Category Archives: Arthur Nicholls

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

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

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…

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 2

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

My last post covered the first day of my brief stay at the village of Fushe-Studën, on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park to the north of Librazhd. This time I’ll tick off Day Two, which involved a lot of faffing about in the mountains, and an awful lot of raki.

And this time I’ll add a gallery of photos, which you can see here.

Anyway, picking up where I left off…

The bed at Hotel Hasa turned out to be extremely comfortable, or maybe I was just tired. Anyway, I woke up early and was out the door by seven. After a quick espresso I strode off manfully down the road, much to the amusement of the inevitable bunch of languid Albanian men at Hasa’s café, who found my combo of khaki shorts, skinny pale legs and bulky Salomon boots a cause for merriment.

Not much happens in Fushe-Studën.

Enver Hoxha

Enver Hoxha

Anyway, the plan was to find the track taken by Brig “Trotsky” Davies and Enver Hoxha after they crossed the Diber-Librazhd road on Christmas Day 1943. Hoxha, whose chronology and geography is slightly dodgy, wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to Albania

We crossed the Librazhd-Dibra road at Studa Flat and began the climb up Letëm Mountain. Night fell when we were in the forest on Letëm Mountain where we slept huddled together. We and the British had one tent. They ate chocolate and biscuits while we ate maize bread, a morsel of cheese and an onion, but even those supplies we had were running out. They drank whisky to warm themselves up; we melted snow and drank water to quench our thirst.

The following day we moved in the direction of Qarrishta. Another long march through the snow and the biting north wind. During the march I frequently gave a word of encouragement to the General who was red in the face and from time to time took out a small flask to drink a mouthful of whisky. At no time was he generous enough to say:

«Have a mouthful to warm yourself up, Mr. Hoxha!» He and his colonel were continually munching chocolate. By way of a joke I said to him: «Don’t eat it all at once, General, because nobody knows how long the partisans’ road may be. See, we don’t eat on the march.» In fact we had nothing to eat. When we reached the forest of Qarrishta, the vanguard informed us that we could go no further towards Çermenika e Vogël in the direction of Mokra or towards Bërzeshta, because reaction was extremely strong there. The Ballist çetas of Aziz Biçaku and others were on the alert and had blocked all the roads, passes and tracks. We had no option but to turn back towards Okshtun.

(Hoxha has a real bugbear about Davies’ meanness. I used to assume it was nonsense, like so much else he wrote, but discovered recently that the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha described Davies as a “Uriah Heap” in his unpublished memoirs, so who knows. The British officers munching chocolate thing is a recurring obsession of Hoxha, however. He has Billy McLean doing it all the time, and McLean didn’t even like chocolate…)

Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, wrote in his diary at the time (which sadly I’m not allowed to quote from due to the Imperial War Museum’s scary legal team) that the party was spotted as it crossed the road and came under fire about halfway up a ‘saddle’ in the mountains to the east. They took a sharp right off the track to avoid ambush, scrambling up the mountainside, finishing up almost on their hands and knees. On top of the mountain, as dusk fell, they found themselves in ‘terrible’ crater-pocked terrain, with no sign of a track. They spend a freezing night above the village of Khorishte, and in the early hours are told they will have to go back the way they came due to a heavy German and Ballist (anti-communist) presence.

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies' party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies’ party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Being an optimistic chap I assumed I would simply walk up the track, hook a right at a likely point, skip to the top of the mountain and find myself in crater-land. So naive.

It took me the best part of two hours to find the track. Although you can clearly make it out from the ridge on the other side of the valley, finding where it starts is another matter entirely. Eventually a bemused chap with a large hunting rifle pointed me in the right direction. Once on the track, which supposedly twists over the mountains from Fushe-Studën to the village of Quarrishte, it’s hard to go wrong. At least till the track ends, randomly, about an hour’s walk uphill. I tried pushing my way through the bushes but decided I really needed a machete, a pair of long trousers and a local guide – I’m sure the track continued further ahead but the chances of my finding it were roughly nil. Trouble is, no one uses these tracks any more and they have a disconcerting habit of tapering out without warning. I really didn’t want to spend the next week wandering lost in the forest.

This I think, is as far as Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

This I think, is as far as Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

I wasn’t too concerned as I was convinced by then that I had found where the “ambush”, such as it was, happened. I doubled back and investigated more thoroughly. A rocky gully, with plenty of cover, and a clear line of fire to an exposed stretch of the track. If I was in charge of a team of nervous Ballists trying to prevent anyone breaking out of the German encirclement, I’d sit tight here. A few men with rifles could hold off a superior force with relative ease.

