Part 12 – Operation “Velveta” stops and we remain as hostages.
The changes in the Operation’s program was initiated partly by us after we summarized the first ferry-flight and partly by the Yugoslav authorities, resulting from Israel’s failure to stand by its promises given in exchange for Yugoslavia’s agreement to let us use its territory and services throughout the “Velveta” Operation.
We decided that since only three Spitfires which arrived will be able to be used in Operation “Yoav” the next ten Spitfires should be dismantled, crated and sent by train from Czechoslovakia to a seaport in north-west Yugoslavia and from there by ship to Israel. These ten airplanes did indeed get to Israel three months later, were reassembled and took part during the last part of Operation “Chorev”. Meantime instructions were given to everybody who was part of the Operation to do their best so as to get better results: The two pilots who landed in Rhodes were released by the Greeks two weeks later and returned to Israel but the two Spitfires remained in Rhodes until the Israeli War of Independence was over. Meantime an extremely bad mishap occurred to the agreement which was made between the Yugoslav government and the government of Israel:
The agreement which was made between us and the Yugoslavs was entirely different from the one which we made with the Czechoslovaks. The latter demanded payment in gold, or Swiss Franks or US Dollars for everything which they sold us or every service which they did for us. The former did not want to be paid in cash but gave us a long list of: Medicines, foodstuff and clothing and footwear items in set quantities and demanded that this merchandise be given them monthly as long as we use their services. This merchandise could not be supplied from Israel. and our people looked for a source and a way to fulfill our part in this agreement by finding a source somewhere in Europe which they finally did find:
An American Jew who remained in Europe after his release from the American Army at the end of WW2 and who grew rich by doing legal and less legal business deals found his way to our purchasing people just as this crisis occurred and told them that he wanted to help our Israeli war efforts. When he told our people the extent and ability of his business they asked him that he send every month a cargo ship loaded with the items which were mentioned in the list furnished by the Yugoslavs. The man agreed and the requested merchandise started arriving in Yugoslavia punctually as agreed. After he had sent the second ship this good Jew decided that it would be nice if he himself will go to Israel to see with his own eyes how his important contribution was helping the war effort in Israel. And so he arrived in Israel. This naive man thought that he will be received here honorably and will be shown around by Government and Army officials and who knows: Maybe he will even be decorated by the Prime-Minister. But oh what a shame: Nobody met him at his arrival. The man roamed for a week in Haifa and Tel-Aviv looking for a hotel room and a decent restaurant and after a week of solitude he became quite enraged and left Israel deciding to stop his important contribution. The Yugoslavs, when they did not get their next shipment decided to end our activities and stop our flights within Yugoslav airspace, our landings in their airfields as well as to stop the transfer of Jewish immigrants from eastern countries to seaports in north-west Yugoslavia where they boarded immigrant ships to Israel. They did not hesitate to take this decision, looking at the number of crash-landings and emergency-landings which we had in Yugoslavia which had to be treated by them with finesse and were quite complicated and with a lot of apprehension that all of it would come to the knowledge of the Americans and British as it was in Czechoslovakia. This decision was taken on the very day that the first ferry-flight of 5 Spitfires took-off from Niksic’ and we arrived there by train.
The Yugoslav Authorities advised Shaike Dan in Belgrade that meantime his men who are in Niksic’ will remain as their “guests”. Nobody leaves and nobody arrives. The meaning of this decision for us was that we are to stay at our base in Niksic’ or anywhere else that will be indicated to us by the Yugoslavs, as hostages, until a solution to the crisis of the merchandise which we undertook to deliver would be found.
