Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Endurance Vile Trail – Postponed till Summer 2014

The site of the SPILLWAY mission's HQ, November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Biza, the site of the SPILLWAY mission’s HQ, photographed in November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Sadly I’m going to have to postpone September’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission till summer 2014. The reasons for this are multiple, and too boring to go into, but essentially we need more time to market the concept.

There are no shortage of coach tours for military history buffs, but the Endurance Vile Trail, which is a much more physically demanding offer, occupies a very small niche indeed. Hopefully not too small though.

Obviously, this blog will remain the first source of information on the Trail. Both Dr Rod Bailey and myself are keen to make it work. It really will be an amazing experience when it happens (and it will).

In the meantime, if you’re interested in travelling to Albania independently and have an interest in the Special Operations Executive’s activities in the country, don’t hesitate to get in touch with either myself or Elton at Albaniantrip for advice.

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Albania, Back in the Day

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

What is it with Albania and the Scots? While digging around online for more dirt on Enver Hoxha (right now I’m interested in the rumours that he might have swung both ways during his pre-War stint in Paris), I came across a brilliant piece by the renowned Scottish journalist James Cameron, written for The Atlantic Monthly back in 1963.

As Albania’s fractious general election comes to a conclusion, I thought it might be a good time to post a link to Cameron’s article, just to remind Albanians how far the country has come. This is probably a mistake on my part – when I wrote a piece on tourism in Albania for The Sunday Telegraph last year, I was apparently slated on Albanian-language political forums for being too positive. It seems some thought I should have mentioned political corruption, poverty and blood feud. Please – if a travel writer does a piece on Sicily’s tourist attractions, no one would expect to read about investigating judges meeting sticky ends at the hands of the Mafia. The focus would be on calamari rather than crime. Same rules apply for Albania.

Anyway, here’s the link to Cameron’s story. Read it – it’s fascinating.

His description of traffic in Tirana circa 1963 made me smile –

FOR two days, then… I had the freedom of Tirana, and a beguiling town it was. This was due more to the old than the new. The new was banal indeed: a pattern of broad, even stately avenues, lined with Party buildings in the Italianate style, with a carriageway wide enough to take several lines of traffic that was, for 80 percent of the day, totally empty.

The desolation of the streets was eerie. At each intersection stood a smart white-uniformed traffic policeman, rigidly poised to direct a press of vehicles that never came. Once every five minutes, perhaps, an old green truck, hugely numbered on its flanks in the Russian manner, would appear clanking and grunting up the street; the traffic cop would spring to attention as it appeared on the horizon and wave it on with great panache, against no opposition whatever. At even rarer intervals would appear a dark Zim saloon, heavily curtained, on some mysterious official errand. In all Albania today there exists, as I was formally told, not one single private automobile.

My mother tells me it was much the same in the mid-1980s; it’s fair to say things have changed a bit since then.

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Go East, Young Man

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

To my shame, until this week I had never read Fitzroy Maclean’s book Eastern Approaches. I have now, and thought it was worth a rather random post.

Fitzroy Maclean, I should point out, is not to be confused with Neil ‘Billy’ McLean. Maclean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 to liaise with the partisans there; McLean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Albania in 1943 to work with the partisans there. Maclean was supposedly a model for James Bond, McLean wasn’t. Simple.

Despite being focused on Tito and Yugoslavia, Eastern Approaches does have some relevance for Albania. Two parts in particular grabbed me. The first will probably be familiar to Brits, but hopefully new for Albanian readers. I think it goes a long way to explaining British policy in the Balkans during the war.

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches - a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches – a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

In November 1943 Maclean was pulled out of Yugoslavia and reported directly to Churchill in Cairo. He had an audience with the great man, who was reclining in his bed, smoking a cigar, resplendent in an embroidered dressing gown. After telling Maclean about his recent meeting with Stalin, and asking the young officer if he wore a kilt when he parachuted, Churchill got down to brass tacks, saying that the Allies were going to throw their weight behind Tito and withdraw help from the nationalist leader Mihajlovic and his Cetnik forces. All fine as far as Maclean was concerned, but he did see a sticking point –

I now emphasized to Mr. Churchill… that in my view the Partisans… would be the decisive political factor in Jugoslavia after the war and, secondly, that Tito and the other leaders of the Movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system which they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly orientated towards the Soviet Union. 

The Prime Minister’s reply resolved my doubts.

‘Do you intend,’ he asked, ‘to make Jugoslavia your home after the war?’

‘No, Sir,’ I replied. 

‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘And that being so, the less you and I worry about the form of Government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans?’

On January 18 1945, with the war in Europe slowly coming to a bloody end, Churchill made the same point in the House of Commons, Maclean recounts…

‘We have no special interest in the political regime which prevails in Jugoslavia. Few people in Britain, I imagine, are going to be more cheerful or downcast because of the future constitution of Jugoslavia.’

What was true for Yugoslavia was doubly true for Albania, which, for the record, has just one reference in Eastern Approaches‘ index.

Tito - a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

Tito – a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

The second passage to stick in my mind concerns the arming of the Yugoslav partisans. A couple of weeks ago I met a young Albanian chap at a party in Tirana, who mentioned that he’d just finished Albania’s National Liberation Struggle: The Bitter Victory, by Reginald Hibbert. Hibbert was a junior SOE officer who went on to become ambassador to France. A few of Hibbert’s fellow officers were convinced he was part of the supposed communist conspiracy to subvert SOE, even refusing to attend reunions if he was present (Hibbert certainly had left-wing leanings).

