Operation Velveta 1 — Part 8

Part 8  –  On a bare mountain in Montenegro. The local Militia gathers us.

As soon as the airplane stopped and the tail started rising up my head was thrown forward and my nose hit the joint  of my right hand which was posed on the upper cover of the instrument board. I heard the cartilage at the top of my nose cracking. My nose started bleeding. I knew that I had to evacuate the airplane as quickly as possible and run away as far as possible because there is a good chance that it will catch fire which will explode the ammunition which we carried among our cargo. I was lucky enough to remember that I was hanging upside down and that I am only tied to my chair by the safety-belt around my loins. I moved my right hand from the instrument-board railing  and posed it on the cockpit ceiling which was now the cockpit floor, I folded my legs up towards my chin and with my left hand released my safety-belt. I fell on my feet which touched immediately the ceiling-floor and burst out through the open window into the clear. I ran about thirty meters and hid behind a tall rock.

About one minute later I realized that Joe did not evacuate the airplane. I got out from behind the rock and returned hesitatingly to the airplane shouting: “Joe! Joe!” When I got close to the plane I heard Joe groaning and at the same time saw him getting out through the window on his side. “What’s with you”? I asked “Why do’nt you hurry up? The airplane may blow up!” “I forgot that I was inverted and released my safety-belt and fell with my head right on the radio frequency selector-knob.” Joe answered. Blood was streaming from his head. His hitting the knob wounded his scalp. I bandaged his head with a large white kerchief which he produced from his pocket. He looked quite funny with this white kerchief over his smooth black hair and knotted under his chin – like grandma. But I was not in a laughing mood. We both stood behind the tall rock and suddenly my whole body started shaking with my knees actually knocking at each other and without having any control over myself. This was just a late shock. I once again had a flash of memory: I remembered that when Les Shagham (a South-African Volunteer who served as a fighter-pilot  with the Royal South-African Air Force  during WW2 and volunteered to fly with our first fighter squadron) crashed with his “Messerschmidt” he climbed out of his wreck with a convulsion to the right side of his face and his right shoulder and was permanently grounded. On the very moment that I remembered Les Shagham and his convulsions – I stopped shaking.

The blood stopped streaming along my nose. 5 minutes later, seeing that nothing occurred to the airplane, Joe and I got out from behind the rock and saw when we got to the other side of the airplane, very far from us and much lower from where we were – flickering lights. We both stood facing these distant lights and started shouting at the top of our voices: “Hallo! Help! Help!” again and again. Today, when I remember this funny picture: Joe which looked with his white kerchief bandaged around his head like Don Quihote in the famous painting by Albrecht Durer, and I who am small and was much shorter than Joe who was tall and although I was very slim I could be taken for Sancho Pansa – standing like two idiots in the darkness of the night on a high mountainside and shouting in English towards the lights of some unknown settlement in the mountains of Montenegro: “Hallo! Help! Help!” – I can not stop laughing. Not then. Both of us did not think then that this was a funny situation – at all!

After more than half an hour we heard steps which came from a group of people and a few minutes later we saw them climbing up the mountain – they were a group of about ten men armed with different guns: German, Italian, British, Finland and Russian rifles and sub-machine-guns. Each one was holding a different gun. This was a squad of the local “Militia” which came from the village whose twinkling lights we saw. The man who walked at the head of the line looked at us for a long time but I did not hesitate and said in cheap Russian: “Utbah! Ya hatchu Utbah!” (Secret-Service, I want the Secret-Service!). The word “Utbah” made immediately the necessary impression: Everybody stretched to attention, then eased-up, and their serious expressions softened. After all, a person who asks for the Yugoslav Secret-Service is certainly neither an enemy, nor a criminal, and one had better treat him with respect and suspicion.