Our “Base” in Niksic’ consisted of a camp of tents. At the one end of the camp there was a very large tent. Most of it was used to store our various equipment. There was also a large table with two long benches on either side. There were also three beds in it which were of the folding-bed type of the American Army. They belonged to Geda who was the CO of this Base and the two American airplane-mechanics: Fred (Frederic Dahms) who was about 30 years old and 6 feet tall and Shorty (Gardner Barker) who was 65 years old and 5.5 feet tall. Both of them were very experienced mechanics. Not far from this large tent stood three smaller tents. One of them contained our Radio Station and next to it stood a tall antenna. At first this tent housed all three radio-people: Al, who was a Radio-Engineer and was in charge of the station’s operation. Ted Stern and Zoltan (Cheki) Bok, both were flying wireless-operators who were grounded so as to keep communicating with our embassy in Prague and with Air Force Headquarters in Tel-Aviv throughout this Operation. The second tent lodged Maurice Bensimon and Ladislau Stark (the Count) and after they were gone the two wireless-operators moved in. The third tent lodged Joe Sunderland and I. Beyond these three tents there was another large tent which served for our food-storage, kitchen and mess.At the other end of our camp stood a shed covered by a tarpaulin and containing our “command-car” vehicle and our jeep. A large generator stood near the radio-station tent and was started by Al whenever the radio-operators had to work. When the base was formed Geda decided that it was not a good idea that we should relieve ourselves in the open fields. Everybody therefore volunteered to dig a big and deep hole. Geda saw to it that we should be provided with a sufficient quantity of wooden planks and using his geniality and with the help of Fred, Shorty and Cheki he built a toilet to be proud of.
About one hundred meters from our tents there stood another group of tents. They belonged to the platoon of soldiers of the Yugoslav Air Force Regiment whose duty was to guard our camp and airfield (the large meadow) so that the Niksic’ villagers or anybody else without a pass should not enter it. The platoon was commanded by a Captain who was a grounded-pilot for medical reasons.
We did not have electricity. The generator supplied electrical power only to the radio-station. The two large tents were illuminated by “Lux” kerosene lamps and the three small tents were lit by small kerosene lamps. We did not have running water either so we used to get our water from the river which ran west of our camp. The river is where we used to wash and carry water to the kitchen where we boiled water on a primus-stove and cooked or warmed our food on two paraffin-stoves.
Our food store contained a very large quantity of canned food. We had mostly large cans of Salmon. Canned meat (Bully-Beef and Spam), canned Canadian Cheddar cheese and Australian Jam. We had also large biscuits (water-biscuits) which served us instead of bread. According to our agreement with the Yugoslavs we had to supply all our food from our own sources.We were forbidden to get or buy food from them. With time we developed good relations with the CO of the Yugoslav platoon and his soldiers. We started with small acquisitions (Geda had enough money) payed in Yugoslav Dinars and later we bartered our food for their food. They were mostly interested in bartering and not in cash. In that way we started getting from them, at first, one huge loaf of country-bread every week. Later we started getting, from time to time, a few eggs until we finally made a permanent arrangement with them: At the end of every week they used to give us two live chickens, a number of potatoes and carrots and a little parsley. “Cheki” was our Chef. “Cheki” was Jewish and born in Czechoslovakia. He joined the French Foreign Legion at a very early age, well before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. He served in the Foreign-Legion Armoured Corps which escaped to England when WW2 broke out. There he joined the Free Czechoslovak Armed Forces and was sent by the Royal Air Force to a wireless-operators’ course. He flew as a wireless-operator until the end of WW2. Cheki was a very knowledgeable man and an excellent cook. He used to slaughter the chickens and prepare them so as to cook chicken-soup which was as tasty as our mothers’ chicken-soup. Every Sabbath we used to get a bowl of soup and a quarter chicken with a bit of potato or carrot.
Ted (Theodore) Stern who was our second wireless-operator was much younger than Cheki and was born in Brooklyn. He flew as a radio-operator with the US Air Force during WW2. His specialty, besides hitting the Morse-key at an amazing speed, was frying flat Salmon-balls which he named: Salmon-Croquettes and which added to our limited hot-food menu. To drink we had coffee, tea and cocoa, plenty of sugar and cans of Nestle’s sweet concentrated milk. We were not hungry but our menu was limited and quite monotonous and we needed vegetables and fruit badly. The Americans in our group taught us how to make Dagwood sandwiches so as to have cheese and something sweet for our desert. This sandwich which is made up of a slice of bread spread with jam and a slice of cheese over it is named after the character of the shlemiel named Dagwood who appeared in cartoon-strips in the USA and in Europe.