Dafoe woke early the next day and found he was in a grove of towering oak trees at the edge of a steep cliff overlooking a valley. The altitude made him whistle softly.
"No wonder we dropped from exhaustion last night," he remarked.
Far away he could see Vlasenica nestled in the valley. With his fieldglasses, he picked out landmarks in the occupied town. The community hall, a church mosque, and a main square were clearly visible. "At last we had a real view of this town we had skirted so often," he noted approvingly. "The wide silver streak of a road leading into it could be seen from which the Germans sallied forth to try and uproot us from our mountain fastness."
On the six o'clock schedule, the Mission was informed that aeroplanes would arrive that night as requested. The weather had held throughout the day, while a full moon made conditions ideal. Wilson and Diklic trekked down to the dropping ground they had selected earlier, leaving Dafoe, Holmes, and Ball to the comfortable beds they had prepared in their tent.
"We had nicely settled down when at about 11 p.m. brisk firing broke out in the valley below. Plenty of small-arms and automatic fire, interspersed with mortars and the occasional mountain gun." Dafoe tried to sleep despite the gunfire, but the sound echoed so loudly that it seemed to creep up the hillside towards his tent. Then the DC3s arrived, circling overhead. The kitbags and canisters could be heard whistling through the darkness and crashing to the ground.
Just before dawn, Wilson and Diklic returned. Diklic went straight to Dafoe's tent and issued the dreaded command.
"Pokret, Sir Colin. Hajde." "C'mon."
"We packed the animals in the dark, the firing very close but not visible yet. We started off in the dim light and could recognize trains of horses coming from the dropping ground with the loads mostly food."
Djoko, the Partisan quartermaster, urged everyone to get the supplies loaded and away to safety. Some were left behind in the rush to move out. Meanwhile, Diklic explained that the night before, the enemy had sent a motorized column up from Vlasenica to occupy the hilltop, expecting it to be deserted. They were surprised by the Partisans, who inflicted heavy casualties with mortar and small-arms fire. However, the enemy had regrouped and gradually chased them up the hillside as far as the rearguard positions.
In the middle of the fighting, a parachutist from one of the DC3s had dropped between the two forces. For a while he had drifted dangerously towards the German lines. Then, realizing the Partisans would be on the mountain top, he had swung about miraculously escaping the curtain of gunfire that cut across his path. A Partisan returning from Italy, he had had an eye removed after being wounded and evacuated in Montenegro. When the regular parachute-trained couriers refused to go, he had volunteered to return to Yugoslavia. He was given basic parachute instruction by the American aircrew aboard the DC3 while en route to eastern Bosnia, and then "took his artificial eye out and dropped in amidst the battle and succeeded in his mission an excellent achievement in all," Dafoe declared.
The column disappeared into the woods along a well-worn path as the sound of gunfire behind and alongside chased everyone deep under cover. Then it stopped in a well-protected gully overflowing with Partisans resting after the night of fighting. Dafoe heard some of the men proudly recalling the damage they had inflicted. Also present were a number of fine-looking horses that had been captured.
"It suddenly struck me that I was tired of walking," Dafoe recalled. "I wasn't as tough as I thought. A month and a half was enough of climbing over these mountains. They had repeatedly offered me a horse, and I began to think I was a fool for refusing it."
Frank and Chris both craved a chance to ride, as well. Dafoe asked Dr Levi to see what he could do to find mounts for the medical unit. Immediately, several of the captured horses were brought around. A grey mare, saddled and ready to go, was given to Dafoe. "The Partisans always avoided grey horses as they are easily seen at night," he said. "But I was grateful for it. My feet were getting a bit blistered and sore."
Dafoe slept until the next pokret was ordered. The column travelled all morning through the forest, the medical unit following on horseback.
"I had lost all sense of direction and position and was very surprised when at about noon we came into a clearing on the side of the mountain. I realised we were on the range of hills that we used to look at from the hospital and the village where Korpus was situated."
According to Dafoe, the column had marched in circles around the Javor and Javornik mountains since the evacuation of Mihajlovici. To his amazement, he could recognize several landmarks including the ruins of Sekovici and the river Drinjaca in the valley below. Men and officers on horseback urged the column along, although the valley was still free of gunfire. Only an eerie sense of foreboding lingered, oddly accentuated by the sound of men, horses, and equipment, always moving.
Now they were following the path that Dafoe and Diklic had travelled on the first fishing trip to the Drinjaca. It was comforting to find familiar terrain underfoot again. The column rested halfway up the mountain, then resumed its ascent and passed through a cornfield until it reached Dukici. The village where Dafoe had spent his first night in eastern Bosnia, and where Korpus HQ was once situated, was now a collection of ruined and gutted buildings. "Some of the Partisans scraped through the wreckage. Little was left. A pathetic sight."
