In Liberated Tuzla
In his memoirs, Dafoe recorded that everyone had champagne that day. Miki later suggested it was actually rakija, while allowing that with all the excitement, the lethal brew had perhaps surpassed its usual quality. Certainly the countryside seemed to speed by and the travelling grow easier as the column followed roads through deserted villages and settlements, drawn by an almost magnetic force. Dafoe noted substantial evidence of motor traffic and saw several demolished bridges. The column crossed a railway in apparent working order, its rails gleaming in the brilliant sunshine.
The terrain was unfamiliar to Dafoe, but both Zvonko and Dragic found recognizable landmarks. "Dr G and Zvonko were like a couple of schoolboys," Dafoe recalled "particularly Zvonko," who was frantically negotiating a new horse on which to enter Tuzla triumphantly.
Dafoe plied his friends with more questions. "They laughed at me when I asked if there would be a real hotel with real bathtubs and hot water. Dr G said he would find me the finest bathtub in Tuzla. We would all stay with his family." "Tuzla was a fine little city," Dragic promised. "Perhaps not as grand and big as Zagreb," he admitted, but still wonderful.
Home usually feels that way.
Dragic next described the medical set-up in Tuzla, particularly details of a civic hospital run by nuns and a workmen's hospital in which he had worked until joining the Partisans. Other smaller hospitals connected with the salt mines and industries in the town might also be converted for use when they had settled in. Zvonko interrupted to make "sly remarks about the fine women," the inns, and rakija.
The day grew long and sultry. Late in the afternoon word was passed along that the main column would not reach Tuzla until morning. Zvonko suggested Dafoe and Dr Dragic should accompany him into the town on horseback. "To this plan I gave my heartfelt accord, complimented that I should be included in the small band." Dafoe was now impatient to see the town and he imagined the delay must have been intolerable for Dr Dragic.
As dusk fell around the column ascending a hill into a Moslem village near the main road, a shout went up when someone spotted part of Tuzla in a cup-shaped valley below. The Partisans settled down cheerfully, and Miki found comfortable lodgings for the medical unit. Dafoe apologized to his assistants for proceeding into Tuzla without them, then went to examine the wounded. He would return in the morning.
"We set off to the envy of many to see, what was to me, sights and impressions that I would carry with me always," he recalled of his excitement upon climbing into his saddle.
They rode swiftly down the main highway in the waning light. "My heart was beating excitedly. I couldn't check it. There was a great feeling of expectation."
From the hills, Zvonko pointed out the Moslem section of Tuzla, where several white mosques stood out prominently, almost luminescent in the twilight. They were approaching the town from the industrial side, his friend explained, where the salt mines and manufacturing sector were located. They passed a hydro plant, partly demolished, and then focused on the electric lights shimmering in the night. Soon they left behind units of Partisans camped along the side of the highway. Dafoe felt a thrill run through him as he regarded homes with garages bordering the roadside. He saw the town's railway station and stared at it, disoriented after so much living outside such landmarks. "It was something out of a story book," he enthused.
"Jubilant, singing Partisans directed Zvonko to a large house not far down the road," and the trio rode on to a building surrounded by a high fence enclosing a neglected garden. Around the back they found the officers from Korpus HQ and the 38th Division. Their horses were stabled as Zvonko exchanged a few words with someone. Dafoe saw Vukotic nod just as they set out again "to the bright lights, on foot."
"We still hadn't reached the main part of the city," he explained. But when they did, some townsfolk recognized Dr Dragic. "They shouted and rushed into the street to clasp his hand, many falling on him like a long-lost brother. Dr G, embarrassed, gave them as much time as he could...." The townsfolk released him when they learned he had not yet seen his family.
Zvonko and Dafoe were almost as occupied, shaking hands and saying a few words as Dr Dragic introduced them to friends in the crowd. Then they were off again, entering a large square flanked by stores and shops. At one end was a hotel and, at the other, an imposing, six-storey stucco building plastered with slogans.
