Category Archives: Anthony Quayle

Billy McLean, Boxes and Brits behaving badly

Neil 'Billy' McLean's private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Neil ‘Billy’ McLean’s private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Wednesday saw me booked into the temporary reading room at London’s Imperial War Museum. The main museum is undergoing a £35m (€41.5m) refit, and will open again this summer, with its main gallery dedicated to the Great War (as a largely irrelevant aside, for a snapshot of Britain in the run-up to WWI read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England). Meanwhile researchers have to squirrel themselves away in a redbrick Victorian pile a stone’s throw from Elephant & Castle, possibly the most depressing spot in London.

My visit, the first of four or five days in IWM London, was for the private papers of Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, one of the key British Liaison Officers to serve in Albania. McLean is not to be confused with the much more famous Fitzroy Maclean, Churchill’s personal envoy to Tito in Yugoslavia, author of Eastern Approaches and supposed model for James Bond. McLean’s private papers, I had been forewarned, were a) copious and b) uncatalogued. Waiting for me were six large cardboard boxes, pictured above.* There’s a job of work here, I thought.

Ever have one of those moments when you know you’re in for a good day? Well, I had that when I saw the first page of the first file in the first box. It’s worth quoting here in full –

I found that the actual parachute jump was one of the most pleasant I had ever made. Far more pleasant than the five practise [sic] jumps I had made in the S.A.S. Training Camp at Kabrit. It was also far less difficult than I had imagined it would be. Sometimes in Cairo after a particularly debauched night, I would lie in the afternoon on my bed in Shephard’s [sic] Hotel and imagine the scene of the operational jump. The green light and everyone looking ghostly and strained, and outside cold and very black. The slip-stream rushing by and the hollow feeling in the stomach and invisible hands, some pulling one out, others pulling one back. The absolute certainty that the slipstream would knock one against the side of the aeroplane, so that the parachute would not open properly, or perhaps only half open, or perhaps not open at all. The unknown land below so cold and dark and menacing. One literally sweated. But, in fact, the operational jump was a piece of cake. Like nearly all things that one is worried or anxious about, the thing itself is so much less bad than one’s idea of it. This, of course, is also true of good things one hopes to happen. They also fall almost always far short of one’s expectations or desires.

Possibly only boredom and hate, illness and bad temper, quarrels and unsuccessful relationships with people are worse than one imagines.

McLean starts as he means to go on – often his diary, written up from notes when he was an MP after the war, reads more like the skeleton of a novel. Perhaps he was planning to fictionalise his experiences, as did Anthony Quayle (Eight Hours From England) and Jerry Field (Three Seconds to Die – I appear to have bought the last available copy and it’s arriving any day now; hopefully it’s totally bonkers like its author). McLean was a highly literate man, after all. In his pack on that first jump were the complete works of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique and all the Russian classics. Guns and grenades would have been far too common.

It’s fascinating seeing how he expanded on his diary notes. For instance, this –

6) Aleco
The stage communist. Unshaven, dirty clothes, long finger nails. Produces paper, rough manners. Contempt. Tries to be much older. Affected way of narrowing eyes in order to look sinister. Way of accepting tea. I despise these comforts but it doesn’t make much difference. These unimportant things.

Becomes –

Aleco
Young, speaks French, reasonably educated. He never washes and he has a brown speckly colour. He acts as a stage communist, always sinister and secretive. He has an affected trick of narrowing his eyes, as if about to pass the death sentence on some enemy of the people. He often took out of his pocket letters which were probably directives from the communist party. After studying them studiously he heavily marked them with the blunt stub of his pencil. Aleco always accepted a cup of tea very ungraciously as if he disapproved strongly of anyone being able to offer to anyone a cup of tea, or anything else. But, as such habits existed in the evil capitalist world he thought it was probably simpler to accept the cup of tea as, anyway, very little time remained for these bourgeois capitalist customs to continue. Aleco also was very suspicious of all of us and had very bad manners. So he was not the best of company. Sometimes he would stare at the perfectly ordinary map of Argyrocastre [Gjirokastër] area for about 1/2 hour on end or even an hour mouthing out the names of the villages under his breath.

