Dafoe's Amazing Hospital
Within days of resuming work in the village, two wards each capable of holding fifteen patients had been completed in the plum orchard under Marko's skilled supervision.
Some of the patients with fractured limbs, amputations, and wounds not requiring new dressings were moved that day using the stretcher-beds Dafoe had designed. But first they were processed through an improvised "disinfection centre" outside the hospital. Heads were shaved, dirty clothes put through a disinfector, and patients bathed before being carried away to the plum orchard. All of the nurses worked exceedingly hard during this operation. Perhaps the unseen female major was doing something behind the scenes, after all.
Dafoe had heard frequent reports of the excellent work done by Jordy's father, Dr Ivo Herlinger, in his divisional hospital. One day he and Jordy's mother, Zlatka, visited their daughter. Zlatka arrived in men's battledress, and Dafoe again found himself remarking on the fortitude of the Partisan women. Through Miki, the Herlingers told Dafoe how pleased they were that their daughter was with the British Mission, where she lived in relative safety. They added warmly that she was learning a great deal working with the Canadian surgeon.
When Dr Herlinger went into the orchard with Dafoe to examine the patients, the two surgeons exchanged views on various treatments and techniques. Herlinger had to leave at the end of the day, but decided to leave his wife and younger daughter, Mira, with the medical unit.
"We told him we would look after Jordy as if she were our own sister," Dafoe recalled, "and he seemed very pleased and happy. Jordy had been a God-send to us so willing and intelligent."
That week, Dafoe and his assistants were invited to attend a festival gathering on a plateau capping a neighbouring mountain. They trekked some distance until they came upon a "beautiful green setting with purple waves of irregular mountains stretching away into the clear sky in all directions. It is difficult to determine precisely when the outing occurred and, therefore, the nature of the festival he attended. It may have been the day celebrating Sveti Car Konstatin i Carica Jelena Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena on June 3; or Spasovdan Ascension Day on June 16. Dafoe did not recall the festival's name in his journals, nor did he give its date (although the early part of June seems likely). The recollections of former Partisans who attended proved as imprecise.
They arrived just as the speeches were ending. Dafoe was delighted to find the men and women dressed in traditional costume: snow-white skirts and trousers, and black vests with brightly coloured embroidery. The women wore handkerchiefs with embroidered edging while the men sported black lambskin hats, "giving them a roguish and devil-may-care appearance." The sight of so many people well scrubbed and neatly attired for the occasion was uplifting. Still, the war's proximity was not forgotten. "Most of the men were armed or wore a band of cartridges across the chest," Dafoe recalled.
One man in particular caught Dafoe's attention. He was about sixty, with a thick beard, and dressed in somewhat ragged civilian clothing. Miki explained that he was "the bishop," quite a noted figure in the local countryside and "master of a famous church in Lovnica," a village only a few kilometres away. The man was, in fact, Pop Savo Savic, the father of a family of ardent Partisans, one of whom was known to Dafoe. He asked Miki to introduce him.
Pop meaning "priest", or literally "pope" Savo had a kind face "and piercing, laughing eyes," according to Dafoe. He liked the man immediately and noted the respect he commanded as an Orthodox priest. Pop Savo told Dafoe he had heard wonderful accounts of the work the English medical unit was doing in Mihajlovici. He intended to visit soon, he added.
In a short while the peasants and Partisans gathered on the plateau and there, to Dafoe's amazement, they started to dance. "Unless you have seen peasants jig," he warned, "it is difficult to describe."
With a small band of gypsies "scratching away at their violins, looking around at various people, seeming to pay no attention to their song," the music started and the festival was underway. Dafoe wondered jokingly if the musicians were "Fifth Column types," as they seemed to watch everyone and everything with great intensity. Meanwhile they appeared and disappeared with mysterious ease.
But the dance remained the focus of everyone's attention. It was the traditional kolo meaning "round." Its participants formed a great circle and shuffled about, alternating side steps, picking up the tempo with the music, and generally vaulting about with hands clasped around the waist of the person on either side. Occasionally a dancer entered the middle of the circle and performed a solo act of great athletic agility while the kolo continued to weave around like a ribbon of human bodies.
The priest from Korpus HQ, Blazo Markovic, joined the festival and was introduced as Dafoe sat enraptured by the dancing. He was a large and imposing figure, yet somewhat spare with a Van Dyke beard. Miki related that he was a highly regarded Communist.
Soon a feast was offered. It included chicken, lamb, pork, "and the pork rind with the thick layer of fat that is eaten like candy in this part of the country," Dafoe recorded. There was also yoghurt, feta cheese, and a cornmeal bread known as proja. Throughout it all Dafoe and his assistants were diverted long enough to join the many offerings of "Ziveli!" that circulated among the gathering.
The meal out of the way, Dafoe again regarded the kolo still going full-tilt on the grassy plateau. He remarked on the "fun they seemed to get out of it, with the continuous jogging up and down. Faces became more and more flushed."
The festival wound up as darkness fell. Dafoe slipped away with Frank and Chris and returned to Mihajlovici, warmed by the food and drink, the hospitality, and the sight of "so many happy faces." The celebration had intensified his sense of what the Partisans were trying to accomplish in the mountains against such overwhelming odds. They remained stoical in adversity, while accepting with resignation the immutable fact that "zivot ide dalje" "life goes on."
Indeed, life in Mihajlovici continued at its usual hectic pace. But Dafoe found he had to push Djuras at every stage. Only half the patients in his care were in the plum orchard by now, while the rest still languished in the old hospital, some eight hundred metres away. He was wasting too much valuable time travelling back and forth, he felt. For his part, the commissar seemed eager to co-operate, but one morning Dafoe recorded it was a Thursday when he went to examine the new surgical theatre, he discovered only the floor was finished. Djuras promised to complete the job by Saturday. Dafoe asked three times, and each time Djuras assured him, "Saturday, Sir Major, I promise."
On Saturday, when Dafoe discovered that nothing further had been done, he was livid. He stormed away in search of the commissar, only to be told he was not available. But by midday he was back and Dafoe was ready for him with a blistering tirade.
"I told him I wouldn't do any more work until we were in the orchard. I threatened to go to Korpus and complain. I even told him that I would consider leaving the country unless I got more co-operation," he recalled.
The next morning, Dafoe returned to the new theatre. He met Djuras on the way. The commissar was "all smiles," he noted. With good reason. The theatre was finished. Djuras had apparently stayed up all night scrounging materials from the area. Even the magazine was almost completed. Moreover, one of the carpenters a rugged fellow who always tipped his cap to Dafoe had completed the theatre furniture requested, including a stand for POP, anaesthetics, and instruments.
But the theatre remained the focus of attention. Much of the material used in its construction was salvaged from the downed Flying Fortress. Parachute silk came down from the points of the theatre roof to a cross-piece, "giving good light," and two windows were fitted using Perspex still in metal frames. Dafoe tested the floor and found it firm and well raised. A door was being fitted while the sides and roof of the theatre were covered with groundsheets captured from the enemy.
Set amid the plum orchard and a rolling lawn, "with the sun trickling through the green maze above," the new hospital seemed worthy of the effort it had required. Jordy, who stood alongside Dafoe as he regarded the scene, sensed his mood and grew even more animated. It seemed a miracle that so much had been accomplished in the village since his arrival. And now this a working hospital in the mountains with accommodation for two hundred patients. It was incredible.
"It was a bit sad to say goodbye to our little old cramped, dirty theatre, where we had fought out so many surgical battles and worked so hard," Dafoe reflected. The Old Colonel had decided to stay there until everything was transferred.
That evening, Dafoe and his assistants moved to a new campsite as well. Dafoe and Miki had gone wandering one day until they found a suitable spot some ten minutes from the orchard in a small wooded area overlooking a wheat field that extended to the edge of the cliffs. It commanded a magnificent view of the mountains on the far side. "And to the east, the river valley extended by deep gorges into the steep, purple mountains rolling into Serbia," Dafoe recalled.
Djuras and the Old Colonel inspected the campsite and whistled approvingly. Later, however, they expressed some concern that it might be vulnerable and isolated in the event of an emergency or an ambush. "We took no heed of this," Dafoe admitted, "as we had never seen what we had known as 'enemy'."
Susy continued to fuss over the men in the medical unit, as though they were her children. Dafoe knew practically nothing about her background, but he was unreservedly grateful for everything she did. "I will never forget the devotion of this fourteen-year-old girl," he recorded. She was carefree, full of life, and forever a source of entertainment, charging about in her oversized army boots. Dafoe marvelled at "her amazing strength for her size," and "how she thought of everything to make us comfortable and insisted on doing everything herself."
