Tragic Tragjas, Sapling 7, and an Albanian murder mystery…

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

I’ve just got back from a trip down to the ‘Albanian Riviera’. The main purpose was to look at property – I’m currently house-hunting in those parts with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com (more usually known as Toni). That’s a whole story in itself, and will get a separate post on another occasion. All I’ll say now is that three days later my blood is still about 30 per cent raki.

En route to the Riviera we took the time to drop in on two villages closely associated with the British Liaison Officers in the Vlorë region (known to them as Valbona). First was Tragjas, which sits in the hills looking across the Bay of Vlorë to Sazan island. A serene spot, despite the eyesore of Orikum, a deeply unlovely stretch of concrete apartments on the plain below. Tragjas is two villages now – nondescript new Tragjas, and tragic old Tragjas. What was once clearly a rich, thriving community is now a tumbling collection of ruins. On Easter Saturday 1944 (8 April) the local German garrison marched in, along with men from the nearby village of Dukati, and found British equipment including parachutes. The next day they razed the village to the ground. Tom Stefan of the American OSS reported that ‘the women were lined up and pistols had been fired over their heads. The poor kids were terror-stricken even when I arrived’ (quoted in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province).

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

It shows the delicate game Albanian villages had to play during the war – something that the British Liaison Officers often failed to appreciate when they asked local men to help them attack the Germans. Or, in the case of Tragjas, used a village as a base for air sorties. In his wonderfully barmy post-war memoir written for the Cheshire Regiment magazine, The Oak Tree, Jerry Faure-Field, one of the most active BLOs in Albania (right up till the moment he blew himself up fishing with plastic explosive, anyway), recounts the time he organised an air drop only a mile from Tragjas.

‘The sun was just rising when the last of the parachutes, which were of all colours, white, red, yellow and green, was under cover. Five minutes later I heard the drone of an aeroplane, I shouted to everyone to take cover. In the clear morning sky a [Fieseler] Stork slowly circled the mountain tops… The village of Tragjas was in pandemonium. We had kept the forthcoming sortie a secret…’

A later air drop which saw the locals better prepared ended in disaster. In the early hours of 19 October 1943 Sapling 7, a Halifax bomber from 148 Squadron in Libya flew across the Med to drop supplies and two more SOE operatives, Captain Alfred Careless and Signalman David Rockingham, to Field. A briefing note on the drop zone written by the pilot, Flight Ltn William Forester, was found in his belongings back at base – ‘Climb quickly, left handed or else.’ For whatever reason, Forester was unable to climb quickly enough, and crashed into the mountainside above Tragjas, killing all on board. Toni and I were planning to walk up to take a closer look, but a local shepherd assured us that nothing remains – he and his friends had sold everything for scrap. We’ll head back in May and investigate more closely.

The Sapling 7 crash appears to have pushed Field over the edge – or at least the callous reactions of the Albanian partisans he was with at the time did. By December he had holed up at a cave on the coast, known as Seaview, and was sending increasingly bizarre cables to Cairo of which more anon, and shooting at any Albanian who came near him. The one exception was a man from Dukati, Xhelil Çela, who also became a favourite of Field’s replacement, Anthony Quayle, and another temporary resident of Seaview, Sandy Glen. In his autobiography, Footholds Against a Whirlwind, Glen remembered the time Çela guided him to the German gun batteries south of Vlorë, which Glen had orders to photograph.

Çela had me up at four for the last lap. It took another eight hours’ hard walking until suddenly the ground ahead began to drop away and then, almost at our feet, was Saseno [Sazan] in the middle of Valona Bay. Linquetta [the Karaburun Peninsula] and its guns were 600 feet below, a quarter of a mile distant.

“Well done, Çela,” I said. “We can edge a little way forward and make our sketches, and we ought to get some good photographs.”

“No, no,” he said, nodding his head vigorously as Albanians do when they disagree, “We have picnic with the guns.” And fumbling in his rucksack he drew out an enormous cold turkey.

Before I had time to disagree, he was off downhill taking his usual enormous strides, and I had no alternative but exceedingly reluctantly to follow.

By the time I caught up with him, Çela was setting out a clean white cloth, with the turkey and a bottle of wine on it. The guns were 100 yards away with a few Germans moving between the buildings alongside them and apparently taking no notice of us. My appetite withered. Çela’s hospitality was as inexhaustible as his own appetite, however, and the picnic was the nearest to eternity which I have ever endured. As we finished, Çela smiled at me and said, “Good turkey, good wine, hope good guns too…”

Roderick Bailey had asked me to drop in on Dukati and ask after a chap called Bilbil Vangeli, who he had got drunk with on raki back in 2005. As a teenager Bilbil had been a guard and errand-runner at Seaview. Remarkably, after a quick enquiry at the village café, Bilbil was able to join us for a cup of tea. At the age of 89 he has given up on raki, coffee, cheese, fatty foods and cigarettes (high blood pressure). His nephew made sure I had plenty of raki, though. We spent a great couple of hours discussing his experiences.

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil’s memory, forgivably, isn’t what it was but he was still able to recall the exact date he ‘retired’ – the day in April 1944 that the Germans shot his elder brother, Selam. He also had good recall about one very intriguing incident, the murder of Ismail Carapizzi, an Albanian OSS agent who was found in February 1944 shot in the back and stripped to his underwear, on a remote coastal path. The identity of the murderer has never been in much doubt – 20-year-old Mysli Kali (who drowned in the late 1940s; his wife still proclaims his innocence). Bilbil added a rather melancholy postscript.

