Britain's secret war originated in 1938 with the establishment of several organizations shortly after the annexation of Austria. Less than two months after France fell in May 1940, another clandestine service was created to support resistance movements in Europe and elsewhere and to collect vital intelligence. Christened the Special Operations Executive (SOE), it came under the direction of Hugh Dalton, minister of economic warfare in the coalition government. Its mandate, in the words of Winston Churchill, was to "set Europe ablaze!"
SOE operated under the title "InterService Research Bureau," with offices at 64 Baker Street in London. Hence, its staff and agents were dubbed "Baker Street Irregulars" after the street urchins and informants employed by Sherlock Holmes, with his fictional digs at 221B Baker Street. Hugh Dalton earned the sobriquet, "Minister of Ungentlemanly Warfare." Indeed, SOE was behind a considerable amount of ungentlemanly conduct in Axis-occupied Europe and Asia. Its agents fomented revolutions, supplied insurgents with arms and ammunition, lent technical and logistical expertise, and generally proved nettlesome to the enemy.
Canada played a significant role in SOE operations almost from the outset, when it is estimated that at least a hundred nationals volunteered to enter enemy territory to assist local resistance groups or smuggle Allied airmen out of occupied countries. They were trained in special camps in Canada, the United Kingdom, the Middle East, India, and Australia, and saw action in virtually all theatres.
SOE's interest in Yugoslavia began in 1940, when the organization laid the groundwork for the March coup d'etat of 1941. SOE had cultivated and financed Serbian politicians and issued propaganda designed to create an appropriate atmosphere in the event that Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact. While the coup was staged successfully, SOE's network of agents in Yugoslavia was virtually eliminated as a result of Hitler's "Operation Punishment" and "a dark curtain of enemy occupation came down over the country."
But information concerning the mounting resistance and the existence of rival factions eventually trickled into SOE HQ in Cairo via Istanbul. Although the details were sketchy, by August 1941 Winston Churchill had heard enough to summon Hugh Dalton and inform him, "I understand...there is widespread guerrilla activity in Yugoslavia. It needs cohesion, support and direction from the outside."
Just so were the Baker Street Irregulars committed to the task.
On September 20, 1941, the Royal Navy submarine Triumph landed a small party on the Montenegrin coast. Captain D T "Bill" Hudson along with Captain Julian Amery, two Yugoslav officers, and an NCO wireless operator quickly moved inland to make contact with the Cetnik leader Mihailovic, who the British believed commanded the only effective resistance front in Yugoslavia.
Hudson had worked as a mining engineer in Serbia prior to the war and so was fluent in Serbo-Croat. He assured Mihailovic of British aid. Later, when he met with Tito, Hudson advanced the idea of establishing a direct, two-way radio link between the Partisans and SOE HQ in Cairo. Such an overture might have exceeded his authority, but Hudson had already decided that the Partisans were the stronger and more aggressive of the two factions. "They were the only people who seemed organized in that part of the world," he reported. "From point to point every night when we stopped there was the familiar nucleus of men with rifles, women with typewriters, organization, passing out propaganda, and raids."
On October 28, the first overt sign of skirmishing between the two factions began with the Cetnik attack on the Partisan HQ in Uzice. Hudson, who was with the Cetniks at the time, was barred by Mihailovic from contacting Cairo. SOE listed him missing, presumed dead, as a result. Mihailovic benefited enormously during the blackout he had imposed on Hudson, as his government promoted him to brigadier-general and then minister of the Yugoslav army, navy, and air force in the belief that he was gallantly resisting the occupation. Meanwhile, magazines and newspapers in North America and Europe promoted him avidly.
In January 1942, several missions were assembled and sent into Yugoslavia, including one to determine the fate of Hudson. This mission was led by Major Terence Atherton like Hudson, familiar with the country and fluent in the language, having spent ten years as a freelance journalist in Belgrade before becoming editor of the South Slav Herald. Atherton had escaped Yugoslavia in April 1941 and gone to Egypt, where he became a war correspondent for London's Daily Mail. He had volunteered to return to Yugoslavia, predicting "such a mission had every chance of developing into a major scoop."