"Crossing this square was fatal," Dafoe noted. "Dr G was almost mobbed, and although he was impatient to see his family, he was enjoying it all, his face one broad smile."
Dragic was busily shaking hands as he apologized over his shoulder for the delay.
"He took us up a sidestreet a short-cut, he said lined with cafes, a drug store and many other fascinating places. Neat, fairly clean, and well-lit. Delicious and strange smells sprang from every corner."
Ten minutes later, they came to a quiet street next to a church. Here they paused ceremoniously at a gate opening on a lawn, beyond which stood "a large, substantial Georgian-like house Dr G's home, at last," Dafoe recalled. "Within those four walls dwelt heaven for George."
Dafoe felt a vicarious sense of his own homecoming, but Zvonko tactfully steered him to a spot behind the gate as Dragic ran up the walk, mounted the steps, and rang the bell. "After a short interval it was opened by what appeared in the dim light to be a white-haired lady. There were some indistinguishable words of exclamation, and Dr G was folded in her arms. Some faint screams from the womenfolk, and the door closed around the joyful scene."
Dafoe and Zvonko waited a short while before they went up the path to knock on the door. They were welcomed by Dragic's mother, who led them down a hall to the kitchen, where both men staggered momentarily in the dazzling electric light.
"She was a most motherly, alert woman," Dafoe said. Mrs Dragic explained that her daughter-in-law, Nada, had fainted upon seeing her husband again. He was comforting her in another room.
Meanwhile Mrs Dragic bustled about the kitchen, warming up food despite their protests, asking questions without waiting for answers, fetching rakija, and setting the table. The lights, the electric stove, a high chair, some wooden blocks and other toys littering the floor caught Dafoe's interest. Several neighbours arrived then, warmly greeting Dafoe and Zvonko.
In a moment Dr Dragic returned, while his mother scurried everywhere about the small kitchen, stopping only to gaze at her son tearfully. More neighbours dropped by, speaking too quickly for Dafoe to understand, then "Mrs Dr G,", as Dafoe referred to Nada Dragic. She was "a good-looking, medium-sized brunette, with adoration and love written all over her face for Dr George." Her eyes were still moist from crying, and in her arms she held the much-celebrated son, Slobodan a name meaning "freedom." He was a handsome cherub of ten or twelve months, "with Dr G's colouring a good-natured baby."
Dragic stared at the infant balanced on his knee, "in amazement and wonderment...unable to take his eyes off him the both of them enfolded in the adoring gaze of the mother and wife, his mother's dark flashing eyes dancing with joy, while his wife's face was a beauty to behold."
Zvonko slipped out during the reunion, saying he had made preparations for a bath. "I couldn't hide the envy on my face," Dafoe recalled. Dragic went on to describe the occupation that had occurred in Tuzla. Two German officers had been billeted in this very house, it seemed, right up to the liberation of the town. Dafoe could not follow his friend's conversation with the neighbours. "However, with the flow of rakija, sitting in a real kitchen among friends, nothing mattered," he said.
Later Mrs Dragic escorted her two guests to a bedroom upstairs. They were overwhelmed by the sight of two beds covered with silk sheets and both protested that they couldn't possibly sleep in such luxury with fleas and lice on them. Mrs Dragic would brook no argument and left them, chattering away happily as she went.
"Zvonko and I surveyed our palace, felt the beds, the silk covers, just to feel the true bill again." Then they agreed they could not crawl into bed in their condition, notwithstanding Zvonko's bath. They ruffled the bedsheets before settling down on the rug with a pillow. "After all, it isn't a good idea to overdo this luxury business the first night. No use getting soft when the war wasn't finished yet," added Dafoe.
A knock on the door caused momentary bewilderment. Dafoe woke and wondered where the sky had gone. Then scenes from the previous night flooded back to him. He rose and found water in a dry sink. Dr Dragic had even set aside a razor. Dafoe shaved, straightened his battledress as best he could, then went downstairs with Zvonko for breakfast. They departed shortly afterwards, with a fond farewell to the two women.
