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OUR personal belongings were soon packed. We shook hands with Commandant Rukavana and Commissar Dr. Bakaric, mounted our horses, and were soon at the transport depot on our way to Slovenia. We travelled a full day by truck before it became necessary to adopt more caution.
At the village where we stopped the first night we were joined by a few other men and women who also were journeying to Slovenia or to different points along the way. Among them were Dr. Edward Kardelj, Dana, a young delegate whom we had heard speak at the Croatian parliamentary session; Stanko Opacic, one of the herocs of Babina Gora and Secretary of the Anti-Fascist Coirunittee of Croatia; two or three other delegates, and twelve Partisans who were our escort.
About noon of the second day we transferred to wagons and continued through village after village until evening. It was originally planned to halt for the night at about seven o'clock. But we were no sooner settled at a farmhouse and enjoying a bite to eat than word came in for us to press on, and not to halt until we had crossed a river a few kilometres away. It was known that an enemy patrol was operating near the river, and, should it hear of our whereabouts, it could easily intercept us.
We took separate mounts from that point, and arrived at the river just before dark. There we found a shallow place above a small rapid where the river bank afforded good cover, and attempted to cross.
The water was very swift, in places apptaring to be quite deep, and it was fully a hundred yards to the other bank. Our horses refused to enter.
A Partisan attempted to cross on horseback, but his horse became excited in midstream and carried him down the rapids to a deep pool below. Another Partisan, realising the peril of his comrade, jumped to his rescue, and before anyone could appreciate what was happening, both Partisans had disappeared and the horse was swimming back to the shore. Two others, one the commander of our escort, sought to rescue the victims. When the Commander reached the hole he dived and seized the sweater-coat of one of the men and swam to the bank, only to behold nothing but the sweater-coat on arriving there. The other person swam over the deep hole but failed to see anything of either victim. No other sign was seen of those two unfortunate lads. The one who had gone to the rescue had a long, splendid record as a Partisan. He was the leader of our escort, a distinction held in no little esteem among the Partisans, and a strong swimmer. The other had not been very long with the Partisans. Both were under nineteen years old.
This misfortune cast a gloom over the minds of all. But the river still had to be crossed. One of the Partisans, after taking a very zig-zag course, with the aid of a stick, and using the stream to full advantage, succeeded in wading to the other side. The party was then organised so that half should wade and lead the other half on the horses.
By the time we had dressed ourselves on the other bank it had become quite dark. However, the guide found an ill-defined trail, which we followed for almost an hour, until the sound of barking dogs indicated the presence of a village. We halted while a Partisan went forward to investigate. In a few minutes he returned to assure us that it was a Partisan village, and led us across a field to one of the houses.
A gentle knock at the window brought a low response from within, which was answered in Partisan fashion. The door opened slowly and we entered the dark room. A lighted match revealed two beds and the startled faces of a man, a woman and several children, but the familiar voice of our Commander soon brought the children crambling from their bed and a small lamp from the shelf.
The Commander seated himself at the table by the lamp and wrote three letters. One, an official report of the drowning accident; the others personal letters to the parents of those two brave lads. He gave the three letters to the man of the house, with instructions to take them to the nearest courier post in the morning. He then asked a few questions regarding recent enemy movements in the area, and, with the young son, who volunteered his services as a guide, we proceeded once again on our way.
For the next five hours we carefully avoided all settlement by threading our way through pasture, along paths and sunken roads, and succeeded in not even disturbing the dogs. Suddenly we halted. Word was passed along not to talk and to walk quietly, as we were about to cross the main road and railway, which were used and guarded by the Italians.
It was frequently observed by us that the Partisans, unless actually pursued by the enemy, moved very deliberately when passing through dangerous areas. They kept their scouts well afield and seldom rushed.
Our scouts having returned to report the way all clear, after a few minutes' rest we continued slowly and quietly to the road. We walked along it for fully a hundred yards, when it turned sharply across the railway. The watchman who lived at the intersection appeared to inform us when the next Italian patrol would be likely to pass. We left the roadway and followed a pasture path, ever diminishing the possibility of enemy interception, soon to be once again in free territory. The young son who had guided us safely through the enemy's defences then left us and returned to his house.
By daybreak we were far enough away from the railway to safely stop for a short sleep. In a few minutes nobody but the sentry was to be heard. The ability to succumb quickly to sleep and to awaken refreshed in a short while became a habit in Partisan life.
Once that morning we were obliged to hasten for a few kilometres to get beyond the reach of a small unit of Ustasi (a local element which collaborated with the enemy), who were sleeping in a village we happened to pass through. Some of the villagers who saw us approaching ran out and warned us.
We were ever delighted with the scenery of Croatia, the wooded hills, river gorges and small villages with clusters of farmhouses and thatched barns surrounding the meadows; the larger villages at high-way intersections, with their red-tiled roofs and white faces, all so neat and miniature. But that day we were passing through an exceptionally beautiful section of country. As we cut across the courses of several small rivers, we found ourselves frequently following along the bank of a stream on a narrow, precarious road. The hills were more rugged, with sharp, irregular peaks, and the streams deeper cut into their wooded slopes than usual. The bright warm sunshine and clear blue sky made our journey most enjoyable that day.
The members of our party, then reduced to about twenty, consisted of ten escorts, Dana, Dr. Kardelj, Sergeant Simic, two or three persons who had but recently attached themselves to us, two delegates, and our commander. By that time we had become very well acquainted and were enjoying our company immensely. As we only had six horses, we took turns in riding, the usual practice shared by all, from commanders down, when Partisans journeyed about the country.
We amused ourselves along the way by making an analysis of the party and finding out all we could regarding each individual.
The ten escort Partisans, clad in uniform of a sort, parts of Italian, German and a few patterns of their own, were armed with two light machine-guns and eight rifles, the latter a mixture of Jugoslavian, German and Italian makes. In peace-time three of them had been living at home, working on the farm; one was a carpenter; one a medical student; one an electrical engineer; two automobile mechanics; one a chemist; and two were civil servants. Six were members of various political parties or had no declared politics; four were Communists. The oldest was about thirty, the youngest seventeen or eighteen. All were keen, bright, cheerful fellows of clean habits and strong physique.
Dana was a secretary in a woman's organisation. She was a member of one of the Catholic parties, not more than twenty-two years old, and had been a Partisan for almost two years. She carried a revolver and a pack. A fine, jolly girl, with black bobbed hair, a merry laugh and as brave as she was good. We learned later how deeply the folk of Slovenia loved Dana. She has since become the wife of Lado Kozak, the editor of a peasants' publication.
One of the delegates was from the area called Kordun, a section of Croatia. A man of forty-five, and before the war a retail merchant in one of the larger cities in Croatia — a Social Democrat.
Tv. Edward Kardelj has already been introduced. He was a graduate of Ljubljana Teacher's College, and had served a term in prison because he was a Communist. He was one of the earliest Partisans to take the field. An honest, sincere gentleman of noble purpose and high ideals.
The other delegate, age about twenty-six, was a young lawyer. He also was a member of a Catholic party. He carried a sub-machine gun.
The commander of the party, a man of thirty-eight, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and two years a Partisan, carried no less than ten wounds. Skilled in leadership, fearless and quick, admired by his men, he was every inch a soldier. His excellent stories and good humour kept the spirit of our party at the highest peak. Though he was commander of our party while travelling with us, he was actually on his way to one of the most dangerous areas in Slovenia, not many kilometres away from Hitler's mansion at Berchtesgarten.
Such was the company we were travelling with. They were a fair cross-section of the people of that country. In their common desire to be free they had learned to work together and to trust each other. They were a team, putting their very best into the struggle to free their country, cost what it would.
Partisan discipline we found was of a very high order. There were periods of the journey when we had little to eat, and long stretches of walking without rest. One never heard complaining. The machine-guns, rather heavy with tripod, were carried in turn; scouts would quietly slip away and take a long lead whenever we approached danger points; sentries took post at all halts; horses were shared. These things were done automatically, without delay, formal orders or complaint. Whenever somebody became tired on the march, he would pass the word to halt, and all would rest. Then they would move on again, more or less by mutual agreement. Such, we were told, was the general practice in all units. Distance in a given time covered by Partisans compared very favourably, we often observed, with that covered by our own troops.
Late that afternoon we arrived at one of the Corps Headquarters in a small town, prominent as the site of an historic castle. Here we were billeted in comfortable houses and given a substantial meal.
Before dark we visited the old castle which we had passed on our way into the town, and the keeper, who spoke English, invited us in.
The castle, which was owned by a German count, had, of course, been deserted by its owner at the beginning of the war. The keeper was left in charge. Many treasures, paintings, family relics and old furniture were locked in the several rooms. During the Italian occupation the ground floor was used as a headquarters office. The keeper declared that he never opened the upper rooms to the Italians, as it was their habit to "lift" things, which they continually failed to replace. He regretted the loss of many familiar articles which formerly had hung about the walls. The Partisans, on the other hand, he informed us, enjoyed looking at curious old things, and, because of their respect for honesty, he had opened all rooms to them and was glad to have them visit the old castle.
The keeper, who had spent several years in England and Canada, took delight in recalling to mind many old friends, some of whom we knew quite well. He expressed unqualified contempt for the Italians, because when the Partisans came to town an Italian aeroplane dropped a bomb through the East room. It lodged on the ground floor without exploding and added much toil to his already "arduous duties." He thought they might have been more appreciative of his hospitality.
That evening we met the Corps Commander and his Staff at their headquarters. They gave us a full account of the military situation in that area, which was important as a railway centre. The Partisans, the Commandant informed us, were operating at different points along the railway almost every night, and had succeeded in greatly reducing the number of trains passing through from day to day.
We listened with much amusement to a member of the staff who had just returned from Susak, where he had enjoyed a few days' leave. (Susak is a city in West Croatia, then in Italian hands). He saw many old friends there and visited different places of amusement at night. The Italians, he said, never ventured out at night, but it was necessary for him to lie low during the day-time, as the soldiers and police were constantly patrolling the city.
The next evening we continued our journey in carts. We crossed quite unconcernedly an important highway, which, we were told, the enemy had always found difficult to keep open, and along which, in that section at least, Partisan troops were stationed every few hundred yards. Everything appeared to be so much at peace that Sunday evening, the thought of war was abhorrent to us. Even when we approached the bank of a wide river, the sight of the ferryman calmly pulling his punt across the smooth black stream seemed to utter peace.
Whether it was because we were in Slovenia, or just the urge of a timely thirst that prompted him, we never learned, but the Commandant suggested that we visit the big farmhouse nearby before crossing the river. It was the ferryman's house, we found on enter-ing, and a restaurant for the benefit of passengers. We indulged in fried eggs and potatoes and sampled our first Slovenian wine. It was our first occasion in the six weeks that we had been in the country to use money. We paid for our suppers in lira.
Before we reached the other side the ferryman had related many interesting tales of conducting both Partisans and Italians across the river within a matter of hours of each other, not only once but on many occasions. He was a trusted Partisan.
We walked all through the night, and arrived at a burned-out village on the slopes of a high mountain at daybreak, where we reported to the local committee-man,.who, in spite of the desolate appearance of the place, produced a very excellent breakfast of beef stew. We then slept.
In the normal course of events we would have proceeded that night and halted at a village within easy distance of Slovenian Headquarters. It happened, however, that the Italians had seen fit to move a strong force immediately across our path, which blocked our way completely. There was nothing for us to do but wait until the Partisans could clear the way.
We spent the afternoon watching the Italians drilling on a parade ground in a large town not more than four kilometres away from us. From our elevated position we could see them clearly. Wooden hutments, very similar to those used in the first World War, were arranged in rows, and afforded a wide, square parade ground near the main road. Squads of men were seen moving about for two or three hours.
A long viaduct to the west of the town held our attention for a long time. We wondered how it could be that it was still standing. But on close inspection we could see pillboxes and barbed wire at either end, and patrols guarding the approaches and footings of the piers. No less than a hundred and forty Italians, the local Partisan Commander told us, were on constant duty within a very short distance of that bridge.
About four o'clock in the afternoon three young women arrived from the town. They had heard of our presence and had come out to greet us. Though it appeared to be difficult for them at first to understand that it could be so, we finally assured them that we were British and had only recently arrived in the country. They gave us an account of life in their town under Italian rule, and described fully how well the three thousand people there were organised in support of the Freedom Front. We were tempted to visit their town, but they thought it would cause too much excitement and alarm the Italians.
We were interrupted by the Partisan Commander, who came to inform us that a Partisan brigade had gone forward to clear the road, and that we would have to remain where we were for a day or two.
The young women, who had been able to leave town and pass the Italian guards on the pretence of visiting friends in the country, took their leave and departed for home, assuring us they would return on the morrow.
That evening an invitation was received from the committee of a village three or four kilometres away, requesting us to attend a social in their local hall. Right after dark we wended our way down the hillside, through grape vines and back alleys, until we came to quite a large village, the houses of which appeared to be undamaged. The hall, which stood near the church, was filled with Partisans and local citizens.
We enjoyed two hours of splendid entertainment: songs, sketches and readings, the talent of one battalion which was stationed on the hilltop. Several Partisan girls took part, among them one particularly attractive, about sixteen, with dark hair, plump red cheeks and smiling eyes, dressed in the usual girl's uniform of blue tweed blouse, ski pants and Partisan cap, with red star, and a rifle slung across her back. She gave a reading so full of spirit and expression that it was several minutes before the audience could settle down again. That girl was well known to everybody as a heroine who had accounted for five Italians. We saw her portrait later in a collection of drawings and paintings exhibited by the internationally known artist, Bosjidar Jakac, who was serving in the woods with his fellow-countrymen.
We danced until the early hours of the morning to the ceaseless strains of an accordion. A local resident informed us that Italian patrols visited that village almost daily, but were never aware of its night life.
The afternoon of the following day was spent on the hillside entertaining our guests from the Italian garrison town. The three young women had brought with them six others, including a mother and two children, with baskets of food. They informed us that the people in the town were very excited over the news of our presence.
A Partisan brigade commander and his staff spent several hours with us during that day. They were splendid fellows. The Commander was a former bank manager from the city of Zagreb, and his adjutant was a Captain of the ex-Jugoslav Army. The brigade was resting for a day or two nearby, before proceeding to "somewhere" in SIovenia.
The following night we received word that the way to Slovenian Headquarters was clear and we would start away early the next morning.
It was announced that the Partisans had attacked the Italians who had blocked our path, and that thirty Italians were killed and many wounded. Six light machine-guns, many rifles and a large quantity of ammunition were captured; several vehides, induding two armoured cars, were destroyed.
We had only walked an hour or two the next morning when our party broke up into small groups, each taking the shortest route to its destination. Three of us were conducted to the secret hide-out of the Slovenian Headquarters, where we arrived at ten o'clock.
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