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LAST summer the partisans had licked their wounds after the heavy fighting of the previous winter and spring. This summer they triumphed. In every part of the country they were successfully on the offensive. By the autumn they had helped the Russians to take Belgrade, and were in possession themselves of more than half the country. The Germans were pulling out.
Until the spring of 1945 the Jugoslav Army continued to hammer away at the defeated enemy in his long and painful withdrawal northwards. When the final collapse came in May, 1945, the Jugoslavs had driven the Germans and their satellites into Slovenia and North Croatia. Ninth Corps in a brilliant campaign seized the valleys of the Julian March and the town of Trieste, only to be forced by Allied orders to abandon this great and legitimate prize. This was to cause bitterness and distrust, and to cast a shadow over our comradeship-in-arms.
In the Voivodina we were hard-pressed. Our evasion and subsequent operations in the enemy's rear were in their way a classic of partisan tactics. Hopes were rising that the war was near its end; and morale was at high pitch. There was a harvest of record richness in the Voivodina.
During October the Russians completed their occupation of the Voivodina north of the Danube. Some of us, including Kosta and myself, were taken out of Srem by Russian aircraft and put down in the Banat in the Russian rear, where organization of partisan formations could be carried on without fear of intervention by the enemy. Then Belgrade fell and our war, in the Voivodina, was practically over.
Lepse nego ptice:
Iz bunkere nase
Our macnine-guns sing more sweetly than birds They ring out from the green woods: ...
WE came up from the river in the dark hours after midnight. The moon had gone down a little time before and there was no means of guiding ourselves through the trees except by gripping the coat tails of the man in front.
We had made a good crossing, in the circumstances almost a miraculous crossing. Rile had reached Palermo the night before to report that the volunteers from the eastern Bachka had arrived at last; Baba was ready with her quota from Palanka, and the Odred could organize their crossing at once. "Throwing them over" was the colloquialism; we had thrown over nearly forty men and women, most of them recmits for the fighting formations, some of them refugees whom the Hungarians would arrest if they stayed at home. George had been at his best, firm, decisive, sure of himself. Shortly after ten o'clock, George and Juritsa had led to the place where the volunteers from the east were gathered; these had marched hard for three nights and had eaten little, and now were shivering and afraid in the shadow of a bunch of thorn bushes just to the north of the main road that led along the Danube. They were a mixed group of people, about twenty men and ten women, fearfully impressed with the dangers of the crossing they had to make, anxious to know what would happen to them. These volunteers from the Bachka were no longer the reckless heroes of the early days; the cream had been skimmed off in 1941 and '42 and '43, and the movement had now developed into a mass affair in which volunteers were counted in thousands. But the army now was strong enough in tried cadres to absorb good and fairly good, and even bad; and in those days many people joined who hitherto had feared for their skins and stayed at home.
George was patient with them but firm.
He lined them up in the shadow of the thorn bushes and made a brief speech. He told them what the routine of crossing would be, the importance of silence, of not allowing panic to develop if there should be any hitch, of not smoking. In the middle of this speech they got wind suddenly of someone approaching through the darkness and fluttered like a cloud of birds into cover of the wheat; but it was only Baba with her people from Palanka, and we rounded them up again and George repeated what he had said before. We set off in single file, George at the head, Juritsa and myself on either flank. There was nothing on the road although we had seen the headlights of lorries there an hour or so before. At the canal we used the rubber boat again, but ferrying took so long that George ordered everyone to take off his clothes and wade across. Only the women went over in the boat.
They splashed and chattered their way across the canal, and George and Juritsa sat on the bank of the canal and waited for the Hungarians to put in an appearance. But it seemed that nothing could go wrong that night.
"Let 'em come," Juritsa said, fiddling with his Sten, "they'll think it's an army and run away again." The actual crossing, too, was uneventful. Kara and Stanko were in charge at that time of the arrangements on the Frushka Gora side, and they showed up on record time with a large flat-bottomed boat capable of taking at least thirty. We loaded all forty-two of us into the boat and pushed off. The water was an inch or so below the level of the gunwhales.
