Category Archives: Albania

The Secret History of PWE

Secret History of PWE

The Secret History of PWE by David Garnett

As part of my wider reading around S.O.E. in the Balkans, I ordered a copy of David Garnett‘s The Secret History of PWE (Political Warfare Executive). It really was secret, too – Garnett, a PWE officer himself, was commissioned by the Foreign Office after the war to write an official history. What he produced was considered so incendiary that it was classified “Secret – For Official Use Only” for 50 years, and only published at the turn of the last century.

The book is strictly for war nuts – much of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. In fact most of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. The wartime British propaganda machine was seemingly so focused on the enemy on the other side of the corridor that it’s a wonder anything anti-German was produced at all. What was produced, it’s worth mentioning, was often very poor quality. In Albania in particular it was a constant complaint of the S.O.E. officers on the ground that Allied propaganda, both BBC broadcasts and leaflet drops, was inept and clumsy.

Writer David Garnett

David Garnett – probably not cut out for fighting, but very good at writing bitchy official histories

Garnett was known to his friends as “Bunny” and had spent the First World War working on fruit farms with his gay lover (he had been a conscientious objector). He went on to become a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and co-founded the Nonesuch Press. It’s hard to think of a less suitable choice to write a dull, bureaucratic official history. Perhaps the Whitehall mandarin who commissioned him was feeling mischevious.

Garnett is particularly illuminating on the PWE’s early days in autumn 1939. In Berlin Hitler was planning the Blitzkrieg and continuing to build the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen. At PWE’s new Woburn headquarters, meanwhile, there were more important things to consider  –

“The provision of amenities at Woburn was tackled in the typical British fashion – by the formation of a committee. A Recreation Committee, meeting first in October 1939, busied itself with such matters as finding a squash court and a football field, subscription to a nearby golf club, the hiring of horses and attempting to obtain permission to ride them in Woburn Park, obtaining books from the Times Book Club and elsewhere to form a library, the institution of a weekly cinema show in the Abbey, the establishment of a canteen with a bar, the laying of a dance floor and the providing of Christmas lunch, and the laying out and care of two lawn tennis courts, table tennis, billiards and clock golf. The formation of a choral society and the organisation of lessons in German all followed.”    

It’s a wonder Britain won the war at all. Oh, hang on – we didn’t. Until the Soviet Union was, ahem, embarrassed into withdrawing its tacit support for Hitler, and the US entered the fray, we looked guaranteed to lose, badly.

Random fact: Garnett’s next book, Aspects of Love (1955), wasn’t top secret. In fact it later became an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

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Artistic Licence

Robert Permeti and The Abyss private view

A private viewing of Robert Permeti’s painting The Abyss, which depicts Enver Hoxha’s confrontation with Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies in January 1944

Playing ominously with a pearl-handed penknife and now suddenly ‘stern’, with a ‘taste of iron’ in his voice, Stalin proposed: ‘The artist ought to show life truthfully. And if he shows our life truthfully he cannot fail to show it moving to socialism. This is, and will be, Socialist Realism.’ In other words, the writers had to describe what life should be, a panegyric to the Utopian future, not what life was…
‘You produce the goods that we need,’ said Stalin. ‘Even more than machines, tanks, aeroplanes, we need human souls…’
… The writers, Stalin declared, were ‘engineers of human souls…’
From Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Not just writers. Communist regimes the world over were obsessed with the visual arts, not least Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Tirana’s small National Gallery has an intriguing collection of Socialist Realist works, and is definitely a must-visit if you’re in the city for a day or two. It drives home how important the events of World War II, and the fight against ‘fascism’ (a term used to describe domestic opponents as much as the Italians and German occupiers), were to the regime in terms of a founding myth.

There are two problems (in my view) with the gallery, though. First, there’s not enough background information on the artists and their works. Second, the picture that sits at the top of this blog, The Abyss, by Robert Permeti, isn’t part of the collection.

Last month, when Alex Smyth, whose father Captain Frank Smyth parachuted into Albania as part of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ Special Operations Executive mission, visited Albania, I was keen for him to meet Robert Permeti and ideally see The Abyss in the flesh (or oil and canvas, rather). I met Robert for a coffee with Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip a few weeks before Alex and his son Tom arrived, and we were delighted to discover that he (like me) was fascinated with the British involvement with Enver Hoxha’s partisans during 1943/44. We were also delighted to find that the painting hadn’t been sold abroad, despite some tempting offers, and was still in Tirana.

Robert Permeti and Elton Caushi

Alex Smyth listens to artist Robert Permeti at a private viewing of Permeti’s painting The Abyss, while Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip (centre) translates

Robert very kindly invited the Smyths to a private viewing of The Abyss, and talked about the history of the painting, and the effort he put in to accurately capturing the smallest details. The time we spent with him drove home how precarious was the position of an artist under totalitarian regimes.

