Category Archives: Neil McLean

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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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 22-28 November 1943

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his men wake up to heavy rain on the morning of Monday 22 November 1943. The Mission’s wireless officer, Lt Frank Trayhorn, reports that the radio link with HQ in Cairo is being blocked by a powerful jamming station. Rumours are circulating that British soldiers have been killed in the town of Dibra to the northeast.

On Tuesday Trayhorn manages to make contact with Cairo, and is told that Billy McLean and David Smiley, the first SOE officers into Albania, have made it across the Adriatic to Italy (by this time they are in Cairo and have been offered rooms in a house in Zamalek, named Tara). Davies decides that the very sick Major George Seymour and the NCO Corporal Jenkins should be evacuated using the route  McLean and Smiley took.

Throughout Wednesday morning German aircraft circle over the village of Martanesh, where the British Mission is hiding. Trayhorn is forced to shut down his transmitter. Seymour and Jenkins are sent to the village of Shengjergj on the first stage of their planned escape to the coast. When night falls, the Mission can hear rifle fire close by.

The Mission wakes to more rifle fire on Thursday morning – but are told a wedding is being celebrated. Captain Jim Chesshire is sent to the village of Orenje to establish a new base at the house of local chieftain Beg Balla.

By Friday the British have almost run out of petrol to charge the batteries of their transmitters. Lt Col Arthur Nicholls spends an hour on a pedal charger. The Bektashi priest and guerrilla leader Baba Faja pays a visit, complains about the lack of supplies coming from the British, and is given 200 gold sovereigns. Contact with Cairo is made at 12.00. In the evening just one lamp is lit to conserve fuel.

The weather improves on Saturday. Davies orders a lice and flea hunt. A mule train with fresh supplies is expected, but fails to arrive. Davies, Nicholls and their translator Fred Nosi inspect some caves, but decide they’re not suitable for hiding (Enver Hoxha thinks differently in a few weeks).

Sunday is the 28th – Albanian Independence Day. The British Mission wakes to the sound of gunfire, which they now know is merely the locals celebrating (using British-supplied ammunition). A small mule train arrives with food. Davies visits Enver Hoxha at Shengjergj and tells him he will instruct Cairo not to send more weapons unless Hoxha agrees to end the war he’s declared on the nationalist grouping, the Balli Kombetar. Hoxha is furious.

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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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Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 2

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

Fushe-Studën on a sunny day in late August. You can just see Hotel Hasa in the centre of the shot, more or less

My last post covered the first day of my brief stay at the village of Fushe-Studën, on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park to the north of Librazhd. This time I’ll tick off Day Two, which involved a lot of faffing about in the mountains, and an awful lot of raki.

And this time I’ll add a gallery of photos, which you can see here.

Anyway, picking up where I left off…

The bed at Hotel Hasa turned out to be extremely comfortable, or maybe I was just tired. Anyway, I woke up early and was out the door by seven. After a quick espresso I strode off manfully down the road, much to the amusement of the inevitable bunch of languid Albanian men at Hasa’s café, who found my combo of khaki shorts, skinny pale legs and bulky Salomon boots a cause for merriment.

Not much happens in Fushe-Studën.

Enver Hoxha

Enver Hoxha

Anyway, the plan was to find the track taken by Brig “Trotsky” Davies and Enver Hoxha after they crossed the Diber-Librazhd road on Christmas Day 1943. Hoxha, whose chronology and geography is slightly dodgy, wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to Albania

We crossed the Librazhd-Dibra road at Studa Flat and began the climb up Letëm Mountain. Night fell when we were in the forest on Letëm Mountain where we slept huddled together. We and the British had one tent. They ate chocolate and biscuits while we ate maize bread, a morsel of cheese and an onion, but even those supplies we had were running out. They drank whisky to warm themselves up; we melted snow and drank water to quench our thirst.