The moon was half full, high in a cloudless sky. Our boat detached itself from the shadows of the bank and floated like a shapeless piece of land out into the current. The river was pale in the moonlight. Gradually its blue-green pallor widened between the darkness of the bank and our outward-floating boat. The oarsmen dipped cautiously and we rocked a little. In a few moments we should be safe. Then we saw a figure running along the bank, waving a rifle; it was Ucho, one of our flank guards who had been left behind; Kara swore freely and the oarsmen even more freely. We put back to the bank and took him off again. By this time we were uncomfortably near the bunker. The recruits were very quiet.
But the Hungarians were asleep or afraid of our numbers, and nothing happened. We moved slowly across the pale river under the clear sailing moon, and within twenty minutes were beneath the shadow of the steep southern bank and the hills of the Frushka Gora. The recruits chattered like sparrows. There had been nothing in the crossing after all.
From the southern bank we marched through Neshtin back into the woods at the head of the valley called Yanok Dol. Here it was that the people of Neshtin had their evacuation camp where they hid themselves at night and whenever danger from nearby Ustashe garrisons threatened them. The Odred used it as a staging post for recruits. The next day they would go for distribution to the Odred, and eventually into Bosnia.
This was a famous camp and a comfortable one, the shelters well made from fresh beech-branches and thatched until they were water-proof. I had been here often before, usually with Proko, and knew its regular inhabitants.
Proko was sitting beside a small fire, drying his socks. "Take off your boots," he said. We sat down round his fire, the sudden heat suffocating in our faces, our wet clothes warm and steaming with it.
"What's the news from Srem?"
"There's nothing new. Everything very quiet at the moment. Sixth Brigade attacked Kukuyevtsi the other night and captured five machine guns and twenty-three rifles. How many recruits did you bring over?"
"My God, there's more recruits here than they know what to do with. Over two thousand they say, in the Frushka Gora." "Is the way open over the Sava?"
"Not it. Germans still sitting in Semberiya. There's no way over. Here, take off your boots, Nikola."
Proko was huge and cumbrous, a man well on in years and one of the elders of the village of Neshtin, who had done much for the credit of the movement. Ustashe had burnt down his house the year before. It was generally known that Proko did not reckon to move fast whatever might happen, and that this not moving fast had become a central factor in Proko's life and habits. It could be expected that Proko would make his plans according to this inability to move fast. He was getting careful. "You should take it easy," was his comment on other people's journeyings. Shortly afterwards he was elected to be head Odbornik of Neshtin, so that he had only to move from the camp on Yanok Dol down into the village, and back.
Proko was examining the cracks in his boots and blowing his nose. He finished taking off his boots and this made him a little short of breath; and then he leaned back beyond the rim of firelight, stretching out his hand into the undergrowth to clean his fingers; while he leaned back there were only his doubled-up legs in their patched rags, huge and cumbrous, and his great muffled body that you could see, the rest of him had disappeared into the darkness. And then he came swinging slowly back into the firelight; his red round face with its small beaked nose and his opened lips with their charred teeth gradually relit and grew alive again.
He was a huge and cumbrous man, smiling with opened lips and swinging back slowly into the firelight, with his great body cushion-like, his legs doubled up beneath him on his sheepskin jacket. His boots stood behind him in the darkness and he lay there across the fire from us, smiling with opened lips and glowing with the suffocating heat of the fire.
"You wouldn't have any rakiya, Proko?" "What did you say?" He was already half-asleep. He lay there with his knees drawn up on the sheepskin jacket, his head pillowed on the doubled-up sleeve, his face with the small beaked nose flushed with the suffocating heat of the fire. I saw his matted black hair, gleaming black hair short and matted, lying against the doubled-up sleeve of his jacket. His eyes blinked open. "What did you say, Nikola?"
"What did he say?" asked a woman from beyond the rim of firelight.
"See if there's any rakiya."
"Rakiya? Did you say rakiya?" "Yes, he's cold. And wet. He wants some rakiya." And the bottle of rakiya in its turn came over the rim of the firelight, pale green and gleaming and full of raw spirit. I took it from her hand and sucked a long swig. "Ah," I said, "that's rakiya."