‘The first title was The Abyss [this could also be rendered as “Precipice” in English], as I felt I was standing on the edge of an abyss,’ Robert told us.

When he began work on the painting in the late 1970s, he was an army officer from a devoted Communist family, and a True Believer.

‘Both my parents were partisans [during WWII],’ he told us. ‘When I started the painting I loved Enver. I was chief of my division’s propaganda section. But I had a brother who was a pilot, and he was punished under the propaganda law.’

With the trial of his brother, doubt began to creep into Robert’s mind. ‘I loved doing the research, but at that time there was a lot of debate [about Albania’s wartime ‘national liberation struggle’].’

Robert Permeti in Army uniform

A young Robert Permeti in Army uniform, during his research for The Abyss

Robert’s research was, with some understatement, thorough. ‘Socialist Realism is very rigorous in its rules,’ he told the Smyths. ‘Every detail needs to be thought out. The gun Enver holds was one the British gave him.’

Robert visited the villages that had sheltered Davies and Hoxha, searched the (heavily doctored, naturally) Albanian state archives, sketched landscapes, spoke to locals. And he also spoke to one man who had been with the British throughout…

‘What made my work harder was that during this time Enver published The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Because of this I started to talk to Fred Nosi [the interpreter for Brig Davies’ mission]. Fred told me completely different stories to Enver’s.’

The Abyss captures the moment that Davies and Hoxha, after several days’ march through the mountains as they attempted to break through German encirclement, rowed over Davies’ plan to leave Hoxha and walk south to Korça with Fred Nosi.

‘… I shall go to Korça without you,’
‘You may want to do so, but I shall not allow it,’ I said.
‘Why, am I your prisoner?’ exclaimed the General, raising his voice.
‘No, you are not our prisoner but you are our ally and friend and I cannot allow the Germans to kill you… I am certain that you are going to your death or captivity, therefore I cannot allow you to take Frederick [Nosi] or any other partisan…’
From The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

Hoxha claims that Davies advised him to surrender to the Germans, and that his (Hoxha’s) patience was exhausted and he reacted furiously, calling Davies a defeatist. A highly implausible scenario, knowing how bloody-minded and dedicated to his duty Davies was. And it seems that Fred Nosi, who was interpreting, had a different recollection from Hoxha’s.

‘Fred told me that in reality Hoxha acted like a gangster…’ Robert told us.

A detail from The Abyss by Robert Permeti

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his bodyguard Corporal Jim Smith in a detail from Robert Permeti’s The Abyss

A key point of interest is the portrayal of Davies himself. The regime gave Robert a photograph taken of Davies, in British battle dress, during his stint in Albania, which you can see below.

Brigadier Davies ringer

The photograph given to Robert Permeti when he was researching The Abyss, purportedly of Brigadier Davies but a better match for an ancient Winston Churchill

The only problem is, whoever that is in the photo, it isn’t Davies. In fact it looks more like an aged Churchill. The picture does, however, beautifully back up Hoxha’s memorable portrayal of Davies as an ageing Colonel Blimp figure – a blustering British imperialist straight from Central Casting.

Davies was a middle-aged man, a bit portly, with a round face and a bulbous red nose (apparently he liked his whisky)… The most hard-worked word of his vocabulary was ‘I’… He was carrying a stick, a real walking stick and not one of those fancy batons British officers like to carry. As to his age, he must have been well on in his fifties [actually Davies was 42]… 
From The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

Trotsky Davies SOE photograph

The real Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ pictured in his SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Notice too the ‘RAF’ emblem on Davies’ beret. In TAATTA, Hoxha writes of Davies wearing RAF insignia but then refusing to admit that he was an Air Force intelligence officer. An agent of Perfidious Albion failing to pull the wool over the ever-vigilant Enver’s eyes. Actually simple confusion on Hoxha’s part – Davies, who was a regular officer in the Royal Ulster Rifles, wore parachute wings, as did all SOE officers who dropped into Albania. Wearing the wings indicated you had parachuted in action, not just in training. For the younger officers wearing these wings more or less meant guaranteed sex with impressionable FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in Cairo, where SOE’s Balkan missions were run from till early 1944. Well worth wearing, then.

The second Briton in the picture is Corporal Jim Smith. He, it’s worth mentioning, had at the Battle of Peza in October dragged the already dead body of Bombadier William Hill to cover from under German machine-gun fire, and would refuse to abandon Davies when he [Davies] was shot through the liver and captured by the Germans a few days after the scene depicted in the painting.

Robert finished work on The Abyss in time for a major art exhibition, in 1981. Then a problem arose. Enver’s influential wife, Nexhmije, liked the painting, but wanted one small change to be made – for Robert to remove the British. He refused.

