Airlift to Italy
Dafoe had decided against journeying to the airfield himself, and assigned Frank and Chris to accompany the evacuees. He rose early the next day and found the two had returned.
Unfortunately, the aeroplanes had not arrived as scheduled, but a mood of "general merriment and rejoicing" had prevailed in any case among the throng of peasants and Partisans who had assembled to witness the event. It was hoped by all that the Bari-based DC3s would arrive that night instead some twenty-four hours late.
Shortly after breakfast, Frank and Chris joined Dafoe in the orchard to treat more newly arrived wounded. Dafoe was distressed to see the results of some surgery attempted by "a so-called surgeon named Boris."
"Nothing short of gross experimentation!" he exploded.
Stitching was poorly done, the use of plaster was bad, and he found drainage tubes in muscle and tendon at least four or five days old as well as incisions made straight across muscle. The medical unit worked to make as many of the new arrivals as comfortable as possible that day before they were sent along to join the hundreds still waiting at the airfield.
There were more cases that afternoon, but Dafoe could attend only to the most serious ones. By nightfall, Frank and Chris set out on horseback with Miki to supervise the evacuation, naturally hoping that it would not be delayed again. Dafoe and a garrulous young stretcher-bearer called Radovan appointed by Miki to serve the peripatetic Canadian settled down to a quiet night by the fire in the campsite. With Susy still at the airfield, they made their own tea.
Frank, Chris, and Miki brought news from the airfield the next morning. The aeroplanes had arrived to great waves of excitement, with Wilson marshalling each into position using a flashlight almost as they touched down. The Old Colonel had been in fine form. Sporting his smart new uniform complete with gold braid, but with trousers rolled up because they were too long, he seemed quite beside himself with joy throughout the proceedings.
The young pilots, mostly RAF and New Zealanders, were amazed at the reception. A feast had been prepared by the Partisans while the peasants, in traditional costume, greeted the airmen with singing and dancing. The younger Partisan girls had unbraided their long hair for the occasion. When the pilots and aircrew asked where the enemy was, they were shocked by the Partisans' cool reply that Cetniks were only a few hundred metres away in the hills probably watching all the activity.
Eight aeroplanes had arrived, but the Partisans were told that each DC3 would hold only 28 wounded or 224 in all. This created a momentary stir, with more than 600 patients waiting for evacuation. "Although we knew it would be dangerous, we put thirty-five, and even forty wounded on every aeroplane," Dr Levi recalled. "So we dispatched about three hundred in the first round."
Wilson discovered what the Partisans had done and warned them he would stop any further landings unless they promised to obey the rules.
Frank, Chris, and Miki were worn out from the evening's work and long journey back to the hospital, but stayed awake to assist Dafoe. Later in the day, he received a message from Wilson that Lindsay Rogers would be aboard one of the DC3s expected that night. This was wonderful news. Dafoe knew his travel-wise friend would bring along cigarettes "and other comforts." He decided to go to the airfield himself that night.
In his journals, Dafoe described the journey: "We travelled through immense woods of beech and oak on a path amidst great green ferns up and down the hills. The path was quite well-worn from the passage of so many feet and ox-carts on their way to the landing strip. Occasionally we came to a spring, which was helpful, for it was warm that day."
Eventually Dafoe's party came out of the woods and stood momentarily to view an immense valley stretching for a great distance and dotted here and there with peasant houses in white stucco with red-tiled rooftops. A level field and a mosque beside a small village far away, a ruined castle and crags on either side of the valley were distinguishable in the soft haze that covered the landscape. Dafoe could pick out the airstrip, "an immense flat field with excellent approaches," in the middle of the great elliptical valley rimmed by low-lying foothills. This saucer-like setting, perfect for an airfield, was the village Osmaci.
In 1953, a small stone monument with a plaque was erected by the inhabitants of Osmaci at the edge of the field. It stands to this day, and reads: "On this spot during the summer of 1944 our Allies with aeroplanes picked up over 300 badly wounded and took them to Italy."
In fact, according to documents obtained in Yugoslavia, at least 435 wounded, sick, and other personnel were evacuated during three known airlifts. Some other credible evidence suggests that many more than a thousand were taken to Italy.
