Category Archives: Tirana

One for the Ladies

Albanian men - are they really "vain and self-important"?

Albanian men – are they really “vain and self-important”?

Due to some unwelcome personal circumstances, I haven’t been in Albania for a few weeks. Annoying in many ways, but quite useful for getting research done. During the course of which, I came across a rather lovely quote from one of SOE’s Liaison Officers, Lieutenant Roy Bullock.

Bullock’s field report (National Archives, ref HS5/131) deals with the events of summer/autumn 1944, rather than winter 43/44, where my focus lies, but this little gem is timeless –

“As a race they [Albanians] can be described as neither industrious nor warlike; on the contrary the males pursue a life of indolence and ease, relegating all domestic and agricultural tasks to their womenfolk, who are invariably kept in a state of serfdom, seldom appearing in public… With this basic valuation of the opposite sex it is somewhat natural that the ALBANIAN youth, grows into a man full of self-importance and vanity…” 

Couldn’t resist sharing. Sure it’ll raise a knowing smile from the women of Albania – which outside Tirana often feels like a surreal female-free alternative universe, populated exclusively by overly macho young men with immaculate shark-fin hairdos and respectable older gentleman with equally immaculate moustaches.

What am I saying? That’s often the case in Tirana, too. In fact I can think of only one bar, The Ruin – Mon Cheri, that employs female staff front-of-house. It really is very weird.

Next time I’ll return to SOE officers running around the mountains and being chased by Germans, promise.

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Albania, Back in the Day

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

James Cameron (no, not the director), who sneaked into Albania in 1963

What is it with Albania and the Scots? While digging around online for more dirt on Enver Hoxha (right now I’m interested in the rumours that he might have swung both ways during his pre-War stint in Paris), I came across a brilliant piece by the renowned Scottish journalist James Cameron, written for The Atlantic Monthly back in 1963.

As Albania’s fractious general election comes to a conclusion, I thought it might be a good time to post a link to Cameron’s article, just to remind Albanians how far the country has come. This is probably a mistake on my part – when I wrote a piece on tourism in Albania for The Sunday Telegraph last year, I was apparently slated on Albanian-language political forums for being too positive. It seems some thought I should have mentioned political corruption, poverty and blood feud. Please – if a travel writer does a piece on Sicily’s tourist attractions, no one would expect to read about investigating judges meeting sticky ends at the hands of the Mafia. The focus would be on calamari rather than crime. Same rules apply for Albania.

Anyway, here’s the link to Cameron’s story. Read it – it’s fascinating.

His description of traffic in Tirana circa 1963 made me smile –

FOR two days, then… I had the freedom of Tirana, and a beguiling town it was. This was due more to the old than the new. The new was banal indeed: a pattern of broad, even stately avenues, lined with Party buildings in the Italianate style, with a carriageway wide enough to take several lines of traffic that was, for 80 percent of the day, totally empty.

The desolation of the streets was eerie. At each intersection stood a smart white-uniformed traffic policeman, rigidly poised to direct a press of vehicles that never came. Once every five minutes, perhaps, an old green truck, hugely numbered on its flanks in the Russian manner, would appear clanking and grunting up the street; the traffic cop would spring to attention as it appeared on the horizon and wave it on with great panache, against no opposition whatever. At even rarer intervals would appear a dark Zim saloon, heavily curtained, on some mysterious official errand. In all Albania today there exists, as I was formally told, not one single private automobile.

My mother tells me it was much the same in the mid-1980s; it’s fair to say things have changed a bit since then.

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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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New Albania 30 years on

New Albania. Not so new any more, but still Albanian

New Albania. Not so new any more, but still Albanian

I must have spent close to four weeks, on and off, in Tirana this winter. It’s a bizarre city. Every now and then in a restaurant I’ll see black and white photos on the walls showing cobbled streets and Ottoman villas in the days before first Fascist and then Communist architects got their hands on the place. Hard to believe but it must have been picturesque. It isn’t now. But it does have a real, shambolic, charm – I like Tirana a lot, and am sad to be driving back to the UK, even if only for a few weeks.

During my stays here, I’ve generally slept at the Villa With Star, a small 1930s apartment hidden between the truly hideous tower blocks that are sprouting up willy-nilly across the city. It’s close to the old bazaar, or what remains of it, and plenty of good, cheap eateries (and five minutes’ walk from Skanderbeg Square). But one of the Villa’s big attractions is that it’s also home to, who have a great collection of Communist memorabilia. Yesterday I entertained myself with an album of early 1980s New Albania magazines. There was so much good stuff that I had to create a Facebook gallery. I tried to limit myself to just 10 pages and spreads, but found it impossible. So instead I’ll post 10 a week, the first instalment of which you can see here.

Noteworthy articles include “A New Appearance for an Ancient City”, in which the writers wax lyrical on the destruction of old Durrës and its replacement by uniform blocks of flats. “The new buildings are constructed according to the standard designs provided by the Study and Design Institute of Town-panning [sic] and Architecture in Tirana,” it says, before mentioning that many buildings were built by “voluntary labour contributed by the working people”. How nice of them.

“The Distribution of Income in the Agricultural Cooperatives” is, I’m sure, fascinating, but I somehow couldn’t find the time to read it in full. The cover of Issue 3/1982 shows an ill-but-benevolent-looking Enver Hoxha, and includes a small article by Jashar Kemal (“A Turkish Writer”), who, apparently, left Albania Extremely Happy. He was particularly impressed by the fact that water could be brought to one place from another, many miles away – “a real miracle”. The Romans would have been astonished.

