully in.”

Katarina noted that it needed a little effort to pull out but slightly less to return.

“Good. Now, the first thing to be checked is that the handbrake is on. That is the furthest of those two levers on the floor to your right.”

He paused as Katarina put her hand around the grip of the one with the little button on top.

“That's the one. Pull it rearwards firmly without touching the button.”

She did as he instructed and the lever barely moved but enough to click just once.

“On the floor in front of your feet are three pedals. The furthest left is for the clutch. Do you remember that from the class room?”

Katarina nodded as she looked down.

“All right. Put your left foot on that pedal and press it down hard.”

Again, she followed his instruction and pressed. The pedal barely moved and so she pressed as hard as she could until it sank towards the floor.

“Hold it there and now place your hand on the gear stick. That's right, next to the handbrake lever, and move it from side to side to side to ensure that no gear is selected.”

Katarina complied but was beginning to find that holding down the heavy clutch pedal was become quite difficult and her leg was beginning to ache.

“To the left of the steering column, on the dashboard is a button. Press it and hold it until the engine starts.”

She found the little button and pressed it fully in. The engine cranked once, twice and then burst into life. She released the button at the same time as her instructor indicated her to do so.

“You can slowly release the clutch pedal now!” he shouted to be heard above the noise of the engine.

Her leg was shaking with the effort she had put into holding the pedal down for so long and even though she tried her very best, the pedal suddenly shot up in the last part of its travel as her leg just couldn't prevent it.

“Don't worry,” her instructor laughed, “You won't have to hold it so long normally.”

He then slammed the door shut and walked around the front of the truck to join her from the other side.

Once beside her he looked at her.

“A very good start,” he smiled. “Now. Shall we try and get it to move?”

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