SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 6-12 December 1943

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Shkumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours' walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Skhumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours’ walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

The British Military Mission to Albania wakes up on the morning of Monday 6 December 1943 to the sound of a German Storch spotter plane circling overhead. The mood doesn’t improve when news arrives that the mission’s cook, Korca, who had been captured by the Germans, has been moved from prison to a hotel in Elbasan.

At 10.30am on Tuesday Colonel Barbacinto of the Italian Army arrives, and offers his services. His commanding officer, General Azzi, has taken 1,000 gold sovereigns from the British to feed his troops, and has holed up in a remote village; Barbacinto refused to accompany him. Davies can see no use for Barbacinto so sends him to join an Italian contingent hiding nearby. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha arrives and explains that the Bairam festival has started, which will mean much gunfire as people celebrate. He demands more ammunition. An RAF sortie is expected that night, but fails to arrive.

The mission wakes to more celebratory gunfire on Wednesday morning. At lunchtime the muleteers present Davies with a plate of cold lamb, and depart giggling. Overnight, three Italians in Orenje have died of starvation. Davies gives the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha 200 sovereigns to buy food. In the evening radio contact with Cairo is maintained long enough for Davies to send the signal –

“Brigadier E.F. Davies commanding Allied Military Mission in Albania begs with loyal and respectful duty to send his good wishes and those of the British Officers and N.C.O.s of his Mission to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his birthday, 14th December stop Request this message be passed quickly to arrive appropriate date stop” (National Archives, HS5/67)

Thursday is spent waiting for Enver Hoxha to send word that a move to the south is safe. Full moon is approaching; Davies suspects the move has been left too late. On Friday Hoxha sends a note telling the British to be ready to move.

At 11.30am on Saturday 11 December, the first section of the mission moves to Labinot. Translator Fred Nosi hasn’t employed a guide, they get lost and arrive at 19.30 to find a huge bonfire surrounded by partisans singing revolutionary songs. At 20.30 they move on to attempt to cross the Elbasan-Librazhd road and then the Skhumbini river.

The attempt is a failure, the British and partisans are forced to return to Labinot at 03.00am, arriving at 07.00am. Kadri Hoxha had failed to scout the river properly – it is too deep to cross due to the recent rain. He has also attacked local villages, drawing in Balli Kombetar forces. Enver Hoxha is still angry when he writes his memoirs in the 1970s (Kadri Hoxha spent 40 years in prison after the war on trumped-up charges). Gunfire can be heard throughout the day. Enver Hoxha arrives at 17.00 and is suitably contrite. He joins the British for a meal, and is unusually relaxed in their company. Much raki is drunk, and one of the Italian soldiers sings opera arias.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 29 November – 5 December 1943

View down to Orenje, September 2013. Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies stayed in the house with the red roof, bottom left

View down to Orenje, September 2013. Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies stayed in the house with the red roof, bottom left

On the morning of Monday 29 December, Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission wakes to warm sunshine. Davies decides to move the mission to the village of Xiber, in the territory of the Zogist leader Abas Kupi, in the belief that it is easier for the RAF to drop supplies there than the mountains of the Çermenika.

Davies is about to leave for Xiber on Tuesday morning when he is called to the house of the partisan leader Baba Faja, who tells him that he won’t let the mission leave as Kupi is close to the Balli Kombetar, who are collaborating with the Germans. A two-hour argument ensues. Davies, with his translator Fred Nosi, heads to Shengjergj to take the matter up with Enver Hoxha. A meeting is agreed for 1st December.

Hoxha and the LNC Council arrive at Martanesh at 10.30, and stay for lunch. They tell Davies that the mission is surrounded by German forces, and there is a huge bounty on Davies’ head. Hoxha produces a wounded partisan soldier who confirms that rumours of the death of Major Peter Kemp and Captain Tony Simcox in Dibra are true (they’re not). The partisan tells Davies that Kemp was ambushed at dawn and died in a fierce fire-fight. Major Alan Hare later tells Kemp that he knew the story couldn’t be true as Kemp would never be out of bed so early in the morning, and also Kemp’s temperamental Welgun would have jammed before he could fire a shot.