On the way back to the Moslem village, they went through the commercial district of Tuzla. "We were impressed. Dragic pointed out two hotels, one of which was closed. Passing through a bazaar filled with working tinsmiths, silversmiths, coppersmiths, and tailors, Dafoe began to feel like a tourist on a blitz of a scenic town during a full itinerary. The streets were jammed with Partisans. Most were strangers, but Dafoe recognized one fellow, and asked him for information about the Englezi travelling with the Third Korpus.
"He told me that Wilson and Lincoln had gone back to Italy. Yesterday, aeroplanes had landed...and the General and many other high-ranking officers had left. Major Holmes was in charge." And so it is documented: Kosta Nadj departed Yugoslavia from the airfield in Osmaci on September 19, 1944, landing in Bari en route to Vis to confer with Tito. With him were Wilson and Corporal Lincoln.
Wilson was out, Holmes was in now with the Third Korpus, instead of the Twelfth. And with Kosta Nadj gone, Vladimir Popovic newly promoted to major-general was in command.
Eventually they found Korpus HQ again and after greeting several officers, Dafoe and Dragic saddled their horses and rode into the hills.
Dafoe proceeded to a building in the Moslem village that was set aside as a surgical theatre. He went to work immediately, examining patients and selecting several who needed surgical treatment. Then he attended to those who required new plasters and some "who could do with a bit of fixing up before they were transported to the big city, where," he anticipated, "they would profitably rest on proper beds and in a real hospital." All the patients were in high spirits, "and only too thankful that the long pokret was over for them." Many asked to have their casts removed before they were transported.
That evening, when Dafoe was more disposed to absorb information, Frank and Chris related more information about Wilson's Mission. It seemed Wilson had gone to work to secure several DC3s to bring in supplies and then evacuate Kosta Nadj and his staff, with wounded, to Italy. Nadj was on his way to "a grand conference" called by Tito on the island of Vis. The aeroplanes arrived, but with orders for Wilson and Lincoln to return to Italy, assigning command of the Mission to Holmes. Miki added that several American airmen downed previously in Yugoslavia accompanied the men in the airlift. There was also apparently a startling revelation concerning Diklic but Dafoe neglected to record it, so that we have no knowledge whatsoever of his fate after the fall of Tuzla.
Dafoe continued with preparations to move the medical unit and its patients officially into liberated Tuzla. They set out sometime late in the day.
"On reaching the HQ at the edge of the city, I was called in by Zvonko to make arrangements about accommodations. Frank, Chris, and Miki would live in a hotel and receive their food from one of the divisions. Dr G wanted me to stay at his house as long as he was in town. I could have my food there or with my boys."
Ahead lay a newly liberated town full of sights and sounds and, although Dafoe could not have known it then, the final chapter in his great Yugoslav adventure.
"I left my horse in their care and proceeded to town with my cohorts."
That is the last line in the seventh of the small, pocket-sized notepads that Dafoe filled with his memoirs. It was written in Wales on or about June 28, 1947.
No one knows why he never completed the account of his experiences as a guerrilla surgeon in Yugoslavia. Certainly the final episode did not lack interest. But without Dafoe's own record of the few remaining weeks he spent in Tuzla, details are sketchy at best and must be pieced together from evidence which may be misleading.
It is uncertain, for example, precisely how long he stayed in Tuzla although apparently he arrived just before Kosta Nadj's departure on 19 September and, based on an SOE Movement Order which has survived, left no later than October 14, 1944. This time span of about three weeks is generally corroborated by Partisans who were with Dafoe in Tuzla. He lived with the Dragic family for a short time, then moved to a house near a tributary of the Spreca river that cuts through the city in the shadow of the Majevica mountain range. Miki, Frank, and Chris shared accommodation in a building nearby.
Dafoe apparently spent some time searching for a suitable site in which to establish a new hospital in Tuzla. Meanwhile, unknown to him, Dr Levi and Dr Milan Goldner, a medical officer serving in the region, were organizing one in an old and abandoned four-storey building once used as a hostel for students from poor families (another story suggests it was actually a girls' school during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but used as a military barracks during the occupation). The building stood in the heart of a vast residential section of the town not far from the main square described by Dafoe as recently as 1981, although it had been abandoned again, boarded up, and was shrouded by overgrown bushes. The site came to be considered uninhabitable because of shifting salt strata beneath it.
In his own memoirs, Dr Levi described how he and Dr Goldner went about refurbishing the building as a two hundred-bed hospital, and then agreed to appoint Dafoe as its chief of surgery a rare honour for a foreigner. The buildings were cleaned and scrubbed. Operating rooms were selected. Central heating was installed. Even x-ray equipment was located and moved inside. Laboratories and a pharmacy were set up. The last touch was to prepare a suite for Dafoe, including a bedroom with bath, an office, reception room and consulting room. Finally, Levi and Goldner decided to show the new hospital to the Canadian surgeon. Levi recalled: "We showed him where the x-ray, the lab, dressing station, operating rooms, septic and aseptic and intensive-care rooms would be. We showed him the first and second floors, nurses' rooms, dining room, kitchenette, and the pharmacy. And finally we showed him the suite for the chief of the hospital."
Standing inside the suite, Dr Levi asked Dafoe if he knew who would occupy the room. Dafoe shrugged. "Ne znam," he said. "I don't know."
"This is your suite, Major Dafoe. This surgical hospital will be yours, to work in, and to take care of two hundred wounded. You will operate here, and we shall give you whatever we find possible. Do you agree?"
Levi reports that Dafoe stiffened momentarily and seemed genuinely astonished. For a second, he seemed unable to speak. Then he shook his head and laughed.
"You Partisans are amazing," he said. "It would take us in Britain or Canada two or three years to do what you've done in two weeks. First the draughtsmen, then the city planners and commissions, then the draughtsmen again. You certainly are a surprising lot."
"War is war, Major Dafoe," Dr Levi answered sagely. "Normally it would take us five years in Yugoslavia!"
Dafoe laughed again. He inspected the rooms once more, deeply touched by the amount of work that had been done and by Levi's offer.
"You know, Colonel, you may rest assured that you will be satisfied with me. I shall fix this nicely. I'll look at every room (again) and make notes. I'll go to Bari myself to bring everything I might need. Instruments, medicines, beds, equipment, x-ray. Everything."
Levi and Goldner exchanged a look of alarm as he finished. Levi in particular did not want him to go back to Italy just yet and wondered if he had made the offer prematurely.
"Major Dafoe, we need you here," he implored. "We do not have time to wait until you come back from Bari. We'll give you whatever you want. Just choose. Make a list of the items you need and we'll have our man in Bari handle it. Meanwhile, you can start work."
Dafoe's expression made Levi try another tack.
"Major Dafoe, you have always been honest with us. I, too, must tell you something very frankly. If you go now, I feel we will not see you again. I somehow doubt you will be able to come back. Do not make any rash decision to travel. Think it over a bit. All our people are very fond of you. Our wounded do not want you to go."
Ostensibly, Dafoe agreed to Dr Levi's request. But he was determined to return to Italy for the materials he needed at the new hospital. He knew how insufferably difficult the base wallahs in Bari could be in handing out equipment and supplies and remained convinced that he must look after the matter personally. From all available evidence, he was genuinely eager to take up duties as chief of surgery in Tuzla.
Dr Dragic had moved on already, and Dafoe wrote to him on September 27, 1944:
Dear Doctor Dragic. I am visiting your wife and mother at present and taking this opportunity to write you to be carried by Capt Zvonko. Your mother and wife both look well and quite happy. The baby is sleeping at present. I expect to go to Italy any day now. Because of rain no planes.... I wish you all the best of luck, George, and thank you again for looking after me so well in 38 Div. I miss them all and give them my regards. Best of luck. Smrt Fasizmu, Sloboda Narodu! C S Dafoe, maj RAMC.
