Category Archives: Kadri Hoxha

First Blood

Mule path from Labinot to Xibrake

Walking the ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ from Labinot to Xibrake

This embarrassingly irregular blog continues with a post I should have put up, ooo, last September. A shameful delay on my part, but I have to confess it’s not the only long-delayed post in my back catalogue – I have more on Orenje, meeting bears before breakfast, and a research trip to Macukull in the Mati, where David Smiley and various other Special Operations Executive officers had uncomfortably close shaves with German troops. I shall endeavour to catch up…

Anyway, in early September I was keen to pin down the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Enver Hoxha when they unsuccessfully tried to escape German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river between Elbasan and Librazhd. Thanks to my friend Ferit Balla, who holds the unpublished memoirs of the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, I knew just where Davies et al emerged from the hills – the village of Xibrake. I knew they left from Labinot (and just where in Labinot, too). So I figured it would be pretty easy to find the route. Just walk from Xibrake to Labinot… I’d come close to doing it the previous week…

I overnighted in Elbasan, a rather bizarre town that I like a lot if only for its well-attended giro each evening (if you’re not familiar with the giro concept, basically everyone walks up and down the main street at sunset and says hello to one another). An early start and a particularly dicey furgon (minibus) got me to Xibrake nice and early, and off I strode – along totally the wrong path, I would discover shortly. The walk to Labinot was uneventful, and I arrived at the outskirts of the village with the clichéd spring in my step and pressed on to the prominent house which had been Enver Hoxha’s on-and-off HQ (now a museum that doesn’t open).

Albanian villages, I should mention, are very spread out.

I found myself on one side of a valley. On the other was Hoxha’s HQ. I could see what looked like a well maintained path between me and it. The sun was shining. All was good. Until about 300 yards short of the HQ, when the path ended abruptly. No matter, I thought, I’ll cut through the garden blocking my route, smiling inanely at the wizened peasant who no doubt owns it and who would probably invite me in and fill me with raki as soon as I mentioned the words ‘General Davies’ (as he’s known in these parts). Unfortunately the wizened peasant wasn’t at home. His dogs, however, were.

I love dogs. But not Albanian dogs, with the exception of the huge Šarplaninac (Illyrian Sheep Dog). When confronted with a lanky Englishman the Šar, which will happily take on a wolf or bear, will just shrug its shoulders and get on with its core business of guarding sheep or goats. The 98 per cent of Albanian dogs that aren’t Šar, sadly, love nothing better than to sink their teeth into English flesh. They are partisan; Šar are Balli.

There were three of them, and they were small snarly well-beaten brutes not Šar. Due to an oversight on my part I didn’t have a big stick with me (an essential accessory for trekking in Albania). I pretended to have a stone ready to throw, which bought me time, but was quickly surrounded and bitten. Don’t pass this on to the Albanian Dog Lovers’ Association, but I kicked hard and I think effectively. I managed to pick up a few stones and threw them, satisfyingly accurately. The dogs were held at bay and I was able to beat a retreat to the next garden, where I immediately met one of the sweetest families I’ve encountered so far.

A bite from an Albanian hell hound

Ouch. Six months on and still no sign of rabies

They were obviously a bit surprised to have a random trekker bleeding over their vegetable patch, but quickly recovered from the shock and sat me down on their balcony. Raki was produced, but to clean the wound rather than drink, to my disappointment. The man of the house, Agim, insisted on giving me a clean T-shirt to wear, while his wife produced an impromptu feast. A phone call to Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip established my credentials and the purpose of my visit, and Agim, on hearing of our previous failed attempt to get into the museum, walked me up and tackled the mad woman who holds the keys and refuses access. No joy; she’s an immovable object.

Village hospitality in Albania

Typical Albanian village hospitality, spoiled somewhat by a pale hairy leg

The words ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ were bandied about and Agim and his wife walked me down a path and pointed me in what they insisted was the right direction. After profuse thanks I set off. But soon heard shouting – apparently I was going the wrong way. The two of them, who were both well into their sixties and wearing completely unsuitable footwear, then insisted on walking me to Xibrake along the route Davies and Hoxa took back in December 1943 – an ancient and neglected mule path. Never in a million years would I have found it by myself. Two hours later we were in Xibrake, where they waved me off. I tried to give them some money but they refused point blank. It must have taken them three hours to get home, as Xibrake to Labinot is a steep uphill trek.