On Thursday morning the mission is once again woken by gunfire – another wedding celebration. Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, unwell and in a bad emotional state, explodes with rage. Nosi tells Davies that Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council are heading south, and want the British to follow. Cairo reports that an RAF Halifax, with five Special Operations Executive officers on board, crashed on its way to Albania.

At 05.30 on Friday, Davies and Nosi leave Martanesh for Orenje.  Nicholls follows with the mission’s mule train a few hours later. Davies is told that the cook, Korca, has been captured by the Germans while shopping for food in Elbasan.

Saturday is quiet. The mission is divided between Martanesh and Orenje. On Sunday Davies and Nicholls lead a de-lousing parade. Major Hare is suffering from worms. A sack of lemons arrives, so Sergeant Melrose makes pancakes for lunch. News arrives that Kemp and Simcox are very much alive. Davies decides he must get out of Albania and report in person to HQ in Cairo to explain the complexity of the political situation. The sky that night is crystal clear, but no RAF sortie arrives.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 22-28 November 1943

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

The hills of the Martanesh, viewed from Mt Dajti, October 2013

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his men wake up to heavy rain on the morning of Monday 22 November 1943. The Mission’s wireless officer, Lt Frank Trayhorn, reports that the radio link with HQ in Cairo is being blocked by a powerful jamming station. Rumours are circulating that British soldiers have been killed in the town of Dibra to the northeast.

On Tuesday Trayhorn manages to make contact with Cairo, and is told that Billy McLean and David Smiley, the first SOE officers into Albania, have made it across the Adriatic to Italy (by this time they are in Cairo and have been offered rooms in a house in Zamalek, named Tara). Davies decides that the very sick Major George Seymour and the NCO Corporal Jenkins should be evacuated using the route  McLean and Smiley took.

Throughout Wednesday morning German aircraft circle over the village of Martanesh, where the British Mission is hiding. Trayhorn is forced to shut down his transmitter. Seymour and Jenkins are sent to the village of Shengjergj on the first stage of their planned escape to the coast. When night falls, the Mission can hear rifle fire close by.

The Mission wakes to more rifle fire on Thursday morning – but are told a wedding is being celebrated. Captain Jim Chesshire is sent to the village of Orenje to establish a new base at the house of local chieftain Beg Balla.

By Friday the British have almost run out of petrol to charge the batteries of their transmitters. Lt Col Arthur Nicholls spends an hour on a pedal charger. The Bektashi priest and guerrilla leader Baba Faja pays a visit, complains about the lack of supplies coming from the British, and is given 200 gold sovereigns. Contact with Cairo is made at 12.00. In the evening just one lamp is lit to conserve fuel.

The weather improves on Saturday. Davies orders a lice and flea hunt. A mule train with fresh supplies is expected, but fails to arrive. Davies, Nicholls and their translator Fred Nosi inspect some caves, but decide they’re not suitable for hiding (Enver Hoxha thinks differently in a few weeks).

Sunday is the 28th – Albanian Independence Day. The British Mission wakes to the sound of gunfire, which they now know is merely the locals celebrating (using British-supplied ammunition). A small mule train arrives with food. Davies visits Enver Hoxha at Shengjergj and tells him he will instruct Cairo not to send more weapons unless Hoxha agrees to end the war he’s declared on the nationalist grouping, the Balli Kombetar. Hoxha is furious.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 15-21 November 1943

Sgt Jenkins of the Special Operations Executive checks the sights on a notoriously inaccurate Sten gun, presumably when he was in better health than November 1943 (National Archives)

Sgt Jenkins of the Special Operations Executive checks the sights on a notoriously inaccurate Sten gun, presumably when he was in better health than November 1943 (National Archives)

The big push to catch up with events in the mountains of Albania, 70 years ago this year, continues…

With the Germans closing in, Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies orders stand-to at 05.30. The camp is almost out of food, so the chef Korca is sent on a supplies hunt. Fred Nosi and Major Jim Chesshire leave the camp for nearby Martanesh to try and find accommodation close to the Bektashi priest and guerrilla leader Baba Faja; the intention is to hide the very sick Sgt Jenkins there along with one of the Mission’s wireless sets.

