Tag Archives: Biza

SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 20-26 December 1943

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country - sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

The view to Macedonia, from the hills above the village of Khorishte. Wolves, bears and lynx roam the forests. This is wild country – sheep and goat herders invariably carry rifles

Early in the morning of Monday 20 December 1943 Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his SPILLWAY mission find themselves hiding in a freezing forest near the Bizë plateau in central Albania, with Enver Hoxha and several hundred partisans.  Sleep is impossible. At dawn Captain Jim Chesshire and the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver) are sent to find Captain Alan Hare and Sergeant Chisolm, who are leading the mission’s mule train. The waifs and strays are gathered by around 16.00 – the mule column is following close behind. At 19.00 a partisan arrives to say a German column has passed close by. With horror, Davies realises the ‘Germans’ must have been the mule column, with all the mission’s food, clothing and bedding.

Enver Hoxha hides the more elderly members of the LNC ruling council in a nearby cave. The picture he paints in his memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, is of a a cosy cavern with fireplace and warm beds. The reality is quite different (I’ve been into the cave, and will blog about it on another occasion).

Meanwhile, from the hills above Orenje, Kadri Hoxha watches the Germans burn Sulieman Balla’s house, where the British had sheltered previously.

Tuesday is cold and wet. The only food is a dish of beans at 12.00 and at 15.00 a plate of maize flower and water. Davies, after much argument, persuades Enver Hoxha to move south with a skeleton party of no more than 15. Of the British, Davies selects Lt Col Arthur Nicholls and Corporal Smith to accompany him.

On Wednesday morning Davies, Nicholls and Smith say goodbye to Captains Jim Chesshire and Alan Hare, and sergeants Melrose and Chisolm, who will be left to evade the Germans as best they can. Enver Hoxha has decided to bring 35 men, rather than the agreed 15. After two hours march Kadri Hoxha is sent on ahead to find the Bektashi priest and partisan leader Baba Faja. They are very high up and can’t light fires in case they’re spotted. It begins to rain. Kadri Hoxha fails to return before nightfall. The three British have just five chocolate squares each. A miserable night in the open is endured.

Around 09.00 on Thursday morning Kadri Hoxha arrives with a sheep, bread and cheese. A fire is lit and the sheep cooked. They move at 14.00, climbing steadily. There is deep snow, and they are soon lost. Camp is made at 21.00. At one point a partisan drops a grenade into the fire.

Early on Friday morning Kadri Hoxha sets off by himself to find the trail. He returns at 08.30, and by 14.00 the freezing-cold party arrive at the village of Okshtun. They are served a delicious meal of chicken with nut sauce and dry out their sodden clothes. It is Christmas Eve. News arrives that the Germans are camping 2km behind them.

The British rise at 03.00 on Christmas morning, but have to wait for the Albanians, who are finally ready to move at 06.30. They make a long, steep climb over the mountains to the east till they reach a ridge overlooking the village of Fushe-Studën. By now Davies’ boots have disintegrated – their host the previous night placed them too close to the fire to dry out. Despite British misgivings about passing through a village, they cross the plain at Fushe-Studën and start climbing the hills on the other side. About halfway up they come under fire. The leave the track and scramble up the mountainside. At dusk they find themselves above the village of Khorishte, and spend a freezing night in each others’ arms.

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën

The road heading south to Librazhd, from the hills above Fushe-Studën. Hoxha, Davies et al must have re-crossed the road somewhere around here, then climbed the mountain to the right in near-total darkness

Early on Sunday morning Kadri Hoxha returns from Khorishte to say that no villagers dare take them in. Davies tells Enver Hoxha that he will head south with just Fred Nosi, the mission’s translator. Hoxha angrily refuses and says they have to head back the way they came. Soon they are lost. Corporal Smith’s boots have lost most of both soles. At dusk they re-cross the Librazhd-Dibra road and find themselves climbing a mountain in the dark. At 21.00, close to the summit, the guides announce they are lost once more. The miserable group makes camp; the temperature is well below freezing. There is a gel frost and their clothes are stiff as boards.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 13-19 December 1943

The house Brig 'Trotsky' Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania's WWII history

The house Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania’s WWII history

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, still at the village of Labinot after their unsuccessful attempt to break through German encirclement, kick off Monday 13 December 1943 with a louse hunt. Enver Hoxha tells them a fresh attempt to move will be made at noon on Tuesday. Davies sends a messenger to the rest of the mission, hidden at nearby Orenje. However, acting on earlier orders they arrive at 15.00 anyway. Two brown horses, captured from the Germans, are given to Davies and Nicholls, Hoxha receives a pair of brown field boots.