I walked back down the track a hundred yards or so and, lo and behold, there was a perfect escape route going up the mountain side. Steep, but do-able. I headed up figuring that to find my way back I just had to walk downhill till I hit the path. It was tough going, and got a lot steeper. Too steep for me, and surely too steep for Davies and the others, who were by then in a very sorry state and at the limits of their endurance.

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

I hooked left and skirted the side of the mountain, soon finding a very faint path heading up through the trees. I took it, and climbed higher till I came across some inexplicable earthworks – a horizontal path, or what I thought might even be a primitive acquaduct, that appeared to sit just below the summit. I walked it for about an hour – it led round to the other side of the mountain, facing Macedonia, where its purpose became clear. It was a defensive structure, almost certainly from the communist period when Hoxha spent most of Albania’s limited wealth building bunkers and fortifications against an invasion that never came.

It got pretty overgrown here, so I walked back to where I joined it, and decided to scramble up to the top of the mountain. Only about 100 yards or so, but tough going. And, dammit, no craters. My legs were pretty badly scratched up by this stage, and I didn’t fancy pushing on through the undergrowth. It was also well into the afternoon and the thought of getting caught on the mountainside in fading light wasn’t attractive, particularly when I was finding poo like this –

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There's nothing to give a sense of scale here - take it from me, it was one big poo

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There’s nothing to give a sense of scale here – take it from me, it was one big poo

So I began the descent back to Fushe-Studën.

It felt like a day of achievement, so I decided to stop for a beer at a roadside shack-cum-car-repair-spot. The owner of the shack was delighted to have a customer, particularly an English one, so sat with me. He spoke no English, I spoke no Albanian beyond the booze-and-food-related vitals. After a beer, my new friend suggested a raki, from his hip flask – “Special raki!” It would have been dull not to. Soon the hip flask was empty and a fresh supply was produced from inside the shack. Weirdly by this stage either my Albanian had improved dramatically or Arian (for that was his name) had miraculously managed to learn English. Either way, we were communicating pretty effectively. Such is the power of raki.

Arian's 'special' raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff...

Arian’s ‘special’ raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff…

As the presence of a foreigner is big news in these parts, we had been joined by an assortment of local types, all eager to know what the hell I was up to. At one point there must have been a dozen or so men of various ages gathered around Arian’s picnic table, one of whom was horrified to hear that I’d spent the day in the hills by myself “Orsa!” he said. “Lupo!”. To illustrate the point he bared his teeth and made claws with his fingers. I was pretty relaxed about bears and wolves at that stage, taking the view that a skinny Englishman isn’t a great delicacy; I’m slightly less sanguine now having discovered that no local will wander alone in the more remote parts of the Çermenika without serious artillery.

Eventually Arian and I decided it was time to eat. I offered to buy him fish at the Hasa Hotel which excited him greatly (“Peshk! Raki! Mere!” – “Fish! Raki! Good!”). We walked to his car, a VW Sharan which turned out to be a right-hander from the UK. Arian insisted that, as it was an English car, and I was an Englishman, I should drive. After a dozen or so glasses of raki this seemed like an excellent suggestion. So in we hopped and a course was set for the Hasa Hotel (about half a mile away, hard to miss seeing as there’s only one gravel road through Fushe-Studën). Arian had fitted a DVD player and killer sound system, with a small TV screen pretty much in the footwell. He put on a semi-pornographic Bulgarian pop video (all Bulgarian pop videos seem to be semi-pornographic), cranked up the volume, and wound the windows down to spread the joy.

We had a slight setback on arriving at the Hasa Hotel to discover that Hasa had gone to Durrës on business, so there was no fish or food. Luckily Arian had a back-up plan – mesh! Turned out there was a small shack selling char-grilled lamb back the way we’d came. More raki was drunk, and we were joined by a very nice mute who disappeared after ten minutes or so, soon to be joined by Arian. I found them outside, changing the from tyre on the VW. Seemed I had managed to run over a nasty stone and give it a puncture, and they had hoped to switch tyres without my noticing (they didn’t want me to feel guilty).

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

After filling up on truly excellent lamb, cheese, bread and salad, accompanied by Tirana beer and raki, to my dismay a bill was presented. I didn’t have the required funds (2,500 lek for the three of us, I seem to remember – it felt right to treat the tyre-changing mute to a feed), as I hadn’t anticipated any shopping opportunities in the hills and had taken only a few hundred lek. No matter, Arian, the mute and I jumped in the car and headed over to Hasa Hotel, where we had a beer (I tried to order more raki but was told that we needed beer to refresh).

