Night Landing in Bosnia
The aerodrome outside Bari on the southeast coast of Italy, just above the "heel" of the boot, was only a dirt strip with a few buildings scattered among rocky grey-green terrain and gnarled olive trees. A guard patrolled the perimeter. At the back of the Mess was a small briefing room with wall-to-wall maps. Leather-and-sheepskin jackets draped over wooden chairs, a few pin-ups, and an ancient phonograph completed the picture. Outside were some tents erected against the warm Italian sun and a trailer in which parachutes were stored: the remaining structures at Balkan Air Force headquarters.
Even so, pilots and some SOE regulars genuinely liked the place. You could slip into the compound by jeep shortly before midnight, select a parachute, meet the aircrew, and then drive to a corner of the airfield where a DC3 was waiting. Similarly, you could return at 3:00 a.m. and drive straight to the Mess, eat a plate of bacon and eggs in the semi-darkness, then return to Bari for a few hours' sleep. It had a kind of cloak-and-dagger charm and was efficient in a way that suited men adjusted to surviving on little. Only the men unaccustomed to flying and transients in need of reassurance found the base a dreary, even ominous portent of things to come.
Dafoe stood by the equipment trailer and struggled into his parachute as dusk closed in around the aerodrome. Indistinct sounds emerged and were as quickly lost in the fading twilight. Then the noise of propellers began, beating the night air like the wings of so many great birds, breaking the eerie stillness.
"Nothing to worry about!" a conducting officer shouted at Dafoe against the din, attempting to instil confidence in the Canadian surgeon. "Pilots are the best! Know them personally!" Dafoe nodded absently.
Just then one of these young men stepped forward. He was to be their pilot, a Texan, fresh-faced, eager and athletic-looking in his flight suit. The other members of the aircrew soon appeared and everyone shook hands. They agreed to drop men and supplies into Bosnia from a thousand feet. Still, so much seemed improvised at the last minute.
Dafoe and his two assistants climbed through the narrow hatchway of a USAAF DC3 as its engines warmed up. In the pitch-dark, disembodied American voices rose occasionally above the muted roar. For the third time in as many nights, Dafoe maneouvred past kitbags and canisters packed with medical supplies. Bad weather had forced his flight back short after take-off on two earlier attempts.
Dafoe sat alone opposite the open hatch, his view of Frank and Chris obstructed by several canisters. The DC3 started its lugubrious roll over the ground, shaking men and cargo as the engines were throttled full out. Then the wheels left the earth and "Toffee" was airborne. The date May 12, 1944.
For a while the only illumination was a small red light next to the navigator's compartment. Then the lights of Bari, visible through the open hatch, pinpointed the ground below as the DC3 set out across the Adriatic. Dafoe sat in his windy compartment, comfortably bundled into two parachute suits, and quietly drank from a flask of rum he had carried on board.
The thoughts that ran through his mind that night came randomly, as he retreated briefly to incidents from his childhood and thoughts of Charlotte and his family. He recalled his last night in Brindisi, when he had listened to music on an automatic phonograph, then slept in a bed with real blankets. He recalled the Italian family for whom he had scrounged some tinned food from the Mess cook. When the aeroplane hit a deep air pocket Dafoe would immediately check that he still had a grip on the flask of rum. He took a long tug at it and decided then that if anything went terribly wrong during the mission, it would not be such a bad way to go.
More than an hour had passed when several of the aircrew approached the open hatch. Dafoe could see land below wooded mountains shimmering in the moonlight. The aeroplane rose perceptibly as the mountains reached higher still and Dafoe shrank in his suits, huddled against the wind and cold.
Another thirty minutes went by. Dafoe began to feel sleepy and wonder if he might doze off. Just then several of the aircrew returned and, bracing themselves by the hatch, searched the ground for signal fires. They were worried at first by some mist below. Originally the mission's orders were to attempt a landing. Now it was conceivable they might be turned back again.
All of a sudden one of the young Americans shouted: "Target should be coming up any time now!"
The DC3 circled for fifteen minutes, until the crew confirmed sighting the signal fires. The aeroplane descended and circled again. When they lost still more altitude, Dafoe could see the fires as well, in a great circle on the hills, with a larger fire forming an "X" almost dead-centre.
As the aeroplane completed another circuit, the crew started dragging the kitbags towards the hatch. Dafoe watched with interest as a red light next to it switched on, followed by a green light as the revolutions of the engine increased and the kitbags were flung outside. The DC3 continued to circle as the canisters were hauled into position and sent hurtling into the moonlight. Dafoe's arms and legs went numb momentarily and an uncomfortable feeling gripped his stomach. He tried to remember everything the parachute instructors at Ramat David had told him, but all that came back was the basic rule for survival in a jump: keep your feet together and roll.
As more canisters plummeted to the target, Dafoe finally stood and moved cautiously towards the hatch. He hugged the side of the aeroplane and thought of what might happen if they hit an air pocket or he slipped. One of the Americans located his static line and connected it to his parachute. It occured to Dafoe afterwards that he had not checked to see that it was done properly.
The red light overhead flashed on and in that moment the hatchway seemed ridiculously large. Dafoe was vaguely aware of Frank and Chris shuffling up behind him. Then the green light flashed on and the young American standing opposite Dafoe shouted:
For a moment, Dafoe just stared at the fellow.