‘I was completely under the influence of Fred Nosi,’ Robert says. ‘I entered into a difficult psychological state. I didn’t think before giving the work the title The Abyss. Only later did I understand how dangerous this was for me. I realised it was two different worlds facing each other. The gap between the two worlds was filled with Eastern influence.

‘If you look at the painting you can see that Enver looks emotionally tired. Davies, though old, looks energetic.

Robert Permeti and The Abyss

Robert Permeti poses with his painting The Abyss, after the fall of the Communist regime

‘I was taking a risk. I could have gone to prison. But the advantage I had was the painting had huge impact. The foreign diplomats [who attended the show’s opening night] wold stop and stare. The diplomats from pro-Hoxha countries would look from a distance. This painting allowed me to be more daring in my later work.’

The risk Robert took was real. Going to prison was not an uncommon punishment for artists who stepped out of line with the Communist regime. Later, when he took us around the National Gallery, he pointed out works whose creators had endured jail terms for some perceived ideological failing.

‘No artist was imprisoned for stealing or killing anyone,’ he told us. ‘These were the intellectual people. They didn’t deserve to go to jail.’

The Smyths’ meeting and gallery tour with Robert Permeti was arranged as part of their 11-day Drive Albania tour. If you’re visiting Tirana and would be interested in a tour of the National Gallery with a Socialist Realist artist, contact Elton at Albanian Trip.  

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Tour of Duty

Alex Smyth in the village of Xibër

Alex Smyth, the son of SOE officer Captain Frank Smyth, approaches the house in which his father spent three months hiding during World War II

Mission creep. When I started this blog it had a simple purpose – to publicise the trek I hope to organise in the footsteps of Brigadier E.F. ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 [there should be an announcement on this in the next few weeks]. But one thing led to another and last summer I agreed to help Alex Smyth, the son of one of the SOE officers who served in Albania during World War II, put together a tour in his father’s footsteps.

One thing that had been driven home to me during my dalliance with Albania is that the roads are terrible. The only way to get around is by serious 4×4, unless you’re happy to stick to the main city-to-city roads. So after a raki or two with my friend Elton Caushi of Tirana-based tour agency Albanian Trip, we decided to start a new brand and website focused on off-road adventure tourism in Albania. And it was under this new guise – Drive Albania – that the Smyth tour was organised.

A lot of planning went into the tour, and several recce trips were made. Some failed – the village of Xibër, where Alex’s father Captain Frank Smyth spent about three months in early 1944, proved impossible to reach due to a combination of landslides and mechanical failure. Some succeeded, like our trip to Macukull described in the last post (ironically, the heavy rain that has afflicted the Balkans this spring meant we couldn’t reach Macukull with Alex Smyth when it mattered).

Figuring out just where Captain Smyth had been in Albania 70 years on was a painstaking task. Dr Roderick Bailey – whose new book on SOE’s war against Fascist Italy, Target Italy has just been published – was an immense help, as was SOE researcher Dr Steven Kippax, who introduced Alex to us in the first place.

The artist Robert Permeti

Alex Smyth (left) talks with Robert Permeti while Elton Caushi (centre) translates

The tour took 11 days, and you can link through to photos via the Drive Albania website. One of the most interesting days (for me, anyway) was a meeting with the artist Robert Permeti, whose painting “The Abyss” sits at the top of this blog. I’ll put a post up about this fascinating day shortly. In the meantime, you can check out photos from the first five days of the tour here, here, here, here and here.

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Into Zog Territory

The big push to upload posts from last summer continues… This time we take a short break from trudging around the Çermenika massif and instead head north, to the Mati district of Albania.

The road to Macukull

Our first glimpse of Macukull. The road is fairly good by Albanian standards

The purpose of our visit was a research trip on behalf of the son of one of the Special Operations Executive officers who served in Albania during World War II, Captain Frank Smyth. Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies sent Smyth north to work with Squadron Leader Tony Neel, who was liaising with the Zogist forces, such as they were, led by Enver Hoxha’s arch-enemy Abas Kupi. In the confused events following Davies’ capture by the Germans in early January 1944, Smyth found himself in the village of Macukell, being sheltered by a branch of the Kola family. Smyth by then was under the command of a certain Captain Bulman, who does not appear to have covered himself in glory during his stint in Albania (Bulman was despised by his fellow officers and also most Albanians who encountered him).

On 11 January Bulman and Smyth, who was then very sick, were joined by Major George Seymour, who took command. He was followed soon after by the Germans –

“As it was no part of our policy to be the cause of Albanian villages being burnt and the people massacred I decided that, if I could evacuate vital stores without fighting, I wold do so. We did just manage it and, although we were still in sight of the house when the Germans arrived, we were undetected in the dusk. The Germans fired a light as a success signal an this was answered from two other directions… Smythe (sic) and I… remained in the vicinity of Macukull to watch events. The following morning the Germans burnt our house and then pushed on northwards…”
From the Seymour Report in the National Archives (HS5/123) 

The Kola family later in the year sheltered Lt Col ‘Billy’ McLean and Major David Smiley, and had another house burnt for their efforts. Houses being destroyed does seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Albanians who hosted British officers during the war.

