Category Archives: Military History

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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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.  

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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.

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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.

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Sanctuary

Partisan memorial in Qarrishtë

The decaying partisan memorial in Qarrishtë. Davies and his SPILLWAY mission got as far as the dip in the mountain ridge in the far distance, then had to turn back

I raise my hat to bloggers who are able to post once a week (or more). Despite my good intentions, I’ve fallen massively behind on even posting on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago. And I’m about to fall even further behind, as this post will barely mention the Special Operations Executive.

Last week Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip and myself drove into the Shebenik-Jabllanicë national park, to the northeast of Librazhd, in the company of Aleksandër Trajçe of the Association for the Protection & Preservation of the Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA). Our target was the village of Qarrishtë, which I unsuccessfully tried to reach last summer on foot from Fushe-Studën, on the other side of a small mountain ridge.

Qarrishtë Albania on a map

Map of the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, Albania, with Qarrishtë marked. Fush-Studën is about three to four hours walk north, via the pass to the right

Aleksandër was keen to speak to the farmers in Qarrishtë about the forthcoming two-year hunting moratorium recently announced by the new government here, and also to get a grip on how they were dealing with the bears and wolves that inhabit the forests around the village.

I was keen to see Qarrishtë as Brigadier Trotsky Davies’ SPILLWAY mission almost reached it (they spent a night in freezing conditions on a ridge high above the neighbouring village of Kosharisht, and then had to turn back due to the number of nationalist gangs out looking for them. The most dangerous of these gangs being that led by the local bandit Aziz Biçaku, who was eventually to capture Davies and hand him over to the Germans (he was awarded the Iron Cross, which I think was pinned on him by Himmler).

Elton was keen to visit Qarrishtë as during the war the villagers hid nearly 30 Jewish fugitives from the Germans, and he was curious to see if there was any memory of this.

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip with the team from PPNEA, on the road from Librazhd to Qarrishtë

We left Librazhd at about 10am, after a hearty breakfast of tasqebab and pilaf at the excellent Restaurant Biçaku, which I’d insisted we eat at purely because of the name. The drive to Qarrishtë from Librazhd takes around two hours, with an awful lot of up and then even more down. Strictly 4×4 only.

At this time of year (February) Shebenik-Jabllanicë national park should be under a good few feet of snow, but 2014 is super-naturally mild. Shame, as I’d hoped to see it as the SPILLWAY mission had (though with the protection of 21st-century cold-weather kit).

First thing we saw when we arrived a the village were two memorials, one a typically neglected and half-falling-down communist shrine, the second a small concrete job dedicated to Mefail and Njazi Biçaku, for saving 26 ‘Izraelitëve’.

A memorial commemorating the role of the Biçaku family from Qarrishtë in saving 26 Jews from the Germans during World War Two

A memorial commemorating the role of the Biçaku family from Qarrishtë in saving 26 Jews from the Germans during World War Two

We wandered deeper into Qarrishtë, and as is the way when you rock up unannounced in an Albanian village, were almost immediately invited to take coffee with the first family to spot us. This family happened to be a branch of the Biçakus, and were justifiably proud of their relatives’ brave actions during the war. Aziz Biçaku, though, was another matter.

The eldest, Zegir, who must have been 85 if he was a day, remembered Aziz Biçaku well. He had a very distinguished grey moustache, apparently, but was nothing more than a bully and a bandit; the archetype of the Albanian gangster so beloved of Hollywood today. Not a nice man by any account. When the communists came to power he managed to escape to Istanbul, said Zegir, which backs up what I’d been told by the local historian Ferit Balla, who also tells me Davies tried to track Biçaku down himself after the war.

Zegir Biçaku

Zegir Biçaku remembers Aziz Biçaku well. Not a nice guy, was his view

As for the 26 Jews, they were hidden in the forest and fed by Mefail and 17-year-old Njazi throughout the winter of 1943/44. This seems to have been standard practise in Albania under German occupation. Not one single Jew was handed over to the Germans – Albania was the only country occupied by the Germans to end the war with more Jews than it had at the start.

