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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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Scout and About

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it's home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it’s home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

One of the delights of researching the Endurance Vile Trail (Tuesday 14 – Tuesday 24 September, since you ask) are the scouting expeditions. These have been rather curtailed by unseasonal and torrential rain. On Friday, for instance, Elton (Toni) Caushi of Albaniantrip and I were planning to refresh our contacts in Biza, which we last visited six months ago, and trek up to the site of a mysterious crashed aeroplane that may or may not date from WWII. But a quick phone call with our man in situ, who assured us the ground was too sodden, led to a last-minute change of plans. Quite a relief, actually, as it seems to be impossible to visit Biza and nearby Shengjergj without being forced to consume industrial quantities of raki (they don’t get too many visitors).

Instead we headed south, to Elbasan and Labinot. The Endurance Vile itinerary as it stands so far means the first two nights will be spent in the boondocks. We figure the third day’s trekking, which will end in the vicinity of Labinot, overlooking the Shkumbini river, is a good opportunity to factor in some Albanian luxury. Which means a hop in a minibus to the Real Scampis hotel in Elbasan (yes, Real Scampis; typically it doesn’t seem to have a website, but its single review on TripAdvisor is a five-star humdinger in English too good to be written by the owner and it’s doubtful they have a blonde PR girl to manage their online reputation).

Elbasan is a fairly sophisticated place by Albanian standards, though Toni assures me six out of 10 children have three heads due to heavy industry. Before the war it was home to Margaret Hasluck, a fascinating Scottish academic and widow who happened to be the lover and soulmate of an Elbasani notable named Lef Nosi.

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE's Cairo HQ, at least

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE’s Cairo HQ, at least

‘Had we been younger when we met – and richer – we would have married,’ she later wrote. ‘He had no money and I [lost] my husband’s… and had only what I put into the house. What we had without marriage was very wonderful – an almost perfect intellectual fit and complete similarity of ideals. And the work we planned to do!’*

War came and Hasluck ended up running the Special Operations Executive’s Albania office in Cairo before being demoted to advisor; Nosi ended up being a puppet regent under the Germans. In effect, a collaborator. In December 1943 Brig Davies requested Nosi be denounced, but Hasluck protested vehemently and walked out of SOE in February 1944. So disgusted was she by SOE’s support for the communist partisans that she even turned down the MBE offered to her (curiously she’s cited as an MBE on her Wikipedia page; seems you can’t fight The Man).

Anyway, this is all by-the-by. I’ll post properly about Hasluck anon. The real purpose of this post is to link through to this photo gallery, which should give prospective trekkers some understanding of what to expect. The countryside in this section isn’t the most beautiful, or the most challenging (by a lucky quirk of fate the really mountainous stuff comes on the last couple of days, by which time everyone should have their ‘wind’). But despite the rain and greyness, hopefully it’s not unappealing.

The highlight for me and Toni, though, was our visit to what was supposedly a museum at Labinot-Mal. Under communism this was hallowed turf – the Conference of Labinot was drummed into every Albanian schoolchild’s head. Today things are very different. We found the museum, eventually, but couldn’t get in. It seems the government has forgotten it exists. The attendant has died, and now his wife holds the keys. Despite the appeals of Toni and two lovely local chaps, she refused to let us in, setting the price at a pleasingly round 1,000,000 lek (around €7,000). Toni offered 500 lek for the two of us but she wouldn’t budge. God only knows what’s inside; the ground floor, certainly, is now home to her cows if the anguished mooing was anything to go by.

*Letter to Sir Andrew Ryan, 20 April 1946, from the Julian Amery Papers at the Churchill Archive Centre. No reference as the papers are currently being recatalogued. 

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The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Albaniantrip.com, 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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