The following day we moved in the direction of Qarrishta. Another long march through the snow and the biting north wind. During the march I frequently gave a word of encouragement to the General who was red in the face and from time to time took out a small flask to drink a mouthful of whisky. At no time was he generous enough to say:

«Have a mouthful to warm yourself up, Mr. Hoxha!» He and his colonel were continually munching chocolate. By way of a joke I said to him: «Don’t eat it all at once, General, because nobody knows how long the partisans’ road may be. See, we don’t eat on the march.» In fact we had nothing to eat. When we reached the forest of Qarrishta, the vanguard informed us that we could go no further towards Çermenika e Vogël in the direction of Mokra or towards Bërzeshta, because reaction was extremely strong there. The Ballist çetas of Aziz Biçaku and others were on the alert and had blocked all the roads, passes and tracks. We had no option but to turn back towards Okshtun.

(Hoxha has a real bugbear about Davies’ meanness. I used to assume it was nonsense, like so much else he wrote, but discovered recently that the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha described Davies as a “Uriah Heap” in his unpublished memoirs, so who knows. The British officers munching chocolate thing is a recurring obsession of Hoxha, however. He has Billy McLean doing it all the time, and McLean didn’t even like chocolate…)

Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, wrote in his diary at the time (which sadly I’m not allowed to quote from due to the Imperial War Museum’s scary legal team) that the party was spotted as it crossed the road and came under fire about halfway up a ‘saddle’ in the mountains to the east. They took a sharp right off the track to avoid ambush, scrambling up the mountainside, finishing up almost on their hands and knees. On top of the mountain, as dusk fell, they found themselves in ‘terrible’ crater-pocked terrain, with no sign of a track. They spend a freezing night above the village of Khorishte, and in the early hours are told they will have to go back the way they came due to a heavy German and Ballist (anti-communist) presence.

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies' party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Looking back on Fushe-Studën. Davies’ party would have arrived from Okshtun on the ridge centre right

Being an optimistic chap I assumed I would simply walk up the track, hook a right at a likely point, skip to the top of the mountain and find myself in crater-land. So naive.

It took me the best part of two hours to find the track. Although you can clearly make it out from the ridge on the other side of the valley, finding where it starts is another matter entirely. Eventually a bemused chap with a large hunting rifle pointed me in the right direction. Once on the track, which supposedly twists over the mountains from Fushe-Studën to the village of Quarrishte, it’s hard to go wrong. At least till the track ends, randomly, about an hour’s walk uphill. I tried pushing my way through the bushes but decided I really needed a machete, a pair of long trousers and a local guide – I’m sure the track continued further ahead but the chances of my finding it were roughly nil. Trouble is, no one uses these tracks any more and they have a disconcerting habit of tapering out without warning. I really didn’t want to spend the next week wandering lost in the forest.

This I think, is as far as Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

This I think, is as far as Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Enver Hoxha et al got before coming under fire

I wasn’t too concerned as I was convinced by then that I had found where the “ambush”, such as it was, happened. I doubled back and investigated more thoroughly. A rocky gully, with plenty of cover, and a clear line of fire to an exposed stretch of the track. If I was in charge of a team of nervous Ballists trying to prevent anyone breaking out of the German encirclement, I’d sit tight here. A few men with rifles could hold off a superior force with relative ease.

I walked back down the track a hundred yards or so and, lo and behold, there was a perfect escape route going up the mountain side. Steep, but do-able. I headed up figuring that to find my way back I just had to walk downhill till I hit the path. It was tough going, and got a lot steeper. Too steep for me, and surely too steep for Davies and the others, who were by then in a very sorry state and at the limits of their endurance.

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

The mysterious earthworks that ring the mountain top

I hooked left and skirted the side of the mountain, soon finding a very faint path heading up through the trees. I took it, and climbed higher till I came across some inexplicable earthworks – a horizontal path, or what I thought might even be a primitive acquaduct, that appeared to sit just below the summit. I walked it for about an hour – it led round to the other side of the mountain, facing Macedonia, where its purpose became clear. It was a defensive structure, almost certainly from the communist period when Hoxha spent most of Albania’s limited wealth building bunkers and fortifications against an invasion that never came.

