"Have the MTB's come in?" Jack shouted across the diminishing reach of open water that still separated us from Shack's boat as we approached our mooring. It was a quarter of seven and Shack's crew were again frying eggs on the edge of the pier.
"Not yet," one of them shouted back.
"We beat them in," Jack yelled. "Hey, Louis, Tim, Steve! We beat them in!"
The night's work Jack had done on that open bridge would have crumpled most strong men, but he was radiant with vitality as we tied up. There was no evidence of fatigue in his movements. I had slept an hour as we approached Bari and felt half-dead now, but Tim appeared to be in good form. He handed me the report on our reconnaissance, a document which, when copied out by one of the stenographers in the Admiral's office that afternoon, covered twelve typewritten pages. He had finished it as we entered the port.
"How in the hell do you do it?" I asked him.
"No secret there," he grinned. "Benzedrine, good old benzedrine."
Our two soldiers from Stalag-blank-blank looked very green as they came ashore. They had had a night which would have made the worst channel crossing on record seem nothing in particular and both had been deathly ill. But they were safe behind their own lines again, behind the British Eighth Army of which they were a part, and it needed more than a bad night at sea to dampen their spirits. We all had a ceremonial drink of rakjia, standing on the deck in the slanting rays of the morning sunshine. Tim and I thanked Jack and his gallant crew, then we took the soldiers over to Brigadier Trollope's 86th Sub-Area Headquarters before going home to the hotel for dry clothes and breakfast.
We had noted, as we came in, that Bog s Nama was back at her berth on the end of the pier. Steve had set out in that direction in search of Olga after saying good-bye to Jack, and we were eager to join them there. We had been away two days and at the pace we kept all sorts of things might happen in that time.
Olga welcomed us when we went aboard. She was wearing grey flannel slacks and a sweater, looking very sweet and sturdy as she stood near the gang-plank with her feet well apart and her head high, giving orders to the barefooted Partisans who somehow managed to be her house-boys and guests simultaneously. We shook hands with her as we went aboard. Ivo Radic appeared a moment later and greeted us warmly. Tim had a letter for him in his pocket from Mrs. Radic, whom he had found time to call on during the previous afternoon.
"My laundry got back," Ivo grinned. "It came in on the Bog s Nama. You can't get service like that in Italy!"
The Partisans had scouted the Italian shores from Taranto to Vieste during our absence and had found several more Jugoslav ships for us to seize. Some were large vessels for which we would probably have no use, but I thought it well to take the lot of them. We could turn in any we did not need to the Mediterranean shipping pool, thereby establishing at least a moral claim for high priority on any cargo we might want to bring across from Africa.
Some of our colleagues from the special services in Cairo were beginning to arrive in Italy. They had apparently "laid on" a big conference of some kind in Taranto and sent word up for me to attend. I noticed it was scheduled for "1430"— half past two—that very afternoon. As it seemed likely I should have to go to Taranto anyway to obtain permission to confiscate the additional ships and turn in our reports this fell into place very well.
All in all, it was evident that nothing untoward had happened during our absence. "Just a few days more is all we need, now," I said to Tim, after we had completed our survey of the Bari situation. "If we can just hold on and keep everything running for another week we'll have this supply line working like a dream."
"Like a dream for us," Tim countered, "like a nightmare
Commander Welman and his MTB's had reached Bari half an hour or so after we came in. He called on us aboard Bog s Nama soon after ten o'clock and I told him of the conference in Taranto, suggesting that he come down and attend with me. The plan seemed sound to him so we agreed to set out together at noon.
The rest of the morning was devoted, as always in Bari, to trying to get ten times as much business done as the racing minutes allowed. I called on NOIC and half a dozen other officials around the port. Tim decided to sail another ship that night and there were some additional items of cargo required. I had a brief conference with Port Security and learned they had picked up several suspicious Jugoslav characters who presumably belonged to the same fraternity as Olga's pistol packing visitor. They had done their best and had been in touch with Olga several times to see whether she could identify their prisoners.
