Into the Mountains
Hundreds strong, the column of Partisans, its number including the wounded on stretchers, emaciated pack-horses, or creaking ox-carts moved into the hills under warm summer skies. To Dafoe they all seemed surprisingly calm in view of the sounds of gunfire all around. Officers on horseback rode up and down the length of the column, "sometimes just watching with a critical eye" and sometimes urging everyone to move along quickly. This was the pokret Dafoe had so often heard about "the movement", or "get going!" as Miki translated it.
"How often in the future," Dafoe wrote, "in my dreams or out of a sound sleep...that magic word started again the almost ceaseless movement of men, women and children, cows, oxen, horses, mules, food supply, cooking utensils, wounded, ammunition. The Partisans were always waiting subconsciously for that word that went down the line to rouse themselves and plod on....
"It was a word that typified the Partisan organisation always moving, seeking some way by movement out of their difficulties. Moving so that they may have freedom and liberty, and ready to keep moving, if necessary, until the enemy dropped from exhaustion trying to follow them. Not moving to cover distance as the crow flies, but in circles, and over any obstacle usually the most difficult in the country's terrain, and the highest, to discourage the enemy, who were ambushed and met with mortar and small-arms fire in their attempts to catch these indomitable people."
Dafoe's earliest impressions of the pokret were mixed with growing alarm. The firing seemed to move closer as they marched. Bullets ricocheted madly in the trees and thundered in volleys on the road below. Still the Partisans maintained an outwardly indifferent air as they continued through the woods. Soon they descended into a gully, fording a fast-moving mountain stream and climbing the far bank.
After passing the spring where the medical unit had gathered water since its arrival, the column proceeded towards Dukici. The village was deserted, and they halted for several minutes, still in formation. "Suddenly some shells came whistling up from away down in the valley below, and then the explosions. Mountain guns of some kind, I should judge." Dafoe felt a cold shiver run through him as he realized the column was visible to the enemy, "for their range and aim were perfect."
The moment the first shells landed, shouts rang out down the length of the column. "Brzo! Brzo!"
"Quickly!" The officers kicked their horses and wheeled about in the melee to call out more orders to the Partisans. Now everyone ran for cover as more shells erupted nearby.
In its flight from the bombardment, the column was following a well-worn track through small woods, over fields, and up and down hills. Dafoe passed several peasants hurriedly burying valuables. While climbing one hill, he encountered a chemist from the old hospital. He was resting and complaining of chest pains. Dafoe gave him a shot of morphia, then pressed on to rejoin the column.
Many of the patients in the column were unknown to Dafoe. He noticed that a number of them were experiencing great discomfort during the march. He saw one woman whose appendix he had removed still on her feet and plodding along with everyone else. He found her a horse, insisting she ride it.
Dafoe himself was a bit of a sight early in the march. He was "decked out like a tenderfoot," he admitted, with fieldglasses slung over one shoulder, the Lama over the other. And across both was the Marlin, "as if I were to do battle at any moment," he said. But by now the enemy was not in sight and the situation was perplexing as usual.
By the time the column entered farming country, the sound of gunfire had died behind them. Here they encountered a group of peasants solemnly watching the column march past. Dafoe recognized one old peasant, now dressed in a bowler and carrying a cane an incongruously dapper fellow with a worried expression.
When the order to halt was finally given, the sense of relief eddying down the column was palpable. Dafoe opened a haversack to get at some dry bread and water while Miki assured everyone confidently that the pokret had been called because of a small offensive. They would return to the hospital soon. "The Partisans were just letting the enemy come along so far to ambush and defeat them," he promised.
Dusk was approaching as the column resumed the march and entered woods of towering beech trees. When the medical unit came upon two sentries, Dafoe sensed that the day's march was nearly over. The column emerged from the woods then and followed a track over fern-covered hills anticipating "an immense valley dotted with trees." Here they paused to drink at a mountain spring, then entered a village "well hidden on the side of a hill amidst the trees" just as darkness fell. The column came to an abrupt halt. They had arrived at the new Korpus HQ.
Wilson welcomed the medical unit in a cheery mood, as did Diklic, "with his usual hale greetings." Wilson indicated that he thought the offensive had been aimed at securing the airfield or even the supplies the enemy knew were arriving. It was also known that the enemy were always on the lookout for hospitals. Perhaps the latest Cetnik attack had been the work of an overzealous reconnaisance group which had relayed the hospital's whereabouts to the German Command. Wilson related that the infamous 13th SS Division also known as the "Handzar", the Turkish word for "dagger" along with Cetniks and Ustasi comprised the main thrust of the offensive. He concluded with disturbing news concerning Kosta Nadj, who was gravely ill and had to be carried on a stretcher. Dafoe was to examine him in the morning.
Frank and Chris located a suitable campsite on the hillside sheltered by woods and were tending a fire when Dafoe joined them. A pot of coffee was brewing and they opened some tins of bully to go with the dry bread they carried. Miki produced a guitar he had borrowed and sang traditional folksongs as they all sat in the firelight. "So ended the first day of the pokret," wrote Dafoe. "Not bad."
In the daylight, Dafoe had a good look at the surrounding landscape, "an immense, rolling agricultural streak ending abruptly in the steep wooded mountain on the other side." Villages were clustered in spots. Behind one hill was Kladanj, occupied by the enemy according to Diklic, "but the Partisans could take it whenever they liked and had done so many times."
That morning Dafoe examined Kosta Nadj, concluding that he had acute cholecystitis an inflammation of the gall bladder frequently associated with gall stones. "I didn't have much to treat him with, and didn't like to interfere with the other doctors who were doing the job," said Dafoe. He dispensed advice mainly, and hoped for the best.
Kosta Nadj had experienced several health problems over the years. He had contracted typhus in Spain during the Civil War and, in January 1944, he took ill again. One night, when he thought he would not survive, he sent away the doctors and took a peasant cure, covering his body with hot salt. It worked.
Dafoe admired the young general's stamina, remarking again on how finely proportioned he was, "like a Damascus sword."
Meanwhile, Ball was telling everyone within earshot that aeroplanes were expected that night. The valley afforded excellent approaches with a wide dropping ground, while a perfect "bomber's moon" hung overhead. Diklic and Ball would arrange the signal fires and work detail, but Dafoe decided to stay behind and watch the aerial show from the campsite.
