Category Archives: Okshtun

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 27 December 1943 – 7 January 1944

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

After another night without shelter in sub-zero temperatures, Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men are in very bad shape. Dawn breaks and the mission’s Albanian guides recognise their mountainside location – the village of Okshtun is visible in the distance. At 07.00 they begin the slow march, arriving at Okshtun around midday. By this time Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, is clearly in need of rest and ideally medical attention – his toes are badly frostbitten. It is decided that the British will remain at Okshtun for a few days, while the Albanian contingent, including Enver Hoxha, head to the remote village of Kostenje.

The mission is to spend an entire week hidden in one room, subsisting on a diet of beans and cornbread. All members of the party have colds, and there is no reading matter. There is just one window, with no glass, through which the wind howls. News arrives that the villages of Martanesh and Orenje, where the mission sheltered previously, have been burned by the Germans. Despite this, the owners of the house show as much hospitality as their poverty allows. Corporal Smith, Davies’ bodyguard, spends three days complaining about what he thinks is a fractured vertebrae. When he finally allows Davies to inspect it, it turns out to be an infected boil. Davies cuts it out, with Nicholls acting as nurse.

On Monday 3 January three armed men enter the house, and leave quickly after finding Davies and the mission. Within 10 minutes, Davies and his mission are back in the hills. They arrive at the pre-agreed rendezvous of Kostenje at nightfall, and to their joy are reunited with Captains Alan Hare and Jim Chesshire, and Sergeant Chisolm. Home is a draughty sheepfold. The weather is getting much worse, and a blizzard sets in. After a few days Davies has a row with the partisan leader Baba Faja, and insists on better quarters. Baba Faja’s own house is filled with food – the British have to beg, borrow and steal what they can.

On Friday 7 Jan the mission’s translator (and spy for Enver Hoxha) tells Davies that the current situation is all his fault, apparently as he had failed to have the nationalist Balli Kombetar group denounced by the BBC. A few hours after this baffling statement, Enver Hoxha arrives to say that he is moving on with the partisan leadership, and will send for the British in a few days. He is all charm. Nicholls’ feet have turned septic. Davies asks Hoxha to send medical aid as soon as he can.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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…

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The first tourist in Okshtun

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

One of the frustrations in scouting the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 is that no one in Albania seems to have any familiarity with the area it took place in. Bizarre really, as it’s so close to Tirana. There’s no tourist infrastructure, no paved roads (until last year, when tarmac reached Shengjergj, a half-hour or more west of Biza, where Davies parachuted in) and no helpful websites. I had hoped to walk a fair stretch of the route in May, but the bizarre monsoon conditions put paid to that. But it’s August now and I’m back in Albania, so last week I hired a 4×4 and went in search of two key villages, Okshtun and Kostenje.

Normally on a trip like this I’d have my partner-in-crime, Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip with me, but his wife Vilma has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl (Nina, congratulations to them both). Instead I roped in a recently graduated tourism student, Edwin Brovina, to translate.

We headed to Librazhd, a six-donkey town about 25km east of Elbasan, and then struck out north. Due to a good dollop of EU cash, the road was brand-new and perfect for about 20km, then ended. We drove on dirt for about three hours, till a couple of helpful chaps told us we had passed the Okshtun turn. We doubled back, found the turn (unsigned, of course) and bumped our way down it. The track came to an end and we walked into Okshtun. Only it turned out to be a village called Lejçan instead.

We got a good welcome though, first from a tiny little old lady festooned with gold jewellery, who spoke a language Edwin couldn’t identify, let alone speak. At the next house we met the Limoni family, who sat us down, gave us coffee and the inevitable raki, and explained the little old lady spoke Macedonian (the border’s a bit fluid here). They also gave us the temporary use of their son, Erjon, to guide us to Okshtun, which they assured us was in the next valley.

The road to Okshtun

The road to Okshtun

Frustration No.2 of organising the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ is that there aren’t any professional-quality photos available to ‘sell’ the area to prospective trekkers. There still aren’t – I just took snaps on my mobile (you can see a gallery here). But take it from me, this is a lovely area. Okshtun is about a half-hour from the main (gravel) road, down a seriously underused dirt track. A few old stone houses clinging to the slopes of a fertile, green valley. It used to be home to over 100 families, apparently, but now there are just seven or so.

We parked up when the track ended and were greeted by a bemused young man wearing just a pair of underpants (it is August, after all). Not unnaturally, he was curious as to why we had come. Edwin explained I was a tourist interested in Enver Hoxha and General Davies. Erblin (for that was his name) did a double take then jokingly punched the air – apparently I was the first tourist to visit Okshtun. Erblin was soon joined by his father, Refek, who sat us down and proved himself the consummate host, taking us down to the river for a welcome swim.

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it's unlikely he took a dip

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it’s unlikely he took a dip

Refek, though, didn’t know anything about the war. Disappointing, as elsewhere in these parts there’s a strong corporate memory. Davies came here twice, in fact, the first time on Christmas Eve 1943, for one night, then returned for an extended stay from 27 December to 2 January 1944. He and his team were in a bad way by then – his second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, was already suffering from the frostbite that was to contribute to his death a few weeks later.

