Category Archives: Funny stuff

The Secret History of PWE

Secret History of PWE

The Secret History of PWE by David Garnett

As part of my wider reading around S.O.E. in the Balkans, I ordered a copy of David Garnett‘s The Secret History of PWE (Political Warfare Executive). It really was secret, too – Garnett, a PWE officer himself, was commissioned by the Foreign Office after the war to write an official history. What he produced was considered so incendiary that it was classified “Secret – For Official Use Only” for 50 years, and only published at the turn of the last century.

The book is strictly for war nuts – much of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. In fact most of it details obscure inter-departmental spats. The wartime British propaganda machine was seemingly so focused on the enemy on the other side of the corridor that it’s a wonder anything anti-German was produced at all. What was produced, it’s worth mentioning, was often very poor quality. In Albania in particular it was a constant complaint of the S.O.E. officers on the ground that Allied propaganda, both BBC broadcasts and leaflet drops, was inept and clumsy.

Writer David Garnett

David Garnett – probably not cut out for fighting, but very good at writing bitchy official histories

Garnett was known to his friends as “Bunny” and had spent the First World War working on fruit farms with his gay lover (he had been a conscientious objector). He went on to become a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and co-founded the Nonesuch Press. It’s hard to think of a less suitable choice to write a dull, bureaucratic official history. Perhaps the Whitehall mandarin who commissioned him was feeling mischevious.

Garnett is particularly illuminating on the PWE’s early days in autumn 1939. In Berlin Hitler was planning the Blitzkrieg and continuing to build the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen. At PWE’s new Woburn headquarters, meanwhile, there were more important things to consider  –

“The provision of amenities at Woburn was tackled in the typical British fashion – by the formation of a committee. A Recreation Committee, meeting first in October 1939, busied itself with such matters as finding a squash court and a football field, subscription to a nearby golf club, the hiring of horses and attempting to obtain permission to ride them in Woburn Park, obtaining books from the Times Book Club and elsewhere to form a library, the institution of a weekly cinema show in the Abbey, the establishment of a canteen with a bar, the laying of a dance floor and the providing of Christmas lunch, and the laying out and care of two lawn tennis courts, table tennis, billiards and clock golf. The formation of a choral society and the organisation of lessons in German all followed.”    

It’s a wonder Britain won the war at all. Oh, hang on – we didn’t. Until the Soviet Union was, ahem, embarrassed into withdrawing its tacit support for Hitler, and the US entered the fray, we looked guaranteed to lose, badly.

Random fact: Garnett’s next book, Aspects of Love (1955), wasn’t top secret. In fact it later became an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical.

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Demand & Supply

You give us the tools and we'll finish the job - essential anti-Nazi kit

You give us the tools and we’ll finish the job – essential anti-Nazi kit

For the past 10 days I’ve been pretty much living in Albania circa 1943/44. A strange place. I’ve read and digested hundreds of pages of archive documents (photographed and Dropboxed) and memoirs and am reeling slightly. One of the things that has surprised me is how upsetting it can be. A lot of good people, British and Albanian, met very sticky ends. Probably most depressing is the tale of Lazar Fundo, who was flayed to death on the orders of Enver Hoxha in September 1944, in front of his helpless friend, SOE’s Tony Simcox.

I remember seeing Simcox’s recollections for the first time in London’s Imperial War Museum – a series of letters from the 1990s. The first were written in a strong, clear hand. But as age and ill-health took hold, the writing became shaky, larger, almost illegible. The anger he felt, even after 60-odd years, was clear enough though.

I’ve developed a bit of Hoxha fixation. I read his Anglo-American Threat to Albania a while back, but re-read it now along with various other works of his. Hard going. Not that they’re badly written – they’re not; the translator (the British communist and journalist Bill Bland, I assume) did a fine job. But there’s something about them that is deeply unsettling. His mind is not a pleasant place to spend time.

Hoxha lies too, but I can forgive him that – he was a politician. One of his favourite subjects is how inadequate RAF air supply was. Mud sticks; a few months ago I was in a café in the village of Qeparo when one old chap told me we Brits had dropped in hundreds of left-handed boots, one of Hoxha’s favourite lines. Much as I hate to admit it, he had a point when it came to disappointing air drops – and it didn’t just happen in Albania.

In Yugoslavia, SOE’s Bill Bailey had similar issues when the RAF supplied his mission to the Çetnik leader, Mihailovic, as Michael McConville recounts in his memoir, A Small War in the Balkans

From the moment of Bailey’s arrival, Mihailovic had assumed that [supplies] would be immediately available. It was not. What was dropped, from the only two RAF aircraft which could be spared in a period of ten weeks from competing priorities elsewhere, was strong on elaboration and idiosyncratic to the point of idiocy. Whoever controlled the loading in North Africa was either half-witted or malevolent.

Bailey’s only effective bargaining counter was subverted farcically by the arrival from the sky of, among a few more useful aids to warfare, 30 million Italian East African Occupation lire, overprinted with the word ‘Ethiopia’; several hundred boxes of tropical anti-snake-bite serum; 500 left-footed boots; and another load of boots, correctly paired, but all of them size six. [that’s about 37, Eurofolk]

Apparently it got worse – on one occasion Bailey was dropped several hundred lampshades. Military specification lampshades, but still not ideal for fighting Nazis.

