Category Archives: Rod Bailey

Tour of Duty

Alex Smyth in the village of Xibër

Alex Smyth, the son of SOE officer Captain Frank Smyth, approaches the house in which his father spent three months hiding during World War II

Mission creep. When I started this blog it had a simple purpose – to publicise the trek I hope to organise in the footsteps of Brigadier E.F. ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 [there should be an announcement on this in the next few weeks]. But one thing led to another and last summer I agreed to help Alex Smyth, the son of one of the SOE officers who served in Albania during World War II, put together a tour in his father’s footsteps.

One thing that had been driven home to me during my dalliance with Albania is that the roads are terrible. The only way to get around is by serious 4×4, unless you’re happy to stick to the main city-to-city roads. So after a raki or two with my friend Elton Caushi of Tirana-based tour agency Albanian Trip, we decided to start a new brand and website focused on off-road adventure tourism in Albania. And it was under this new guise – Drive Albania – that the Smyth tour was organised.

A lot of planning went into the tour, and several recce trips were made. Some failed – the village of Xibër, where Alex’s father Captain Frank Smyth spent about three months in early 1944, proved impossible to reach due to a combination of landslides and mechanical failure. Some succeeded, like our trip to Macukull described in the last post (ironically, the heavy rain that has afflicted the Balkans this spring meant we couldn’t reach Macukull with Alex Smyth when it mattered).

Figuring out just where Captain Smyth had been in Albania 70 years on was a painstaking task. Dr Roderick Bailey – whose new book on SOE’s war against Fascist Italy, Target Italy has just been published – was an immense help, as was SOE researcher Dr Steven Kippax, who introduced Alex to us in the first place.

The artist Robert Permeti

Alex Smyth (left) talks with Robert Permeti while Elton Caushi (centre) translates

The tour took 11 days, and you can link through to photos via the Drive Albania website. One of the most interesting days (for me, anyway) was a meeting with the artist Robert Permeti, whose painting “The Abyss” sits at the top of this blog. I’ll put a post up about this fascinating day shortly. In the meantime, you can check out photos from the first five days of the tour here, here, here, here and here.

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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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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… 

The Endurance Vile Trail – Postponed till Summer 2014

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

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

Sadly I’m going to have to postpone September’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission till summer 2014. The reasons for this are multiple, and too boring to go into, but essentially we need more time to market the concept.

There are no shortage of coach tours for military history buffs, but the Endurance Vile Trail, which is a much more physically demanding offer, occupies a very small niche indeed. Hopefully not too small though.

Obviously, this blog will remain the first source of information on the Trail. Both Dr Rod Bailey and myself are keen to make it work. It really will be an amazing experience when it happens (and it will).

In the meantime, if you’re interested in travelling to Albania independently and have an interest in the Special Operations Executive’s activities in the country, don’t hesitate to get in touch with either myself or Elton at Albaniantrip for advice.

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Local Interest

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

Despite unseasonal temperatures (it’s freezing!) and heavy rain in Tirana, today has been a good day. Having posted about how Albanians tend not to know too much about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, this morning I met a man who knew plenty – Professor Ferit Balla. Davies and a few other officers even hid up in his family house, in the village of Orenje, for a brief time in December 1943, as they tried to evade the Germans. That didn’t work out too well for the Ballas. The Germans dynamited the place, and a lot of other houses in the village, in January 1944.

Ferit and his son Herold are both excited at the thought of September’s Endurance Vile Trail – in fact they’ve long harboured ambitions to rebuild the (currently derelict) family home as it was 70 years ago, using only traditional methods (apart from the plumbing and power, obviously) and launch it as a guesthouse.

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha's memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha’s memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Balla brought along a thick book that sat on the table until I dared ask what it was. It turned out to be a volume of the unpublished memoirs of the local partisan leader, Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), who was with Davies’ party as it tried, unsuccessfully, to slip through the enemy’s lines. Kadri Hoxha was sometimes viewed as a bit of a figure of fun by the British. Davies named his horse after him, to Kadri’s annoyance. But after the mission was cornered, he did much to save Major Alan Hare, who spent several weeks as a solitary fugitive, almost unable to walk due to frostbite.

How did Professor Balla get hold of the memoirs? Hoxha’s wife gave them to him after her husband died in the late Nineties. They hadn’t spent too much of their long marriage together – shortly after the war Hoxha was accused of being a British spy, and spent most of the years 1945-1991 in various Albanian prisons. A fairly typical story. When one SOE operative, Dr Jack Dumoulin, revisited the country in 1992 he met a nurse who had once assisted him, Drita Kosturi. She had been tortured and then imprisoned in a labour camp for over four decades, as Rod Bailey recounts in his The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. Her crime? The communists found she had a card that read ‘Captain J. G. Dumoulin, RAMC’.

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Junk History

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

One of the things I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that those Albanians who were lucky enough to be educated under communism are already dimly aware that British Liaison Officers were sent to liaise with Enver Hoxha during the War. In some parts there’s a slight obsession with the thousands of gold sovereigns we Brits supposedly left buried all over the place – I’m sure some folk suspect I’m a gold hunter.

Hoxha wrote about the various BLOs parachuted to work with him in his memoir The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, which is available as a free PDF on the interweb, along with most of his other scribblings, at this beautifully designed communist website. It’s actually very readable, though probably not as reliable a historical document as, say, The Bible. Trouble is, a lot of his anti-British slurs have stuck. Particularly one particularly nasty lie about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies, who led the SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44 that excites me so much and has inspired September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Dr Roderick Bailey.

Only a couple of nights ago, as I was slurping the excellent Albanian wine at one of my regular haunts, Juvenilja, the loquacious maître d spoke of Davies ‘surrendering’ to the Germans. I protested, pointing out that Davies had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the heel, was unable to walk and on the verge of death (he drifted in and out of consciousness for a month under surpassingly compassionate German care in Tirana). It cut no ice with the maître d, sadly. The image of Davies as an ineffectual coward was too deeply ingrained.

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Hoxha’s account of Davies capture in TAATTA is given below. I don’t know who holds the copyright to his works, but as they’re freely available online I’ll quote at length. I’m sure Hoxha himself would approve, property being theft and all. Love the use of <<>> for quotation marks, by the way –

During those days a British Lieutenant called Tray horn [sic] had surrendered to the Germans. It seems he had told them everything about the General, where he was staying and his plans. On the day after we left, January 8, the Ballists of Azis Biçaku and a platoon of German soldiers moved in on the sheepfolds of Kostenja, where the partisans with the British General and four other people were located. The partisans, led by Baba Faja, began to fight off the attacks from the four sides. Baba Faja led the fighting, directing the attacks on the enemy in order to break through the encirclement and enter a nearby forest and at the same time protected and opened the way for the General. Shouting, «Take care of the General!» Baba Faja continued to fight in the vanguard to cover their withdrawal. Nicholls and another British officer also fought together with the partisans to break through the encirclement. In the heat of the battle the partisans saw that the General was not moving. Some of them went back to get him, but to their astonishment saw that he was leaning against the trunk of a tree with a red silk sash draped across his chest and shouting and gesturing to them to go away. Meanwhile Frederik, while fighting alongside Nicholls, heard the General say to the Colonel:

«Go on, I am hit. You take charge!»

«Very good, sir, goodbye!» replied the Colonel.

A number of Ballists and Germans were killed and the firing stopped. The enemy withdrew. After the battle, the partisans discovered that the British General was missing. Exhausted, completely discouraged, he had thrown away his weapons and surrendered without firing a shot.

The report about the event reached me at Shmil, when we had made all the preparations for our journey and were almost ready to start for the Korça zone. The General who had advised us to surrender had long been planning to surrender himself. Thus, he found the moment and made his plan a reality.

Hoxha wrote this in the 1970s, 20 years after Davies published his own memoir, Illyrian Venture, which Hoxha surely had translated into Albanian for his own private consumption. Perhaps Davies’ interpreter (and Hoxha’s spy) Fred Nosi read it to him as a bedtime story.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Rod Bailey has terrified me with tales of what happens to historical bloggers who quote too much from published sources without paying the requisite groats to the (predatory capitalist) publishers concerned, so I’ll use plenty of … as I share Davies’ version. Here he and his mission are climbing slowly up an exposed hillside under enemy fire, shortly after being assured by Baba Faja’s commissar that the area was clear of the enemy (‘It is impossible, my General, we have spies in every village, every track is watched, we are bound to get at least two hours’ warning…’) –

We were getting within reach of the forest and I was thinking we would soon be safe, when a burst of Spandau fire came from our right front. I felt as though a horse had kicked me hard in the ribs. I spun round and fell into a snowdrift in a gully on my right. Behind me, Chesshire had been hit through the thigh, the Italian, Colonel Barbacinto, through the neck, and an Albanian partisan through both thighs. They too fell into the gully…

Bullets were still cracking around continuously… I shouted to Nicholls, ‘Go on, I’m hit – you take charge.’ He looked down at us in horror; the one thing he had not wanted to happen had happened. He was ill, weak, and in no state to march, still less to take on the responsibility of the Mission at a time of disaster like this. He just said, ‘Very good, sir, goodbye,’ and went on climbing painfully.

Davies and the other wounded were dragged through the snow to a nearby sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sgt Jim Smith, who held the Ballists off till his revolver was empty, then used his fists till he was overwhelmed. I won’t go into too much detail about this as Smith is a real hero, and will get a post of his own in the next couple of weeks.

Hoxha was mistaken about a number of Germans being killed. No Germans were killed for the simple reason that no Germans were present. Davies was captured by Albanians led by the local Ballist commander Azis Biçaku, and handed over to the Germans four days later after being carried out of the mountains on a stretcher.