Tuesday is a fine but cold day. Departure is delayed – it seems till Thursday. Davies spends much of the day speaking with Enver Hoxha. He naively asks if Hoxha is a communist. Heavy fighting can be heard from the nearby Librazhd-Elbasan road.

On Wednesday Hoxha makes the decision to return to Orenje for a few days before making a fresh attempt to head south. The move is made early on Thursday morning. When the mission arrives at the house of Sulieman Balla, they discover an RAF sortie has made it through. They are desperate for warm clothing and food, but the drop is almost exclusively explosives and personal mail and magazines for the British, plus 7,500 gold sovereigns. The local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha flies into a rage, and says he’ll refuse to accept the explosives. Davies learns from Kadri that the local partisan units have dispersed; there is nothing between the mission and the Germans. The sovereigns are dumped in a latrine (they are retrieved the following April).

After a sleepless night, the British stand-to at 05.30. Davies sends out patrols. The day turns out to be sunny, but ferociously cold. A young Albanian doctor tells the British their are 24 sick and six seriously wounded partisans to be cared for. At some point, Davies sends a cable to the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, recommending a change in policy. He says full support should be given to Enver Hoxha’s partisans, and the nationalist forces of the Balli Kombetar and the Zogists should be denounced as collaborators. He supplies a list of names for the pillory including Abas Kupi and Lef Nosi. This is the last signal Cairo will receive from Davies.

At 02.00 on the morning of Sunday 18 December, Davies is woken and told that the Germans are approaching. At 09.30 a German spotter plane drops leaflets over the houses the mission is occupying, calling on the Italian element to surrender and promising them safe conduct. At 11.00 Kadri Hoxha arrives and advises Davies to join the LNC Council at nearby Qurakuq. Davies leaves, and a few hours later the LNC Council arrives; a messenger is sent to bring Davies back.

By now Germans trucks can be heard. The mission, with Enver Hoxha and the LNC leadership, leave Orenje and march seven hours to a wood behind Bizë, where the British originally parachuted in. They can hear RAF planes overhead, but have to signal them to abort as they can’t receive supplies.

Cairo sends Davies a signal in response to his recent cable to the King, congratulating him on his birthday – ‘Could you convey His Majesty’s sincere thanks to Trotsky and those under his command for their kind birthday message’ – but he never receives it (National Archives, HS5/67).

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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: 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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The first tourist in Okshtun

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

The road north from Librazhd, into the heart of SPILLWAY territory

One of the frustrations in scouting the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 is that no one in Albania seems to have any familiarity with the area it took place in. Bizarre really, as it’s so close to Tirana. There’s no tourist infrastructure, no paved roads (until last year, when tarmac reached Shengjergj, a half-hour or more west of Biza, where Davies parachuted in) and no helpful websites. I had hoped to walk a fair stretch of the route in May, but the bizarre monsoon conditions put paid to that. But it’s August now and I’m back in Albania, so last week I hired a 4×4 and went in search of two key villages, Okshtun and Kostenje.

Normally on a trip like this I’d have my partner-in-crime, Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip with me, but his wife Vilma has just given birth to a bouncing baby girl (Nina, congratulations to them both). Instead I roped in a recently graduated tourism student, Edwin Brovina, to translate.

We headed to Librazhd, a six-donkey town about 25km east of Elbasan, and then struck out north. Due to a good dollop of EU cash, the road was brand-new and perfect for about 20km, then ended. We drove on dirt for about three hours, till a couple of helpful chaps told us we had passed the Okshtun turn. We doubled back, found the turn (unsigned, of course) and bumped our way down it. The track came to an end and we walked into Okshtun. Only it turned out to be a village called Lejçan instead.

