When we reached the water, we discovered with pleasure that our return trip down the Hvarski Channel would not be made aboard the fussy little Chetnik. There in the darkness we discerned the shadowy outline of a small fishing-smack lying against the pier. The sea was very calm as we went aboard and the rain had stopped, but the night remained intensely dark. That was reassuring too. Twice now we had been obliged to approach dangerous coasts in full daylight; it was comforting to be able to leave in proper darkness. We went aboard silendy, passing through a group of Partisans who were conferring in whispers. There was a sense of the imminence of the enemy in their movements.
The trip back to Vis was uneventful. Soon after we had crossed the open water and moved into the channel between the islands, the overcast broke suddenly and bright moonlight flooded down upon us. We kept very close to the islands, sailing now next to one, now next to the other, and, as on the previous night, we were hailed by a rifle-shot from every bluff along the way.
Four machine guns on their short tripods guarded our decks, a man lying behind each one in a tiny sand-bag revetment six inches high. Steve stood in the wheel-house with the
Captain. Tim and I sauntered about the deck, enjoying the fine night, and soon a brisk wind blew up from the north.
The Captain, thinking, no doubt, that there was little point in attempting to escape observation in this bright moonlight, should enemy patrols be about, gave orders to hoist sail. The sturdy little vessel steadied then, leaning on the wind, and the pulse of her Diesel engines quickened faintly as the sails added three knots to our speed.
The two British soldiers could hardly believe their luck as they tramped the deck, but they were very tired and soon went below to sleep. Steve followed, but Tim and I wanted to talk a while.
We sat on a hatch-way in front of the mast for a long time, planning our reports, planning our work in Bari and Taranto. If everything was still normal at Vis—and we were practically sure there would be no change there—we could keep our ships sailing from Bari at the rate of one a day. There would be innumerable people to see back there about supplies. We had already arranged to have another hundred Partisans accompany the Bog s Nama back to Vis, some to serve as stevedores and bookkeepers on the dock, others to go aboard our newly-acquired ships as crew. We would need a big passenger vessel of some kind if we were to quarter them all in the port, and this seemed much the best thing to do.
"I wonder how litde Olga is getting along," Tim mused, reminded of her by our domestic problem of where and how to live. She was still the hostess in any ship we used for quarters back there at the base. "Couldn't we send her to Africa for her health for a while?"
"Sure we could—if we could persuade her to go," I answered. "But I don't think she'll leave until everything is set
up and functioning as smoothly as clock-work. I hope there has been no 'further trouble with the outfit that was going to pick us all off. . . ."
"I suppose Olga could take care of herself as well as any of us," Tim observed. "She's a good shot, I know. We popped away at a tin can one day in the harbor and she hit it every time. But the best shot on earth has only mediocre chances against a determined assassin, who, presumably, is also a good shot and must always be the first on the draw. . . ."
It was difficult to plan the next three days because we had no idea what new situation would confront us when we got back to Bari. But even if everything was normal back there, we would have a hectic time. There would be so much to do. We could not hope to get back until Tuesday morning and it would be necessary to leave again on Wednesday afternoon.
"You'll have to stay at Bari, this time," I told him, "unless some of the lads from Cairo have arrived."
"I'll probably have to stay even if they're there," he answered reasonably. "It will take any newcomer a few days to get his bearings before we can hope to leave him in charge at the dock."
At about midnight, the sea grew fairly rough and sheets of spray began to break across the decks. We went below and stretched ourselves out on the wooden planking beside Steve, who was already fast asleep.
Soon after four o'clock we awoke as the hull bumped softly against a pier. We were tying up in the Port of Vis. When we climbed on deck, the bulky mass of the Zagreb towered above us, a little further along the sea-wall, riding high in the water, her holds empty. The three of us, rubbing our eyes and still drunk with sleep, jumped clumsily ashore.
"What's the Zagreb doing here?" I asked Steve. "She ought to be half-way back to Bari at this hour—or lying up in a cove somewhere under her camouflage."
He stepped away to a group of Partisans near the Zagreb and came back a moment later.
"They have been taking aboard some stretcher cases for hospitalization on the other side," he explained. "She's on the point of leaving now for a bay on the south shore of the island, and she'll get an early start back to Bari tomorrow night."
I should have liked to have gone straight to the crash boat where Jack and his crew were sleeping and set out at once for Bari, thus gaining a day on our schedule, but the plan appeared somewhat reckless. It would take at least half an hour to clear her decks of camouflaging and we would have little opportunity to get away from the coast and the area of German air patrols before daybreak. After a moment of discussion, we decided to return to the house where we had rested before and get some sleep.
Marica and Dusan awoke at once when we threw pebbles at the window of their room and hurried down to welcome us with their usual immense kindness. Marica kissed all three of us and Dusan kept repeating, "How-do-you-do ... I hope you are well . . ." in his newly acquired English. We assured him that we were, as we pumped his big hand up and down, but that failed to help him any as he could not understand the reply. Cakes and rakjia and pressed figs and wine were spread before us while our rooms were being prepared, and we ate greedily, shivering a little from fatigue. Dusan watched us happily, pouring wine and rakjia and counting out loud in English to one hundred. When we patted him on the back and congratulated him, he beamed and glowed with pride.
Finally, at six o'clock, we got to bed, and we slept like the dead until noon.
Big weather was brewing when we got dressed again. Sudden gusts of wind struck the little house violently, shaking the window panes and rattling the doors. This was alarming. We could not afford to remain another night in Vis and it might be very dangerous to set forth in Jack's launch in a really big blow.
Marica arrived to inquire how I wanted my egg cooked! I could not persuade her to keep it for herself so I told her 1 would like it stirred, scrambled, performing the operation on an imaginary egg with my razor. She nodded understandingly and hurried back to the kitchen, but when I reached the table a few minutes later I found a cup of zabaglione waiting for me, pleasantly flavored with rakjia! She watched me share it with Steve and Tim and enjoyed our gestures of approbation.
Steve set off immediately after breakfast for Headquarters to get to work on his full report for the authorities at Jajce. The afternoon passed very quickly for Tim and me. We called at the hospital to see whether the Zagreb's medical supplies had arrived and found the three indomitable doctors ecstatically unpacking their treasures. Anaesthetics, disinfectants, aspirin, sulfa drugs ... it looked like everything in the pharmacopoeia to them. There were instruments too, and splints—some of them of the latest traction type. It was kingdom come! They had only a few of the things that would be tandard equipment in any of our first-aid field dressing sta-'ons, and they were running a base hospital, but it was afflu-nce to them; and meanwhile they had compiled the master ist I had requested. This they handed to me. It was a document ten pages long in which they had written down the exact quantity of each item required, and identified it in their language and in English as well.
From the hospital we went to Headquarters to confer with Nikic and his colleagues and to look for Commander Welman. There had been a celebration on the island the day before with music and speeches and with dancing in the evening. The charming old sailor had won everyone's affection. He had danced every dance with the Partisan girls and had delivered a most successful speech.
Soon after our arrival he entered.
"Where were you fellows?" he asked. "You should have been here. What a time they would have given you!"
We explained what we had done and outlined the plans we had made with Ilic for sinking the Rah. He responded enthusiastically, but the three MTB's he had with him would need more fuel before they could go a-raiding. We would have to bring that over for him, so the operation would be impossible until a few days later.
"That's all right," he said. "I want to go back with the boats tonight anyway and go down to Taranto tomorrow. We can work out the details of the attack in Bari."
As we left the Commander, we ran into Jack and one of the members of his crew. They both looked a little green from their celebrations the night before and I chaffed Jack about it, telling him we had called aboard his boat the night before but had not been able to wake anyone. . . . He grinned sheepishly.
"They certainly gave us a time here yesterday," he avowed, "but we're all in good form today."
"You don't look it," I persisted.
'We'll be all right," he said-
"What sort of a trip are we going to have tonight?" I asked him. He cocked his eye up at the stringy little grey clouds scurrying overhead and listened to the wind. "The hell of it is," he answered, "that the starboard engine's on the fritz. We've got to go back on one engine."
"When did that happen?"
"As we were coming in Saturday night. I guess we forced them a little hard on the way over. The engineer reported that it was running pretty hot, but I had hoped he would be able to fix it up himself; now he tells me it can't be done and that we can't use it on the way back. He swears it'll stick if we run it half an hour."
"Well, don't worry about it," I told him. "If the weather is too rough for a one-engine crossing, stay here tonight and we'll go back with Welman in one of the MTB's."
Jack received that suggestion without enthusiasm. The thought of being disabled and laying over while his passengers rode back to Italy with the officers of the Royal Navy hurt his Air Force pride.
"If you have to go, I can get you back," he said, "but it's damned nice here. The lads in the crew would like to stay for a month."
Like the crew of the Gull, he and his men as the guests of the town had been overwhelmed with hospitality, people dragging them in from the streets to make them share their humble gastronomic treasures. On Sunday morning he and Commander Welman and several others had gone over to Comisa on horse-back, he told rne. They had been received there by a brass band that played "God Save the King" very well but could only get through eight or ten bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"You should have been there. You could have whistled it for them," Jack said. "The bandmaster was broken-hearted not to know the rest of the music, and I couldn't give it to him."
Soon after dark the port was filled with the droning of big engines and the three MTB's crept in from their hiding places on the southern shore to moor again three abreast, against the sea wall. The weather was growing worse momentarily and, although its violence was not great in the sheltered bottom of the bay, there was evidence of its fury on the heights above us. We could hear it thundering there. I found Commander Welman and asked if he meant to cross in spite of the weather. Jack was at my side, eager to know the answer, reluctant to make the trip himself but resolved to do so if the Navy was going to face it. The Commander was unable to say. He would wait until nine o'clock and decide then.
Steve and Tim and I got some supper at Headquarters and at nine o'clock we were back on the waterfront in a downpour of rain. The Commander was not yet aboard, but word had gotten back to the ships that they would leave at about ten, when, it was hoped, the violence of the storm would have abated some. Jack was there to hear this verdict.
"Come on," he said. "Let's go."
"I think you ought to stay until tomorrow night, Jack,"T said. "This blow is out of the east, which means we'll have it on our port beam. How's that going to work with the starboard engine dead?"
"It's going to be bad," Jack answered positively, "but we'll make it, Louis— Let's go."
The decision was an awkward one. Jack was impulsive and game, not only willing but eager to take chances, and absolutely resolved not to let the Navy "wipe his eye." If we could have waited over for a day it would have been easy, but we had to get back, so it was a question of letting him take us across or insisting upon his staying and our going aboard the MTB's. His craft had one advantage over the MTB's. Her bows were not freighted down with five thousand pounds of torpedoes and their launching mechanisms; but the MTB's had three engines each, as compared with two in the crash boat—two engines, one of which was now dead, and the vital one at that. ... If anything went wrong with the one good engine that remained on the port side we were in for it. Either we would pile up on a lee shore among the islands or wallow helplessly in the rough seas until day, when the JU-88's would come out and cut us to pieces. . . .
I could feel the tenseness in Jack as he stood beside me in the darkness waiting for an answer, then without being conscious of having made a decision, I said:
"Okay. Let's go."
Half an hour later we were struggling in the darkness to remove the pine-boughs that smothered the decks of the boat. We had collected our two soldiers on the way over. The wind clawed and tugged at the heavy branches, tearing them out of our hands as we stumbled about on the crowded deck. A young tree stood vertically against the mast to conceal the short yard-arm and the rigging. When we freed it from its lashings, the wind tore it away from us and sent it crashing into the water, carrying away the radio antennae as it fell.
As I strained against a heavy branch that would not come away, the wind tipped me into the open hatchway above the engine room. When I climbed out, rubbing my bruises, I could hear Sparks complaining to Jack that the antennae was gone.
"If we can't make it under our own power we're in for it, anyway, so what the hell difference does it make?" Jack answered. "Come on, lads, hurry it up!"
Jack was a born officer and his men would sail to hell with him, I reflected, but it seemed absurd that we should be about to do that very thing for no particular reason. I found Tim beside me and said to him: "It's nuts, isn't it?" "Yeh, it's nuts but it's fun," Tim answered.
When our decks were clear, our one good engine began to rumble softly. We got our lines free and moved slowly out of the mooring. There was a final blast of Zivios from the Partisans on the shore, then the darkness and the voice of the storm swallowed them up.
Tim and Steve and I joined Jack at once on the open bridge, fastening our oilskins as we peered into the rain—it was coming down in torrents. The minutes immediately before us would be tense and breathless. Getting out of the port into the open sea would be rough work. Steve and I had done it once before with the Gull, but that had been a mild night compared to this one.
As we entered the narrow waters leading to the sea, we took the full blast of the wind and the little launch rose gallantly on the big swells. Sheets of spray as hard as driven sand raked the bridge. There was not a light to be seen in any direction and our efforts to use our own searchlight proved quite futile. All we could see with it was the dazzling brilliance of the beam it made in the saturated air, a blinding horizontal pillar of light twenty or thirty feet long.
Twice we found the shore within a length or two of our starboard bow, then we were in the sea, in the channel between Vis and Hvar. Steve was pilot throughout that first part of the trip, and he guided us through the rock-strewn waters that guard the approaches of the harbor.
"Are we clear yet?" Jack roared at him in French. Steve shook his head the first time, but the next time the question was asked he nodded, and a few minutes later we came around onto our course.
The seas were mountainous now but the launch rode them better than we had expected. She had much less tendency than the MTB's to bury her bows in them, and she held her course fairly well, albeit not without some pretty fancy
Once a hard squall caught us high on the crest of a wave and yawed us around forty-five degrees. This time the helmsman was unable to bring her back, the wind holding too firmly against her freeboard, so Jack let her come clean around to starboard, then held her into the wind until the gust subsided. This was what we had feared most of all from our dead starboard engine . . . but after a few minutes we were cruising south again and all was well.
It was an anxious night. I shuddered when I thought of the strain the steering mechanism was taking and resolutely refused to think of what would happen if our one good engine should begin to heat. Hour after hour we stood with Jack on the bridge, arms aching from the endless struggle with handrail and bulkhead. He never flagged and remained cheerful
and alert all night.
The worst was over by the time we were half way across and the going seemed easier, the water being less choppy. Steve was below, asleep, lashed in the engineer's bunk. Tim went below, also to sleep, I supposed, and I remained another hour on the bridge with Jack before following his example a little before daybreak; but when I got down to Jack's cabin I was astonished to find Tim with one foot braced against the bulkhead painfully writing a report in his cramped, tight scrawl.
"My God, you can't write while you're tossing about like this," I exclaimed, holding on to the doorway.
He looked up at me and grinned. "It's legible," he answered. "We won't have time to write it after we get in and it must get to Taranto today."