Tag Archives: David Smiley

Into Zog Territory

The big push to upload posts from last summer continues… This time we take a short break from trudging around the Çermenika massif and instead head north, to the Mati district of Albania.

The road to Macukull

Our first glimpse of Macukull. The road is fairly good by Albanian standards

The purpose of our visit was a research trip on behalf of the son of one of the Special Operations Executive officers who served in Albania during World War II, Captain Frank Smyth. Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies sent Smyth north to work with Squadron Leader Tony Neel, who was liaising with the Zogist forces, such as they were, led by Enver Hoxha’s arch-enemy Abas Kupi. In the confused events following Davies’ capture by the Germans in early January 1944, Smyth found himself in the village of Macukell, being sheltered by a branch of the Kola family. Smyth by then was under the command of a certain Captain Bulman, who does not appear to have covered himself in glory during his stint in Albania (Bulman was despised by his fellow officers and also most Albanians who encountered him).

On 11 January Bulman and Smyth, who was then very sick, were joined by Major George Seymour, who took command. He was followed soon after by the Germans –

“As it was no part of our policy to be the cause of Albanian villages being burnt and the people massacred I decided that, if I could evacuate vital stores without fighting, I wold do so. We did just manage it and, although we were still in sight of the house when the Germans arrived, we were undetected in the dusk. The Germans fired a light as a success signal an this was answered from two other directions… Smythe (sic) and I… remained in the vicinity of Macukull to watch events. The following morning the Germans burnt our house and then pushed on northwards…”
From the Seymour Report in the National Archives (HS5/123) 

The Kola family later in the year sheltered Lt Col ‘Billy’ McLean and Major David Smiley, and had another house burnt for their efforts. Houses being destroyed does seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for Albanians who hosted British officers during the war.

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip and myself set out for Macukull in late August 2013 with little idea of what to expect. I’d driven through the Mati before in the grey of winter, so was interested to see it in summertime. And very pleasant it was too. The drive to the region’s biggest town, Burrell, took about two-and-a-half hours from Tirana, with the inevitable coffee stop. Burrell is nothing to write home about, its only landmark being a statue of local hero King Zog in the town square.

A rope bridge over the Mati river

A rope bridge across the Mati, en route to Burrell

We parked and headed for the busiest café, and asked if anyone knew if the road to Macukull was in a good state. There was surprise that anyone would want to go to Macukull; Elton explained our interest in the war history, one thing led to another and soon we were joined by three very nice chaps, Demir Çupi, Skënder Gjuci and Kujtim Sulmeta. Out came a few of the S.O.E. memoirs we were carrying with us and a lengthy discussion began, including the old favourite topic of conversation, ‘Why do so few tourists visit Albania?’

Men in Burrell

In Burrell we met (from left) Kujtim Sulmeta, Demir Çupi and Skënder Gjuci, who were all WWII buffs

More usefully, all three men knew the Kolas and were familiar with Albania’s convoluted war history, and two of them – Skënder and Kujtim – were at a loose end so were happy to take a day trip to Macukull with us.

The drive took us past King Zog’s old family seat, Burgajet Castle. Or where it used to sit, anyway – the Communists had taken particular care to destroy it utterly. I was surprised there wasn’t a six-metre statue of a brave Partisan fighter taking a symbolic dump on the site.

Shortly afterwards we left the main road and took a dirt track up into the mountains. Macukull, it turns out, occupies a particularly dramatic piece of real estate, with wonderful views across the Mati. It had clearly been a relatively wealthy village, though its loyalty to King Zog cost it dear during Enver Hoxha’s glorious rule.

Skënder and Kujtim guided us ever higher, up to the site of the old Kola house (there would have been several, this was the grandest). Nothing, literally nothing, remains. Kujtim pointed to the school in the far distance – a typically ugly rectangular block. The Kolas hadn’t exactly been flavour of the month with the Communists, so the house had been torn down and its stones used to build the school.

The Zogist Salute

Kujtim Sulmeta, Skënder Gjuci and Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip demonstrate the Zogist salute on the site of the Kola house, destroyed first by the Germans and then the Communists

A branch of the Kola family still live next door, and were in the process of building what appeared to be a small castle of their own. Rather worryingly for their future health, within six metres of a mobile phone mast. We were invited into their old, much more modest – and charming – house for lunch. Which turned out to be one of the best village lunches Elton and I have had (and we’ve had a fair few now). Macukull’s raki turned out to be excellent too.

Over lunch we were told of the Kola family’s resistance to the dictatorship, and how Bilal Kola, a friend of David Smiley’s, had been cornered and shot in the early 1950s after holding out in the mountains with a small band of rebels for the best part of a decade. His remains were only returned to the village after the collapse of Communism (Hoxha seems to have been particularly vindictive when it came to people’s remains; he had the British war graves in Tirana destroyed in the late 1940s).

The Doçi family in Macukull, Albania

The very lovely Doçi family pose with Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip after a long and delicious lunch

After lunch we went for a tour of Macukull, which like many Albanian villages is spread out over a huge area. We stopped in the grimy café for a coffee (and raki). We were reminded how raw the wounds caused by the war still are – the café owner got quite morose about life under the Communists and asked me why the hell we (the British) hadn’t just landed a couple of thousand troops in 1944 and prevented Hoxha grabbing power; and while we were on the subject what had we been doing arming the Communists anyway? Fair enough questions.

An old house in Macukull, Albania

Kujtim Sulmeta shows us one of the old houses that survive, just, in Macukull

The rest of out tour had little relevance to war history, but we did find a few beautiful old stone houses in the process of collapsing – Macukull’s population, around 4,000 20 years ago, has fallen to 1,300 today. And we found more raki, inevitably (one of the pitfalls of visiting Albanian villages is that everyone, but everyone, wants to invite you in for a coffee and raki).

Back in Tirana a few days later I caught up with a modern-day Kola, also named Bilal, a successful lawyer. We met at the British Chamber of Commerce, appropriately enough. Bilal studied in England in the 1990s, staying for three months with the Tory MP and ex-S.O.E. officer Julian Amery. Bilal also spent some time staying with David Smiley, who remained embittered, 50 years on, at Britain’s support for Enver Hoxha and the Communists in 1943-44. (In contrast Amery’s main gripe was that Bilal arrived without any bottles of the Macukull raki he had enjoyed so much in summer 1944.)

Bilal Kola

Bilal Kola nails his colours to the mast. His family and the Communist regime did not see eye-to-eye

(Rather randomly, Bilal’s English skills led him to being recruited as guide and translator for the British comedian Norman Wisdom, when he visited Albania in 2001 at the same time as the England football squad. Wisdom was one of the few Western film stars whose movies were permitted by the Communist regime, and is a comedy legend for Albanians of a certain age; he attracted more press attention than David Beckham.)

We’ll be heading back to Macukull in the next few weeks, but in the meantime you might like to check out this gallery of photographs on the popular ‘social networking’ website Facebook.

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First Blood

Mule path from Labinot to Xibrake

Walking the ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ from Labinot to Xibrake

This embarrassingly irregular blog continues with a post I should have put up, ooo, last September. A shameful delay on my part, but I have to confess it’s not the only long-delayed post in my back catalogue – I have more on Orenje, meeting bears before breakfast, and a research trip to Macukull in the Mati, where David Smiley and various other Special Operations Executive officers had uncomfortably close shaves with German troops. I shall endeavour to catch up…

Anyway, in early September I was keen to pin down the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Enver Hoxha when they unsuccessfully tried to escape German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river between Elbasan and Librazhd. Thanks to my friend Ferit Balla, who holds the unpublished memoirs of the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, I knew just where Davies et al emerged from the hills – the village of Xibrake. I knew they left from Labinot (and just where in Labinot, too). So I figured it would be pretty easy to find the route. Just walk from Xibrake to Labinot… I’d come close to doing it the previous week…

I overnighted in Elbasan, a rather bizarre town that I like a lot if only for its well-attended giro each evening (if you’re not familiar with the giro concept, basically everyone walks up and down the main street at sunset and says hello to one another). An early start and a particularly dicey furgon (minibus) got me to Xibrake nice and early, and off I strode – along totally the wrong path, I would discover shortly. The walk to Labinot was uneventful, and I arrived at the outskirts of the village with the clichéd spring in my step and pressed on to the prominent house which had been Enver Hoxha’s on-and-off HQ (now a museum that doesn’t open).

Albanian villages, I should mention, are very spread out.

I found myself on one side of a valley. On the other was Hoxha’s HQ. I could see what looked like a well maintained path between me and it. The sun was shining. All was good. Until about 300 yards short of the HQ, when the path ended abruptly. No matter, I thought, I’ll cut through the garden blocking my route, smiling inanely at the wizened peasant who no doubt owns it and who would probably invite me in and fill me with raki as soon as I mentioned the words ‘General Davies’ (as he’s known in these parts). Unfortunately the wizened peasant wasn’t at home. His dogs, however, were.

I love dogs. But not Albanian dogs, with the exception of the huge Šarplaninac (Illyrian Sheep Dog). When confronted with a lanky Englishman the Šar, which will happily take on a wolf or bear, will just shrug its shoulders and get on with its core business of guarding sheep or goats. The 98 per cent of Albanian dogs that aren’t Šar, sadly, love nothing better than to sink their teeth into English flesh. They are partisan; Šar are Balli.

There were three of them, and they were small snarly well-beaten brutes not Šar. Due to an oversight on my part I didn’t have a big stick with me (an essential accessory for trekking in Albania). I pretended to have a stone ready to throw, which bought me time, but was quickly surrounded and bitten. Don’t pass this on to the Albanian Dog Lovers’ Association, but I kicked hard and I think effectively. I managed to pick up a few stones and threw them, satisfyingly accurately. The dogs were held at bay and I was able to beat a retreat to the next garden, where I immediately met one of the sweetest families I’ve encountered so far.

A bite from an Albanian hell hound

Ouch. Six months on and still no sign of rabies

They were obviously a bit surprised to have a random trekker bleeding over their vegetable patch, but quickly recovered from the shock and sat me down on their balcony. Raki was produced, but to clean the wound rather than drink, to my disappointment. The man of the house, Agim, insisted on giving me a clean T-shirt to wear, while his wife produced an impromptu feast. A phone call to Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip established my credentials and the purpose of my visit, and Agim, on hearing of our previous failed attempt to get into the museum, walked me up and tackled the mad woman who holds the keys and refuses access. No joy; she’s an immovable object.

Village hospitality in Albania

Typical Albanian village hospitality, spoiled somewhat by a pale hairy leg

The words ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ were bandied about and Agim and his wife walked me down a path and pointed me in what they insisted was the right direction. After profuse thanks I set off. But soon heard shouting – apparently I was going the wrong way. The two of them, who were both well into their sixties and wearing completely unsuitable footwear, then insisted on walking me to Xibrake along the route Davies and Hoxa took back in December 1943 – an ancient and neglected mule path. Never in a million years would I have found it by myself. Two hours later we were in Xibrake, where they waved me off. I tried to give them some money but they refused point blank. It must have taken them three hours to get home, as Xibrake to Labinot is a steep uphill trek.

I hope this gives you an idea of Albanian hospitality – and in my experience, this story is fairly typical. If you’re wondering if it’s a welcoming destination for tourists, the answer I’d suggest is yes. 

There are more photos for your delectation at the S.O.E. Trails Facebook page

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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: 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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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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Carry on Nurse

The Secret Rescue, by Cate Lineberry

The Secret Rescue, by Cate Lineberry

Albania is endlessly fascinating. That’s one of the joys of the place – there are stories everywhere. An American writer, Cate Lineberry, has just released a book telling one of the best – it’s called The Secret Rescue, and is published by Little, Brown & Company.

In early November 1943, a few weeks after Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and the SPILLWAY mission were dropped into the Martanesh region, a plane load of US medics, including 13 female nurses, crashlanded south of Elbasan, in central Albania. It took them two months to reach SOE’s coastal hideaway, SEAVIEW, and escape to Italy.

Lt Gavan B Duffy's personal file, and mugshots

Lt Gavan B Duffy’s personal file, and mugshots

The story is epic. I’ve read memoirs by two of the Americans – – and the SOE report by the officer who guided them out, Lieutenant Gavan Duffy (National Archives HS 5/124). I don’t have the quote to hand, but another British Liaison Officer – David Smiley, if I remember correctly – described Duffy as having two interests in life: demolition and explosives. His report is a gem, starting off –

“The American Party, which consisted of two P/O’s, 12 [sic] nurses and 15 enlisted men, left SICILY on board a D.C.47 en route for BARI, ITALY. The approximate time for such a flight is 40 minutes; two months later the party did arrive safely at BARI, unharmed, but possibly conscious of the fact that accidents can happen even in this modern era of aviation…”

Also –

“For years to come I feel sure that certain inhabitants of ALBANIA will never forget the “Cupka Amerikane” (American Girls), who always managed to produce the necessary cosmetics and render the necessary running repairs. They used to leave the people non-plussed, including, I might add, myself; after all, they were in enemy occupied territory. Amazing! Much too deep for me as a soldier!”

Reading between the lines of published memoirs by two of the American party, there might just have been a sniff of romance between Duffy and one of the nurses, Agnes ‘Jens’ Jensen. I look forward to reading Cate’s book and finding out if I’m over-imagining.

Also in the National Archives, as well as Duffy’s report, is a an ‘Evaders Statement’ by three of the nurses, who got separated from the main body of the party just a few days after the crash (HS5/67). They were finally evacuated in March, after a prolonged stay in Berat. There’s a spine-tingling moment when they realise they are on their own, and the Germans have arrived in town –

“Later in the afternoon, several Albanian soldiers and two Germans entered the house. The Albanians remained below, while the two Germans came upstairs and into our room. At the time, Lt [Ava Ann] Maness was playing solitaire with airplane-spotters’ cards, and one German, upon seeing a card with the figure of a B-25 on it, remarked ‘Bono’. The other German, who could speak a little English, asked what our uniforms represented, to which we replied ‘Infimara’ (Nurse), and asked us the significance of our Air Corps sleeve patches, and we told him. They asked if we were Albanian, to which we replied in the affirmative, but the other remarked, ‘Nix, nix, Albaninan.’ Both Germans were wearing Red Cross buttons in their caps, and black fatigue uniforms. They then left the room, and went downstairs, and the one who spoke a little English told Mrs Karaja to keep us within the limits of the house and we would be alright.”

If you want to find out more, then buy Cate’s book. The Daily Beast has made it one of the week’s hot reads

“The book combines all of the elements that draw us to WWII stories: the daring of The Guns of Navarone, the suspense of The Great Escape, and the bravery reminiscent of Ill Met by Moonlight. It’s the inclusion of so many women, though, that makes this story unique. It’s always good to be reminded that by no means did men have a monopoly on grace-under-fire during the world’s greatest conflagration.”

– and it’s surely a shoe-in for a film adaptation. Or a Nurses’ Trail, to sit alongside the Endurance Vile Trail this September, for that matter…

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Men (and women) behaving badly

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Cairo in the War, by Artemis Cooper. Kindle version is arriving, belatedly, in October 2013

Over the weekend, I read that good blogs have brief posts, and are frequently updated. Whoops. But it’s been an interesting few days – fielding enquiries about September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Rod Bailey has kept me busy, and a breakdown in France (mechanical, not nervous) saw me cross the Channel three times in one day. But anyway, on with the blog…

One of the things that has struck me about SOE’s brave but ill-fated campaign in Albania is that it is impossible to understand without a grasp of what was going on in Cairo at the time. This subject deserves a book in itself – in fact it got one, in Artemis Cooper’s brilliant Cairo in the War. It was published in 1989 and is now out of print (there’s a new paperback going for £1,906.83 on Amazon as I write), but thankfully a Kindle version is in the pipeline (due October). Why on earth it wasn’t reissued or released on Kindle last year when her bestselling biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor was getting glowing reviews in the nationals is question only her publishers can answer.

The book is packed with top quality anecdote, and illuminating glimpses into Rustem Building, SOE’s dysfunctional HQ, headed up in 1943 by Brigadier ‘Bolo’ Keble, who stomped the corridors in a pair of desert boots, khaki shorts and a sweaty white vest.

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska - Sophie to her friends

Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska – Sophie to her friends

Cooper also peeks into Tara, the house shared by Billy McLean and David Smiley (serving in Albania) with Xan Fielding and Paddy Leigh Fermor (Crete) over the winter of 43/44. The goings-on here are quite something, right down to Christmas lunch – a turkey with benzedrine stuffing. However, the reality was a lot racier than Cooper lets on, if David Smiley’s diary* is anything to to by. It seems that the châtelaine of the house, Sophie Tarnowska (or Countess Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska, to be precise) bestowed her affections liberally, having flings with Smiley, Fielding (seemingly at the same time), possibly McLean, and Billy Moss, author of Ill Met by Moonlight, whom she went on to marry.

All this is by the by. The best anecdote by far deserves quoting in full, and concerns an officer whose identity has been lost in the midst of time –

… one pasha – when insulted beyond endurance by a very drunken British officer – decided to take serious revenge. He invited the officer to dinner, by which time the latter had completely forgotten the man he had been so rude to; but there seemed no reason to turn down this unexpected offer of a free meal, so he accepted. He rang the bell of the pasha’s house on the appointed night; but instead of being admitted by a polite sufragi, two huge Nubians hauled him into a room where his host announced, “You insulted me the other night, and now you will pay for it.” His trousers were pulled down and, while the two Nubians kept him still, the British officer was sexually assaulted by six other Nubians before being thrown out of the house. Most men would have kept this humiliating episode to themselves; but, the following day, this particular officer was telling everyone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night – dashed unpleasant. I got buggered by six Nubians…”

*In Billy McLean’s private papers at IWM London.

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Billy McLean, Boxes and Brits behaving badly

Neil 'Billy' McLean's private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Neil ‘Billy’ McLean’s private papers, held at Imperial War Museum London

Wednesday saw me booked into the temporary reading room at London’s Imperial War Museum. The main museum is undergoing a £35m (€41.5m) refit, and will open again this summer, with its main gallery dedicated to the Great War (as a largely irrelevant aside, for a snapshot of Britain in the run-up to WWI read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England). Meanwhile researchers have to squirrel themselves away in a redbrick Victorian pile a stone’s throw from Elephant & Castle, possibly the most depressing spot in London.

My visit, the first of four or five days in IWM London, was for the private papers of Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, one of the key British Liaison Officers to serve in Albania. McLean is not to be confused with the much more famous Fitzroy Maclean, Churchill’s personal envoy to Tito in Yugoslavia, author of Eastern Approaches and supposed model for James Bond. McLean’s private papers, I had been forewarned, were a) copious and b) uncatalogued. Waiting for me were six large cardboard boxes, pictured above.* There’s a job of work here, I thought.

Ever have one of those moments when you know you’re in for a good day? Well, I had that when I saw the first page of the first file in the first box. It’s worth quoting here in full –

I found that the actual parachute jump was one of the most pleasant I had ever made. Far more pleasant than the five practise [sic] jumps I had made in the S.A.S. Training Camp at Kabrit. It was also far less difficult than I had imagined it would be. Sometimes in Cairo after a particularly debauched night, I would lie in the afternoon on my bed in Shephard’s [sic] Hotel and imagine the scene of the operational jump. The green light and everyone looking ghostly and strained, and outside cold and very black. The slip-stream rushing by and the hollow feeling in the stomach and invisible hands, some pulling one out, others pulling one back. The absolute certainty that the slipstream would knock one against the side of the aeroplane, so that the parachute would not open properly, or perhaps only half open, or perhaps not open at all. The unknown land below so cold and dark and menacing. One literally sweated. But, in fact, the operational jump was a piece of cake. Like nearly all things that one is worried or anxious about, the thing itself is so much less bad than one’s idea of it. This, of course, is also true of good things one hopes to happen. They also fall almost always far short of one’s expectations or desires.

Possibly only boredom and hate, illness and bad temper, quarrels and unsuccessful relationships with people are worse than one imagines.

McLean starts as he means to go on – often his diary, written up from notes when he was an MP after the war, reads more like the skeleton of a novel. Perhaps he was planning to fictionalise his experiences, as did Anthony Quayle (Eight Hours From England) and Jerry Field (Three Seconds to Die – I appear to have bought the last available copy and it’s arriving any day now; hopefully it’s totally bonkers like its author). McLean was a highly literate man, after all. In his pack on that first jump were the complete works of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique and all the Russian classics. Guns and grenades would have been far too common.

It’s fascinating seeing how he expanded on his diary notes. For instance, this –

6) Aleco
The stage communist. Unshaven, dirty clothes, long finger nails. Produces paper, rough manners. Contempt. Tries to be much older. Affected way of narrowing eyes in order to look sinister. Way of accepting tea. I despise these comforts but it doesn’t make much difference. These unimportant things.

Becomes –

Aleco
Young, speaks French, reasonably educated. He never washes and he has a brown speckly colour. He acts as a stage communist, always sinister and secretive. He has an affected trick of narrowing his eyes, as if about to pass the death sentence on some enemy of the people. He often took out of his pocket letters which were probably directives from the communist party. After studying them studiously he heavily marked them with the blunt stub of his pencil. Aleco always accepted a cup of tea very ungraciously as if he disapproved strongly of anyone being able to offer to anyone a cup of tea, or anything else. But, as such habits existed in the evil capitalist world he thought it was probably simpler to accept the cup of tea as, anyway, very little time remained for these bourgeois capitalist customs to continue. Aleco also was very suspicious of all of us and had very bad manners. So he was not the best of company. Sometimes he would stare at the perfectly ordinary map of Argyrocastre [Gjirokastër] area for about 1/2 hour on end or even an hour mouthing out the names of the villages under his breath.

Smiley (left) and McLean

Smiley (left) and McLean

And fascinating too to see his thoughts on other British Liaison Officers. He’s surprisingly candid about the limitations of his close friend, David Smiley (who rode beside the Queen’s carriage at her coronation 70 years ago this year). He notes Smiley’s contempt for Albanians with some regret, such as his words to a partisan who made an early call on their HQ: “Get out you bastard – I will not have Albanians in here before breakfast.” And more disturbingly, Smiley’s reaction when a wounded partisan was brought to them –

“God, they’ve even started bringing the wounded here now… The Best thing he can do is to die and save us feeding him.”

And when the partisan did die –

“Thank God for that anyway, that’s saved us a lot of trouble.”

Last Christmas lunch I sat next to a retired brigadier who had known Smiley. I got the impression that he wasn’t a man you’d go to if you needed a shoulder to cry on, but still. His reading matter for that first mission, it’s worth mentioning, was the latest copy of Horse & Hound.

McLean’s candour raised some difficult issues for me. Namely, how honest should I be in this blog. A few SOE officers, though none who served in Albania (I think), are still alive. The children and grandchildren of the various BLOs could very well be hurt by McLean’s scathing character studies. If you’ve grown up thinking grandaddy was a brave irregular soldier, risking his life behind enemy lines, you won’t want to hear that his colleagues considered him to be, well, a useless plonker. But it occurred to me that I’d have no such compunctions over the various Albanian characters who swim in and out of the picture. The men and women of SOE, like it or not, are part of history now. I don’t think it’s right to censor oneself for fear of offending their descendants. And some of McLean’s portraits are just too sharp, too telling, to pass over. My approach, I think, will be to namecheck BLOs when portrayed negatively, if it’s absolutely necessary. If I can get away without attaching the negativity to a name, I’ll do so. So here’s McLean on ‘John’, a BLO he encountered in Greece. He starts off slowly –

A slow, pleasant, but somewhat stupid country Englishman with a streak of animal cunning.

But soon gets into his stride, describing him later as –

… a young and pig fat man with a Yorkshire accent – very healthy and German-looking. One day I saw him sitting among a miserable group of emaciated peasant children, pale, spotty and sleepy with hunger. He was smacking his lips and ordering enormous quantities of food. The idea suddenly came to us that to keep John alive some fifty peasant children were being deprived of their food. Every time John sat down to a meal we used to count —– 51, 52, 53…

German propaganda in Albania painted the BLOs as young, spoiled brats who didn’t care if their actions brought destruction to a village. It perhaps wasn’t a totally inaccurate portrayal. I was reminded of a fragment of Sandy Glen‘s report of early 1944, written after a stint sharing a cave on the coast, Seaview, with Jerry Field, who had taken to shooting at Albanians on sight –

Partisans tell of British officers sending peasant boys fifteen miles through enemy-patrolled country for a bottle of raki. I believe this is true. Bal Kom [Albanian nationalists opposed to the partisans] shepherds have been shot at by British officers simply for approaching a camp in the hope of scrounging a mug of coffee. Liaison has been a one-sided affair, the sort of liaison between a grubby fourth form schoolboy and an unapproachable form master armed with a large cane.
(National Archives, HS 5 / 57)

A reminder that not all BLOs had McLean’s sensitivity or subtlety. I have five more boxes of his private papers to work through. Interesting times.

*Photography is strictly prohibited in the reading rooms, but the staff were kind enough to make an exception after I pointed out that a photograph of six cardboard boxes wouldn’t bring the Imperial War Museum tumbling down.

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The first post

So, here we go. This is the first post of new blog. Over the spring and summer of 2013 I’ll be following in the footsteps of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) across Albania.

Created by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”, in Albania SOE only ever managed to create a small puff of acrid smoke. Here, I’ll be exploring why – and exploring the spectacular mountains and valleys where SOE’s agents operated.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

I was introduced to the subject by my friend Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip. I was staying in Tirana, at his charming Villa With Star (a corner of a 1930s villa, now surrounded by tower blocks and with an uncertain future), when he handed me a copy of Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. I was then pretty much out of circulation for 24 hours. It is a quite incredible story, brilliantly told by Bailey, with a tragic sign-off. Could SOE have been responsible for the 40 years of Communist dictatorship that followed the war? Bailey, after carefully sifting the evidence, reckons not, but till their deaths many of the BLOs (British Liaison Officers) who served in Albania were convinced otherwise.

Postscript aside, it’s certainly doubtful that SOE’s activities in Albania shortened the war by even a minute. What can’t be doubted, however, is the bravery of the men who dropped in by parachute, or slipped across the Adriatic, dodging German E-Boats, by night.

To my mind, the story of SOE in Albania can be split into four parts. First, the period up to April 1943, with the only activity on the ground being an ill-conceived 1941 mission led by Dayrell Oakley-Hill, one of King Zog’s ex-gendarmes, who was soon forced to surrender to the Germans and spent the next two-and-a-half-years as a prisoner-of-war. Second, Major Neil “Billy” McLean’s and David Smiley’s misspelled CONCENSUS mission, from April to October ’43. Third, October ’43 to February ’44 – Brigadier EF “Trotsky” Davies’ SPILLWAY mission, culminating in his wounding and capture by the Germans and the death of his second-in-command, Arthur Nicholls (who remains the only member of the Coldstream Guards to be awarded the George Cross). The fourth and final part runs from April ’44 to 1945 and war’s end, when the true nature of the Hoxha regime was becoming clear, and the bitter recriminations among BLOs began.

I say “final”, but in truth there was an unsatisfactory epilogue – a bizarre and amateurish joint MI6/CIA attempt to oust Hoxha in the late Forties and early Fifties. Roderick Bailey promises to turn his attention to this story in due course – I can’t wait.

Illyrian Venture, by Brigadier E. F. "Trotsky" Davies

Illyrian Venture, by Brigadier E. F. “Trotsky” Davies

The main focus of this blog will be Part Three – the winter of 1943/44. Why? The 70th anniversary is coming up, for one thing. For another, the area of Albania where most of the action took place – the mountains to the east of Tirana – is remarkably unspoiled and just a delight to explore. Key to the story is Illyrian Venture, the postwar memoir by Brig Davies. It’s an incomplete tale, which glosses over some key facts (of which more later). But when read alongside the mission diary kept by Nicholls, which Roderick Bailey managed to unearth in his research and is now available to view in the Imperial War Museum in London, and various documents held in the National Archives which have only recently been declassified (some files are still closed), a clear picture of events does begin to emerge.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from “Trotsky” Davies himself, which goes to show if nothing else that they don’t make ’em like they used to. Here he reminisces about the hours after he had been shot, and dragged into a sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sergeant Smith, along with an Italian colonel inconveniently dumped on the British party a few days earlier by Enver Hoxha…

“Col. Barbacinto was hit through the base of the neck,” writes Davies, “he was delirious and making an awful fuss. I roared at him to pull himself together and shut up that bloody noise. He continued to moan and roll his eyes.”

There’ll be more of this sort of thing over the coming months, along with (hopefully) useful travel advice for anyone visiting Albania.

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