“Nyema Utbah.” replied the head of the group and continued looking at us while his men started walking around the airplane and looking through the open parts. Since the man said that there was no Secret-Service available I decided to continue demanding: “Tilifon!” (Telephone) I said in my best Russian pronunciation. “Nyema tilifon!” (No telephone available!) replied the man. So I said: “Tiligraf!” (Telegraph) and the man replied: “Nyema tiligraf” (No telegraph available!). I did not give up and said: “Posta!” (Post-Office). “Nyema Posta” he answered. I finally said in despair: “Doctor! Feltcher!” (Doctor! Medical orderly!) “Nyema Doctor. Nyema nishta!”  (No Doctor! None at all!) replied the man angrily. He had enough of my extravagant demands, so I decided to end my requests with a last cry of despair: “Utbah! Utbah!” . The man turned to the others and said whatever he said to them and then he turned to us and said: “Davay!” (Lets go!) and pointed with his sub-machine-gun towards the direction from which they came. Half of his men went behind us and he, at the head of the rest went ahead of us as we all marched along. 20 minutes after a quick march we came to a small and old two-storey house, which had no doors or windows. Apparently this was the station of this Militia unit. In the small yard in front of this building there was a cold water tap (the height of culture and civilization, I thought to myself). We washed the blood off our faces and freshened ourselves up with the cold water. One could get to the upper level only by means of a ladder which led to a hole in the outer wall. We were ordered up. In the only room on this level there was a sort of large wooden couch covered with straw. We were told to go to sleep. We lay down. Neither of us could fall asleep. We lay there and each of us thought whatever he thought. There was not much we could say to each other at this point.  After a long hour Joe fell asleep and I dozed along but was stung. The stinging prevented me from falling asleep.

My wristwatch with its phosphorous digitals showed that it was 1 AM when the head of the Militia and two more of his men climbed up the ladder. They had an electric-torch. They pointed the torchlight at my face, the head of the Militia kicked my leg lightly and one of his men said in cheap German: “Du! Du, wehr bist du?” (You, you, who are you?) and went on asking more questions in his language which I did not understand.It was clear that they were trying to find out exactly who we were and what were we doing there with this airplane. And I obstinately replied: “Utbah! Ya hachu Utbah!” (Secret-Service! I want the Secret-Service!). This obstinate request for the Secret-Service disturbed their guesswork and totally confused them. After a few more minutes of trying to find out who and what we were they left us alone and went down the ladder.

After sunrise one of the Militia men came up and told us to get down to the yard. There we found all the men of their squad, armed with their diverse armament. I noticed that they were all dressed in rags and some of them were not wearing shoes but dressed their feet with rags of sorts. Only the head of this squad, who must have been no more than thirty years old, was dressed in a pair of old trousers and an old jacket. He had a cap on his head and a pair of  worn-out shoes  on his legs. The man signaled us to join the middle of the line and we all went back to the airplane.About one hundred meters before we got to the plane he stopped and called one of his men. It was the man who tried to speak to me  in German last night. The man pointed towards the airplane and asked: “Gewehr, Ya? Gewehr?” (Arms, yes? Arms?) I moved my head negatively and said: “Nein!” (No!). The man repeated his question and I answered no again and then the head of the squad moved us to the airplane. One of the cabin windows was broken and through it stuck one of the long and narrow cases which we carried. The wooden case was broken and one of the “Spitfire” cannons peeped out of it. The man said reproachfully: “Das nicht gewehr?” (This is not armament?) And I hurried with my answer: “Ya, Utbah, Utbah!” I went closer to the airplane and saw that they pulled the release handles of our parachutes which we left on our seats. The parachute packs were open and part of the canopy was pulled out. I thought to myself: So after-all these were airworthy parachutes and not just rags. Joe crawled with the upper part of his body through the open window to the left side of the cockpit. I asked  him what was he doing. He crawled back outside and said to me very seriously: “I forgot to switch-off the engine magnetos when we got upside down so I switched them off now.” Years later I found out that it is possible that the airplane did not catch fire because Joe forgot to switch the mags off. The new procedure for shutting-off the engine in case of a crash-landing was to pull the mixture-control to off, push the throttle all the way open and leave the magnetos ON so as to empty the fuel which remained in the cylinders and prevent the engine from catching fire.