The colunn continued up the hillside to the spot where the General Staff had once camped. Diklic went immediately in search of several articles he had hidden, including a small motorcycle. Nothing remained. The ground was littered with papers and debris after the looting. Incensed by the vandalism, Diklic warned everyone to watch out for landmines.
Before long Korpus HQ was established again in its original site. Dafoe and the medical unit camped at the edge of the woods, using some of the ferns they had cut for bedding. Fires were forbidden, so they stretched out under the glassy, star-specked sky, chatting among themselves, thankful that the night was so calm.
In the morning, Dafoe had a long conversation with the intrepid, one-eyed parachutist who had landed during the last night drop. He examined the man's eye socket, which had become inflamed. "He was a jolly chap with a ready smile," Dafoe recalled. "Spoke well of his treatment by the British in Italy and was very friendly."
The day promised sunshine and a chance to relax. Dafoe and Diklic erected a tent using a groundsheet. Then, sometime in the morning, "a strange crowd of people" entered the campsite. Dafoe recognized Matia, one of the nurses captured in the underground shelter. She was with several others from the old hospital who were now clad only in boots and overcoats, and Stevo, the one-armed commissar, who was fully dressed and carried a weapon.
"I shall never forget the expression of stark terror on her face," Dafoe remarked when he first saw Matia. "She smiled at me but the smile didn't last long. Her eyes were screwed up as if she was trying to blot out some awful visual memory."
Miki and Diklic anxiously questioned the man and then related their story to Dafoe. Matia had been captured "and raped, although she refused to admit it" by the Cetniks. The courier had said that she, Natasan, and Mira Herlinger were led away with their hands tied, which Miki now confirmed. But Matia had somehow loosened the ropes and escaped into a beechwood forest. She was pursued by her captors, but managed to climb a large tree and hide in the branches while the Cetniks searched below. She remained in the tree all day, through the night and part of the following day, then slipped down and fled to where Jordy and the one-armed commissar were hiding in the cave. "Here the story grew more gruesome," Dafoe said.
Conditions in the hideout became desperate, with food and water in short supply, but it was too dangerous to venture out. Eventually the Cetniks found the cave anyway, and attacked it. They were reluctant to enter, fearing the nurses might have grenades, but when they happened upon an opening on top of the cave, they dropped in grenades of their own "with dire results, wounding further many of the patients and Jordy."
The cave had a high ceiling. Somehow the one-armed commissar and Matia managed to climb up to a ledge and hide in the dark. Jordy tried to follow but with a shrapnel wound in her back, could not get very far. There was no escape, as the Cetniks swarmed into the cave. They slit the throats of the patients who could not walk, and led the others away with Jordy.
The commissar and Matia had been spectators to the savage massacre, praying they would not be caught or given away inadvertently. Miraculously, they were not discovered and remained on the secret shelf until they judged it safe to come down. Wandering in the woods, they spotted a column of Partisans and followed it.
What no one in the group knew was that Jordy's sister, Mira, was safe, in the protective custody of a Jewish physician whom the Cetniks had captured from the Partisans. He had told his captors that Mira was related to him. "This was an excuse to take care of my sister," Jordy recalled. "So my sister said to the Cetniks that I am in the woods...and they're certainly going to catch me. Would they please not kill me? Bring me to this Cetnik hospital, she said."
The three men standing in boots and overcoats had been among those taken prisoner with Jordy. Initially they were herded to a site outside Osmaci, where they were questioned and tortured. That night, the men escaped in a mad dash to freedom, dodging bullets and scratching themselves horribly on brambles as they fled. Jordy, as she was injured, was left behind, although the men said she was being treated well as a doctor, even since she knew how to use the strange drugs found in Dafoe's magazine.
Dafoe drew small comfort from the suggestion that Jordy was spared because her work with him had made her invaluable to the Cetniks. He remained torn by what he saw as his own role in having both endangered and saved Jordy, and worried for some time about her condition the men had said the shrapnel wound to her back was severe and no doubt painful. Sadly, he never saw her again, and it was not until almost a year later (in a letter from Miki) that he learned she was alive and well. Reunited with her sister, Jordy had worked with the Jewish doctor until January 1945, when she escaped with him. Mira Herlinger had fled on her own two weeks earlier. Jordy and the doctor eventually came upon a column of Partisans, who contacted her father in Belgrade. (Jordy went on to study medicine after the war, then returned to the military as well, serving for ten years before retiring in 1969 as a lieutenant-colonel. She then lived in the United States for a number of years, where she established her medical reputation before returning to Yugoslavia. As late as the summer of 1984, Mira Herlinger resided in California.)
Shortly after breakfast the next day, the column was ordered to its feet again. "A short pokret," Diklic promised. They crossed several fields and travelled along the forest's edge until suddenly the terrain rose steeply too steep for Dafoe's horse. The column passed a deserted peasant building which had somehow escaped destruction by the enemy. Near the top of the mountain they went through a grainfield before vanishing into an oak wood. "The whole Partisan force was quickly engulfed in its shadows a seemingly ideal camping place."