It got pretty overgrown here, so I walked back to where I joined it, and decided to scramble up to the top of the mountain. Only about 100 yards or so, but tough going. And, dammit, no craters. My legs were pretty badly scratched up by this stage, and I didn’t fancy pushing on through the undergrowth. It was also well into the afternoon and the thought of getting caught on the mountainside in fading light wasn’t attractive, particularly when I was finding poo like this –

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There's nothing to give a sense of scale here - take it from me, it was one big poo

Evidence that bears really do crap in the woods. There’s nothing to give a sense of scale here – take it from me, it was one big poo

So I began the descent back to Fushe-Studën.

It felt like a day of achievement, so I decided to stop for a beer at a roadside shack-cum-car-repair-spot. The owner of the shack was delighted to have a customer, particularly an English one, so sat with me. He spoke no English, I spoke no Albanian beyond the booze-and-food-related vitals. After a beer, my new friend suggested a raki, from his hip flask – “Special raki!” It would have been dull not to. Soon the hip flask was empty and a fresh supply was produced from inside the shack. Weirdly by this stage either my Albanian had improved dramatically or Arian (for that was his name) had miraculously managed to learn English. Either way, we were communicating pretty effectively. Such is the power of raki.

Arian's 'special' raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff...

Arian’s ‘special’ raki went quickly so we moved on to the normal stuff…

As the presence of a foreigner is big news in these parts, we had been joined by an assortment of local types, all eager to know what the hell I was up to. At one point there must have been a dozen or so men of various ages gathered around Arian’s picnic table, one of whom was horrified to hear that I’d spent the day in the hills by myself “Orsa!” he said. “Lupo!”. To illustrate the point he bared his teeth and made claws with his fingers. I was pretty relaxed about bears and wolves at that stage, taking the view that a skinny Englishman isn’t a great delicacy; I’m slightly less sanguine now having discovered that no local will wander alone in the more remote parts of the Çermenika without serious artillery.

Eventually Arian and I decided it was time to eat. I offered to buy him fish at the Hasa Hotel which excited him greatly (“Peshk! Raki! Mere!” – “Fish! Raki! Good!”). We walked to his car, a VW Sharan which turned out to be a right-hander from the UK. Arian insisted that, as it was an English car, and I was an Englishman, I should drive. After a dozen or so glasses of raki this seemed like an excellent suggestion. So in we hopped and a course was set for the Hasa Hotel (about half a mile away, hard to miss seeing as there’s only one gravel road through Fushe-Studën). Arian had fitted a DVD player and killer sound system, with a small TV screen pretty much in the footwell. He put on a semi-pornographic Bulgarian pop video (all Bulgarian pop videos seem to be semi-pornographic), cranked up the volume, and wound the windows down to spread the joy.

We had a slight setback on arriving at the Hasa Hotel to discover that Hasa had gone to Durrës on business, so there was no fish or food. Luckily Arian had a back-up plan – mesh! Turned out there was a small shack selling char-grilled lamb back the way we’d came. More raki was drunk, and we were joined by a very nice mute who disappeared after ten minutes or so, soon to be joined by Arian. I found them outside, changing the from tyre on the VW. Seemed I had managed to run over a nasty stone and give it a puncture, and they had hoped to switch tyres without my noticing (they didn’t want me to feel guilty).

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

Caught in the act: Arian and the nice mute chap attempt to change the tyre I burst without my noticing

After filling up on truly excellent lamb, cheese, bread and salad, accompanied by Tirana beer and raki, to my dismay a bill was presented. I didn’t have the required funds (2,500 lek for the three of us, I seem to remember – it felt right to treat the tyre-changing mute to a feed), as I hadn’t anticipated any shopping opportunities in the hills and had taken only a few hundred lek. No matter, Arian, the mute and I jumped in the car and headed over to Hasa Hotel, where we had a beer (I tried to order more raki but was told that we needed beer to refresh).