That night, at about 2200, Dafoe heard the rumble of engines approaching. Then he saw the first DC3 circling the drop zone. Diklic was signalling the aeroplane, but it would not descend. Then a second DC3 arrived in the circuit, and a third could be heard approaching. Though the Aldis lamp continued to flash anxiously in the valley, the DC3s seemed reluctant to lose altitude. Finally the first one swung away and vanished into the night sky. The other two followed. Dafoe wondered what had gone wrong.
Moments later, a fourth DC3 appeared overhead, vanishing almost as quickly as it had arrived. Dafoe suspected something had gone awry in the signals perhaps Diklic had used the wrong code. McGregor had said that "nine times out of ten they didn't work." In any event, it was a bitter disappointment. "It seemed a tremendous waste of fuel and risk of men's lives," Dafoe concluded.
He did not rise until almost 0800 the next day and his first sight was a small boy galloping around outside. He had operated on the lad several days before to remove shrapnel from his abdomen. Incredibly, he was fully recovered. Later he removed his sutures from the woman with the appendectomy and examined her. She, too, had healed completely, "with no signs of any complications." He concluded it would be difficult "to pamper and treat so-called normal patients again," and would learn that other Allied surgeons in Yugoslavia shared his astonishment at the phenomenal rate of recovery of the Partisans.
Back at the campsite Dafoe found Wilson and Diklic in a heated argument regarding the signals used the previous night. Diklic insisted he had signalled as Wilson had instructed and when that failed, tried everything else he could think of in the hope of making the aeroplanes land. Wilson angrily countered that Diklic had made a mistake, but upon investigating, was chagrined to discovered that he had given an outdated code. It was a costly oversight, as the food and supplies aboard the DC3s were needed urgently. The incident did not improve Wilson's mood, as he sent a message to Bari apologizing for the mistake and requesting a second flight.
Dafoe accompanied Wilson and Diklic to see Kosta Nadj again that morning. He was pleased to find the general resting outside in the sun. Several young Partisan girls approached him respectfully with bouquets of flowers, which Nadj accepted with a warm smile. Wilson explained what had happened with the signals and apologized to the general, adding that the supply drop expected that night should proceed without mishap. He had information from SOE HQ to relay to the general, which Dafoe recalled had something to do with "getting mountain guns and a crew of Partisans trained to use them." Kosta Nadj's mood improved markedly with the news. Still, the overall situation did not fit Dafoe's understanding of great peril, even allowing for the hurried evacuation of the hospital and the shelling of the column. He thought then of brave Jordy, who had gone underground near Mihajlovici with her mother and sister, as well as Natasan, to care for some fifty patients, and thought hopefully that "perhaps this would fizzle out like the last scare."
He and Diklic returned to the campsite, where they enjoyed a bath in an icy spring nearby. "It was so cold it paralysed you for a minute or so," he recalled. Afterwards, they lay naked in the sun and chatted. As usual, Diklic argued forcefully in favour of the Communist salvation of Yugoslavia. But Dafoe considered his friend most in his element when he reminisced about the Spanish Civil War. While fighting with the International Brigades, Diklic had been wounded and eventually captured. According to Dafoe, he spent "many long months in a concentration camp under appalling conditions, treating his own chest wound and finally escaping." His accounts of adventures in America were equally entertaining like the time he was caught peddling bootleg gin from a baby carriage, paid the fine and started all over again. Arriving on American soil, Diklic had found the company on Ellis Island "most interesting." Later, he said, he had spent time in jail for his Communist convictions.
The pilots were unusually daring in the supply drop that night. Dafoe had unreserved admiration for these airmen, one of whom was nicknamed "Flash Gordon" in honour of his daredevilish but skilful handling of a DC3 during these drops. "He used to sweep down much lower than the rest and drop his loads almost directly on the fires, and then swoop up again quickly, narrowly missing the neighbouring hills."
From his tent later that night, Dafoe heard Wilson ask if a "red top" had arrived with the supply drop. These were the canisters containing articles for the British Mission and medical unit usually cigarettes, magazines, tinned foods, and other comforts. Lately, however, and "too often to be a coincidence," Dafoe noted acidly, the red tops arrived full of propaganda material. This time was no exception. Dafoe regarded the only practical benefit of all this was "to use the fine paper of the pony edition of The Times for rolling cigarettes." No doubt the lack of real comforts was felt acutely.
Dafoe spent the morning luxuriating through two baths in the icy spring and eating. Kosta Nadj had almost recovered and was sitting up.
Still, the situation evidently remained unstable. Dafoe noted increased activity in the area around Korpus HQ. Couriers moved in and out all day. When the order to camouflage tents was given, it seemed to confirm Dafoe's suspicions.
The next morning, shortly after a light breakfast, the waiting ended when without warning a shout rang out: "Pokret!"
The medical unit packed at once, but as the column moved out leisurely, Dafoe was again left bewildered by the contrast between the alarm and the easy march that followed. "We'll probably go into the mountains," Diklic offered sagely. Dafoe observed more peasants driving livestock to safety as the column trekked along the sylvan trails. Occasionally he lost sight of the head and tail of the column, owing to its length and the cover provided by the terrain.
Several hours later the medical unit emerged from the woods to plod along the edge of a wide field in a valley. The order to halt was given and Dafoe caught sight of a conference ahead. The moment it ended, the march resumed. Almost immediately, the sound of mortars and mountain guns erupted around them and the column was dispersed.
The Partisans scrambled madly into the protection of some small hills divided by a narrow ravine, then proceeded in this direction. But at the end of the ravine, they were confronted by a troublesome expanse of open ground exposed to the mountain guns on either side. Since the enemy shelling seemed to be driving the column forward, the Partisans had little choice. They moved out across the field.
"Here the shells increased in number," Dafoe recalled, "and many of them were a bit too close. You could see where they were firing from a commanding hill behind us and see the flashes and hear the whine of the shell before it dropped with a high-pitched crash."
The Partisans scurried along into the far woods, some still on horseback, others hobbling along on foot and still others struggling with the stretcher-beds. Small hillocks afforded some protection from the artillery fire, but mostly it was a mad, disorganized dash to safety.
In the woods they passed a Partisan battalion digging in. Dafoe was taken aback when he realized it was composed mainly of women, "who were preparing to defend us after we had passed on, or possibly ambush the enemy as they pursued us." The women, dressed in ill-fitting uniforms and bristling with weapons and grenades, were sitting about casually, laughing and even cooking meals. "They seemed abnormally calm, whereas I admit the stretch under fire had shaken me a bit," Dafoe recorded.