We got a good welcome though, first from a tiny little old lady festooned with gold jewellery, who spoke a language Edwin couldn’t identify, let alone speak. At the next house we met the Limoni family, who sat us down, gave us coffee and the inevitable raki, and explained the little old lady spoke Macedonian (the border’s a bit fluid here). They also gave us the temporary use of their son, Erjon, to guide us to Okshtun, which they assured us was in the next valley.

The road to Okshtun

The road to Okshtun

Frustration No.2 of organising the ‘Endurance Vile Trail’ is that there aren’t any professional-quality photos available to ‘sell’ the area to prospective trekkers. There still aren’t – I just took snaps on my mobile (you can see a gallery here). But take it from me, this is a lovely area. Okshtun is about a half-hour from the main (gravel) road, down a seriously underused dirt track. A few old stone houses clinging to the slopes of a fertile, green valley. It used to be home to over 100 families, apparently, but now there are just seven or so.

We parked up when the track ended and were greeted by a bemused young man wearing just a pair of underpants (it is August, after all). Not unnaturally, he was curious as to why we had come. Edwin explained I was a tourist interested in Enver Hoxha and General Davies. Erblin (for that was his name) did a double take then jokingly punched the air – apparently I was the first tourist to visit Okshtun. Erblin was soon joined by his father, Refek, who sat us down and proved himself the consummate host, taking us down to the river for a welcome swim.

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it's unlikely he took a dip

Refek shows off the facilities at Okshtun. Davies was here in December 1943, so it’s unlikely he took a dip

Refek, though, didn’t know anything about the war. Disappointing, as elsewhere in these parts there’s a strong corporate memory. Davies came here twice, in fact, the first time on Christmas Eve 1943, for one night, then returned for an extended stay from 27 December to 2 January 1944. He and his team were in a bad way by then – his second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, was already suffering from the frostbite that was to contribute to his death a few weeks later.

The diary Nicholls kept, against orders, notes that they enjoyed a delicious dish of chicken with nut sauce on Christmas Eve. Refek had 60 chickens though no nut sauce, and was keen for us to stay for a BBQ (and raki), but we had to cry off as we didn’t fancy negotiating the roads at night. A shame – Refek struck us as a man who’d know how to do a mean BBQ.

Refek's son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

Refek’s son Erblin with trout caught that morning in the river

As you’ll see from the photos, the houses in Okshtun are pretty ropey, so a home-stay is off the agenda here. It’s a perfect place to camp, however, particularly with Refek toiling away over hot charcoal and Erblen pouring the raki.

I’m not allowed under pain of death to quote from Nicholls’ diary without permission, due to the Imperial War Museum’s team of crack lawyers, but Enver Hoxha wrote of Okshtun in his deeply untrustworthy Anglo-American Threat to Albania (available as a free PDF here). Hoxha’s chronology is a bit dodgy as he has the bedraggled group arriving in Okshtun for the second time on Christmas Eve, when in fact that was the day of the first arrival, but you’ll get the general idea…

Night had fallen by the time we reached the base where we were to stay and our hosts had come out in the snow in the darkness to welcome us. They embraced us and took us inside. We took off our dripping coats and handed our rifles to the head of the house, who hung them on the wall, one beside the other. The small ante-room was warm. A great sense of satisfaction stole over us. The General watched with pleasure and curiosity how we embraced the people of the house, how we handed over our rifles, took off our boots and shoes at the entrance to the room, and he did his best to follow suit.

Our host opened the door of the big room with the fire-place and invited us in.

‘Please, come in, my home is yours.’

‘You go first,’ I said, giving the General the honour. We entered the room. It was truly a miracle, not only for the British General, but also for us, who were the sons of this land and this people. After such a wearying journey through the forest, sometimes on and sometimes off the track, through snow and blizzard, we entered a room of a peasant’s home which made the Englishman exclaim: ‘What a miracle! Can I be dreaming?’

Our host asked me where the General was from and what language he spoke. I introduced the General to him.