Dafoe would never see Dr Djordje Dragic again. And something about this letter suggests that Dafoe intuited that unhappy fact. They would share limited correspondence almost twenty years later, but that was all.
He saw Miki for the last time in the street outside Korpus HQ where he said a hurried goodbye. Dafoe gave his loyal young friend an American ten-dollar bill as a souvenir. Sometime prior to his departure, Vladimir Popovic presented Dafoe with a medal, "The Order of Service to the People," set against a silver wreath. No one knows if this was done with any more ceremony than Dafoe's gift to Miki. Nor is it certain if Frank and Chris accompanied Dafoe when he left Tuzla, speeding by car to the airfield in Osmaci as fighting raged around the neighbouring hills as one story had it.
Several days later, Dr Levi received a letter from Dafoe. He recalled its contents in his memoirs.
Dear Colonel Levi. I am now at the airfield in Osmaci. I wish to assure you that I shall come back. It is best if I choose whatever is needed. Such a hospital as you are entrusting me with should be equipped properly. That can be done by myself only....Warmest regards, C S Dafoe, maj RAMC.
"Our poor Dafoe," Levi said. "He did not understand my fears."
Dafoe flew to southern Italy aboard a DC3 sometime before October 14, 1944.
According to virtually every available source, Dafoe argued vigorously in Italy to be allowed to return to the Partisans. The Allied authorities would not permit it. Why?
First, he was ill. He had lost a considerable amount of weight as a result of amoebic dysentery and an ulcerated bowel. He made no mention of his physical condition in his memoirs, so the seriousness of his fears is open to speculation. "The authorities in Bari took one look at him and told him he wasn't going anywhere except to a hospital," Charlotte recalled. She added that he suspected he might have tuberculosis.
Secondly, relations between the Yugoslavs and British were deteriorating rapidly. It is possible that Dafoe was victimized as much by politics as by his ill health. Even a plea to Kosta Nadj, on Vis, failed to gain Dafoe permission to return to Yugoslavia.
According to Dr Levi, it was some time later that the Partisans learned "the real reason" why Dafoe was not permitted to return to Yugoslavia. His source is not given in his memoirs, but he writes: "He was, as we know, a Canadian. The chief of the mission at the Third Korpus was English and a captain in the intelligence service. Dafoe never got along well with that captain. He scorned him, scorned the English in his presence. He told him that the English were imperialists. In his excitement, he threatened that the Canadians would free themselves from the embrace of Mother England. And finally, he did not even hide before the captain that he liked us Partisans." Dr Levi suggests that Captain Wilson was spitefully informing SOE HQ of Dafoe's sympathy with the Communist struggle in Yugoslavia. "For these reasons, it seems to me, Dafoe was not allowed to come back to us again."
Levi's description of the exchanges between Wilson and Dafoe seems a bit melodramatic. The notion that Canada should separate from the grasp of an "imperialistic Mother England" never surfaces in Dafoe's own account of his experiences in Yugoslavia. Nor is it recalled by former friends and colleagues. There were certainly times when he found the English tiresome and pretentious, but he hardly inclined towards anarchy as a result. One is compelled to weigh Kosta Nadj's observation of Dr Levi as "an old Communist who had spent some ten years in the prisons of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and knew more [about] politics than about medicine, but was, however, a good organiser."
Still, Levi's account bears scrutiny where it underscores the basic differences in temperament and commitment between Dafoe and Wilson. Dafoe had been warned in Italy before he even left on his mission to avoid becoming overly attached to the Partisans. His friend Lindsay Rogers had already had his moment on the carpet when he was called in to account for his sympathies. It is conceivable that in the worsening climate between Britain and Yugoslavia at the end of 1944, reports of Dafoe's activities were viewed with suspicion.