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip and myself set out for Macukull in late August 2013 with little idea of what to expect. I’d driven through the Mati before in the grey of winter, so was interested to see it in summertime. And very pleasant it was too. The drive to the region’s biggest town, Burrell, took about two-and-a-half hours from Tirana, with the inevitable coffee stop. Burrell is nothing to write home about, its only landmark being a statue of local hero King Zog in the town square.

A rope bridge over the Mati river

A rope bridge across the Mati, en route to Burrell

We parked and headed for the busiest café, and asked if anyone knew if the road to Macukull was in a good state. There was surprise that anyone would want to go to Macukull; Elton explained our interest in the war history, one thing led to another and soon we were joined by three very nice chaps, Demir Çupi, Skënder Gjuci and Kujtim Sulmeta. Out came a few of the S.O.E. memoirs we were carrying with us and a lengthy discussion began, including the old favourite topic of conversation, ‘Why do so few tourists visit Albania?’

Men in Burrell

In Burrell we met (from left) Kujtim Sulmeta, Demir Çupi and Skënder Gjuci, who were all WWII buffs

More usefully, all three men knew the Kolas and were familiar with Albania’s convoluted war history, and two of them – Skënder and Kujtim – were at a loose end so were happy to take a day trip to Macukull with us.

The drive took us past King Zog’s old family seat, Burgajet Castle. Or where it used to sit, anyway – the Communists had taken particular care to destroy it utterly. I was surprised there wasn’t a six-metre statue of a brave Partisan fighter taking a symbolic dump on the site.

Shortly afterwards we left the main road and took a dirt track up into the mountains. Macukull, it turns out, occupies a particularly dramatic piece of real estate, with wonderful views across the Mati. It had clearly been a relatively wealthy village, though its loyalty to King Zog cost it dear during Enver Hoxha’s glorious rule.

Skënder and Kujtim guided us ever higher, up to the site of the old Kola house (there would have been several, this was the grandest). Nothing, literally nothing, remains. Kujtim pointed to the school in the far distance – a typically ugly rectangular block. The Kolas hadn’t exactly been flavour of the month with the Communists, so the house had been torn down and its stones used to build the school.

The Zogist Salute

Kujtim Sulmeta, Skënder Gjuci and Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip demonstrate the Zogist salute on the site of the Kola house, destroyed first by the Germans and then the Communists

A branch of the Kola family still live next door, and were in the process of building what appeared to be a small castle of their own. Rather worryingly for their future health, within six metres of a mobile phone mast. We were invited into their old, much more modest – and charming – house for lunch. Which turned out to be one of the best village lunches Elton and I have had (and we’ve had a fair few now). Macukull’s raki turned out to be excellent too.

Over lunch we were told of the Kola family’s resistance to the dictatorship, and how Bilal Kola, a friend of David Smiley’s, had been cornered and shot in the early 1950s after holding out in the mountains with a small band of rebels for the best part of a decade. His remains were only returned to the village after the collapse of Communism (Hoxha seems to have been particularly vindictive when it came to people’s remains; he had the British war graves in Tirana destroyed in the late 1940s).

The Doçi family in Macukull, Albania

The very lovely Doçi family pose with Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip after a long and delicious lunch

After lunch we went for a tour of Macukull, which like many Albanian villages is spread out over a huge area. We stopped in the grimy café for a coffee (and raki). We were reminded how raw the wounds caused by the war still are – the café owner got quite morose about life under the Communists and asked me why the hell we (the British) hadn’t just landed a couple of thousand troops in 1944 and prevented Hoxha grabbing power; and while we were on the subject what had we been doing arming the Communists anyway? Fair enough questions.

An old house in Macukull, Albania

Kujtim Sulmeta shows us one of the old houses that survive, just, in Macukull

The rest of out tour had little relevance to war history, but we did find a few beautiful old stone houses in the process of collapsing – Macukull’s population, around 4,000 20 years ago, has fallen to 1,300 today. And we found more raki, inevitably (one of the pitfalls of visiting Albanian villages is that everyone, but everyone, wants to invite you in for a coffee and raki).

Back in Tirana a few days later I caught up with a modern-day Kola, also named Bilal, a successful lawyer. We met at the British Chamber of Commerce, appropriately enough. Bilal studied in England in the 1990s, staying for three months with the Tory MP and ex-S.O.E. officer Julian Amery. Bilal also spent some time staying with David Smiley, who remained embittered, 50 years on, at Britain’s support for Enver Hoxha and the Communists in 1943-44. (In contrast Amery’s main gripe was that Bilal arrived without any bottles of the Macukull raki he had enjoyed so much in summer 1944.)

