From Eastern Approaches
by Fitzroy Maclean
With a jerk my parachute opened and I found myself dangling, as it were at the end of a string, high above a silent mountain valley, greenish-grey and misty in the light of the moon. It looked, I thought, invitingly cool and refreshing after the sand and glare of North Africa. Somewhere above me the aircraft, having completed its mission, was headed for home. The noise of its engines grew gradually fainter in the distance.
A long way below me and some distance away, I could see a number of fires burning. I hoped they were the right ones, for the Germans also lit fires at night at different points in the Balkans in the hope of diverting supplies and parachutists from their proper destinations. As I swung lower, I could hear a faint noise of shouting coming from the direction of the fires. I could still not see the ground immediately beneath me. We must, I reflected, have been dropped from a considerable height to take so long in coming down.
Then, without further warning, there was a jolt, and I was lying in a field of wet grass. There was no one in sight. I released myself from the harnass, rolled my parachute into a bundle, and set out to look for the Partisans.
After an hour or two’s ride we came to a tiny sunlit village, set high in the Bosnian hills. Its wooden houses clustered round a tree-shaded square. Above them rose the minaret of a mosque. Its name was Mrkonićgrad, or, as Sergeant Duncan called it, Maconochie-grad. In it were the Headquarters of the local Partisan commander, Slavko Rodić, with whom we were to have breakfast.
Rodić, a dashing young man of about twenty-five, came out to meet us, riding an officer’s charger captured from the Germans. With him were his Chief of Staff and his Political Commissar, a big jovial Serb with a long flowing moustache. Together we repaired to a peasant’s house where breakfast was ready. At the door a robust sentry armed with a sub-machine gun saluted with his clenched fist. A pretty girl, with a pistol and a cluster of murderous-looking hand-grenades at her belt, poured some water over my hands from a jug and dried them with a towel. Then we sat down to breakfast, some dry black bread washed down by round after round of pink vanilla brandy. We discussed all manner of topics, horses, parachuting and politics, but the conversation had, I found, a way of drifting back to the one subject which was uppermost in everyone’s mind: when were the Allies going to send the Partisans some arms?
While we sat there, messengers kept bringing in situation reports from nearby areas where operations were in progress. As they delivered their messages, they too gave the clenched-fist salute. Somehow it all seemed strangely familiar: the peasant’s hut, the alert young Commander, the benign figure of the Political Commissar with his walrus moustache and the hammer and sickle badge on his cap, the girl with her pistol and hand-grenades, the general atmosphere of activity and expectation.
At first I could not think where I had seen all this before. Then it came back to me. The whole scene might have been taken, as it stood, from one of the old Soviet films of the Civil War which I had seen in Paris seven or eight years earlier. In Russia I had only seen the Revolution twenty years after the event, when it was as rigid and pompous and firmly established as any regime in Europe. Now I was seeing the struggle in its initial stages, with the revolutionaries fighting for life and liberty against tremendous odds.
With enemy aircraft and troops patrolling the neighbourhood it was not, it appeared, advisable to continue our journey to the Headquarters until evening, and we for our part were glad of some rest. In a nearby orchard we lay down in the shadow of some plum trees. The sunlight, filtering through the leaves, made a shifting pattern on the grass. The last thing that I remember before going to sleep is the noise of a German aeroplane droning high overhead in blessed ignorance of our presence.
When I woke up, the sun was down and it was time to start. The Partisans had a surprise in store for us. Drawn up in the village square was a captured German truck, riddled with bullet holes, but apparently still working. Two or three Partisans were pouring petrol and water into it, and another was cranking energetically. A crowd of small children were climbing all over it. An immense red flag waved from the bonnet, though whether to denote danger or to indicate the political views of the driver was not clear. It was a great occasion. Feeling unpleasantly conspicuous, we piled in and drove off.
The track took us along the shores of a lake, with hills running steeply down to it on all sides. We followed it for some miles. Then, all at once, the valley narrowed and we found ourselves looking up at the dark shape of a ruined castle rising high above the road. Round it clustered some houses, while the lights of others showed from the other side of a mountain stream. From somewhere nearby came the roar of a waterfall. Still at top speed our driver swerved across a shaky wooden bridge and jammed on his brakes. We had reached our destination: Jajce.
We had hardly stacked our kit in the house which had been allotted to us when Velebit, who had temporarily disappeared, came back to say that the Commander would be glad if I and my Chief of Staff would join him at supper. Clearly a Chief of Staff was a necessity; in fact, while I was about it, I might as well have two, one British and one American. Accordingly both Vivian and Slim Farish were raised to that position. Sergeant Duncan became my Personal Bodyguard, and we set out.
With Velebit leading the way, we re-crossed the river and climbed up to the ruined castle on the hill which we had noticed earlier. As we picked our way through the trees, a Partisan sentry, stepping from the shadows, challenged us, and then, on being given the password, guided us through the crumbling walls to an open space where a man was sitting under a tree studying a map by the light of a flickering lamp.