Operation Velveta 1 — Part 15

Part 15  –  We wander north to Bakar, south of Riyeka, documented as German Prisoners of War.

Indeed, a few days before the end of the month Geda told us that next morning all of us will sail north in a boat which sails up and down the shore.We packed our personal effects. Geda gave each of us a large sum of money in case we get involved in some mishap and next morning we went down to the small seaport and boarded the boat which we used to watch daily sailing in and out of it. The boat sailed north along the beautiful shore until we reached Dubrovnik (Raguza) which is also an ancient and large Crusader seaport which was built at the foot of a mountain with the ancient town which was fortified by walls lying at the foot of the mountain, on the seashore, and the modern town was built on the mountainside with its houses, the newer they were – the higher they were on the slope. We had to change boats here and sail again in two hours’ time. We decided to take a walk in this beautiful town and we were not sorry for it. There were shops here, though not many, and many people were walking in the streets. There was a long line of people near one of the shops. We stopped to find out what it was and discovered a pastry-shop which opened its door and is selling cakes. In poor and austere Yugoslavia of those days – cakes were like a legendary miracle of olden days. This kind of miracle used to happen there only at the large cities and only once in several months. Only one cake was allotted to each person. We decided to try our luck and joined the line. When our turn came each one of us was sold  a small round tartelette filled with wild berries. Cheki was not shy and told them that we were tourists and could we have one more. The people behind the counter consulted with each other and said yes and were quite ready to sell each one of us one more cake but Geda told us quietly not to accept it because the result will be that a few people who still stood in a very long line behind us would not get any cake at all. We said no thank-you to the second cake which was offered us and were applauded  cheerfully. The cake was delicious and served as an excellent dessert after the seafood meal which we had on board our first boat and during which I ate, for the first time cuttlefish cooked in its ink.

We boarded a second boat and sailed north to Splitt (Spalato) which was also a seaport but not as beautiful and ancient as Dubrovnik. we arrived there in the afternoon and when we got off the boat we were met by a young Lieutenant who came to speak to Geda. At the end of their conversation  Geda informed us  that we will continue our journey by train and that we will be given identity-cards of repatriated German Prisoners-of-War who are returning to Germany escorted by the Lieutenant. I received my identity-card which had fictitious personal details of a Lieutenant in the German  Wehrmacht. I thought of the bitter irony. We walked to the train-station. This was a wide-gauge railway-line. A modern railway of the nineteen-twenties. We were happy to discover that our friends the bed-bugs from the previous railway-line in which Joe and I had the singular honor to travel – were missing on this one.This was a long journey and at night we arrived to the large seaport of Riyeka (Fiume). We went to a hotel and fell asleep immediately. We remained in Riyeka three days. Joe and I went for a walk along the beautiful shore. This city was originally an Italian city and was a part of Italy since North-Italy gained its independence from the Austrians and until the end of WW2. At the end of the Second World-War Fascist Italy was punished and Fiume was taken away from it and given as compensation to Yugoslavia which had been claiming it  since the end of WW1 (1918).There was a nice promenade along the shore  with a number of empty coffee-shops. We sat at one of them and had coffee and Joe smoked his pipe. The hotel we occupied was also almost without other guests. The food we had here was worse than the food we had at Budva. They used to serve red-wine with the meals here but it tasted more like vinegar-wine and not real wine. The poverty and austerity were very acute here. Here as well the hotel was not heated and there was no hot-water in the taps. Here too one could get a bath only in a wooden half-barrel which was placed in the kitchen and filled with water which was boiled on the hot stove, the same as was the bath we took in the hotel at Kunovice, Czechoslovakia.

After three such idle days Geda assembled us and told us that he had been in contact with Belgrade and that tomorrow we will travel south by bus, a trip of less than 20 kilometers, to a small seaport called Bakar. (Bakar is the Croat seaport which was air-raided in February 1918 by the Italian poet and pilot Gabriel D’Anunzio). One of our ships arrived there in order to collect immigrants and we, too, will board it and sail to Haifa. Geda told us that this is where he will take leave of us because he has to remain in Yugoslavia and he appoints me as head of the group so that I would see to it that all of us proceed from Haifa to Air Force Headquarters in Tel-Aviv. To make sure he gave me a letter which identified all of us by our names and duties and asked that we be given all the necessary assistance in order that we arrive as soon as possible at A.F. Headquarters. The letter was signed by Shaike Dan and Geda.

Next day we left Riyeka for Bakar by bus and arrived straight to the same quay at this small seaport where the ship “Atsmaut” (Independence) was moored. The Atsmaut was a “Liberty” type cargo-ship. The Liberty ships were produced in very large numbers in many shipyards in the United-States during WW2 so as to be used as cargo-ships which were so vital to the logistic disposition of the allies. Two of these ships were bought by us so as to serve as illegal-immigrant’ ships during the British Mandate and as immigrant-ships as soon as the State of Israel was established: Their original names were: “Pan-York” and “Pan-Crescent”.The name of this last one was changed to “Atsmaut” and as soon as Israel was established it carried mainly immigrants.