Susy seemed particularly attached to Chris. "All the girls thought a great deal of Chris," Dafoe noted, "and he almost had to ward them off although he made no attempt to encourage them." He recalled as well that his young anaesthetist sometimes had to run from "a tremendously big female Partisan sergeant, built more like a man than a woman, who took an immense liking" to him.
Sitting in front of a roaring campfire that night Dafoe knew it could be seen by the enemy in the valley with "a big pail of tea" that Susy had prepared, the medical unit discussed the last few days. All were struck by the strangeness of everything that had happened, as though they were "living a gypsy life."
Dafoe suggested that the new hospital was better than anything the Canadians had enjoyed in the Casualty Clearing Stations in the deserts of North Africa. The orchard served as excellent natural camouflage. He was confident the site was safely screened from prying eyes in the air or on the ground. It was a day worth celebrating, they decided.
The first day in the new hospital was a success. Dafoe felt that he was at last bringing the situation under control. He started to think again about evacuating patients to Italy and wired SOE HQ in Bari as well as Lindsay Rogers at Tito's HQ to urge some action towards establishing an airfield.
"The Partisans gave vague answers and were always looking for someplace," Dafoe noted somewhat unhappily. However, he acknowledged that much of what happened around him depended on the overall tactical situation, of which he knew practically nothing. At least aeroplanes were still making regular supply drops. He sometimes watched them at night, silhouetted against the moonlight, switching red and green lights on and off before unloading their precious cargo.
Dafoe found that he didn't need Miki as much during a normal day, now that he had some continuity in the nursing staff and had picked up some of the language. Miki "would disappear quite often for a couple of hours and then, of course, I would need him. I couldn't be angry with him, for on his return it was always some deed for our benefit that he had been working on."
Miki's sensitivity and shyness touched Dafoe. He also sensed that the young fellow was secretly in love with Jordy but hadn't the courage or opportunity to express his feelings.
"It was forbidden, but we were children," Miki recalled many years later. He and Jordy often went for walks in the nearby fields, holding hands. Miki took coffee and sugar to Mrs Herlinger, too. Jordy later suggested quietly that it was merely "a sympathy" they had shared in a difficult time. "We have been all the time together, working together, and we became more than good friends. We have been fond of each other, yes. I don't know how to define this. To me he was a very, very good friend whom I liked. And I trusted him."
Jordy's mother suspected something was happening and acted shrewdly. "You know, my mother was a very smart woman," Jordy recalled, smiling, "and in order to prevent a love story she asked Miki to be in charge of me, and to take care of me, so that nothing would happen to me. He was such a gentleman."
Dafoe noted that Jordy was "happy as a schoolgirl" most of the time. Natasan seemed equally content as she followed him during his rounds, dispensing drugs and assisting Frank with dressings. Dafoe was so impressed by the young woman that he placed her in charge of the ward nurses, giving her the responsibility for ensuring that the patients were washed and comfortable.
But only a few days later, Miki informed him that serious conflicts had developed among the nurses. Some were jealous of Jordy, who as a surgical assistant was exempted from scrubbing duties. They complained that Natasan was not doing her share of work. Moreover, they objected to being ordered about by the girl. "We all liked Natasan, and she was fulfilling a job that I had need for," Dafoe recalled. He admitted that Natasan was "pampered by the Old Colonel," and that she often lost her temper, even with him. Still, he decided to let the nurses resolve their arguments among themselves.
Then one morning, Natasan failed to appear at rounds. Dafoe was told that the female commissar had dismissed her. He was enraged, considering it an affront to "whisk her away without warning," when he had appointed her personally. Natasan's work had been more than satisfactory. Wasn't his authority in the theatre and wards being compromised?
The order removing Natasan from rounds went unchanged, but a few days later the situation improved with the arrival of a young woman assigned to work as the hospital's head nurse, twenty-five-year-old Ana Kovacic-Karaklavic. As Miki translated, Dafoe had a long talk with her. She seemed willing and capable, and Miki understood that she was a trained nurse with experience prior to the war. "This was wrong, as I found out later, but it was a considerable time later, so much was her efficiency," he added.
Ana had a robust, almost matronly figure and a pleasant smile. An outgoing individual, she "could raise hell if she wanted to," Dafoe discovered, "and the nurses liked her, respected her and, I believe, secretly feared her." Miki, as Dafoe's ever-present source of inside information, said that Ana had been married at least twice. Her first husband was killed in the war; her second was away fighting somewhere with a Partisan unit.