View to Macedonia

Looking towards Macedonia from Qarrishtë

Curiously, the villainous Aziz Biçaku must have known that his relatives were hiding Jews, yet he never betrayed them to the Germans due to the strong local code of honour. Shooting British officers is one thing, but betraying your neighbours and family is quite beyond the pale.

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, in 1961 the communists imprisoned Mefail for ‘collaborating’ with Jews. He died in prison eight years later.

It turns out that a Jewish-American photographer, Norman Gershman, has made a documentary about the experience of Jews in Albania during the war. It’s called BESA: The Promise, and has already picked up several awards at film festivals. You can find out more about it here.

Qarrishtë in winter

Few villagers choose to stay in Qarrishtë over winter, and many have left the village permanently for the urban delights of Librazhd or Elbasan

Oh, and as for bears and wolves, there are apparently lots of them about. In summertime the bears will come right into the village to raid the beehives and steal fruit. But wolves are the big problem, as they kill more than they need to, and can destroy a flock of sheep if they’re feeling frisky. The bear is a ‘gentleman’, the Biçakus told us, as he’ll only kill one lamb, whereas wolves kill everything they can.

Qarrishtë road

Driving back to Librazhd from Qarrishtë

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 6-12 December 1943

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Shkumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours' walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Skhumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours’ walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

The British Military Mission to Albania wakes up on the morning of Monday 6 December 1943 to the sound of a German Storch spotter plane circling overhead. The mood doesn’t improve when news arrives that the mission’s cook, Korca, who had been captured by the Germans, has been moved from prison to a hotel in Elbasan.

At 10.30am on Tuesday Colonel Barbacinto of the Italian Army arrives, and offers his services. His commanding officer, General Azzi, has taken 1,000 gold sovereigns from the British to feed his troops, and has holed up in a remote village; Barbacinto refused to accompany him. Davies can see no use for Barbacinto so sends him to join an Italian contingent hiding nearby. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha arrives and explains that the Bairam festival has started, which will mean much gunfire as people celebrate. He demands more ammunition. An RAF sortie is expected that night, but fails to arrive.

The mission wakes to more celebratory gunfire on Wednesday morning. At lunchtime the muleteers present Davies with a plate of cold lamb, and depart giggling. Overnight, three Italians in Orenje have died of starvation. Davies gives the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha 200 sovereigns to buy food. In the evening radio contact with Cairo is maintained long enough for Davies to send the signal –

“Brigadier E.F. Davies commanding Allied Military Mission in Albania begs with loyal and respectful duty to send his good wishes and those of the British Officers and N.C.O.s of his Mission to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his birthday, 14th December stop Request this message be passed quickly to arrive appropriate date stop” (National Archives, HS5/67)

Thursday is spent waiting for Enver Hoxha to send word that a move to the south is safe. Full moon is approaching; Davies suspects the move has been left too late. On Friday Hoxha sends a note telling the British to be ready to move.

At 11.30am on Saturday 11 December, the first section of the mission moves to Labinot. Translator Fred Nosi hasn’t employed a guide, they get lost and arrive at 19.30 to find a huge bonfire surrounded by partisans singing revolutionary songs. At 20.30 they move on to attempt to cross the Elbasan-Librazhd road and then the Skhumbini river.

The attempt is a failure, the British and partisans are forced to return to Labinot at 03.00am, arriving at 07.00am. Kadri Hoxha had failed to scout the river properly – it is too deep to cross due to the recent rain. He has also attacked local villages, drawing in Balli Kombetar forces. Enver Hoxha is still angry when he writes his memoirs in the 1970s (Kadri Hoxha spent 40 years in prison after the war on trumped-up charges). Gunfire can be heard throughout the day. Enver Hoxha arrives at 17.00 and is suitably contrite. He joins the British for a meal, and is unusually relaxed in their company. Much raki is drunk, and one of the Italian soldiers sings opera arias.

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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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SPILLWAY 70 years on: October 24-30 1943

Peter Kemp of the Special Operations Executive in Albania, autumn 1943 (National Archives)

Peter Kemp of the Special Operations Executive in Albania, autumn 1943 (National Archives)

A rather belated update of what the Special Operations Executive’s ill-fated SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, in October 1943.

Week two of the SPILLWAY mission saw Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies begin to take a more realistic view of his position. On Saturday 24 October 1943 he issued orders that all men should have minimum personal kit packed and ready to grab, and one wireless set and operator should always be ready to leave immediately. His intention is that the mission can disappear from its Bizë quarters with one hour’s notice.

On Monday 25 Davies hears that Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council are likely to make contact in the near future. An Italian vet, Lt Tesio, arrives – quite an asset as the mission has accumulated over 100 mules and horses. Two BLOs who had been present in Albania since summertime, Andy Hands and Richard Riddell arrive from Dibra; Hands apparently has an unworkable plan to raise resistance, which Davies refuses to approve.

On Tuesday 26 a 50-strong party from the Balli Kombetar, nationalists bitterly opposed to Communism, arrive. The partisan guards bristle, but there’s no shooting.

Wednesday sees Davies visit the local partisan camp, where he is much amused by its ragged drill displays. He comments that they appear to believe there are four Allies in the war – Russia, Britain, the US and Albania. Peter Kemp, who has recently spent a few days exploring Tirana (badly) disguised as an Albanian, arrives.

On Thursday two of Davies’ most trusted BLOs, Alan Palmer and Victor Smith, leave for the south. When Davies is shot and captured in January, command of the British mission to Albania will fall to Palmer, much to the puzzlement of most of the surviving BLOs, including Reg Hibbert, who thinks Peter Kemp is by far the most able officer in the country and the obvious choice to take over. Kadri Hoxha, the local partisan commander arrives for dinner. He brings with him a striking-looking female partisan who speaks good French.

On Friday Kadri Hoxha returns to the partisan base with Lt Frank Trayhorn, who returns later with a long list of complaints about the supplies dropped to the partisans by the RAF. A supply sortie is expected that night but fails to arrive.   

Saturday sees Captain Alan Hare (future chairman of the Financial Times), heading into the nearby town of Elbasan for a shopping trip. The partisans slip in a long list of ‘luxury’ items. Two members of the Balli Kombetar arrive; they are polite and reasonable in stark contrast to the LNC members Davies has encountered so far. Kadri Hoxha arrives with an invitation to Labinot for the following day – Enver Hoxha is finally ready to meet Davies.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: October 16-23 1943

Major Neil "Billy" McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform

Neil “Billy” McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform in 1944 (image: National Archives)

My plan to post updates ‘every few days’ on the progress of Trotsky Davies’ SPILLWAY mission in October 1943 is rapidly falling apart. Let’s make it a weekly thing, eh?

The first thing to note is that Davies’ mission was intended to put a more military stamp on the perceived amateurishness, or rather irregular-iness – to coin a word that shan’t be used again – of the Special Operations Executive in Albania. There was it’s fair to say a clash of cultures between no-nonsense Davies and his Coldstream Guard number two, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and the two officers on the ground, Major Neil ‘Billy’ McLean and Captain David Smiley.

McLean and Smiley, whose uniforms were a mismatch of British Army battledress and local Albanian costume, down to colourful cummerbunds and white felt fez hats, were as uneasy with the by-the-book Davies and Nicholls as the two newcomers were with them. Perhaps more of a shock to McLean and Smiley’s systems than the arrival of military discipline was the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ the new mission had delivered by parachute. Typewriters, collapsable desks and stools, paper, carbon paper, files…

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

In his memoir of his time in Albania in 1944, Sons of the Eagle, Julian Amery, who at the time was trapped in Egypt, desperately fighting for a field appointment, would paint Davies as a Colonel Blimp figure. Enver Hoxha did much the same in his long-winded Anglo-American Threat to Albania. There is some truth to this. On a visit to the village of Sherngjergj last year, I was told that Davies paid a villager 5 gold sovereigns for a wooden mule saddle. No one could figure out what a British general (as he is described in these parts) would want with a saddle. It seems he cut out the centre, placed the saddle across the latrine he’d ordered dug, and would sit happily reading the The Times while, er, doing his business. Quite an image.