The meat man and his grill

The meat man and his grill

Arian and the mute asked to see the food bill and had a small fit. Apparently the avuncular meat-griller had inflated the prices in honour of my Englishness. A crowd of local men gathered round and with great ceremony each price on the bill was crossed out and replaced with a lower figure. “Tourist price!” declared Arian, shaking his head angrily at the grill-man’s villainy. There was much tutting from the onlookers. The ceremony culminated with Arian tearing up the original bill and casting the pieces theatrically over his shoulder. In the end I think he took 1,500 lek off me to pay the poor chap on my behalf (about €11).

With much shaking of hands and declarations of undying raki-based friendship, Arian, the mute and I parted. The next morning I snuck onto the Librazhd minibus at 7am, wondering if in the cold light of day Arian might be less relaxed about my having burst one of his tyres…

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I Spy – the Mysterious Case of Fred Brandt

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Some strange things happened in Albania during World War Two. Strangest, perhaps, is the mysterious tale of Fred Brandt, German soldier, spy, and butterfly collector (there’s surely a thesis to be written on the connection between espionage and lepidoptery).

Brandt gets a mention in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. The story goes that a lonesome British Liaison Officer in the north, Tony Neel, was told by a local, frankly inept, wannabe guerrilla leader, Nik Sokoli, that a German soldier was keen to desert. A meeting was arranged and on 11 April 1944, in Sokoli’s home, Neel was introduced to a tall, very Teutonic lance-corporal, Fred Brandt. After a fair amount of raki, it was decided that Brandt should return to his unit of Tajik soldiers and persuade them to desert en masse. Brandt’s main interest, he assured Neel, was collecting butterflies, of which Albania had (and still has) an abundance.

An unlikely friendship developed over the following weeks between the British officer and the German NCO; Neel even had Brandt round for tea to meet Billy McLean and Julian Amery, when they dropped into the country. SOE HQ, by then based in Bari, was more suspicious than Neel and did their due diligence. Years later Neel recalled

… one day my wireless operator… Corporal Button… came in and he said ‘Got a message for you, sir.’

I said, ‘What is it?’

He said, ‘This man Brandt, who you’ve contacted. Is he about five-foot-ten? Ginger-haired?’ and so on and so on. ‘Because if he is, he’s a colonel in the Abwehr [German military intelligence]…’

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

At their next meeting, Neel confronted Brandt with the message. Brandt agreed that the description did match his, and agreed to come to Bari for questioning. He was evacuated in October by boat (Corporal Button drowned when a dinghy overturned in heavy seas), and flown off to England, along with his butterfly specimens, for interrogation by MI5. He cheerfully admitted he’d been keeping his German bosses in the loop as to his progress (they were pressing him to round up a whole bunch of BLOs in one masterful stroke) and had had difficulty preventing his Tajik soldiers capturing Neel’s party when they had the chance.

After reading Brandt’s interrogation transcripts, the Albanian section’s intelligence officer, John Eyre, wrote ‘This account makes me shiver… our ALOs [Allied Liaison Officers] like sheep among wolves…’

Brandt wrote his own account of his experiences in the Seventies, and it’s available in English at this amazing website, Albanianhistory.net, a labour of love by writer and translator Robert Elsie.

Weirdest bit? This, probably –

That evening, at dinner, I spoke to Major Neel, explaining to him what needed to be done. After the withdrawal of German forces, a national Albanian government would have to be created and supported. He reacted with enthusiasm and promised to contact Bari about the idea straight away.

The reply came two days later – complete agreement! The northern Albanians would receive everything they needed, even weapons, and we were to inform British headquarters of what they required most urgently. The next morning, I took the good news to the Albanians in the forest glade. They were jubilant!

The next step was to choose a leader for the national resistance movement. The choice fell upon me. I was acceptable for all sides, and was neutral. The Catholics regarded me as one of theirs. The Muslims regarded me as a follower of Allah, and I was even a friend of the British, their commander, and indeed a “colonel.”

Brandt’s account has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Hasn’t it?

There’s a sad postscript. It seems that after the war the extraordinary Brandt was handed over to the Soviets. He spent eight years in the gulags, only returning to Germany in 1955, sick with tuberculosis and a variety of other nasty diseases. He died in 1995.