Soon the column came upon a stream, fording it without delay. Dafoe encountered the General Staff from Korpus HQ. He congratulated Kosta Nadj on the speed of his recovery, privately thinking that he still looked "a bit under the weather". Nadj asked Dafoe if it was his first taste of action.
"You can assure the general," he replied through Diklic, "that I have seen much worse in North Africa. In Tobruk." Kosta Nadj laughed good-naturedly, then asked why Dafoe was not travelling on horseback. Before he could respond, a mount was summoned for him which Dafoe politely refused, telling Nadj he thought he needed the exercise. He further explained that it would not be appropriate for him to ride when many wounded and women were walking. Nadj and General Vukotic seemed amused by Dafoe's sincerity. "They just smiled in a knowing way, thinking, I am sure, that I would change my mind."
The march continued. Ahead were foothills bordered by several deserted farms. The weather, which had remained perfect, made climbing difficult as the summer heat persisted. Dafoe felt the Marlin slung over his shoulders dragging him down as he swung from rock to rock. Once, when the column stopped briefly, he fell sound asleep.
The shelling continued throughout most of the day, with rounds screaming in towards the column at a rate of one every two minutes. "We kept well under cover of the terrain but I suppose from the accuracy of the fire we must have been visible to the enemy," Dafoe recalled.
Eventually the column disappeared into the dense woods again.
"Straight up and up we went, the animals heavily loaded, struggling desperately and often slipping."
The column paused several more times in the course of the day, usually at a mountain stream. As dusk approached Dafoe grew weary of scanning ahead for the mountaintop. He marched on, one foot in front of the other, without thinking, without wondering when it would end, only praying that it would end soon, so that he could fall to the ground and sleep.
Then Wilson rode by. When he saw that Dafoe was exhausted, he offered him his horse an unusually magnanimous gesture which, this time, Dafoe did not refuse.
Feeling somewhat revived by the chance to ride, Dafoe took renewed interest in the surrounding countryside. Whenever a clearing appeared in the forest, he caught sight of brilliant fires in the distant landscape where the enemy was plundering and burning in the wake of the Partisans. Dafoe was outraged by the fires and the unmarked graves which symbolized the cost of the resistance.
When the terrain levelled out as the column marched through towering woods of spruce, Norway pine, and balsam, the surroundings reminded Dafoe of Canada, the fragrant scents recalling wintertime and Christmas.
"My Canada," he murmured within earshot of Miki, who smiled.
"My gentle wilderness, Sir Major," Miki corrected him.
The column emerged from the woods in the dark shadows of dusk and came upon a grassy field. It was, Dafoe thought, as though they had entered a "castle courtyard on top of a foreboding, tall cliff." The woods offered excellent natural camouflage. The position could be defended easily given its altitude, he reckoned. Once the order to dig in for the night was issued, Dafoe, Frank, and Chris found a spot among some balsams and set up camp. Nearby, Corporal Ball was already assembling the wireless. Food was prepared while the girls went to gather wild strawberries, which lay in rich abundance at the edge of the woods.
Several Partisan units wandered into the mountaintop retreat that night to collapse from exhaustion. Miki told Dafoe that they had been fighting throughout the previous week. The new arrivals were typically dressed in tattered, ragtag uniforms usually captured German or Italian battledress stripped of old insignia. Some who were more fortunate wore British or American battledress from one of the supply drops. They continued to favour the strange assortment of caps with a red star stitched prominently on the peak.
Diklic aimed a finger at one figure in the group.
" See that woman?" he asked. "She's the commander of the battalion. Her husband is in the same battalion, but in the ranks."
Dafoe regarded her momentarily and decided she was not more than thirty years old. Diklic resumed his narrative, adding that ability and proven leadership skills were the only criteria upon which promotions were based, without discrimination between the sexes. It was true. As much as a third of this army of national liberation consisted of women of all ranks. Dafoe nodded approvingly, realizing that the Partisans were attempting to forge a nation modelled on equality, in addition to winning a war that required as many able-bodied citizens as it could enlist. He was convinced the movement held considerable promise for the future of Yugoslavia.
The battalions were apparently regrouping in the mountain clearing. Diklic said the area was actually a traditional Partisan stronghold. Now they were quickly burrowing in campsites at the forest's edge or building small fires to warm themselves. The night was much colder than in the valley, making everyone seek refuge in blankets and bedrolls. Worn out by the march, they soon fell asleep.
The next morning, Dafoe discovered that the new Korpus HQ was established nearby, having merged with the soldiers of the Twelfth Korpus, who had been uprooted and chased into the mountains during the recent fighting. Dafoe met Ana and Djuras, who assured him that he would have a hospital again soon. They promised it would be as good as, if not better than the one in Mihajlovici. Dafoe inquired about wounded from the dash across the fields the day before. The casualties were few, he was told, and had already been sent to divisional hospitals.
The morning was peaceful although gunfire could be heard echoing softly in the distant hills and Dafoe drew comfort from the friendly seclusion. But soon Diklic informed him of "a short move to a new campsite," and when the column was assembled, it moved on into small woods leading to another clearing. This one bristled with stumps, but Dafoe located a spot with a view of the surrounding terrain where he settled in with other units hugging the treeline. He and Diklic cleared some ground for the tents. Later Dafoe gathered some balsam boughs to make a bed, showing Wilson and Diklic how "we used to do it in Canada."
The Partisans had decided to rest for a while in the new clearing. Dafoe spent two full days doing little more than "sit, sleep, and enjoy the beautiful scenery." He used one afternoon to sew his cache of gold sovereigns into his tunic. These were standard issue among men going into occupied countries and were to be used for bribing officials in the event of capture. Dafoe had as well some American dollars, which Miki usually carried in a money belt. These were needed occasionally to buy food or tobacco when supplies ran short.
With the Partisans was an Italian cook who seemed a popular fellow. The man was a good fighter, according to Miki, who seemed to base much of his own goodwill on the Italian's willing criticism of any Partisan who was lazy. The Italian provided entertainment in addition to meals. "He had a piano-accordion in poor repair and often rang out tunes of his native Italy, which he sang with a good voice," Dafoe recalled.