Smiley (left) and McLean

Smiley (left) and McLean

And fascinating too to see his thoughts on other British Liaison Officers. He’s surprisingly candid about the limitations of his close friend, David Smiley (who rode beside the Queen’s carriage at her coronation 70 years ago this year). He notes Smiley’s contempt for Albanians with some regret, such as his words to a partisan who made an early call on their HQ: “Get out you bastard – I will not have Albanians in here before breakfast.” And more disturbingly, Smiley’s reaction when a wounded partisan was brought to them –

“God, they’ve even started bringing the wounded here now… The Best thing he can do is to die and save us feeding him.”

And when the partisan did die –

“Thank God for that anyway, that’s saved us a lot of trouble.”

Last Christmas lunch I sat next to a retired brigadier who had known Smiley. I got the impression that he wasn’t a man you’d go to if you needed a shoulder to cry on, but still. His reading matter for that first mission, it’s worth mentioning, was the latest copy of Horse & Hound.

McLean’s candour raised some difficult issues for me. Namely, how honest should I be in this blog. A few SOE officers, though none who served in Albania (I think), are still alive. The children and grandchildren of the various BLOs could very well be hurt by McLean’s scathing character studies. If you’ve grown up thinking grandaddy was a brave irregular soldier, risking his life behind enemy lines, you won’t want to hear that his colleagues considered him to be, well, a useless plonker. But it occurred to me that I’d have no such compunctions over the various Albanian characters who swim in and out of the picture. The men and women of SOE, like it or not, are part of history now. I don’t think it’s right to censor oneself for fear of offending their descendants. And some of McLean’s portraits are just too sharp, too telling, to pass over. My approach, I think, will be to namecheck BLOs when portrayed negatively, if it’s absolutely necessary. If I can get away without attaching the negativity to a name, I’ll do so. So here’s McLean on ‘John’, a BLO he encountered in Greece. He starts off slowly –

A slow, pleasant, but somewhat stupid country Englishman with a streak of animal cunning.

But soon gets into his stride, describing him later as –

… a young and pig fat man with a Yorkshire accent – very healthy and German-looking. One day I saw him sitting among a miserable group of emaciated peasant children, pale, spotty and sleepy with hunger. He was smacking his lips and ordering enormous quantities of food. The idea suddenly came to us that to keep John alive some fifty peasant children were being deprived of their food. Every time John sat down to a meal we used to count —– 51, 52, 53…

German propaganda in Albania painted the BLOs as young, spoiled brats who didn’t care if their actions brought destruction to a village. It perhaps wasn’t a totally inaccurate portrayal. I was reminded of a fragment of Sandy Glen‘s report of early 1944, written after a stint sharing a cave on the coast, Seaview, with Jerry Field, who had taken to shooting at Albanians on sight –

Partisans tell of British officers sending peasant boys fifteen miles through enemy-patrolled country for a bottle of raki. I believe this is true. Bal Kom [Albanian nationalists opposed to the partisans] shepherds have been shot at by British officers simply for approaching a camp in the hope of scrounging a mug of coffee. Liaison has been a one-sided affair, the sort of liaison between a grubby fourth form schoolboy and an unapproachable form master armed with a large cane.
(National Archives, HS 5 / 57)

A reminder that not all BLOs had McLean’s sensitivity or subtlety. I have five more boxes of his private papers to work through. Interesting times.

*Photography is strictly prohibited in the reading rooms, but the staff were kind enough to make an exception after I pointed out that a photograph of six cardboard boxes wouldn’t bring the Imperial War Museum tumbling down.

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Tragic Tragjas, Sapling 7, and an Albanian murder mystery…

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

I’ve just got back from a trip down to the ‘Albanian Riviera’. The main purpose was to look at property – I’m currently house-hunting in those parts with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com (more usually known as Toni). That’s a whole story in itself, and will get a separate post on another occasion. All I’ll say now is that three days later my blood is still about 30 per cent raki.

En route to the Riviera we took the time to drop in on two villages closely associated with the British Liaison Officers in the Vlorë region (known to them as Valbona). First was Tragjas, which sits in the hills looking across the Bay of Vlorë to Sazan island. A serene spot, despite the eyesore of Orikum, a deeply unlovely stretch of concrete apartments on the plain below. Tragjas is two villages now – nondescript new Tragjas, and tragic old Tragjas. What was once clearly a rich, thriving community is now a tumbling collection of ruins. On Easter Saturday 1944 (8 April) the local German garrison marched in, along with men from the nearby village of Dukati, and found British equipment including parachutes. The next day they razed the village to the ground. Tom Stefan of the American OSS reported that ‘the women were lined up and pistols had been fired over their heads. The poor kids were terror-stricken even when I arrived’ (quoted in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province).