Later in the day General Vukotic visited Dafoe's campsite to brief the Mission on events of the last month or so. The 13th SS "Handzar" Division, along with units of Cetniks, Ustasi, and Zeleni Kadar some 30,000 troops in all, apparently had initiated the Seventh Offensive, mainly in the area surrounding Osmaci, "in an attempt to wipe out the Partisans" and eliminate the supply of arms and ammunition, using the airfield. Vukotic said the Partisans had set a trap in Mihajlovici and succeeded in killing a substantial number of the enemy before being forced to retreat into the mountains. For a while, several Partisan divisions led the enemy on "various goose chases" in an attempt to deflect the offensive. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes left the Partisans in jeopardy before they could disengage.
Vukotic had been informed that the 13th SS Division was retreating to Sarajevo in anticipation of an Allied invasion. Though the situation was thought to have improved as a result, the remaining forces in the area still posed a threat. Vukotic said that wherever the enemy had passed through the countryside they had left a trail of murder, rape, looting, and vandalism. The peasants had suffered in mass reprisals, arbitrary executions, and destruction of their means of livelihood.
It was the first such meeting and Wilson, typically, was ruffled by what he interpreted as the Partisans having condescended to reveal the nature of their predicament. Dafoe, for one, was grateful to Vukotic for having explained why they had been travelling in circles for so long. Clearly, the General Staff had brought the Partisans and Allied missions through great peril with some astounding feats of daring and a minimum of casualties, and was justifiably proud of the fact. Dafoe deduced, too, from the general's timing that they might be staying put for a while.
Dafoe and Holmes spent part of the next day practising Serbo-Croat, determined to acquire at least a working knowledge of the language. Lincoln's success in picking it up so quickly had impressed both men. "He was good enough for an interpreter," Dafoe recalled.
Radovan fed the horses all day. They were already showing signs of improvement. "The Partisan horse, as the Partisan soldier, had a mighty tough time," Dafoe noted.
That day the unit had a visit from the young courier who had first brought word of the slaughter in Mihajlovici. He told Dafoe that he had been at the old hospital site again, and found a lot of materiel strewn about the grounds. Dafoe wondered if it might be worth salvaging. "I saw a chance to gather enough materiel to perhaps work again," he said. It was agreed that Frank and Chris would investigate the site the next day, but Dr Levi insisted they take a unit of guards as well as Miki and Radovan. Enemy units were still patrolling the area.
There was some excitement at the news that a body would accompany the supply drop scheduled for that night. Holmes, assuming the new man would be his replacement wireless operator, smartly organized a reception committee and proceeded to the dropping ground. The next morning, Miki informed Dafoe that the operator "a big, stout fellow, and very jolly" had arrived without mishap after a fine drop. His name was Jeffrey Eden. Formerly a corporal in a tank regiment, Eden had done special duty on Vis after joining SOE. Both Frank and Chris knew him already and spoke highly of him. According to Miki, he was a nephew of Sir Anthony Eden, Britain's Foreign Secretary. He arrived with news from the outside world, "which wasn't much actually," in addition to cigarettes and other comforts.
Dafoe amused himself during the afternoon by investigating what he called "the Partisan Chronicles". These were the detailed reports, including maps, that the Partisans kept throughout their travels. He knew that typists were always working somewhere in the background, and wondered if Ismet Mujezinovic was used as a cartographer. Dusko Blagojevic, the correspondent, had the responsibility of maintaining the chronicles, and Dafoe asked him if he intended to write a book about the war. Dusko said he had started such a project already, but had made little progress, with the frequent interruptions and his constant movement.
"Perhaps when the war is finished, Sir Colin," he said.
Towards nightfall, Frank and Chris returned from Mihajlovici with the horses heavily loaded. They had found various instruments scattered about the old hospital and others hidden in a rough cache improvised by the courier on his initial visit. The instruments were rusty but serviceable and this meant the medical unit could return to work if needed. Chris had also recovered syringes and a good supply of pentathol. The bandages were sodden or caked with mud but could be washed and reused. Thomas splints with the leather straps burnt away, some vaseline and lint gauze, POP (including some still in drums), along with an assortment of drugs and two surgical panniers, were also salvaged. Frank and Chris had surpassed Dafoe's wildest expectations. He gave Dr Levi as much as he could spare for his divisional hospitals, then set out the remainder for transport.
Frank and Chris had seen Dafoe's films lying exposed around the rock cairn by the old cache. This loss was galling, for it left Dafoe (and historians) with no photographic record of the early part of his mission. Fortunately he still had a roll in his Leica, which he was determined to preserve.
Bari-based DC3s ferrying still more supply shipments arrived that night and the next. Dafoe and his cohorts spent the time "reading, resting, talking, and eating" when they were not consolidating the mobile medical unit or anticipating the next pokret.
