The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja's Bektashi shrine

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja’s Bektashi shrine

One of the intentions of this blog, as well as raising awareness of SOE’s wartime activities in Albania, is to map out a trekking route following in the footsteps of the ill-fated ‘Spillway’ mission of winter 1943/44. I’ve taken to referring to this putative route as the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’. Why? Well, that’s how Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, who led the mission, described his party’s experience, a few days before being shot through the liver and heel and his capture by the Germans (remarkably he survived, only to end up in Colditz after a brief stay at Mauthausen concentration camp).

I’m pleased to say that we have some provisional dates for the inaugural ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ – and a pretty good tour leader too.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

Dr Roderick Bailey, author of the acclaimed The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, will be leading the first group, sometime in the second half of September (precise dates TBC). We’re capping numbers at 12 for a number of reasons – not least the fact that there aren’t any hotels in the villages we’ll be visiting, so much like the SOE officers themselves we’ll be relying on the hospitality of local people.

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

The trail will follow the route outlined in the diary kept against regulations (and re-discovered by Roderick during his research) by Lt Col Arthur Frederick Crane Nicholls, the only member of the Coldstream Guards to be awarded the George Cross. The award was posthumous, sadly. His diary entries end in mid-January 1944 when, suffering from severe frostbite and gangrene, and unable to walk, he was forced to seek medical help. He died on 11 February 1944 in a house near Tirana. By then diary-keeping duties had passed to Major Alan Hare (future chairman of the Financial Times).

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

The diary, today held by the Imperial War Museum in London, makes for painful reading even 70 years on. A typical entry –

Sunday 26 December 1943
2100 hrs having nearly reached the summit, the guides, after much questioning, have to admit they have lost the way! The decision is taken to make camp but if we are to survive the night fires must be lit. Our clothes are already standing out stiffly round us like boards and every twig and branch is heavily covered in gel frost. To stand still for a moment is to court frostbite and death. BEKTASH and VALI, our fire-lighting experts, with some paper from a notebook, two candles from A.N.’s [Arthur Nicholls] emergency reserve and the most gallant determination eventually get a fire going against all probabilities. Everyone fights like mad to help it along, notably E.F.D. [Brig Davies] and F.N.’s [Fred Nosi, an Albanian partisan] tremendous and courageous puffing. It is a fight for our lives. Once the fire is going there can be no relaxation and incessant movement of the limbs is essential. We are all suffering badly, particularly in our feet which have now been consistently wet and frozen for more than a week. E.F.D.’s boots are causing him endless trouble and A.N.’s feet, due to bad circulation, are in a very poor way. Cpl SMITH has broken his boots in the leg and they must now be cut to get them on.   

We’re hoping that September’s trek will be considerably less demanding (the weather should be better and we won’t expect anyone to march up an exposed hillside under heavy fire, for instance). However, it will involve long days on foot in mountainous country, scrambling over challenging terrain, and probably a couple of nights camping out. We’ll do our best to plan in luxuries such as hot showers and sit-down loos, but these can’t be guaranteed – the area we’ll be in has no tourist infrastructure. Indeed, it only got a tarmac road last year, and that ends prematurely.

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

I’ll be mapping out the route this summer, and shall obviously be posting about my experiences anon. Arrangements on the ground will be organised by Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip. We’re confident that the first Endurance Vile Trail will not be the last – the landscape is beautiful and unspoiled, the locals incredibly welcoming (and generous with their raki) and the story of the Spillway mission utterly compelling.

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

BA flies to Tirana from London Gatwick from about £69, and we will announce prices once precise dates are confirmed. To register your interest, ping an email to me at soetrails@gmail.com

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10 thoughts on “The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

  1. Mark Jones says:

    Rodders put me down for one, I did the Pyrenees trail twice and loved it. Keep me posted.
    Cheers
    Jonesy

  2. Steve A says:

    Hi There I have got here via the SOE yahoo group and I am also a researcher of the 148 Special Duties Squadron that as you know dropped the majority of the Albanian missions.
    Looks like a great trip, would be greatly interested if you do visit the crash site of the 148 Halifax (Forester crew).
    I don’t know if you have been in contact with the daughter of Lieutenant (later Captain) Francis (Frank) Gerald Weber Smyth part of the SOE mission in Albanian ? she was hoping to follow her Fathers route through Albanian, I will sent her a message about your trip and the blog connected to it.
    I’m mainly at the moment connecting the 148 crews to the agents they dropped, the info in Macleans file and his thoughts on the parachute drops are excellent.
    Good luck with the trip organising
    Steve A

  3. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the message and for spreading the word. Much appreciated.
    I was actually just below the Sapling 7 crash site in March. It’s in the south of Albania, a good 4-5 hours’ drive from the area where Brig Davies’ mission took place, so wouldn’t be included on the proposed Endurance Vile Trail.
    However, I can happily arrange a trip to see the Sapling 7 site as an add-on, or even a separate tour of the key dropping zones if that’s up your street. The Sapling 7 site is in a great area, and a trip there could include a day hike to SEAVIEW, where Anthony Quayle was based.
    You can still find the remains of the dropping containers incidentally. We spoke to one chap who used to use them for fermenting raki!
    Best,
    Ed

  4. Mac Finkill says:

    Hi Ed, Web Page on http://www.coldstreamguards-boro.org now up and running with links to your Blog.. we are sure it will be a huge attraction. Just e.me if I can help in any way.
    Best Regards Mac

  5. […] But it’s been an interesting few days – fielding enquiries about September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Rod Bailey has kept me busy, and a breakdown in France (mechanical, not nervous) saw me cross […]

  6. Ed Reeves says:

    The Trail will be happening in September 2014. Stand by…

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