Without diminishing at all the contribution made by others in securing the airfield, the Partisans and especially Kosta Nadj remember that it was Colin Scott Dafoe who played the greatest role by preparing such a vast number of wounded for transport. Moreover, when Captain Wilson had expressed reservations, doubting that an airfield could be established safely in the thick of enemy territory, Dafoe had argued, "If the Partisans say it's safe, it's safe. Now let's get on with it."
Dafoe's quarrels with Wilson were widely known. For one thing, Dafoe was the only member of the British Mission who saluted the Partisans with their own slogan: "Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People!" There were indications of a rift developing between the officer commanding the Mission and the Canadian in charge of the medical unit as a result. The airfield in Osmaci was Dafoe's triumph over Wilson's inability to recognize and accept both the demands of guerrilla warfare and the tremendous resourcefulness of the Partisans.
Nor did Wilson appreciate the talents of Ian McGregor, who had more than fulfilled his promise to Dafoe. Shortly after their meeting in Mihajlovici, McGregor had ridden on horseback along the mountain trails until, coming out of the woods, he was confronted by the magnificent view of the valley surrounding Osmaci. From the escarpment he was surprised to see as many as four hundred peasants already hacking away at the ridges below with antiquated tools, preparing a landing strip. They had come from the nearby villages and towns for an enormous work detail organized by a Partisan officer named Drago Mazar, whom Dafoe knew. McGregor rode into Osmaci and took charge. A building, the remains of a wall, and trees had to be cleared. McGregor signalled Bari with a progress report and the precise location of the airfield. When completed, the airstrip was marked every hundred yards with branches and straw. These would be ignited to make a flarepath when the aircraft approached.
Everyone had waited anxiously that second night, until in the indigo sky the distant rumbling of aircraft engines could be heard. McGregor had set up his Aldis lamp to signal the incoming DC3s. He used the first line of a sonnet in which the letters corresponded with the day and month; the aircrews responded with the second line, flashed into the night and read from the ground. "Nine times out of ten it didn't work," McGregor recalled. "And it really didn't matter. I could tell whether the aircraft was a DC3 or not by the sound."
McGregor had climbed aboard the last DC3 on its way out. His orders from SOE HQ were to site more airfields elsewhere in Yugoslavia, "principally in Serbia and Montenegro," according to Dafoe.
Now, that third night, as he stood on the escarpment overlooking Osmaci and regarded the airfield below, Dafoe sensed a truly dramatic moment unfolding. He and his companions descended in high spirits, cutting through cornfields at the edge of a long road jammed with peasants and ox-carts. The traffic on the road stretched as far as he could see. "I didn't think there were so many peasants and carts in the whole of Bosnia, let alone the district! We pushed past them and around them. Cries of 'Englezi!' rose around us." Dafoe travelled along the rough road for several kilometres until it came to Osmaci, then turned right and forded a stream impatient to reach the airfield. Soon they encountered Wilson, Diklic, Lincoln, and the new wireless operator, Ball, and were greeted warmly.
Lincoln was going out for a holiday or at least ostensibly to look after several matters for Wilson. "I thought possibly he wouldn't come back, as he had had enough of Wilson and had said as much." The chatty Cockney assured Dafoe he would return. Meanwhile, Ball had taken over the wireless set, and informed everyone that six DC3s were arriving that evening.
Diklic seemed in an unusually buoyant mood. He was on his way to check the lighting arrangements on the flarepath along the runway and asked Dafoe to join him.
"We passed the patients, comfortably parked under some trees but looking strange in their underwear," Dafoe recalled. Diklic told him the Partisans could not afford to send precious clothing out of the country and so had stripped the patients, including women, to whatever was sufficient to protect their modesty. They stood huddled against the evening chill, mingling as though they were attending "a fireman's ball," Dafoe thought.
He strolled down one edge of the airstrip with Diklic and stopped at each lighting post now upgraded to paraffin lamps to make sure the tender was on duty and awake. He and Diklic were occasionally challenged by guards as they went from post to post, which was reassuring. "George told me that the Partisans had strong forces all around, particularly in the hills. The road was mined against tanks and armoured cars," he added confidently. The need for such security was underscored by recent skirmishes with Cetniks in the area.
