Category Archives: Cairo

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.

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Soviet Moles in SOE Cairo. Surely not?

Was this man really running SOE Cairo?

Was this man really running SOE Cairo?

A few months ago I posted a piece saying that it was impossible to understand what was happening in Albania over the winter of 1943/44 without an understanding of what was happening in Cairo, from where SOE ran its Balkan operations. Well, the same goes for Yugoslavia – without a good grasp of the factors that drove the British to back the Stalinist Tito over the Anglophile Mihailovic (who we built up as a hero, then ditched) very little in Albania makes sense either.

Unfortunately, this way madness lies. You’ll soon find yourself up to your neck in a Balkan tangle of conspiracy theories, the gist of which is that SOE Cairo had been infiltrated root-and-branch by Soviet moles who distorted intelligence from the field, thus hoodwinking Churchill into backing Tito, and delivering Yugoslavia to Stalin (for a few years, at least).

If you want to enter this web of intrigue, an entertaining if not necessarily reliable starting point is The Rape of Serbia, written in the late 1980s by Michael Lees, a BLO who served with Mihailovic’s Çetniks (it’s all online here). Lees, it’s worth pointing out, was a real hero, but seems to have had unfortunate views on Serb nationalism in light of what happened in the Nineties (he died in 1992).

On a smaller scale, so the story goes, the same thing happened with Albania – thanks to treacherous commies in Cairo, we armed and supplied the ruthless maniac Enver Hoxha over nicer chaps like the charming Abas Kupi.

Dr Roderick Bailey, who covered all the conspiracy theories off in his PHD, takes the view that yes, there were communists in the Yugoslav and Albanian sections and, yes, they would have distorted intelligence as and when they could. But it didn’t make any difference in terms of Churchill’s decision to back Tito, as Ultra decrypts of German signals were crossing his desk daily. These quite clearly proved that Tito was creating more problems for the Germans than Mihailovic and therefore was the man to back.

There’s a convincing article about it here, by John Cripps, taken from the book Action This Day.

But I’m not going to let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy. I grew up in a left-wing household, and knew from an early age that not only are there reds under the bed, but also the only reason they come out from under the bed is to take a bit of exercise by marching through our institutions. Certainly they had no interest in doing any housework.

So Ultra be damned – let’s pretend we don’t know about it and get back to Soviet moles, which make for a much better story.

Stalin's man on the SOE Yugoslav desk - James Klugmann

Stalin’s man on the SOE Yugoslav desk – James Klugmann

In his (brilliant) memoir No Colours or Crest, Peter Kemp recounts that he was briefed in London by Ormond Uren (soon to be caught passing secrets to the Russians), arrived in Cairo to be met by (the communist) Basil Davidson, then bumped into an old Cambridge acquaintance, James Klugmann (quite definitely a Soviet mole and invariably described by Lees as ‘sinister’, though ‘smelly’ might have been more accurate according to his colleagues). Both Davidson and Klugmann worked in the Yugoslav section.

In Sons of the Eagle, Julian Amery suggests a similar Staliny flavour to the Albanian section in SOE Cairo, as does David Smiley in Albanian Assignment. In fact, in the Nineties Smiley even claimed that signals front the field were brazenly torn up in the office, if they cast Hoxha’s partisans in a bad light.

(It’s only fair to point out that Peter Kemp fought in the Spanish Civil War, for Franco, Julian Amery’s brother John used to deliver cheerful radio broadcasts from Berlin and was hanged for treason in 1945, and David Smiley’s politics, such as they were, can best be described as Mein Kampf filtered through Horse & Hound.)

It’s worth mentioning too that the section’s Albanian expert, Margaret Hasluck, walked out in February 1944 in disgust at what she thought was pro-communist bias (and was immediately replaced by a mentally unstable communist called John Eyre, who later claimed he’d been recruited by the Soviets in the Thirties). Interestingly, the SOE Map Room was a source of much of her anger. She thought the maps, studded with lots of impressive pins indicating partisan control, bore no relation to reality. Michael Lees claims that on his return from a stint with Mihailovic’s forces, the BLO Jasper Rootham was so furious when he saw the map of his region that he swept all the pins off and then upbraided Klugmann.