On the third day, Miki borrowed Dafoe's Marlin and joined a patrol in pursuit of Cetniks. He departed, "in great glee, I am sure, of killing many of them to avenge the wrongs to Jordy and the rest like a kid going fishing," Dafoe recalled.
Later that day Dr Levi returned from one of the divisions with Dr Djordje Dragic, a captain in the Partisan Medical Service. Dafoe liked him at once and called him "George." He had "such a kind, pleasant, clean-looking face," he said.
Through Diklic, Dr Dragic explained that the doctor in charge of the 39th Divisional Hospital could not cope with the normal amount of serious cases because of his limited knowledge of surgical procedures. Would Sir Major Dafoe be kind enough to visit the hospital?
"I readily agreed, only too glad to have a chance to do something," he recorded.
Dragic, at thirty-four, was only a year younger than Dafoe. He spoke halting English and with Dafoe's limited Serbo-Croat, they managed a conversation. Dragic had worked as a general practitioner in eastern Bosnia prior to the war, often making his house-calls on horseback. These riding skills and his knowledge of the medical situation in the area would be tested in the many travels that followed.
Dr Dragic assured Dafoe that the 38th Divisional Hospital was not far away. He added that it was "a good division," hoping that Dafoe might decide to stay. Once, as they were crossing an open field and chatting amiably, they were challenged by a guard who sprang out from behind a rocky promontory. Having satisfied him that they were friendly, they entered a deep wood and marched until they emerged from the shadows and skirted the forest's edge. Soon they reached the hospital, which was constructed mainly of parachutes camouflaged with branches and well hidden among the trees.
Dafoe was introduced to the doctor in charge, "a short, pleasant-faced Jewish chap with grey hair and a ready smile, who seemed very glad to see me," he remembered. This was Dr Vlatko Ajzensteter. He had a little English, and chatted away eagerly as Dafoe surveyed the hospital. He realized at once why Dr Levi was always anxious to send supplies to the divisions. The buildings, furnishings, lack of good equipment, and generally impoverished conditions spoke of long suffering.
Many of the patients were seriously wounded and required immediate surgery, Dafoe noted. Most suffered from gunshot wounds to the arms and legs. Two cases were particularly distressing. One had an abdominal injury. The other was a young woman with a horrendous wound just below the head of the humerus, where "plenty of daylight shone through."
Dafoe assisted with the construction of a makeshift theatre, using parachutes Dr Levi had provided and several uprights wrapped with groundsheets. It was crude, but functional. For an operating table he used two pack saddles to support planks covered with rubber sheeting.
Vera arrived with another girl Dafoe remembered from the old hospital. "Hard-working, cheerful, even-tempered Vera," he enthused upon seeing her again. The girl was young and pretty with dark, flashing eyes he admired. "Our old gang was slowly coming back," he said.
Frank was soon hard at work with a small sterilizer boiling over a wood fire. The two surgical panniers retrieved from the old hospital were dipped in mercuric bromide and covered with rubber sheeting, then used as instrument stands. The medical unit was about to resume work for the first time in almost two months.
The young woman with the badly wounded humerus dubbed "The Battling Beauty" after Miki disclosed that she was an outstanding guerrilla was treated first. Dafoe had to operate without anaesthetic (none was available, despite the recent supply drops) and "she came through with flying colours." One of the male patients was next. Still operating without anaesthetics, it was difficult to work around the man's agony. The wound was septic, but he managed to treat him successfully.
Dafoe worked steadily all day, until the sunlight faded and he judged it too risky to continue. He felt satisfied by his efforts as he returned to the campsite and settled down with his assistants and Miki at dinner. Miki had returned unscathed from his day of hunting the enemy, "with no Cetniks in the bag." Radovan was there also, with his mother and daughter. "The old lady was sixty if a day and almost toothless," Dafoe recalled. But he liked her and hoped Korpus HQ would allow the family to stay together.
Dafoe was halfway through his meal when Dr Dragic came along and asked him to join the officers at the 38th Division. When he declined, saying that he was comfortable in his own campsite and preferred to stay with "the gang," Dragic seemed disappointed, even a bit annoyed. He then suggested that Frank and Chris could accompany Dafoe if they liked. Only when his assistants told Dafoe to go ahead without them did he accept the invitation.
At the divisional campsite, he deposited his kit outside a tent that two couriers were erecting on his behalf. Several fires burning brightly nearby cast a warm glow and revealed more tents. A girl in uniform emerged from the shadows with two plates of food it was mainly meat, Dafoe noted with excitement and led the men to a table. "We sat down at the bench and piled in, despite the fact that I had had part of a meal already. It looked so appetisingly well-cooked and on a real plate!"