Meanwhile, preparations were underway for a celebration. Carpets were spread out and tablecloths laid by the young peasant women. Strawberries arrived by the basket-load. The moon cast a soft glow over the night's activity and revealed a cluster of officers under several trees to one side, smoking and chatting amiably among themselves, even laughing aloud occasionally. The patients were everywhere, leaning on crutches, or sitting on the grass waiting for the big moment.
Miki suddenly appeared out of nowhere with Frank and Chris and handed Dafoe a flask filled with rakija. Dafoe in turn hailed Dikiic and Wilson and gave each a drink just as the Partisan war correspondent Dusko Blagojevic appeared to lead them to a carpet spread on the ground. Here, Dafoe was presented with a bouquet of marigolds a symbol of welcome, he was told. The rakija continued to flow freely, and the men enjoyed a small feast of pork and proja, followed by strawberries and yoghurt.
Dafoe, in a jaunty mood, told Dusko about Lindsay Rogers and gave him a bit of background to their adventures together in North Africa. The evening wore on pleasantly but by midnight, Dafoe grew worried. He had heard aeroplanes far off, but not one had appeared overhead. Several times Diklic had dashed to the far end of the runway or shouted to Ball to signal with the Aldis lamp, but the night sky remained empty. The patients were beginning to look "cold and pathetic," Dafoe noticed. Firing echoed in the foothills: the Partisans engaging Cetnik units in a diversionary encounter, Dafoe was told. General Vukotic strode back and forth nearby, occasionally shouting an order.
Then, at approximately 0100, a single DC3 appeared overhead, its silhouette sharply outlined in the moonlight.
Immediately, a chorus erupted from where the patients were assembled: "Avion! Avion!"
Ball signalled the aeroplane with the Aldis lamp. Almost at once the red and green lights on the DC3's wingtips flashed a solemn reply. The paraffin lamps were lit down the length of the runway, exploding into a brilliant glow over the field and illuminating the expectant faces of the multitude awaiting anxiously among the trees. It was a dangerous and wonderful moment.
The aeroplane circled with its signal lights on and then came around again for its approach. As it descended, its landing lights switched on. In Dafoe's mind it was as though "a continental express stabbed the darkness with a blinding glare, and it slowly settled down to the ground with a short run, coming up to a stop leaving plenty of space to spare."
Wilson rushed forward with a torch to guide the DC3 over some rough ground to an improvised apron. Its engines surged over the rugged field and a small hurricane of dust and debris flew out behind until the aeroplane came to a halt.
General Vukotic and Diklic had a detail ready to unload the DC3 without delay. Crates of ammunition were quickly carried away. Dafoe saw Diklic collect several cartons of cigarettes from the pilot. "George knew the ropes," he noted. Then the pilot emerged, apologizing for the delay in reaching the airfield. He had had difficulty finding it. They had circled for an hour and a half, he said, and were fired at with tracers and anti-aircraft guns.
Dafoe was surprised to see such a young pilot "almost a boy," he declared and an American at that. He had strict orders to take twenty-five patients, no more, on his return flight, and added that a DC3 had crashed somewhere in Yugoslavia after taking off with more than the maximum number allowed. He also feared being grounded if he exceeded the limit.
Dafoe argued with the pilot, urging him to see for himself how pathetic the wounded were as they stood, scantily clad, under the trees.
"He melted and sold out for thirty-five," Dafoe recalled triumphantly.
Already another DC3 had circled overhead and was turning into the brilliant glare of the flarepath, but the aircrew with Dafoe seemed more interested in the attractive young girls who were pressing bouquets of flowers into their hands and welcoming them to the feast.
Dafoe introduced the aircrew to General Vukotic, "telling them he was a Montenegrin and a mighty tough boy. The General was quite pleased to shake hands with them."
The Americans, like the RAF and New Zealanders who had come on the previous airlift, asked where the enemy was situated, and were just as startled when Dafoe casually replied that Cetniks were only two or three hundred metres away, on the other side of the hill.
"But where's the Partisan army?" one of the Americans asked, visibly alarmed. Some laughter erupted around them.
"I wouldn't worry just now," Dafoe answered calmly. "Everything's under control. C'mon, enjoy yourselves."
Before long, there was an outburst of singing as the entertainment got underway. "In the moonlight, with the clear, fresh air cut by their rich, full voices in harmony, the aircrews were spellbound," Dafoe recalled. "The Partisans can sing. It is one of their chief enjoyments. Old and young, everybody seems to have a good voice and sense of harmony."