Bilal Kola

Bilal Kola nails his colours to the mast. His family and the Communist regime did not see eye-to-eye

(Rather randomly, Bilal’s English skills led him to being recruited as guide and translator for the British comedian Norman Wisdom, when he visited Albania in 2001 at the same time as the England football squad. Wisdom was one of the few Western film stars whose movies were permitted by the Communist regime, and is a comedy legend for Albanians of a certain age; he attracted more press attention than David Beckham.)

We’ll be heading back to Macukull in the next few weeks, but in the meantime you might like to check out this gallery of photographs on the popular ‘social networking’ website Facebook.

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First Blood

Mule path from Labinot to Xibrake

Walking the ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ from Labinot to Xibrake

This embarrassingly irregular blog continues with a post I should have put up, ooo, last September. A shameful delay on my part, but I have to confess it’s not the only long-delayed post in my back catalogue – I have more on Orenje, meeting bears before breakfast, and a research trip to Macukull in the Mati, where David Smiley and various other Special Operations Executive officers had uncomfortably close shaves with German troops. I shall endeavour to catch up…

Anyway, in early September I was keen to pin down the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Enver Hoxha when they unsuccessfully tried to escape German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river between Elbasan and Librazhd. Thanks to my friend Ferit Balla, who holds the unpublished memoirs of the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, I knew just where Davies et al emerged from the hills – the village of Xibrake. I knew they left from Labinot (and just where in Labinot, too). So I figured it would be pretty easy to find the route. Just walk from Xibrake to Labinot… I’d come close to doing it the previous week…

I overnighted in Elbasan, a rather bizarre town that I like a lot if only for its well-attended giro each evening (if you’re not familiar with the giro concept, basically everyone walks up and down the main street at sunset and says hello to one another). An early start and a particularly dicey furgon (minibus) got me to Xibrake nice and early, and off I strode – along totally the wrong path, I would discover shortly. The walk to Labinot was uneventful, and I arrived at the outskirts of the village with the clichéd spring in my step and pressed on to the prominent house which had been Enver Hoxha’s on-and-off HQ (now a museum that doesn’t open).

Albanian villages, I should mention, are very spread out.

I found myself on one side of a valley. On the other was Hoxha’s HQ. I could see what looked like a well maintained path between me and it. The sun was shining. All was good. Until about 300 yards short of the HQ, when the path ended abruptly. No matter, I thought, I’ll cut through the garden blocking my route, smiling inanely at the wizened peasant who no doubt owns it and who would probably invite me in and fill me with raki as soon as I mentioned the words ‘General Davies’ (as he’s known in these parts). Unfortunately the wizened peasant wasn’t at home. His dogs, however, were.

I love dogs. But not Albanian dogs, with the exception of the huge Šarplaninac (Illyrian Sheep Dog). When confronted with a lanky Englishman the Šar, which will happily take on a wolf or bear, will just shrug its shoulders and get on with its core business of guarding sheep or goats. The 98 per cent of Albanian dogs that aren’t Šar, sadly, love nothing better than to sink their teeth into English flesh. They are partisan; Šar are Balli.

There were three of them, and they were small snarly well-beaten brutes not Šar. Due to an oversight on my part I didn’t have a big stick with me (an essential accessory for trekking in Albania). I pretended to have a stone ready to throw, which bought me time, but was quickly surrounded and bitten. Don’t pass this on to the Albanian Dog Lovers’ Association, but I kicked hard and I think effectively. I managed to pick up a few stones and threw them, satisfyingly accurately. The dogs were held at bay and I was able to beat a retreat to the next garden, where I immediately met one of the sweetest families I’ve encountered so far.

A bite from an Albanian hell hound

Ouch. Six months on and still no sign of rabies

They were obviously a bit surprised to have a random trekker bleeding over their vegetable patch, but quickly recovered from the shock and sat me down on their balcony. Raki was produced, but to clean the wound rather than drink, to my disappointment. The man of the house, Agim, insisted on giving me a clean T-shirt to wear, while his wife produced an impromptu feast. A phone call to Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip established my credentials and the purpose of my visit, and Agim, on hearing of our previous failed attempt to get into the museum, walked me up and tackled the mad woman who holds the keys and refuses access. No joy; she’s an immovable object.

Village hospitality in Albania

Typical Albanian village hospitality, spoiled somewhat by a pale hairy leg

The words ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ were bandied about and Agim and his wife walked me down a path and pointed me in what they insisted was the right direction. After profuse thanks I set off. But soon heard shouting – apparently I was going the wrong way. The two of them, who were both well into their sixties and wearing completely unsuitable footwear, then insisted on walking me to Xibrake along the route Davies and Hoxa took back in December 1943 – an ancient and neglected mule path. Never in a million years would I have found it by myself. Two hours later we were in Xibrake, where they waved me off. I tried to give them some money but they refused point blank. It must have taken them three hours to get home, as Xibrake to Labinot is a steep uphill trek.

