Albania is endlessly fascinating. That’s one of the joys of the place – there are stories everywhere. An American writer, Cate Lineberry, has just released a book telling one of the best – it’s called The Secret Rescue, and is published by Little, Brown & Company.
In early November 1943, a few weeks after Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and the SPILLWAY mission were dropped into the Martanesh region, a plane load of US medics, including 13 female nurses, crashlanded south of Elbasan, in central Albania. It took them two months to reach SOE’s coastal hideaway, SEAVIEW, and escape to Italy.
The story is epic. I’ve read memoirs by two of the Americans – – and the SOE report by the officer who guided them out, Lieutenant Gavan Duffy (National Archives HS 5/124). I don’t have the quote to hand, but another British Liaison Officer – David Smiley, if I remember correctly – described Duffy as having two interests in life: demolition and explosives. His report is a gem, starting off –
“The American Party, which consisted of two P/O’s, 12 [sic] nurses and 15 enlisted men, left SICILY on board a D.C.47 en route for BARI, ITALY. The approximate time for such a flight is 40 minutes; two months later the party did arrive safely at BARI, unharmed, but possibly conscious of the fact that accidents can happen even in this modern era of aviation…”
“For years to come I feel sure that certain inhabitants of ALBANIA will never forget the “Cupka Amerikane” (American Girls), who always managed to produce the necessary cosmetics and render the necessary running repairs. They used to leave the people non-plussed, including, I might add, myself; after all, they were in enemy occupied territory. Amazing! Much too deep for me as a soldier!”
Reading between the lines of published memoirs by two of the American party, there might just have been a sniff of romance between Duffy and one of the nurses, Agnes ‘Jens’ Jensen. I look forward to reading Cate’s book and finding out if I’m over-imagining.
Also in the National Archives, as well as Duffy’s report, is a an ‘Evaders Statement’ by three of the nurses, who got separated from the main body of the party just a few days after the crash (HS5/67). They were finally evacuated in March, after a prolonged stay in Berat. There’s a spine-tingling moment when they realise they are on their own, and the Germans have arrived in town –
“Later in the afternoon, several Albanian soldiers and two Germans entered the house. The Albanians remained below, while the two Germans came upstairs and into our room. At the time, Lt [Ava Ann] Maness was playing solitaire with airplane-spotters’ cards, and one German, upon seeing a card with the figure of a B-25 on it, remarked ‘Bono’. The other German, who could speak a little English, asked what our uniforms represented, to which we replied ‘Infimara’ (Nurse), and asked us the significance of our Air Corps sleeve patches, and we told him. They asked if we were Albanian, to which we replied in the affirmative, but the other remarked, ‘Nix, nix, Albaninan.’ Both Germans were wearing Red Cross buttons in their caps, and black fatigue uniforms. They then left the room, and went downstairs, and the one who spoke a little English told Mrs Karaja to keep us within the limits of the house and we would be alright.”
If you want to find out more, then buy Cate’s book. The Daily Beast has made it one of the week’s hot reads –
“The book combines all of the elements that draw us to WWII stories: the daring of The Guns of Navarone, the suspense of The Great Escape, and the bravery reminiscent of Ill Met by Moonlight. It’s the inclusion of so many women, though, that makes this story unique. It’s always good to be reminded that by no means did men have a monopoly on grace-under-fire during the world’s greatest conflagration.”
– and it’s surely a shoe-in for a film adaptation. Or a Nurses’ Trail, to sit alongside the Endurance Vile Trail this September, for that matter…