Dafoe knew that the Americans were unable to comprehend the emotions behind the outburst of song or the feast that surrounded them. But they were enthralled. Following the chorus, a soloist appeared. Dafoe thought it "even more spectacular" a performance.
Soon a third DC3 touched down and taxied to a halt along the runway. Dafoe could detect much scurrying about in the background before the newest aircrew could detach themselves from the welcoming mob. He had almost forgotten Lindsay Rogers "in the pleasure of seeing and hearing Americans again," until the new pilot informed him that his DC3 would be the last that night. Rogers had climbed aboard the first aeroplane departing Italy, but it and two others had turned back for some reason.
Sobered by that news, Dafoe left the festivities long enough to investigate the activity around the third DC3 while supervising the loading of patients. He tried to squeeze a few extra aboard, "using such subterfuge as not counting the nurses" who accompanied the patients. But one airman "detected the crime" and put a stop to it. A priest had to climb aboard to pick out several patients who were to stay behind. "How pathetic they all looked, huddled together," Dafoe recalled.
The problem was exacerbated with the number of aeroplanes cut from six to three and might have been greater still had Dafoe and the others not persuaded some airmen to take more wounded than they had been ordered to allow. According to Dr Levi, there were aboard the DC3s several black Americans who saved the day. "Our leaders reached an understanding with the blacks very quickly. I don't know how. They allowed us to embark as many wounded as possible and they reported to their officers that they had taken less people than they actually had done. The American officers forgot that they should be watching over the loading of the wounded," Levi said, adding that they appeared more interested in some of the young women at the airfield.
The doors were closed and fastened shut as the engines on the DC3s coughed to life again. The first aeroplane taxied into position facing the wind, then down the runway with its lights illuminating the entire area. "And so it roared away down the field, gradually gathering speed until its momentum took it off the land and it skimmed a nearby small hill. It gradually gained altitude and circled into the distant blue star-specked sky," Dafoe recalled. The second DC3 followed soon after. And finally the third, leaving behind a cloud of dust and the waving assembly of Partisans. Lincoln had climbed aboard at the last moment.
Dafoe estimated that as many as a hundred patients were evacuated that night. The others were led away and sheltered in a neighbouring village to await the next airlift. Wilson, Diklic, and Ball remained at the airfield where they camped in anticipation of another night's work, but Dafoe decided to return to Mihajlovici without delay. Wilson offered him a guide, but Miki insisted he knew the route back. Dafoe bade farewell to the men in the British Mission and with Miki, Frank, and Chris at his side, set out under the moonlit sky satisfied that he had seen so many patients evacuated despite the shortage of aeroplanes, disappointed that Lindsay Rogers had not made it to Osmaci, but generally in good spirits after a successful evening.
That everything went almost disastrously wrong so soon afterwards was the greatest shock to Dafoe.
To start with, Miki disappeared almost immediately, although it took some time for Dafoe to realise it. Frank and Chris followed him into a cornfield until they came to what appeared to be a short-cut leading to the road they had travelled on earlier. Dafoe found the road, but when he swung around to announce the fact he discovered that his assistants were nowhere in sight.
He waited a short while and then concluded that Frank and Chris had somehow passed him, and were probably waiting further ahead. He set out on his own, passing ox-carts and horses loaded with supplies, and Partisans returning on foot to Mihajlovici. Unable to remember where he should get off the road, he decided to continue, assuming it would lead eventually to the village. At one point, he bumped into a Partisan who mistook him for the enemy and began attacking Dafoe with a large stick. Dafoe fended him off, shouting "Englez! Englez!" The man asked Dafoe for a cigarette.
Later, another Partisan emerged from behind a clump of trees at the side of the road, and investigated Dafoe thoroughly. He saw a Partisan woman dash into the woods with a load of ammunition on her back, and realised he was probably close to one of the secret magazines.
Soon the ox-carts and trail of Partisans thinned out and Dafoe started to climb a hill, which he thought was "very picturesque in the moonlight." But as he climbed, he encountered fewer people on the road and soon the moonlight was screened by a thick canopy of trees overhead. Then the road abruptly branched off in different directions, confusing him. He decided to stay on what appeared to be the main road towards the village.
Near the top of the hill the road levelled. Then it stopped altogether, "for no apparent reason whatsoever," Dafoe recalled. He knew he'd reached the end of his journey for the night, and admitted he was lost. With a pocket knife he cut some ferns for bedding, and slept aided, he was sure, by the rakija he had consumed at the airfield.
He rose early the next morning, cold and stiff, and discovered why the road had ended where it did. He stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep gorge. "I could see the Spreca valley on my left, with the homes looking like doll houses, but in front of me and to the right were nothing but steep wooded cliffs and mountains." The landmarks were unfamiliar. Nevertheless, Dafoe felt reassured. "I had a general idea where I was, and where Mihajlovici was, but I saw it was going to be a long, hard walk without the fenced path we had followed earlier."
He started his descent, aiming for a small hollow below where several peasant dwellings were located. Several dogs began to bark wildly at one point. "Then I saw a peasant woman come to the door [of one of the buildings], yawning and stretching," he recalled. "She didn't seemed surprised to see me." Dafoe asked her for directions to the village, and she pointed to where he reckoned it lay. Pushing on he soon reached the edge of a limestone cliff. "It was absolutely vertical, and I had great difficulty getting down while clinging to slanted trees, and had some narrow escapes with rocks careening down after me." Eventually he reached the bottom and forded a swift-running stream that was lined with spruce trees. Several water-driven mills for grinding corn were visible along the banks. "The other side of the mountain was more gentle in its rise," Dafoe said, "and cleared in parts the fields overgrown with wild flowers." It was hard work making the ascent, but enjoyable also. The solitude was refreshing. Halfway up he stopped, "overcome by weariness and the effects of rakija and litle sleep." He found a shaded spot and quickly fell asleep with his Lama pistol in one hand.
He woke shortly before noon, and saw a peasant woman descending towards him. Dafoe thought she seemed more friendly than the woman he had met earlier, in the village across the valley. She confirmed the direction to Mihajlovici.
He waited long enough to wash in a nearby stream, and then resumed his journey up the hill "a long, hard climb." He passed through thick woods and then reached a plateau, where a larger village of perhaps thirty buildings was situated. Here Dafoe found a crowd of peasants lingering about, more men than women he noted. They glared at him suspiciously, and at that moment Dafoe realised he was perhaps in more danger than he had thought. He wished he was carrying the Marlin, instead of the smaller Lama.
Near the outskirts of the village, he encountered several boys playing by a spring coming from the side of the mountain. He had a long, cool drink, and then turned to the group.
"Gde je Mihajlovici?" he asked, with his peculiar accent. "Trazim Mihajlovici."
Immediately the boys began conferring among themselves. Dafoe was unable to follow their hurried dialogue, and didn't like the sound of it. He decided to abandon the attempt and continued along the route he was following.
"I had walked approximately a mile and was climbing over a fence when suddenly two peasants with rifles, and appearing very angry and menacing, sprang out of some bushes."
Dafoe wasn't sure what the peasants were saying, but he tried anyway to answer confusing English and French with "a few words of Arabic." The peasants grew more threatening and were soon joined by two more men, both heavily armed.
Dafoe's first thought was to run for it. "But they had me caught purposely, I suppose, with a leg on either side of the fence. One false move would mean a bullet before I got to the ground."
He tried shouting. "Engleski oficir! Doktor! Engleski lekar!" The peasants grew more agitated, and made gestures indicating they were prepared if not eager to shoot. "They obviously wanted me to do something," Dafoe recalled. "But in the confusion, I couldn't think what."
Finally, Dafoe raised his hands above his head and watched nervously as the rifles dropped somewhat. He climbed down from the fence carefully and approached the peasants, with his hands well in the air. Then he remembered what he had heard about Cetniks, "particularly how they tortured prisoners." One of the peasants came forward, searched Dafoe's pockets and took the Lama. Moments later, Dafoe's hands were tightly bound behind his back with some rough cord.
"I realised they were arguing whether to shoot me there or in the village," Dafoe said of the conversation that swirled around him. He felt a sharp stab of pain in his back as he was prodded along with the barrel of a rifle, and understood that a public execution had won the short debate. He cursed himself for his poor knowledge of Serbo-Croat as he marched along, and thought desperately for a way out of his situation.
"I gave up the "Engleski" part and tried to stress that I was a doctor, for they were always useful, even to Cetniks."
It didn't work. Each time he spoke, he received another vicious jolt from the rifle end in his back.
His captors marched him back to the village where he had stopped earlier for a drink from the mountain spring. There he spotted the group of boys he had spoken with while asking for directions to Mihajlovici. They at once made accusing gestures at him, and nodded, confirming he was "the strange man in a uniform who asked for Mihailovic."
Somehow, the absurdity of his dilemma sank in, and Dafoe was momentarily stunned as well as afraid. The peasants he had encountered along the way had confused the name of the village, Mihajlovici, with that of the Cetnik leader.
One can only imagine the thoughts that raced through his mind in the midst of such a scene. We don't know how much time Dafoe had to contemplate his predicament or how much time he thought he had. He told himself in the aeroplane as it departed Italy for Yugoslavia that if anything went wrong during the mission, "it would not be such a bad way to go," but this was hardly what he had anticipated.
His thoughts, mingled with last-minute impressions of his captors arguing among themselves, of the boys who had reported his inquiries, of the peasant women who glared at him now with unconcealed hatred, of the rifles raised in his direction, of a wall or an empty field where his fate might be decided soon enough, must have darted and criss-crossed and become blurred during those moments.
"Suddenly, at the edge of the crowd, I recognised a boy of 12-15 years, whom I had treated at the hospital for an infected hand."
The realisation must have sent a chill through Dafoe. Was it really the same boy? It was.
"Cekaj! Znam.... The boy! Nama!" Dafoe gestured as well as he could with his hands tightly bound, while struggling also to find the right words.
Some among the crowd fell silent. Several peasants realised Dafoe was attempting to gesture towards the boy. He nodded as they traced his light of sight, and looked back for confirmation. "Da, da!"
The boy was ushered forward. Now there was almost complete silence. Dafoe looked searchingly at the lad as he approached. The boy studied Dafoe's face briefly, then turned to the peasants and said something. The next thing Dafoe knew his hands were being untied and the crowd was pressing up to him, laughing and smiling and slapping him on the back.
An old man emerged from the jostling mob and lectured Dafoe sternly in Serbo-Croat. Dafoe gathered he was being scolded for wandering about the region by himself, and asking for "Draza Mihailovic," the despised Cetnik leader. Dafoe was carried away by the current of the crowd to an area nearby, where food and drink had appeared for a celebration.
It had all happened so quickly.
Afterwards, Dafoe said he welcomed the hospitality, but decided not to stay any longer than was necessary to seem grateful. The peasants assigned two guides to accompany Dafoe, one of which had a shortened leg and a stiff knee from an old gunshot wound. The other was the boy who had saved his life simply by recognising him.
Together they set out, descending at first through woods and then along a well-worn path for several kilometres until they reached the edge of a hill overlooking the hospital. It was late in the afternoon when they reached the village. Dafoe found Frank, Chris and Miki sound asleep at the campsite, and decided not to disturb them. Susy was nowhere in sight, but another firl had left a meal out for him, which was now cold. He shared it with his guides and gave them all the spare cigarettes he had as they were about to depart.
But then Miki woke, and in his excitement soon had Frank and Chris on their feet. The peasant guides described Dafoe's narrow escape. Miki went pale as he listened, and prayed aloud that General Vukotic did not learn of the incident.
For their part, Frank and Chris said they had wandered about after leaving the airfield, as well, and hadn't reached the campsite until early that morning. Miki had spent the night camped at Osmaci "the wisest of us all," Dafoe concluded, even if his young guard had set out with the rest of them and was supposed to ensure their safety.
"So much for walking at night in Bosnia," Dafoe said, putting an end to the matter.
He collected his kit and set off at once for the hospital to check on the patients.
The next day, Wilson telephoned with news that Lindsay Rogers would attempt to land that night. Dafoe was no doubt pleased by his friend's perseverance, but only Miki would be going to the airfield this time. That night Dafoe wrote "a stiff note" to Wilson, complaining that Frank and Chris had received only two hundred cigarettes between them in the last month. He thought his assistants deserved better treatment. Moreover, he threatened to send a message to Bari if something wasn't done about the cigarette ration. "Tobacco meant so much here," he pointed out. As for Dafoe himself, he still had enough for his pipe.