This has a tragic irony, since Dafoe was not a Communist and did not support a Communist struggle as such. Rather, he regarded the efforts of individual Partisans in the fight for national liberation regardless of political stripe as noble and heroic. Such subtlety was probably lost on the base wallahs and other authorities who decided Dafoe's fate as long as he wore the uniform of an officer in the RAMC, on special duty with SOE.
Unquestionably Dafoe and Wilson quarrelled; moreover, Dafoe almost invariably sided with the Partisans in disputes. If Wilson had reported unfavourably to Bari, out of spite or from any other malicious intent, then it is possible Dafoe's medical condition on returning to Italy simply served as a pretext for withdrawing him from active duty in Yugoslavia, while prohibiting his return. The truth is that we really do not know why the authorities "retired" him. It could even be that they had simply decided he had already given more than his share and deserved a break regardless of his own wishes.
In Italy Dafoe was at least able to assemble the equipment and supplies needed in Tuzla and see that they were sent at the earliest opportunity. He subsequently convalesced for an unknown period somewhere in southern Italy. It was during this time that he sprained an ankle after climbing a four-metre wall at the sanitorium and landing in the grounds of a nunnery on the other side. It was one of his favourite stories after the war.
He wrote to Ana while in Italy, apologizing for his failure to return. It seems likely that he still did not know the fate of Jordy, her sister, Mira, or Susy or Natasan. A Soviet medical officer, Dr Nikolaj Jemeljanov, was appointed chief of surgery in the hospital in Tuzla when his former colleagues there realized that Dafoe would not be available. As the months passed, he grew reconciled to being stuck in Italy for a while yet, and to the evidence that he was probably finished as a guerrilla surgeon in Yugoslavia.
The postscript to this episode was provided by Miki in a letter. He had been promoted to sergeant, an NCO and then lieutenant as the Third Korpus left Tuzla and moved towards Sarajevo. The letter, dated April 25, 1945, reached Dafoe in Italy:
I got chance to right you, sorry, first time. III Korps is in town Sarajevo. We are here from 5 April. You one sick, I heard, and that is reason why you are still in Italy. All hospitals are fulled with patients. Good buildings. Colonel Levi said me, one day: "This is best for our Dafoe." Everybody is asking me: "Miki, any news about Major?" "When he's komming back, when, when?" Colonel Levi met me own time and said that he is waiting still, he is sure you'll come back, because you have been you'll be big help for our army, and our people. Sure, you have difficulties to get here. Sorry Major, I hand't time and chance to right you before, and to inform you about all things. I am officer and have plenty work. New recruits: by day and by night working. Jordy is free, working with her father in Belgrad, and her sister is with her. I got meny letters and fotographics from Belgrad. Ana is cheif nurse in Korp's hospital, Russens major is gone. Ana said me, that is very difficult without you, she would be happy if you come back and everybody who know you. She said me meny times, as no place to right here, she and Vera are greeting you. Excuse me for faults in that letter, because it is written in 5 minutes. All Bosnia is free, people is getting help from Alies. I'll write soon again. Forward in Austrio! best regards to you and Frank, Cress.
Miki added some closing thoughts several weeks later, on May 15, 1944, before mailing the letter:
Same time I right on same piece of paper. I would right you meny things, but I can't. It is not all so well as I hoped to be. But I thing will be better, things will improve....You'll get this litter maybe very far from Yugoslavia, but you will soon be here.
But that was it, the end of Colin Scott Dafoe's great adventure in Yugoslavia. Whatever the reasons behind it all, his "dangerous mission to the Balkans" was finished.
With the exception of one other, and possibly a third, short visit to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1945, he would never see the country again as a guerrilla surgeon, and certainly not in the way he had seen it from May to October 1944.
With one exception, he would never again meet any of the Partisans whose lives he had touched and, in some instances, altered forever.
He was thirty-six years old and convalescing in a sanitorium somewhere in southern Italy. He may be forgiven for having wondered what the future held.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.