I hope this gives you an idea of Albanian hospitality – and in my experience, this story is fairly typical. If you’re wondering if it’s a welcoming destination for tourists, the answer I’d suggest is yes. 

There are more photos for your delectation at the S.O.E. Trails Facebook page

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 20-26 December 1943

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country - sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country – sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

Early in the morning of Monday 20 December 1943 Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his SPILLWAY mission find themselves hiding in a freezing forest near the Bizë plateau in central Albania, with Enver Hoxha and several hundred partisans.  Sleep is impossible. At dawn Captain Jim Chesshire and the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver) are sent to find Captain Alan Hare and Sergeant Chisolm, who are leading the mission’s mule train. The waifs and strays are gathered by around 16.00 – the mule column is following close behind. At 19.00 a partisan arrives to say a German column has passed close by. With horror, Davies realises the ‘Germans’ must have been the mule column, with all the mission’s food, clothing and bedding.

Enver Hoxha hides the more elderly members of the LNC ruling council in a nearby cave. The picture he paints in his memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, is of a a cosy cavern with fireplace and warm beds. The reality is quite different (I’ve been into the cave, and will blog about it on another occasion).

Meanwhile, from the hills above Orenje, Kadri Hoxha watches the Germans burn Sulieman Balla’s house, where the British had sheltered previously.

Tuesday is cold and wet. The only food is a dish of beans at 12.00 and at 15.00 a plate of maize flower and water. Davies, after much argument, persuades Enver Hoxha to move south with a skeleton party of no more than 15. Of the British, Davies selects Lt Col Arthur Nicholls and Corporal Smith to accompany him.

On Wednesday morning Davies, Nicholls and Smith say goodbye to Captains Jim Chesshire and Alan Hare, and sergeants Melrose and Chisolm, who will be left to evade the Germans as best they can. Enver Hoxha has decided to bring 35 men, rather than the agreed 15. After two hours march Kadri Hoxha is sent on ahead to find the Bektashi priest and partisan leader Baba Faja. They are very high up and can’t light fires in case they’re spotted. It begins to rain. Kadri Hoxha fails to return before nightfall. The three British have just five chocolate squares each. A miserable night in the open is endured.

Around 09.00 on Thursday morning Kadri Hoxha arrives with a sheep, bread and cheese. A fire is lit and the sheep cooked. They move at 14.00, climbing steadily. There is deep snow, and they are soon lost. Camp is made at 21.00. At one point a partisan drops a grenade into the fire.

Early on Friday morning Kadri Hoxha sets off by himself to find the trail. He returns at 08.30, and by 14.00 the freezing-cold party arrive at the village of Okshtun. They are served a delicious meal of chicken with nut sauce and dry out their sodden clothes. It is Christmas Eve. News arrives that the Germans are camping 2km behind them.

The British rise at 03.00 on Christmas morning, but have to wait for the Albanians, who are finally ready to move at 06.30. They make a long, steep climb over the mountains to the east till they reach a ridge overlooking the village of Fushe-Studën. By now Davies’ boots have disintegrated – their host the previous night placed them too close to the fire to dry out. Despite British misgivings about passing through a village, they cross the plain at Fushe-Studën and start climbing the hills on the other side. About halfway up they come under fire. The leave the track and scramble up the mountainside. At dusk they find themselves above the village of Khorishte, and spend a freezing night in each others’ arms.

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën. Hoxha, Davies et al must have re-crossed the road somewhere around here, then climbed the mountain to the right in near-total darkness

Early on Sunday morning Kadri Hoxha returns from Khorishte to say that no villagers dare take them in. Davies tells Enver Hoxha that he will head south with just Fred Nosi, the mission’s translator. Hoxha angrily refuses and says they have to head back the way they came. Soon they are lost. Corporal Smith’s boots have lost most of both soles. At dusk they re-cross the Librazhd-Dibra road and find themselves climbing a mountain in the dark. At 21.00, close to the summit, the guides announce they are lost once more. The miserable group makes camp; the temperature is well below freezing. There is a gel frost and their clothes are stiff as boards.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 13-19 December 1943

The house Brig 'Trotsky' Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania's WWII history

The house Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania’s WWII history

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, still at the village of Labinot after their unsuccessful attempt to break through German encirclement, kick off Monday 13 December 1943 with a louse hunt. Enver Hoxha tells them a fresh attempt to move will be made at noon on Tuesday. Davies sends a messenger to the rest of the mission, hidden at nearby Orenje. However, acting on earlier orders they arrive at 15.00 anyway. Two brown horses, captured from the Germans, are given to Davies and Nicholls, Hoxha receives a pair of brown field boots.