I hope this gives you an idea of Albanian hospitality – and in my experience, this story is fairly typical. If you’re wondering if it’s a welcoming destination for tourists, the answer I’d suggest is yes. 

There are more photos for your delectation at the S.O.E. Trails Facebook page

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 27 December 1943 – 7 January 1944

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

After another night without shelter in sub-zero temperatures, Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men are in very bad shape. Dawn breaks and the mission’s Albanian guides recognise their mountainside location – the village of Okshtun is visible in the distance. At 07.00 they begin the slow march, arriving at Okshtun around midday. By this time Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, is clearly in need of rest and ideally medical attention – his toes are badly frostbitten. It is decided that the British will remain at Okshtun for a few days, while the Albanian contingent, including Enver Hoxha, head to the remote village of Kostenje.

The mission is to spend an entire week hidden in one room, subsisting on a diet of beans and cornbread. All members of the party have colds, and there is no reading matter. There is just one window, with no glass, through which the wind howls. News arrives that the villages of Martanesh and Orenje, where the mission sheltered previously, have been burned by the Germans. Despite this, the owners of the house show as much hospitality as their poverty allows. Corporal Smith, Davies’ bodyguard, spends three days complaining about what he thinks is a fractured vertebrae. When he finally allows Davies to inspect it, it turns out to be an infected boil. Davies cuts it out, with Nicholls acting as nurse.

On Monday 3 January three armed men enter the house, and leave quickly after finding Davies and the mission. Within 10 minutes, Davies and his mission are back in the hills. They arrive at the pre-agreed rendezvous of Kostenje at nightfall, and to their joy are reunited with Captains Alan Hare and Jim Chesshire, and Sergeant Chisolm. Home is a draughty sheepfold. The weather is getting much worse, and a blizzard sets in. After a few days Davies has a row with the partisan leader Baba Faja, and insists on better quarters. Baba Faja’s own house is filled with food – the British have to beg, borrow and steal what they can.

On Friday 7 Jan the mission’s translator (and spy for Enver Hoxha) tells Davies that the current situation is all his fault, apparently as he had failed to have the nationalist Balli Kombetar group denounced by the BBC. A few hours after this baffling statement, Enver Hoxha arrives to say that he is moving on with the partisan leadership, and will send for the British in a few days. He is all charm. Nicholls’ feet have turned septic. Davies asks Hoxha to send medical aid as soon as he can.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 20-26 December 1943

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country - sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country – sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

Early in the morning of Monday 20 December 1943 Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his SPILLWAY mission find themselves hiding in a freezing forest near the Bizë plateau in central Albania, with Enver Hoxha and several hundred partisans.  Sleep is impossible. At dawn Captain Jim Chesshire and the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver) are sent to find Captain Alan Hare and Sergeant Chisolm, who are leading the mission’s mule train. The waifs and strays are gathered by around 16.00 – the mule column is following close behind. At 19.00 a partisan arrives to say a German column has passed close by. With horror, Davies realises the ‘Germans’ must have been the mule column, with all the mission’s food, clothing and bedding.

Enver Hoxha hides the more elderly members of the LNC ruling council in a nearby cave. The picture he paints in his memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, is of a a cosy cavern with fireplace and warm beds. The reality is quite different (I’ve been into the cave, and will blog about it on another occasion).

Meanwhile, from the hills above Orenje, Kadri Hoxha watches the Germans burn Sulieman Balla’s house, where the British had sheltered previously.

Tuesday is cold and wet. The only food is a dish of beans at 12.00 and at 15.00 a plate of maize flower and water. Davies, after much argument, persuades Enver Hoxha to move south with a skeleton party of no more than 15. Of the British, Davies selects Lt Col Arthur Nicholls and Corporal Smith to accompany him.

On Wednesday morning Davies, Nicholls and Smith say goodbye to Captains Jim Chesshire and Alan Hare, and sergeants Melrose and Chisolm, who will be left to evade the Germans as best they can. Enver Hoxha has decided to bring 35 men, rather than the agreed 15. After two hours march Kadri Hoxha is sent on ahead to find the Bektashi priest and partisan leader Baba Faja. They are very high up and can’t light fires in case they’re spotted. It begins to rain. Kadri Hoxha fails to return before nightfall. The three British have just five chocolate squares each. A miserable night in the open is endured.

Around 09.00 on Thursday morning Kadri Hoxha arrives with a sheep, bread and cheese. A fire is lit and the sheep cooked. They move at 14.00, climbing steadily. There is deep snow, and they are soon lost. Camp is made at 21.00. At one point a partisan drops a grenade into the fire.

