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22: Back to Europe - leaving Margot in New York

On 28 September 1944 Ivan sailed out of New York in the Queen Elizabeth. He had found his old pal Lipsky again, he was in New York and had agreed to watch over Margot, and Ivan felt comfortable. KLM had given him a new assignment in Europe, he should now operate between England and Lisbon.

A visa for Margot to the United Kingdom had been refused because her presence in UK was not absolutely necessary. Because of the difficult food situation in UK, visa's for citizens were restricted to the extreme.

The departure time of Queen Elizabeth had to be kept as secret as ever possible, so escort by family members to the ship was not allowed. Ivan had to say goodbye to Margot in a dark street somewhere in vicinity of the harbour. Some 16.000 troops were going to Europe with this giant ship; there were aviators, artillerists, tank specialists, radio experts.

The route to Europe was not the shortest one. Queen Elizabeth took a longer and more unpredictable route, that brought her close to the Azores (not known by too many), before she changed course to the destination port, Glasgow in Scotland. All these efforts were made to avoid or confuse the enemy. If necessary the high speed allowed the ship to outrun hazards, foremostly German U-boats, making it possible for her to travel without a convoy escort. She had the most recent submarine listening equipment, sonar and radar installed besides heavy armament to take any necessary counter measures against submarines.

On the train to London Ivan travelled in a sleeping car without any heating comfort. Therefore Ivan had to make his own (central) heating using a bottle of Whisky. After 12 hours of endless stop and go transport Ivan finally reached London.

RMS Queen Elizabeth in post-war livery


Picture of RMS Queen Elizabeth is taken after the war. During the war it was painted in wartime livery (gray).

.... On 8 September 1944 operation Penguin, the V2 offensive, had begun. Ivan arrived in London in the middle of such a V2 raid and could hardly believe he was in the right city. Old landmarks had gone. He spent the night sleeping on the platform at Marble Arch Underground station, it was far more cheerful than his chilly hotel. Next day he checked in at the Grand Hotel, Bristol. That was different.

During the war KLM had maintained a route between Bristol (Whitchurch Airport) and Lisbon-Gibraltar for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Ivan was now a member of the team of pilots on that route.


It was a queer life the Dutch fliers lived; they wore uniform, yet they were unarmed civilians. They flew to Lisbon, a neutral city, yet they were in danger all the way. They lived in a Spartan, blacked-out Britain half the time and the other half they spent in a fabulous, Shangri-La existence in Portugal. Spies and smugglers littered their passanger list and all the pilots could have been millionaires had they listened to half the bar spivs who waylaid them at both terminals. For all that, it was a wonderful life with the spice of danger to make the days pass speedily, the company of well-tried friends to sweeten off-duty hours.


The Gibraltar rock
From Lisbon to Gibraltar there were an additional couple of hours before they could see the impressive rock. When they landed at the airfield in Gibraltar, they had to keep 'in the middle of the street'. If they came a bit too far north the Franco's fired at them, and if they deviated too much to the African side, there were extensive gun firing from Tanger as well as Ceuta.

Ivan wished to have Margot with him in Portugal. The climate there would be much better for her and she would find more rest than in the human turmoil of New York. His request, however, was rejected by the Portuguese authorities. They had a remarkable reason for this: His name had a Russian consonance and the government considered that it would not accept a citizen with such a suspected name! Terminado!


Smirnoff on radio, late 1944 (courtesy Tom Poederbach):


The year before on 1 June KLM Douglas DC3 aircraft 'Ibis', BOAC flight #777 of the regular Bristol - Lisbon line, had been shot down by Luftwaffe fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay. Among the 4 crew members and 12 passengers, were the famous actor Leslie Howard known among others from the movie 'Gone With The Wind'.

Tepas was pilot on the flight and he 'mayday-ed' back to Whitchurch to report the attack. The radio operator heard the pilot say "We are being followed by an unknown aircraft. We are under attack by enemy aircraft." And then, nothing ... They all died.
The 'Ibis' (PH-ALI) had been the very first DC3 that KLM received before the war. It entered service in 1936.



First half of runway 09 at British Gibraltar Airport seen from "The Rock". Main road
is passing the middle of runway. La Linea de la Concepcion in Spain at right side.



One day in June, Ivan was handed a telegram. He sensed before he opened it that it was bad news. The telegram was from Lipsky - Margot was dangerously ill - she was in St. Clare's Hospital, New York - could he get there as soon as possible? Frantic, Ivan put a call through to KLM in London. Yes, they said he could have a leave, but getting to New York was another matter. Only priority military personnel could hope to fly.

But in a couple of days things changed, the war in Europe was ending. He was able to get a visa, and Plesman fixed a seat on a BOAC flying-boat from the transatlantic service. The route was Bournemouth, Shannon, New Foundland and Baltimore. He landed in Baltimore, Maryland on 3 July 1945, and he was in St. Clare's the next day. Margot "nearly fell of bed with happiness" when she saw him. It was 9 months since they parted.

Margot was chocked by Ivan's appearance, he looked ill and thin, and his suit hung on him "like a scarecrow's". She tried to stroke his thinning hair and they were both in tears as she cried: "Oh, Ivan, if only we were safe back in Heemstede everything would be all right!"

In the meantime he was often summoned to the local KLM offices on 5th Avenue, for the accountants were at last getting things sorted out, and wanted his signature on documents and receipts. He was told that the company would pay 75% of his San Francisco hospital bill. God damn them! Why couldn't they just pay the bill and forget it?

On 28 July at 9:49 am, Ivan was at the office on 10th floor talking with a friend on the telephone. In an attitude of pleasant nonchalance he was sitting on a table with his legs resting on a chair. While speaking he suddenly heard the well-known sound of aircraft engines passing by and looked out of the window to identify what kind of machine it was. The sight scared him, a North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined medium bomber, was flying in the direction of the Empire State Building, the highest skyscraper in the heart of Manhattan.

"Why don't you say anything?" asked his friend astonished on the phone.
"A Mitchell bomber just passed outside my window," Ivan yelled,
"and he is heading straight on to the middle of the Empire State Building!"

In the next second a terrible explosion followed, the Mitchell penetrated deep into the building between 79th and 80th floor. Seconds later one could see that there were two flaming holes in the building. 14 people were killed plus the 3 crew members on the aircraft.

The visibility had been quite bad that morning with very thick fog in certain areas of the town. Now flight rules were changed, so flying even in the vicinity of Manhattan was absolutely prohibited. Anyway, instructions given from the flight control of the la Guardia Airport had not been followed.

....The company had brighter news too - a letter from London said that if Captain Smirnoff, due to take his medical in August, should be passed fit, it might be a good idea to station him at an American Army Transport Command aerodrome to learn about the C54A (DC4) machines and the handling of this type of plane.

Ivan needed money. Margot's hospital room was costing 11 dollars a day, her private nurse 10 dollars. Occasionally she had a night nurse as well - another 10 dollars. The surgeons' fees, hospital expenses, etc, were likely to add up to 10.000 dollars (100.000 dollars today).

"My poor Ivan," wept Margot, "you will be paying for this all the rest of your days!" She was right.

Ivan joined the school for captains changing from DC3's to DC4's and the school for Radio Range Navigation. He reported back to Plesman that the American instrument approach was more difficult and complicated - and in his view less safe - than the European Standard Beam Approach perfected by Britain during the war.

Igor Sikorsky
He was given a special clearance to visit the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and after long talks with his friend, Igor Sikorsky, came away convinced that the helicopter was the only answer to the problem of airport to city centre transport, already plaguing every capital in Europe.

In October 1945 his Douglas C54 (DC4) flying permit was granted and he flew on the first of two testing flights from New York to Paris and back. There was no time, in between the arrival and departure times, for even the briefest visit to Schiphol.

Ivan flew back to New York determined that if Margot could possibly stand the voyage they must get back to Europe. The Old World was their home. Margot, from her hospital bed, was thinking much the same. If she were going to die, then let it be in the place she loved, with good friends near.

After six major operations and nine months in hospital Margot was home in the Fifth Avenue flat. That she was home at all, and, occasionally, able to go out, seemed a miracle. Margot had been invited to go for a holiday to her native Denmark where her adoptive father was a doctor, and Ivan urged her to go at once, though he would have to stay a month or two, carrying out a special investigation for Plesman, in Bermuda. Margot refused.



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