Before we boarded ship Geda took leave of us. Much later I found out that as we were sailing away Geda turned to organize the new airbase which was about to serve the flights of the renewed Operation “Velveta” which was named: “Velveta 2” and became feasible after we succeeded to straighten-out our problems with the Yugoslavs. The goods and the produce which we had to supply them according to the agreement were supplied. At Geda’s recommendation the Yugoslavs agreed to move our airbase from Niksic’ to Titograd (Podgoritsa) which is 50 kilometers further south and nearer to the Albanian border. The airfield at Titograd was larger and served the Yugoslavs as both a Civil and Military airfield. The city of Titograd is a big city and is close to the airfield. Not only we but the Yugoslavs as well will have continuous communication from there and this will make the cooperation between us much easier and will not necessitate long trips by Geda to Belgrade in order to have talks which can now be made by telephone. The living conditions of our permanent staff and of the pilots which will have to stay there from arrival to departure will be more comfortable and healthier and this in itself was no small matter.

Improvements were also obtained regarding the buying agreement of the Spitfires from the Czechoslovaks. The Czechs which at first stood firmly on their demand that the remaining Spits be crated and sent by train to Yugoslavia and then by ship to Israel were finally convinced to allow their ferry by air in groups of six. The old problem remained: How will the cannon, machine-guns, ammunition and spare-parts of the ferried airplanes be delivered. The Czechs still argued that they were worried about the sanctions which will be forced upon them if the Americans and British will find out that they are violating the Embargo conditions. They finally offered to fly all this merchandise by themselves but the largest transport airplanes which they had were Douglas C-47s which could not fly nonstop to Israel loaded with 3 tons (the armament and spares of 3 Spits) and would therefore have to land in Greece for refueling and we already knew that the Greeks will confiscate everything and nothing will get to Israel. In order to please the Czechs it was agreed that they would load in their C-47s (“Dakotas”) only the spare-parts of the Spits which will be noted in the cargo-manifest as spares for agricultural machines and that will enable them to land in Greece for refueling without anything being confiscated and the armament will be carried by our Douglas C-54 (“Skymaster”) and so that they will be able to land and take-off from Kunovice the Czechs agreed to lengthen the field there.

On December 9th Geda was all set at our new airbase at Titograd airfield. Ten days later, on December 19th, a flight of 6 Spits took-off from Kunovice. Reaching Yugoslav airspace they encountered a snowstorm. One of the pilots left the formation and after flying around aimlessly he made a crash-landing but came out alive. Sam Pomerantz who was leading the formation also left it and finally crashed into a mountain and was killed. This was a very great loss for the Air Force of a dear man, full of energy, audacity, knowledge and resource. We did not have many like him. The other 4 Spits which returned to Czechoslovakia were very lucky to find the Kunovice airfield where a heavy snowstorm started just after their departure.

The storm passed away and next day had lovely weather. 12 Spits took-off in two formations of 6 each and arrived at Titograd safely. When they were given a preflight-check they were found not airworthy unless their many snags would be repaired. It took our mechanics three days to fix the serious snags which were found in these airplanes. One of them was grounded and remained there. Later it was dismantled and loaded on one of our C-46 airplanes which flew back to Israel. The remaining 11 took-off on December 23. One of them had to turn back (it was dismantled too and flown in one of our C-46s) and the other 10 arrived safely in Tel-Noff (Ekron) airbase. These ten fighter airplanes took part during the last battles of Operation “Chorev”. In summing up both parts of Operation “Velveta” three formations were flown, the second was actually cancelled (two airplanes crashed and the remaining four returned to their departing base). The two formations which succeeded, the one during “Velveta1” and the one during “Velveta2” included 18 airplanes which departed from Czechoslovakia  but only 13 of them arrived in Israel. Almost 30% of the airplanes which departed from Czechoslovakia did not arrive in Israel for the reasons I detailed above. Despite it  – the airplanes which did arrive made up a most essential reinforcement to the Air Force. The other 32 Spitfires arrived in Israel as well, dismantled. Most of them were dispatched by train and ship and the rest were flown inside our C-46 airplanes.

The logistic part of the transfer of the armament by our transport airplanes also met some interesting adventures: Close to the departure of the first flight-formation of “Velveta 2” (the one which took-off from Kunovice on December 19 and returned to land there after two of them crashed in Yugoslavia) one of our Douglas C-54 “Skymaster”s arrived in Kunovice. The payload which this type of airplane could fly to Israel with only one refueling stop at Titograd was 5 tons. This airplane took-off from Kunovice shortly before the Spits and landed at Titograd safely. When it was reported that the Spits returned to land at Kunovice the “Skymaster” was fueled and flew on to Israel. To this day it remains a puzzle why the usual departure messages were not sent from both our Embassy in Prague and our airbase at Titograd advising about this airplane departure and calculated time of arrival in Israel. On its arrival in Israel, late at night, and when it requested landing clearance the runway lights were not switched on neither at Sdeh-Dov nor at Tel-Noff (Ekron) airbase. After holding for several hours over central Israel trying in vain to make contact with our ground radio-stations, its fuel used-up, the airplane made a successful forced-landing on the beach, opposite runway 10 at Sdeh-Dov. Nobody was hurt and the cargo remained in perfect condition.

Meanwhile two Curtis-Wright C-46 “Commando” aircraft arrived at Kunovice. These airplanes were able to carry a payload of 7 tons each and get to Israel with just one fueling stop at Titograd. These two airplanes flew with the big flight-formation of Spits from Kunovice to Titograd and on December 23 continued to Tel-Noff (Ekron) and arrived there at the same time as the ten Spits. These airplanes which were originally planned to be cargo airplanes were at that time still the largest and heaviest twin-engine airplanes in the world and could carry the heaviest payload of 7 tons while the 4-engine “Skymaster” carried only 5 tons. These were the airplanes which flew the “Messerschmidt” airplanes which we bought from Czechoslovakia to Israel and finally the last Czech Spits were also flown to Israel in January 1949.