In the middle of his meal, the officers of the 38th Division were introduced. In command was Major Milos Zekic, "a slim, dark, good-looking, intense, well-dressed young man" who reminded Dafoe of Kosta Nadj. Like Nadj, Zekic at twenty-nine had already seen much of life's hardships. A schoolteacher in Sekovici before the war, he had joined the Communist Party in 1940 and had commanded various units until assuming his present leadership in March 1944.
With Zekic was Major Husein Krupic, his second-in-command. A much older man, he had been a regular soldier in the Royal Yugoslav Army prior to the war. "He was hard to fathom at first a musilman," Dafoe noted. A Moslem. Also present was a political commissar who seemed "more sturdily built," and had wavy blond hair and cold blue eyes. He struck Dafoe as a formidable character. This was Vladimir Rolovic, a twenty-eight-year-old lieutenant-colonel from Montenegro. He had studied law at the University of Belgrade, where he was preparing to write his exams when the war started. A member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, Rolovic had served with a number of units since joining the Partisans.
The last man introduced was Captain Zvonko Grakalic, "an immense man of about 6'2", well-built, about thirty-two years of age, dark looking a bit like a thug but saved by a hearty laugh and a ready smile and a devil-may-care expression." Zvonko and Dr Dragic were "great pals and joked with each other continually," Dafoe observed.
Zvonko and Dr Dragic were to provide some of Dafoe's best memories of the months that followed. After the war, Dragic would become one of the most ardent promoters of Dafoe's legend an unofficial biographer and one of many Yugoslavs who avidly collect information on the Canadian surgeon. Milos Zekic also gravitated to the centre of a circle of former Partisans living in Belgrade who, in the post-war years, advocated that Dafoe's work be recognized and celebrated. Zekic, a tough-as-nails military veteran, grows tearful when recalling Dafoe. "He was a wonderful man controlled, a perfect surgeon," he said forty years later. "The Partisans were suspicious of everyone else among the Allies, but never of Dafoe. He was cold-blooded, quiet." The Canadian was seen as one of them.
Dafoe and Zekic first met in mid-August somewhere in the Birac region of eastern Bosnia, south of Sekovici. Zekic recalled that the Canadian surgeon arrived grumbling mildly about his dirty socks, which he burned in one of the fires. The Partisans were incredulous. "He never did it again once he realized how important clothing was," Zekic said with amusement. "Dafoe had more socks than a commander!"
When the after-dinner conversation started, "my Serbo-Croat was better than I thought," Dafoe claimed. He could follow much of what was said and even responded occasionally on his own. The Partisans were most interested in the condition of "the warrior girl", the woman he had nicknamed "The Battling Beauty," and clearly relieved when he indicated that she would not lose her arm.
The conference then turned to political matters. Dafoe praised the Partisans and even the Russians. The compliments were repaid with generous remarks concerning the British and Americans. The officers were unanimous in their hope that Dafoe might stay with the division for some time, and he answered tactfully that he would be pleased to do so but that Dr Levi had other ideas. "It was a most friendly gathering on the surface, at least," he recalled. Even the couriers present had amused him. One was a "young, bright-eyed boy" who reminded him of Huck Finn. The lad wore a black eye, a trophy he'd received when kicked by a recalcitrant horse. Both of the couriers were intent on examining Dafoe's Marlin. There was also a young woman among the group: in her twenties, she wore "a perpetual smile dark, with immense black eyes, well-dressed in battledress." She was a stenographer-typist with the division.
The next morning he examined the patients he had treated. All were recovering satisfactorily, and so he went to work among the remaining wounded. Among them was a twenty-year-old Dalmatian woman named Dejana. A veteran of the epic Battle of Neretva and at one time a commissar with the Partisans, she survived the war and later related her experiences prior to being treated by Dafoe.
On August 18, 1944, she and several other Partisans engaged enemy units in some woods not far from the hospital. She was wearing a captured German uniform (stripped of insignia) with a wide leather belt and a holster, which protected her left side when a mortar shell exploded nearby, wounding her in the pelvic area. Holding her guts together in the folds of her trousers, Dejana clung to her machine gun and several grenades while she fought to remain conscious. Someone called to her from behind a tree.
"I'm wounded! Can't walk!" she shouted back. In fact, she could not feel her left side or leg.
"The Germans are closing in!" another voice called out urgently. "Let's go!"
Unable to move on her own, she hid behind a tree. When an enemy unit came into the open she fired at them, killing six outright. Then she tossed a grenade into another group. She heard the Partisans cheering.
"Commissar! Where are you?" they shouted. Eventually she was rescued, arriving at the divisional hospital with injuries to her ribs, and a number of lacerations and wounds in addition to those she had suffered in the woods. Still, she refused to let go of her machine gun during the operation in Dafoe's makeshift surgical theatre. She recalled that Miki was present. He allowed her to keep the weapon.
"Everyone thought Dr Dafoe was wonderful," she declared years later. "The patients loved him. He was a father-figure. He often sat in a chair by the wounded, with Miki at his side, and asked them questions."