And all written in that stilted, dead, empty English favoured by Communist bureaucrats and Ivy League social science faculties. Very strange indeed.

When I’m back in London I’ll be delving into the private papers of Neil ‘Billy’ McLean at the Imperial War Museum, and also trying to get to the bottom of what happened to a small party of British soldiers who left the Mati region in April for evacuation to Italy, but only turned up on the coast in August. No one seems quite sure what beach they were extracted from or what happened to them in-between. The officers were Bulman, Smythe and Hands, with NCOs Brandrick, Clifton, Goodier and Smith. If anyone out there has any information, I’d love to hear from you.

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A walk in the park

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Sunday morning saw a visit to the British military graveyard in Tirana’s park. A beautiful day; spring-like, in fact. Families strolled, kids played and, as is normal for these things, no one paid a blind bit of notice to the memorial. Apart from one woman, talking into her mobile phone. She read out the inscription on the large red granite memorial in perfect (if slightly puzzled) South London English that belied her distinctly Albanian looks, before moving on.

Sadly the gravestones themselves don’t sit over the actual remains of the soldiers and airmen they commemorate. Immediately after the war great effort was made to find the various bodies, and bring them to single site in Tirana. The officers who led this mission were harried at every turn by the communist regime, but still managed to find almost every body. Then, when Albania turned to self-imposed isolation after 1947, the graveyard disappeared, bulldozed on the personal orders of Enver Hoxha. Even by his standards a curiously vindictive action. Some of the men whose graves he desecrated were known personally to him, such as Arthur Nicholls.

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An attempt was made to find the remains a second time in the early Nineties, after the fall of communism. Sadly it was unsuccessful. Headstones were erected, though, and that imposing slab of red granite was found going spare in a government warehouse. It used to sit on top of Enver Hoxha’s body, till that was moved by his contrite family from its site in central Tirana to a village nearby. His name was covered up with grey slate, on which is written the inscription you can see below. Delicious irony.

Memorial at British War Graves, Tirana

Memorial at British War Graves, Tirana

It’s very moving to see the names of the various soldiers who lost their lives in Albania, particularly when you know the stories behind their deaths. Philip Leake, head of SOE’s Albanian department till June 1944, when he was killed by a German bomb. Corporal Button, who drowned when trying to evacuate the country later that summer.

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And Gordon Layzell, who trained in Cairo with Anthony Quayle, and always packed his pipe too tightly, as Quayle remembered in his autobiography, A Time To Speak:

Brian [Ensor] and I took ourselves off most nights to have a look at the belly dancers, but Gordon would never go out; he stayed at home, read the Bible and wrote letters to his fiancée. He was experimenting with smoking a pipe, and one day asked me to show him how to pack it; it seemed rather hot, he said. He showed me how he rammed the tobacco in, and I wondered how he had any lining left inside his mouth.

“But why do you want to smoke a pipe?” I asked.

“Because,” he explained. “I’m sure we shall see quite a bit of action in Albania, but there are bound to be periods of boredom. I thought that if I learned to enjoy smoking a pipe, it might get me through times of frustration. Even loneliness.”

Layzell died on the night of 1 February 1944 when, under the (wrong) impression that the house he was in was on fire, he hurriedly slung his Mauser machine pistol over his shoulder. It went off, taking the back of his head with it.

German war memorial, Tirana

German war memorial, Tirana

I also visited the German war memorial. The surprise here was the number of names carved into its eight stone slabs. There was also a small personal tribute to one soldier, Peter Deutsch, who died just after the Italian capitulation in September 1943.

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I might have to investigate where, and how. I do wonder if he had a run-in with Jerry Field, a particularly pugnacious British Liaison Officer who was very active immediately after the Italians threw in the towel. But now I’m off to Quayle Country – better known today as the “Albanian Riviera”.

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Picture post

'The Abyss' by Robert Permeti, for sale (POA) at ArtImport

‘The Abyss’ by Robert Permeti, for sale (POA) at ArtImport

I intended today to post about the memorial to the dead British soldiers that sits in Tirana’s slightly dilapidated park. But the rain is Biblical, so instead I thought I’d write a quick post on Tirana’s slightly dilapidated national gallery.

There are signs up saying photography is strictly prohibited but, being a maverick who’s not afraid to break a few rules, I sneakily took a few photos of my favourite Socialist Realist artworks, which you can see here.

'The Children', 1968, by Spiro Kristo

‘The Children’, 1968, by Spiro Kristo

I should point out that the picture at the top of this post isn’t in the gallery. It’s by Robert Permeti and is for sale at the addictive political and revolutionary art website ArtImport. Named “The Abyss”, it was painted in the late Seventies and captures a meeting between Hoxha and Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies, who led the SOE mission to Albania from October 1943 to early January 1944. The story goes that Hoxha’s wife, Nexhmije, didn’t quite get the point, and asked Permeti to cut it in half (i.e. to remove Davies). He refused.

A young Lec Shkreli

A young Lec Shkreli

Last November I met one of Hoxha’s favourite artists, Lec Shkreli. Interestingly, none of his paintings are on show in the national gallery, though it has plenty stored away somewhere. Ironically, it seems that he’s out of favour with the current regime… I mean government. Plus ça change. I’ll write a more in-depth post about Lec, and what life was like for artists under Hoxha, further down the line.

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