Tuesday is a fine but cold day. Departure is delayed – it seems till Thursday. Davies spends much of the day speaking with Enver Hoxha. He naively asks if Hoxha is a communist. Heavy fighting can be heard from the nearby Librazhd-Elbasan road.

On Wednesday Hoxha makes the decision to return to Orenje for a few days before making a fresh attempt to head south. The move is made early on Thursday morning. When the mission arrives at the house of Sulieman Balla, they discover an RAF sortie has made it through. They are desperate for warm clothing and food, but the drop is almost exclusively explosives and personal mail and magazines for the British, plus 7,500 gold sovereigns. The local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha flies into a rage, and says he’ll refuse to accept the explosives. Davies learns from Kadri that the local partisan units have dispersed; there is nothing between the mission and the Germans. The sovereigns are dumped in a latrine (they are retrieved the following April).

After a sleepless night, the British stand-to at 05.30. Davies sends out patrols. The day turns out to be sunny, but ferociously cold. A young Albanian doctor tells the British their are 24 sick and six seriously wounded partisans to be cared for. At some point, Davies sends a cable to the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, recommending a change in policy. He says full support should be given to Enver Hoxha’s partisans, and the nationalist forces of the Balli Kombetar and the Zogists should be denounced as collaborators. He supplies a list of names for the pillory including Abas Kupi and Lef Nosi. This is the last signal Cairo will receive from Davies.

At 02.00 on the morning of Sunday 18 December, Davies is woken and told that the Germans are approaching. At 09.30 a German spotter plane drops leaflets over the houses the mission is occupying, calling on the Italian element to surrender and promising them safe conduct. At 11.00 Kadri Hoxha arrives and advises Davies to join the LNC Council at nearby Qurakuq. Davies leaves, and a few hours later the LNC Council arrives; a messenger is sent to bring Davies back.

By now Germans trucks can be heard. The mission, with Enver Hoxha and the LNC leadership, leave Orenje and march seven hours to a wood behind Bizë, where the British originally parachuted in. They can hear RAF planes overhead, but have to signal them to abort as they can’t receive supplies.

Cairo sends Davies a signal in response to his recent cable to the King, congratulating him on his birthday – ‘Could you convey His Majesty’s sincere thanks to Trotsky and those under his command for their kind birthday message’ – but he never receives it (National Archives, HS5/67).

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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: 31 October to 7 November 1943

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky's day (National Archives)

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky’s day (National Archives)

Apologies for falling behind so quickly. As well as these brief posts on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, I have several posts to get up on my exploration of the Çermenika mountains over the summer and autumn, as I trace the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, Enver Hoxha and co as they attempted to escape German encirclement in winter 1943/44. Hopefully I’ll get them all up by Christmas… Who’d have thought a simple blog about long-forgotten events in Albania 70 years ago could be so time-consuming? 

Sunday 31 October saw the first meeting between Davies and Enver Hoxha. It’s pretty strained – Hoxha is convinced that Davies is an intelligence officer rather than a regular soldier co-opted by the Special Operations Executive, and refuses to believe that the Brits’ brief is simply to fight the Germans. He even comes to the conclusion that the mission’s true purpose is to prepare the ground for a return by King Zog (or so he claims later in his memoirs). When Davies tells him that he won’t supply arms to the partisans if they use them to fight their fellow Albanians, Hoxha hits the roof.

Monday is a depressing day – the weather is getting colder at the Bizë HQ and the partisans present a few German prisoners who plead with Davies to help him. He can do nothing and assumes they were shot.

Tuesday is freezing cold. Two members of the Balli Kombetar (nationalist Albanian group opposed to the communists) arrive to announce that the Zogist leader Abas Kupi is at nearby Shengjergj. Davies and Nicholls enjoy a beautiful horse ride to the village, meet Kupi, and are then eaten alive by bed bugs when they sleep over.