Maps mattered. Lees quotes a December 2 1943 cable sent to Churchill from Desmond Morton, his personal assistant –

“SOE Cairo has given me for you a copy of their MOST SECRET MAP showing the disposition of the Partisan forces and Mihailović as at 8 A.M. this morning December 2nd. . . . This map shows the position much better than the one you receive daily in London. The London version suggests that the Germans hold most of the country with the Partisans hiding in inaccessible districts. Cairo’s operational map, which is corrected daily from the large number of operational telegrams which they receive from the field, shows almost the reverse to be the position. The Germans are holding all the main lines of communications but the greater part of the country is in Partisan hands. The Cairo map also shows the very small districts now held by Mihailovic.”

On December 10 Churchill made the decision to ditch Mihailovic and back Tito, following a two-hour briefing from his old friend William Deakin, who had been wounded with Tito in Yugoslavia. (Funnily enough, that morning Deakin had written a glowing reference for Klugmann to MI5, assuring them that he was in no way a security risk).

Philip Leake, Watrous' who ran SOE's Albanian section till being killed by a German bomb at Shepr in June 1944 (National Archives)

Philip Leake, who ran SOE’s Albanian section till being killed by a German bomb at Shepr in June 1944 (National Archives)

But back to Albania. I’m not convinced the Albanian section was particularly biased in favour of Hoxha’s partisans while Hasluck was in situ. Its head, Philip Leake, even wanted to remove one BLO, Bill Tilman, as he worried he was too pro-partisan. But Leake was killed in June 1944, and was replaced by a young man (just 21 or 22 at the time) named Elliot Watrous.

Watrous enjoys his first trip to Albania (National Archives)

Watrous enjoys his first trip to Albania (National Archives)

It’s hard to believe a small department like the Albanian section could have been a festering hotbed of communism if the boss wasn’t on board. So was Watrous a commie?

In The Wildest Province, Rod Bailey writes that Watrous’s sons recalled that he was a “‘staunch conservative and libertarian’ whose antipathy to socialism almost prompted him to emigrate when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister”. A colleague from Cairo, John Naar, didn’t think he was left-wing at all (conspiracy theorists alert – Naar was a socialist so no doubt part of the plot).

I don’t think Watrous thought much about politics; in fact I think his main focus was chasing FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, usually chosen for their looks when employed by SOE). But I do think, at the time, he was a lefty. Most of the army was, by then – the Communist Party of Great Britain had done a hell of a job radicalising it. Google “Forces Parliament Cairo” if you don’t believe me.

In February 1945, when Hoxha’s true colours were becoming clear, Margaret Hasluck, now a private citizen, wrote to Sir Andrew Ryan, who she knew from her pre-War days in Albania –

“He [Watrous] is very largely guilty of the present position. Being half-American and ambitious as the young naturally are he decided that the Partisans were the paying side and backed them exclusively… he had sole say in what information should be given… Not one word about [Abas] Kupi’s exploits – or indeed much about those of these officers – was allowed to get out of that office, not even to the head office in London, according to Hill [Darryl Oakley Hill, who worked in SOE’s London office]… W suppressed everything…”

And then in March 1946 –

“Col. Barbrook has just arrived – says Watrous is no longer red and pleads that they were all young and inexperienced.”

This suggestion, that Watrous was a repentant lefty post-war, appalled at seeing the reality of communism in Albania, is backed up by a letter Neil ‘Billy’ McLean wrote to Julian Amery in March 1948, regarding two Albanians who were about to arrive in London (Said Kryeziu and Ishan Toptani, both friends to the British during the war and therefore on Hoxha’s long list of people to kill) –

“… I have written to Watrous to ask if he can see an opening for either of them on the B.B.C. If you feel inclined, you might speak to him in the same sense yourself, representing perhaps that it would be a good opportunity to make amends for the past!”

