Operation Velveta 1 — Part 13

Part 13  –  We dismantle and pack up the Spitfire to be sent to Israel.

We did not spend our time during that period in which we were forcibly grounded just by filling our bellies and our radio-operators as well as our radio-engineer, Al, were not the only ones among us who worked. Geda was not satisfied looking at Tuxie’s Spitfire which lay on its belly in the field and decided that we should take it apart and place it in a case which will be dispatched by train to one of the seaports which were available at the north-western part of the country and from there in one of our ships to Israel. For that matter he used his good relations with the Captain who was the CO of the Yugoslav platoon and fetched us a pulley and a thick steel chain. Geda asked the two mechanics, Joe and I to join him and let the radio-operators and radio-engineer work on their own. We produced a large wooden tripod and fixed the pulley at its head passing the steel chain over the pulley so that it came down exactly to the withdrawal-ring which is found at the  top of the Spitfire engine and leaving the tripod standing over the front of the airplane fuselage. Once we succeeded in lifting the airplane high enough the mechanics could start  taking-off the broken and twisted propeller and the engine covers. This is where we met our first problem which was a considerable one: The tools of our American mechanics, Fred and Shorty, were in American sizes while  all the nuts and bolts, screws and other parts which held the airplane together were not. In short: The tools which we had did not fit this airplane. We sat on the ground for half a day, around the airplane, like a group of mourners, looking at the airplane with frustration and disappointment. But old Shorty, who has been through worse than that during the war against the Japs in the Pacific, having scratched the white bristles of his beard for several hours, found an unbelievable sort-of solution, and started taking apart and joining different tools together and then cut a piece of tin which he found at the Yugoslav soldiers camp and finally found a way to fit the tools we had to take the airplane apart.

The propeller was the first to get off and then we lifted all the panels which covered the engine and then Fred and Shorty started disconnecting all the pipes and wires which connected the engine to other parts of the airplane, released the engine from the fuselage and prepared it to be lifted and taken out of the airplane. But before doing that Geda and the two mechanics started measuring the engine all around and draw a plan so as to build a wooden cradle which would exactly accommodate it once we take it out of the airplane. The carpentry was done and we lifted the engine high enough above its place in the nose of the airplane so that we could move the fuselage back and place the wooden cradle exactly under the engine which was hanging on the chain which came down the tripod. But we could not move the fuselage by ourselves and the Yugoslav Captain came to our help and brought along almost his entire platoon of soldiers leaving only the squad which was on guard at that time. In a joint effort we succeeded in moving the airplane back just enough so as to put the cradle in its right place and lower the engine into it. It all fitted perfectly.

Then we took the wings off the fuselage and lastly we took apart the elevator and the rudder. while the two mechanics worked on dismantling the different parts  Joe and I helped Geda to plan and produce fitting cases to all these different parts. Getting the large and heavy parts into the cases we were again helped by our friends the Yugoslavs. Towards the end of October the work was finished. Now it was up to Shaike Dan and Geda to obtain the agreement of the Yugoslavs and to coordinate with them the transfer of these cases to the railway-line which passed near Niksic’ village and from there by freight-train to the seaport of Bakar in north-west Yugoslavia. This airplane reached Israel the same way as the ten Spitfires which were sent from Czechoslovakia in cases. I would like to add my amazement when I saw how the Yugoslavs who had no means of transportation and lifting equipment and very few mules – did most of this work by themselves – manually.

It was the 29th of September when Joe and I returned to our airbase in Niksic’. It was almost the end of autumn. Within a few days the weather changed considerably. The temperature went down, high winds started blowing and it was raining frequently. The clothes which we had, especially Joe and I (as a result of the briefing we received before leaving Israel and being told that we would return in a few days time.) did not fit this season of the year. Stored in the large tent in which Geda and the mechanics lived we did have a stock of underwear and woolen army sweaters as well as a large stock of American Army woolen blankets but all this was not sufficient. The nights were particularly cold and all of us used to get together in the large tent and sit around the table. We had one American Army primus-stove and Geda used to light it and put it under the big table, in the center. Everybody who was sitting around used to cover-up with woolen blankets and thus passing the evening talking, smoking and some of us used to play Gin- Rummy. This was the only way to keep a normal body-temperature unless we lay in bed covered by eight woolen blankets or more. Geda had an idea: To sew all of us snow-suits from woolen blankets. This was an amusing occupation. Geda started taking our measurements and designing, according to the measurements which he took – the lower part of the suit (the trousers) and then the upper part (the tunic with a head-cover.) Then he cut the designed parts into the blankets and finally sewed the pieces together. Sometimes we helped him with the sewing of certain parts so as to complete the job sooner. The snow-suits were finished, they suited us perfectly and the main thing was that they helped warming us up a good deal and enabled us to move around outside of the tents in comfort.

Tuxie’s Spitfire was not the only one to be dismantled and sent to Israel in this way. Our Norseman which remained  lying on its back on the mountainside near Ziemly received the same treatment. The Yugoslavs sent there a group of mechanics and carpenters with all the necessary tools and materials. They emptied the contents of this airplane first and packed it in separate cases and then they took the airplane apart and placed the separate parts in wooden cases the same way as we did with the Spitfire. All this stuff: The airplane, its engine and all the contents it carried, was loaded on mules which were sent from Mostar to carry it to the nearest railway-station at the town of Biletse and from there by train to the seaport of Bakar south of Riyeka (Fiume) where it was all loaded on one of our ships and brought to Israel. As far as I know the Norseman and its cargo arrived in Israel at the end of Operation Chorev. Its cargo which included the cannon, machine-guns,ammunition and spare-parts of one Spitfire were immediately sent to our fighter-squadron and was well used.The airplane was not assembled and not repaired since at that time all the Norsemen which remained in Flight 35 were grounded and Flight 35 was shut-down.

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