Clearly, Dafoe's stature as tata was as secure at the divisional level as it was in Mihajlovici. Dr Ajzensteter, whose background consisted mainly of medical work, with no surgical training, usually stood next to Dafoe as he operated, watching every move carefully. He seemed genuinely interested in the Canadian surgeon's methods.
For lunch the following day, Dafoe was escorted again to the divisional mess. He met a muscular young Partisan on the way who, in almost flawless English, addressed him excitedly. He told Dafoe he was the first Englishman he had ever met. "He had learned his English himself from books and listening to the wireless," Dafoe recalled. "It was an amazing effort, for the result was almost perfect barring a few quaint expressions." The young man was thrilled by his successful debut.
That evening, when Dafoe joined a gathering of some forty Partisans from the division, he chatted again with the young man who travelled with a youth brigade known as the Cultural and Artistic Group. Its crucial role was to revive and maintain morale among the Partisans by means of entertainment. Dafoe described these young people as unusually handsome and attractive. In the firelight, they began to sing, "their clear young voices sounding like wind in the pines above the crackling fire." Dafoe already had an appreciation of Yugoslav folk music, yet here he was enraptured by it as though hearing it for the first time. "Words can't describe a Partisan song sung over firelight in the mountains," he would write.
Soon he heard Milos Zekic and Zvonko requesting regional songs. Almost immediately the performers responded with a repertoire that included "a wailing-like Bosnian song, the more martial Serbian and Montenegrin songs, the sheer breathtaking ecstasy of a Slovene melody." Sometimes the young women performed alone, while a youth with an accordion would willingly play any request.
"If only Jerry could see this he would grow discouraged in believing that he could wear these people down, when they could so easily forget their troubles or sum up courage to meet any obstacle in the wild abandonment of such beautiful songs."
The young man sitting with Dafoe translated many of them: old tunes with new words to reflect current travails. "How much more pleasant it was than the stiff formality of Korpus," Dafoe said. It was as though he had left base life, with all its red tape and obstructionism, and found refuge in the "companionship and common sense of a forward area." Among the many attractions of his new environment was a wireless set at divisional HQ that brought news from the outside world. The Partisans regularly listened to the BBC broadcasts, heralded by "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a song they enjoyed and sometimes sang. They might also tune into the quisling news from Belgrade, or broadcasts in Russian.
During one of his visits to the HQ Dafoe met the chief wireless operator, Salom Suica, "an intelligent-looking Jew of about 35 years." Suica had worked as an electrical engineer in Prague before the war, then returned to join the Partisans shortly after the occupation of Yugoslavia. He spoke some English. He and Dafoe became fast friends and after the war, Suica along with Dr Dragic and Milo Zekic would help to advance Dafoe's stature in Yugoslavia.
"Going on foot, treating the wounded and the sick, and fighting, Dr Dafoe turned into a real Partisan," Suica recalled. "He used to welcome us with our own greetings. He especially loved to raise his arm and shout, 'Shmrt fashizmu, shloboda narodu!' He never managed to pronounce the 's' correctly, which amused us a lot."
Dafoe was more than willing now to accept the invitation to stay with the division, but he had to remind Major Zekic that Dr Levi wanted him to travel to other divisional hospitals in the area. When he hiked back to Korpus HQ to report to Dr Levi on the work he had done, Dafoe noted that the Partisan doctor seemed pleased, but suggested again that he would like to send Dafoe to other units in the area. It was reminiscent of SOE HQ's original proposal, made shortly before he was assigned permanently to the hospital in Mihajlovici.
Holmes and Eden, who had initiated their own wireless schedules with Bari, reported that the enemy was evidently moving towards the Adriatic coast, although a number of garrisons were still intact in eastern Bosnia. Then on the noon schedule, they received an unexpected bulletin. Once again, a body would accompany that night's supply drop.
Wilson and Diklic returned the next morning with a strange story. The fellow, who had arrived safely, was a medical orderly named Gaul. On landing he had asked to see a Commander Macphail. "Wilson gently told him that Macphail was a considerable distance from here. He replied by saying he must get to Macphail at once, and demanded a horse. Wilson tried to explain that Macphail was about 200 miles away, separated by hostile mountain country it would take at least a division to escort him. Gaul wasn't convinced."
Dafoe described Gaul as "a slim, tubercular-looking lad, almost effeminate with a rather shifty eye. Quite excitable." Moreover, Gaul had a special talent with the English language. Almost every other word he used was an expletive. Gaul said he had had enough of base life, and was now keen "to do some f....g work, anxious to get his f....g corporal's stripes."
Wilson took a great dislike to Gaul, but everyone else in the Mission found him refreshing. "He was a rogue and quite frank about it," Dafoe laughed. Gaul entertained the men with his angled observations and accounts of his past adventures, "which consisted in most cases of getting tangled with the authorities or the police." A toolmaker by trade, Private Gaul had ended up in the RAMC where his amorous exploits were legendary.