"If we had a few operatives like her on the staff it certainly would be hell for the enemies of the King," the British major I talked to remarked. "Not only is she not afraid: she seems not even to be impressed by the ultimatum she received. I really believe she's looking forward to another meeting with the fellow. When I've had her in to look at the prisoners I've wondered if it wouldn't be a good idea to disarm her first. If she recognized the man who threatened her in the line-up I think she might just shoot him, right there; but I have no idea how to go about disarming her so I just stay close on her right side to intervene if it should be necessary."
"She's a sweet girl and not nearly so blood-thirsty as you make her out," I laughed. "Don't worry. She'll never shoot a prisoner."
Commander Welman and I enjoyed our trip to Taranto together. The weather was fine. We followed the winding road through the olive groves and talked about our adventures on the other side. The Partisans had made a deep impression on him and he was eager to help them. There was a job for his little MTB's waiting over there and he was itching to come to grips with it.
I found many of my old friends from Cairo waiting in the entrance hall of the conference room at Taranto. They brought me up to date on developments in Algiers and inquired eagerly about the work we had done at Bari. Vague reports had filtered back to Algiers, most of them very flattering to us and to the stature of our modest operations. I made a brief verbal report on our work as soon as the meeting was called to order and promised everyone who was interested a copy of the report Tim had written during the night. There were present several officers connected with Brigadier Mac-Lean's mission at Tito's Headquarters. They were planning to go into the country by sea at the earliest opportunity. I was eager to talk with them and co-ordinate the efforts we were making from Bari with those the Anglo-American mission was making in the interior.
The meeting was largely devoted to organizational detail and brought forth little that was new. It was agreed that the Flag Officer would send a permanent representative to Bari to function as co-ordinator of all special operations. That would be a big help to us. We would be able to channel all requests for support and supplies through him thereafter. He would help us in our dealings with the Admiral and the Air Force, too. The sooner we could put our work on some regular organizational basis the better it would be for all concerned. That way, we would be less likely to wear out our welcome in the busy offices we dealt with.
I cleared my throat and pointed out that the situation had been developing very rapidly in recent days.
"We are now moving supplies to the Partisans at the rate of ioo tons a night," I said. "Our goal, from now on, ought to be at least five thousand tons a month."
The conference was followed by a round of visits in the course of which I called on our mentor, the Admiral, to give him an account of our stewardship. He sanctioned our seizure of additional Jugoslav ships. I spent some time, too, in the office of the Flag Officer, another Admiral, whose staff proved wonderfully helpful to us then and later, and it was seven o'clock before the Commander and I were able to go back to our Bari taxi and set out for Brindisi.
That evening is one of happy memory. The Commander and I had many a laugh together on the way up to Brindisi, where his flag-ship was waiting. He had told me about her before and invited me to be his guest aboard, but the proffered hospitality could never have been more welcome than it was that night. It seemed days since I had had a hot bath and slept during the hours of darkness in a proper bed after a pleasant dinner, and all those amenities were available on the twenty-thousand-ton mother-ship of his little fleet, formerly a luxurious passenger vessel. We began with whiskey in the Commander's cabin and finished in the best tradition, passing the decanter to the left and drinking port after the cheese and coffee. Life, in the Royal Navy, has its amenities!
The Commander had offered to get me back to Bari in the morning aboard one of his MTB's, so I had dismissed the taxi at the dock. That was Tuesday night—the night of October nineteen to twenty—and I made the most of my six hours' sleep, knowing it would be a long time before there was any more of that kind to be had. One of the ratings brought me a cup of strong tea at half past five in the morning, together with one of the Commander's best razors, and at six I was over the side on a rope ladder and aboard the racy-looking little launch that was waiting there. We cast off at once, followed by two more MTB's, line astern, and rumbled out to sea through the rose-tinted port.
I stood on the bridge and watched the sun come up, thinking of the wonderful night's rest my charming friend had provided and wondering when there might be another like it; that night would be spent on the rough Adriatic, crossing again to keep the appointment with Ilic; the next one would probably be spent going through the German lines, likely afoot, over that appalling range of coastal mountains that had already awed us. The next day would be all work and the next night all travelling, and the next day all work again, then a night in the Hvarski Channel on the way to Vis . . . then the next night on the Adriatic on the way back to Bari. . . .