The meat man and his grill

The meat man and his grill

Arian and the mute asked to see the food bill and had a small fit. Apparently the avuncular meat-griller had inflated the prices in honour of my Englishness. A crowd of local men gathered round and with great ceremony each price on the bill was crossed out and replaced with a lower figure. “Tourist price!” declared Arian, shaking his head angrily at the grill-man’s villainy. There was much tutting from the onlookers. The ceremony culminated with Arian tearing up the original bill and casting the pieces theatrically over his shoulder. In the end I think he took 1,500 lek off me to pay the poor chap on my behalf (about €11).

With much shaking of hands and declarations of undying raki-based friendship, Arian, the mute and I parted. The next morning I snuck onto the Librazhd minibus at 7am, wondering if in the cold light of day Arian might be less relaxed about my having burst one of his tyres…

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 1

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls' diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls’ diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

I’m told that regular posting is the essence of good blogging, so apologies for the protracted gap. My excuse is that since the last instalment I’ve visited most of the key spots on the route of next year’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, along the way being savaged by a pack of terrifying Albanian killer hounds. So I have a lot of catching up to do…

Let’s start with my first trip to a village called Fushe-Studën, to the north of Librazhd (remarkably it has a Facebook page).

Davies and his team, along with Enver Hoxha, arrived here on Christmas Day 1943, as they attempted to break out of German encirclement. The main Librazhd-Dibër road (currently gravel but due for asphalt within a year or three; current traffic about a dozen vehicles an hour) runs through the village and, frankly, there’s not a more exposed spot to cross for 20km in either direction. The Brits were not happy, according to the diary kept by Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, now held at the Imperial War Museum London. With good reason – the party was seen, and came under fire as they walked the trail up the mountains on the other side of the road. They went off-piste, and ended up spending a freezing night at an altitude of about 1,800 metres, before being forced to turn back the way they came. Two weeks later Davies was in the bag.

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a bit of an accommodation issue in the Çermenika region. Fushe-Studën, remarkably, has a hotel – Hotel Hasa (thanks to UNICEF honcho Detlef who blogs at Palm Tree Productions for tipping me off). So I decided to stay two nights. If the hotel was any good, I figured, it’d be an interesting option when the trek happens for real.

Well, the location isn’t bad – Fushe-Studën is right on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, which stretches to the border with Macedonia to the east. The park is beautiful (pictures to follow in a few posts) and has forests in which lurk brown bears, grey wolves and the famously elusive European lynx. As for the hotel… Well, it was a mixed experience. The owner, the eponymous Hasa, is living the Albanian dream – he owns a gas station, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a hotel. It doesn’t get better than that. But he’s not going to be profiled in Condé Nast Traveller any time soon. The room itself was clean (though a trifle bizarre in layout and more than a trifle brown), the bathroom less so. In fact whatever had last been deposited in the loo had clearly tried to climb up the side of the pan in a forlorn effort to escape before finally losing its battle with the flush. A few spots of congealed dark yellow urine had been left on the seat as an artful flourish. Of hot water there was none.

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn't

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn’t

What there was, was a lot of puzzlement from the usual collection of espresso-and-raki drinking men in Hasa’s coffee bar as to what I, a tourist, was doing in Fushe-Studën. Luckily I had a rare Albanian copy of Davies’ memoir, Illyrian Venture, which brought some clarity to the situation. Raki was poured and the jokes began as to who was a communist and who a Ballist (Albanian nationalists, mostly liquidated after the war by Enver Hoxha). The idea of walking for pleasure, though, remains alien to 99.9% of Albanians.

But walk I did. It was afternoon by now, so rather than strike out into the hills I circled the village and tried to get a sense of the landscape and figure out where Davies et al would have arrived from, and where they would have headed. Now, this is where I got a little bit confused. My main source for pinning down the route, as well as the diary kept by Nicholls, is Enver Hoxha’s memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Hoxha, a city boy, did not know the Çermenika – in fact he apparently developed such an aversion to the area that he never visited again after he came to power. Some editions of Hoxha’s works include a map of the route. At the time of my visit I assumed the map was right, more or less. But when you walk around Fushe-Studën, it doesn’t make much sense.

