To my shame, until this week I had never read Fitzroy Maclean’s book Eastern Approaches. I have now, and thought it was worth a rather random post.
Fitzroy Maclean, I should point out, is not to be confused with Neil ‘Billy’ McLean. Maclean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 to liaise with the partisans there; McLean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Albania in 1943 to work with the partisans there. Maclean was supposedly a model for James Bond, McLean wasn’t. Simple.
Despite being focused on Tito and Yugoslavia, Eastern Approaches does have some relevance for Albania. Two parts in particular grabbed me. The first will probably be familiar to Brits, but hopefully new for Albanian readers. I think it goes a long way to explaining British policy in the Balkans during the war.
In November 1943 Maclean was pulled out of Yugoslavia and reported directly to Churchill in Cairo. He had an audience with the great man, who was reclining in his bed, smoking a cigar, resplendent in an embroidered dressing gown. After telling Maclean about his recent meeting with Stalin, and asking the young officer if he wore a kilt when he parachuted, Churchill got down to brass tacks, saying that the Allies were going to throw their weight behind Tito and withdraw help from the nationalist leader Mihajlovic and his Cetnik forces. All fine as far as Maclean was concerned, but he did see a sticking point –
I now emphasized to Mr. Churchill… that in my view the Partisans… would be the decisive political factor in Jugoslavia after the war and, secondly, that Tito and the other leaders of the Movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system which they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly orientated towards the Soviet Union.
The Prime Minister’s reply resolved my doubts.
‘Do you intend,’ he asked, ‘to make Jugoslavia your home after the war?’
‘No, Sir,’ I replied.
‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘And that being so, the less you and I worry about the form of Government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans?’
On January 18 1945, with the war in Europe slowly coming to a bloody end, Churchill made the same point in the House of Commons, Maclean recounts…
‘We have no special interest in the political regime which prevails in Jugoslavia. Few people in Britain, I imagine, are going to be more cheerful or downcast because of the future constitution of Jugoslavia.’
What was true for Yugoslavia was doubly true for Albania, which, for the record, has just one reference in Eastern Approaches‘ index.
The second passage to stick in my mind concerns the arming of the Yugoslav partisans. A couple of weeks ago I met a young Albanian chap at a party in Tirana, who mentioned that he’d just finished Albania’s National Liberation Struggle: The Bitter Victory, by Reginald Hibbert. Hibbert was a junior SOE officer who went on to become ambassador to France. A few of Hibbert’s fellow officers were convinced he was part of the supposed communist conspiracy to subvert SOE, even refusing to attend reunions if he was present (Hibbert certainly had left-wing leanings).
In his book Hibbert tries to quash the myth, or rather theory, that SOE was responsible for delivering up large chunks of the Balkans to the Soviets. My copy is in Tirana, unfortunately, and I’m not, but Hibbert makes great play of the fact that the number of weapons dropped to Hoxha’s partisans was, in the great scheme of things, relatively small and therefore didn’t have much to do with Hoxha’s rise to power. The young Albanian chap found this hilarious, pointing out that if he was given 40,000 WWII-era rifles today he’d probably be able to defeat the modern-day Albanian army and take over the country himself.
Hibbert’s focus on tonnage also rather misses the point – what really counted was prestige. Something that Maclean is all too aware of –
The change in our attitude also had an important psychological effect. All the prestige which the Cetniks had hitherto enjoyed as a result of Allied support was now transferred to the Partisans…
As often happens, these developments coming one after the other had a snowball effect. Allied support and supplies had brought more volunteers; better equipped and more numerous, the Partisans had been able to increase the scale of their operations; their success in the field had, in turn, brought in larger stocks of captured weapons and, incidentally further increased their prestige; so that in the space of a few months the Movement had gone from strength to strength.
Those Albanians who do have some knowledge of British involvement in their country during the War, and our role in bringing Hoxha to power, tend to take the (ironic) view, ‘Thanks for that…’ I sometimes find it hard to disagree with them.