Tag Archives: Elton Caushi

Artistic Licence

Robert Permeti and The Abyss private view

A private viewing of Robert Permeti’s painting The Abyss, which depicts Enver Hoxha’s confrontation with Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies in January 1944

Playing ominously with a pearl-handed penknife and now suddenly ‘stern’, with a ‘taste of iron’ in his voice, Stalin proposed: ‘The artist ought to show life truthfully. And if he shows our life truthfully he cannot fail to show it moving to socialism. This is, and will be, Socialist Realism.’ In other words, the writers had to describe what life should be, a panegyric to the Utopian future, not what life was…
‘You produce the goods that we need,’ said Stalin. ‘Even more than machines, tanks, aeroplanes, we need human souls…’
… The writers, Stalin declared, were ‘engineers of human souls…’
From Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Not just writers. Communist regimes the world over were obsessed with the visual arts, not least Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Tirana’s small National Gallery has an intriguing collection of Socialist Realist works, and is definitely a must-visit if you’re in the city for a day or two. It drives home how important the events of World War II, and the fight against ‘fascism’ (a term used to describe domestic opponents as much as the Italians and German occupiers), were to the regime in terms of a founding myth.

There are two problems (in my view) with the gallery, though. First, there’s not enough background information on the artists and their works. Second, the picture that sits at the top of this blog, The Abyss, by Robert Permeti, isn’t part of the collection.

Last month, when Alex Smyth, whose father Captain Frank Smyth parachuted into Albania as part of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ Special Operations Executive mission, visited Albania, I was keen for him to meet Robert Permeti and ideally see The Abyss in the flesh (or oil and canvas, rather). I met Robert for a coffee with Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip a few weeks before Alex and his son Tom arrived, and we were delighted to discover that he (like me) was fascinated with the British involvement with Enver Hoxha’s partisans during 1943/44. We were also delighted to find that the painting hadn’t been sold abroad, despite some tempting offers, and was still in Tirana.

Robert Permeti and Elton Caushi

Alex Smyth listens to artist Robert Permeti at a private viewing of Permeti’s painting The Abyss, while Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip (centre) translates

Robert very kindly invited the Smyths to a private viewing of The Abyss, and talked about the history of the painting, and the effort he put in to accurately capturing the smallest details. The time we spent with him drove home how precarious was the position of an artist under totalitarian regimes.

‘The first title was The Abyss [this could also be rendered as “Precipice” in English], as I felt I was standing on the edge of an abyss,’ Robert told us.

When he began work on the painting in the late 1970s, he was an army officer from a devoted Communist family, and a True Believer.

‘Both my parents were partisans [during WWII],’ he told us. ‘When I started the painting I loved Enver. I was chief of my division’s propaganda section. But I had a brother who was a pilot, and he was punished under the propaganda law.’

With the trial of his brother, doubt began to creep into Robert’s mind. ‘I loved doing the research, but at that time there was a lot of debate [about Albania’s wartime ‘national liberation struggle’].’

Robert Permeti in Army uniform

A young Robert Permeti in Army uniform, during his research for The Abyss

Robert’s research was, with some understatement, thorough. ‘Socialist Realism is very rigorous in its rules,’ he told the Smyths. ‘Every detail needs to be thought out. The gun Enver holds was one the British gave him.’

Robert visited the villages that had sheltered Davies and Hoxha, searched the (heavily doctored, naturally) Albanian state archives, sketched landscapes, spoke to locals. And he also spoke to one man who had been with the British throughout…

‘What made my work harder was that during this time Enver published The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Because of this I started to talk to Fred Nosi [the interpreter for Brig Davies’ mission]. Fred told me completely different stories to Enver’s.’

The Abyss captures the moment that Davies and Hoxha, after several days’ march through the mountains as they attempted to break through German encirclement, rowed over Davies’ plan to leave Hoxha and walk south to Korça with Fred Nosi.

‘… I shall go to Korça without you,’
‘You may want to do so, but I shall not allow it,’ I said.
‘Why, am I your prisoner?’ exclaimed the General, raising his voice.
‘No, you are not our prisoner but you are our ally and friend and I cannot allow the Germans to kill you… I am certain that you are going to your death or captivity, therefore I cannot allow you to take Frederick [Nosi] or any other partisan…’
From The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

Hoxha claims that Davies advised him to surrender to the Germans, and that his (Hoxha’s) patience was exhausted and he reacted furiously, calling Davies a defeatist. A highly implausible scenario, knowing how bloody-minded and dedicated to his duty Davies was. And it seems that Fred Nosi, who was interpreting, had a different recollection from Hoxha’s.

‘Fred told me that in reality Hoxha acted like a gangster…’ Robert told us.

A detail from The Abyss by Robert Permeti

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and his bodyguard Corporal Jim Smith in a detail from Robert Permeti’s The Abyss

A key point of interest is the portrayal of Davies himself. The regime gave Robert a photograph taken of Davies, in British battle dress, during his stint in Albania, which you can see below.

Brigadier Davies ringer

The photograph given to Robert Permeti when he was researching The Abyss, purportedly of Brigadier Davies but a better match for an ancient Winston Churchill

The only problem is, whoever that is in the photo, it isn’t Davies. In fact it looks more like an aged Churchill. The picture does, however, beautifully back up Hoxha’s memorable portrayal of Davies as an ageing Colonel Blimp figure – a blustering British imperialist straight from Central Casting.

Davies was a middle-aged man, a bit portly, with a round face and a bulbous red nose (apparently he liked his whisky)… The most hard-worked word of his vocabulary was ‘I’… He was carrying a stick, a real walking stick and not one of those fancy batons British officers like to carry. As to his age, he must have been well on in his fifties [actually Davies was 42]… 
From The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

Trotsky Davies SOE photograph

The real Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ pictured in his SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Notice too the ‘RAF’ emblem on Davies’ beret. In TAATTA, Hoxha writes of Davies wearing RAF insignia but then refusing to admit that he was an Air Force intelligence officer. An agent of Perfidious Albion failing to pull the wool over the ever-vigilant Enver’s eyes. Actually simple confusion on Hoxha’s part – Davies, who was a regular officer in the Royal Ulster Rifles, wore parachute wings, as did all SOE officers who dropped into Albania. Wearing the wings indicated you had parachuted in action, not just in training. For the younger officers wearing these wings more or less meant guaranteed sex with impressionable FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in Cairo, where SOE’s Balkan missions were run from till early 1944. Well worth wearing, then.

The second Briton in the picture is Corporal Jim Smith. He, it’s worth mentioning, had at the Battle of Peza in October dragged the already dead body of Bombadier William Hill to cover from under German machine-gun fire, and would refuse to abandon Davies when he [Davies] was shot through the liver and captured by the Germans a few days after the scene depicted in the painting.

Robert finished work on The Abyss in time for a major art exhibition, in 1981. Then a problem arose. Enver’s influential wife, Nexhmije, liked the painting, but wanted one small change to be made – for Robert to remove the British. He refused.

‘I was completely under the influence of Fred Nosi,’ Robert says. ‘I entered into a difficult psychological state. I didn’t think before giving the work the title The Abyss. Only later did I understand how dangerous this was for me. I realised it was two different worlds facing each other. The gap between the two worlds was filled with Eastern influence.

‘If you look at the painting you can see that Enver looks emotionally tired. Davies, though old, looks energetic.

Robert Permeti and The Abyss

Robert Permeti poses with his painting The Abyss, after the fall of the Communist regime

‘I was taking a risk. I could have gone to prison. But the advantage I had was the painting had huge impact. The foreign diplomats [who attended the show’s opening night] wold stop and stare. The diplomats from pro-Hoxha countries would look from a distance. This painting allowed me to be more daring in my later work.’

The risk Robert took was real. Going to prison was not an uncommon punishment for artists who stepped out of line with the Communist regime. Later, when he took us around the National Gallery, he pointed out works whose creators had endured jail terms for some perceived ideological failing.

‘No artist was imprisoned for stealing or killing anyone,’ he told us. ‘These were the intellectual people. They didn’t deserve to go to jail.’

The Smyths’ meeting and gallery tour with Robert Permeti was arranged as part of their 11-day Drive Albania tour. If you’re visiting Tirana and would be interested in a tour of the National Gallery with a Socialist Realist artist, contact Elton at Albanian Trip.  

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Tour of Duty

Alex Smyth in the village of Xibër

Alex Smyth, the son of SOE officer Captain Frank Smyth, approaches the house in which his father spent three months hiding during World War II

Mission creep. When I started this blog it had a simple purpose – to publicise the trek I hope to organise in the footsteps of Brigadier E.F. ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of winter 1943/44 [there should be an announcement on this in the next few weeks]. But one thing led to another and last summer I agreed to help Alex Smyth, the son of one of the SOE officers who served in Albania during World War II, put together a tour in his father’s footsteps.

One thing that had been driven home to me during my dalliance with Albania is that the roads are terrible. The only way to get around is by serious 4×4, unless you’re happy to stick to the main city-to-city roads. So after a raki or two with my friend Elton Caushi of Tirana-based tour agency Albanian Trip, we decided to start a new brand and website focused on off-road adventure tourism in Albania. And it was under this new guise – Drive Albania – that the Smyth tour was organised.

A lot of planning went into the tour, and several recce trips were made. Some failed – the village of Xibër, where Alex’s father Captain Frank Smyth spent about three months in early 1944, proved impossible to reach due to a combination of landslides and mechanical failure. Some succeeded, like our trip to Macukull described in the last post (ironically, the heavy rain that has afflicted the Balkans this spring meant we couldn’t reach Macukull with Alex Smyth when it mattered).

Figuring out just where Captain Smyth had been in Albania 70 years on was a painstaking task. Dr Roderick Bailey – whose new book on SOE’s war against Fascist Italy, Target Italy has just been published – was an immense help, as was SOE researcher Dr Steven Kippax, who introduced Alex to us in the first place.

The artist Robert Permeti

Alex Smyth (left) talks with Robert Permeti while Elton Caushi (centre) translates

The tour took 11 days, and you can link through to photos via the Drive Albania website. One of the most interesting days (for me, anyway) was a meeting with the artist Robert Permeti, whose painting “The Abyss” sits at the top of this blog. I’ll put a post up about this fascinating day shortly. In the meantime, you can check out photos from the first five days of the tour here, here, here, here and here.

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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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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.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

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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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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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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Tragic Tragjas, Sapling 7, and an Albanian murder mystery…

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

The ruins of Tragjas, March 2013. The gully on the mountainside in the far distance is apparently where Sapling 7 crashed

I’ve just got back from a trip down to the ‘Albanian Riviera’. The main purpose was to look at property – I’m currently house-hunting in those parts with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com (more usually known as Toni). That’s a whole story in itself, and will get a separate post on another occasion. All I’ll say now is that three days later my blood is still about 30 per cent raki.

En route to the Riviera we took the time to drop in on two villages closely associated with the British Liaison Officers in the Vlorë region (known to them as Valbona). First was Tragjas, which sits in the hills looking across the Bay of Vlorë to Sazan island. A serene spot, despite the eyesore of Orikum, a deeply unlovely stretch of concrete apartments on the plain below. Tragjas is two villages now – nondescript new Tragjas, and tragic old Tragjas. What was once clearly a rich, thriving community is now a tumbling collection of ruins. On Easter Saturday 1944 (8 April) the local German garrison marched in, along with men from the nearby village of Dukati, and found British equipment including parachutes. The next day they razed the village to the ground. Tom Stefan of the American OSS reported that ‘the women were lined up and pistols had been fired over their heads. The poor kids were terror-stricken even when I arrived’ (quoted in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province).

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

Ruins of a large house, Tragjas, March 2013

It shows the delicate game Albanian villages had to play during the war – something that the British Liaison Officers often failed to appreciate when they asked local men to help them attack the Germans. Or, in the case of Tragjas, used a village as a base for air sorties. In his wonderfully barmy post-war memoir written for the Cheshire Regiment magazine, The Oak Tree, Jerry Faure-Field, one of the most active BLOs in Albania (right up till the moment he blew himself up fishing with plastic explosive, anyway), recounts the time he organised an air drop only a mile from Tragjas.