Several days later, Dafoe and the medical unit were summoned back to the 38th Divisional Hospital. "Some fresh wounded had arrived and some of our old patients needed attention that Dr Ajzensteter didn't seem capable of handling." He enjoyed the trek and was reluctant as usual to abandon the convivial atmosphere once his work was finished. But a message from Dr Levi informed the men that Korpus was moving out again.
"Jig, jig, jig, bloody little pig, follow the band," Frank recited sardonically. It was his favourite expression to describe the never-ending movement of Korpus through the mountains.
The pokret was short, but it took the medical unit back to its old campsite in Canici, where it had landed in May. At least everyone was installed in familiar surroundings again. Dafoe and Holmes cut fresh ferns for bedding and then hiked to a shower that Diklic had discovered: a trough carrying water from a waterfall to a petrol tin punctured at the bottom. "Very cool and refreshing," Dafoe remarked. On the way back, he and Holmes inspected the burnt-out village, now virtually unrecognizable.
It was early in the evening when they returned to the campsite. The fire had gone out and everyone was settling down for the night. Diklic had just set out for Divisional HQ to catch the late-night news on the wireless, when suddenly "a terrific barrage of small-arms fire broke forth all around us even mortar fire, rockets, tracers lighting up the sky," Dafoe recalled. "Everyone was paralysed for a moment."
Dafoe recognized Wilson, "an old-timer" at this sort of crisis, falling to the ground and then crawling into the woods. Soon great shouts arose amid the deafening gunfire. "Then the lads attached to Wilson's party started firing into the air. One lad lost control of his gun and almost hit Holmes. Had they gone clean mad?" Dafoe wondered. Even Lincoln, "who had been itching to fire his new pistol", was shooting aimlessly into the starry sky. "The horses stampeded we heard them thundering past our camp. Wilson returned and made a remark, 'Perhaps this is the end of the war!'" It was now clear that the Partisans were not engaging the enemy. "Terrific shouts went up, shouts of joy and jubilation."
The sound of distant gunfire came next from the direction of the 38th Division. By now, Wilson had lost his composure and was livid with rage: "A whole goddamned aeroplane-load of ammunition gone already, I'll bet!" he shouted over the din. "Stupid bastards! Happens every time the bloody fools celebrate one damn thing or another!"
Presently Diklic returned, quite breathless. Romania had capitulated. Forces loyal to King Michael had kidnapped the dictator, General Ion Antonescu, who had come to power in a coup in October 1940 as an ally of Nazi Germany, then adroitly switched sides to enable the Soviet Army to advance swiftly towards the Danube. Not only did this mean that a section of Yugoslavia's eastern border was no longer occupied, more important, the liberation of Belgrade might soon follow. The date was August 23, 1944.
Miki told Dafoe next day that the peasants in the vicinity, who thought a terrific battle was underway, had hidden their valuables and fled into neighbouring hills as a result. Like Wilson, Korpus HQ was not amused by the waste of valuable ammunition. And many of the horses belonging to the General Staff were still missing including the one belonging to Kosta Nadj. They were rounded up, but at a cost of some considerable time and energy.
Dafoe and Holmes had by now resumed their idle pursuits mostly reading, practising Serbo-Croat, and showering. Holmes, while vigorously scrubbing away at a bad case of dandruff for which Dafoe had mixed a solution of soap and ether, almost anaesthetized himself under the petrol tin and had to be rescued.
When they returned to the campsite, everyone had got embroiled in "some silly argument" concerning food and cigarettes "the tobacco wars" all over again. "Too many people about with too little to do," was Dafoe's terse summation. He resolved to have the medical unit attached to a divisional hospital at the earliest opportunity.
Korpus and the 38th Division were both on the move again, when Dr Levi asked Dafoe to rejoin the 38th, where fresh wounded had arrived. Frank and Chris were to go with him. Dafoe found the division fording a small stream some five kilometres away. Trailing along behind the column were Radovan's mother and daughter with several oxen.
As soon as the column halted, the makeshift surgical theatre was erected and the medical unit went to work. It was raining slightly now, but an improvised ceiling made of parachute silk stretched tightly across kept the medical unit and patients dry. Dafoe finished just as twilight fell.
The column moved out again shortly before dawn the next day. "We travelled down the mountain, across the immense valley where Vlasenica lay, keeping well in the shadow of trees. German patrols from Vlasenica were looking for us, I heard."
Dafoe rode alongside Dr Dragic and Zvonko Grakalic. He glanced back occasionally to check on his assistants, who were with the young women of the Cultural and Artistic Group. One of them was eyeing Chris, "of which he seemed blissfully unaware."
