Monthly Archives: October 2013

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: October 16-23 1943

Major Neil "Billy" McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform

Neil “Billy” McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform in 1944 (image: National Archives)

My plan to post updates ‘every few days’ on the progress of Trotsky Davies’ SPILLWAY mission in October 1943 is rapidly falling apart. Let’s make it a weekly thing, eh?

The first thing to note is that Davies’ mission was intended to put a more military stamp on the perceived amateurishness, or rather irregular-iness – to coin a word that shan’t be used again – of the Special Operations Executive in Albania. There was it’s fair to say a clash of cultures between no-nonsense Davies and his Coldstream Guard number two, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and the two officers on the ground, Major Neil ‘Billy’ McLean and Captain David Smiley.

McLean and Smiley, whose uniforms were a mismatch of British Army battledress and local Albanian costume, down to colourful cummerbunds and white felt fez hats, were as uneasy with the by-the-book Davies and Nicholls as the two newcomers were with them. Perhaps more of a shock to McLean and Smiley’s systems than the arrival of military discipline was the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ the new mission had delivered by parachute. Typewriters, collapsable desks and stools, paper, carbon paper, files…

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

In his memoir of his time in Albania in 1944, Sons of the Eagle, Julian Amery, who at the time was trapped in Egypt, desperately fighting for a field appointment, would paint Davies as a Colonel Blimp figure. Enver Hoxha did much the same in his long-winded Anglo-American Threat to Albania. There is some truth to this. On a visit to the village of Sherngjergj last year, I was told that Davies paid a villager 5 gold sovereigns for a wooden mule saddle. No one could figure out what a British general (as he is described in these parts) would want with a saddle. It seems he cut out the centre, placed the saddle across the latrine he’d ordered dug, and would sit happily reading the The Times while, er, doing his business. Quite an image.

Anyway, in the few days after landing at Bizë on the 15th October 1943, Davies met his interpreter Fred Nosi (placed with the mission as as spy by Enver Hoxha) and transmitted a signal via Cairo for his wife saying ‘Greetings from Albania’ – a flagrant breach of wireless security. He also found the time to go on a boar hunt, though he failed to bag anything, met the colourful Bektashi priest-cum-guerilla fighter Baba Faja and condemned four camp followers to death for stealing (they were never shot, you’ll be relieved to hear).

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza (image: National Archives)

He’d also been joined by a multitude of officers and NCOs fresh from SOE training in Egypt, badly briefed and with little idea of what winter can be like in the Albanian mountains.

And 70 years ago as I write, on October 23rd, McLean and Smiley left for the coast and evacuation by sea, much to their relief. The first part of their journey was undertaken in a little Fiat, bought by Davies’ acting quartermaster, Alan Hare. McLean and Smiley felt that perhaps the new regime hadn’t quite grasped the realities of conditions on the ground in Albania – particularly with winter setting in.

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Happy Anniversary

Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies' SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

It’s a warm October night in Tirana, and 70 years, to within an hour or two, since Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies of the Royal Ulster Rifles parachuted into Bizë, a plateau high up in the Çermenika mountains about 40km to the east.

His mission, conceived and run by the Special Operations Executive in Cairo and codenamed SPILLWAY, was supposed to give help to whoever was killing the most Germans – which apparently meant the forces of the National Liberation Front (LNÇ), controlled by Albania’s future dictator, Enver Hoxha.

SPILLWAY was ill-conceived, ill-informed and ill-supplied, and ultimately a tragic failure. In January 1944, after several torrid weeks being chased through the Çermenika, Davies himself was shot through the liver and heel and captured by Albanians fighting for the occupying Germans. His second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, escaped, only to die four weeks later following an operation to remove his frostbitten, gangrenous toes.

It’s a depressing story. The only reason we know its finer detail, and the exact route Davies and his men took, is thanks to the diary kept against orders by Nicholls and held today by the Imperial War Museum in London. Due to the IWM’s crack team of blood-thirsty lawyers, I can’t quote from the diary. But what I can do, over the next few months, is give you an idea of what was happening on the ground, 70 years ago.