Atherton met Mihailovic in Montenegro and then proceeded to Foca in south-east Bosnia to meet Tito. Tito wanted to use the British officer as a courier to relay information on the strength of the Partisan movement to London, but shortly after their meeting on April 15, 1942, Atherton and his small party disappeared. It was later established that he had been carrying more than a million lire in notes and some 2,000 gold sovereigns, and that he had been robbed and murdered. The Cetniks claimed the Partisans were guilty, and soon accusations were flying in both directions. The crime was never solved.
Further attempts to contact Hudson and to collect specific intelligence concerning the resistance in Yugoslavia were mounted in 1942. It was decided to send a senior mission to Mihailovic in the person of Colonel S W Bailey, who had been with SOE in Belgrade in 1940 and was considered a specialist in Yugoslav affairs.
Bailey landed on Yugoslav soil again on Christmas Day 1942 and met with Mihailovic. His reports, radioed to Cairo at the end of January 1943, were generally favourable towards the Cetniks, although they included remarks that the officers were "lazy and inept." Nevertheless, Bailey concluded an agreement with Mihailovic that anticipated as many as nine British missions, each with independent radio links to Cairo, that would be dropped into Serbia the following April.
Then Hudson resurfaced. He had survived mainly on a diet of potatoes during his long period of captivity. With improved radio communications, Hudson sent some 240 telegrams to Cairo in which he provided an in-depth analysis of the Cetniks. He demolished the Cetnik myth, while stopping short of creating a Partisan legend.
As it happened, the British were already assembling a mission to the Partisans when Hudson's reports were received. For this chapter in the complex story of SOE involvement in Yugoslavia, the focus shifted to Canada and the United States.
SOE had decided that Yugoslav emigrants would form the nucleus of initial contact missions to Tito. It was Colonel Bailey who, with the co-operation of SOE New York and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, had directed the recruiting of Yugoslavs who had arrived in Canada during the 1930s and were now members of the Canadian Communist Party. The men they selected represented a broad cross-section of occupations. Several had served with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and two were already privates in the Canadian Army.
In August 1942, a total of thirty-eight Yugoslav emigres including several who had arrived from New York were sent to the SOE Special Training School, also known as "Camp X", halfway between Whitby and Oshawa, near Toronto, Ontario. There they received expert instruction in demolitions, small arms, radio communications, and unarmed combat. In November, those recruits selected for SOE work underwent additional training in parachute drill at Ramat David, Palestine.
The first mission consisted of a former stone mason and a shipyard worker, both veterans of the Spanish Civil War. The men departed from an RAF airfield in Derna, Libya, and parachuted "blind" into Yugoslavia. They encountered open hostility when they landed, but managed to convince the Partisans of their good intentions.
A second mission consisted of Stevan Serdar, George Diklic, and Milan Druzic, all miners from Quebec, whose experience with explosives was considered useful. An RAF Halifax with a Canadian aircrew flew the Yugoslavs into eastern Bosnia and they dropped into Sekovici on the night of April 21, 1943. They landed safely, but reported to Cairo shortly afterwards that they were on the run.
On the night of May 18, 1943, another aircraft transported Major William Jones a colourful, one-eyed Canadian veteran of the First World War and a British captain, who successfully parachuted into a predetermined site near the Partisan HQ in occupied Croatia.
Major Jones quickly won the hearts of the Partisans. Described as "a picturesque figure whose personal courage was only equalled by the violence of his enthusiasms," by one British officer who later served in Yugoslavia, Jones hailed from Digby, Nova Scotia. Formerly a Sunday School teacher in Toronto with ambitions to become a medical missionary, Jones had ended up in the 13th Battalion, Black Watch, during the First World War. He was promoted through the ranks from private to captain until his demobilization and had won a DCM and bar. He was wounded five times and lost his left eye in 1917.
Undeterred, Jones later set his mind on becoming a fighter pilot in the RCAF and memorized the eye-test chart. He passed the exam, but was eventually found out and rejected from the service. Jones then signed aboard a merchant ship in Montreal as an able-bodied seaman and sailed to England, where he was commissioned in the RAF and put to work as a drill instructor. Somehow he obtained a posting to Cyprus, Middle East Command. Later he was transferred to the British Army with the rank of major, and then he entered SOE.