Dafoe hoped life would remain uneventful for a while yet, but on the third day, Wilson informed everyone that several aeroplanes were due that night. Personnel would be aboard including Lincoln, who was returning from southern Italy, and a British liaison officer with his wireless operator, who were to rendezvous with the Twelfth Korpus. Wilson, concerned about the hazards of the stump-filled field, found a glade that afforded a reasonable margin of safety as a dropping ground. Throughout the day, he engineered the laying of signal fires on the field and hills behind the campsite. An enormous arrow was ready to be ignited the moment the incoming DC3s were heard and contact was made.
Towards nightfall, Dafoe trekked up the hillside with Diklic to await the aeroplanes. Several hours later, the sound of engines was detected, and within moments the signal fires burst into flame below. Then Ball's Aldis lamp slashed into the darkness, illuminating the underbelly of a DC3 circling overhead with its green and red lights flashing a reply. Dafoe saw only one parachute canopy dangling supplies, but he heard two more whistling to earth and then crashing. Two more DC3s appeared, circled momentarily and then sent canisters and kitbags hurtling out.
Dafoe returned to the campsite shortly after the aerial display had ended. There he found Lincoln. "It was sure good to see him again," he confessed. Lincoln had made an easy drop and now gave Dafoe a swig from a flask of rum he held before asking for Diklic. Dafoe directed him to the hill where his friend was still waiting.
Dafoe was cold, having abandoned the warmth of a nearby fire. "The warmest spot was bed, so I crawled under my single blanket." Only a few minutes had passed when he heard footsteps outside the tent. He raised his head and met the gaze of a young British captain, "a tall, slim, finely featured man with sky-blue eyes and curly blond hair." He said his name was Gerrald Holmes. "He seemed somewhat dazed and lost, as if he was trying to puzzle out what he had dropped into," Dafoe recalled. "Then I remembered my own feelings, the sense of relief, the weirdness of the peasants in the firelight, the completely different environment and surroundings after Italy and the desert."
Dafoe tried to persuade the newcomer to get some sleep. His bedroll had arrived, but Holmes was determined to return to the dropping ground to find his kit and his wireless operator. Wilson arrived, assuring the new man that everything would be gathered in the morning, and Holmes, still bewildered, reluctantly crawled into Dafoe's tent. "I'm sure he didn't sleep much," Dafoe ventured. "I didn't after dropping."
Dafoe woke late the next morning. He stepped outside his tent to stretch, only to find Wilson and Holmes "standing there looking very grave." He was told that Corporal Straw, the young man who had accompanied Holmes as a wireless operator, had been killed in the night drop. Evidently his parachute had caught on the top of a tall spruce. He was found in a heap on the ground below. Dafoe was aghast. It was the first "death in the family."
"Poor Holmes didn't say much, but one could see he was badly shaken up."
Dafoe followed Holmes and Wilson to where Corporal Straw lay among the trees. His face was blue and on examination, Dafoe found he had suffered a fractured skull. He suspected the young man had died instantly. No other injury was evident. He wore a type of helmet Dafoe had not seen before, but which obviously gave inadequate protection.
Next they examined the parachute. The tree on which it had caught had been felled. "Apparently he must have only partially stunned himself when he hit the tree, for the box of the parachute harness had been broken. Then he must have fractured his skull on hitting the ground, which was a distance of about sixty feet. What a tragic way to finish off," Dafoe concluded. Miki was greatly distressed by the sight of Straw's inert form, and "Lincoln was badly cut up about it all," Dafoe noted sadly.
"'e was a good bloke," Lincoln offered. "Always ready to get on wiv 'is job."
Dafoe suggested that they ask the priest at Korpus, Blazo Markovic, to conduct a funeral service, and he and Wilson went to find him. Back at the dropping ground later in the day, they found a detail of Partisans already digging a grave.
"It was a beautiful setting in this mountain for the sad occasion," Dafoe recalled. "The grave had been dug deeply by the Partisans and lined with planking. They had constructed a well-made sturdy wooden cross. We Englezi stood in line at attention. A fair number of Partisans stood around while the gigantic Priesta with a gold-braid-embroidered black gown said the funeral service."
Dafoe took two photographs during the ceremony, then assumed uncharacteristic military solemnity. It was clear that he was as shaken by the episode as anyone else. When Pop Blazo finished his prayers, each man saluted the grave. Straw had been the first of any Allied personnel to die in their midst, and the Partisans understood the effect it had on the men of the British Mission.
Dafoe asked Lincoln to carve Straw's name, rank, and serial number on the wooden cross, then fix his regimental badge to it. He took one last photograph of the finished site and stepped away. "I made a mental note that I would write his parents in the future and send them the photographs," he recalled.
When the men returned to the campsite, the canisters and kitbags had arrived from the landing ground. Holmes made a brief inspection and found everything intact except that, as might be expected, the tobacco and chocolates were missing. Diklic tried to explain. Holmes, still numbed by the moming's events, did not seem to care much. "We divided poor Straw's kit amongst us, which seemed cold-blooded," Dafoe noted, adding as explanation that the medical unit and British Mission needed the items.
Lincoln, once his normally irrepressible outlook was restored, entertained everyone with accounts of his adventures in Italy. He had enjoyed little success in conveying to the base wallahs the urgent need for additional shipments of supplies, cigarettes, and comforts, as might be expected as he was only a corporal. But he was eager to relate details of his womanizing in Bari. And to compensate for the lack of co-operation from various quartermasters, he had returned with gifts for everyone, including cigarettes. Later he divided his parachute among the Partisans.
Among the many diversions that Dafoe witnessed during his mission, few could have been as incongruous as that which followed. In the canisters were two deflated soccer balls. "The difficulty was to blow them up, for there were no bicycle pumps in this land of pedestrians and equestrians." But the Partisans, ever resourceful, did somehow inflate one. Dafoe spent the afternoon watching "a very strange football game" on the mountain top. Frank and Chris were both solid players and he noted that the Partisans were "mighty rugged." Soon a proper match was organized: the Korpus officers versus the NCOs and ranks. The officers handily defeated the men in a spirited contest. The absurdity of it all delighted Dafoe.
Almost as a rule, the sound of gunfire which echoed in the mountains during daylight ceased with nightfall. The Partisans and men of the British Mission then gathered around an enormous fire in the clearing to exchange stories, speculate on the next day's tidings, and generally unwind next to the furnace-like heat of the flames.