Anyway, in the few days after landing at Bizë on the 15th October 1943, Davies met his interpreter Fred Nosi (placed with the mission as as spy by Enver Hoxha) and transmitted a signal via Cairo for his wife saying ‘Greetings from Albania’ – a flagrant breach of wireless security. He also found the time to go on a boar hunt, though he failed to bag anything, met the colourful Bektashi priest-cum-guerilla fighter Baba Faja and condemned four camp followers to death for stealing (they were never shot, you’ll be relieved to hear).

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza (image: National Archives)

He’d also been joined by a multitude of officers and NCOs fresh from SOE training in Egypt, badly briefed and with little idea of what winter can be like in the Albanian mountains.

And 70 years ago as I write, on October 23rd, McLean and Smiley left for the coast and evacuation by sea, much to their relief. The first part of their journey was undertaken in a little Fiat, bought by Davies’ acting quartermaster, Alan Hare. McLean and Smiley felt that perhaps the new regime hadn’t quite grasped the realities of conditions on the ground in Albania – particularly with winter setting in.

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Happy Anniversary

Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies' SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

It’s a warm October night in Tirana, and 70 years, to within an hour or two, since Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies of the Royal Ulster Rifles parachuted into Bizë, a plateau high up in the Çermenika mountains about 40km to the east.

His mission, conceived and run by the Special Operations Executive in Cairo and codenamed SPILLWAY, was supposed to give help to whoever was killing the most Germans – which apparently meant the forces of the National Liberation Front (LNÇ), controlled by Albania’s future dictator, Enver Hoxha.

SPILLWAY was ill-conceived, ill-informed and ill-supplied, and ultimately a tragic failure. In January 1944, after several torrid weeks being chased through the Çermenika, Davies himself was shot through the liver and heel and captured by Albanians fighting for the occupying Germans. His second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, escaped, only to die four weeks later following an operation to remove his frostbitten, gangrenous toes.

It’s a depressing story. The only reason we know its finer detail, and the exact route Davies and his men took, is thanks to the diary kept against orders by Nicholls and held today by the Imperial War Museum in London. Due to the IWM’s crack team of blood-thirsty lawyers, I can’t quote from the diary. But what I can do, over the next few months, is give you an idea of what was happening on the ground, 70 years ago.

Blogging is not my natural forté (frankly I find it akin to pulling teeth), but hopefully I can post every few days with excerpts from Davies’ 1952 memoir, Illyrian Venture (delivered to his publisher on the day he died) and other sources. And hopefully I’ll find the time too to post on my ongoing research of the route taken by the SPILLWAY mission, with a view to an ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ in summer 2014.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

On Friday 15 October 1943, at around 20.00, Davies’ plane began to lose height after its four-hour journey from Tocra, Libya. Davies later wrote –

The dispatcher touched me to be ready. The red light came. I took a deep breath. ‘Green!’ I jumped into the centre of the hole, position of attention, looking up. My back was to the slipstream, the wind took my knees. It was like sitting in an armchair – much quieter and comfier than the Hudson*… I dropped and dropped. Would the ‘chute never open? A jerk at my shoulders… all was peace…

A Christmas card could not have beaten the scene. A low moon was hanging like an orange in the sky, three mountain peaks stood up round me, white granite sparkling with frost, a bowl in the mountain tops, into which I was falling, with forests round the edges, a white plain in the middle, broken by a stream winding its way across. Why was the plain white? Was it snow? No, it looked more like salt flats… I reached on the lift webs and tensed myself. Feet together, knees together, turn obliquely. And then I fell through fifty feet of mist on to frosty grass…

Men were running towards me, men with slung rifles and bandoliers, wearing the red Partisan star in their hats… They surrounded me and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo! General.’…

The crowd was parted to let in an English officer, wearing an Albanian white fez-shaped hat.

‘I’m Smiley, sir,’ he said…

Taken from Illyrian Venture by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies (The Bodley Head, 1952). *Actually a Halifax.

The site of the SPILLWAY mission's HQ, November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

The site of the SPILLWAY mission’s HQ, November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

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