Early on Friday morning Kadri Hoxha sets off by himself to find the trail. He returns at 08.30, and by 14.00 the freezing-cold party arrive at the village of Okshtun. They are served a delicious meal of chicken with nut sauce and dry out their sodden clothes. It is Christmas Eve. News arrives that the Germans are camping 2km behind them.

The British rise at 03.00 on Christmas morning, but have to wait for the Albanians, who are finally ready to move at 06.30. They make a long, steep climb over the mountains to the east till they reach a ridge overlooking the village of Fushe-Studën. By now Davies’ boots have disintegrated – their host the previous night placed them too close to the fire to dry out. Despite British misgivings about passing through a village, they cross the plain at Fushe-Studën and start climbing the hills on the other side. About halfway up they come under fire. The leave the track and scramble up the mountainside. At dusk they find themselves above the village of Khorishte, and spend a freezing night in each others’ arms.

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën. Hoxha, Davies et al must have re-crossed the road somewhere around here, then climbed the mountain to the right in near-total darkness

Early on Sunday morning Kadri Hoxha returns from Khorishte to say that no villagers dare take them in. Davies tells Enver Hoxha that he will head south with just Fred Nosi, the mission’s translator. Hoxha angrily refuses and says they have to head back the way they came. Soon they are lost. Corporal Smith’s boots have lost most of both soles. At dusk they re-cross the Librazhd-Dibra road and find themselves climbing a mountain in the dark. At 21.00, close to the summit, the guides announce they are lost once more. The miserable group makes camp; the temperature is well below freezing. There is a gel frost and their clothes are stiff as boards.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 13-19 December 1943

The house Brig 'Trotsky' Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania's WWII history

The house Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania’s WWII history

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, still at the village of Labinot after their unsuccessful attempt to break through German encirclement, kick off Monday 13 December 1943 with a louse hunt. Enver Hoxha tells them a fresh attempt to move will be made at noon on Tuesday. Davies sends a messenger to the rest of the mission, hidden at nearby Orenje. However, acting on earlier orders they arrive at 15.00 anyway. Two brown horses, captured from the Germans, are given to Davies and Nicholls, Hoxha receives a pair of brown field boots.

Tuesday is a fine but cold day. Departure is delayed – it seems till Thursday. Davies spends much of the day speaking with Enver Hoxha. He naively asks if Hoxha is a communist. Heavy fighting can be heard from the nearby Librazhd-Elbasan road.

On Wednesday Hoxha makes the decision to return to Orenje for a few days before making a fresh attempt to head south. The move is made early on Thursday morning. When the mission arrives at the house of Sulieman Balla, they discover an RAF sortie has made it through. They are desperate for warm clothing and food, but the drop is almost exclusively explosives and personal mail and magazines for the British, plus 7,500 gold sovereigns. The local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha flies into a rage, and says he’ll refuse to accept the explosives. Davies learns from Kadri that the local partisan units have dispersed; there is nothing between the mission and the Germans. The sovereigns are dumped in a latrine (they are retrieved the following April).

After a sleepless night, the British stand-to at 05.30. Davies sends out patrols. The day turns out to be sunny, but ferociously cold. A young Albanian doctor tells the British their are 24 sick and six seriously wounded partisans to be cared for. At some point, Davies sends a cable to the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, recommending a change in policy. He says full support should be given to Enver Hoxha’s partisans, and the nationalist forces of the Balli Kombetar and the Zogists should be denounced as collaborators. He supplies a list of names for the pillory including Abas Kupi and Lef Nosi. This is the last signal Cairo will receive from Davies.

At 02.00 on the morning of Sunday 18 December, Davies is woken and told that the Germans are approaching. At 09.30 a German spotter plane drops leaflets over the houses the mission is occupying, calling on the Italian element to surrender and promising them safe conduct. At 11.00 Kadri Hoxha arrives and advises Davies to join the LNC Council at nearby Qurakuq. Davies leaves, and a few hours later the LNC Council arrives; a messenger is sent to bring Davies back.

By now Germans trucks can be heard. The mission, with Enver Hoxha and the LNC leadership, leave Orenje and march seven hours to a wood behind Bizë, where the British originally parachuted in. They can hear RAF planes overhead, but have to signal them to abort as they can’t receive supplies.

Cairo sends Davies a signal in response to his recent cable to the King, congratulating him on his birthday – ‘Could you convey His Majesty’s sincere thanks to Trotsky and those under his command for their kind birthday message’ – but he never receives it (National Archives, HS5/67).

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 6-12 December 1943

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Shkumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours' walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Skhumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours’ walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

The British Military Mission to Albania wakes up on the morning of Monday 6 December 1943 to the sound of a German Storch spotter plane circling overhead. The mood doesn’t improve when news arrives that the mission’s cook, Korca, who had been captured by the Germans, has been moved from prison to a hotel in Elbasan.

