Monthly Archives: July 2013

Demand & Supply

You give us the tools and we'll finish the job - essential anti-Nazi kit

You give us the tools and we’ll finish the job – essential anti-Nazi kit

For the past 10 days I’ve been pretty much living in Albania circa 1943/44. A strange place. I’ve read and digested hundreds of pages of archive documents (photographed and Dropboxed) and memoirs and am reeling slightly. One of the things that has surprised me is how upsetting it can be. A lot of good people, British and Albanian, met very sticky ends. Probably most depressing is the tale of Lazar Fundo, who was flayed to death on the orders of Enver Hoxha in September 1944, in front of his helpless friend, SOE’s Tony Simcox.

I remember seeing Simcox’s recollections for the first time in London’s Imperial War Museum – a series of letters from the 1990s. The first were written in a strong, clear hand. But as age and ill-health took hold, the writing became shaky, larger, almost illegible. The anger he felt, even after 60-odd years, was clear enough though.

I’ve developed a bit of Hoxha fixation. I read his Anglo-American Threat to Albania a while back, but re-read it now along with various other works of his. Hard going. Not that they’re badly written – they’re not; the translator (the British communist and journalist Bill Bland, I assume) did a fine job. But there’s something about them that is deeply unsettling. His mind is not a pleasant place to spend time.

Hoxha lies too, but I can forgive him that – he was a politician. One of his favourite subjects is how inadequate RAF air supply was. Mud sticks; a few months ago I was in a café in the village of Qeparo when one old chap told me we Brits had dropped in hundreds of left-handed boots, one of Hoxha’s favourite lines. Much as I hate to admit it, he had a point when it came to disappointing air drops – and it didn’t just happen in Albania.

In Yugoslavia, SOE’s Bill Bailey had similar issues when the RAF supplied his mission to the Çetnik leader, Mihailovic, as Michael McConville recounts in his memoir, A Small War in the Balkans

From the moment of Bailey’s arrival, Mihailovic had assumed that [supplies] would be immediately available. It was not. What was dropped, from the only two RAF aircraft which could be spared in a period of ten weeks from competing priorities elsewhere, was strong on elaboration and idiosyncratic to the point of idiocy. Whoever controlled the loading in North Africa was either half-witted or malevolent.

Bailey’s only effective bargaining counter was subverted farcically by the arrival from the sky of, among a few more useful aids to warfare, 30 million Italian East African Occupation lire, overprinted with the word ‘Ethiopia’; several hundred boxes of tropical anti-snake-bite serum; 500 left-footed boots; and another load of boots, correctly paired, but all of them size six. [that’s about 37, Eurofolk]

Apparently it got worse – on one occasion Bailey was dropped several hundred lampshades. Military specification lampshades, but still not ideal for fighting Nazis.

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One for the Ladies

Albanian men - are they really "vain and self-important"?

Albanian men – are they really “vain and self-important”?

Due to some unwelcome personal circumstances, I haven’t been in Albania for a few weeks. Annoying in many ways, but quite useful for getting research done. During the course of which, I came across a rather lovely quote from one of SOE’s Liaison Officers, Lieutenant Roy Bullock.

Bullock’s field report (National Archives, ref HS5/131) deals with the events of summer/autumn 1944, rather than winter 43/44, where my focus lies, but this little gem is timeless –

“As a race they [Albanians] can be described as neither industrious nor warlike; on the contrary the males pursue a life of indolence and ease, relegating all domestic and agricultural tasks to their womenfolk, who are invariably kept in a state of serfdom, seldom appearing in public… With this basic valuation of the opposite sex it is somewhat natural that the ALBANIAN youth, grows into a man full of self-importance and vanity…” 

Couldn’t resist sharing. Sure it’ll raise a knowing smile from the women of Albania – which outside Tirana often feels like a surreal female-free alternative universe, populated exclusively by overly macho young men with immaculate shark-fin hairdos and respectable older gentleman with equally immaculate moustaches.

What am I saying? That’s often the case in Tirana, too. In fact I can think of only one bar, The Ruin – Mon Cheri, that employs female staff front-of-house. It really is very weird.

Next time I’ll return to SOE officers running around the mountains and being chased by Germans, promise.

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