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

It shows the delicate game Albanian villages had to play during the war – something that the British Liaison Officers often failed to appreciate when they asked local men to help them attack the Germans. Or, in the case of Tragjas, used a village as a base for air sorties. In his wonderfully barmy post-war memoir written for the Cheshire Regiment magazine, The Oak Tree, Jerry Faure-Field, one of the most active BLOs in Albania (right up till the moment he blew himself up fishing with plastic explosive, anyway), recounts the time he organised an air drop only a mile from Tragjas.

‘The sun was just rising when the last of the parachutes, which were of all colours, white, red, yellow and green, was under cover. Five minutes later I heard the drone of an aeroplane, I shouted to everyone to take cover. In the clear morning sky a [Fieseler] Stork slowly circled the mountain tops… The village of Tragjas was in pandemonium. We had kept the forthcoming sortie a secret…’

A later air drop which saw the locals better prepared ended in disaster. In the early hours of 19 October 1943 Sapling 7, a Halifax bomber from 148 Squadron in Libya flew across the Med to drop supplies and two more SOE operatives, Captain Alfred Careless and Signalman David Rockingham, to Field. A briefing note on the drop zone written by the pilot, Flight Ltn William Forester, was found in his belongings back at base – ‘Climb quickly, left handed or else.’ For whatever reason, Forester was unable to climb quickly enough, and crashed into the mountainside above Tragjas, killing all on board. Toni and I were planning to walk up to take a closer look, but a local shepherd assured us that nothing remains – he and his friends had sold everything for scrap. We’ll head back in May and investigate more closely.

The Sapling 7 crash appears to have pushed Field over the edge – or at least the callous reactions of the Albanian partisans he was with at the time did. By December he had holed up at a cave on the coast, known as Seaview, and was sending increasingly bizarre cables to Cairo of which more anon, and shooting at any Albanian who came near him. The one exception was a man from Dukati, Xhelil Çela, who also became a favourite of Field’s replacement, Anthony Quayle, and another temporary resident of Seaview, Sandy Glen. In his autobiography, Footholds Against a Whirlwind, Glen remembered the time Çela guided him to the German gun batteries south of Vlorë, which Glen had orders to photograph.

Çela had me up at four for the last lap. It took another eight hours’ hard walking until suddenly the ground ahead began to drop away and then, almost at our feet, was Saseno [Sazan] in the middle of Valona Bay. Linquetta [the Karaburun Peninsula] and its guns were 600 feet below, a quarter of a mile distant.

“Well done, Çela,” I said. “We can edge a little way forward and make our sketches, and we ought to get some good photographs.”

“No, no,” he said, nodding his head vigorously as Albanians do when they disagree, “We have picnic with the guns.” And fumbling in his rucksack he drew out an enormous cold turkey.

Before I had time to disagree, he was off downhill taking his usual enormous strides, and I had no alternative but exceedingly reluctantly to follow.

By the time I caught up with him, Çela was setting out a clean white cloth, with the turkey and a bottle of wine on it. The guns were 100 yards away with a few Germans moving between the buildings alongside them and apparently taking no notice of us. My appetite withered. Çela’s hospitality was as inexhaustible as his own appetite, however, and the picnic was the nearest to eternity which I have ever endured. As we finished, Çela smiled at me and said, “Good turkey, good wine, hope good guns too…”

Roderick Bailey had asked me to drop in on Dukati and ask after a chap called Bilbil Vangeli, who he had got drunk with on raki back in 2005. As a teenager Bilbil had been a guard and errand-runner at Seaview. Remarkably, after a quick enquiry at the village café, Bilbil was able to join us for a cup of tea. At the age of 89 he has given up on raki, coffee, cheese, fatty foods and cigarettes (high blood pressure). His nephew made sure I had plenty of raki, though. We spent a great couple of hours discussing his experiences.