Blogging is not my natural forté (frankly I find it akin to pulling teeth), but hopefully I can post every few days with excerpts from Davies’ 1952 memoir, Illyrian Venture (delivered to his publisher on the day he died) and other sources. And hopefully I’ll find the time too to post on my ongoing research of the route taken by the SPILLWAY mission, with a view to an ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ in summer 2014.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

On Friday 15 October 1943, at around 20.00, Davies’ plane began to lose height after its four-hour journey from Tocra, Libya. Davies later wrote –

The dispatcher touched me to be ready. The red light came. I took a deep breath. ‘Green!’ I jumped into the centre of the hole, position of attention, looking up. My back was to the slipstream, the wind took my knees. It was like sitting in an armchair – much quieter and comfier than the Hudson*… I dropped and dropped. Would the ‘chute never open? A jerk at my shoulders… all was peace…

A Christmas card could not have beaten the scene. A low moon was hanging like an orange in the sky, three mountain peaks stood up round me, white granite sparkling with frost, a bowl in the mountain tops, into which I was falling, with forests round the edges, a white plain in the middle, broken by a stream winding its way across. Why was the plain white? Was it snow? No, it looked more like salt flats… I reached on the lift webs and tensed myself. Feet together, knees together, turn obliquely. And then I fell through fifty feet of mist on to frosty grass…

Men were running towards me, men with slung rifles and bandoliers, wearing the red Partisan star in their hats… They surrounded me and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo! General.’…

The crowd was parted to let in an English officer, wearing an Albanian white fez-shaped hat.

‘I’m Smiley, sir,’ he said…

Taken from Illyrian Venture by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies (The Bodley Head, 1952). *Actually a Halifax.

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

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

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Lost in Labinot

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

One of the joys of researching the putative Endurance Vile Trail is that it takes me to all sorts of odd places in Albania. I posted about the village of Labinot back in Spring when Toni Caushi of Albaniantrip.com and I attempted to get into the village museum, which is protected by a little old lady who, frankly, is off her rocker. Labinot is famous among Albanians old enough to have enjoyed the benefits of a Communist education for being one of the spots, along with Peza and Permet, where Enver Hoxha held a meeting or two during the war (this was enough to make any place, however obscure, of global importance if you were setting the Albanian national curriculum between 1945 and 1991).

Labinot also happens to be an important spot on the route of the Trail. In December 1943 Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men spent several days here, unexpectedly. I say unexpectedly as they originally thought they’d be there a few hours – it was a mustering point for partisans and Brits alike as they tried to break through the German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river. Sadly the whole episode was a typical Albanian mess.

According to the diary kept against orders by Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and now held at the Imperial War Museum in London, the Brits and partisans left Labinot at around 8.30pm on Saturday 11 December 1943. They crossed difficult terrain in near darkness, nearly making it to the river, before turning back at around 3am. The Shkumbini had risen suddenly and the proposed crossing point was impassable, added to which the Balli [nationalists] and Germans had been stirred up by an advance party led by our old friend Kadri Hoxha.

Enver Hoxha (no relation to Kadri) wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to America

Our crossing to the South failed … because the information which Kadri Hoxha, commander of the Staff of the Elbasan Group, gave us was completely wrong. He had neglected the importance of this undertaking, stayed at Orenja quite unconcerned idling away his time talking with Beg Balla and the British, while the enemy went into action and killed some of our men. I sent him a letter… in which I said bluntly that the zone of Elbasan was still very weak militarily and that responsibility for this state of affairs and for the failure of the attempt of the Staff to cross to the South fell on him, first of all. I pointed out in the letter that I had several times striven to help and advised him that he should take measures and get moving and that now I had no other course but to report the situation to the proper quarters, because whenever I had criticized him and instructed him to act, he repeated the same words: «You don’t know me well.»