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

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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… 

Go East, Young Man

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

Fitzroy Maclean during the war

To my shame, until this week I had never read Fitzroy Maclean’s book Eastern Approaches. I have now, and thought it was worth a rather random post.

Fitzroy Maclean, I should point out, is not to be confused with Neil ‘Billy’ McLean. Maclean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 to liaise with the partisans there; McLean was a Scottish, Eton-educated SOE officer parachuted into Albania in 1943 to work with the partisans there. Maclean was supposedly a model for James Bond, McLean wasn’t. Simple.

Despite being focused on Tito and Yugoslavia, Eastern Approaches does have some relevance for Albania. Two parts in particular grabbed me. The first will probably be familiar to Brits, but hopefully new for Albanian readers. I think it goes a long way to explaining British policy in the Balkans during the war.

Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches - a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches – a tale of derring-do in wartime Yugoslavia

In November 1943 Maclean was pulled out of Yugoslavia and reported directly to Churchill in Cairo. He had an audience with the great man, who was reclining in his bed, smoking a cigar, resplendent in an embroidered dressing gown. After telling Maclean about his recent meeting with Stalin, and asking the young officer if he wore a kilt when he parachuted, Churchill got down to brass tacks, saying that the Allies were going to throw their weight behind Tito and withdraw help from the nationalist leader Mihajlovic and his Cetnik forces. All fine as far as Maclean was concerned, but he did see a sticking point –

I now emphasized to Mr. Churchill… that in my view the Partisans… would be the decisive political factor in Jugoslavia after the war and, secondly, that Tito and the other leaders of the Movement were openly and avowedly Communist and that the system which they would establish would inevitably be on Soviet lines and, in all probability, strongly orientated towards the Soviet Union. 

The Prime Minister’s reply resolved my doubts.

‘Do you intend,’ he asked, ‘to make Jugoslavia your home after the war?’

‘No, Sir,’ I replied. 

‘Neither do I,’ he said. ‘And that being so, the less you and I worry about the form of Government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them is doing most harm to the Germans?’

On January 18 1945, with the war in Europe slowly coming to a bloody end, Churchill made the same point in the House of Commons, Maclean recounts…

‘We have no special interest in the political regime which prevails in Jugoslavia. Few people in Britain, I imagine, are going to be more cheerful or downcast because of the future constitution of Jugoslavia.’

What was true for Yugoslavia was doubly true for Albania, which, for the record, has just one reference in Eastern Approaches‘ index.

Tito - a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

Tito – a much better man than Enver Hoxha, and friend to Fitzroy Maclean

The second passage to stick in my mind concerns the arming of the Yugoslav partisans. A couple of weeks ago I met a young Albanian chap at a party in Tirana, who mentioned that he’d just finished Albania’s National Liberation Struggle: The Bitter Victory, by Reginald Hibbert. Hibbert was a junior SOE officer who went on to become ambassador to France. A few of Hibbert’s fellow officers were convinced he was part of the supposed communist conspiracy to subvert SOE, even refusing to attend reunions if he was present (Hibbert certainly had left-wing leanings).

In his book Hibbert tries to quash the myth, or rather theory, that SOE was responsible for delivering up large chunks of the Balkans to the Soviets. My copy is in Tirana, unfortunately, and I’m not, but Hibbert makes great play of the fact that the number of weapons dropped to Hoxha’s partisans was, in the great scheme of things, relatively small and therefore didn’t have much to do with Hoxha’s rise to power. The young Albanian chap found this hilarious, pointing out that if he was given 40,000 WWII-era rifles today he’d probably be able to defeat the modern-day Albanian army and take over the country himself.

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Reginald Hibbert in Albania, 1943 or 1944

Hibbert’s focus on tonnage also rather misses the point – what really counted was prestige. Something that Maclean is all too aware of –

The change in our attitude also had an important psychological effect. All the prestige which the Cetniks had hitherto enjoyed as a result of Allied support was now transferred to the Partisans…

As often happens, these developments coming one after the other had a snowball effect. Allied support and supplies had brought more volunteers; better equipped and more numerous, the Partisans had been able to increase the scale of their operations; their success in the field had, in turn, brought in larger stocks of captured weapons and, incidentally further increased their prestige; so that in the space of a few months the Movement had gone from strength to strength.