Proko was asleep again. Beyond the heat of the fire, now burning low, the others had settled into the close-packed comfort of a shelter, a warm black hole beneath a matting of maize stalks and moss and summer-dried grass. There were many like it in chosen places along the crest of the Frushka Gora, warm black hiding-places, where one could keep safe and dry beyond the reach of anything except full-scale offensives. I preferred to sleep to-night beside the fire. The close undergrowth went up in spirals above us, high and concealing. Only the occasional gleam of stars revealed the sky. Proko was snoring.
The sun came up at half-past five because the month was June. We were asleep amongst the ashes of the fire. Proko was still snoring on the other side of the fire, a shapeless bundle of patched clothing, huge, irregular, expanding and contracting with his lungs, healthily alive; he might live to be a hundred. The undergrowth seemed tired and thin and tawdry in the morning light, the shelter a falling heap of grass and leaves and under it cramped humanity. Grey ashes lay about upon the ground.
Someone in the shelter was telling an endless story to his neighbours. Their heads were six inches or less apart. The voice was soft and sounded far away: it was about a man who had swum the Danube.
"You don't believe me? Yes, I know you don't believe me. He swam from mid-stream. No, back to this bank. Surely you don't think he'd swim to the other bank?" "Of course he wouldn't."
"No, of course he wouldn't. Much good it would have done him to swim over to Palanka——"
A woman's voice cut in sharply: "Who's going to swim over to Palanka?"
"No-one. Go to sleep."
Another woman stirred in her sleep, turned over, and murmured in low tones, gently protesting. When people sleep for night after night in their clothes and have no proper rest they are soon reduced to a condition of chronic weariness: you wake and half-wake and turn over and protest in low tones and go to sleep again, and your arm is over your face and your head is covered in your jacket or in a blanket if you have a blanket. Blood runs cold and heavy in all your limbs; light is hateful, and you have no energy, you want only to turn over and murmur in low tones and go to sleep again. You would not even want to turn over if you had something a little softer than the ground to sleep on: but, as it is, your hip-bones and the thigh that is undermost will not tolerate your not waking-up at about half-past two, and turning over, and again at about the time it dawns, and turning over again; and as you wake in your benumbed sleep with the blood like unbalanced lead in your limbs there is the beautiful agony of your aching hip-bone and the thigh that is undermost, and so you murmur in low tones as you turn over and go to sleep again.
And this in itself is no great hardship because, by and large, people sleep more soundly on a hard bed; but in these circumstances it is disagreeable because it causes a man to wake up his neighbour, and even more disagreeable because it causes a man's neighbour to do the same. This is unavoidable when people are bound to sleep so closely together; in the first place a shelter may be made for six people, allowing ample room for six people to sleep and snore and turn over and push their limbs outwards a little as people when they are sleeping like to do. But before many hours are out some shivering courier has turned up from Podrucha and has to be fed and slept and sent upon his way, and he is sure to be a healthy lad of eighteen or so who likes to stretch out and snore and push around with his limbs as might be expected. And then, cheerfully enough, room must be made for Proko or Kara or someone from the River-guard back on business of a day or so; or else odd souls who know of the camp will break their journey there; and soon the shelter is housing not six but twelve, so that it gets rather more than cramped, and if many more come after that it can become actually uncomfortable. Although that is saying a great deal: for as long as people can rest in warmth and dryness it is mere bad manners to complain they cannot sleep. Peasants will not thank you for that sort of hypocrisy. In any case it is difficult to make a shelter for more than six people (an original six people, that is) because it then ceases to be discreet, and if both large and discreet, parts of it tend to fall in on you while you are asleep; so that in practice you are better off to be close and cosy, even if your neighbours do stick their elbows in your eye from time to time as they are waking-up and turning over and going to sleep again.
".... he was half-way across the river, you see. Yes, in a boat. And they didn't see him until then, naturally, because you know as well as I do that there is always a deep shadow along our side of the river—because of the way the hills hang over it. That's why they never get us on this side. It's the shadow that keeps us safe. You can't see a thing at fifty yards. So he was half-way across before they saw him...."