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil’s memory, forgivably, isn’t what it was but he was still able to recall the exact date he ‘retired’ – the day in April 1944 that the Germans shot his elder brother, Selam. He also had good recall about one very intriguing incident, the murder of Ismail Carapizzi, an Albanian OSS agent who was found in February 1944 shot in the back and stripped to his underwear, on a remote coastal path. The identity of the murderer has never been in much doubt – 20-year-old Mysli Kali (who drowned in the late 1940s; his wife still proclaims his innocence). Bilbil added a rather melancholy postscript.

It seems that for whatever reason, the Carapizzi family thought that Çela was implicated in Ismail’s murder – a highly unlikely scenario from all I’ve read of Çela, and one that Bilbil certainly discounted (‘From my impression they were very close,’ he said). In late 1944 Çela’s body was found in the River Po in Rome just a few days after he had approached Anthony Quayle for help. ‘The rumour is that Carapizzi’s family thought that Çela had been part of the plan so they managed to murder him in Italy. This is what everybody says. They tied a stone around his neck and threw him into the Po. Xhelil was a big guy, so there must have been a few of them.’

Çela’s SOE personal file survives in the National Archives, but is closed till next January. I might have to put a Freedom of Information request in…

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A walk in the park

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Sunday morning saw a visit to the British military graveyard in Tirana’s park. A beautiful day; spring-like, in fact. Families strolled, kids played and, as is normal for these things, no one paid a blind bit of notice to the memorial. Apart from one woman, talking into her mobile phone. She read out the inscription on the large red granite memorial in perfect (if slightly puzzled) South London English that belied her distinctly Albanian looks, before moving on.

Sadly the gravestones themselves don’t sit over the actual remains of the soldiers and airmen they commemorate. Immediately after the war great effort was made to find the various bodies, and bring them to single site in Tirana. The officers who led this mission were harried at every turn by the communist regime, but still managed to find almost every body. Then, when Albania turned to self-imposed isolation after 1947, the graveyard disappeared, bulldozed on the personal orders of Enver Hoxha. Even by his standards a curiously vindictive action. Some of the men whose graves he desecrated were known personally to him, such as Arthur Nicholls.

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An attempt was made to find the remains a second time in the early Nineties, after the fall of communism. Sadly it was unsuccessful. Headstones were erected, though, and that imposing slab of red granite was found going spare in a government warehouse. It used to sit on top of Enver Hoxha’s body, till that was moved by his contrite family from its site in central Tirana to a village nearby. His name was covered up with grey slate, on which is written the inscription you can see below. Delicious irony.

Memorial at British War Graves, Tirana

Memorial at British War Graves, Tirana

It’s very moving to see the names of the various soldiers who lost their lives in Albania, particularly when you know the stories behind their deaths. Philip Leake, head of SOE’s Albanian department till June 1944, when he was killed by a German bomb. Corporal Button, who drowned when trying to evacuate the country later that summer.

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And Gordon Layzell, who trained in Cairo with Anthony Quayle, and always packed his pipe too tightly, as Quayle remembered in his autobiography, A Time To Speak:

Brian [Ensor] and I took ourselves off most nights to have a look at the belly dancers, but Gordon would never go out; he stayed at home, read the Bible and wrote letters to his fiancée. He was experimenting with smoking a pipe, and one day asked me to show him how to pack it; it seemed rather hot, he said. He showed me how he rammed the tobacco in, and I wondered how he had any lining left inside his mouth.

“But why do you want to smoke a pipe?” I asked.

“Because,” he explained. “I’m sure we shall see quite a bit of action in Albania, but there are bound to be periods of boredom. I thought that if I learned to enjoy smoking a pipe, it might get me through times of frustration. Even loneliness.”

Layzell died on the night of 1 February 1944 when, under the (wrong) impression that the house he was in was on fire, he hurriedly slung his Mauser machine pistol over his shoulder. It went off, taking the back of his head with it.

German war memorial, Tirana

German war memorial, Tirana

I also visited the German war memorial. The surprise here was the number of names carved into its eight stone slabs. There was also a small personal tribute to one soldier, Peter Deutsch, who died just after the Italian capitulation in September 1943.

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I might have to investigate where, and how. I do wonder if he had a run-in with Jerry Field, a particularly pugnacious British Liaison Officer who was very active immediately after the Italians threw in the towel. But now I’m off to Quayle Country – better known today as the “Albanian Riviera”.

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