The note to Wilson marked the first shot fired in what would become known as "the tobacco wars," a bitter conflict that would divide the men of the British Mission, much to Dafoe's embarrassment, and with potentially far-reaching ramifications for his future in Yugoslavia.
Miki returned in the morning without Lindsay Rogers, who had again failed to show up. Everything else had gone smoothly at the airfield, however, even if the festivities were less exuberant than on previous nights.
That night only a single DC3 arrived not enough to wake Dafoe and his assistants in the village. According to his estimate, as many as seven hundred patients had been evacuated during the four landings to date. Meanwhile, the new arrivals at the hospital were minimal. He occupied his time with old ailments and the odd peasant who dropped by, grateful for the opportunity to examine thoroughly the patients in the wards.
Dafoe thought the hospital was in excellent shape, but he wanted still more improvements. He was encouraged that day to see the engineer hard at work in the blacksmith's shop, building a water wheel for use in the scheme to run electricity into the hospital. Dafoe applauded such industry whenever he found it.
But around lunch time, Wilson stormed into the village and collared Dafoe "in a terrible temper, almost pathological." It seemed the Partisans had packed up overnight and abandoned the airfield in Osmaci that morning without warning Wilson. Dafoe suspected that Wilson's darkest mood yet was due mainly to his frustration in realizing that a plan to escape on a brief holiday had been scuttled by the loss of the airfield. The Englishman continued to rant about how the Partisans had assured him they could hold Osmaci indefinitely, denouncing them as cowards. In almost the same breath, he lashed out at Dafoe for having supported them on construction of the airfield. To make matters worse, it seemed that Wilson had exchanged words already with Kosta Nadj and Vladimir Popovic regarding the number of wounded evacuated. Presumably SOE HQ in Bari or the authorities at the Allied hospital in Italy had reprimanded him upon discovering the overloaded DC3s.
Wilson reached the peak of his indignation when he referred to the note Dafoe had sent concerning the allotment of cigarettes.
"Totally unjustified!" he shouted, colouring and rising to the occasion. Dafoe admitted that the note had been a bit strong, perhaps, but added that Frank and Chris were scrounging tobacco from the Partisans, who had practically nothing for themselves. Wilson, undeterred, shot back angrily that he had arranged with the Partisans to give the medical unit its share from the supply drops, implicitly suggesting that the tobacco had not found its way past the hospital staff or the commissars. But Wilson had not informed Dafoe of this arrangement until that moment, which annoyed him. "However, I felt we British must stick together, and when he suggested having a blitz on the Big Three [at Korpus HQ], I agreed to back him up, but felt it wasn't exactly justified."
Wilson and Dafoe set out immediately, but when they had got about halfway there, the sky darkened suddenly and unleashed a vicious hailstorm. Dafoe claimed he had never seen such a spectacular event or hailstones "so big that it was almost impossible to remain outside without cover. They would actually bring up bruises on your skin where they struck you."
He and Wilson sheltered under some thick trees, soaked to the skin. There Wilson remarked that "the climate in Bosnia was just like the people completely undependable and subject to sudden change." Dafoe agreed about the weather: "The sun would change to a sudden downpour in a matter of five minutes; and five minutes ago we were perspiring and now our teeth were rattling with cold."
The hailstorm gradually exhausted itself, giving Dafoe and Wilson a chance to scurry along the path now littered with icy snowballs. Dafoe was mentally listing the items he had to complain about and rehearsing his speech as he skated behind Wilson. He realized the list was short and began to wonder why he had agreed to accompany Wilson on this ill-advised mission.
The sun reappeared just as they came to Wilson's HQ. Outside they met Diklic and Ball. While Wilson changed his uniform, Dafoe chatted briefly with Diklic, mentioning the cigarettes and also the slow progress on construction of the latrines. Diklic agreed they should see Kosta Nadj, but cautioned Dafoe that it was not such a critical issue. He added that Wilson had received adequate warning from the Partisans of the decision to abandon the airfield, although he seemed to think he deserved an official note or direct consultation in the matter.
A message informing Dafoe he was required immediately at the hospital arrived just as he, Wilson, and Diklic set out for Korpus HQ. He was too far along in this exercise to quit now, so he sent word that the emergency would have to wait. A meeting of the General Staff was underway at Korpus, but Diklic reluctantly asked to see the general. The dense foliage screened a large number of well-armed Partisans, some of high rank. Kosta Nadj and Vladimir Popovic graciously set aside their business and greeted the men from the Mission. "Wilson had fire in his eyes, which they all saw," Dafoe recalled.
Nadj and Popovic sat calmly and listened as they drew on cigarettes in long holders. Wilson launched into both men, complaining angrily and accusing them of not treating him fairly. He considered quitting the country, he warned them. Why wasn't he informed the night before the Partisans withdrew from Osmaci, rather than in the morning when it was too late? Why wasn't he consulted in the matter? He had been given to understand that the Partisans could hold the airfield indefinitely. What happened?
According to Dafoe, Kosta Nadj endured Wilson's pyrotechnics with only "an occasional angry flicker in his eyes." His arguments seemed absurdly childish under the general's withering gaze, and Dafoe shifted uneasily in the background. "I felt uncomfortable about it all and wished I had followed my intuition and left Wilson to stew in his own juice."
Nadj and his staff were well aware of the difficulties Wilson had created in the past and of his capacity for disruptive behaviour. (It was even documented: in a report sent to the Supreme HQ of the National Liberation Army and People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia that is, to Tito himself on August 9, 1944, Dr Moni Levi declared, "Captain Wilson is our enemy openly.") But Kosta Nadj was an experienced soldier with an enviable reputation for diplomacy and problem-solving. Now, with Diklic translating, he argued that Wilson had been in the country long enough to understand the nature of guerrilla warfare. He should know how fluid the overall situation remained. Nadj denied ever promising that the airfield in Osmaci could be held indefinitely that would have been foolhardy. Then he commented on the number of wounded evacuated to southern Italy. For this he levelled a penetrating look at Wilson and intoned sagaciously: "It would be better to have them lying on the airfield in Bari than in danger here." Nadj believed, quite simply, that the patients were safest evacuated, even if they did not receive immediate medical attention.
Whether out of loyalty or compassion for the brow-beating Wilson was suffering, Dafoe next put in a few words. He outlined briefly the bed capacity, ration, and transport problems in Bari. But he soon regretted speaking when he heard how unconvincing it sounded. Kosta Nadj was right. Dafoe was sufficiently chagrined by his efforts that he did not even bother to mention that the bed capacity at the aerodrome in Bari was actually 250 per night, and not 200 as everyone seemed to think.
Wilson was losing his argument in a hurry and growing more desperate and angry as a result. He threatened to shut down altogether the shipments of supplies coming to the Third Korpus, a measure he thought might effectively starve the Partisans into submission. He added that as a representative of the British Army in Yugoslavia he expected to be treated with more respect and consideration. He had hardly earned the latter, Dafoe concluded. And with the threat to suspend the supply drops he had overstepped the limits of his authority even risked undermining relations between the British and the Partisans.
Fortunately, Kosta Nadj was unmoved as he replied icily that it was not for Wilson to decide whether supplies continued to flow into eastern Bosnia, "but people at Tito's HQ and in Bari," meaning SOE and ultimately the British government. Dafoe knew this was true.
Wilson was thoroughly humiliated by Kosta Nadj and Dafoe was embarrassed, but he decided to raise the matter of cigarette rationing if only to change the subject. He suggested that Frank and Chris at least deserved the full share. Nadj agreed, adding that he had had the impression everything was following the agreement worked out previously. "He would investigate it," Dafoe recalled the general saying, "and if we ever ran short again we should call on the magazine at HQ." Dafoe still felt a bit ashamed at mentioning "so trivial a complaint." He resumed, nevertheless, reiterating several problems with work at the hospital. He reminded Kosta Nadj of the difficulties he had experienced in getting projects completed, adding that he had enjoyed much more co-operation when Marko was commissar.
Following Kosta Nadj's heartfelt assurances that "things would be put right," Dafoe apologized for having to depart at once for the hospital. Nadj, who was genuinely fond of the Canadian and recognized his dilemma with Wilson one of divided loyalties ordered the best horse in camp for him, a powerful white stallion. Dafoe thanked the general, then rode away.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.