Watrous gets a tour of King Zog's old palace in Tirana (National Archives)

Watrous gets a tour of King Zog’s old palace in Tirana (National Archives)

I could write on and on but to cut a long story short, my take on it is that Watrous, like many other impressionable young men and women at the time, had an idealised view of socialism/communism (which wore off very soon after the general election of 1945, in which perhaps 80% of the armed forces voted Labour). This naive understanding of the partisans’ true nature, and fashionable, unthinking admiration for Uncle Joe, was exploited by the likes of Klugmann and Eyre. It was unfortunate that the lives of so many millions of people in the Balkans were blighted as a result.

You see – it is a much better story if you ignore Ultra.

I’ll leave the last word to a real pillar of the postwar British Establishment, Sandy Glen, who seved in both Albania and Yugoslavia. In his memoir, Footholds Against a Whirlwind, he writes –

“Many of us were suffering from a mania that everything to the Left was good. We have not much to be proud of during this period.”

Note on sources – the letters from Hasluck and McLean’s letter to Julian Amery all come from the Julian Amery Private Papers held at the Churchill Archives Centre. Deakin’s confidential report for Klugmann is quoted in an article by Roderick Bailey in The Politics and Strategy of Clandestine War. I should mention that somewhere in the National Archives is a typically breezy letter from Watrous expressing surprise at the left-wing stance taken by the boss of the Balkan Air Force, Bill Elliott, in a meeting, which goes to show that even more mature folk weren’t immune from the spirit of the times. Even more interestingly he then adds, in brackets, something along the lines of “Remember Deakin’s talk…” Unfortunately I can’t find the reference for this letter so I might have dreamed it, or I might be part of a massive right-wing conspiracy. Who knows… 

Scout and About

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it's home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it’s home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

One of the delights of researching the Endurance Vile Trail (Tuesday 14 – Tuesday 24 September, since you ask) are the scouting expeditions. These have been rather curtailed by unseasonal and torrential rain. On Friday, for instance, Elton (Toni) Caushi of Albaniantrip and I were planning to refresh our contacts in Biza, which we last visited six months ago, and trek up to the site of a mysterious crashed aeroplane that may or may not date from WWII. But a quick phone call with our man in situ, who assured us the ground was too sodden, led to a last-minute change of plans. Quite a relief, actually, as it seems to be impossible to visit Biza and nearby Shengjergj without being forced to consume industrial quantities of raki (they don’t get too many visitors).

Instead we headed south, to Elbasan and Labinot. The Endurance Vile itinerary as it stands so far means the first two nights will be spent in the boondocks. We figure the third day’s trekking, which will end in the vicinity of Labinot, overlooking the Shkumbini river, is a good opportunity to factor in some Albanian luxury. Which means a hop in a minibus to the Real Scampis hotel in Elbasan (yes, Real Scampis; typically it doesn’t seem to have a website, but its single review on TripAdvisor is a five-star humdinger in English too good to be written by the owner and it’s doubtful they have a blonde PR girl to manage their online reputation).

Elbasan is a fairly sophisticated place by Albanian standards, though Toni assures me six out of 10 children have three heads due to heavy industry. Before the war it was home to Margaret Hasluck, a fascinating Scottish academic and widow who happened to be the lover and soulmate of an Elbasani notable named Lef Nosi.

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE's Cairo HQ, at least

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE’s Cairo HQ, at least

‘Had we been younger when we met – and richer – we would have married,’ she later wrote. ‘He had no money and I [lost] my husband’s… and had only what I put into the house. What we had without marriage was very wonderful – an almost perfect intellectual fit and complete similarity of ideals. And the work we planned to do!’*

War came and Hasluck ended up running the Special Operations Executive’s Albania office in Cairo before being demoted to advisor; Nosi ended up being a puppet regent under the Germans. In effect, a collaborator. In December 1943 Brig Davies requested Nosi be denounced, but Hasluck protested vehemently and walked out of SOE in February 1944. So disgusted was she by SOE’s support for the communist partisans that she even turned down the MBE offered to her (curiously she’s cited as an MBE on her Wikipedia page; seems you can’t fight The Man).