It seems that for whatever reason, the Carapizzi family thought that Çela was implicated in Ismail’s murder – a highly unlikely scenario from all I’ve read of Çela, and one that Bilbil certainly discounted (‘From my impression they were very close,’ he said). In late 1944 Çela’s body was found in the River Po in Rome just a few days after he had approached Anthony Quayle for help. ‘The rumour is that Carapizzi’s family thought that Çela had been part of the plan so they managed to murder him in Italy. This is what everybody says. They tied a stone around his neck and threw him into the Po. Xhelil was a big guy, so there must have been a few of them.’

Çela’s SOE personal file survives in the National Archives, but is closed till next January. I might have to put a Freedom of Information request in…

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3 thoughts on “Tragic Tragjas, Sapling 7, and an Albanian murder mystery…

  1. Right for Information says:

    Xhelil Cela

    Anthony Quale: A time to speak Barrie &Jenkins London 1990
    Describes in detail the assassination of Late Ismail Carapizzi (Karapici),
    The murder of OSS agent Ismail Carapizzi is described in detail by Quale…. A tousled-headed youth Mysli, had offered to guide and escort across the mountains of Dukati… when Mysli arrived in Dukati was asked what has happened. He explained that there has been a gunfight with brigands in which Carapizzi had been killed; he himself had been scared and run away. A search was made, and after two days Carapizzi’s body was discovered. Three shots had been fired into his back… The eight gold sovereigns he was carrying to finance his mission were not been found. Mysli was locked up by the hadmen of the village and sentenced to be shot at down….. During the night before the execution, all the male members of his family… some thirty men, all armed, had assembled in the village and declared that if the execution were carried out they would go straight to Valona and reveal to the Germans the full story of Dukati’s complicity with allied missions. The village had been faced with a civil war of their own. Mysli had been released…
    Roderick Bailey: the wildest province SOE IN THE LAND OF THE EAGLE Vintage Books, London, 2008
    Citing A.Quale writes:
    Forty-eight hours followed in a cold , wet cave, sleeping in pools of water4, followed by another forty-eight hiding in the Dukati valley, fed and guided by Xhelil Çela, a loyal friend of the missions who ran considerable risks to help them. Qualy’s diary continues
    Thanks humanism of Sir Reginald Hibbert, familiars of Xhelil Çela first learned something true from the Quales’s book reprints, sent to them by of Sir Hibbert., after a correspondence 1995-1997 years. In his last letter of 1998 Sir Hibbert writes , I quote “ It could have been better still if more Albanians, had shown the same spirit and courage as Xhelil Çela”.
    OSS agent James Hudson in his interview to Top Cannel, published:
    INFOARKIV
    Arkiva Mediatike Shqiptare
    Spiuni amerikan:Misioni im sekret në Shqipëri, si njoha Enver Hoxhën
    Tërhequr më 07 Prill 2012
    Appreciate very high contribution of Xhelil Çela at Sera View and Albania.
    Relating to Xhelil Çela, needs to be noted that was graduated at Vocational School of Tirana (so called Fultcz Harry, T. School) in Tirana, was from the richer family of Dukati (according to Quale middle-class in U.K.) and Vlora District, used to be chair of a Commune etc.
    As one person having book of Lucas, Peter. The OSS in World War II Albania: Covert Operations and Collaboration with Communist Partisans. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2007
    In this book Lucas confirms: Xhelil Çela is executed with the order of Enver Hoxha.
    Peter Lukas assassinated with order of Enver Hoxha
    Person from his village met him 1948 year bringing and a photo of him
    In his grave at Reggio Emilia, still there is written Morta Roma 5 marc 1948. In his funeral had participated a coule of Albanians.
    As explained there is not room of his involvement in tragedy of late Karapici and subsequently for any revenge by Karapitci relatives in 1944 year, or otherwise if indeed happened?!!!!!!!! to have assassinated other person??
    Then late Mysli Kali latter on died about 1961 year, as a communist.

    • Thanks for commenting! Great info. Are you a relative of the Çela family?

      • Right for Information says:

        Sir, there is not of any interest relations with Çela’s. The most important are facts and especially Qualy book.
        From the Quale’s book , it is very clear the great friendship and joint sacrifices with Xhelil Çela for Allies case and Albania. In this framework, the fight against Çela means also the fight against Qualy.
        In this context I am waiting an open fire against Qualy (based on so-called “not unified British and U.S views for Albania”). Qualy and Çela had written glorious pages in this Allies war.
        As has been talked loudly the reason of Çela very tragic end is because, asked from an intermediary of Albanian Communist state, that he was free to be returned back home, because had not committed anything wrong, he had replied “ I am coming back home, but with cannons”.
        Would like to recall the interview and the book of James Hudson (alias Bill Smith, nome de la Guerra)
        for tremendous efforts of him with Hodo Meto and Xhelil Çela for escaping and sending back in Italy of thirteen army flight nurses after November 1943 crash-landing of a U.S, Army C-53- carrying thirteen army flight nurses, thirteen army medics and a four-man crew- into Nazi-occupied Albania, considered to be a unique event in World War II history ( the true story of U.S. nurses behind enemy lines). For destiny of the nurses President Roosevelt himself wanted having each day a detailed report until the last three nurses arrived safe in Italy.
        Please, be aware the whole Tragjasi village, was burned and destroyed down to the ground on August 4th 1943 by Italian fascists (already Mussolini had been caught, July 7th, 1943) and soon, September 8 th Italia surrendered to the Allies.
        The isolated Italian garrison hit with can ions the village as a respond of an attack from a couple of partisans, trying doing political capital in the end of the civil war. It has been not a wise act.

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