In the evening Major George Seymour, who has been in Albania since August, arrives at camp with Corporal Smith. They have narrowly escaped from a German attack at Peza, close to Tirana. Seymour has malaria, has lost all his kit, gold and wireless set, and his wireless operator, Corporal Roberts has been killed despite the heroic action of Smith, who tried to drag the already-dead Roberts to safety under German fire.

An RAF supply sortie is expected, but fails to arrive.

More bad news on Tuesday. Davies second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, is diagnosed with dysentery. The British Mission can hear mortar fire all day. In the afternoon Davies spots suspicious figures, who at a distance appear to be wearing German great coats. All kit is packed in expectation of a rapid move. At 22.30 RAF planes can be heard overhead, but there is too much cloud cover for them to drop their supplies. Half an hour later a message from Enver Hoxha arrives – the Germans are getting close. Davies orders an immediate evacuation. Much valuable kit has to be left behind.

At 03.00 on Wednesday morning the British leave Bizë in a large column, with over 100 mules carrying their equipment. Major Seymour and Sgt Jenkins are both extremely unwell. The column reaches Martanesh at around 08.00, and Baba Faja secures accommodation by 13.00. All sleep, apart from Davies and Nicholls, who watch a German ME109 fighter plane circle overhead. In the evening they meet with Baba Faja, and Davies tells him the partisans’ only hope is to head south to regroup in an area where the Germans are less strong.

On Thursday morning Davies decides he has to speak to Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council. Captain Alan Hare (a future chairman of the Financial Times) is sent to Bizë to salvage abandoned kit, but it has already been looted by Italian soldiers (Italy had surrendered in September 1943, and about 10,000 Italian troops remain in Albania with no means of support).

Davies meets Enver Hoxha at Labinot on Friday, and they row over Hoxha’s failure to open up a sea-supply route. It is decided to leave Alan Hare at Bizë with the local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, who speaks good English. In the evening Davies signals the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, telling them that he doesn’t yet recommend exclusive support for Enver Hoxha and the partisans.

Saturday is a quiet day – Davies returns and tells Nicholls that Hoxha is clearly extremely worried about the German drive.

On Sunday Nicholls and Davies go off to scout a possible new HQ, but Davies turns back, worried that it’s too dangerous for the Mission’s commanding officers to be together and exposed to capture. The already weak Nicholls presses on alone in heavy rain, and returns at 19.00 in a very bad way. Radio contact with Cairo is lost.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 8-14 November 1943

The Bizë plateau, home to Brigadier "Trotsky" Davies' SPILLWAY mission in autumn/winter 1943, photographed in October 2013

The Bizë plateau, home to Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies’ SPILLWAY mission in autumn/winter 1943, photographed in October 2013

On the morning of Monday 8 November 1943 a small boy arrives at the British Mission HQ at Bizë with an invitation for Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies to meet the council of the Balli Kombetar at nearby Shengjierg. Davies had been told to expect an armed escort of 50 BK fighters.

Davies’ translator, Fred Nosi, quickly tells Enver Hoxha the news. Hoxha instructs Nosi to take 10 partisans under the pretext that they’re to protect Davies from German attack. He also tells Nosi to feign indifference to anything Davies says after the meeting.

When Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls and their clerk, Sgt Chisolm, arrive at Shengjergj after a horse ride through torrential rain, they endure a five-and-a-half-hour conference with the BK leadership. The upshot is the BK leaders refuse to co-operate with Enver Hoxha’s partisan forces to fight the Germans.

Davies and Nicholls wake up to excellent news on the morning of Tuesday 9 November – the BK leaders have had a change of heart and are prepared to co-operate with Hoxha. Nosi tells Hoxha this later on that day. In the evening the BBC broadcasts comments made by PM Winston Churchill on the efforts of Albanian guerrillas to fight the Germans, which goes down well with all parties.

An RAF supply sortie was hoped for overnight, but no planes arrived. Much of the British Mission is sleeping in makeshift tents made from linen parachutes. A party of Albanian wood carvers arrive to construct more solid quarters, but they have no tools. Heavy snow begins to fall in the evening.