In his book Hibbert tries to quash the myth, or rather theory, that SOE was responsible for delivering up large chunks of the Balkans to the Soviets. My copy is in Tirana, unfortunately, and I’m not, but Hibbert makes great play of the fact that the number of weapons dropped to Hoxha’s partisans was, in the great scheme of things, relatively small and therefore didn’t have much to do with Hoxha’s rise to power. The young Albanian chap found this hilarious, pointing out that if he was given 40,000 WWII-era rifles today he’d probably be able to defeat the modern-day Albanian army and take over the country himself.

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Hibbert’s focus on tonnage also rather misses the point – what really counted was prestige. Something that Maclean is all too aware of –

The change in our attitude also had an important psychological effect. All the prestige which the Cetniks had hitherto enjoyed as a result of Allied support was now transferred to the Partisans…

As often happens, these developments coming one after the other had a snowball effect. Allied support and supplies had brought more volunteers; better equipped and more numerous, the Partisans had been able to increase the scale of their operations; their success in the field had, in turn, brought in larger stocks of captured weapons and, incidentally further increased their prestige; so that in the space of a few months the Movement had gone from strength to strength.

Those Albanians who do have some knowledge of British involvement in their country during the War, and our role in bringing Hoxha to power, tend to take the (ironic) view, ‘Thanks for that…’ I sometimes find it hard to disagree with them.

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

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Scout and About

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it's home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it’s home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

One of the delights of researching the Endurance Vile Trail (Tuesday 14 – Tuesday 24 September, since you ask) are the scouting expeditions. These have been rather curtailed by unseasonal and torrential rain. On Friday, for instance, Elton (Toni) Caushi of Albaniantrip and I were planning to refresh our contacts in Biza, which we last visited six months ago, and trek up to the site of a mysterious crashed aeroplane that may or may not date from WWII. But a quick phone call with our man in situ, who assured us the ground was too sodden, led to a last-minute change of plans. Quite a relief, actually, as it seems to be impossible to visit Biza and nearby Shengjergj without being forced to consume industrial quantities of raki (they don’t get too many visitors).

Instead we headed south, to Elbasan and Labinot. The Endurance Vile itinerary as it stands so far means the first two nights will be spent in the boondocks. We figure the third day’s trekking, which will end in the vicinity of Labinot, overlooking the Shkumbini river, is a good opportunity to factor in some Albanian luxury. Which means a hop in a minibus to the Real Scampis hotel in Elbasan (yes, Real Scampis; typically it doesn’t seem to have a website, but its single review on TripAdvisor is a five-star humdinger in English too good to be written by the owner and it’s doubtful they have a blonde PR girl to manage their online reputation).

Elbasan is a fairly sophisticated place by Albanian standards, though Toni assures me six out of 10 children have three heads due to heavy industry. Before the war it was home to Margaret Hasluck, a fascinating Scottish academic and widow who happened to be the lover and soulmate of an Elbasani notable named Lef Nosi.

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE's Cairo HQ, at least

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE’s Cairo HQ, at least

‘Had we been younger when we met – and richer – we would have married,’ she later wrote. ‘He had no money and I [lost] my husband’s… and had only what I put into the house. What we had without marriage was very wonderful – an almost perfect intellectual fit and complete similarity of ideals. And the work we planned to do!’*

War came and Hasluck ended up running the Special Operations Executive’s Albania office in Cairo before being demoted to advisor; Nosi ended up being a puppet regent under the Germans. In effect, a collaborator. In December 1943 Brig Davies requested Nosi be denounced, but Hasluck protested vehemently and walked out of SOE in February 1944. So disgusted was she by SOE’s support for the communist partisans that she even turned down the MBE offered to her (curiously she’s cited as an MBE on her Wikipedia page; seems you can’t fight The Man).

Anyway, this is all by-the-by. I’ll post properly about Hasluck anon. The real purpose of this post is to link through to this photo gallery, which should give prospective trekkers some understanding of what to expect. The countryside in this section isn’t the most beautiful, or the most challenging (by a lucky quirk of fate the really mountainous stuff comes on the last couple of days, by which time everyone should have their ‘wind’). But despite the rain and greyness, hopefully it’s not unappealing.

The highlight for me and Toni, though, was our visit to what was supposedly a museum at Labinot-Mal. Under communism this was hallowed turf – the Conference of Labinot was drummed into every Albanian schoolchild’s head. Today things are very different. We found the museum, eventually, but couldn’t get in. It seems the government has forgotten it exists. The attendant has died, and now his wife holds the keys. Despite the appeals of Toni and two lovely local chaps, she refused to let us in, setting the price at a pleasingly round 1,000,000 lek (around €7,000). Toni offered 500 lek for the two of us but she wouldn’t budge. God only knows what’s inside; the ground floor, certainly, is now home to her cows if the anguished mooing was anything to go by.

*Letter to Sir Andrew Ryan, 20 April 1946, from the Julian Amery Papers at the Churchill Archive Centre. No reference as the papers are currently being recatalogued. 

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