Tag Archives: Roderick Bailey

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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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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I Spy – the Mysterious Case of Fred Brandt

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Some strange things happened in Albania during World War Two. Strangest, perhaps, is the mysterious tale of Fred Brandt, German soldier, spy, and butterfly collector (there’s surely a thesis to be written on the connection between espionage and lepidoptery).

Brandt gets a mention in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. The story goes that a lonesome British Liaison Officer in the north, Tony Neel, was told by a local, frankly inept, wannabe guerrilla leader, Nik Sokoli, that a German soldier was keen to desert. A meeting was arranged and on 11 April 1944, in Sokoli’s home, Neel was introduced to a tall, very Teutonic lance-corporal, Fred Brandt. After a fair amount of raki, it was decided that Brandt should return to his unit of Tajik soldiers and persuade them to desert en masse. Brandt’s main interest, he assured Neel, was collecting butterflies, of which Albania had (and still has) an abundance.

An unlikely friendship developed over the following weeks between the British officer and the German NCO; Neel even had Brandt round for tea to meet Billy McLean and Julian Amery, when they dropped into the country. SOE HQ, by then based in Bari, was more suspicious than Neel and did their due diligence. Years later Neel recalled

… one day my wireless operator… Corporal Button… came in and he said ‘Got a message for you, sir.’

I said, ‘What is it?’

He said, ‘This man Brandt, who you’ve contacted. Is he about five-foot-ten? Ginger-haired?’ and so on and so on. ‘Because if he is, he’s a colonel in the Abwehr [German military intelligence]…’

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

At their next meeting, Neel confronted Brandt with the message. Brandt agreed that the description did match his, and agreed to come to Bari for questioning. He was evacuated in October by boat (Corporal Button drowned when a dinghy overturned in heavy seas), and flown off to England, along with his butterfly specimens, for interrogation by MI5. He cheerfully admitted he’d been keeping his German bosses in the loop as to his progress (they were pressing him to round up a whole bunch of BLOs in one masterful stroke) and had had difficulty preventing his Tajik soldiers capturing Neel’s party when they had the chance.

After reading Brandt’s interrogation transcripts, the Albanian section’s intelligence officer, John Eyre, wrote ‘This account makes me shiver… our ALOs [Allied Liaison Officers] like sheep among wolves…’

Brandt wrote his own account of his experiences in the Seventies, and it’s available in English at this amazing website, Albanianhistory.net, a labour of love by writer and translator Robert Elsie.

Weirdest bit? This, probably –

That evening, at dinner, I spoke to Major Neel, explaining to him what needed to be done. After the withdrawal of German forces, a national Albanian government would have to be created and supported. He reacted with enthusiasm and promised to contact Bari about the idea straight away.

The reply came two days later – complete agreement! The northern Albanians would receive everything they needed, even weapons, and we were to inform British headquarters of what they required most urgently. The next morning, I took the good news to the Albanians in the forest glade. They were jubilant!

The next step was to choose a leader for the national resistance movement. The choice fell upon me. I was acceptable for all sides, and was neutral. The Catholics regarded me as one of theirs. The Muslims regarded me as a follower of Allah, and I was even a friend of the British, their commander, and indeed a “colonel.”

Brandt’s account has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Hasn’t it?

There’s a sad postscript. It seems that after the war the extraordinary Brandt was handed over to the Soviets. He spent eight years in the gulags, only returning to Germany in 1955, sick with tuberculosis and a variety of other nasty diseases. He died in 1995.

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

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The Endurance Vile Trail – Postponed till Summer 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Local Interest

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

From left: Kadri Hoxha. The centre pic was taken in 1991, after over 45 years in various Albanian prisons

Despite unseasonal temperatures (it’s freezing!) and heavy rain in Tirana, today has been a good day. Having posted about how Albanians tend not to know too much about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, this morning I met a man who knew plenty – Professor Ferit Balla. Davies and a few other officers even hid up in his family house, in the village of Orenje, for a brief time in December 1943, as they tried to evade the Germans. That didn’t work out too well for the Ballas. The Germans dynamited the place, and a lot of other houses in the village, in January 1944.

Ferit and his son Herold are both excited at the thought of September’s Endurance Vile Trail – in fact they’ve long harboured ambitions to rebuild the (currently derelict) family home as it was 70 years ago, using only traditional methods (apart from the plumbing and power, obviously) and launch it as a guesthouse.

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha's memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Ferit Balla, with an unpublished volume of Kadri Hoxha’s memoirs. The arrows show German columns advancing on the British and partisan fugitives

Professor Balla brought along a thick book that sat on the table until I dared ask what it was. It turned out to be a volume of the unpublished memoirs of the local partisan leader, Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), who was with Davies’ party as it tried, unsuccessfully, to slip through the enemy’s lines. Kadri Hoxha was sometimes viewed as a bit of a figure of fun by the British. Davies named his horse after him, to Kadri’s annoyance. But after the mission was cornered, he did much to save Major Alan Hare, who spent several weeks as a solitary fugitive, almost unable to walk due to frostbite.

How did Professor Balla get hold of the memoirs? Hoxha’s wife gave them to him after her husband died in the late Nineties. They hadn’t spent too much of their long marriage together – shortly after the war Hoxha was accused of being a British spy, and spent most of the years 1945-1991 in various Albanian prisons. A fairly typical story. When one SOE operative, Dr Jack Dumoulin, revisited the country in 1992 he met a nurse who had once assisted him, Drita Kosturi. She had been tortured and then imprisoned in a labour camp for over four decades, as Rod Bailey recounts in his The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. Her crime? The communists found she had a card that read ‘Captain J. G. Dumoulin, RAMC’.

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Junk History

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to Albania by Enver Hoxha

One of the things I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that those Albanians who were lucky enough to be educated under communism are already dimly aware that British Liaison Officers were sent to liaise with Enver Hoxha during the War. In some parts there’s a slight obsession with the thousands of gold sovereigns we Brits supposedly left buried all over the place – I’m sure some folk suspect I’m a gold hunter.

Hoxha wrote about the various BLOs parachuted to work with him in his memoir The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, which is available as a free PDF on the interweb, along with most of his other scribblings, at this beautifully designed communist website. It’s actually very readable, though probably not as reliable a historical document as, say, The Bible. Trouble is, a lot of his anti-British slurs have stuck. Particularly one particularly nasty lie about Brigadier ‘Trotksy’ Davies, who led the SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44 that excites me so much and has inspired September’s Endurance Vile Trail with Dr Roderick Bailey.

Only a couple of nights ago, as I was slurping the excellent Albanian wine at one of my regular haunts, Juvenilja, the loquacious maître d spoke of Davies ‘surrendering’ to the Germans. I protested, pointing out that Davies had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the heel, was unable to walk and on the verge of death (he drifted in and out of consciousness for a month under surpassingly compassionate German care in Tirana). It cut no ice with the maître d, sadly. The image of Davies as an ineffectual coward was too deeply ingrained.

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Enver Hoxha, looking pretty pleased with himself in 1944 (National Archives HS 5/120)

Hoxha’s account of Davies capture in TAATTA is given below. I don’t know who holds the copyright to his works, but as they’re freely available online I’ll quote at length. I’m sure Hoxha himself would approve, property being theft and all. Love the use of <<>> for quotation marks, by the way –

During those days a British Lieutenant called Tray horn [sic] had surrendered to the Germans. It seems he had told them everything about the General, where he was staying and his plans. On the day after we left, January 8, the Ballists of Azis Biçaku and a platoon of German soldiers moved in on the sheepfolds of Kostenja, where the partisans with the British General and four other people were located. The partisans, led by Baba Faja, began to fight off the attacks from the four sides. Baba Faja led the fighting, directing the attacks on the enemy in order to break through the encirclement and enter a nearby forest and at the same time protected and opened the way for the General. Shouting, «Take care of the General!» Baba Faja continued to fight in the vanguard to cover their withdrawal. Nicholls and another British officer also fought together with the partisans to break through the encirclement. In the heat of the battle the partisans saw that the General was not moving. Some of them went back to get him, but to their astonishment saw that he was leaning against the trunk of a tree with a red silk sash draped across his chest and shouting and gesturing to them to go away. Meanwhile Frederik, while fighting alongside Nicholls, heard the General say to the Colonel:

«Go on, I am hit. You take charge!»

«Very good, sir, goodbye!» replied the Colonel.

A number of Ballists and Germans were killed and the firing stopped. The enemy withdrew. After the battle, the partisans discovered that the British General was missing. Exhausted, completely discouraged, he had thrown away his weapons and surrendered without firing a shot.

The report about the event reached me at Shmil, when we had made all the preparations for our journey and were almost ready to start for the Korça zone. The General who had advised us to surrender had long been planning to surrender himself. Thus, he found the moment and made his plan a reality.