When the British wake up on Thursday morning, they find six inches of snow on the ground. The mission’s Italian vet, Lt Tesio, tells Davies that their horses and mules will die if they don’t have adequate shelter. Enver Hoxha arrives at lunchtime, and Davies tells him that the Balli Kombetar have agreed to sign a ceasefire with the partisans, and join the fight against the Germans. Hoxha feigns a fit of surprised fury – Nosi had told him the news two days earlier. Davies tells Hoxha that he’s prepared to cut off all supplies to the partisans.

On the morning of Friday 12 November, Lt Col Nicholls and Nosi leave for the village of Orenje to view possible winter quarters. They sleep that night in the house of Beg Balla. On their return to Bizë on Saturday they discover a potential dropping ground for RAF supplies.

By Sunday Bizë is bitterly cold. Davies decides to send one of his more useless officers, Captain Bulman, to the village of Xiber in the Mati district, with the mysterious and unwanted MI6 agent “Tony Corsair” (if anyone knows anything about this man, please do share). A German spotter plane flies slowly overhead on several occasions throughout the day. The camp cook, Korça, returns from the town of Elbasan with no food – the Germans have moved in. A letter arrives from Enver Hoxha warning the British that the Germans are about to launch a major drive. Davies orders all papers to be burned, and rucksacks packed. He wants the Mission to be able to move at an hour’s notice. One of the NCOs, Sgt Jenkins, is very ill; if the Mission has to leave quickly he would be left behind.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 31 October to 7 November 1943

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky's day (National Archives)

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky’s day (National Archives)

Apologies for falling behind so quickly. As well as these brief posts on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, I have several posts to get up on my exploration of the Çermenika mountains over the summer and autumn, as I trace the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, Enver Hoxha and co as they attempted to escape German encirclement in winter 1943/44. Hopefully I’ll get them all up by Christmas… Who’d have thought a simple blog about long-forgotten events in Albania 70 years ago could be so time-consuming? 

Sunday 31 October saw the first meeting between Davies and Enver Hoxha. It’s pretty strained – Hoxha is convinced that Davies is an intelligence officer rather than a regular soldier co-opted by the Special Operations Executive, and refuses to believe that the Brits’ brief is simply to fight the Germans. He even comes to the conclusion that the mission’s true purpose is to prepare the ground for a return by King Zog (or so he claims later in his memoirs). When Davies tells him that he won’t supply arms to the partisans if they use them to fight their fellow Albanians, Hoxha hits the roof.

Monday is a depressing day – the weather is getting colder at the Bizë HQ and the partisans present a few German prisoners who plead with Davies to help him. He can do nothing and assumes they were shot.

Tuesday is freezing cold. Two members of the Balli Kombetar (nationalist Albanian group opposed to the communists) arrive to announce that the Zogist leader Abas Kupi is at nearby Shengjergj. Davies and Nicholls enjoy a beautiful horse ride to the village, meet Kupi, and are then eaten alive by bed bugs when they sleep over.

Wednesday sees an inept broadcast by the BBC Albanian service guaranteed to alienate the entire country, both nationalist and communist. Davies sends a furious cable to Cairo, and also asks them to get the BBC to denounce by name the Regency Council installed by the Germans. This creates a kerfuffle in Cairo as SOE’s Albania advisor, Margaret Hasluck, had been the lover of the regent Lef Nosi before the war, and is still deeply in love with him. In the nearby village of Labinot, Enver Hoxha releases a letter declaring war on the Balli Kombetar and any Albanians who don’t support the partisans.

Lt Col Nicholls’ health is deteriorating, and he spends most of Thursday sick. In the evening Michael Lis, a Polish officer, arrives at Bizë and walks through the camp guard without being challenged and (wrongly) reports the death of a British mission in the Dibra region.

Enver Hoxha visits on Friday and stays for a cheerful lunch. Artillery can be heard in the distance. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha is furious to discover that Davies has named his horse Kadri.

Nicholls remains ill with dysentery on Saturday 6 November. News is filtering through that civil war has broken out.

