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
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, 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)
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)
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…