After all preparations had been made, we were ready to cross the river at the ford because, as I have written, the Haxhi Beqari bridge had been blown up by an officer of the British mission [David Smiley]. We sent some comrades to reconnoitre the ford. It was passable. The crossing would be made quickly at night. We got down there at the set time, but just as we reached the road the couriers of our vanguard came to inform us that the Shkumbin was in flood. I went myself to the ford and saw that it was impassable. We returned to our base. There we were to stay until we received reliable information on which way it was possible to go.

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Nicholls wrote a little ditty, which I think I can quote from as it was published in Dr Rod Bailey’s book The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle

‘… with apologies to Louis MacNeice and his poem “Bagpipe Music”:
It’s no go the merry-go-round
It’s no go the muck up
It’s no go the Skumbini [sic] River
It’s been a proper F– up!’

Now, my task was to find the route taken on that unfortunate night. I assumed it would be fairly straightforward. I knew from Kadri Hoxha’s unpublished diary, and from speaking to locals in the village café in Labinot, that Davies et al emerged from the hills at the village of Xibrake, to the southeast. I even knew, more or less, the exact point in Xibrake. So one blazing hot morning in August I got the furgon (minibus) to Xibrake, and struck out for Labinot.

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards - 500 lek is around €3

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards – 500 lek is around €3

I later discovered I went wrong more or less immediately. I couldn’t find a goat trail, so kept to a path that led to the village of Sericë, or at least the part of it to the west of the gorge that runs through the centre of the village. Heavy landslides of shale meant it was tricky going, but the path improved by Sericë’s tiny mosque and a nice young man with a heavily laden mule guided me uphill in what he assured me was the direction of Labinot.

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

The above brief paragraph took about four hours for me to walk in real time, including various wrong turns, backtracking and a lunch stop.

By the time I got to Labinot the temperature dropped to about 11°C (in August, I remind you) and a big storm hit. I’m learning that the weather in the Çermenika hills can turn on the drop of a conical white fez. By the time I squelched into the lower part of Labinot I felt pretty much like a drowned rat.

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

But this is Albania – one of the most hospitable countries in the world. Someone would look after me. I didn’t have high hopes, I confess, as my previous visit to Labinot had been enough to convince me that the locals were extremely, er, local. But a small child appeared, as they do, and within five minutes I was sitting in an old barber’s chair on the concrete verandah of a small café, hoping for an espresso and a raki but instead having to drink a huge glass of lumpy yoghurt, sucked from a freshly curdled cow, gratis. As is the way with Albanian villages, I had an audience of about seven wildly grinning men, whose English extended to “Aston Villa” and “Chelsea” etc.

After a bit of a hoo-ha a chap called Nico was produced. Nico, who it transpired lived in London with a Polish wife and was back for the summer, was it’s fair to say surprised to find a gangly English man drinking yoghurt in a village which isn’t exactly high on a list of Albania Must-Sees. We had a nice chat though, taking in the expense of living in London, the horrors of East Acton, pizza, and the sadistic behaviour of Greek border guards back in the Nineties, when Albanians such as Nico would sneak across the border at night in search of a better life. The outcome could be grim for those the Greeks caught. They despised Albanians (and still do). Sexual sadism was, Nico assured me, commonplace – he knew of one man who had been forced at gunpoint to.. Actually I won’t share that; it’s too unpleasant.

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Anyway, after an hour or so Nico – no cartographer, sadly – drew me a map and set me on the way back to the Librazhd-Elbasan road, assuring me it was far too late in the day to catch a furgon. Of the route taken by Davies and Hoxha that night in 1943 he knew nothing, but it seemed likely to be the same for most of the way. Very scenic it was too, though instead of following the path to Xibrake I hooked a right to a spot on the main road where I knew I could get a coffee and a raki. My plan was to return in a day or so and try again, walking up to Labinot the way I came out, then back to the main road down the path I hadn’t taken. If that makes any sense. More anon…

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