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SPILLWAY 70 years on: October 24-30 1943

Peter Kemp of the Special Operations Executive in Albania, autumn 1943 (National Archives)

Peter Kemp of the Special Operations Executive in Albania, autumn 1943 (National Archives)

A rather belated update of what the Special Operations Executive’s ill-fated SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, in October 1943.

Week two of the SPILLWAY mission saw Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies begin to take a more realistic view of his position. On Saturday 24 October 1943 he issued orders that all men should have minimum personal kit packed and ready to grab, and one wireless set and operator should always be ready to leave immediately. His intention is that the mission can disappear from its Bizë quarters with one hour’s notice.

On Monday 25 Davies hears that Enver Hoxha and the LNC Council are likely to make contact in the near future. An Italian vet, Lt Tesio, arrives – quite an asset as the mission has accumulated over 100 mules and horses. Two BLOs who had been present in Albania since summertime, Andy Hands and Richard Riddell arrive from Dibra; Hands apparently has an unworkable plan to raise resistance, which Davies refuses to approve.

On Tuesday 26 a 50-strong party from the Balli Kombetar, nationalists bitterly opposed to Communism, arrive. The partisan guards bristle, but there’s no shooting.

Wednesday sees Davies visit the local partisan camp, where he is much amused by its ragged drill displays. He comments that they appear to believe there are four Allies in the war – Russia, Britain, the US and Albania. Peter Kemp, who has recently spent a few days exploring Tirana (badly) disguised as an Albanian, arrives.

On Thursday two of Davies’ most trusted BLOs, Alan Palmer and Victor Smith, leave for the south. When Davies is shot and captured in January, command of the British mission to Albania will fall to Palmer, much to the puzzlement of most of the surviving BLOs, including Reg Hibbert, who thinks Peter Kemp is by far the most able officer in the country and the obvious choice to take over. Kadri Hoxha, the local partisan commander arrives for dinner. He brings with him a striking-looking female partisan who speaks good French.

On Friday Kadri Hoxha returns to the partisan base with Lt Frank Trayhorn, who returns later with a long list of complaints about the supplies dropped to the partisans by the RAF. A supply sortie is expected that night but fails to arrive.   

Saturday sees Captain Alan Hare (future chairman of the Financial Times), heading into the nearby town of Elbasan for a shopping trip. The partisans slip in a long list of ‘luxury’ items. Two members of the Balli Kombetar arrive; they are polite and reasonable in stark contrast to the LNC members Davies has encountered so far. Kadri Hoxha arrives with an invitation to Labinot for the following day – Enver Hoxha is finally ready to meet Davies.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: October 16-23 1943

Major Neil "Billy" McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform

Neil “Billy” McLean demonstrates his relaxed attitude to uniform in 1944 (image: National Archives)

My plan to post updates ‘every few days’ on the progress of Trotsky Davies’ SPILLWAY mission in October 1943 is rapidly falling apart. Let’s make it a weekly thing, eh?

The first thing to note is that Davies’ mission was intended to put a more military stamp on the perceived amateurishness, or rather irregular-iness – to coin a word that shan’t be used again – of the Special Operations Executive in Albania. There was it’s fair to say a clash of cultures between no-nonsense Davies and his Coldstream Guard number two, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and the two officers on the ground, Major Neil ‘Billy’ McLean and Captain David Smiley.

McLean and Smiley, whose uniforms were a mismatch of British Army battledress and local Albanian costume, down to colourful cummerbunds and white felt fez hats, were as uneasy with the by-the-book Davies and Nicholls as the two newcomers were with them. Perhaps more of a shock to McLean and Smiley’s systems than the arrival of military discipline was the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ the new mission had delivered by parachute. Typewriters, collapsable desks and stools, paper, carbon paper, files…

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

McLean and Smiley (left) at Bizë, before leaving for the coast (image: National Archives)

In his memoir of his time in Albania in 1944, Sons of the Eagle, Julian Amery, who at the time was trapped in Egypt, desperately fighting for a field appointment, would paint Davies as a Colonel Blimp figure. Enver Hoxha did much the same in his long-winded Anglo-American Threat to Albania. There is some truth to this. On a visit to the village of Sherngjergj last year, I was told that Davies paid a villager 5 gold sovereigns for a wooden mule saddle. No one could figure out what a British general (as he is described in these parts) would want with a saddle. It seems he cut out the centre, placed the saddle across the latrine he’d ordered dug, and would sit happily reading the The Times while, er, doing his business. Quite an image.