There was sleep in the early morning air, sleep everywhere. Proko was fast asleep, and snoring. The trees were thin and wretched and cold. Unless the sun was clear on the horizon the dawn was always like this. The voices droned on:
"He didn't know they'd seen him?"
"As if it mattered! The first he knew they'd opened up with a machine gun. Someone got nervous, and the boat rocked, and that Susek man simply fell in. Fell in and had to swim. The two others couldn't swim and were drowned. He made a noise, naturally, falling in; and that made it worse. The boat simply drifted away downstream, and there he was, in the middle of ..."
It was miserable in the early morning. That was another good reason for sleeping closely together. But in the main the sleeping together was a matter of necessity. And that was the only possible way of regarding it. They did not sleep huddled up like corpses because they thought that this was the best way of sleeping; they knew that people in more normal times did not sleep huddled up like corpses but frequently had one bed each. And after the war they intended to have one bed each, so that they could snore and stretch and groan and turn over (if it were still necessary to groan and turn over, for beds are beds after all) as much as they liked, and be damned to Hitler. For the time being they did what they could; and the results were often funny enough.
Everyone is tired and probably wet through, and our boots are sodden through and stink with wearing, and all our clothes give off an acrid smell and steam of moist and sweating wool. Tiredness takes the edge off our perception, and everyone and everything seems shapeless, melted together, indistinct, rather as if we were drunk. Men move in slow time, unbalanced, huge, vastly out of proportion. They heave and shuffle together upon the straw like the convulsions, painful and slow, of some miasmic beast; and only when their limbs lock in rigid inertia is there silence.
In the winter time it was unquestionably the funniest of all; then it was really something to laugh about. I can remember so many of those winter quarters of ours, unseen houses, or halves of houses that the Fascists had failed to wreck entirely, that we reached in the middle of a black night with the mud to our ankles and we simply walked and walked until the man in the front halted and said that this was it; and we waited and waited until the commissar had got it all settled where the guards would be posted and the desetine would sleep; and we bundled in and lay down in a steaming, shivering row, so that the nearer we were to each other the better the chance that we might not actually die of damp and cold.
Then it was no mere question of turning over whenever one felt the urge, for so closely would we be packed that each of us would have to sleep on his side, making all the others turn over whenever he did. The thought of it afterwards was ridiculous; that company of shivering people all turning over together in the black night, sightless and shivering. You would have to wait until the morning to recognize your neighbours.
"You kept sticking your elbow ..."
"Well, so did you...."
We had ham and eggs for breakfast. There was Proko, and Proko's wife's cousin, and Inglez and his wife, and Beginning, who was so named because he was the first of nine, and several daughters whose names I have forgotten, and the rest of us. George and Juritsa and the others were eating at another shelter. We sat among the ashes of the fire and after a little the sun came out and sunlight filtered down through the canopy of branches. We were soberly relieved at coming alive out of the Bachka. "What's been happening in Neshtin?"
"Nothing much. We had half a satniya of Ustashe from Ilok the other day—but they weren't the same as they used to be. Didn't steal anything, or shoot anyone. Simply asked for food and went away again——"
"My God," Proko's wife's cousin said, "two of them came into my yard and asked if they could have some wine. My God, and I said they could not. And they went away again—and there was me with two wounded partisans in the kitchen...."
Times had changed. Only two months before several houses in Susek, the next village along the river, had been burnt down for having harboured partisans.
"Where are you bound for, Nikola?" "Back to the Odred."
"You're not going back to the Bachka?" "Not yet, I've got to see Kolya first."
"Kolya? Well, I think they're still in Gregurievats. Or perhaps they've moved up to the Venats."
Proko said: "Yes, they have; they've twenty shelters along the top of Venats, in the woods."
Later on in the morning, Juritsa and I set out across the Frushka Gora for the camp on Venats, about fifteen miles away. The weather was delightful. The woods as we walked through them were green and fresh and lambent with sunlight that filtered down through beech leaves and sycamore leaves and elms and oaks and chestnuts. The Bachka seemed a nightmare compared with this: and to be able to walk abroad again by daylight—in the Bachka an unheard-of thing and a sure road to disaster—gave us a sense of complete liberty as if the Frushka Gora were safe and free instead of being ringed close, as it was, by enemy garrisons.
