My interest in the extraordinary life and mysterious death of Colin Scott Dafoe grew out of a friendship with one of his two surviving sons. We were introduced in Ottawa, where I was writing and directing documentary films, in the autumn of 1980. Several months later, as we were travelling along winding, rain-swept roads en route to Maine, the subject of Dafoe's adventures as a guerrilla surgeon in Yugoslavia surfaced during a conversation about my friend's family background. As I listened, it seemed incredible that such a story had remained untold in Canada for almost forty years.
Here was a man who had volunteered for "a dangerous mission to the Balkans" while in Tunisia in 1943, and had subsequently parachuted into a remote mountain village in occupied eastern Bosnia to join a ragtag army of Communist guerrillas led by Josip Broz Tito. As the only skilled surgeon in a wide area of conflict, Dafoe a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps on special assignment with a clandestine arm of British Intelligence treated thousands of wounded who, until his timely arrival, had suffered terribly without adequate medical care.
Word of his achievements spread throughout the countryside, and soon his hospital in the mountains was famous. The Partisans called him "Sir Major Dafoe," in the customary form of address, pronouncing his name phonetically to achieve "Da-fo-ay" (incidentally, the family prefers "Day-fo", accenting the first syllable). More affectionately they called him "tata," meaning "father" or "daddy." He was a hero and a legend.
To this day he is fondly, if not widely remembered in Yugoslavia as a dedicated and courageous surgeon who richly deserved the reputation he attained during only six months with the Partisans. "A surgeon was more valuable to us than a division," recalled General Kosta Nadj, who commanded the Partisan units to which Dafoe was attached. Of his wartime friend, Nadj added: "He was not only a good surgeon, but also a very kind man, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, and above all, a brave soldier."
A Yugoslav diplomat in Canada once solemnly declared that Dafoe was "one of the immortals." Similarly, Ismet Mujezinovic one of Yugoslavia's most respected artists and a former Partisan who served with the Canadian insisted: "He was a great man whom I was honoured to meet and share destiny with."
Dafoe was given the Order of Service to the People on the eve of his departure from Yugoslavia in 1944; and as recently as the summer of 1984, during ceremonies marking the fortieth anniversary of his night landing in Bosnia, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Victory and the Order of Merit all high honours which are rarely bestowed on foreigners. Yet, who in Canada has heard of Colin Scott Dafoe adventurer, guerrilla surgeon, "man of destiny"? How did such an individual escape recognition in his own country? I wondered as much myself when I first heard the story.
I decided that day on the road to Maine to write Dafoe's biography. That I was able to answer only a few of my original questions and ended up with more mystery than I could solve was as nothing, compared to the satisfaction gained from five and a half years of research and writing, travels to the exotic land where the main story took place, and new friendships I made along the way. When my story was finished, my only regret was that I would never meet its protagonist an individual whose force of character and accomplishments I greatly admired.
There were times when I wondered if in my initial enthusiasm I hadn't underestimated the enormity of the project. M R D Foot, an eminent authority on the subject of irregular warfare, did not allay my fears when he quoted a wartime resistance organizer's observation that "no one can write a book about resistance and get it straight; the reality was always more complex than what any author can express." I, too, discovered that the subject is sometimes irreducible.
To start with, the epic sweep of the revolutionary upheaval that occurred in Yugoslavia during the Second World War seemed too great to telescope into a concise view. But as the backdrop to the pivotal episode in Dafoe's life, some description of these events seemed necessary for readers to grasp the situation and the magnitude of his accomplishments.
The difficulty inherent in describing the resistance ethic as such was underscored by my attempts at unravelling my subject's complex personality. A man who embodied "the spirit of resistance", he was often possessed by what George Woodcock once called "the sheer gigantic irrationalism of the heroic". Throughout his life he was driven by a force that the Russian poet Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov aptly described:
And he, rebellious, seeks a storm,
As if in storms there were tranquillity.
Dafoe seldom offered an explanation for his unusual approach to life. And his death in 1969 is an even greater mystery.
It might be said that Dafoe was to the end a taciturn, sometimes volatile, and frequently inscrutable man of action a maverick and a rebel who led a romantic adventurer's life in the twentieth century.
Here, for the first time, is his story. It is based on a series of journals he wrote in the summer of 1945, shortly after his return from Yugoslavia and during his preparation to embark on a similar mission into Burma. The journals recall most of the Yugoslav adventure in exquisite detail and omit only a few incidents, names, and dates which were possibly forgotten, set aside out of modesty, or regarded as a potential breach of security. I have used Dafoe's own words as much as possible, cutting in his voice, as one would in a documentary film, to lend greater immediacy to the narrative. Since I have relied primarily on a single source for the bulk of my story, I cannot hope to have met the rigorous standards of a historian. However, I concluded almost from the outset that Dafoe had downplayed much of his involvement. This notion was confirmed as my research material accumulated, and the details of the journals were corroborated during the course of my inquiries.