Jones landed in Croatia wearing an eye patch and the tam-o'-shanter of the Black Watch. Now in his early fifties, he seemed an unlikely guerrilla, but Jones soon adjusted to his new environment. "Language was no barrier," he recalled years later in an article published in Maclean's. "It was amazing how many of those fighters had worked in Pittsburgh or Detroit. And there were hundreds of university students and professional men who spoke English. You could find two or three interpreters in any village or mountain station."
As the war progressed and more Yugoslav expatriates landed with SOE missions raised in Canada, combined with missions led by Jones and later Dafoe, a strong sentimental attachment to Canada developed among the Partisans. That the few Canadians who participated made such a lasting impression seems extraordinary. Other than Jones and Dafoe and the unknown number of Canadian airmen downed over Yugoslavia, few Canadians participated in the Yugoslav theatre. Among them was Major A F McCoubrey, described by Dafoe as "a public health chap" in the RAMC on assignment with SOE.
Then there was Tommy Fuller, a young lieutenant-commander from Ottawa, now based on the island of Vis in the Adriatic from which he commanded a half-dozen or so motor gun boats (MGBs). These boats were fast, heavily armed seacraft that preyed upon enemy coastal convoys, and as such they made unusual demands of the men at the helm. "Successful skippers, like ace fighter pilots, were men with a flair for attack," one historian noted. Fuller already had a DSC to his credit, earned one stormy night in the English Channel when he had pitted his MGB against twenty-two German E-Boats (the equivalent of British Motor Torpedo Boats), gunboats, and anti-aircraft trawlers. His action in the Adriatic earned him a bar in 1944.
On the evening of May 28, 1943, SOE HQ in Cairo received a message on the wavelength assigned to a mission code-named "Typical." The mission consisted of Captain F W Deakin, Captain W F Stuart, two wireless operators, and a Yugoslav from Canada. "Typical" had landed in the midst of one of the war's most critical moments: an Axis attempt to encircle and eliminate the Partisans on the "embattled mountain of Durmitor" in Montenegro. SOE HQ received word that "all were safe after a lucky drop in the dark." In fact, Deakin's mission had leapt into the night and watched anxiously as "bright flashes of gunfire lit the pervading gloom."
Deakin arrived as an "official representation of the British General Headquarters in the Middle East accredited to the central command of the Yugoslav Partisans." His instructions were to report on the military situation in regions held by the Partisans and radio Tito's views to SOE HQ in Cairo. He was well prepared for the job and brought an unusually critical eye to the assignment. From the end of 1942, Deakin had worked with SOE HQ in Cairo. But prior to the war he was a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford, and had served as a literary assistant to Winston Churchill.
Captain Stuart, who accompanied Deakin, came from military intelligence, GHQ Middle East, and had recently assisted Colonel Bailey in recruiting Yugoslavs in Canada. Fluent in Serbo-Croat, he was considered an expert in Yugoslav affairs, having served both the Canadian Department of Immigration and the British Consulate in Zagreb until the occupation in 1941.
The epic of Durmitor has passed into Yugoslav legend. The Partisans, lightly armed and carrying more than 3,000 wounded, were surrounded by more than twice their number in German mountain and SS troops supported by artillery and aircraft. Yet the Partisans managed to out-manoeuvre the enemy and escape.
Nevertheless, Deakin informed Cairo of the desperate situation of Tito's wounded. Partisan strategy, he noted, was severely restricted by the number of casualties and the lack of food, clothing, and equipment. "Not much progress with detailed planning can be made until at least one medical sortie can be sent," he advised. The picture was even more bleak in his memoirs: "From the outset the enemy embarked on a policy of deliberate extermination of the wounded and sick as an effective weapon against the fighting morale of the rebel bands, striking at its roots. In the daily bulletins of the German and Italian units the killing of the wounded is reported as a military success."
Tito considered the care of the sick and wounded "a heavy moral factor for the army and the movement as a whole," Deakin observed. The Partisans relied mainly on hit-and-run tactics according to Tito s dictum: "Attack, when the enemy least expects it; and when they attack you, withdraw." This tactic left them without an established stronghold, and as a result medical personnel and patients were forced to move along with the fighting units.