At the head of the room there was a big fire-place, with a blazing fire which spread warmth and light from end to end. Two or three kerosene lamps had been lit and at the one end of the room, snow-white sheep-skin rugs had been laid out, with pillows in clean pillow-slips to rest on. In the middle of the room was a big Dibra carpet, while corncobs in regular rows like soldiers were hanging from the rafters over- head. Neither beams nor roof could be seen, only the corncobs glowing like gold in the light of the fire.

‘This is marvellous! This is paradise!’ murmured the General. ‘Even in dreams I could not have imagined such a Christmas night.’

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

Could this be the house in which the SPILLWAY mission enjoyed chicken with nut sauce?

‘You see what the homes and hearts of the ordinary Albanians are like, General,’ I said. ‘They truly are paradise without Mammon or God, as in your Milton’s Paradise Lost. Perhaps you remember Lord Byron’s beautiful verses full of feeling. In his Childe Harold he pointed out the fine virtues of the Albanian and wrote:

The Suliotes stretched the welcome hand,
And piled the hearth, and wrung their garments damp,
And filled the bowl, and trimmed the cheerful lamp,
And spread their fare; though homely all they had.
Such conduct bears Philanthropy’s rare stamp.’

‘Yes, Mr. Hoxha,’ said the General, ‘what Byron wrote about you Albanians I am seeing in reality and in difficult times which the world is going through.’

‘General,’ I said, ‘this hospitable atmosphere which our host has created reminds me of what I have read about the life of Byron. It was in such an atmosphere that the great English poet who had gone to Greece to fight for the freedom of the Greek people lay on his death bed. When the Albanians and their valiant leaders — Marko Boçari, Kolokotroni and others, were fighting all around Missolonghi, those who were serving the poet on his death bed were Albanians — the Suliotes.’

‘In find your words very moving, Mr. Hoxha,’ the British General replied.

‘Byron has written about this generosity and hospitality of our people, too. Somewhere he relates how, while he was travelling in Albania and night overtook him in a village, he was obliged to seek shelter in a house where he was welcomed with all the good things they had. Before he left the next day, Byron brought out his money to pay. His host said indignantly: ‘No, the Albanian does not want money but friends.’ And Byron remained a true friend of the Albanians.

Our host loaded the table with food, as is the custom of the people of Dibra. The General rose to his knees, put his hand on his heart to express thanks whenever his host offered him cigarettes, or clinked glasses with him. Our weariness disappeared immediately. The General opened his eyes in astonishment and asked me: ‘I cannot understand where we are here, in the city or in the countryside?’

‘We’re in a village, the inhabitants of which have fought for freedom since ancient times. They are poor, but when friends and comrades come they do everything possible to avoid being disgraced. This is how our whole people preserve the traditions of our ancestors, General,’ I told him.

‘What an astonishing culture you have! What politeness!’ exclaimed the General.

Nicholls’ version is, ahem, slightly different.

Kostenje, Refek told us, couldn’t be reached by car so I’ll be walking there soon. Instead, the next day we visited Orenje, which I’ll post about next time…

Bread and honey as served by Refek - the honey was just out of this world

Bread and honey as served by Refek – the honey was just out of this world

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The Endurance Vile Trail – Postponed till Summer 2014

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

Biza, the site of the SPILLWAY mission’s HQ, photographed in November 2012. The ruined buildings date from the 1950s, and were destroyed in the anarchy of 1997

Sadly I’m going to have to postpone September’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission till summer 2014. The reasons for this are multiple, and too boring to go into, but essentially we need more time to market the concept.

There are no shortage of coach tours for military history buffs, but the Endurance Vile Trail, which is a much more physically demanding offer, occupies a very small niche indeed. Hopefully not too small though.

Obviously, this blog will remain the first source of information on the Trail. Both Dr Rod Bailey and myself are keen to make it work. It really will be an amazing experience when it happens (and it will).

In the meantime, if you’re interested in travelling to Albania independently and have an interest in the Special Operations Executive’s activities in the country, don’t hesitate to get in touch with either myself or Elton at Albaniantrip for advice.

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