It gave me a sinking feeling to think of it, for my reserves were beginning to wear thin. I felt as though I had been living on stimulants for months and silently thanked God and the powers that be for a rugged nervous system; but had I known what was ahead I would probably have jumped over the side in despair.
My next opportunity to go to bed was ninety benzedrine and rakjia saturated hours away.
We reached Bari at ten o'clock and found everything normal there. Tim had cleared another ship on Tuesday evening and was loading again for a sailing that afternoon. Most of the cargo we had received was already delivered and the problem before us was to find further supplies in some naval or military dump we could raid. The armies seemed short of everything in Italy and it was not easy to round up food and woolen clothes and guns at the rate of better than a hundred tons a day.
"If you can't do any better, ship them fuel," I told Tim. "They can use any amount of Diesel oil and gasoline and kerosene and coal, and there are always the MTB's; we could build up a supply for them. They need three thousand Imperial gallons a night."
"Yeh, that's all right," he answered, "but you can't ship that hundred octane stuff they give us in leaky steel drums in the hold: that's deck cargo. If we put it below we'll blow the ship to bits, just loading it. It's dynamite. All you need in ah enclosed space is the spark from bumping two cans together."
He was right about that, but two weeks later, to meet an emergency, we cleared one ship with six hundred tons of the stuff in her hold in spite of the hazards—and delivered it safely.
"Well, you can put the slow stuff in the hold and keep the hundred octane on deck," I answered. "You're still getting all you ask for, aren't you?"
"I'll keep 'em sailing," he grinned, "and there'll be something useful in them when they get there."
Later that day he returned to the pier from some raiding expedition with a happy smile.
"What have you swiped?" I asked.
"I can report two hits," he answered, proudly. "Amgot has seven hundred tons of flour: we'll get that! and I discovered that one of the ships that came in today was loaded with quartermaster stores, including several thousand cases of cigarettes."
"Christ, that's wonderful. Did you manage to draw any?"
"No. The bastard that has control of them says he won't release a damned thing until he's completed an inventory of the shipment—and it'll take him two weeks to do it."
"Well, what the hell good is that to us?"
"I went around to the pier to see him," Tim said solemnly. "I wanted to put it up to him that we really needed some stuff right away, and I was careful to park the cab alongside of a mountain of cigarettes. When he refused to see reason I went back and started loading the cab, but while I was putting the fourth case of cigarettes into it the guard saw me and ran over."
"Jesus, what tough luck!"
"Not as bad as you think," Tim insisted. "I managed to wham the door shut with my tail while I was still hanging on to the other case and when the guard got there I gave him a long argument, but to no avail. So I set the case down looking as forlorn as possible and drove off—with one hundred and fifty cartons of Lucky Strikes that he never saw in the back of the cab!"
We shook hands warmly at that point. Before I set out for Jugoslavia that afternoon at four o'clock we had talked Amgot out of its seven hundred tons of white flour and the use of a four-thousand-ton warehouse on which they had a priority.
"If only Fred were here," Tim said, as he walked with me over to the MTB's berth where Steve would be waiting. We had often talked of Frederick Jensen, a Captain in Cairo with experience on the Burma Road, looking forward to the time when he would be one of us and share our interminable days at the dock. He had run a shipping company in China and would be more at home in the port than we could hope to be, not only because of his experience with this type of work, but because he was a Dane and came of a line of seagoing adventurers.
I suggested: "Why don't you send another cable to Cairo saying we need help here—that we're going nuts. . . ."
"I'll try," he answered, "but they're probably all tied up with priorities and can't get transportation. We were lucky to get through the way we did. There are thousands of people waiting to get across. You remember the jam there was in Catania . . . ? People waiting for a week or more? And they were already half-way over."
"Give them a jog about it anyway," I insisted, as we said good-bye beside the MTB's. Steve was already aboard and they were waiting to leave.
"Jensen ought to be here any time, now—and take care of
"Keep out of mischief yourself," he called.