We sang all the way. Juritsa sang the Voivodina verses of an old partisan song from Shumadiya:
Horthy Miklos spremuje
I kufera pakuje
Al pobeci nema kuda
Od narodnog suda.
(Nicholas Horthy is packing his bags; but he'll find there's no hole to hide in from the people's justice ...)
And a local version of "Krasni Flot," designed for the raiding parties that crossed the Danube and brought back recruits for the army:
Nas konvoj: nas konvoj
Kreci smelo sad u boj
Kreci smelo sad u boj:
Comandir backi borac
Pratioci Backi borci
Svi konvoic backi borci
Krenuli su zajedno
U partisane; nasim drug Tito!
(Our convoy is on its way to war; the commander's from the Bachka, the escort's from the Bachka, the recruits are from the Bachka, all of us together ...)
We sang and made as much noise as we cared, kicked heelmarks in the earth, snapped branches in our way, fired off a round or two for the fun of it, talked to everyone we met on the way, said where we'd come from and where we were going to, and in general enjoyed to the full the delights and privileges of being in liberated territory again. "We Bachka chaps," Juritsa would say, boasting, "what do we care about guides? We just take our maps and we go straight across country. Planned operations...."
Lug where we lunched was a Slovak village buried deep in the woods and little touched by the enemy. One reason for this was that several sons of the village had joined the Domobrani, the army of "Independent Croatia," and thereby bought its immunity. They fed us well on Sombor cheese and fried eggs. It was altogether a day of triumph.
In the evening we reached Venats. Kolya was there, and Lala and Pavle, and other well-known faces; and best of all, there was George Armstrong (then a corporal, now a sergeant), the wireless operator I had been waiting for ever since it became clear that the remainder of my party would not be able to get across the Sava into Srem. George had arrived by parachute a few days before to find me absent; nobody was expecting him, but they took at once to his cheerful imperturbability, and put him in a shelter with a Domobrani officer who had deserted a week or so before to the Odred, and could talk a little English. By the time I reached the camp on Venats, George had a glowing vocabulary of at least twenty words, and was a great success. He turned out to be a rock of English goodheartedness, took everything in his stride, never lost his head or his temper, and greatly enjoyed himself.
The day after my return I was sitting with Kolya and discussing the prospect of stores, now much improved, when we saw Voiko and Shiftar and some others of the Odred Staff, who lived nearby, come running across the glade.
"It's happened," Voiko shouted. "It's happened."
We jumped up and ran towards them. After these months and years of waiting it seemed unbelievable that this at last had really happened. They had waited for so long that they scarcely believed any longer that it would happen. Only two days ago, in Lug, a lecturing team which Juritsa and I had run into had questioned me sardonically on the timing of the Second Front; and nothing but their stout determination to believe that "everything had been satisfactorily settled at Teheran" could persuade them from saying what each of them privately thought: "that there never would be a Second Front, no matter how long they might wait."
Voiko was out of breath. The Allies had landed in Normandy, somewhere near Cherbourg, in tremendous strength and with the support of more aircraft than had ever been heard of: Churchill had made a speech, Roosevelt had made a speech; Eisenhower had said something; there could be no doubt, this was it, this was the Second Front.
"Aie, aie," Shifter said to me, "now you've made up for everything." Voiko nudged him: the point was a little delicate, for although it was the common view that the Allies could and should have landed in France long months, and even years ago, this was not the moment to say so.
But Shiftar was too pleased for petty prudence. His swarthy face was lit with smiles. He put his arm round my shoulder. "Now, come on, Voiko, don't act the fool. He knows what we think. Maiku! How many aeroplanes did you say?—Seven thousand, was it? Maiku! The war'll soon be over now. And then we'll buy him a new hat and take him down to Ruma and ..."
They were all laughing, out of breath. "Buying a new hat" was an old joke of which the point, a little heavily, turned on the evident fact that you would scarcely need a hat unless you had a head to put it on.
That evening we heard it for ourselves on the eight o'clock news. It seemed that a great and decisive success had been registered on the first day itself. Mention was made of several beach-heads. An impression of terrific force and drive remained with us.
It really was the Second Front.
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