This, I think, is the 'saddle' mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

This, I think, is the ‘saddle’ mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

The communist-era map has the group reaching the village from Okshtun (which I visited a couple of posts ago), then making an anti-clockwise circuit as far as the village of Qarrishtë, on the other side of a tributary of the Shkumbini river. The Brits have the group arriving at a ridge above Fushe-Studën and making for a ‘saddle’ in the hills opposite before heading over the highest part of the mountain. No river is mentioned, not that this means they didn’t cross one.

I’m 99% certain I stood on the same ridge as Davies. As far as I can see, there’s a shortlist of one, assuming you’ve arrived on the mule track from Okshtun. You can see the ‘saddle’ opposite. There’s even an old trail that leads up it (which I walked the following day). But the communist maps had the party striking off to the right (west, really), which would have them climbing the track over the hills behind the Hasa Hotel. The circuit would then have them re-crossing the road to the east.

Trouble with this is Nicholls’ diary says when they re-cross the road they were forced to climb an almost impossibly steep mountain. And the steep stuff is to the west of Fushe-Studën, not the east.

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You'll notice there's not a lot going on there

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You’ll notice there’s not a lot going on there

Does this really matter? Well, it does to me. Thankfully, I’ve since been lucky enough to spend some quality time with the unpublished memoirs of Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), a local partisan leader who was guiding the group. His beautifully rendered map has the group arriving at Fushe-Studën, and making a clockwise circuit. They never crossed the river; instead spending several freezing hours lost in the woods on the mountain that separates Fushe-Studën from the river. This ties in with the topography and the Nicholls diary. The simple explanation for the confusion is that Enver Hoxha’s memory was slightly dodgy after three decades of absolute power (he wrote The Anglo-American Threat in the Seventies).

Why didn’t Enver’s minions ask Kadri’s advice? Probably because he spent 40 or so years after the war in the slammer as a suspected British spy.

Anyway, with light fading and confusion reigning I headed back to the Hasa Hotel, looking forward to a big plate of mish (lamb), pilaf (rice) and një gotë verë të kuqe (a glass of red wine). “No mish,” Hasa told me quite definitely, after a bottle of red had been opened. “Peshk“. So peshk it was – turns out the Hasa Hotel’s redeeming feature are several large fish tanks fed by a fresh-water spring. Hasa’s wife produced a truly delicious fish supper that would make put a smile on any tired trekker’s face. With strict instructions on the importance of bathroom hygiene, and an enquiry into the hot water situation, the Hasa Hotel might just find its way onto the Endurance Vile Trail itinerary after all.

Delicious fresh fish - the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

Delicious fresh fish – the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

More on Fushe-Studën to follow…

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The first tourist in Okshtun

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

One of the frustrations in scouting the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 is that no one in Albania seems to have any familiarity with the area it took place in. Bizarre really, as it’s so close to Tirana. There’s no tourist infrastructure, no paved roads (until last year, when tarmac reached Shengjergj, a half-hour or more west of Biza, where Davies parachuted in) and no helpful websites. I had hoped to walk a fair stretch of the route in May, but the bizarre monsoon conditions put paid to that. But it’s August now and I’m back in Albania, so last week I hired a 4×4 and went in search of two key villages, Okshtun and Kostenje.

Normally on a trip like this I’d have my partner-in-crime, Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip with me, but his wife Vilma has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl (Nina, congratulations to them both). Instead I roped in a recently graduated tourism student, Edwin Brovina, to translate.

We headed to Librazhd, a six-donkey town about 25km east of Elbasan, and then struck out north. Due to a good dollop of EU cash, the road was brand-new and perfect for about 20km, then ended. We drove on dirt for about three hours, till a couple of helpful chaps told us we had passed the Okshtun turn. We doubled back, found the turn (unsigned, of course) and bumped our way down it. The track came to an end and we walked into Okshtun. Only it turned out to be a village called Lejçan instead.

We got a good welcome though, first from a tiny little old lady festooned with gold jewellery, who spoke a language Edwin couldn’t identify, let alone speak. At the next house we met the Limoni family, who sat us down, gave us coffee and the inevitable raki, and explained the little old lady spoke Macedonian (the border’s a bit fluid here). They also gave us the temporary use of their son, Erjon, to guide us to Okshtun, which they assured us was in the next valley.

The road to Okshtun

The road to Okshtun

Frustration No.2 of organising the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ is that there aren’t any professional-quality photos available to ‘sell’ the area to prospective trekkers. There still aren’t – I just took snaps on my mobile (you can see a gallery here). But take it from me, this is a lovely area. Okshtun is about a half-hour from the main (gravel) road, down a seriously underused dirt track. A few old stone houses clinging to the slopes of a fertile, green valley. It used to be home to over 100 families, apparently, but now there are just seven or so.

We parked up when the track ended and were greeted by a bemused young man wearing just a pair of underpants (it is August, after all). Not unnaturally, he was curious as to why we had come. Edwin explained I was a tourist interested in Enver Hoxha and General Davies. Erblin (for that was his name) did a double take then jokingly punched the air – apparently I was the first tourist to visit Okshtun. Erblin was soon joined by his father, Refek, who sat us down and proved himself the consummate host, taking us down to the river for a welcome swim.

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it's unlikely he took a dip

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it’s unlikely he took a dip

Refek, though, didn’t know anything about the war. Disappointing, as elsewhere in these parts there’s a strong corporate memory. Davies came here twice, in fact, the first time on Christmas Eve 1943, for one night, then returned for an extended stay from 27 December to 2 January 1944. He and his team were in a bad way by then – his second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, was already suffering from the frostbite that was to contribute to his death a few weeks later.

The diary Nicholls kept, against orders, notes that they enjoyed a delicious dish of chicken with nut sauce on Christmas Eve. Refek had 60 chickens though no nut sauce, and was keen for us to stay for a BBQ (and raki), but we had to cry off as we didn’t fancy negotiating the roads at night. A shame – Refek struck us as a man who’d know how to do a mean BBQ.

Refek's son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

Refek’s son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

As you’ll see from the photos, the houses in Okshtun are pretty ropey, so a home-stay is off the agenda here. It’s a perfect place to camp, however, particularly with Refek toiling away over hot charcoal and Erblen pouring the raki.

I’m not allowed under pain of death to quote from Nicholls’ diary without permission, due to the Imperial War Museum’s team of crack lawyers, but Enver Hoxha wrote of Okshtun in his deeply untrustworthy Anglo-American Threat to Albania (available as a free PDF here). Hoxha’s chronology is a bit dodgy as he has the bedraggled group arriving in Okshtun for the second time on Christmas Eve, when in fact that was the day of the first arrival, but you’ll get the general idea…

Night had fallen by the time we reached the base where we were to stay and our hosts had come out in the snow in the darkness to welcome us. They embraced us and took us inside. We took off our dripping coats and handed our rifles to the head of the house, who hung them on the wall, one beside the other. The small ante-room was warm. A great sense of satisfaction stole over us. The General watched with pleasure and curiosity how we embraced the people of the house, how we handed over our rifles, took off our boots and shoes at the entrance to the room, and he did his best to follow suit.

Our host opened the door of the big room with the fire-place and invited us in.

‘Please, come in, my home is yours.’

‘You go first,’ I said, giving the General the honour. We entered the room. It was truly a miracle, not only for the British General, but also for us, who were the sons of this land and this people. After such a wearying journey through the forest, sometimes on and sometimes off the track, through snow and blizzard, we entered a room of a peasant’s home which made the Englishman exclaim: ‘What a miracle! Can I be dreaming?’

Our host asked me where the General was from and what language he spoke. I introduced the General to him.

At the head of the room there was a big fire-place, with a blazing fire which spread warmth and light from end to end. Two or three kerosene lamps had been lit and at the one end of the room, snow-white sheep-skin rugs had been laid out, with pillows in clean pillow-slips to rest on. In the middle of the room was a big Dibra carpet, while corncobs in regular rows like soldiers were hanging from the rafters over- head. Neither beams nor roof could be seen, only the corncobs glowing like gold in the light of the fire.

‘This is marvellous! This is paradise!’ murmured the General. ‘Even in dreams I could not have imagined such a Christmas night.’

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

‘You see what the homes and hearts of the ordinary Albanians are like, General,’ I said. ‘They truly are paradise without Mammon or God, as in your Milton’s Paradise Lost. Perhaps you remember Lord Byron’s beautiful verses full of feeling. In his Childe Harold he pointed out the fine virtues of the Albanian and wrote:

The Suliotes stretched the welcome hand,
And piled the hearth, and wrung their garments damp,
And filled the bowl, and trimmed the cheerful lamp,
And spread their fare; though homely all they had.
Such conduct bears Philanthropy’s rare stamp.’

‘Yes, Mr. Hoxha,’ said the General, ‘what Byron wrote about you Albanians I am seeing in reality and in difficult times which the world is going through.’

