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).
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’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…