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One for the Ladies

Albanian men - are they really "vain and self-important"?

Albanian men – are they really “vain and self-important”?

Due to some unwelcome personal circumstances, I haven’t been in Albania for a few weeks. Annoying in many ways, but quite useful for getting research done. During the course of which, I came across a rather lovely quote from one of SOE’s Liaison Officers, Lieutenant Roy Bullock.

Bullock’s field report (National Archives, ref HS5/131) deals with the events of summer/autumn 1944, rather than winter 43/44, where my focus lies, but this little gem is timeless –

“As a race they [Albanians] can be described as neither industrious nor warlike; on the contrary the males pursue a life of indolence and ease, relegating all domestic and agricultural tasks to their womenfolk, who are invariably kept in a state of serfdom, seldom appearing in public… With this basic valuation of the opposite sex it is somewhat natural that the ALBANIAN youth, grows into a man full of self-importance and vanity…” 

Couldn’t resist sharing. Sure it’ll raise a knowing smile from the women of Albania – which outside Tirana often feels like a surreal female-free alternative universe, populated exclusively by overly macho young men with immaculate shark-fin hairdos and respectable older gentleman with equally immaculate moustaches.

What am I saying? That’s often the case in Tirana, too. In fact I can think of only one bar, The Ruin – Mon Cheri, that employs female staff front-of-house. It really is very weird.

Next time I’ll return to SOE officers running around the mountains and being chased by Germans, promise.

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Albania, Back in the Day

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

What is it with Albania and the Scots? While digging around online for more dirt on Enver Hoxha (right now I’m interested in the rumours that he might have swung both ways during his pre-War stint in Paris), I came across a brilliant piece by the renowned Scottish journalist James Cameron, written for The Atlantic Monthly back in 1963.

As Albania’s fractious general election comes to a conclusion, I thought it might be a good time to post a link to Cameron’s article, just to remind Albanians how far the country has come. This is probably a mistake on my part – when I wrote a piece on tourism in Albania for The Sunday Telegraph last year, I was apparently slated on Albanian-language political forums for being too positive. It seems some thought I should have mentioned political corruption, poverty and blood feud. Please – if a travel writer does a piece on Sicily’s tourist attractions, no one would expect to read about investigating judges meeting sticky ends at the hands of the Mafia. The focus would be on calamari rather than crime. Same rules apply for Albania.

Anyway, here’s the link to Cameron’s story. Read it – it’s fascinating.

His description of traffic in Tirana circa 1963 made me smile –

FOR two days, then… I had the freedom of Tirana, and a beguiling town it was. This was due more to the old than the new. The new was banal indeed: a pattern of broad, even stately avenues, lined with Party buildings in the Italianate style, with a carriageway wide enough to take several lines of traffic that was, for 80 percent of the day, totally empty.

The desolation of the streets was eerie. At each intersection stood a smart white-uniformed traffic policeman, rigidly poised to direct a press of vehicles that never came. Once every five minutes, perhaps, an old green truck, hugely numbered on its flanks in the Russian manner, would appear clanking and grunting up the street; the traffic cop would spring to attention as it appeared on the horizon and wave it on with great panache, against no opposition whatever. At even rarer intervals would appear a dark Zim saloon, heavily curtained, on some mysterious official errand. In all Albania today there exists, as I was formally told, not one single private automobile.

My mother tells me it was much the same in the mid-1980s; it’s fair to say things have changed a bit since then.

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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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Some Friday fun from Julian Amery’s private papers

Portrait of Julian Amery by Walter Bird, at the National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Julian Amery by Walter Bird, at the National Portrait Gallery

Some Friday fun. I found this letter in the private papers of the Tory MP Julian Amery (1919-1996), who served with SOE in Albania in 1944. His book on his time there, Sons of the Eagle (yours for a mere £293.75), is a classic account of guerrilla warfare and his autobiography, Approach March, is filled with great anecdotes. Oddly, though, it doesn’t mention his brother, John, who was hanged for treason after the war.

I don’t know if the below letter, which clearly dates from Julian Amery’s time in Cairo in 1943, is a pastiche as there was no explanatory note, but it is very, very funny  –

Most Honoured Respected Sahib,

Being as your Honour knows a humble man of agricultural habits, depending on the goodness of the seasons for stuff to live, I most humbly beg to put before your Honour these facts.

I am family man with wife and seven children, last of which is still milking parental mother and suffering from pulmonary catastrophe of the stomach, and eight on the way by grace of God and my action.

Therefore, I am poor man and ask most honourable Sahib to return to your employ. If there be a place even so small in the backside of your benevolence this servant prays that he may be allowed to creep inside.

I pray for your long life and prosperity, your Honour, and am your Honour’s humble servant,

(Sgd.) Mohammed Din

From the Julian Amery Papers at the Churchill Archive Centre (I would give a file reference but I understand the papers are currently being recatalogued)

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