‘General,’ I said, ‘this hospitable atmosphere which our host has created reminds me of what I have read about the life of Byron. It was in such an atmosphere that the great English poet who had gone to Greece to fight for the freedom of the Greek people lay on his death bed. When the Albanians and their valiant leaders — Marko Boçari, Kolokotroni and others, were fighting all around Missolonghi, those who were serving the poet on his death bed were Albanians — the Suliotes.’

‘In find your words very moving, Mr. Hoxha,’ the British General replied.

‘Byron has written about this generosity and hospitality of our people, too. Somewhere he relates how, while he was travelling in Albania and night overtook him in a village, he was obliged to seek shelter in a house where he was welcomed with all the good things they had. Before he left the next day, Byron brought out his money to pay. His host said indignantly: ‘No, the Albanian does not want money but friends.’ And Byron remained a true friend of the Albanians.

Our host loaded the table with food, as is the custom of the people of Dibra. The General rose to his knees, put his hand on his heart to express thanks whenever his host offered him cigarettes, or clinked glasses with him. Our weariness disappeared immediately. The General opened his eyes in astonishment and asked me: ‘I cannot understand where we are here, in the city or in the countryside?’

‘We’re in a village, the inhabitants of which have fought for freedom since ancient times. They are poor, but when friends and comrades come they do everything possible to avoid being disgraced. This is how our whole people preserve the traditions of our ancestors, General,’ I told him.

‘What an astonishing culture you have! What politeness!’ exclaimed the General.

Nicholls’ version is, ahem, slightly different.

Kostenje, Refek told us, couldn’t be reached by car so I’ll be walking there soon. Instead, the next day we visited Orenje, which I’ll post about next time…

Bread and honey as served by Refek - the honey was just out of this world

Bread and honey as served by Refek – the honey was just out of this world

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Local Interest

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

Despite unseasonal temperatures (it’s freezing!) and heavy rain in Tirana, today has been a good day. Having posted about how Albanians tend not to know too much about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, this morning I met a man who knew plenty – Professor Ferit Balla. Davies and a few other officers even hid up in his family house, in the village of Orenje, for a brief time in December 1943, as they tried to evade the Germans. That didn’t work out too well for the Ballas. The Germans dynamited the place, and a lot of other houses in the village, in January 1944.

Ferit and his son Herold are both excited at the thought of September’s Endurance Vile Trail – in fact they’ve long harboured ambitions to rebuild the (currently derelict) family home as it was 70 years ago, using only traditional methods (apart from the plumbing and power, obviously) and launch it as a guesthouse.

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha's memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha’s memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Balla brought along a thick book that sat on the table until I dared ask what it was. It turned out to be a volume of the unpublished memoirs of the local partisan leader, Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), who was with Davies’ party as it tried, unsuccessfully, to slip through the enemy’s lines. Kadri Hoxha was sometimes viewed as a bit of a figure of fun by the British. Davies named his horse after him, to Kadri’s annoyance. But after the mission was cornered, he did much to save Major Alan Hare, who spent several weeks as a solitary fugitive, almost unable to walk due to frostbite.

How did Professor Balla get hold of the memoirs? Hoxha’s wife gave them to him after her husband died in the late Nineties. They hadn’t spent too much of their long marriage together – shortly after the war Hoxha was accused of being a British spy, and spent most of the years 1945-1991 in various Albanian prisons. A fairly typical story. When one SOE operative, Dr Jack Dumoulin, revisited the country in 1992 he met a nurse who had once assisted him, Drita Kosturi. She had been tortured and then imprisoned in a labour camp for over four decades, as Rod Bailey recounts in his The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. Her crime? The communists found she had a card that read ‘Captain J. G. Dumoulin, RAMC’.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Junk History

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

One of the things I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that those Albanians who were lucky enough to be educated under communism are already dimly aware that British Liaison Officers were sent to liaise with Enver Hoxha during the War. In some parts there’s a slight obsession with the thousands of gold sovereigns we Brits supposedly left buried all over the place – I’m sure some folk suspect I’m a gold hunter.

Hoxha wrote about the various BLOs parachuted to work with him in his memoir The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, which is available as a free PDF on the interweb, along with most of his other scribblings, at this beautifully designed communist website. It’s actually very readable, though probably not as reliable a historical document as, say, The Bible. Trouble is, a lot of his anti-British slurs have stuck. Particularly one particularly nasty lie about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies, who led the SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44 that excites me so much and has inspired September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Dr Roderick Bailey.