That night, the Italian cook sat on a huge stump and played his accordion as the Partisans began to dance a kolo on the soft carpet of pine needles, each face framed in the warm glow of firelight. Susy had improved her steps and could now command the oversized army boots she wore. She had taught Frank and Chris the dance, which was evident when they eagerly joined the chain of bodies weaving and bouncing on the mountain. It was just the kind of diversion Holmes needed and Dafoe recalled that he "was quite impressed by the sight."
"He was a typical Englishman, quiet and reserved, and I felt once I had got beneath the exterior I would find a most charming individual," Dafoe predicted. In time, Holmes would prove to be a kindred spirit, becoming something of a substitute Lindsay Rogers to Dafoe.
Messages between Wilson's mission and SOE HQ in Bari continued at every regular schedule. Corporal Straw's death was reported. For a while it was thought that Ball or Lincoln might assume the wireless operator's duties with Holmes, but when Wilson heard of it, he vetoed the idea at once. He claimed he needed both men with his Mission. Dafoe was somewhat relieved, for he enjoyed Lincoln's ribald wit and outgoing personality, and had come to accept the moody Ball, whom he thought "a bit awkward."
Ball was notorious for his slovenly mien: trousers precariously tied with a cord, and oil-smeared battledress. But as Dafoe admitted, "he was very conscientious and hard-working perhaps slow, but very methodical." Ball, he observed, "was always tinkering away with his engines, which he kept in perfect running order, and the batteries charged to full strength." Usually reserved and taciturn, Ball surprised his mates occasionally with a dry, sarcastic sense of humour. He was equally capable of telling Wilson when he irked him too much. Dafoe had always appreciated a well-tuned sense of humour driven by an unconventional outlook particularly one that resisted authority.
The rattle of distant gunfire could be heard all next day. In fact, it seemed to be moving towards the hilltop retreat and at one point Dafoe was certain it was coming from the woods at the edge of the clearing where the encampment lay. "But perhaps the clear air here carried the sound more readily," he said, noticing that the Partisans acted as though no danger existed.
Tired units of Partisans arrived as fresh ones went out. Those who remained engaged in various pursuits, including another soccer match. And now that they had a stronghold, education was resumed. "They arranged themselves in groups under the trees and seemed to have long discussions and talks which all the members of the group entered into." The political commissar led the classes. "The Partisans were proud of their having taught an amazing number of illiterate peasants who never had a chance for an education to read and write. And, of course, the main task seemed to be political education, particularly of the young." He noted the Communist dogma "was painstakingly read aloud and often learned by heart."
It was still dark the next morning when Diklic poked his head into Dafoe's tent and woke him.
It was bitterly cold, struggling out of the warm bed," Dafoe recalled, "and even the warm coffee seemed to have no effect. We were soon in line with the column, where you couldn't distinguish the person in front of you or behind you." Half-awake, he stumbled over a stump "or some animal." Then, at the command, "Napred!" the column began to shuffle forward. It was soon swallowed by the dark woods.
"As the sun rose we emerged from the gloom of the trees and were greeted by a magnificent view of rolling hills and mountains, gorges and steep limestone cliffs covered with the red glow of the rising sun." Ahead the column descended into a river valley where the land seemed desolate. Occasionally Dafoe could stand on a jutting cliff and see the long column "winding slowly, like a snake, across the country, taking advantage of any camouflaged cover."
The column travelled along similar terrain all day. The sound of gunfire had faded behind them and now they merely plodded forward relentlessly. As darkness fell, the medical unit camped in a thick forest, where the first hot meal of the day was served. Dafoe noted that "one needed no rocking or feather beds to lull you to sleep" after the arduous journey.
The next day repeated the pattern, with "steady, slow movement over magnificent landscapes, and usually on the highest points or ridges of the horizon to avoid any chance of ambush." Dafoe walked with Holmes and enjoyed a long conversation with him. They had much in common, having both spent the early years of the war in the Middle East and North Africa. Like Dafoe, Holmes had joined SOE as the desert campaign ended, in search of some adventure, but to his great disappointment was assigned a job as "an office wallah" connected with the guerrillas in Crete. Holmes described his many trips to Crete in the dead of night, ferrying supplies and living with the guerrillas for a time before returning to Egypt. He then gave Dafoe a full account of an extraordinary episode that was later hailed as one of the most daring feats of irregular warfare conducted by the British. This was the capture of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commandant of occupied Crete, by two daredevil officers, one of whom Holmes knew.
Twenty-year-old Major Patrick Leigh-Fermor and eighteen-year-old Captain Stanley Moss had concocted the audacious idea at a cocktail party in Cairo one night in September 1943. Surprisingly, the British authorities approved their plan, and on the night of April 26, 1944, Leigh- Fermor and Moss disguised as German lance corporals and two Greek agents stopped General Kreipe's chauffeur-driven Opel on a hairpin bend in a road. The Greeks subdued the driver while Leigh-Fermor and Moss bound and gagged Kreipe. With Leigh-Fermor posing as the general in the back seat, the glistening Opel easily sped past as many as twenty-two sentries before it came to a halt on an isolated stretch of highway. There it was abandoned with a letter informing the enemy that General Kreipe was on his way to Cairo, and this postscript: "By the way, we are terribly sorry to have to leave this beautiful car behind."
For two and a half weeks Leigh-Fermor and Moss successfully eluded some 30,000 occupation troops conducting a manhunt and on the night of May 14, spirited General Kreipe away to Egypt by motor launch. Kreipe was later sent to a POW camp in Canada.
Dafoe named neither Leigh-Fermor nor Moss in his journals, nor did he identify which man was "a great friend" of Holmes. In a letter of September 1981 to the author, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, while having no personal knowledge of Holmes, suggested that he might have been in the MTB that evacuated the party from Crete to Mersa Matruh. Stanley Moss, unfortunately, is deceased, and attempts to trace the whereabouts of Gerrald Holmes were unsuccessful. Indeed, like everyone associated with the British Mission in Yugoslavia, Holmes remains very much a mystery.
From the moment he entered SOE, Holmes had made persistent efforts to take on operational duties. He had achieved his aim when he was assigned to the Twelfth Korpus in eastern Bosnia. "Poor Holmes," Dafoe concluded. "It was a sad start for him with the immediate loss of his wireless operator. And he certainly didn't lack for exercise for many a day to follow." Still, Holmes seemed cheerful enough "in a grim way."