Those Albanians who do have some knowledge of British involvement in their country during the War, and our role in bringing Hoxha to power, tend to take the (ironic) view, ‘Thanks for that…’ I sometimes find it hard to disagree with them.

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

Fitzroy Maclean in the 1970s

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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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Billy McLean, Boxes and Brits behaving badly

Neil 'Billy' McLean's private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Neil ‘Billy’ McLean’s private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Wednesday saw me booked into the temporary reading room at London’s Imperial War Museum. The main museum is undergoing a £35m (€41.5m) refit, and will open again this summer, with its main gallery dedicated to the Great War (as a largely irrelevant aside, for a snapshot of Britain in the run-up to WWI read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England). Meanwhile researchers have to squirrel themselves away in a redbrick Victorian pile a stone’s throw from Elephant & Castle, possibly the most depressing spot in London.

My visit, the first of four or five days in IWM London, was for the private papers of Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, one of the key British Liaison Officers to serve in Albania. McLean is not to be confused with the much more famous Fitzroy Maclean, Churchill’s personal envoy to Tito in Yugoslavia, author of Eastern Approaches and supposed model for James Bond. McLean’s private papers, I had been forewarned, were a) copious and b) uncatalogued. Waiting for me were six large cardboard boxes, pictured above.* There’s a job of work here, I thought.

Ever have one of those moments when you know you’re in for a good day? Well, I had that when I saw the first page of the first file in the first box. It’s worth quoting here in full –

I found that the actual parachute jump was one of the most pleasant I had ever made. Far more pleasant than the five practise [sic] jumps I had made in the S.A.S. Training Camp at Kabrit. It was also far less difficult than I had imagined it would be. Sometimes in Cairo after a particularly debauched night, I would lie in the afternoon on my bed in Shephard’s [sic] Hotel and imagine the scene of the operational jump. The green light and everyone looking ghostly and strained, and outside cold and very black. The slip-stream rushing by and the hollow feeling in the stomach and invisible hands, some pulling one out, others pulling one back. The absolute certainty that the slipstream would knock one against the side of the aeroplane, so that the parachute would not open properly, or perhaps only half open, or perhaps not open at all. The unknown land below so cold and dark and menacing. One literally sweated. But, in fact, the operational jump was a piece of cake. Like nearly all things that one is worried or anxious about, the thing itself is so much less bad than one’s idea of it. This, of course, is also true of good things one hopes to happen. They also fall almost always far short of one’s expectations or desires.

Possibly only boredom and hate, illness and bad temper, quarrels and unsuccessful relationships with people are worse than one imagines.

McLean starts as he means to go on – often his diary, written up from notes when he was an MP after the war, reads more like the skeleton of a novel. Perhaps he was planning to fictionalise his experiences, as did Anthony Quayle (Eight Hours From England) and Jerry Field (Three Seconds to Die – I appear to have bought the last available copy and it’s arriving any day now; hopefully it’s totally bonkers like its author). McLean was a highly literate man, after all. In his pack on that first jump were the complete works of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique and all the Russian classics. Guns and grenades would have been far too common.

It’s fascinating seeing how he expanded on his diary notes. For instance, this –

6) Aleco
The stage communist. Unshaven, dirty clothes, long finger nails. Produces paper, rough manners. Contempt. Tries to be much older. Affected way of narrowing eyes in order to look sinister. Way of accepting tea. I despise these comforts but it doesn’t make much difference. These unimportant things.