The diary Nicholls kept, against orders, notes that they enjoyed a delicious dish of chicken with nut sauce on Christmas Eve. Refek had 60 chickens though no nut sauce, and was keen for us to stay for a BBQ (and raki), but we had to cry off as we didn’t fancy negotiating the roads at night. A shame – Refek struck us as a man who’d know how to do a mean BBQ.

Refek's son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

Refek’s son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

As you’ll see from the photos, the houses in Okshtun are pretty ropey, so a home-stay is off the agenda here. It’s a perfect place to camp, however, particularly with Refek toiling away over hot charcoal and Erblen pouring the raki.

I’m not allowed under pain of death to quote from Nicholls’ diary without permission, due to the Imperial War Museum’s team of crack lawyers, but Enver Hoxha wrote of Okshtun in his deeply untrustworthy Anglo-American Threat to Albania (available as a free PDF here). Hoxha’s chronology is a bit dodgy as he has the bedraggled group arriving in Okshtun for the second time on Christmas Eve, when in fact that was the day of the first arrival, but you’ll get the general idea…

Night had fallen by the time we reached the base where we were to stay and our hosts had come out in the snow in the darkness to welcome us. They embraced us and took us inside. We took off our dripping coats and handed our rifles to the head of the house, who hung them on the wall, one beside the other. The small ante-room was warm. A great sense of satisfaction stole over us. The General watched with pleasure and curiosity how we embraced the people of the house, how we handed over our rifles, took off our boots and shoes at the entrance to the room, and he did his best to follow suit.

Our host opened the door of the big room with the fire-place and invited us in.

‘Please, come in, my home is yours.’

‘You go first,’ I said, giving the General the honour. We entered the room. It was truly a miracle, not only for the British General, but also for us, who were the sons of this land and this people. After such a wearying journey through the forest, sometimes on and sometimes off the track, through snow and blizzard, we entered a room of a peasant’s home which made the Englishman exclaim: ‘What a miracle! Can I be dreaming?’

Our host asked me where the General was from and what language he spoke. I introduced the General to him.

At the head of the room there was a big fire-place, with a blazing fire which spread warmth and light from end to end. Two or three kerosene lamps had been lit and at the one end of the room, snow-white sheep-skin rugs had been laid out, with pillows in clean pillow-slips to rest on. In the middle of the room was a big Dibra carpet, while corncobs in regular rows like soldiers were hanging from the rafters over- head. Neither beams nor roof could be seen, only the corncobs glowing like gold in the light of the fire.

‘This is marvellous! This is paradise!’ murmured the General. ‘Even in dreams I could not have imagined such a Christmas night.’

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

‘You see what the homes and hearts of the ordinary Albanians are like, General,’ I said. ‘They truly are paradise without Mammon or God, as in your Milton’s Paradise Lost. Perhaps you remember Lord Byron’s beautiful verses full of feeling. In his Childe Harold he pointed out the fine virtues of the Albanian and wrote:

The Suliotes stretched the welcome hand,
And piled the hearth, and wrung their garments damp,
And filled the bowl, and trimmed the cheerful lamp,
And spread their fare; though homely all they had.
Such conduct bears Philanthropy’s rare stamp.’

‘Yes, Mr. Hoxha,’ said the General, ‘what Byron wrote about you Albanians I am seeing in reality and in difficult times which the world is going through.’

‘General,’ I said, ‘this hospitable atmosphere which our host has created reminds me of what I have read about the life of Byron. It was in such an atmosphere that the great English poet who had gone to Greece to fight for the freedom of the Greek people lay on his death bed. When the Albanians and their valiant leaders — Marko Boçari, Kolokotroni and others, were fighting all around Missolonghi, those who were serving the poet on his death bed were Albanians — the Suliotes.’

‘In find your words very moving, Mr. Hoxha,’ the British General replied.

‘Byron has written about this generosity and hospitality of our people, too. Somewhere he relates how, while he was travelling in Albania and night overtook him in a village, he was obliged to seek shelter in a house where he was welcomed with all the good things they had. Before he left the next day, Byron brought out his money to pay. His host said indignantly: ‘No, the Albanian does not want money but friends.’ And Byron remained a true friend of the Albanians.

Our host loaded the table with food, as is the custom of the people of Dibra. The General rose to his knees, put his hand on his heart to express thanks whenever his host offered him cigarettes, or clinked glasses with him. Our weariness disappeared immediately. The General opened his eyes in astonishment and asked me: ‘I cannot understand where we are here, in the city or in the countryside?’

‘We’re in a village, the inhabitants of which have fought for freedom since ancient times. They are poor, but when friends and comrades come they do everything possible to avoid being disgraced. This is how our whole people preserve the traditions of our ancestors, General,’ I told him.

‘What an astonishing culture you have! What politeness!’ exclaimed the General.

Nicholls’ version is, ahem, slightly different.

Kostenje, Refek told us, couldn’t be reached by car so I’ll be walking there soon. Instead, the next day we visited Orenje, which I’ll post about next time…

Bread and honey as served by Refek - the honey was just out of this world

Bread and honey as served by Refek – the honey was just out of this world

Tagged , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: