Operation Velveta 1 — Part 11

Part 11  –  Adventures on a train. We are being arrested before returning to our airbase.

After the shower we returned to the Colonel’s office who invited us to sit down and sent the Orderly-Officer to fetch somebody. A young Second-Lieutenant appeared. He belonged to the Air Force Regiment (A Regiment of soldiers who guard the Air Force airbases and installations.) He stood at attention and saluted and remained standing in the middle of the room and the Colonel told us that this Officer will return us to our airbase in Niksic’. This amiable Colonel took leave of us by shaking our hands warmly and wishing us success in whatever we do and then sent us away with the Second-Lieutenant. The Orderly-Officer waited for us outside, next to a jeep and a driver. We climbed onto the jeep with the 2nd-Lt., took leave of the Orderly-Officer and left the airbase.To make sure I asked the 2nd-Lt. how was this airbase called. I found out that he knew no other language except Serbo-Croat and we both made great efforts until he finally understood my question and confirmed to me that this was indeed the Yugoslav Air Force Base of Mostar. We drove to the center of town and stopped next to an old three-level house. The 2nd-Lt. called us to follow him. On the third level he entered a two-room apartment which was furnished with old furniture. After many difficulties I succeeded to understand that this was the apartment of his parents. He pulled from atop a cupboard in the bedroom a small suitcase and filled it with a loaf of black bread and two round cans of preserved food which had no labels on them and a few other items. At last, after spending about an hour in the apartment  while he was rummaging whatever it was – we went out to the street. The jeep was not there and the 2nd-Lt. said that we were going to the train-station. The distance was not much. It took us fifteen minutes to get to the train-station of Mostar.

The 2nd-Lt. went to the box-office (which is called “Balagayna” in Serbo-Croat) and bought tickets for Niksic’. We found-out that this was a narrow-gauge railway-line which was laid by the French during the second-half of the 19th century similar to our “Rakevet-Haemek” (Valley Railway) dating back to the time of the British Mandate of Palestine which used to travel from Damascus to Zemach, to Beit-Shean, Afula and all the way to Haifa and which was also  constructed in the 19th century. We climbed into a wagon which was divided by cabins. Every cabin had two sofas for three passengers each. On the upper, glass part of the cabin door to which we went a paper page was stuck and something was written on it in Serbo-Croat.The 2nd-Lt tapped with his finger on the page and explained that this cabin was reserved to the “Utbah”. We could not have a better address than this in Yugoslavia. We sat down on the sofas which were upholstered with a hairy and prickly material. Although the furniture and upholstery of the cabin were very old they were still in good condition and clean. But all this turned out to be quite different. Several hours later it was night. We all fell asleep and then found out how we were betrayed. The sofas were laden with bed-bugs which were on us within a jiffy and having a satisfying meal on our blood. Joe and I which were dead tired woke up completely and started scratching and fighting the bugs while the 2nd-Lt went on sleeping the sleep of the righteous. He must have been immune against this enemy.

At daybreak the 2nd-Lt woke up. He ate some of the bread and canned food which he had with him and offered some to us, but when we saw the meager amount which he had we refused politely. He was bored and went visiting in the neighboring wagons and chatting with the people who were there. We arrived at a large railway-station called “Huma” and stopped there. The 2nd-Lt appeared and explained that he was going to the station’s toilets and disappeared. 15 minutes later the train started moving and the 2nd-Lt was absent. Joe said that he must be in some of the other wagons as he was before. We decided not to leave our cabin. Many passengers boarded the train at this last station, there were many army soldiers among them. In the corridor opposite our door we saw about ten officers crowded together. They looked at the writing on our door and argued between them whilst pointing at us from time to time. The cabin with its four empty seats enraged them. Finally they opened our cabin door boldly despite the inscription and five of them entered and sat crowded on the free seats. As was to be expected they started speaking to us and we remained silent. As they went on addressing us I said a few words which I remembered: “Nyeh rozumish Yugoslavensky” (I do not understand Yugoslav). This reply brought further questions and I kept mum. Finally they started guessing among themselves who and what we were and decided that Joe was an Albanian because he was a bit tanned and his hair was pitch-black and very smooth. The white bandage on his head which looked like some sort of a turban and his conspicuous aquiline nose made him look like an Albanian or Turk.