Only a couple of nights ago, as I was slurping the excellent Albanian wine at one of my regular haunts, Juvenilja, the loquacious maître d spoke of Davies ‘surrendering’ to the Germans. I protested, pointing out that Davies had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the heel, was unable to walk and on the verge of death (he drifted in and out of consciousness for a month under surpassingly compassionate German care in Tirana). It cut no ice with the maître d, sadly. The image of Davies as an ineffectual coward was too deeply ingrained.

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Hoxha’s account of Davies capture in TAATTA is given below. I don’t know who holds the copyright to his works, but as they’re freely available online I’ll quote at length. I’m sure Hoxha himself would approve, property being theft and all. Love the use of <<>> for quotation marks, by the way –

During those days a British Lieutenant called Tray horn [sic] had surrendered to the Germans. It seems he had told them everything about the General, where he was staying and his plans. On the day after we left, January 8, the Ballists of Azis Biçaku and a platoon of German soldiers moved in on the sheepfolds of Kostenja, where the partisans with the British General and four other people were located. The partisans, led by Baba Faja, began to fight off the attacks from the four sides. Baba Faja led the fighting, directing the attacks on the enemy in order to break through the encirclement and enter a nearby forest and at the same time protected and opened the way for the General. Shouting, «Take care of the General!» Baba Faja continued to fight in the vanguard to cover their withdrawal. Nicholls and another British officer also fought together with the partisans to break through the encirclement. In the heat of the battle the partisans saw that the General was not moving. Some of them went back to get him, but to their astonishment saw that he was leaning against the trunk of a tree with a red silk sash draped across his chest and shouting and gesturing to them to go away. Meanwhile Frederik, while fighting alongside Nicholls, heard the General say to the Colonel:

«Go on, I am hit. You take charge!»

«Very good, sir, goodbye!» replied the Colonel.

A number of Ballists and Germans were killed and the firing stopped. The enemy withdrew. After the battle, the partisans discovered that the British General was missing. Exhausted, completely discouraged, he had thrown away his weapons and surrendered without firing a shot.

The report about the event reached me at Shmil, when we had made all the preparations for our journey and were almost ready to start for the Korça zone. The General who had advised us to surrender had long been planning to surrender himself. Thus, he found the moment and made his plan a reality.

Hoxha wrote this in the 1970s, 20 years after Davies published his own memoir, Illyrian Venture, which Hoxha surely had translated into Albanian for his own private consumption. Perhaps Davies’ interpreter (and Hoxha’s spy) Fred Nosi read it to him as a bedtime story.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Rod Bailey has terrified me with tales of what happens to historical bloggers who quote too much from published sources without paying the requisite groats to the (predatory capitalist) publishers concerned, so I’ll use plenty of … as I share Davies’ version. Here he and his mission are climbing slowly up an exposed hillside under enemy fire, shortly after being assured by Baba Faja’s commissar that the area was clear of the enemy (‘It is impossible, my General, we have spies in every village, every track is watched, we are bound to get at least two hours’ warning…’) –

We were getting within reach of the forest and I was thinking we would soon be safe, when a burst of Spandau fire came from our right front. I felt as though a horse had kicked me hard in the ribs. I spun round and fell into a snowdrift in a gully on my right. Behind me, Chesshire had been hit through the thigh, the Italian, Colonel Barbacinto, through the neck, and an Albanian partisan through both thighs. They too fell into the gully…

Bullets were still cracking around continuously… I shouted to Nicholls, ‘Go on, I’m hit – you take charge.’ He looked down at us in horror; the one thing he had not wanted to happen had happened. He was ill, weak, and in no state to march, still less to take on the responsibility of the Mission at a time of disaster like this. He just said, ‘Very good, sir, goodbye,’ and went on climbing painfully.

Davies and the other wounded were dragged through the snow to a nearby sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sgt Jim Smith, who held the Ballists off till his revolver was empty, then used his fists till he was overwhelmed. I won’t go into too much detail about this as Smith is a real hero, and will get a post of his own in the next couple of weeks.

Hoxha was mistaken about a number of Germans being killed. No Germans were killed for the simple reason that no Germans were present. Davies was captured by Albanians led by the local Ballist commander Azis Biçaku, and handed over to the Germans four days later after being carried out of the mountains on a stretcher.

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

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

Davies later heard a report that Hoxha had warning of the attack, and left Davies and his mission to draw it while he and the LNC Council slipped away, but adds –

Palmer [Lt Col Alan Palmer, who worked with Hoxha in 1944 and gave strong support to the LNC] was quite definite that there was no knowledge of the future disaster and that Enver was genuinely upset at the turn that events took. 