At 10.30am on Tuesday Colonel Barbacinto of the Italian Army arrives, and offers his services. His commanding officer, General Azzi, has taken 1,000 gold sovereigns from the British to feed his troops, and has holed up in a remote village; Barbacinto refused to accompany him. Davies can see no use for Barbacinto so sends him to join an Italian contingent hiding nearby. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha arrives and explains that the Bairam festival has started, which will mean much gunfire as people celebrate. He demands more ammunition. An RAF sortie is expected that night, but fails to arrive.

The mission wakes to more celebratory gunfire on Wednesday morning. At lunchtime the muleteers present Davies with a plate of cold lamb, and depart giggling. Overnight, three Italians in Orenje have died of starvation. Davies gives the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha 200 sovereigns to buy food. In the evening radio contact with Cairo is maintained long enough for Davies to send the signal –

“Brigadier E.F. Davies commanding Allied Military Mission in Albania begs with loyal and respectful duty to send his good wishes and those of the British Officers and N.C.O.s of his Mission to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his birthday, 14th December stop Request this message be passed quickly to arrive appropriate date stop” (National Archives, HS5/67)

Thursday is spent waiting for Enver Hoxha to send word that a move to the south is safe. Full moon is approaching; Davies suspects the move has been left too late. On Friday Hoxha sends a note telling the British to be ready to move.

At 11.30am on Saturday 11 December, the first section of the mission moves to Labinot. Translator Fred Nosi hasn’t employed a guide, they get lost and arrive at 19.30 to find a huge bonfire surrounded by partisans singing revolutionary songs. At 20.30 they move on to attempt to cross the Elbasan-Librazhd road and then the Skhumbini river.

The attempt is a failure, the British and partisans are forced to return to Labinot at 03.00am, arriving at 07.00am. Kadri Hoxha had failed to scout the river properly – it is too deep to cross due to the recent rain. He has also attacked local villages, drawing in Balli Kombetar forces. Enver Hoxha is still angry when he writes his memoirs in the 1970s (Kadri Hoxha spent 40 years in prison after the war on trumped-up charges). Gunfire can be heard throughout the day. Enver Hoxha arrives at 17.00 and is suitably contrite. He joins the British for a meal, and is unusually relaxed in their company. Much raki is drunk, and one of the Italian soldiers sings opera arias.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 29 November – 5 December 1943

View down to Orenje, September 2013. Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies stayed in the house with the red roof, bottom left

View down to Orenje, September 2013. Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies stayed in the house with the red roof, bottom left

On the morning of Monday 29 December, Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission wakes to warm sunshine. Davies decides to move the mission to the village of Xiber, in the territory of the Zogist leader Abas Kupi, in the belief that it is easier for the RAF to drop supplies there than the mountains of the Çermenika.

Davies is about to leave for Xiber on Tuesday morning when he is called to the house of the partisan leader Baba Faja, who tells him that he won’t let the mission leave as Kupi is close to the Balli Kombetar, who are collaborating with the Germans. A two-hour argument ensues. Davies, with his translator Fred Nosi, heads to Shengjergj to take the matter up with Enver Hoxha. A meeting is agreed for 1st December.

Hoxha and the LNC Council arrive at Martanesh at 10.30, and stay for lunch. They tell Davies that the mission is surrounded by German forces, and there is a huge bounty on Davies’ head. Hoxha produces a wounded partisan soldier who confirms that rumours of the death of Major Peter Kemp and Captain Tony Simcox in Dibra are true (they’re not). The partisan tells Davies that Kemp was ambushed at dawn and died in a fierce fire-fight. Major Alan Hare later tells Kemp that he knew the story couldn’t be true as Kemp would never be out of bed so early in the morning, and also Kemp’s temperamental Welgun would have jammed before he could fire a shot.

On Thursday morning the mission is once again woken by gunfire – another wedding celebration. Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, unwell and in a bad emotional state, explodes with rage. Nosi tells Davies that Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council are heading south, and want the British to follow. Cairo reports that an RAF Halifax, with five Special Operations Executive officers on board, crashed on its way to Albania.

At 05.30 on Friday, Davies and Nosi leave Martanesh for Orenje.  Nicholls follows with the mission’s mule train a few hours later. Davies is told that the cook, Korca, has been captured by the Germans while shopping for food in Elbasan.

Saturday is quiet. The mission is divided between Martanesh and Orenje. On Sunday Davies and Nicholls lead a de-lousing parade. Major Hare is suffering from worms. A sack of lemons arrives, so Sergeant Melrose makes pancakes for lunch. News arrives that Kemp and Simcox are very much alive. Davies decides he must get out of Albania and report in person to HQ in Cairo to explain the complexity of the political situation. The sky that night is crystal clear, but no RAF sortie arrives.

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