Part 2. I am posted to Operation “Velveta 1” and sent to Yugoslavia.
Two 2-pilot crews were needed to fly the two “Norsmen”. Gibson told us that IAF HQ decided that one airplane will be flown by Maurice Bensimon and Laszlo Stark (“The Count”) and the second airplane will be flown by Joe Sunderland and myself. Gibson added that the pilots-in-command will be Bensimon and Sunderland and instructed Sunderland to let me fly the airplane from the left seat on every second-leg of the flights. The Count will fly from the right seat only and will not take-off and land. Finally Gibson instructed us to report next day, September 22 at 15:00 hours at IAF HQ in order to get additional briefing.
Next day at noon I went from Ekron to my parents’ house in Tel-Aviv and told them that I was going abroad for an unknown period and would therefore not be able to visit them until I return. I could not give them any details. I asked them not to worry about me.Since I really did not know how long I would be abroad I brought with me my personal pack so as to leave it at my parents’ and took with me a small bag with shaving kit and a small amount of underwear and civvies.1 I took this bag with me and went to HQ at Hotel “Hayarkon”. The briefing started late and very little was said to us. Actually we were not told anything new which we did not hear already from Gibson. As far as the airfields in Niksic’ and Kunovice and the route between them nothing at all was said to us. All these details remained a great mystery to us. Bensimon had a few charts which he swiped from ATC. We had nothing and when we asked for charts we found out that there was no set of charts for us. Finally, after arguments and much running about the different floors of the building we received three charts. One was a USAF surface chart (for map-reading) which covered the north third of our track. The second was a RAF plotting-chart (which was no good for map-reading) which covered the central third of our track and since no one could find a map or chart covering the southern third of our track the running about between the rooms went on and we were finally given a map of railroad tracks of the Balkan countries which was issued by the Nazi Wehrmacht (Army) during WW2. Niksic’ was indeed on this map but because of its large-scale it had no value as an aerial navigation chart for a slow-speed airplane such as ours or for map-reading of the surface which was overflown. I tried to find out how long we would stay abroad and was told “just a few days.” This briefing although it was devoid of any relevant information such as the highest ground on our track, the minimum safe flying altitude on our track, alternate landing airfields, climatology, security briefing including instructions for our behaviour in case of a forced-landing in one of the countries on our track etc’ – lasted many long hours. When it finally ended it was evening. The bus to Ekron was about to depart after some time and since I heard that we will be back in Israel after about one week I returned to my parents and took back my personal pack so as to leave it, after all, in my room at Ekron. I got there late at night and had only one hours’ sleep left.
We took-off at midnight from Ekron in an ATC “Skymaster”. We were 9 passengers in all. There were 5 pilots from our first fighter-squadron who were to fly 5 of the 6 “Spits” of the first group and us 4. There were a few matresses on the airplane floor and since I was very tired I lay down on one of them and slept for several hours. I woke up frozen. The heating system of this airplane was unserviceable and there were no blankets. We finally landed at Niksic’ on September 23. This grass airfield could have served the largest and heaviest airplane which operated at that time. On one side of the airfield, near the river, stood a few tents and between them stood a sort of table laden with food, mostly canned food and a large kettle of hot tea. This was Geda Shohat’s way of welcoming us. This was my first meeting with this wonderful, good and beneficent man. Geda was born in Kibutz Kfar-Gilady to Israel and Mania Shohat who were of the first Jews to form defence units in Russia. They were of the founders of Sejera and of the founders of “Hashomer”. Israel Shohat was a lawyer and the first Chairman of the Aero Club of Palestine. Both he and his wife Mania were very interesting and variegated people. Conspirative occupation was the center of their interest throughout their lives and very little is known about their deeds. Their son Geda (Gideon) was a tall and stalwart man, handsome, industrious, resourceful, modest, honest and unpretentious. He got his pilot wings from the RAF and was flying “Liberator” heavy-bombers and yet refused his rank of Officer because he wanted to live and have his meals with his crewmembers and ground-crew who were not Officers. Finally he was made Warrant-Officer. Geda was of the first volunteers to the “Hagana” Air Service and due to his qualifications and talent he was given many duties which required knowledge, resource and diplomacy. Many years later, I had the good chance to meet him again and to serve again under him. His early death was most sorrowful to me.
This was the man who was our CO in Niksic’ and our operations in Yugoslavia. We were very hungry when we arrived in Niksic’ on the morn of September 23 and the food was just what we needed. one of the two “Norsmen” was parked nearby and its crew was made up by Phil Marmelstein and Lou Nagley who was a volunteer from Britain. He flew as Navigator with the RAF during WW2 and as Navigator in our ATC. After brunch we were all issued with Czech-made automatic pistols and food coupon booklets to be used during our meals in Czechoslovakia which was under a most severe austerity system,2 even more severe than the one in Israel. Phil Marmelstein told us that he plans to take-off for Kunovice in one hour and that he will take along the 5 “Spit” pilots and 4 “Norsmen” pilots which arrived from Israel. When the time came all nine of us boarded the “Norsman” and took-off with Marmelstein and Nagley. We used this flight as a dry training flight, getting acquainted with the route and destination. Marmelstein and Nagley have flown it and been in Kunovice several times so they briefed us as best they could.
The weather was excellent. There were no clouds and the whole route lay under us clearly in the full sun. Marmelstein had a pack of charts and maps and navigated by himself most of the time by simply “map-reading”. Nagley almost did not do a thing. He took a nap and then listened to the radio. The radio equipment in this airplane as well as all other “Norsmen” included a transmitter-receiver of the “command-set” type which operated mid-wavelengths (thus being a short-range radio) and nothing else. These airplanes were painted silver and carried no identification marks. Any such previous marks were painted over by black paint. These airplanes did not have a radio call-sign and we were forbidden to transmit anything, not even distress calls. We were allowed to listen to this small and weak receiver. Anything and everything we heard on it was in strange languages with which we were not familiar: Czech, Hungarian, Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) and mainly and mostly Russian. The Russians mastered this airspace similarly to their sly occupation of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
1. Military slang for civilian clothes.
2. Some of my readers may be too young to know that, often, when there is a war, there is a shortage of food. Therefore, the Government in combat declares an Austerity situation (in Hebrew: צנע) and distributes food coupons to the population. Austerity typically means no butter–only Margarine. Austerity means that you can buy only a small number of eggs per month and a small number of chickens, etc., etc. Sometimes even bread is rationed.