The needs and number of the wounded often described the course of the war. Indeed, many of its most heroic episodes occurred during battles fought to save the wounded. One such incident involved the stretcher bearers of the 1st Proletarian Brigade's divisional hospital, who carried all their patients sometimes on their backs, sometimes on stretchers three times across the great gorge of the river Tara, once across the canyons of the rivers Piva and Sutjeska, and later across the almost impassable Maglic mountains, all within the space of a few weeks. In another documented incident, a surgeon worked and marched barefoot for ten weeks, during which he averaged six operations and thirty-two kilometres a day, while frequently dodging aerial attacks.
Both Lindsay Rogers and Colin Dafoe would witness similar feats of courage and endurance during their missions, and they continually remarked on the ability of the Partisans to rally on behalf of the wounded. This had the effect of inspiring the Allied surgeons to reach well beyond their previous limitations and display great heroism themselves.
The arrival of Brigadier-General Fitzroy Maclean's mission on September 17, 1943 marked the de facto recognition of Tito's Partisans as a legitimate fighting force in Yugoslavia. The "Kilted Pimpernel," as London's Daily Express called him, at thirty-two, was already on his way to becoming a brilliant political and military figure. After serving in the diplomatic corps in the Soviet Union, he had joined the SAS units ranging deep behind enemy lines in North Africa. His arrival in Yugoslavia with Randolph Churchill, the prime minister's only son, was to the Partisans a hopeful sign that the British were finally acknowledging the situation in the Balkans.
Maclean's reports to Churchill were read and discussed with Stalin and Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference in 1943. It was decided to give all-out support to the Partisans and, almost immediately, the shipment of supplies increased dramatically. Materiel arrived from airfields in southern Italy and the supply depot recently established in Bari.
From the outset, special attention was given to providing the Partisans with medical equipment and aid. While treatment of the wounded was a grave concern, rickets, tuberculosis, typhus, and vitamin deficiency-related diseases were also spreading rapidly, as a result of malnutrition. Medical supplies of all kinds were needed desperately, and Allied supply drops containing morphia, plasma, and vaccines occurred on a regular basis.
Lindsay Rogers had correctly surmised that qualified medical personnel were also in great demand. It is estimated that there were only 6,000 registered doctors in Yugoslavia in 1939 approximately one for every 2,600 patients. Many then fled the country when it was occupied in 1941 or were killed. The wounded suffered even more as a result. "Hundreds died of sepsis and exposure to cold," Dafoe recalled in a CBC radio broadcast in 1945. "They might have survived, but they received almost no medical attention."
Dr Ian Mackenzie led the first of SOE's medical missions into Yugoslavia, which landed on February 20 (or, depending on one's source, August 12), 1943. Lindsay Rogers was next, landing in late November 1943. Rogers travelled extensively during his mission and met Tito, all the while advocating increased medical aid and personnel. From late 1943, when the Allies were in possession of some four hundred kilometres of the eastern coast of Italy and had secured naval and air control of the southern two-thirds of the Adriatic Sea, lightweight supplies were being dropped by air and occasionally run in by small seacraft, which on the return journey would evacuate wounded to a British Field Ambulance at Grumo Appulia near Bari. By the spring of 1944, some 3,000 tons of Allied supplies and aid were being landed each month, with more promised.
Some time in April 1944, Lindsay Rogers and his assistants were airlifted from Yugoslavia back to Italy. They proceeded at once to Castellana, a small village south of Bari. There, a major attached to the medical stores informed Rogers that a Canadian called Colin Dafoe was in the village, waiting to go into Serbia. Rogers, delighted to see his old friend, listened to Dafoe's "long story of base life in Alexandria and Cairo and how he eventually got into our 'Firm.'"
It is likely that Rogers was influential in getting Dafoe into SOE. He was equally helpful in assisting Dafoe in the selection of equipment for his mission, concentrating on "things which make a wounded man comfortable." This meant, however, that he was confronted again by the obstructionism of base "wallahs" during what he called in his memoirs the "Italian Merry-Go Round."
