Part 6 – The Operation gets disordered and pressed for time.
The plan for the 2 “Norsemen” transport operation was as follows: Every day both planes will depart from opposite ends: When one will take-off from Kunivice with a full load the other will take-off from Niksic’ empty. Each crew and its plane will perform one flight per day in one direction only. The flight between these two points was between 4 and 5 hours long, depending on the wind direction and velocity. This would enable us to bring to Niksic’ in Yugoslavia the cannons, machine-guns ammunition and vital spares of one “Spitfire” per day and on every seventh day a C-46 would arrive from Israel, get loaded and fly the lot back to Israel. This way we were supposed to transfer the said items of all 50 “Spitfires” in 50 days. This meant that we were scheduled to return to Israel after 2 months and not after a few days as we were told at IAF HQ.
Next day, the 26th of September, Bensimon and the Count arrived with their “Norseman”, loaded as planned, in Niksic’ but Geda instructed us not to depart that day to Kunovice because a message has just been received saying that our load was not ready yet. This was the first muddle in our plan.
The flight of the 5 remaining “Spits” led by the “Skymaster” was postponed to the 27th because all the airplanes, including the “Skymaster” required intensive maintenance and both our mechanics as well as the “Skymaster”‘s Flight-Engineer were working intensely on them.They found out that they were missing a few spare-parts in order to render the “Spits” airworthy. Geda asked Sunderland and me to depart next day, the 27th, to Kunovice and perform a round trip. We had no problem with the 9 hours flying which were required for this round-trip, the problem lay with the long time which it took the Czechs in Kunovice to fuel and load our airplane. It was sometimes required to give it some maintenance too. The time they need was 4 hours and sometimes more and since this was almost the end of September and the Sun was setting at an early hour it meant that we must take-off from Kunovice no later than at two PM. Neither the airfield at Kunovice nor the one at Niksic’ were equipped for take-offs and landings at night.
Since we remained at our base in Niksic’ during the 26th I had a chance to clarify two important issues with Geda. I first asked him why all of us were carrying pistols on our flights. Is there any chance that we shall encounter an enemy: Saboteurs or terrorists. And if we do will we be able to use our guns? Geda took a long time thinking and then said that I was right and that it would be better if we gave back our pistols because they may yet entangle us badly. My second question was about our behaviour in case of a forced-landing.. What should we do. What to say and what not to say. Geda replied that if we force-land in Czechoslovakia we should behave as Phil Marmelstein behaved when he took us there. If we force-land in Austria or Hungary we better stay near the airplane and wait. The Soviets will arrive and we better answer all their questions truly. They know everything anyhow so it is not worth the trouble to lie to them. In case we force-land in Yugoslavia we should ask for the Utbah (The Yugoslav Secret Service). To them only may we tell who and what we are and what is our business. Their Command are familiar with our Operation so that we should not withhold anything from them. Next evening Joe and I found out how true and how vital this information was for us.
Next day, the 27th of September, we woke up well before sunrise and took-off as soon as dawn has broken.This time I was flying from the left seat and Joe was in the right seat. The clouds on our track increased since we flew here two days ago and for 30 minutes, while flying over the province of Herzegovina we flew in clouds using our flight instruments. Meantime we became more confident of our Magnesyn Compass. On both our flights, two days ago and today’s it proved to be accurate. We landed in Kunovice 4 hours and 30 minutes later. We had no problem finding our destination. By the time the Czechs refuelled and loaded our plane we went to their dining-room so as to to have lunch but not before we gave them the list of extra spare-parts which were needed in Niksic’ and not before we begged them respectfully to please hurry because we wanted to take-off not later than two PM.
At Kunovice the Czechs treated us strangely. Despite the fact that everything we did there was known to them, agreed by them, and in full cooperation with them, and this meant that at their Prime-Ministers’ Office, at their Foreign-Office, at their War-Office, at their Aviation Ministry, at their Air-Force Headquarters and especially at their Ministry of the Interior and at their Secret Service they knew about our movements and the entire Operation, and what was more important was that the Soviets knew everything in detail and yet the Czechs treated us obtusely and sometimes actually disturbed us. It was a puzzle. There was more than a grain of antisemitism in their conduct. In Kunovice, after every landing and before every take-off the Police used to check our laissez-passer.Before we left Israel we were issued with laissez-passers ( Israel did not have yet Passports) Joe Sunderland’s name was changed to Yosef Ben-Tsvi. Both our profession was marked as Wood-Merchants.The Czech Policemen used to finger and turn the pages of these two pieces of paper which were written in Hebrew and French again and again as if they were some secret weapon. Then customs-officers checked our bags which contained nothing more than toiletries and shaving equipment. Despite the fact that we did not leave the airfield these Customs guys used to check our bags at our arrival and departure by emptying all their contents on the counter and spreading them apart while we stood there patiently without uttering a word.
And on the other hand they allowed us to have lunch at the dining-room of the factory’s workers. The food here was better than at the Hotel: They had cabbage and meat soup and then cooked meat with boiled potatoes and unlimited black bread. We ate hurriedly and went out to our airplane so as to delicately alert the Czechs.