Diklic informed Dafoe sometime during the march that the column was entering Cetnik territory and going towards Sarajevo, still heavily occupied by Germans. Towards nightfall the column came to a mountain shelf, where they met several Partisans armed with Bren guns. Dafoe and Holmes ignored the grim-faced sentinels and climbed to a limestone cliff rising behind the guard post to get a better view of the surrounding countryside. Miki soon joined them. It was a breathtaking panorama. Miki pointed to one mountain, beyond which, he said, lay Sarajevo. Immediately he was overcome by waves of nostalgia.
More important was the view they had of fighting below. Dafoe could pick out the line of fire at the edge of some woods and saw Partisans gradually advancing towards the enemy in an attempt to outflank them. "It struck me that the Partisans were a bit hardpressed to come so close to a big enemy stronghold, and where the peasants would quickly take word to the Germans of our whereabouts. Perhaps the audacity of the movement would fool the enemy for the time being."
With his fieldglasses, Dafoe followed individual Partisans darting from cover to cover, entering the woods and driving the enemy back. It was a stirring spectacle and a costly one. Later that day Diklic told him that at least five Partisans had been killed in the fighting. He quickly added that a great number of Cetniks had fallen as well.
Evidently the danger had not passed with the coming of darkness as it usually did, for several Partisans swooped down on Dafoe and Holmes, "who was like a Boy Scout in his fascination with a wood fire," and ordered them to extinguish it.
Sometime during the next day it was agreed that Holmes and Corporal Ball would move out with the Twelfth Korpus. Perhaps Wilson had abandoned his earlier misgivings when he realized it might be difficult to find a replacement for Corporal Straw in time. Holmes was relieved that his position had been clarified; at last he would be fully operational on his own.
Other news during the day promised some respite from the now critical shortage of food. Several aeroplanes would be arriving that night. Throughout the day the familiar drill of arranging signal fires was carried out. Dafoe worried that the dropping ground might be over-populated with trees, but concluded that even a 50 per cent recovery of the supplies would go a long way towards alleviating shortages.
The aeroplanes arrived on schedule shortly after dark, as Ball's Aldis lamp cut through the night like a fishing line reeling in a catch. Then, to everyone's horror, the supplies were seen to drop into a valley several kilometres away straight into Cetnik territory. "Perhaps the pilots weren't particular that night," Dafoe reflected. "It was a galling loss, but the Partisans took it philosophically." Dafoe was not as forgiving. He imagined the Cetniks reading his letters from Charlotte while smoking the "tailor-made cigarettes" intended for the Mission.
The next morning proved hectic, owing mainly to the sound of gunfire which had grown brisk in the neighbouring valley. Partisans seemed to be coming and going at an increased rate. And to everyone's amazement, the Twelfth Korpus had departed some time in the night without Holmes and Ball. "Poor Holmes was completely bewildered and quite disappointed," Dafoe recorded.
In the afternoon a courier arrived. He was a young man known and liked by Dafoe, as he had once served Marko "a bright, big, curly-headed boy, always smiling," he remembered. Now he seemed different. "It was amazing to see this sudden change in him. His eyes had lost their twinkle. He was pale and had lost considerable weight." Young men and women mature in a hurry when confronted by tragedy, Dafoe reminded himself. And the dreadful news the young courier brought would touch everyone in the medical unit.
Earlier in the offensive the recent fighting being the start of the enemy's Seventh Offensive, and not just a series of well-timed raids the courier had been ordered to return to the hospital in Mihajlovici and then report on conditions in the village. It was a dangerous assignment, and one which meant that the young man could travel only at night. Near the hospital he saw German SS troops. Later he watched Cetniks and Ustasi searching for the underground shelters and magazines containing food, supplies and patients. Several peasants who had deserted from the Partisans, or whose loyalties depended on the ebb and flow of the war, assisted the enemy in its hunt. Others were tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the magazines and shelters and a few were killed when they refused to co-operate. Eventually the cache built by Radovan and Miki was discovered and looted. From his cover in the woods, the courier had seen the medical unit's personal belongings ransacked and divided among the Cetniks. Dafoe's films were destroyed. Meanwhile, most of the extant buildings in the village were doused with petrol, ignited, and burned to the ground.
But the most gruesome news was that the underground shelter, where some fifty patients and nurses were hiding, had been discovered. Jordy and a one-armed commissar named Stevo, along with as many as a dozen patients, were away getting food and water at the time and so were spared. The others were treated unmercifully. The patients in bed had their throats slit. Mrs Herlinger, who had stayed behind, was shot and killed as she tried to protect several of the wounded and her daughter, Mira. The nurses were stripped, raped, and then led away sobbing, hands tied behind them.
Dafoe's own shock was absolute. Words failed him.
The only good news was that of Jordy and her group, who were hiding in a cave, still undiscovered and presumed safe for a while yet. She had written a note to Ana, which the courier now produced. Miki translated it for the medical unit:
I am with twelve patients and the commissar in a cavern. Two days ago while we were getting some water, firing and shouting broke out near the base, which I believe was discovered. We managed to get all the patients with us to this hiding place which is quite good, fairly dry and has lots of space. But we are running short of food and only venture out at night for water. We are all well and the patients are in good condition, but hope that help will come soon.
How are the Englezi standing up to the pokret? My regards to all and I hope to see you soon.
Dafoe's fondness and respect for Jordy soared as he heard the letter translated. "What a brave, wonderful girl," he said. Then he felt ashamed of his own complaints and thoughts of his hardships when he heard of Jordy's predicament and the courage with which she faced it. Miki was speechless. Diklic said little. Dafoe assumed that Jordy did not yet know of her mother's fate.
The story brought home all the tales of atrocities Dafoe had heard but only half-believed. If only Jordy and her family had gone to Italy when they had the chance. "I felt guilty," he confessed more compassionately than realistically "for if we hadn't arrived in the country and let Jordy become attached to us, they probably would have gone and would now be safe."
From Jordy's plight, Dafoe's thoughts turned to Natasan, who was among the nurses taken from the underground shelter. Then for a moment he studied the young courier who had delivered the terrible news. He felt sympathy for him, too. "No wonder this boy had grown up overnight," he said.
Diklic led the young man to Kosta Nadj, returning later in the day with an order from the general forbidding any discussion of the Mihajlovici incident until it was properly confirmed.