Rogers was in Bari one day to discuss matters with several administration officers when one of them, a South African, confided that he had read his reports from Yugoslavia "with interest." The officer wondered aloud if Rogers wasn't showing "a far too pro-Partisan outlook." Rogers was outraged. To Bill Gillanders, he fumed, "Jesus Christ, wasn't I sent into the bloody country to be pro-Partisan?" Gillanders laughed and agreed.
Gillanders in turn recalled that during one rest period at Castellana a brawl erupted between Allied soldiers who had served in missions to the Cetniks and others who had recently returned from the Partisan side. "It was with knives and all and only broken up by someone firing a submachine gun over their heads," he said. Though Gillanders and the others escaped injury, they might easily have wondered if life among the Partisans wasn't preferable to the comforts and safety of southern Italy, after all.
As it happened, Rogers and his assistants including a replacement for Ian McGregor were set to return to Yugoslavia, landing this time by parachute "somewhere near the Crnomelj area" of Slovenia. McGregor's new task with SOE was establishing airfields in the occupied zones. But first he made sure that Rogers and the others were safely despatched to Slovenia. He says they landed on July 14, 1944. Dafoe was preparing to drop into eastern Bosnia (not Serbia, as Rogers stated in his memoirs).
"We sat down at the bar, open as it was until two o'clock, and sipped brandies, talking of his coming to see me in New Zealand and me going to see him in Canada," Rogers recalled. He told Dafoe everything he could think of that would be useful about Yugoslavia and Tito's guerrillas, including his admiration for their fighting skills.
When the bar closed, the two men stood up, shook hands, and parted.
For security reasons, Dafoe could not tell his family where he was going. His parents thought it might be the Soviet Union. Charlotte was not sure, but shortly after Dafoe wrote that she needn't worry about his becoming romantically involved during his mission, she had read an article about Yugoslavia in which Tito's dictum forbidding sexual relations was noted. She correctly concluded that his destination was Yugoslavia. However, throughout Dafoe's six months there, and until his return to Canada in the summer of 1945, she kept his mission and whereabouts a secret.
In addition to a handful of letters, Dafoe sent home a trunk containing photographs of desert landscapes, some khaki uniforms, and assorted surgical instruments. Meanwhile he occupied himself with final arrangements for his mission, code-named "Toffee."
The full identities of the two young British sergeants he picked to accompany him into eastern Bosnia remain a mystery to this day. They are referred to in Dafoe's unpublished journals as "Frank and Chris", and in Yugoslavia are remembered only by those names. In photographs, both appear to be in their early twenties, and it has been suggested that one was Welsh, the other a Cockney. It seems likely that they had desert experience with the RAMC in North Africa prior to joining SOE. The extent to which "Frank and Chris" are unrecorded in official records is bewildering. Thorough searches in England and Yugoslavia, in addition to informal inquiries conducted among former Partisans and SOE operatives, failed to uncover any useful information, let alone their full identities.
As for Dafoe, an article in the Timmins Daily Press in July 1945 not official sources indicates that he had entered SOE in Cairo during January 1944. There he underwent special training, as Rogers had earlier, later attending a Special Training School in Ramat David, Palestine. The school was used almost exclusively for parachute instruction. The course lasted only one week, starting with "dummy drops," in which students jumped from the back of a moving truck while it was drummed into them to keep their feet together and roll as they landed. The instruction concluded with five "live" jumps three in daylight and two at night.
Dafoe also received small-arms and explosives training, and instruction in unmanned combat. He attended "escape school," where agents had to attempt an "escape" within the first few hours of being "captured." He was further schooled in legerdemain for hiding material in his uniform and techniques of writing a coded letter. Each operative was assigned a fictitious name and address to enable him to send letters that were a distress signal.
For defence purposes, men were given a stiletto-type knife sewn inconspicuously into the long collar of their battledress. Dafoe also carried detailed maps of Yugoslavia, Austria, and the Adriatic coast printed on swaths of silk, somewhat larger than handkerchiefs, then folded and sewn inside various pockets on his tunic and in his suspenders. He also carried a small compass, hidden in the buttons of his tunic, and a number of gold sovereigns. By the time Dafoe left the establishment, he was equipped like a commando.
Now, Colin Scott Dafoe, at thirty-five, was set to embark on the adventure of his life.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.