Anyway, in the few days after landing at Bizë on the 15th October 1943, Davies met his interpreter Fred Nosi (placed with the mission as as spy by Enver Hoxha) and transmitted a signal via Cairo for his wife saying ‘Greetings from Albania’ – a flagrant breach of wireless security. He also found the time to go on a boar hunt, though he failed to bag anything, met the colourful Bektashi priest-cum-guerilla fighter Baba Faja and condemned four camp followers to death for stealing (they were never shot, you’ll be relieved to hear).

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza (image: National Archives)

He’d also been joined by a multitude of officers and NCOs fresh from SOE training in Egypt, badly briefed and with little idea of what winter can be like in the Albanian mountains.

And 70 years ago as I write, on October 23rd, McLean and Smiley left for the coast and evacuation by sea, much to their relief. The first part of their journey was undertaken in a little Fiat, bought by Davies’ acting quartermaster, Alan Hare. McLean and Smiley felt that perhaps the new regime hadn’t quite grasped the realities of conditions on the ground in Albania – particularly with winter setting in.

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Happy Anniversary

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

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

It’s a warm October night in Tirana, and 70 years, to within an hour or two, since Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies of the Royal Ulster Rifles parachuted into Bizë, a plateau high up in the Çermenika mountains about 40km to the east.

His mission, conceived and run by the Special Operations Executive in Cairo and codenamed SPILLWAY, was supposed to give help to whoever was killing the most Germans – which apparently meant the forces of the National Liberation Front (LNÇ), controlled by Albania’s future dictator, Enver Hoxha.

SPILLWAY was ill-conceived, ill-informed and ill-supplied, and ultimately a tragic failure. In January 1944, after several torrid weeks being chased through the Çermenika, Davies himself was shot through the liver and heel and captured by Albanians fighting for the occupying Germans. His second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, escaped, only to die four weeks later following an operation to remove his frostbitten, gangrenous toes.

It’s a depressing story. The only reason we know its finer detail, and the exact route Davies and his men took, is thanks to the diary kept against orders by Nicholls and held today by the Imperial War Museum in London. Due to the IWM’s crack team of blood-thirsty lawyers, I can’t quote from the diary. But what I can do, over the next few months, is give you an idea of what was happening on the ground, 70 years ago.

Blogging is not my natural forté (frankly I find it akin to pulling teeth), but hopefully I can post every few days with excerpts from Davies’ 1952 memoir, Illyrian Venture (delivered to his publisher on the day he died) and other sources. And hopefully I’ll find the time too to post on my ongoing research of the route taken by the SPILLWAY mission, with a view to an ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ in summer 2014.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

On Friday 15 October 1943, at around 20.00, Davies’ plane began to lose height after its four-hour journey from Tocra, Libya. Davies later wrote –

The dispatcher touched me to be ready. The red light came. I took a deep breath. ‘Green!’ I jumped into the centre of the hole, position of attention, looking up. My back was to the slipstream, the wind took my knees. It was like sitting in an armchair – much quieter and comfier than the Hudson*… I dropped and dropped. Would the ‘chute never open? A jerk at my shoulders… all was peace…

A Christmas card could not have beaten the scene. A low moon was hanging like an orange in the sky, three mountain peaks stood up round me, white granite sparkling with frost, a bowl in the mountain tops, into which I was falling, with forests round the edges, a white plain in the middle, broken by a stream winding its way across. Why was the plain white? Was it snow? No, it looked more like salt flats… I reached on the lift webs and tensed myself. Feet together, knees together, turn obliquely. And then I fell through fifty feet of mist on to frosty grass…

Men were running towards me, men with slung rifles and bandoliers, wearing the red Partisan star in their hats… They surrounded me and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo! General.’…

The crowd was parted to let in an English officer, wearing an Albanian white fez-shaped hat.

‘I’m Smiley, sir,’ he said…

Taken from Illyrian Venture by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies (The Bodley Head, 1952). *Actually a Halifax.

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

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

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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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