Category Archives: Sandy Glen

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… 

Billy McLean, Boxes and Brits behaving badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becomes –

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

Smiley (left) and McLean

Smiley (left) and McLean

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

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

And when the partisan did die –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tragic Tragjas, Sapling 7, and an Albanian murder mystery…

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

I’ve just got back from a trip down to the ‘Albanian Riviera’. The main purpose was to look at property – I’m currently house-hunting in those parts with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com (more usually known as Toni). That’s a whole story in itself, and will get a separate post on another occasion. All I’ll say now is that three days later my blood is still about 30 per cent raki.

En route to the Riviera we took the time to drop in on two villages closely associated with the British Liaison Officers in the Vlorë region (known to them as Valbona). First was Tragjas, which sits in the hills looking across the Bay of Vlorë to Sazan island. A serene spot, despite the eyesore of Orikum, a deeply unlovely stretch of concrete apartments on the plain below. Tragjas is two villages now – nondescript new Tragjas, and tragic old Tragjas. What was once clearly a rich, thriving community is now a tumbling collection of ruins. On Easter Saturday 1944 (8 April) the local German garrison marched in, along with men from the nearby village of Dukati, and found British equipment including parachutes. The next day they razed the village to the ground. Tom Stefan of the American OSS reported that ‘the women were lined up and pistols had been fired over their heads. The poor kids were terror-stricken even when I arrived’ (quoted in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province).

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

It shows the delicate game Albanian villages had to play during the war – something that the British Liaison Officers often failed to appreciate when they asked local men to help them attack the Germans. Or, in the case of Tragjas, used a village as a base for air sorties. In his wonderfully barmy post-war memoir written for the Cheshire Regiment magazine, The Oak Tree, Jerry Faure-Field, one of the most active BLOs in Albania (right up till the moment he blew himself up fishing with plastic explosive, anyway), recounts the time he organised an air drop only a mile from Tragjas.

‘The sun was just rising when the last of the parachutes, which were of all colours, white, red, yellow and green, was under cover. Five minutes later I heard the drone of an aeroplane, I shouted to everyone to take cover. In the clear morning sky a [Fieseler] Stork slowly circled the mountain tops… The village of Tragjas was in pandemonium. We had kept the forthcoming sortie a secret…’

A later air drop which saw the locals better prepared ended in disaster. In the early hours of 19 October 1943 Sapling 7, a Halifax bomber from 148 Squadron in Libya flew across the Med to drop supplies and two more SOE operatives, Captain Alfred Careless and Signalman David Rockingham, to Field. A briefing note on the drop zone written by the pilot, Flight Ltn William Forester, was found in his belongings back at base – ‘Climb quickly, left handed or else.’ For whatever reason, Forester was unable to climb quickly enough, and crashed into the mountainside above Tragjas, killing all on board. Toni and I were planning to walk up to take a closer look, but a local shepherd assured us that nothing remains – he and his friends had sold everything for scrap. We’ll head back in May and investigate more closely.

The Sapling 7 crash appears to have pushed Field over the edge – or at least the callous reactions of the Albanian partisans he was with at the time did. By December he had holed up at a cave on the coast, known as Seaview, and was sending increasingly bizarre cables to Cairo of which more anon, and shooting at any Albanian who came near him. The one exception was a man from Dukati, Xhelil Çela, who also became a favourite of Field’s replacement, Anthony Quayle, and another temporary resident of Seaview, Sandy Glen. In his autobiography, Footholds Against a Whirlwind, Glen remembered the time Çela guided him to the German gun batteries south of Vlorë, which Glen had orders to photograph.

Çela had me up at four for the last lap. It took another eight hours’ hard walking until suddenly the ground ahead began to drop away and then, almost at our feet, was Saseno [Sazan] in the middle of Valona Bay. Linquetta [the Karaburun Peninsula] and its guns were 600 feet below, a quarter of a mile distant.

“Well done, Çela,” I said. “We can edge a little way forward and make our sketches, and we ought to get some good photographs.”

“No, no,” he said, nodding his head vigorously as Albanians do when they disagree, “We have picnic with the guns.” And fumbling in his rucksack he drew out an enormous cold turkey.

Before I had time to disagree, he was off downhill taking his usual enormous strides, and I had no alternative but exceedingly reluctantly to follow.

By the time I caught up with him, Çela was setting out a clean white cloth, with the turkey and a bottle of wine on it. The guns were 100 yards away with a few Germans moving between the buildings alongside them and apparently taking no notice of us. My appetite withered. Çela’s hospitality was as inexhaustible as his own appetite, however, and the picnic was the nearest to eternity which I have ever endured. As we finished, Çela smiled at me and said, “Good turkey, good wine, hope good guns too…”

Roderick Bailey had asked me to drop in on Dukati and ask after a chap called Bilbil Vangeli, who he had got drunk with on raki back in 2005. As a teenager Bilbil had been a guard and errand-runner at Seaview. Remarkably, after a quick enquiry at the village café, Bilbil was able to join us for a cup of tea. At the age of 89 he has given up on raki, coffee, cheese, fatty foods and cigarettes (high blood pressure). His nephew made sure I had plenty of raki, though. We spent a great couple of hours discussing his experiences.

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil’s memory, forgivably, isn’t what it was but he was still able to recall the exact date he ‘retired’ – the day in April 1944 that the Germans shot his elder brother, Selam. He also had good recall about one very intriguing incident, the murder of Ismail Carapizzi, an Albanian OSS agent who was found in February 1944 shot in the back and stripped to his underwear, on a remote coastal path. The identity of the murderer has never been in much doubt – 20-year-old Mysli Kali (who drowned in the late 1940s; his wife still proclaims his innocence). Bilbil added a rather melancholy postscript.

It seems that for whatever reason, the Carapizzi family thought that Çela was implicated in Ismail’s murder – a highly unlikely scenario from all I’ve read of Çela, and one that Bilbil certainly discounted (‘From my impression they were very close,’ he said). In late 1944 Çela’s body was found in the River Po in Rome just a few days after he had approached Anthony Quayle for help. ‘The rumour is that Carapizzi’s family thought that Çela had been part of the plan so they managed to murder him in Italy. This is what everybody says. They tied a stone around his neck and threw him into the Po. Xhelil was a big guy, so there must have been a few of them.’

Çela’s SOE personal file survives in the National Archives, but is closed till next January. I might have to put a Freedom of Information request in…

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