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ABOUT ten o'clock in the morning, having had but a few hours' sleep, we were awakened by the quick movement of feet along the passageway and overhead, indicating activity of an unaccountable nature. We peeped out of the window, only to see a steep bank and a glimmer of sunlight here and there among the trees.
After we had dressed ourselves, we appeared in the passageway, and were immediately greeted by several men and a few girls in uniform. All seemed to be concerned with duty, some with papers in their hands, others coming and going with the air of importance that one observes frequently in the precincts of a Headquarters. But nobody seemed too engaged in purpose not to stop, shake hands and utter a friendly and convincing "Zdravo! Kako si?" ("Hello! How are you?") It was all so natural, easy and frank, even our innate shyness and reserve melted completely and self-consciousness disappeared.
In a moment or two a young woman entered our room with a pitcher of water, basin and towel. She informed us in simple Croatian that breakfast would be served in the dining-room as soon as we were ready.
It was at breakfast that we met Sergeant Paul Pavelic for the first time. Sgt. Pavelic was in charge of our advance party and was responsible for the preparation of our reception. Sgt. Alexander Simitch, M.M., and Sgt. Peter Erdeljac were the other members of his party.
It was due to the courage, ability and judgment of Sgt. Pavelic and the splendid co-operation which the other members of his party gave him, that the arrangements made for our reception succeeded so well.
Just before we had completed breakfast, the Adjutant, Drug Manol, appeared to inform us that the Commandant and his Stafi would be pleased to see us at eleven-thirty in the Commandant's Office.
After breakfast we went outside the cabin to survey our surroundings. We were astonished to see several cabins spotted among the trees at the foot of the ravine which we had followed the night before.
The cabins, typical of the Canadian style of lumber camp, were built of newly sawn board, well built, with roof of hand-split shingles, well-fitted doors and a liberal provision for light by many glass windows. All cabins were wired for electric light, and telephone lines to the largest cabins. The main cabin, where we lived, was about 3 hundred feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and of two storeys. This cabin, we could see, was planned for administration purposes, as it contained many small rooms, used as private offices. The other cabins were of various sizes, and were used to accommodate the usual departments and services found at a military headquarters, such as guard room, records, stores, kitchens, sleeping quarters, repair shops, wireless station, bath house, hospital and power plant. In every case buildings were carefully and effectively camouflaged.
The activity all about, cabins being built, officials coming and going, pack mules with supplies, girls engaged in washing blankets in the stream near the laundry, the sound of anvil, the buzz of the circular saw, the din of the machine shop, was all so impressive; it was not in the least surprising to see authority respected on every hand, not only by the sentries but by all, acknowledged in smart salute.
From what we had experienced the previous night, the orderly way in which things were done, the care and smoothness which characterised the dovetailing of arrangements made on our behalf, and from what we were able to observe in the short time at our disposal in the morning, it became abundantly clear to us that, whatever else the Partisans might be, they were most certainly an organised body, who understood something about planning and appreciated the value of respect and dignity of authority.
From these observations and deductions we were able to prepare ourselves for our meeting with the Commandant and his Staff at eleven-thirty. Sgt. Paul Pavelic was detailed to act as official interpreter for all conferences which we shauld hold with the Partisan Staff at Croatian Headquarters.
Punctually we were informed that the Commandant was free and would like to see us. We entered his office, a large room at one end of the passageway, with two windows, carpeted floor, a polished, varnished-top desk, two lounges and three deep armchairs. We were followed by Adjutant Manola, who introduced us.
Immediately two young men bearing the dignity of rank and responsibility arose and shook hands with us. The one who had been seated behind the desk, Political Commissar Dr. Bakaric, the other, who had been seated in one of the armchairs, Commandant Rukavana. We were received most warmly with keen interest, and the usual military reserve becoming to responsible rank. We had no difficulty in recognising in each his respective role. Credentials we had not, so it was necessary at once to tell who we were, explain our purpose in coming to Jugoslavia, and to hope for the best.
The conference, somewhat long, was at all times friendly, pleasant, extremely interesting and constructive throughout. Questions, embarrassing questions, were frankly asked, and as frankly answered to the best of our ability. The amazement expressed by the Partisan Command at the tardiness of the Allies in making contact with them after they had already been fighting the Axis for two years was honest, and not a little embarrassing to us.
For reasons of military secrecy it is not possible to disclose at this time, the conclusions and understandings arrived at during that conference. It may be stated, however, that the success of that first conference was outstanding. The course which relationships were to take: frequent regular and formal conferences, close collaboration in all matters of Allied interest, frank and honest relationship, were, in principle, mutually agreed to.
We were profoundly impressed by the frankness of the Partisans whom we had met. We thought their keen ability to weigh facts, quickness to decide, and prompt action, coupled with gentleness, composure and firmness, were qualities of capable and worthy leaders.