Wednesday sees an inept broadcast by the BBC Albanian service guaranteed to alienate the entire country, both nationalist and communist. Davies sends a furious cable to Cairo, and also asks them to get the BBC to denounce by name the Regency Council installed by the Germans. This creates a kerfuffle in Cairo as SOE’s Albania advisor, Margaret Hasluck, had been the lover of the regent Lef Nosi before the war, and is still deeply in love with him. In the nearby village of Labinot, Enver Hoxha releases a letter declaring war on the Balli Kombetar and any Albanians who don’t support the partisans.

Lt Col Nicholls’ health is deteriorating, and he spends most of Thursday sick. In the evening Michael Lis, a Polish officer, arrives at Bizë and walks through the camp guard without being challenged and (wrongly) reports the death of a British mission in the Dibra region.

Enver Hoxha visits on Friday and stays for a cheerful lunch. Artillery can be heard in the distance. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha is furious to discover that Davies has named his horse Kadri.

Nicholls remains ill with dysentery on Saturday 6 November. News is filtering through that civil war has broken out.

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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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Lost in Labinot

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

One of the joys of researching the putative Endurance Vile Trail is that it takes me to all sorts of odd places in Albania. I posted about the village of Labinot back in Spring when Toni Caushi of Albaniantrip.com and I attempted to get into the village museum, which is protected by a little old lady who, frankly, is off her rocker. Labinot is famous among Albanians old enough to have enjoyed the benefits of a Communist education for being one of the spots, along with Peza and Permet, where Enver Hoxha held a meeting or two during the war (this was enough to make any place, however obscure, of global importance if you were setting the Albanian national curriculum between 1945 and 1991).

Labinot also happens to be an important spot on the route of the Trail. In December 1943 Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men spent several days here, unexpectedly. I say unexpectedly as they originally thought they’d be there a few hours – it was a mustering point for partisans and Brits alike as they tried to break through the German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river. Sadly the whole episode was a typical Albanian mess.

According to the diary kept against orders by Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and now held at the Imperial War Museum in London, the Brits and partisans left Labinot at around 8.30pm on Saturday 11 December 1943. They crossed difficult terrain in near darkness, nearly making it to the river, before turning back at around 3am. The Shkumbini had risen suddenly and the proposed crossing point was impassable, added to which the Balli [nationalists] and Germans had been stirred up by an advance party led by our old friend Kadri Hoxha.

Enver Hoxha (no relation to Kadri) wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to America

Our crossing to the South failed … because the information which Kadri Hoxha, commander of the Staff of the Elbasan Group, gave us was completely wrong. He had neglected the importance of this undertaking, stayed at Orenja quite unconcerned idling away his time talking with Beg Balla and the British, while the enemy went into action and killed some of our men. I sent him a letter… in which I said bluntly that the zone of Elbasan was still very weak militarily and that responsibility for this state of affairs and for the failure of the attempt of the Staff to cross to the South fell on him, first of all. I pointed out in the letter that I had several times striven to help and advised him that he should take measures and get moving and that now I had no other course but to report the situation to the proper quarters, because whenever I had criticized him and instructed him to act, he repeated the same words: «You don’t know me well.»

After all preparations had been made, we were ready to cross the river at the ford because, as I have written, the Haxhi Beqari bridge had been blown up by an officer of the British mission [David Smiley]. We sent some comrades to reconnoitre the ford. It was passable. The crossing would be made quickly at night. We got down there at the set time, but just as we reached the road the couriers of our vanguard came to inform us that the Shkumbin was in flood. I went myself to the ford and saw that it was impassable. We returned to our base. There we were to stay until we received reliable information on which way it was possible to go.

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Nicholls wrote a little ditty, which I think I can quote from as it was published in Dr Rod Bailey’s book The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle

‘… with apologies to Louis MacNeice and his poem “Bagpipe Music”:
It’s no go the merry-go-round
It’s no go the muck up
It’s no go the Skumbini [sic] River
It’s been a proper F– up!’

Now, my task was to find the route taken on that unfortunate night. I assumed it would be fairly straightforward. I knew from Kadri Hoxha’s unpublished diary, and from speaking to locals in the village café in Labinot, that Davies et al emerged from the hills at the village of Xibrake, to the southeast. I even knew, more or less, the exact point in Xibrake. So one blazing hot morning in August I got the furgon (minibus) to Xibrake, and struck out for Labinot.

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards - 500 lek is around €3

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards – 500 lek is around €3

I later discovered I went wrong more or less immediately. I couldn’t find a goat trail, so kept to a path that led to the village of Sericë, or at least the part of it to the west of the gorge that runs through the centre of the village. Heavy landslides of shale meant it was tricky going, but the path improved by Sericë’s tiny mosque and a nice young man with a heavily laden mule guided me uphill in what he assured me was the direction of Labinot.

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

The above brief paragraph took about four hours for me to walk in real time, including various wrong turns, backtracking and a lunch stop.

By the time I got to Labinot the temperature dropped to about 11°C (in August, I remind you) and a big storm hit. I’m learning that the weather in the Çermenika hills can turn on the drop of a conical white fez. By the time I squelched into the lower part of Labinot I felt pretty much like a drowned rat.

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

But this is Albania – one of the most hospitable countries in the world. Someone would look after me. I didn’t have high hopes, I confess, as my previous visit to Labinot had been enough to convince me that the locals were extremely, er, local. But a small child appeared, as they do, and within five minutes I was sitting in an old barber’s chair on the concrete verandah of a small café, hoping for an espresso and a raki but instead having to drink a huge glass of lumpy yoghurt, sucked from a freshly curdled cow, gratis. As is the way with Albanian villages, I had an audience of about seven wildly grinning men, whose English extended to “Aston Villa” and “Chelsea” etc.

After a bit of a hoo-ha a chap called Nico was produced. Nico, who it transpired lived in London with a Polish wife and was back for the summer, was it’s fair to say surprised to find a gangly English man drinking yoghurt in a village which isn’t exactly high on a list of Albania Must-Sees. We had a nice chat though, taking in the expense of living in London, the horrors of East Acton, pizza, and the sadistic behaviour of Greek border guards back in the Nineties, when Albanians such as Nico would sneak across the border at night in search of a better life. The outcome could be grim for those the Greeks caught. They despised Albanians (and still do). Sexual sadism was, Nico assured me, commonplace – he knew of one man who had been forced at gunpoint to.. Actually I won’t share that; it’s too unpleasant.

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Anyway, after an hour or so Nico – no cartographer, sadly – drew me a map and set me on the way back to the Librazhd-Elbasan road, assuring me it was far too late in the day to catch a furgon. Of the route taken by Davies and Hoxha that night in 1943 he knew nothing, but it seemed likely to be the same for most of the way. Very scenic it was too, though instead of following the path to Xibrake I hooked a right to a spot on the main road where I knew I could get a coffee and a raki. My plan was to return in a day or so and try again, walking up to Labinot the way I came out, then back to the main road down the path I hadn’t taken. If that makes any sense. More anon…

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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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Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 1

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls' diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls’ diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

I’m told that regular posting is the essence of good blogging, so apologies for the protracted gap. My excuse is that since the last instalment I’ve visited most of the key spots on the route of next year’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, along the way being savaged by a pack of terrifying Albanian killer hounds. So I have a lot of catching up to do…

Let’s start with my first trip to a village called Fushe-Studën, to the north of Librazhd (remarkably it has a Facebook page).

Davies and his team, along with Enver Hoxha, arrived here on Christmas Day 1943, as they attempted to break out of German encirclement. The main Librazhd-Dibër road (currently gravel but due for asphalt within a year or three; current traffic about a dozen vehicles an hour) runs through the village and, frankly, there’s not a more exposed spot to cross for 20km in either direction. The Brits were not happy, according to the diary kept by Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, now held at the Imperial War Museum London. With good reason – the party was seen, and came under fire as they walked the trail up the mountains on the other side of the road. They went off-piste, and ended up spending a freezing night at an altitude of about 1,800 metres, before being forced to turn back the way they came. Two weeks later Davies was in the bag.

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a bit of an accommodation issue in the Çermenika region. Fushe-Studën, remarkably, has a hotel – Hotel Hasa (thanks to UNICEF honcho Detlef who blogs at Palm Tree Productions for tipping me off). So I decided to stay two nights. If the hotel was any good, I figured, it’d be an interesting option when the trek happens for real.