"Everything seemed to run smoothly under Ana's skilful and cheerful hand," Dafoe acknowledged. He and his assistants called her, affectionately, "Annie."
Dafoe worked hard in the new hospital, where casualties continued to arrive in great numbers. He was finishing his nineteenth operation late one day when a small convoy arrived carrying wounded from one of the divisional hospitals. Some were seriously injured. Dafoe did three supra-pubic drainages and treated a Partisan with shrapnel through the skull. The latter wound was at least five days old and badly infected. The man arrived in a coma and eventually died despite Dafoe's best efforts.
The other casualties had mostly compound fractures of the extremities aggravated by travel. They were treated and put to bed. All were enormously grateful for the unusually sanitary conditions in the hospital and the excellent treatment they received.
One morning Kosta Nadj called through the doorway to Dafoe as he was operating, but he was too busy to speak with the general. Ismet Mujezinovic stopped by, too long enough to paint the Canadian surgeon at work. Presumably this portrait was lost during the war, as unfortunately there is no record of it in Ismet's collection.
When Captain Wilson visited to inspect the new hospital, he seemed genuinely pleased. Later, he wired SOE in Bari with a report of Dafoe's progress. Wilson still appeared lonely and eager to talk, proposing an outing to the river Drinjaca as he sat with Dafoe at lunch. He agreed that an airfield was needed urgently, and told Dafoe that SOE HQ was encouraging the Partisans to establish one.
One night Marko returned, full of enthusiasm for his new job with a brigade nearby. Sitting by the campfire, Dafoe asked him to explain Communism. "I couldn't make much out of it except that you sold yourself heart-and-soul to the Party," he said. He chided his friend good-naturedly. Later he gave him a sleeping bag so that he could curl up for the night by the fire. In the morning, he was gone.
The weather broke shortly after Marko's visit. Rain fell steadily for at least half the day a pattern four or five days a week throughout the rest of June and into July. "It made it...a bit uncomfortable for the patients," Dafoe recalled. "The wards were quite waterproof, but the patients missed getting out in the sun."
On nights when the rains abated, everyone slept outside sometimes star-gazing or tracking the DC3s delivering more supplies. But exhausted as they might be, a full night's rest was uncommon. For one thing, wild dogs in the area were creating havoc. "They came prowling around at night after food, eating out of our cooking utensils. Big dogs, black or black-and-white a sort of slinking, cowering dog." Dafoe seemed to be the only one among the medical unit who was bothered by the animals, for he did not always sleep as soundly as his two assistants and Miki. He often shot at the lurking animals in the dark. They were disturbing the graveyard, digging up bodies and feeding on them.
In addition to the dogs, an old sow created nightly disturbances which no amount of stones or sticks flung its way could prevent. Shortly before dawn one morning, Dafoe awoke from a fitful sleep and heard a noise among the dishes outside. Still groggy, he leaned out the opening of his tent with the Lama pistol in his hand and fired "at a vague form in the semi-darkness." He realized in an instant that he had shot the sow. "It ran up the hill, did a half-turn and then keeled over." Dafoe's heart sank. He cursed sharply before rolling over to wake Frank. Together they tried to prod the sow into moving, but it was soon apparent that Dafoe had shot it clean through the heart. He was embarrassed and a little alarmed. "A pig, particularly a sow, was a mighty valuable article in this country," he wrote. "There was sure to be hell to pay."
Soon Miki was awake, laughing and calling it all a joke. Dafoe was not amused.
"How I made such a perfect shot, half-asleep, is more than I can understand," he complained to Frank.
In the morning a peasant arrived, sat down and stared grief-stricken at the dead sow. He was accompanied by another peasant, who said he was the owner's lawyer. "I felt as if I had committed a murder," Dafoe testified. Miki, unmoved, promptly issued a stern warning to the peasants not to press the matter. He reminded them that they had been advised to keep the sow confined and away from the hospital grounds. "How he expected them to keep it confined, I don't know, for we had used all the fences for the firewood."
The sow's owner proved reluctant to take Dafoe's offer of money to compensate for the loss, but one of the commissars settled the argument by sending the peasant another pig. "The peasant was quite satisfied but as a parting shot asked us for a silk parachute, which Miki indignantly refused, saying he had been well paid."
Meanwhile, "the murder victim" was carted away to the butchers.
Undeterred by the incident, Dafoe and his assistants continued to shoot at sounds in the night. "We almost shot ourselves a couple of times, and once just missed a passing peasant." Finally, one of the commissars declared an all-out campaign to eradicate the nuisance which by then must have included the trigger-happy medical unit as much as the animals. The wandering dogs were finally cleared from the area.
Dafoe at last felt that he had enough work to keep him occupied. He never felt tired, he claimed, for "it was all so interesting and productive." The staff at Korpus HQ and Miki, conversely, urged a more moderate pace. "But I told them that I would complain with not enough work to do, never too much," Dafoe noted.
Meanwhile, Djuras was still dragging his feet with construction of the showers and washstands, and Dafoe had by now grown weary of dealing with flies in the hospital and maggots under the patients' plasters. He decided one day to ride to Dukici, where he outlined the situation to Kosta Nadj and Vladimir Popovic. Both men listened intently, and when he had finished, asked him why he hadn't voiced his concerns earlier. He explained that he had hoped to avoid bothering them but felt it was necessary. Nadj and Popovic assured him they would deal with the matter at once.
In a few days, six showers were constructed using an ingenious method. The water ran from a nearby stream through rubber piping salvaged from the Flying Fortress. Then it was diverted to a steel drum under which lay a fireplace. Attached to the drum was a pump that moved the heated water to the shower stalls. These were surrounded by curtains made from white parachute silk.
Dafoe was elated with the workmanship. He could not imagine where the Partisans had found the nozzles or pump and the system worked! The Partisans, particularly the women, enjoyed the showers immensely shrieking gratitude for the chance to wash properly after years of bathing in streams.
Not far from the new hospital, a peasant's hut was being converted into a bakery. Already several masons from the village were at work on an enormous brick oven. Other huts were to be used as kitchens. Commissar Djuras had seemed positively possessed by the need to work since Dafoe's meeting with the General Staff. One night around the campfire, Djuras outlined his own plan to provide electricity to the village. The Partisans had a generator, some wire, and enough bulbs stored in one of the underground magazines, he said. Dafoe admitted it was a good idea, but encouraged Djuras to concentrate on finishing the latrines first.
"There are twenty-seven diseases spread by flies that can attack and infect the human body, Djuras. Twenty-seven. Tell, him, Miki."
Djuras nodded seriously as Miki translated. The latrines would be finished first.
One night a larger-than-usual consignment of medical supplies including almost half a ton of Red Cross stores arrived with the Bari-based DC3s. Most of the materials were sent to Dr Levi for distribution among the divisional hospitals and other medical units in the area. Dafoe set aside the Red Cross items for his own hospital.
These were an eclectic assortment, as it turned out everything from pyjamas to soap, toothpaste, writing paper, hot-water bottles, and bathing trunks. The latter were used as underwear. Among the canisters Dafoe found a small cache of brandy and whisky. It was carefully put away, but Dafoe and his assistants took a bottle of each and went in search of the British Mission's HQ.
It was not an easy job to find the Mission after a raid the previous month on Tito's HQ in Drvar had sent the Partisans farther into the mountains. Just how much Dafoe knew of the raid at that time is not clear, but it did affect him personally. For one thing, he knew that Lindsay Rogers was in the vicinity of Tito's HQ or had been until then and he worried for his friend's safety.
The incident itself was interesting. The attack on Drvar had been a brilliantly executed failure, although to some extent it remains clouded by mystery. Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Street, acting chief of the British Mission with Tito's HQ while Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean was in England, had spotted a Luftwaffe reconnaisance aircraft over the village on May 22, 1944. Concluding that an enemy attack was imminent, he had warned Tito's HQ to evacuate its position.
The attack had begun at 0630 on May 25. Fifty enemy bombers softened the terrain shortly before Junkers 52 transport aeroplanes appeared overhead and dropped paratroopers who seized landing grounds for gliders following in another wave. Tito and Lieutenant-Colonel Street had watched the attack from a cave overlooking Drvar. "It was clear that the Germans knew the exact location of this cave, for soon after the attack started, a party attempted to reach it but were soon driven back," he recalled. Tito and the Mission had escaped through a tunnel dug in the back of the cave and, after a long and harrowing march with several more narrow escapes, had been airlifted to Bari.
Anthony Cave Brown, in his biography of "Wild Bill" Donovan, who headed the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), asserts that a leak in Washington was responsible for the enemy's precise knowledge of the HQ in Drvar and Tito's cave. A military attache with the Royal Yugoslav Embassy had somehow acquired the information from OSS officers or other contacts and cabled it to Cetniks in Cairo, whereupon it was relayed to Mihailovic and, in due course, to the German Command.
Other members of the British Mission had not been as fortunate as Tito and Street. Among those captured in Drvar was J H C Talbot, a war correspondent employed by Reuters, whom Dafoe had met.
Talbot, an American photographer named Perry Fowler, and an unidentified English newsreel cameraman had been lined up against a wall by a squad of German airborne soldiers who clearly intended to execute them even though they wore British and American uniforms identifying them as official war correspondents. The newsmen were shouting desperately that they were not Partisans when, as Talbot recalled, "Thank God, an officer walked around the corner and, realizing we were not Yugoslavs, shouted out the orders that saved our lives."
For a while Talbot and Fowler were put to work carrying stretchers with German wounded. Later, a Cetnik patrol had come into the village and, upon discovering that Talbot was English, acknowledged "the English were good, as King Peter was in England." One of the Cetniks wanted to shake hands with the English correspondent. Talbot refused.
Talbot was taken by small aeroplane to a German military post somewhere in Serbia before travelling to Zagreb and, finally, to Vienna. There he was handed over to the Gestapo for questioning. This was followed by six months in solitary confinement.
"The day I got there," he recalled in a letter to the author, "my jailer came into the cell and asked who I was. I told him, 'Englischer Kriegskorrespondent.' He asked me what paper. I said: 'Depeschen Agentur Reuter.' He gave me a look and then walked to the door. There, he turned: 'That's funny,' he said, 'my name is Reuter.' He was quite friendly after that."
Talbot was interrogated repeatedly while in Vienna and then sent to a transit camp en route to Berlin. He ended up in a German concentration camp, where he remained until it was liberated by the Americans.
Dafoe was aware only of Talbot's capture in Drvar and knew nothing of his subsequent fate. The two had met just before the raid, when Talbot visited Mihajlovici to investigate reports of Dafoe's "amazing hospital" in the mountains. Forty years later, Talbot recalled, "Major Dafoe was a man I am very proud to have met. He was a very courageous man and dedicated to his work in caring for Tito's Partisans."
Dafoe had enjoyed the journalist's company and was no doubt disturbed by the news of his capture.
The new Mission HQ was well into the mountains now, well camouflaged in the woods and heavily guarded. There Dafoe rooted out Captain Wilson, young Lincoln, and Diklic, who were with a new man, identified only as Corporal Ball (documents in Yugoslavia suggest his full name was Balldennis, or more likely Dennis Ball). All were billeted in an abandoned stable and Dafoe suspected they were suffering the effects of Wilson's volatile nature. Diklic grumbled that Wilson had added another grey hair to his head that day.
From his description of the mood at the Mission, Dafoe could not have picked a better time to arrive with the brandy and whisky. Soon the entire group was mildly intoxicated. "What a grand feeling," Dafoe confessed. "I hadn't felt so good in a long time. Even the long walk home seemed like a short step."
Dafoe was operating in the theatre early one morning towards the end of June when a visitor appeared in the doorway with Captain Wilson. It was Ian McGregor, the sergeant orderly who had accompanied Lindsay Rogers into Yugoslavia in November 1943. McGregor recalls that Dafoe struck a picture of concentration where he stood, dressed in sweat-stained khaki short sleeves and rumpled trousers. He seemed well tanned as usual, but also underweight, and "imbued with the job of getting the people right." McGregor asked how it was going.
"It's pretty grim," Dafoe answered tersely. "There's a hell of a lot of work to be done."
"We'll get you an airfield as soon as we can," McGregor promised.
"Can't be soon enough," Dafoe replied.
Dafoe's description of his meeting with McGregor omits that exchange and, in so doing, reveals much of his character and the gruelling nature of his work. His accounts of meals, meetings, outings, and the arrival of new or familiar faces were written long after he had left Yugoslavia when some of the edge had gone and his memory of the adventure was tempered considerably by several circumstances, including having survived it. But Ian McGregor remembers the incident vividly.
McGregor, at twenty-five, was in every respect the James Bond-type that author Ian Fleming himself had seen countless times while serving with SOE during the war. Among the many fanciful, yet lethal items McGregor carried was a special safety razor supplied by the SOE boffins. It contained a single .22-calibre round in the handle which, when pulled back and given a half-turn anti-clockwise, would fire at an unsuspecting victim. McGregor had also acquired valuable experience with SAS units ranging behind enemy lines in the Middle East and North Africa. Later he had accompanied Lindsay Rogers into Yugoslavia, when "Vaseline" was landed on the island of Vis in the Adriatic. Eventually McGregor earned a reputation as a "parachute pimpernel" in Yugoslavia, dashing from one spot to another while organizing airfields and rescuing downed air-men. He had been with the British Mission in Drvar when it was attacked and had cleared the way for Tito and Lieutenant-Colonel Street to get safely to Italy.
McGregor records that he set up an airstrip at Kupresko Polje to evacuate them and describes as follows the events of June 3, 1944: "At nightfall we heard a DC3...two hours or so before one was due. It was signalled in, and imagine our shock to see the Red Star insignia.... Anyway, our 'red heroes' [the Soviet Mission] boarded the plane. Suddenly, from out of the woods, Tito and his dog, Tiger, bodyguards and aides walked [into view] and boarded the [DC3], followed by Vivian Street and some of the British Mission." Off they went, Street telling McGregor he "felt like a shit for abandoning him." McGregor had spirited Major Jones, the colourful one-eyed Canadian, out of Yugoslavia as well.
McGregor's notes reveal that he landed by parachute in the area of the British Mission at 0100 on June 26, 1944. He contacted Wilson at 0130 and was escorted to Kosta Nadj at Korpus HQ. Several days later he visited Dafoe in Mihajlovici.
Dafoe recalled that McGregor's arrival was "a breath of spring" to the medical unit. He came with news from the outside world, including confirmation that Lindsay Rogers had escaped injury during the raid on Drvar.
The prospect of securing an airfield cheered everyone except Wilson, who did not think such an enterprise would succeed. But Dafoe had great faith in McGregor's bold spirit. Indeed, he told Dafoe that he was on his way to inspect a Lysander strip in Krajaci, a small village about three kilometres north of Canici, where Dafoe had landed, and eight kilometres north of Sekovici. Dafoe advised McGregor not to take Wilson's pessimism too seriously and gave him several messages for Lindsay Rogers. With that, McGregor set out on horseback, but word of his visit circulated throughout the hospital. Dafoe detected some "suppressed excitement and anticipation" in the wards as patients discussed their chances of being evacuated to Italy. Even the Old Colonel grew animated. Perhaps he would at last fulfil his fondest wish: to bask in the warm Italian sun.
For Dafoe, the excitement was tempered by the demands of work at hand. He was dismayed at the surprising number of young boys, aged twelve to sixteen, who arrived with severe wounds. Two required mid-thigh amputations. He was told the boys were excellent soldiers, used mainly for sabotage and hit-and-run attacks. They were best at sneaking up behind tanks and armoured vehicles with grenades and homemade bombs. Unfortunately, an alarming number were also killed or wounded during the raids.
Two hospitals were now filled to capacity, comprising some two hundred patients in both the orchard and the old site in the village. Dr Levi visited occasionally to make a quick round of the wards, then disappeared to file his report to Korpus HQ. These reports were also sent to the Supreme Headquarters of the People's Liberation Army, where they were read by Tito. Dafoe's efforts in Mihajlovici did not go unnoticed at the highest levels.
One morning, as he was in the middle of surgery, a message summoned him to a telephone in the village. "It was Wilson," he recorded, "who to my amazement informed me...that six aeroplanes were arriving the following night." Evidently, Ian McGregor was a force to be reckoned with.
Dafoe returned at once to the hospital and found Dr Levi already selecting the wounded who would make the journey to southern Italy. Several nurses, including one with a chronic appendix condition, would be leaving as well.
The saddest news for Dafoe was that the Old Colonel had received orders to accompany the patients out of the country. Though he seemed relieved, Natasan was devastated by the imminent separation, as she had been forbidden to go.
The Old Colonel ordered a new uniform from a tailor in the village in anticipation of the airlift. Tremendous excitement rippled throughout Mihajlovici as news of the evacuation circulated, and the atmosphere in the hospital was charged with gossip and flushed faces.
As activity in the hospital swelled, Dafoe quietly went about his own work. He feared that more wounded would arrive now that his hospital was soon to be emptied. The ordeal was far from over.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.