Anyway, this is all by-the-by. I’ll post properly about Hasluck anon. The real purpose of this post is to link through to this photo gallery, which should give prospective trekkers some understanding of what to expect. The countryside in this section isn’t the most beautiful, or the most challenging (by a lucky quirk of fate the really mountainous stuff comes on the last couple of days, by which time everyone should have their ‘wind’). But despite the rain and greyness, hopefully it’s not unappealing.

The highlight for me and Toni, though, was our visit to what was supposedly a museum at Labinot-Mal. Under communism this was hallowed turf – the Conference of Labinot was drummed into every Albanian schoolchild’s head. Today things are very different. We found the museum, eventually, but couldn’t get in. It seems the government has forgotten it exists. The attendant has died, and now his wife holds the keys. Despite the appeals of Toni and two lovely local chaps, she refused to let us in, setting the price at a pleasingly round 1,000,000 lek (around €7,000). Toni offered 500 lek for the two of us but she wouldn’t budge. God only knows what’s inside; the ground floor, certainly, is now home to her cows if the anguished mooing was anything to go by.

*Letter to Sir Andrew Ryan, 20 April 1946, from the Julian Amery Papers at the Churchill Archive Centre. No reference as the papers are currently being recatalogued. 

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Men (and women) behaving badly

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Over the weekend, I read that good blogs have brief posts, and are frequently updated. Whoops. But it’s been an interesting few days – fielding enquiries about September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Rod Bailey has kept me busy, and a breakdown in France (mechanical, not nervous) saw me cross the Channel three times in one day. But anyway, on with the blog…

One of the things that has struck me about SOE’s brave but ill-fated campaign in Albania is that it is impossible to understand without a grasp of what was going on in Cairo at the time. This subject deserves a book in itself – in fact it got one, in Artemis Cooper’s brilliant Cairo in the War. It was published in 1989 and is now out of print (there’s a new paperback going for £1,906.83 on Amazon as I write), but thankfully a Kindle version is in the pipeline (due October). Why on earth it wasn’t reissued or released on Kindle last year when her bestselling biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor was getting glowing reviews in the nationals is question only her publishers can answer.

The book is packed with top quality anecdote, and illuminating glimpses into Rustem Building, SOE’s dysfunctional HQ, headed up in 1943 by Brigadier ‘Bolo’ Keble, who stomped the corridors in a pair of desert boots, khaki shorts and a sweaty white vest.

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska - Sophie to her friends

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska – Sophie to her friends

Cooper also peeks into Tara, the house shared by Billy McLean and David Smiley (serving in Albania) with Xan Fielding and Paddy Leigh Fermor (Crete) over the winter of 43/44. The goings-on here are quite something, right down to Christmas lunch – a turkey with benzedrine stuffing. However, the reality was a lot racier than Cooper lets on, if David Smiley’s diary* is anything to to by. It seems that the châtelaine of the house, Sophie Tarnowska (or Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska, to be precise) bestowed her affections liberally, having flings with Smiley, Fielding (seemingly at the same time), possibly McLean, and Billy Moss, author of Ill Met by Moonlight, whom she went on to marry.

All this is by the by. The best anecdote by far deserves quoting in full, and concerns an officer whose identity has been lost in the midst of time –

… one pasha – when insulted beyond endurance by a very drunken British officer – decided to take serious revenge. He invited the officer to dinner, by which time the latter had completely forgotten the man he had been so rude to; but there seemed no reason to turn down this unexpected offer of a free meal, so he accepted. He rang the bell of the pasha’s house on the appointed night; but instead of being admitted by a polite sufragi, two huge Nubians hauled him into a room where his host announced, “You insulted me the other night, and now you will pay for it.” His trousers were pulled down and, while the two Nubians kept him still, the British officer was sexually assaulted by six other Nubians before being thrown out of the house. Most men would have kept this humiliating episode to themselves; but, the following day, this particular officer was telling everyone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night – dashed unpleasant. I got buggered by six Nubians…”

*In Billy McLean’s private papers at IWM London.

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