Finally, I should point out that Hoxha’s suggestion that Lt Frank Trayhorn betrayed Davies is simply not credible. Trayhorn had been separated from Davies and Nicholls from about 18/19 December, so 20 days earlier, and his last information would have been that they were heading east to break out of the German encirclement. Trayhorn probably wouldn’t have known where Davies was even had he had wished to betray him. There is no evidence that Trayhorn experienced any rough treatment at German hands after his capture, too, so for Hoxha’s accusation to hold any water Trayhorn would have had to voluntarily share information that he almost certainly didn’t have.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja's Bektashi shrine

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja’s Bektashi shrine

One of the intentions of this blog, as well as raising awareness of SOE’s wartime activities in Albania, is to map out a trekking route following in the footsteps of the ill-fated ‘Spillway’ mission of winter 1943/44. I’ve taken to referring to this putative route as the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’. Why? Well, that’s how Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, who led the mission, described his party’s experience, a few days before being shot through the liver and heel and his capture by the Germans (remarkably he survived, only to end up in Colditz after a brief stay at Mauthausen concentration camp).

I’m pleased to say that we have some provisional dates for the inaugural ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ – and a pretty good tour leader too.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

Dr Roderick Bailey, author of the acclaimed The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, will be leading the first group, sometime in the second half of September (precise dates TBC). We’re capping numbers at 12 for a number of reasons – not least the fact that there aren’t any hotels in the villages we’ll be visiting, so much like the SOE officers themselves we’ll be relying on the hospitality of local people.

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

The trail will follow the route outlined in the diary kept against regulations (and re-discovered by Roderick during his research) by Lt Col Arthur Frederick Crane Nicholls, the only member of the Coldstream Guards to be awarded the George Cross. The award was posthumous, sadly. His diary entries end in mid-January 1944 when, suffering from severe frostbite and gangrene, and unable to walk, he was forced to seek medical help. He died on 11 February 1944 in a house near Tirana. By then diary-keeping duties had passed to Major Alan Hare (future chairman of the Financial Times).

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

The diary, today held by the Imperial War Museum in London, makes for painful reading even 70 years on. A typical entry –

Sunday 26 December 1943
2100 hrs having nearly reached the summit, the guides, after much questioning, have to admit they have lost the way! The decision is taken to make camp but if we are to survive the night fires must be lit. Our clothes are already standing out stiffly round us like boards and every twig and branch is heavily covered in gel frost. To stand still for a moment is to court frostbite and death. BEKTASH and VALI, our fire-lighting experts, with some paper from a notebook, two candles from A.N.’s [Arthur Nicholls] emergency reserve and the most gallant determination eventually get a fire going against all probabilities. Everyone fights like mad to help it along, notably E.F.D. [Brig Davies] and F.N.’s [Fred Nosi, an Albanian partisan] tremendous and courageous puffing. It is a fight for our lives. Once the fire is going there can be no relaxation and incessant movement of the limbs is essential. We are all suffering badly, particularly in our feet which have now been consistently wet and frozen for more than a week. E.F.D.’s boots are causing him endless trouble and A.N.’s feet, due to bad circulation, are in a very poor way. Cpl SMITH has broken his boots in the leg and they must now be cut to get them on.   

We’re hoping that September’s trek will be considerably less demanding (the weather should be better and we won’t expect anyone to march up an exposed hillside under heavy fire, for instance). However, it will involve long days on foot in mountainous country, scrambling over challenging terrain, and probably a couple of nights camping out. We’ll do our best to plan in luxuries such as hot showers and sit-down loos, but these can’t be guaranteed – the area we’ll be in has no tourist infrastructure. Indeed, it only got a tarmac road last year, and that ends prematurely.

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

I’ll be mapping out the route this summer, and shall obviously be posting about my experiences anon. Arrangements on the ground will be organised by Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip. We’re confident that the first Endurance Vile Trail will not be the last – the landscape is beautiful and unspoiled, the locals incredibly welcoming (and generous with their raki) and the story of the Spillway mission utterly compelling.

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

BA flies to Tirana from London Gatwick from about £69, and we will announce prices once precise dates are confirmed. To register your interest, ping an email to me at soetrails@gmail.com

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A walk in the park

2013-03-10 10.49.45

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.

2013-03-10 10.50.50

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.

2013-03-10 10.50.22

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.

2013-03-10 11.05.16

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”.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: