Dr. Colin Dafoe, Dogsled Doctor


All photos from the collection of Brian Jeffrey Street, courtesy of the Dafoe family.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Jeffrey Street, a writer based in Ottawa, offering to send me a chapter from his book ‘The Parachute Ward‘.

Doctor Colin Scott Dafoe is best known for working with Josip Tito’s Partisan’s during the Second World War. His three man medical mission parachuted into Eastern Bosnia on May 12th, 1944 and stayed in the country for the next six months.

Doctor Dafoe arrived in Goldfields in 1937, as part of the initial rush, when Goldfields was expected to become a capital of the North, roughly what Yellowknife would become later. He would go on to become famous for his work with Tito’s Partisans during WWII, after being parachuted into Bosnia as part of a three man medical team, as a surgeon on assignment with Britain’s Special Operations Executive. His mission: provide medical aid to the Partisans. His team would create a makeshift hospital constructed from parachutes which, when a Nazi offensive forced the Partisans further into the mountains of eastern Bosnia, Dafoe and his portable ‘parachute ward’ followed, continuing to operate in the field of combat.

From the author’s foreword to an earlier edition of ‘The Parachute Ward’:

   Here was a man who had volunteered for “a dangerous mission to the Balkans” while in Tunisia in 1943, and had subsequently parachuted into a remote mountain village in occupied eastern Bosnia to join a ragtag army of Communist guerrillas led by Josip Broz Tito. As the only skilled surgeon in a wide area of conflict, Dafoe — a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps on special assignment with a clandestine arm of British Intelligence — treated thousands of wounded who, until his timely arrival, had suffered terribly without adequate medical care.

    Word of his achievements spread throughout the countryside, and soon his hospital in the mountains was famous. The Partisans called him “Sir Major Dafoe,” in the customary form of address, pronouncing his name phonetically to achieve “Da-fo-ay” (incidentally, the family prefers “Day-fo”, accenting the first syllable). More affectionately they called him “tata,” meaning “father” or “daddy.” He was a hero and a legend.

Jeffrey Street

He would return to Canada after the war, and would pass away under mysterious circumstances in 1969, aged 59.

The account included here is of Dafoe’s time at Goldfields when he was a ‘dogsled doctor’ (Father Will Bern, the ‘dogsled priest’ would follow after the war), during the years 1937 and ’38, when the hospital was built under his direction. Also included is a page from a backgrounder Jeffrey wrote for a client a couple of years ago, along with two photographs from Jeffrey’s collection.

On the photographs, Jeffrey adds:

The one in the backgrounder I sent earlier, with Dafoe standing by the doorway, appears to be a smaller building — perhaps where he lived or a separate office — compared with the larger building directly behind him in the photo of him walking along the road, which I think was the hospital. I’ve attached a larger standalone picture of that building. It does seem to have a sloping path in front, which is also in one of the photographs included with your article; however, it doesn’t look much like the hospital building you showed. Not sure how to reconcile them. Anyway, the smaller building is behind and to the left of the hospital in the picture of Dafoe making house calls.

Dr Dafoe in front of Goldfields Hospital, 1938
The Goldfield’s Hospital built by Dr. Dafoe

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