I looked carefully at the airplane. There was not much damage. Besides the broken window and the crushed propeller only the upper part of the rudder was crushed. The Militia Chief gave an order and we all moved. This time we went down from the mountain to the valley and found out that it was a vast valley. Even a “Constellation” could take-off and land here at maximum weights without any problem. This was a pity. Had we arrived to this spot at daylight we would have landed without any mishap in this valley instead of landing hard on what was one of the balconies which the  farmers built on the mountainside in order to grow there vegetables and fruit. We were lucky to settle at the one end of such a balcony which was long enough and only towards the end of our landing run we hit the stone hedge which the peasants erected with the stones which they removed from the flat space. The lower part of our engine nacelle hit this high stone hedge and stopped the airplane which turned upside-down and ended on its back in the neighboring balcony.

We continued our march through the valley and reached a small village. All the village houses were just huts made of clay and straw with roofs made of straw and clay. We approached the largest of these huts. The head of the militia group sent all his men away and ushered us in. This must have been his house and he seemed to be the head of this village. The hut was round and was not divided but just one large round space. The floor was just hard earth. Here and there lay straw mats. Inside were the man’s young wife, two small children, a couple of old people which the man tried to explain to us that they were his parents. One goat and half a dozen chickens. Here lived, slept and ate the whole family including the goat and the chickens. In the middle of the hut there was a shallow hole with a tripod over it from which hung a large and heavy iron pot. The hole was full of burning wood which warmed the pot. The smoke was supposed to go up and out through a tin pipe which was stuck at the middle of the mud and straw roof but instead most of it spread within the hut.The man drew closer to the fire a large rag which must have been a rug in better times and asked us to sit down.He used a tin ladle to draw liquid from the warm pot and poured it into aluminum cups and gave each of us a full and steaming cup. It was goats milk. The time was early morning and we were hungry and thirsty. The milk was delicious and warmed our frozen bodies in this freezing morning. n we finished drinking the man took us out of his home and led us towards one of the huts which stood at the extremity of the village. An old woman came out of the hut and spoke to the man then went in again and about ten minutes later she came out again holding an old and blackened frying pan filled with a large amount of scrambled eggs which were scrambled in goats butter. In her other hand she held a large loaf of black bread and a sharp knife. The man who was with us sliced large slices of bread for us and the old woman gave each of us a old tin spoon and invited us to eat the scrambled eggs which were tasty and filling. After we finished she returned the frying pan to the hut and came back out of there holding a glass bowl full of goat-butter and a second glass-bowl full of brown honey. By means of a spoon’s handle she smeared butter and honey on the slices of  black bread which the man sliced for us and offered them to us. It is quite interesting to find out how simple, basic food can be tasty and satisfying when one is hungry and tired. The honey heartened us. As we were satisfied it seems that our faces became less grief-stricken. Throughout the meal the man and the old woman did not touch even a crumb. When we finished the man said to the old woman:”Hfalah-leppo!”. I surmised that he thanked her and therefore I turned towards her and said loudly: “Hfalah-leppo!” (“Many thanks!”). The old woman smiled and the man laughed, tapped me on my back and signaled us to come with him.

We left the village and went to the foot of the mountain. The man sat down comfortably near a flat rock and invited us to join him. Shortly afterwards one of his men joined us. Both were not armed. They seemed to be convinced that their business was not with dangerous enemies. Time was passing and the man tried to make us understand him. Using his hands and body he began to ask us questions and to tell us and explain something to us. First he asked how old we were. It took me several long minutes to understand his question. I found a twig and scratched our ages in the soft soil. Once the sun reached its zenith I started saying again to him: “Utbah, Utbah” and tried to explain to him that this was urgent business and that we had no time to spare. The man smiled, tried to calm me and started explaining in words and gestures that as soon as the sun rose this morning he sent one of his men, by foot, to report about us. I understood his last two words which were: “…Utbah Mostar.” The word Mostar was familiar to me and Joe.  It was the name of a large city in Herzegovina which appeared on our map.

Since he named this place,  I started asking him what was the name of the place we were in. I was happy when he understood my question and said: “Ziemly”. Many days later, it was explained to me that Ziemly means “Soil” and that, at that time, every little and poor village of less than 100 people in Yugoslavia was named Ziemly. I asked for a train and was answered by the regular answer: “Niema Nishta” (None at all) and when I asked for a bus I got the same answer. The man and his fellow laughed loudly when they saw my perplexed and desperate face and gestured to me to calm myself and not to worry.