The American shouted again: "GO!" Dafoe saw it all in slow motion, standing with his hands glued to the frame of the open hatch. He wants me to jump, he thought. This can't be happening.
Now the American shouted angrily: "GO!"
Dafoe came out of his dream and stepped into the wind.
The next sensations he remembered were a mad rush of silk and cords as the parachute untangled, the slight jerk of the shoulder straps, and the muffled snapping sound as the great canopy spread out overhead. Dafoe recalled being startled that it had actually worked and that he was floating safely to earth.
He could see the signal fires clearly now, and tried to aim for the "X" in the middle of a saddle dividing two wooded hills. He started to swing and pulled on the forward webs of the parachute in an attempt to control his descent. The webbing slipped through his leather gloves. His arms ached. But he felt calm as he regarded the landscape below, spread out in high relief and coloured gun-metal in the moonlight.
Soon the ground was rushing towards him at an alarming rate and he realized he would miss the landing site. Instead, he would land in the trees that rose like cathedral spires on either side of it. There were no people visible and the valley was eerie and still. Dafoe wondered if this might even be enemy territory. He had heard of their trick of luring Allied aircraft with phony signal fires.
He glanced around quickly in search of Frank and Chris but could see neither one in the vast night sky. It was now more important to concentrate on his own landing, and he held his breath, remembering to launch himself up just as he shot into the trees, snapping branches and shaking limbs as he went, rending the silence.
When he stopped, he was suspended from a tall tree. Dafoe tried rocking up and down, shaking and twisting, and finally he dropped to the ground.
Miraculously, he had landed without injury.
For the first few minutes, Dafoe felt immense relief. He reached for the flask of rum, then remembered it was empty. Standing alone in a narrow winding valley, he waited anxiously for any sign of Frank and Chris. He considered again whether he might be in enemy territory, but gave it up and decided instead to rest while he still had the chance. In fact, he had come down near the village of Canici, in occupied eastern Bosnia.
Before long, he heard voices from a small hilltop plateau ahead, and several figures appeared in silhouette. There was considerable excitement when he was spotted and he heard:
"Zdravo! Zdravo! Da li ste Englez?"
Dafoe was not sure what it all meant but decided it was friendly and shouted his own greeting in Serbo-Croat. Some laughter and a great commotion followed as the peasants descended and helped him to his feet. As they led him to one of the signal fires, he realized he was shaking. Was it apprehension, or just the cold? Small patches of snow lay on the ground.
Soon a crowd had gathered around him, dressed in the traditional black and white costume Dafoe recognized from photographs. His initial sight of Partisans in tattered and bedraggled uniforms mostly British, he noted and always with a red star stitched to their odd assortment of caps, was comforting. A small detail stood by at attention with an equally eclectic collection of rifles slung proudly across their shoulders. It was an impressive start.
He reached for a cigarette and saw at once the interest this generated among the Partisans. He gave away the entire packet. Dafoe would soon learn how desperately men craved tobacco here in the mountains and would become a bit more prudent with such currency. But for now he distributed it eagerly.
The Partisans were still chatting excitedly among themselves when Frank appeared. He had landed on a hilltop some distance away, although he had watched Dafoe's "death-defying" leap into the woods with some amusement.
Together they made their way towards another of the signal fires, where Dafoe had noticed a British officer. This was Captain Wilson, a young man of average height with dark brooding eyes and an aviator's moustache, features somehow at odds with his undernourished appearance and nervous movements. He commanded the British Mission.
Wilson informed Dafoe that Chris had made a rough landing in the woods and twisted an ankle, but was otherwise safe and expected shortly. Just then the sound of another aeroplane alerted the Partisans. While Dafoe was expecting three more DC3s carrying materiel, it was best not to linger in case it was an enemy aircraft. Everyone scrambled for cover.
Dafoe followed Wilson to a small log building where he saw the mission's kitbags piled next to a heap of variously coloured parachutes. Some of the canisters containing medical supplies were shoved up against a tree. Dafoe warmed himself by a small fire as the Partisans crowded around the equipment.
When Chris arrived, limping gamely, one of Wilson's men a young wireless operator, Corporal Ernest Lincoln conducted the medical unit to a neighbouring village for the night. A garrulous Cockney who "chatted away like a little monkey" according to Dafoe, Lincoln grew increasingly animated as they filed through the dark woods. He openly expressed his pleasure in the arrival of "new blood, and English-speaking at that."
On their way to the village they met Dr Moni Levi for the first time. Dr Levi, a lieutenant-colonel of about fifty, was relieved to find that Dafoe had arrived safely, but later recalled that he seemed nervous.
Third Korpus HQ was based at Dukici, a small village whose houses and other buildings vaguely resembled Swiss chalets, with their steep roofs, white stucco walls, and dark exterior beams. The medical unit and young Lincoln were installed in one of these for the night. Fresh straw was spread out on the floor and Dafoe and his assistants wrapped themselves in parachutes against the cold.
Dafoe asked Lincoln then if the canisters would be safe by the landing ground. Despite his assurances, Dafoe slept fitfully that night, his mind replaying the images of his landing the Partisans in their ragtag uniforms, their young, eager faces smiling in the moonlight; Dr Levi, the Jewish lieutenant-colonel with thinning greyish hair and grand self-assurance; and again the Partisans, bristling with rifles, small satchels slung over their shoulders. He was somewhat bewildered by it all, he admitted.
Sleep was the only remedy now. He would contend with the rest in the morning.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.