The content of the journals was supported mainly by information obtained during interviews with individuals who knew Dafoe. I was particularly successful in locating former Partisans in Yugoslavia, as well as a number of Dafoe's friends now scattered throughout the world. In describing dialogue of which no record exists, I reconstructed such passages from the recollections of my sources, fully aware that such anecdotal evidence is subject to the frailty of human memory. I should add that all my sources proved extremely helpful and fastidious in their determination to see that Dafoe's name was given the honour it deserves.
Conversely, a number of official documents pertaining to Dafoe's mission and, for that matter, to much of his wartime service were unavailable for scrutiny owing to the Official Secrets Act, or were unaccountably missing. Adding to the atmosphere of intrigue which surrounds Dafoe is that exhaustive attempts to trace the identities and whereabouts of several members of the British Mission in which he served drew a blank at every step. It was often difficult to shake the feeling that someone, in a dusty archival office somewhere, had gone through Dafoe's official life with a broom and swept up after him.
Perhaps as a result of my own frustration, I was impressed by author Nikolai Tolstoy's similar experience, from which he speculated not altogether facetiously, I suspect that sometimes "the best way of researching a book is to write the book first, and wait for the evidence to come in afterwards." Indeed, the truth about Colin Scott Dafoe if it is ever fully revealed may yet prove more dramatic than any of the speculation.
I could not have completed the book without the approval and support of the Dafoe family. I am particularly indebted to Dr Charlotte Dafoe, who consented to the project, and to Michael Dafoe, whose account of his father's life sparked my curiosity. Both gave of themselves willingly and were patient with my persistent and sometimes painful questions. I should also like to express my gratitude to Audrey and Roswald Dafoe, Eleanor Barton, and Charlotte Buddle.
For medical information and details concerning Dafoe's youth and post-war years I benefited enormously from assistance provided by Dr John McNichol, Dr Frank Earle, Dr Fred Day, Dr Solly Paletz, and Dr Donald Hill.
For reasons too varied to list, I must acknowledge contributions made by Timothy Findley, William Whitehead, Paul Harris, Andrea Cross, Christine Small, Barney O'Connor, Isobel Rogers, and J C Byrne. I must also thank Inspector Ralph Brockbank of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who provided details concerning the investigation he led into Dafoe's disappearance.
For historical information related to Yugoslavia as well as first-hand accounts of Dafoe's involvement with a wartime medical mission, I was well served by the recollections of William Deakin, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Ian McGregor, and Roy Talbot. I should also express tremendous gratitude to Momcilo Selic, who read a draft of my manuscript and corrected me on a number of potentially embarrassing points.
In Yugoslavia I was genuinely astonished by the depth of feeling that is reserved for Dafoe, and embarrassed somewhat by the extent to which it was bestowed upon an innocent visitor interested in relating his story. I was particularly impressed by the many veterans who gave unsolicited testimonials to Dafoe and his work. I am equally grateful to the many others who acted on a moment's notice as drivers and interpreters.
I would be equally remiss if I did not express my thanks to the following who helped me throughout my travels in Yugoslavia: General Kosta Nadj, General Milos Zekic, General dr Izidor Papo, Colonel dr Moni Levi, Colonel dr Djordje Dragic, Lieutenant-Colonel Jordana Baum, and Mr Salom Suica.
I must gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council.
To the staff of Lester & Orpen Dennys and, in particular, to Malcolm Lester I extend my heartfelt appreciation for the courtesy and enthusiasm consistently shown to a new author, and for having had the good sense to select such a skilful and patient editor as Frances Hanna.
Finally, I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the following: to Wing Commander F F Lambert (ret'd), for his determination and resourcefulness in seeking information on my behalf from sources in Britain; to Bill Gillanders, whose invaluable advice and everlasting good cheer from New Zealand provided inspiration; to a couple in Belgrade (whose request for anonymity I must respect), who graciously provided a room, made and answered telephone calls, translated articles and interviews, and generally held my hand as hosts during two long visits; and to Brian Nolan, who had faith, encouragement, and wisdom throughout and whose contribution, particularly in the latter stages, was crucial.
Most of all I am indebted to my family and friends, who endured my long pursuit with equanimity and fortitude, and to Professor dr Mehmed Ramovic, whose name appears in the dedication as a modest testimonial to his enormous contribution and who served me throughout my work as faithfully and imaginatively as he once did Colin Dafoe.
I trust the result of my endeavours will bear scrutiny, but I must accept responsibility for any errors that are present.
Brian Jeffrey Street
Ottawa April 1987
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.