A supply drop was expected that night, and for a while it diverted attention from the day's events. This time, Wilson and Diklic established a spacious dropping ground behind a nearby mountain. Holmes, Lincoln, and Ball, along with Frank and Chris, rode up to the ground shortly after nightfall, this time retrieving the urgently needed supplies which plummeted to earth on target.
The column set out in the dim, pre-dawn light in what appeared as often happened to be the direction from which it had arrived. Holmes told Dafoe the night supply drop was a good one- four aeroplane loads, mostly of food. Some cigarettes had arrived also.
The column passed the dropping ground that morning, and Dafoe saw two long convoys of horses carrying the supplies out in opposite directions to connect with various units in the area. Suddenly gunfire exploded behind them as men began shouting. The Partisans had surprised several Cetniks who had penetrated the landing ground in an attempt to steal away with some food. One of the Cetniks escaped in the melee, but one was captured while another was killed.
"Going down the line I came across a number of peasants and civilians travelling with us. Among them was the Old Priesta, the bishop of the church we had spent the pleasant day with." Dafoe found Pop Savo Savic riding a sturdy white Bosnian pony, surrounded by admiring peasants. With Pop Savo was a distinguished old gentleman who seemed frail but was well dressed, exuding an air of refinement. Miki told Dafoe the man had been a professor at the University of Sarajevo. Dafoe said a few words to both men in Serbo-Croat and gave Pop Savo all his spare cigarettes. "He always seemed glad to see us and offered me his horse this old man of about 65 years which, of course, I refused."
The Old Priesta, the professor, and "their band of followers" clung to Dafoe and the medical unit for some time, camping nearby whenever they stopped for the night. They carted with them an eclectic assortment of items, including a wireless set that played music a rare luxury in the mountains.
Later, during the column's slow, deliberate march into the hills, Dafoe remarked to Diklic on the absence of wildlife. To date, all he had seen was one rabbit. And apart from the "cuckoos" heard in the spring, there was very little bird life. Diklic said the area was normally noted for good hunting, with deer and even elk in abundance. But the war had frightened everything away or consumed it. "It was rather strange," Dafoe observed, "there was always that air of abandonment and desertion about the farms, the lumbering establishments, no birds or animals." When they could, of course, the Partisans made up for the loss of natural sounds by singing, "which did a great deal to dispel the sense of isolation," Dafoe recalled.
The column continued along similar terrain for two more days until Diklic said they were proceeding in the direction of Vlasenica. He and Lincoln soon began entertaining the notion of stealing into the occupied town to find some rakija.
Late in the afternoon on the third day, the column emerged from dense woods and stopped at yet another "mountain fortress," almost as good as the last but without such ready access to water. Dafoe soon had a campsite picked out at the edge of the woods, and a signal was sent to Bari aeroplanes scheduled for that night, came the reply. But the weather did not co-operate. It rained heavily, preventing the DC3s from venturing far enough inland.
The next day, Dafoe had a long talk with Miki. "He had been letting us down a lot recently. I don't know why. Perhaps he was badly cut up and worried about Jordy's fate. He seemed to wander around in a daze most of the time."
Dafoe was deeply indebted to Miki and depended on him greatly. He liked him, too, and worried sometimes about his dreaminess. "Poor Miki," he recalled. "He was such a nice chap, with a very quick brain, a bit impractical but still very young. In all, he had served us well and I was always thankful for having him."
Miki, for his part very fond of Dafoe, must have been stung by his criticism. Moreover, he often found the Canadian just as introspective "usually after three pipes," he said, by the campfire. Miki would try to rally Dafoe's spirits, only to hear him speak softly of "Lady Charlotte and Canada."
Miki recalled that even in Mihajlovici, Dafoe frequently seemed withdrawn, even disconsolate.
"Once," Miki said, "when we had had a great many wounded, and we had amputated as many as ten or fifteen arms and legs with gangrene, I returned to the tents. It was a long day of surgery. I saw Sir Major Dafoe standing near the fire, smoking. We usually chatted then, and...he would talk about his family, friends, schoolmates, university days and, of course, Lady Charlotte and Canada. He seemed sad," Miki remembered painfully. "I told him he was a happy man with so much."
The irony of it all was that Miki was haunted by his own memories. He could not forget his mother's early death, his turbulent and wayward youth, the brothers he never knew. For one with his dreamy and idealistic nature, the cruelty of the war that ravaged his "gentle wilderness" was all the more unbearable. Close as he may have been to young Miki, Dafoe was aware of only a part of his complex, emotional personality.
Frank and Chris regarded Miki as "some sort of commissar," given the ease with which he could arrange matters and assemble personnel for various tasks. "I am just a guard," he would insist, allowing a mischievous grin. He realized their curiosity and dependence on him was useful; it kept them within reach when the situation demanded. Miki was the medical unit's link with survival on many occasions and these were dangerous times, when any breakdown in communication could have fatal consequences. In voicing his concerns, Dafoe also wanted to make sure that Miki was all right.
That day Dafoe witnessed an incident that further elevated his admiration of the Partisans. Indeed, he felt it symbolized the hope for a more humanitarian approach to the new nation they were attempting to build among the ruins of the old.
The Cetnik who had been captured some days before was escorted across the field by two Partisans. The man had a gun over his shoulder and his hands were free. Diklic said the Cetnik was given a fair trial after which he had elected to join the Partisan movement. The man would be watched closely for some time while he worked at a minor job tending a packhorse, for example and then, if he could be trusted, he would rise through the ranks according to his abilities. Diklic said this was the normal practice. German prisoners were often shot, he allowed, particularly if they were SS troops and members of the reviled Nazi Party. But Cetniks, Ustasi, Zeleni Kadar, and other collaborators were often spared if they had no known record of criminal behaviour or participation in any atrocities. Dafoe approved of this revolutionary justice.
As time slipped by, Dafoe and the medical unit grew restless without any surgical work to do. Dr Levi refused to let them go to a divisional hospital. Kosta Nadj would not allow it, he said, claiming it was too dangerous. Dafoe dropped the matter, concluding that he had no option but to be patient and ride out the march.
That night only one DC3 reached the dropping ground. It was not known if the others that were expected had gone astray somewhere or been shot down. Dafoe knew the Partisans were fighting desperately to hold the mountaintop fortress in order to facilitate supply drops. Firing continued throughout the night and Dafoe did not sleep well as a result. The anticipation of another pokret preyed on his mind as well. He wondered if the Partisans might be surprised by the enemy. It might be a welcome relief to fire his guns again, he decided. He ached to use the Marlin he had shouldered across the mountain trails "on some real live targets."
In the morning, Ana, Vera, and Susy appeared, "their faces wreathed in smiles," and announced they were going to divisional hospitals in the area. Dafoe's reactions were mixed, particularly after his earlier conversation with Dr Levi. "The remains of my hospital were all being posted away," he complained. The only extant members of his original staff would now be a Partisan sergeant, a nurse with her baby, and a cook. Dafoe grew despondent.
His musings were rudely interrupted when Diklic appeared, shouting "Pokret!" Dafoe objected at first, wondering how the Partisans proposed to get down the mountain without running into enemy units. He said as much to Frank and Chris, adding he was certain they were surrounded.
"We kept to the high ground for some considerable time, amidst the immense trees. There were frequent halts. All movement seemed to be directed by words of command passing up and down the line."
A few hours later the column came out of the woods and faced a clearing that extended into a valley. Here it paused for some time before resuming the march. The sound of gunfire receded in the background, but the Partisans still moved ahead tentatively. Crossing open ground was always dangerous, but the column traversed the valley without incident, then plunged into the wooded hillside opposite. The order to halt, but not to unload or make camp, was given. The Partisans forbade the lighting of fires during the rest.
"Something had the Partisans very worried," Dafoe remarked uneasily.
But he and Wilson slipped away from the main column into the woods, where they found several peasants with a fire they had built secretly, its light shielded by two enormous upturned stumps. The warmth was heavenly. The Partisans were roasting potatoes in the coals, and shared them with Dafoe and Wilson. "I can still remember the delicious taste and satisfaction from those black, practically burnt and partially raw potatoes," he noted.
Wilson and Dafoe huddled next to the fire that night and slept until Miki located them.
"Sir Major Dafoe, we must go," he said. "Pokret!"
The dim light of dawn crept across the mountains and illuminated the ragged column as it marched silently in and out of the shadows. In a moment the column came upon an old cobblestone road, thickly weeded and clogged with small trees on each side. "It gave you a sense of wandering in a Burmese jungle city," Dafoe recalled. Miki told him the road dated from the Turkish occupation in the nineteenth century, adding that it connected the villages of Vlasenica and Kladanj. Ordinarily the discovery of a road, no matter how bad it was or where it led, was cause for hope. But this time the Partisans seemed gravely worried and wasted little time in crossing it.
Winding through the dense forest, Dafoe passed a small assembly of Partisans, many of them badly wounded, a few moribund on the stretcher-beds he had designed. They were a pitiful sight shattered and silent, but not dispirited.
Suddenly urgent cries surged down the column. "Tisina!" "Silence!"
Everyone stood motionless, aware of his own heart beating and his breath misting in the sunlight. The column inched forward, making frequent stops as scouts ranged the land ahead. Dafoe asked a nearby Partisan in a whisper if he knew what was happening. The man flicked his eyes in the direction of a small gully ahead, where the forward section of the column was crossing.
"Fasisti. Nemci. Nije dobro," he said.
Dafoe recognized the understatement in the man's voice. The "Fascists" and Germans were ahead, patrolling the area, and the situation was "not good," which Dafoe took to mean it was actually much worse than stated.
Then a dog on a nearby hillside began to bark. The sound echoed loudly. "With a sinking sensation in my stomach, I wondered if the Germans had tracking dogs in their field equipment and were preparing to smell us out."
The column moved forward, its progress measured in steps. The sound of hooves striking rock seemed absurdly amplified. The Partisans stopped to wrap the animals' hooves with shreds of clothing and bits of cloth. Still, the order worked its way down the line "Tisina!"
This time the column waited for what seemed an eternity Dafoe estimated it was more than two hours. He surveyed his surroundings and found they were near a log building some sort of abandoned stable, he thought. It was positioned next to a spring.
The waiting was punctuated by a distant shout from one of the hills. Faces swung about expectantly. In a moment, the tension ebbed. Dafoe slipped away to the spring to wash silently. He had several long drinks from the cold water before returning to the column. Later he tried to sleep, but he was awakened by of all things the crying of the nurse's baby.
"Tisina! Tisina!" someone barked hoarsely. Dafoe could see the nurse struggling desperately to silence the child. A frightened look creased her young face, for she knew that if the crying did not stop immediately her son would be unceremoniously strangled. The Partisans, now crouched among the trees, glared at the nurse, but the child stopped its bawling almost as quickly as it had started. Sighs of relief eddied down the column. Dafoe collected Miki and marched up the line to make contact with the rest of the British Mission. He found them asleep, curled up in the beechwood forest. The Partisan General Staff had withdrawn to one side, where it was waiting patiently while scouts reconnoitred ahead.
When the column began to move again, it was in single file, zigzagging in descent until it struck another road, where several deserted farmhouses lay in a broad stretch of rolling farmland. On the right was a steep, thickly wooded ridge. Here the column halted. Dafoe and several others dug up some potatoes from an abandoned garden, and devoured them raw along with some half-ripe plums they had scavenged. They had had little food for three days.
Dafoe fell in with the column as it scrambled down a wooded hillside, passing several Partisans operating a wireless set on the way. He plunged into a river and after fording it came to another road. Partisan officers rode up and down the length of the column, urging everyone to hurry along.
Then it happened. Heavy machine-gun fire broke out around a bend in the road ahead the slower Bren- and Sten-gun fire of the Partisans answering the sharp, quick, and deadly fire of the German Schmeissers. A melee followed as everyone scrambled for cover.
The far side of the road rose steeply against a mountainside. It seemed that everyone surged into the protection of the trees as the firing grew louder. They climbed, as quickly as they could. Suddenly a squall of rain crashed down on the hillside, adding to the confusion and slowing the ascent.
"Up and up we went, with no end in sight," Dafoe recalled. He passed units digging in to act as a rearguard. Everyone else continued to climb, afraid to stop for fear of being unable to find the strength needed to rise again.
They reached the summit just as dusk fell a swell of indigo in the soggy night. Dafoe was too tired to think of food or even a bed. He searched out a spot of ground without too many rocks and collapsed, indifferent to the cold and rain.
"If the Germans overrun us now, they can have me," he said, before falling into a deep, almost catatonic sleep.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.