Becomes –

Aleco
Young, speaks French, reasonably educated. He never washes and he has a brown speckly colour. He acts as a stage communist, always sinister and secretive. He has an affected trick of narrowing his eyes, as if about to pass the death sentence on some enemy of the people. He often took out of his pocket letters which were probably directives from the communist party. After studying them studiously he heavily marked them with the blunt stub of his pencil. Aleco always accepted a cup of tea very ungraciously as if he disapproved strongly of anyone being able to offer to anyone a cup of tea, or anything else. But, as such habits existed in the evil capitalist world he thought it was probably simpler to accept the cup of tea as, anyway, very little time remained for these bourgeois capitalist customs to continue. Aleco also was very suspicious of all of us and had very bad manners. So he was not the best of company. Sometimes he would stare at the perfectly ordinary map of Argyrocastre [Gjirokastër] area for about 1/2 hour on end or even an hour mouthing out the names of the villages under his breath.

Smiley (left) and McLean

Smiley (left) and McLean

And fascinating too to see his thoughts on other British Liaison Officers. He’s surprisingly candid about the limitations of his close friend, David Smiley (who rode beside the Queen’s carriage at her coronation 70 years ago this year). He notes Smiley’s contempt for Albanians with some regret, such as his words to a partisan who made an early call on their HQ: “Get out you bastard – I will not have Albanians in here before breakfast.” And more disturbingly, Smiley’s reaction when a wounded partisan was brought to them –

“God, they’ve even started bringing the wounded here now… The Best thing he can do is to die and save us feeding him.”

And when the partisan did die –

“Thank God for that anyway, that’s saved us a lot of trouble.”

Last Christmas lunch I sat next to a retired brigadier who had known Smiley. I got the impression that he wasn’t a man you’d go to if you needed a shoulder to cry on, but still. His reading matter for that first mission, it’s worth mentioning, was the latest copy of Horse & Hound.

McLean’s candour raised some difficult issues for me. Namely, how honest should I be in this blog. A few SOE officers, though none who served in Albania (I think), are still alive. The children and grandchildren of the various BLOs could very well be hurt by McLean’s scathing character studies. If you’ve grown up thinking grandaddy was a brave irregular soldier, risking his life behind enemy lines, you won’t want to hear that his colleagues considered him to be, well, a useless plonker. But it occurred to me that I’d have no such compunctions over the various Albanian characters who swim in and out of the picture. The men and women of SOE, like it or not, are part of history now. I don’t think it’s right to censor oneself for fear of offending their descendants. And some of McLean’s portraits are just too sharp, too telling, to pass over. My approach, I think, will be to namecheck BLOs when portrayed negatively, if it’s absolutely necessary. If I can get away without attaching the negativity to a name, I’ll do so. So here’s McLean on ‘John’, a BLO he encountered in Greece. He starts off slowly –

A slow, pleasant, but somewhat stupid country Englishman with a streak of animal cunning.

But soon gets into his stride, describing him later as –

… a young and pig fat man with a Yorkshire accent – very healthy and German-looking. One day I saw him sitting among a miserable group of emaciated peasant children, pale, spotty and sleepy with hunger. He was smacking his lips and ordering enormous quantities of food. The idea suddenly came to us that to keep John alive some fifty peasant children were being deprived of their food. Every time John sat down to a meal we used to count —– 51, 52, 53…

German propaganda in Albania painted the BLOs as young, spoiled brats who didn’t care if their actions brought destruction to a village. It perhaps wasn’t a totally inaccurate portrayal. I was reminded of a fragment of Sandy Glen‘s report of early 1944, written after a stint sharing a cave on the coast, Seaview, with Jerry Field, who had taken to shooting at Albanians on sight –

Partisans tell of British officers sending peasant boys fifteen miles through enemy-patrolled country for a bottle of raki. I believe this is true. Bal Kom [Albanian nationalists opposed to the partisans] shepherds have been shot at by British officers simply for approaching a camp in the hope of scrounging a mug of coffee. Liaison has been a one-sided affair, the sort of liaison between a grubby fourth form schoolboy and an unapproachable form master armed with a large cane.
(National Archives, HS 5 / 57)

A reminder that not all BLOs had McLean’s sensitivity or subtlety. I have five more boxes of his private papers to work through. Interesting times.

*Photography is strictly prohibited in the reading rooms, but the staff were kind enough to make an exception after I pointed out that a photograph of six cardboard boxes wouldn’t bring the Imperial War Museum tumbling down.

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