‘The sun was just rising when the last of the parachutes, which were of all colours, white, red, yellow and green, was under cover. Five minutes later I heard the drone of an aeroplane, I shouted to everyone to take cover. In the clear morning sky a [Fieseler] Stork slowly circled the mountain tops… The village of Tragjas was in pandemonium. We had kept the forthcoming sortie a secret…’

A later air drop which saw the locals better prepared ended in disaster. In the early hours of 19 October 1943 Sapling 7, a Halifax bomber from 148 Squadron in Libya flew across the Med to drop supplies and two more SOE operatives, Captain Alfred Careless and Signalman David Rockingham, to Field. A briefing note on the drop zone written by the pilot, Flight Ltn William Forester, was found in his belongings back at base – ‘Climb quickly, left handed or else.’ For whatever reason, Forester was unable to climb quickly enough, and crashed into the mountainside above Tragjas, killing all on board. Toni and I were planning to walk up to take a closer look, but a local shepherd assured us that nothing remains – he and his friends had sold everything for scrap. We’ll head back in May and investigate more closely.

The Sapling 7 crash appears to have pushed Field over the edge – or at least the callous reactions of the Albanian partisans he was with at the time did. By December he had holed up at a cave on the coast, known as Seaview, and was sending increasingly bizarre cables to Cairo of which more anon, and shooting at any Albanian who came near him. The one exception was a man from Dukati, Xhelil Çela, who also became a favourite of Field’s replacement, Anthony Quayle, and another temporary resident of Seaview, Sandy Glen. In his autobiography, Footholds Against a Whirlwind, Glen remembered the time Çela guided him to the German gun batteries south of Vlorë, which Glen had orders to photograph.

Çela had me up at four for the last lap. It took another eight hours’ hard walking until suddenly the ground ahead began to drop away and then, almost at our feet, was Saseno [Sazan] in the middle of Valona Bay. Linquetta [the Karaburun Peninsula] and its guns were 600 feet below, a quarter of a mile distant.

“Well done, Çela,” I said. “We can edge a little way forward and make our sketches, and we ought to get some good photographs.”

“No, no,” he said, nodding his head vigorously as Albanians do when they disagree, “We have picnic with the guns.” And fumbling in his rucksack he drew out an enormous cold turkey.

Before I had time to disagree, he was off downhill taking his usual enormous strides, and I had no alternative but exceedingly reluctantly to follow.

By the time I caught up with him, Çela was setting out a clean white cloth, with the turkey and a bottle of wine on it. The guns were 100 yards away with a few Germans moving between the buildings alongside them and apparently taking no notice of us. My appetite withered. Çela’s hospitality was as inexhaustible as his own appetite, however, and the picnic was the nearest to eternity which I have ever endured. As we finished, Çela smiled at me and said, “Good turkey, good wine, hope good guns too…”

Roderick Bailey had asked me to drop in on Dukati and ask after a chap called Bilbil Vangeli, who he had got drunk with on raki back in 2005. As a teenager Bilbil had been a guard and errand-runner at Seaview. Remarkably, after a quick enquiry at the village café, Bilbil was able to join us for a cup of tea. At the age of 89 he has given up on raki, coffee, cheese, fatty foods and cigarettes (high blood pressure). His nephew made sure I had plenty of raki, though. We spent a great couple of hours discussing his experiences.

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil Vangeli with Elton Caushi of Albaniantrip.com, March 2013

Bilbil’s memory, forgivably, isn’t what it was but he was still able to recall the exact date he ‘retired’ – the day in April 1944 that the Germans shot his elder brother, Selam. He also had good recall about one very intriguing incident, the murder of Ismail Carapizzi, an Albanian OSS agent who was found in February 1944 shot in the back and stripped to his underwear, on a remote coastal path. The identity of the murderer has never been in much doubt – 20-year-old Mysli Kali (who drowned in the late 1940s; his wife still proclaims his innocence). Bilbil added a rather melancholy postscript.

It seems that for whatever reason, the Carapizzi family thought that Çela was implicated in Ismail’s murder – a highly unlikely scenario from all I’ve read of Çela, and one that Bilbil certainly discounted (‘From my impression they were very close,’ he said). In late 1944 Çela’s body was found in the River Po in Rome just a few days after he had approached Anthony Quayle for help. ‘The rumour is that Carapizzi’s family thought that Çela had been part of the plan so they managed to murder him in Italy. This is what everybody says. They tied a stone around his neck and threw him into the Po. Xhelil was a big guy, so there must have been a few of them.’

Çela’s SOE personal file survives in the National Archives, but is closed till next January. I might have to put a Freedom of Information request in…

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