Later, Dafoe spotted Major Krupic. "He rode up and down the column on a rather tired brown horse with a most ancient saddle made of wood, which the Partisans joked about, stating it was found in Tututkamen's [sic] tomb. In one hand he had an invalid's cane that came with some of the medical supplies, made of bamboo a strange sight. He made and took his ribbing with a smile. An efficient man, I should think. He spied out the land ahead of us carefully with his fieldglasses before picking the route. One felt safe in his hands."
Dafoe suspected the column was marching into the Milan mountain range again, "as it always did in time of great danger. It seemed a never-ending process. It was also pleasant, for the scenery was magnificent. Frequent plum trees to pluck, and pleasant company." Indeed, he and Dr Dragic tutored each other in English and Serbo-Croat as they rode.
The column descended until it crossed a road. After fording a river it entered dark woods, rising again. Climbing through this they came to the edge of the Milan mountains and rode past a roaring stream with a large wooden mill. Outside was a peasant family making and eating cornmeal bread.
They continued through more woods, emerging halfway up the mountainside. Dafoe stared across to a tremendous limestone wall. The view of the surrounding countryside and approaches was ideal. Still, Major Krupic seemed sceptical. He surveyed the landscape with his fieldglasses for several hours before giving the order to hunker down for the night. Couriers immediately went to work erecting tents, while the girls prepared meals. Dafoe hoped to work the next day, but Major Zekic did not seem optimistic. The situation remained fluid. There were no fires or songs that night, "just beautiful sleep."
The enemy was still out there, somewhere.
In the morning, Major Zekic passed word along that it was safe to set up "Dafoe's show" for a few hours after all. The Partisan scouts had informed Zekic that the enemy was in the valley and on the mountainside above, but he had decided the woods provided adequate protection. Soon the medical unit had the surgical theatre erected and camouflaged and Dafoe went to work. He had finished with the patients by midday.
The 38th Division stayed three days in the mountain retreat. "It was a case of laying about, a 'ward' round in the a.m., a bath in the p.m., and watching the countryside." Dafoe slept alongside Dr Dragic at night to keep warm. The air was cold at that altitude.
On the fourth day the column set out again, retracing its earlier route. Sometime during the march, Dafoe was informed that the enemy had withdrawn from Vlasenica and were now ranging the countryside in search of the Partisans. The column pushed ahead until shortly before midday, but when it had gone about two-thirds of the way across a great valley next to Vlasenica and entered dense woods again, the order to set up camp was issued. In the middle of the night, the column moved out again. This time Dafoe could not discern its direction, but by daybreak they were traversing "strange but beautiful countryside" through narrow gorges and steep hills. Once again, everywhere he looked seemed deserted, and it saddened him to see so many burnt-out villages and fresh graves with newly carved rough wooden crosses.
By mid-afternoon the long hours of travelling had begun to tell on everyone and when the column came to a wide stream, everyone slowed long enough to take a dip. "Even a few of the women undressed a bit upstream," Dafoe recalled. "Strange, this seemingly complete lack of modesty. Very refreshing and a good idea."
The column resumed its march and passed through a long forest track until it came to a plateau spreading in all directions for some distance. Those on horseback were tempted to gallop. Then the entire column came into view and suddenly, in the distance, a long, indefinite shape moving towards them. It was the Third Korpus. Dafoe and the medical unit rode forward to greet Wilson's Mission. He was delighted to hear that they carried mail. There were letters from Dafoe's parents and from Charlotte.
"Korpus had been through a fairly rough time. Shortly after we left them near the top of the mountain, they were attacked by about 700 Cetniks. There was some severe fighting before they could disengage themselves." Then they had wandered in the mountains and valley near Vlasenica while dodging enemy columns and were nearly caught a second time when they stumbled upon the enemy in the dark. Miraculously they went undiscovered while passing "only a few yards away."
Gaul and Wilson were still feuding, Dafoe observed. Gaul was outraged that he hadn't been provided with a horse. But generally Wilson's men seemed in good spirits "immune to pokrets and danger," Dafoe decided. He located Holmes "striding along with his steady pace, and his big bush hat, refusing a horse, never changing, thinking a great deal but not saying much always a kind word ready."
Shortly after the reunion, the 38th Division set out again. The medical unit fell in. Late in the day, they passed Radovan's old homestead, "still intact and nestled on the side of a mountain." Radovan did not stop, claiming he would return soon enough. Farther along the march, the column halted. The medical unit had just moved into an orchard and unloaded the horses when Dr Levi arrived, requesting that they return to Korpus. "We seemed like a tennis ball tossed between two bats [sic] for no particular reason," grumbled Dafoe. Nevertheless, he agreed to go, never doubting that events would lead them back to the division.
The journey was mercifully short, although it took Dafoe through unfamiliar terrain until "suddenly we came to the dropping ground of old Korpus HQ," he recalled, "the old stamping ground."
By nightfall he had examined all the patients and found them in good condition. Soon he was established in his old campsite, with a new bed of ferns under his blanket and a warm meal in his stomach.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.