Well, the location isn’t bad – Fushe-Studën is right on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, which stretches to the border with Macedonia to the east. The park is beautiful (pictures to follow in a few posts) and has forests in which lurk brown bears, grey wolves and the famously elusive European lynx. As for the hotel… Well, it was a mixed experience. The owner, the eponymous Hasa, is living the Albanian dream – he owns a gas station, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a hotel. It doesn’t get better than that. But he’s not going to be profiled in Condé Nast Traveller any time soon. The room itself was clean (though a trifle bizarre in layout and more than a trifle brown), the bathroom less so. In fact whatever had last been deposited in the loo had clearly tried to climb up the side of the pan in a forlorn effort to escape before finally losing its battle with the flush. A few spots of congealed dark yellow urine had been left on the seat as an artful flourish. Of hot water there was none.

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn't

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn’t

What there was, was a lot of puzzlement from the usual collection of espresso-and-raki drinking men in Hasa’s coffee bar as to what I, a tourist, was doing in Fushe-Studën. Luckily I had a rare Albanian copy of Davies’ memoir, Illyrian Venture, which brought some clarity to the situation. Raki was poured and the jokes began as to who was a communist and who a Ballist (Albanian nationalists, mostly liquidated after the war by Enver Hoxha). The idea of walking for pleasure, though, remains alien to 99.9% of Albanians.

But walk I did. It was afternoon by now, so rather than strike out into the hills I circled the village and tried to get a sense of the landscape and figure out where Davies et al would have arrived from, and where they would have headed. Now, this is where I got a little bit confused. My main source for pinning down the route, as well as the diary kept by Nicholls, is Enver Hoxha’s memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Hoxha, a city boy, did not know the Çermenika – in fact he apparently developed such an aversion to the area that he never visited again after he came to power. Some editions of Hoxha’s works include a map of the route. At the time of my visit I assumed the map was right, more or less. But when you walk around Fushe-Studën, it doesn’t make much sense.

This, I think, is the 'saddle' mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

This, I think, is the ‘saddle’ mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

The communist-era map has the group reaching the village from Okshtun (which I visited a couple of posts ago), then making an anti-clockwise circuit as far as the village of Qarrishtë, on the other side of a tributary of the Shkumbini river. The Brits have the group arriving at a ridge above Fushe-Studën and making for a ‘saddle’ in the hills opposite before heading over the highest part of the mountain. No river is mentioned, not that this means they didn’t cross one.

I’m 99% certain I stood on the same ridge as Davies. As far as I can see, there’s a shortlist of one, assuming you’ve arrived on the mule track from Okshtun. You can see the ‘saddle’ opposite. There’s even an old trail that leads up it (which I walked the following day). But the communist maps had the party striking off to the right (west, really), which would have them climbing the track over the hills behind the Hasa Hotel. The circuit would then have them re-crossing the road to the east.

Trouble with this is Nicholls’ diary says when they re-cross the road they were forced to climb an almost impossibly steep mountain. And the steep stuff is to the west of Fushe-Studën, not the east.

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You'll notice there's not a lot going on there

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You’ll notice there’s not a lot going on there

Does this really matter? Well, it does to me. Thankfully, I’ve since been lucky enough to spend some quality time with the unpublished memoirs of Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), a local partisan leader who was guiding the group. His beautifully rendered map has the group arriving at Fushe-Studën, and making a clockwise circuit. They never crossed the river; instead spending several freezing hours lost in the woods on the mountain that separates Fushe-Studën from the river. This ties in with the topography and the Nicholls diary. The simple explanation for the confusion is that Enver Hoxha’s memory was slightly dodgy after three decades of absolute power (he wrote The Anglo-American Threat in the Seventies).

Why didn’t Enver’s minions ask Kadri’s advice? Probably because he spent 40 or so years after the war in the slammer as a suspected British spy.

Anyway, with light fading and confusion reigning I headed back to the Hasa Hotel, looking forward to a big plate of mish (lamb), pilaf (rice) and një gotë verë të kuqe (a glass of red wine). “No mish,” Hasa told me quite definitely, after a bottle of red had been opened. “Peshk“. So peshk it was – turns out the Hasa Hotel’s redeeming feature are several large fish tanks fed by a fresh-water spring. Hasa’s wife produced a truly delicious fish supper that would make put a smile on any tired trekker’s face. With strict instructions on the importance of bathroom hygiene, and an enquiry into the hot water situation, the Hasa Hotel might just find its way onto the Endurance Vile Trail itinerary after all.

Delicious fresh fish - the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

Delicious fresh fish – the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

More on Fushe-Studën to follow…

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