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

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

Davies later heard a report that Hoxha had warning of the attack, and left Davies and his mission to draw it while he and the LNC Council slipped away, but adds –

Palmer [Lt Col Alan Palmer, who worked with Hoxha in 1944 and gave strong support to the LNC] was quite definite that there was no knowledge of the future disaster and that Enver was genuinely upset at the turn that events took. 

Finally, I should point out that Hoxha’s suggestion that Lt Frank Trayhorn betrayed Davies is simply not credible. Trayhorn had been separated from Davies and Nicholls from about 18/19 December, so 20 days earlier, and his last information would have been that they were heading east to break out of the German encirclement. Trayhorn probably wouldn’t have known where Davies was even had he had wished to betray him. There is no evidence that Trayhorn experienced any rough treatment at German hands after his capture, too, so for Hoxha’s accusation to hold any water Trayhorn would have had to voluntarily share information that he almost certainly didn’t have.

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The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja's Bektashi shrine

Communist-era bunkers in the Martanesh region, close to the partisan leader Baba Faja’s Bektashi shrine

One of the intentions of this blog, as well as raising awareness of SOE’s wartime activities in Albania, is to map out a trekking route following in the footsteps of the ill-fated ‘Spillway’ mission of winter 1943/44. I’ve taken to referring to this putative route as the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’. Why? Well, that’s how Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, who led the mission, described his party’s experience, a few days before being shot through the liver and heel and his capture by the Germans (remarkably he survived, only to end up in Colditz after a brief stay at Mauthausen concentration camp).

I’m pleased to say that we have some provisional dates for the inaugural ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ – and a pretty good tour leader too.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

Dr Roderick Bailey, author of the acclaimed The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, will be leading the first group, sometime in the second half of September (precise dates TBC). We’re capping numbers at 12 for a number of reasons – not least the fact that there aren’t any hotels in the villages we’ll be visiting, so much like the SOE officers themselves we’ll be relying on the hospitality of local people.

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

Shengjergj, 1944. It looks much the same today (National Archives)

The trail will follow the route outlined in the diary kept against regulations (and re-discovered by Roderick during his research) by Lt Col Arthur Frederick Crane Nicholls, the only member of the Coldstream Guards to be awarded the George Cross. The award was posthumous, sadly. His diary entries end in mid-January 1944 when, suffering from severe frostbite and gangrene, and unable to walk, he was forced to seek medical help. He died on 11 February 1944 in a house near Tirana. By then diary-keeping duties had passed to Major Alan Hare (future chairman of the Financial Times).

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

From left, Major Alan Hare, Major Peter Kemp and Major Richard Riddell, November 1943 (National Archives)

The diary, today held by the Imperial War Museum in London, makes for painful reading even 70 years on. A typical entry –

Sunday 26 December 1943
2100 hrs having nearly reached the summit, the guides, after much questioning, have to admit they have lost the way! The decision is taken to make camp but if we are to survive the night fires must be lit. Our clothes are already standing out stiffly round us like boards and every twig and branch is heavily covered in gel frost. To stand still for a moment is to court frostbite and death. BEKTASH and VALI, our fire-lighting experts, with some paper from a notebook, two candles from A.N.’s [Arthur Nicholls] emergency reserve and the most gallant determination eventually get a fire going against all probabilities. Everyone fights like mad to help it along, notably E.F.D. [Brig Davies] and F.N.’s [Fred Nosi, an Albanian partisan] tremendous and courageous puffing. It is a fight for our lives. Once the fire is going there can be no relaxation and incessant movement of the limbs is essential. We are all suffering badly, particularly in our feet which have now been consistently wet and frozen for more than a week. E.F.D.’s boots are causing him endless trouble and A.N.’s feet, due to bad circulation, are in a very poor way. Cpl SMITH has broken his boots in the leg and they must now be cut to get them on.   

We’re hoping that September’s trek will be considerably less demanding (the weather should be better and we won’t expect anyone to march up an exposed hillside under heavy fire, for instance). However, it will involve long days on foot in mountainous country, scrambling over challenging terrain, and probably a couple of nights camping out. We’ll do our best to plan in luxuries such as hot showers and sit-down loos, but these can’t be guaranteed – the area we’ll be in has no tourist infrastructure. Indeed, it only got a tarmac road last year, and that ends prematurely.

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

Supplies dropping in to Biza, late 1944. In the winter of 43/44 drops took place at night (National Archives)

I’ll be mapping out the route this summer, and shall obviously be posting about my experiences anon. Arrangements on the ground will be organised by Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip. We’re confident that the first Endurance Vile Trail will not be the last – the landscape is beautiful and unspoiled, the locals incredibly welcoming (and generous with their raki) and the story of the Spillway mission utterly compelling.

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Biza, October 2012. The buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

BA flies to Tirana from London Gatwick from about £69, and we will announce prices once precise dates are confirmed. To register your interest, ping an email to me at soetrails@gmail.com

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