Category Archives: BLOs

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.  

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 7-8 January 1944

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies (centre) with Fred Nosi (left) and Major Neil 'Billy' McLean, at Bizë October 1944

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies (centre) with Fred Nosi (left) and Major Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, at Bizë October 1944

We left Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and the remnants of his SPILLWAY mission in the village of Kostenje, where he hoped to lie low and give his men time to recover from their forced march over the mountains of the Çermenika massif.

My main source both for this blog and for tracing the mission’s route on the ground has been the diary kept, against orders, by Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, which was unearthed by Dr Roderick Bailey when researching his book The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, and is now held by the Imperial War Museum in London. I thought it would be interesting to throw into the mix a few pages from Enver Hoxha’s somewhat scurrilous memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania (which you can find as a free PDF here; it’s actually quite a good read if you can cope with Hoxha’s verbosity and the repetition of “so-called” every other page).

It’s fair to say that Hoxha’s memoir, published in the early 1980s,  is unreliable on all sorts of levels.

After we had completed all our preparations for the march, through the snow and winter blizzard, I went to the house where the General [Brig Davies] was staying. I sat down. He offered me a cigarette and I talked to him about the plan. He was worried, kept looking at the Colonel [Nicholls] and seemed as if he wanted his permission.

«Let the Colonel decide,» he said. The Colonel was sitting on a stool.

I said with a laugh, «Whether or not the Colonel likes the idea…» And I reached over to where he was sitting and slapped him on the knee. I could not finish my sentence, because he gave a loud cry followed by a deep groan.

«Excuse me,» I said. «Did I hurt you? What’s the matter?»

«I am very ill, Mr. Hoxha,» he said. «I can’t move. I am afraid my leg is becoming gangrenous.»

«What? How is it possible, Colonel?» I said in surprise. «Why didn’t you inform me earlier, so that we could take urgent measures? General, we must save the Colonel’s life. Have we your permission to act?»

«Do you have any possibilities?» he asked me.

«Dr. Dishnica must see him in the first place, and then I think we must transfer him as quickly as possible to Tirana. We have our doctors there,» I replied.

«But is this possible?» asked the General in astonishment.

«We can get him to Tirana within a few days and the operation can be done immediately,» I said.

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

After consulting with Nicholls, the General told me they would be grateful if we could get this underway quickly and expressed the desire that Nicholls should be sheltered in the home of one of their men, a bey of Jella, if I am not mistaken.

«Wherever you like,» I replied, and without delay sent couriers urgently to instruct the comrades of Mat and Tirana to organize a refuge for the Colonel and the operation on him as quickly as possible. The General thanked me for our concern and the speed with which we were acting to save the Colonel and said that in these conditions he could not leave the vicinity of Tirana until the Colonel was better.

«That is understandable,» I said. «Then you shall stay with Baba Faja. He is on the way here if he hasn’t come already, and you will stay with him and his forces here, or perhaps in some other nearby zone.»

Baba Faja came and met the General. We said goodbye. I shook the General by the hand saying: «I’ll see you again in the zone of Korça,» but we never met again.

During those days a British Lieutenant called Trayhorn 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 [future Financial Times chairman Captain Alan Hare] 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 with- drew. 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.

Next time I’ll give the British version of events…

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 22-28 November 1943

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his men wake up to heavy rain on the morning of Monday 22 November 1943. The Mission’s wireless officer, Lt Frank Trayhorn, reports that the radio link with HQ in Cairo is being blocked by a powerful jamming station. Rumours are circulating that British soldiers have been killed in the town of Dibra to the northeast.

On Tuesday Trayhorn manages to make contact with Cairo, and is told that Billy McLean and David Smiley, the first SOE officers into Albania, have made it across the Adriatic to Italy (by this time they are in Cairo and have been offered rooms in a house in Zamalek, named Tara). Davies decides that the very sick Major George Seymour and the NCO Corporal Jenkins should be evacuated using the route  McLean and Smiley took.

Throughout Wednesday morning German aircraft circle over the village of Martanesh, where the British Mission is hiding. Trayhorn is forced to shut down his transmitter. Seymour and Jenkins are sent to the village of Shengjergj on the first stage of their planned escape to the coast. When night falls, the Mission can hear rifle fire close by.

The Mission wakes to more rifle fire on Thursday morning – but are told a wedding is being celebrated. Captain Jim Chesshire is sent to the village of Orenje to establish a new base at the house of local chieftain Beg Balla.

By Friday the British have almost run out of petrol to charge the batteries of their transmitters. Lt Col Arthur Nicholls spends an hour on a pedal charger. The Bektashi priest and guerrilla leader Baba Faja pays a visit, complains about the lack of supplies coming from the British, and is given 200 gold sovereigns. Contact with Cairo is made at 12.00. In the evening just one lamp is lit to conserve fuel.

The weather improves on Saturday. Davies orders a lice and flea hunt. A mule train with fresh supplies is expected, but fails to arrive. Davies, Nicholls and their translator Fred Nosi inspect some caves, but decide they’re not suitable for hiding (Enver Hoxha thinks differently in a few weeks).

Sunday is the 28th – Albanian Independence Day. The British Mission wakes to the sound of gunfire, which they now know is merely the locals celebrating (using British-supplied ammunition). A small mule train arrives with food. Davies visits Enver Hoxha at Shengjergj and tells him he will instruct Cairo not to send more weapons unless Hoxha agrees to end the war he’s declared on the nationalist grouping, the Balli Kombetar. Hoxha is furious.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 15-21 November 1943

Sgt Jenkins of the Special Operations Executive checks the sights on a notoriously inaccurate Sten gun, presumably when he was in better health than November 1943 (National Archives)

Sgt Jenkins of the Special Operations Executive checks the sights on a notoriously inaccurate Sten gun, presumably when he was in better health than November 1943 (National Archives)

The big push to catch up with events in the mountains of Albania, 70 years ago this year, continues…

With the Germans closing in, Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies orders stand-to at 05.30. The camp is almost out of food, so the chef Korca is sent on a supplies hunt. Fred Nosi and Major Jim Chesshire leave the camp for nearby Martanesh to try and find accommodation close to the Bektashi priest and guerrilla leader Baba Faja; the intention is to hide the very sick Sgt Jenkins there along with one of the Mission’s wireless sets.

In the evening Major George Seymour, who has been in Albania since August, arrives at camp with Corporal Smith. They have narrowly escaped from a German attack at Peza, close to Tirana. Seymour has malaria, has lost all his kit, gold and wireless set, and his wireless operator, Corporal Roberts has been killed despite the heroic action of Smith, who tried to drag the already-dead Roberts to safety under German fire.

An RAF supply sortie is expected, but fails to arrive.

More bad news on Tuesday. Davies second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, is diagnosed with dysentery. The British Mission can hear mortar fire all day. In the afternoon Davies spots suspicious figures, who at a distance appear to be wearing German great coats. All kit is packed in expectation of a rapid move. At 22.30 RAF planes can be heard overhead, but there is too much cloud cover for them to drop their supplies. Half an hour later a message from Enver Hoxha arrives – the Germans are getting close. Davies orders an immediate evacuation. Much valuable kit has to be left behind.

At 03.00 on Wednesday morning the British leave Bizë in a large column, with over 100 mules carrying their equipment. Major Seymour and Sgt Jenkins are both extremely unwell. The column reaches Martanesh at around 08.00, and Baba Faja secures accommodation by 13.00. All sleep, apart from Davies and Nicholls, who watch a German ME109 fighter plane circle overhead. In the evening they meet with Baba Faja, and Davies tells him the partisans’ only hope is to head south to regroup in an area where the Germans are less strong.

On Thursday morning Davies decides he has to speak to Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council. Captain Alan Hare (a future chairman of the Financial Times) is sent to Bizë to salvage abandoned kit, but it has already been looted by Italian soldiers (Italy had surrendered in September 1943, and about 10,000 Italian troops remain in Albania with no means of support).

Davies meets Enver Hoxha at Labinot on Friday, and they row over Hoxha’s failure to open up a sea-supply route. It is decided to leave Alan Hare at Bizë with the local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, who speaks good English. In the evening Davies signals the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, telling them that he doesn’t yet recommend exclusive support for Enver Hoxha and the partisans.

Saturday is a quiet day – Davies returns and tells Nicholls that Hoxha is clearly extremely worried about the German drive.

On Sunday Nicholls and Davies go off to scout a possible new HQ, but Davies turns back, worried that it’s too dangerous for the Mission’s commanding officers to be together and exposed to capture. The already weak Nicholls presses on alone in heavy rain, and returns at 19.00 in a very bad way. Radio contact with Cairo is lost.

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

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 31 October to 7 November 1943

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky's day (National Archives)

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky’s day (National Archives)

Apologies for falling behind so quickly. As well as these brief posts on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, I have several posts to get up on my exploration of the Çermenika mountains over the summer and autumn, as I trace the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, Enver Hoxha and co as they attempted to escape German encirclement in winter 1943/44. Hopefully I’ll get them all up by Christmas… Who’d have thought a simple blog about long-forgotten events in Albania 70 years ago could be so time-consuming? 

Sunday 31 October saw the first meeting between Davies and Enver Hoxha. It’s pretty strained – Hoxha is convinced that Davies is an intelligence officer rather than a regular soldier co-opted by the Special Operations Executive, and refuses to believe that the Brits’ brief is simply to fight the Germans. He even comes to the conclusion that the mission’s true purpose is to prepare the ground for a return by King Zog (or so he claims later in his memoirs). When Davies tells him that he won’t supply arms to the partisans if they use them to fight their fellow Albanians, Hoxha hits the roof.

Monday is a depressing day – the weather is getting colder at the Bizë HQ and the partisans present a few German prisoners who plead with Davies to help him. He can do nothing and assumes they were shot.

Tuesday is freezing cold. Two members of the Balli Kombetar (nationalist Albanian group opposed to the communists) arrive to announce that the Zogist leader Abas Kupi is at nearby Shengjergj. Davies and Nicholls enjoy a beautiful horse ride to the village, meet Kupi, and are then eaten alive by bed bugs when they sleep over.

Wednesday sees an inept broadcast by the BBC Albanian service guaranteed to alienate the entire country, both nationalist and communist. Davies sends a furious cable to Cairo, and also asks them to get the BBC to denounce by name the Regency Council installed by the Germans. This creates a kerfuffle in Cairo as SOE’s Albania advisor, Margaret Hasluck, had been the lover of the regent Lef Nosi before the war, and is still deeply in love with him. In the nearby village of Labinot, Enver Hoxha releases a letter declaring war on the Balli Kombetar and any Albanians who don’t support the partisans.

Lt Col Nicholls’ health is deteriorating, and he spends most of Thursday sick. In the evening Michael Lis, a Polish officer, arrives at Bizë and walks through the camp guard without being challenged and (wrongly) reports the death of a British mission in the Dibra region.

Enver Hoxha visits on Friday and stays for a cheerful lunch. Artillery can be heard in the distance. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha is furious to discover that Davies has named his horse Kadri.

Nicholls remains ill with dysentery on Saturday 6 November. News is filtering through that civil war has broken out.

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