Sunday morning saw a visit to the British military graveyard in Tirana’s park. A beautiful day; spring-like, in fact. Families strolled, kids played and, as is normal for these things, no one paid a blind bit of notice to the memorial. Apart from one woman, talking into her mobile phone. She read out the inscription on the large red granite memorial in perfect (if slightly puzzled) South London English that belied her distinctly Albanian looks, before moving on.
Sadly the gravestones themselves don’t sit over the actual remains of the soldiers and airmen they commemorate. Immediately after the war great effort was made to find the various bodies, and bring them to single site in Tirana. The officers who led this mission were harried at every turn by the communist regime, but still managed to find almost every body. Then, when Albania turned to self-imposed isolation after 1947, the graveyard disappeared, bulldozed on the personal orders of Enver Hoxha. Even by his standards a curiously vindictive action. Some of the men whose graves he desecrated were known personally to him, such as Arthur Nicholls.
An attempt was made to find the remains a second time in the early Nineties, after the fall of communism. Sadly it was unsuccessful. Headstones were erected, though, and that imposing slab of red granite was found going spare in a government warehouse. It used to sit on top of Enver Hoxha’s body, till that was moved by his contrite family from its site in central Tirana to a village nearby. His name was covered up with grey slate, on which is written the inscription you can see below. Delicious irony.
It’s very moving to see the names of the various soldiers who lost their lives in Albania, particularly when you know the stories behind their deaths. Philip Leake, head of SOE’s Albanian department till June 1944, when he was killed by a German bomb. Corporal Button, who drowned when trying to evacuate the country later that summer.
And Gordon Layzell, who trained in Cairo with Anthony Quayle, and always packed his pipe too tightly, as Quayle remembered in his autobiography, A Time To Speak:
Brian [Ensor] and I took ourselves off most nights to have a look at the belly dancers, but Gordon would never go out; he stayed at home, read the Bible and wrote letters to his fiancée. He was experimenting with smoking a pipe, and one day asked me to show him how to pack it; it seemed rather hot, he said. He showed me how he rammed the tobacco in, and I wondered how he had any lining left inside his mouth.
“But why do you want to smoke a pipe?” I asked.
“Because,” he explained. “I’m sure we shall see quite a bit of action in Albania, but there are bound to be periods of boredom. I thought that if I learned to enjoy smoking a pipe, it might get me through times of frustration. Even loneliness.”
Layzell died on the night of 1 February 1944 when, under the (wrong) impression that the house he was in was on fire, he hurriedly slung his Mauser machine pistol over his shoulder. It went off, taking the back of his head with it.
I also visited the German war memorial. The surprise here was the number of names carved into its eight stone slabs. There was also a small personal tribute to one soldier, Peter Deutsch, who died just after the Italian capitulation in September 1943.
I might have to investigate where, and how. I do wonder if he had a run-in with Jerry Field, a particularly pugnacious British Liaison Officer who was very active immediately after the Italians threw in the towel. But now I’m off to Quayle Country – better known today as the “Albanian Riviera”.