Lunch followed immediately after the conference. As we entered the mess, fourteen members of the Staff arose and greeted us. Their number included the Commandant, Commissar, the Chief of the Intelligence Services, the Intendant (Quartermaster), Chief Technical Advisor, Assistant Adjutant, Chief of Communications, four or five young women (secretaries and stenographers), and others.
The Senior British Officer was politely requested to take the place at the head of the table. That position was reserved for him always during his entire stay at Croatian Headquarters.
While rank was accorded due respect always, it became at once noticeable that there was no embarrassment or stiff formality on the part of the junior officers. Conversation was perfectly natural, general, easy and entertaining. Wit and humour found ready response in laughter. Four or five of those present could speak three or four languages, including English, which relieved any embarrassment on our part. Messengers entering the Mess would salute with the usual "Zdravo," followed by the ever-delightful "Dobar Tek" ("Good appetite"), then completely relax, deliver their messages with easy manner, salute and depart.
The meal consisted of soup, stewed beef, potatoes and onions, jam tart, cheese, bread and wine. It was served by two young girls, who managed to sandwich their own meal along with us at the same table. Fifteen minutes of deep, rich song, participated in by all, concluded a most enjoyable lunch hour.
The afternoon was spent in visiting the various hutments, including the hospital, and generally familiarising ourselves with the area. Wherever we went we were greeted by a pleasant, reassuring "Zdravo druze" ("Hello, friend!"), followed usually by a conversation concerning the task in hand.
It would require much more time and space than is now available to describe in detail the many interesting activities we saw that afternoon. Two or three, however, were so surprising that a brief account of them may well enable the imagination to picture more truly the nature and extent of the others.
<>Our attention was attracted to a rather long hut by the familiar noise of an internal combustion engine. This proved to be the generating plant for the supply of electrical power and light to the various workshops, offices and living quarters. The engineer conducted us through the plant and answered all our questions.
As it seemed that we were miles from anywhere, and in a country where the enemy had restricted all petrol for his own use, we were naturally puzzled and curious to know how the Partisans could operate this plant. The secret was tucked away in the far end of the hut. There we gazed, somewhat bewildered, at a home-made still, in which charcoal was being forcibly persuaded to give up its precious spirits in the form of wood alcohol, which was used to run the generator.
That generator plant had been planned and built under the supervision of a fully qualified electrical engineer, aided by an outstanding chemical engineer, both of whom had left the stafi of a well-known University to join the Partisans. They had incorporated parts of electrical machinery which had been salvaged from destroyed factories, designing themselves many missing parts, which were made in a Partisan foundry and finished in their machine shops.
Thus, with an engine running on wood alcohol, locally produced from charcoal, this plant was running most efficiently, keeping the saws, drills, lathes, hammers and other machines used in their various shops round about going full blast, as its contribution to Partisan war effort.
In one of the larger machine shops at the Croatian Headquarters there were twenty-seven men employed at the different machines and benches. There we watched gun parts being machined and fitted. One of these operations held our attention with keen interest. An Italian gun had been captured, but, as was usually the case, the breech block was missing. The difficult task of making a breech-block, which required skill and precision of the highest quality, was being performed there. The job, as we afterwards heard, was completed and the gun put into action, returning Italian shells to their original owner with effective emphasis. In that hut we saw rifles and machine-guns of various makes, German and Italian chiefly, being reconditioned for issue to the Partisans.
A short distance beyond that machine shop, and somewhat isolated, was a small hut, which we found occupied by three Partisans engaged in filling hand grenades with explosives. We were informed there that the grenade container, its size and egg shape, with deep corrugations, resembling the familiar British hand grenade, was made in a Partisan foundry. The explosive used was produced by the chemical section in a factory concealed in a small village several kilometres away. The fuses, detonators and caps required to complete the grenades were obtained from the Italians.
It is noteworthy that the first request for assistance from the Allies, to be made by the Partisans, was for a quantity of caps, to enable them to produce more of these grenades. Their stock on hand was running low, and the demand for them had become greater than the accessible Italian sources were able to supply.
Thousands of these hand grenades were being produced and issued to all members of the Partisan forces, from senior commander down to the last private. It was a standing order that every Partisan must carry at least one hand grenade, which was always to be seen attached to the belt by a piece of rawhide.
It was quite apparent to us, when we were at the grenade hut, that the usual cheerfulness which we had observed everywhere had given way to a marked degree of gloom in those employed there. But not until we were about to leave was it revealed to us that only a few days previous to our visit the former grenade hut had been destroyed by an accidental explosion, in which six lives were lost and several men injured. The loss of six comrades was not soon to be forgotten.
Accidents of that sort are likely to occur in any country where people are engaged in the handling of explosives. But the circumstances which surrounded that particular incident — the position deep in the woods, the young lads doing their best to supply their comrades with hand grenades, the struggle so close to home, made that incident somewhat peculiar. It touched us deeply to hear that when the sad news had reached the small villages several kilometres away, many women left all, hastened to the scene of the accident and attended to the injured and dead.
Such scenes as that, as we afterwards learned, were typical of Partisan life and were convincing proof of the unity and spirit of the people of Jugoslavia.
We continued our tour of visiting, and in quick succession called in at the woodworking plant, the shoemaker's hut, the tailor's shop, bath house, cook kitchen, wireless transmission station, and finally arrived at the hospital.
<>Everywhere we observed the same efficiency in organisation, intense interest and skill in work, optimism and reassuring confidence. There were no officers or straw bosses standing over these workmen. Everyone appeared to be carrying responsibility and to be managing his own job accordingly. That observation impressed us the more when we considered these men were unpaid, toiling from seven in the morning, seven days a week, and working until late in the evening, not merely volunteering but eagerly and anxiously contributing their skill to help the common cause, ever ready to seize their rifles — always standing within reach — should the enemy threaten their position, as he so frequently did.
The hospital, a two-storey building, very similar in appearance to the main administration building, provided beds and bunks for fifty patients.
We were met at the entrance by a nurse, who invited us into the small office while she went to summon the Medical Officer from the ward. In a few moments we were introduced to a tall, middle-aged man wearing a clean cotton frock, and readily recognised as a doctor. He seemed to be quite astonished at meeting British personnel in the vicinity of a Partisan Headquarters, and required a few details before he fully understood the situation. He then warmed to the occasion, and became obviously pleased to show us through the wards, stopping by each patient to explain the nature of his or her wound and its present condition.
The few beds we saw at one end of the ward, because of their springs and mattresses, were reserved for the more seriously wounded. Straw covered the board floor of the bunks and served to soften its resistance. All bunks and beds were only moderately well covered with blankets, but in every case the occupant appeared to be quite comfortable. No doubt the honest stoves at the ends of the hut, with their long stretch of pipe, checked all possibility of discomfort from cold.
Home-made splints, body and limb supports, cages, pulleys and weights were modestly attributed by the doctor to the efforts of the carpenters in the woodworking plant.
Certainly, if a cheery smile and a hearty but not always strong "Zdravo druze" can be taken as an honest indication, the spirit of those brave boys and girls we saw in that hospital was excellent, and reflected the splendid care and attention that the doctor and his staff so nobly gave, in spite of such trying circumstances.
The doctor made it quite clear to us that the problem of caring for the sick and wounded was a most difficult one. The enemy had greatly aggravated the problem by his persistent bombing and ground strafing of known hospital areas. Because of this, it had become necessary to organise smaller hospital units, but more in number, and to scatter them widely throughout the wooded areas among the hills. This, of course, added an immense burden to the already overworked hospital staff, especially in the winter-time, when a careless track might easily betray the position of a hospital, and visiting became almost impossible.
But the doctor assured us that, no matter how dark anxiety would paint things, help always arrived to avoid a disaster. Entire staffs of surgeons, doctors and nurses, with quantities of medical supplies, would arrive from time to time from well-known hospitals in the larger cities and towns. It became our happy experience to meet and to know many of those selfless, untiring, fearless people who had left all and risked all in order to help their brothers in the woods.
The scarcity of medical supplies was ever the greatest worry. Soiled bandages were washed and sterilised and used time and time again. (At a later date we learned from the Iaundry staff that they have recognised "old friends" tuming up for treatment in their department as many as twenty times, before the wear of frequent washing, boiling and ironing had caused them to be written off.) The dwindling supply of serums, anaesthetics, iodine, disinfectants, essential drugs, and in fact practically the whole list of hospital requirements, was aggravating the hardship of Partisan life greatly and was causing the medical staff no little concern.
It was, indeed, a worthy tribute to those staunch folk that however much their resources and supplies became reduced, or even threatened by complete exhaustion, they never lost faith or hope.
In addition to the wounded patients whom we had seen in the hospital, the doctor explained that he had fifteen or twenty sick patients, who were scattered about on blankets spread among the trees, in order to derive full benefit of the warm sunshine that afternoon. These we found to be men and women in the convalescent stage, recovering from fever and various illnesses. Their hut was set about a hundred yards from the main hospital.
<>It was not until we had left the doctor that we were informed that he was a German medical officer who had been captured by the Partisans over a year ago. Soon after his capture the doctor requested that he be allowed to care for the sick and wounded. By his unselfish and ceaseless devotion in his effort to relieve pain he had proven himself to be worthy of trust. He had not only won the full confidence of the Partisan Command but the esteem of all.
We concluded visiting for that day and returned to our office to see what matters there might require attention. Our W/T station had had a most successful run that afternoon. All outgoing messages had been cleared and several had been received. These were in the process of being decoded.
By this time we began to feel very much at home among our new surroundings and friends. The experiences of the day had awakened us to a realisation of the nature and extent of the Partisan Organisation, and our interest was maintained to a degree of indescribable astonishment bordering on excitement. The facts that we had seen that day, expressed in terms of industry, skill, unselfish devotion to duty, individual initiative, co-operation and congeniality, bore conviction that these people were engaged in a purpose that was real and grim, but worthwhile.
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