Suddenly a ticket-collector appeared and started checking the travel-tickets of the passengers. When he reached us we had no tickets. The 2nd-Lt. was holding them. The ticket-collector became excited and everybody turned to us and demanded that we show them train-tickets. When we did not show them what they demanded the ticket -collector started asking us for: “Legitimatsieh!” (Identity- card.) We had no intention to show him our Laissez-Passer. When I saw the 2nd-Lt’s suitcase lying above his seat I hoped that he left the train-tickets and any additional document in it, but the suitcase was almost empty and besides some valueless personal items it contained nothing. I started gabbling all the words which I knew in Serbo-Croat, Russian and Polish so as to explain that we had with us an Officer of the Utbah (and uttering this holy word I pointed at the paper which was stuck on our cabin door) who got off at Huma so as to go to the toilets and he had our train-tickets and identity documents. I do not know if they understood anything from my gabble.  If they understood then they did not believe me for the ticket-collector left our cabin very excitedly and came back two minutes later with two Militiamen dressed in orderly uniforms and holding rifles. The Militiamen took us out of the cabin and stood us in the corridor, they stood on both our sides and the ticket-collector disappeared. About half an hour later the train arrived at a village which had no train-station. The train stopped outside of the village, in a field and one of the Militiamen took us off the train and made us run down a slope towards a two-level building which stood outside the village. The train departed. When we reached the building we found out that it was a large Militia station and Area Detention House. The Militiaman handed us over to the Chief of this place who started asking us questions and when he got no answers he took us up to the second level where he put us in a room and locked the door when leaving. The room had one window covered by a thick grille. There was a desk with two simple chairs in the center of the room. We sat down and tried guessing what happened to our 2nd-Lt. and what will happen now. I did not find it necessary to tell the Chief of this place that I demand the Utbah. I found it unnecessary. They all saw the writing on the paper which was stuck on our train cabin-door. It was stamped with an official stamp and the ticket-collector or somebody else on this train should have known something about it and the Militiaman who brought us here from the train probably told the whole story to the Chief of this place. So let us sit and do nothing.

Out of boredom we started examining this empty room. Under the writing-desk I found a basket. I looked into it and to my surprise found lying there: An empty “Nahshon” cigarette box and an empty tin box of “Emergency-Rations” issued by the Royal Air Force. These cigarettes were distributed to the soldiers of the Israel Defence Army and these tin boxes of emergency rations were carried in the emergency-pack which we had in every one of our airplanes. I showed them to Joe and said that there could be only one reason to their being here – that at least one Israeli pilot sat here before us and that it was most probably Maurice Bensimon and the Count since the six Spitfires arrived in Niksic’ and no more were supposed to get there since then. I took both empty boxes with me. At about 4:30 in the afternoon the door opened and the Chief appeared with our 2nd-Lt. The 2nd-Lt was huffing and puffing as if he just finished running as fast as he could. He was shouting that we should start as quickly as possible to run back to the railway line. We went out. In order to get to the railway-line one had to climb the steep slope which we descended previously. I decided, not so much because I was tired but so as to teach the 2nd-Lt. a lesson, that I will not run. On the contrary: I walked up the slope very slowly while he continued screaming in a hoarse voice.

On the railway-line stood a cargo-train. Once we reached it we climbed into one of its empty wagons and Joe started pouring out all and every curse with which he was familiar – at the 2nd-Lt. This was almost the only time that Joe opened his mouth and spoke since we crashed on the mountainside, except for single words here and there.I was glad to see that he was furious and that he was letting out all his anger because I knew that he was very frustrated and acrimonious and considering himself guilty for not being able to carry out our duty as ordered with the cargo which we carried and instead losing our airplane.

The 2nd-Lt. tried to explain to us that by the time that he came out of the toilets at Huma the train was gone but we were not interested and did not pay attention to him anymore. The time was 9 PM when we arrived at Noksic’. Here too there was no Railway-Station but just a railway stop. The village houses could not be seen in the dark. The 2nd-Lt. started hurrying us to follow him. We knew that our camp was on the other side of this giant meadow, at a distance of about 4 kilometers. We walked in the dark along a lane which ran through the fields and 50 minutes later we heard the voice of a man shouting.The 2nd-Lt. raised his hand and stopped us and answered in Serbo-Croat. One of the soldiers from the platoon which guarded our camp appeared.The 2nd-Lt. spoke with him and the soldier let us continue on our way. 5 minutes later we reached the camp. Geda Shohat and the Captain who was the CO of the platoon of soldiers who guarded our airbase met us. Geda was very happy to meet us and embraced us and the Captain sent the poor 2nd-Lt. back to the village although he asked and entreated the Captain to let him stay. Geda took us into the big tent and after he heard our story he told us that the 5 Spitfires took-off that morning with the leading Skymaster. In a coded message which was received from Tel-Aviv a few hours before we arrived it said that two out of the five landed in Rhodes island due to malfunctions in their fuel systems and the other three landed safely at Ramat-David. This meant that only three out of the six which departed from Czechoslovakia reached Israel. 50% of the airplanes which participated in this operation is not considered as a great success.

I asked Geda where were Bensimon and the Count and I showed him the two boxes which I found in the paper-basket at the detention- room.Geda said that on the morning of that same day, the 27th of September, on which we flew to Kunovice, Bensimon and the Count flew out of there and when they reached Sarajevo they encountered very stormy weather which prevented them from reaching Niksic’.  They finally made an emergency-landing near an unknown village and were arrested (!) The Yugoslavs informed Gedda about them that very afternoon and next day they ordered the Captain who was the CO of the soldiers’ platoon who guarded our airbase at Niksic’ and who was a pilot, grounded for medical reasons, to take the train to that village, release them from detention, and fly with them back to Niksic’. They arrived in the afternoon of the 28th. Geda said that meanwhile great changes were made in the plan of this operation and when Bensimon, who had a French passport, and the Count who had a Hungarian passport heard about it they asked permission to return to Israel and he approved their request.

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