Tag Archives: Fred Nosi

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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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 27 December 1943 – 7 January 1944

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

Okshtun, summer 2013. In winter the snow can be three metres deep

After another night without shelter in sub-zero temperatures, Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men are in very bad shape. Dawn breaks and the mission’s Albanian guides recognise their mountainside location – the village of Okshtun is visible in the distance. At 07.00 they begin the slow march, arriving at Okshtun around midday. By this time Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, is clearly in need of rest and ideally medical attention – his toes are badly frostbitten. It is decided that the British will remain at Okshtun for a few days, while the Albanian contingent, including Enver Hoxha, head to the remote village of Kostenje.

The mission is to spend an entire week hidden in one room, subsisting on a diet of beans and cornbread. All members of the party have colds, and there is no reading matter. There is just one window, with no glass, through which the wind howls. News arrives that the villages of Martanesh and Orenje, where the mission sheltered previously, have been burned by the Germans. Despite this, the owners of the house show as much hospitality as their poverty allows. Corporal Smith, Davies’ bodyguard, spends three days complaining about what he thinks is a fractured vertebrae. When he finally allows Davies to inspect it, it turns out to be an infected boil. Davies cuts it out, with Nicholls acting as nurse.

On Monday 3 January three armed men enter the house, and leave quickly after finding Davies and the mission. Within 10 minutes, Davies and his mission are back in the hills. They arrive at the pre-agreed rendezvous of Kostenje at nightfall, and to their joy are reunited with Captains Alan Hare and Jim Chesshire, and Sergeant Chisolm. Home is a draughty sheepfold. The weather is getting much worse, and a blizzard sets in. After a few days Davies has a row with the partisan leader Baba Faja, and insists on better quarters. Baba Faja’s own house is filled with food – the British have to beg, borrow and steal what they can.

On Friday 7 Jan the mission’s translator (and spy for Enver Hoxha) tells Davies that the current situation is all his fault, apparently as he had failed to have the nationalist Balli Kombetar group denounced by the BBC. A few hours after this baffling statement, Enver Hoxha arrives to say that he is moving on with the partisan leadership, and will send for the British in a few days. He is all charm. Nicholls’ feet have turned septic. Davies asks Hoxha to send medical aid as soon as he can.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 6-12 December 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 29 November – 5 December 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 22-28 November 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 15-21 November 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 8-14 November 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 years on: October 24-30 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: October 16-23 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baba Faja, pictured here with Myslim Peza

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

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

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

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The Endurance Vile Trail, with Dr Roderick Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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