Hoxha wrote this in the 1970s, 20 years after Davies published his own memoir, Illyrian Venture, which Hoxha surely had translated into Albanian for his own private consumption. Perhaps Davies’ interpreter (and Hoxha’s spy) Fred Nosi read it to him as a bedtime story.

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies memoir, Illyrian Venture

Rod Bailey has terrified me with tales of what happens to historical bloggers who quote too much from published sources without paying the requisite groats to the (predatory capitalist) publishers concerned, so I’ll use plenty of … as I share Davies’ version. Here he and his mission are climbing slowly up an exposed hillside under enemy fire, shortly after being assured by Baba Faja’s commissar that the area was clear of the enemy (‘It is impossible, my General, we have spies in every village, every track is watched, we are bound to get at least two hours’ warning…’) –

We were getting within reach of the forest and I was thinking we would soon be safe, when a burst of Spandau fire came from our right front. I felt as though a horse had kicked me hard in the ribs. I spun round and fell into a snowdrift in a gully on my right. Behind me, Chesshire had been hit through the thigh, the Italian, Colonel Barbacinto, through the neck, and an Albanian partisan through both thighs. They too fell into the gully…

Bullets were still cracking around continuously… I shouted to Nicholls, ‘Go on, I’m hit – you take charge.’ He looked down at us in horror; the one thing he had not wanted to happen had happened. He was ill, weak, and in no state to march, still less to take on the responsibility of the Mission at a time of disaster like this. He just said, ‘Very good, sir, goodbye,’ and went on climbing painfully.

Davies and the other wounded were dragged through the snow to a nearby sheepfold by his bodyguard, Sgt Jim Smith, who held the Ballists off till his revolver was empty, then used his fists till he was overwhelmed. I won’t go into too much detail about this as Smith is a real hero, and will get a post of his own in the next couple of weeks.

Hoxha was mistaken about a number of Germans being killed. No Germans were killed for the simple reason that no Germans were present. Davies was captured by Albanians led by the local Ballist commander Azis Biçaku, and handed over to the Germans four days later after being carried out of the mountains on a stretcher.

Brigadier 'Trotsky' Davies' SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SOE personal file (National Archives HS9/399/7)

Davies later heard a report that Hoxha had warning of the attack, and left Davies and his mission to draw it while he and the LNC Council slipped away, but adds –

Palmer [Lt Col Alan Palmer, who worked with Hoxha in 1944 and gave strong support to the LNC] was quite definite that there was no knowledge of the future disaster and that Enver was genuinely upset at the turn that events took. 

Finally, I should point out that Hoxha’s suggestion that Lt Frank Trayhorn betrayed Davies is simply not credible. Trayhorn had been separated from Davies and Nicholls from about 18/19 December, so 20 days earlier, and his last information would have been that they were heading east to break out of the German encirclement. Trayhorn probably wouldn’t have known where Davies was even had he had wished to betray him. There is no evidence that Trayhorn experienced any rough treatment at German hands after his capture, too, so for Hoxha’s accusation to hold any water Trayhorn would have had to voluntarily share information that he almost certainly didn’t have.

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Ladies to the Left

A female partisan, photographed by SOE's Bill Tilman

A female partisan, photographed by SOE’s Bill Tilman

My last post, which included the first entry of Lt Col Arthur Nicholls’ SPILLWAY diary, didn’t go so well. A few hours after I put it up Rod Bailey emailed to say the Imperial War Museum are very antsy about people quoting their materials, and advised me to remove it sharpish. Rather than face the wrath of their legal department, I’ve complied. What a shame.

A bit of an issue for me as I’m currently languishing in Tirana ahead of a meeting with the British embassy on Monday, and am yet to hit the mountains to research the route of September’s Endurance Vile Trail, so don’t have a huge amount to blog about. Tirana, to be fair, isn’t a bad place to languish. It may lack beauty, but it certainly doesn’t lack charm. Shabby charm, to be sure, but charm nonetheless.

So as a filler, I thought I’d share some great photos I found in the National Archives, which I’m pretty sure I can post without being taken to court. They’re of various partisan girls, including Liri Gega who, it’s worth mentioning, was shot on Enver Hoxha’s orders in 1956. She was pregnant at the time. In The Anglo-American Threat to Albania, Hoxha suggests she and SOE’s Victor Smith had a bit of a pash in 1944, but Hoxha’s extensive memoirs are often less than reliable (though to be fair he was right to suggest that SOE’s Albania expert Margaret Hasluck had been the lover of the elderly Albanian regent under the Germans, Lef Nosi. Whom Hoxha had tortured and shot…).

Curiously, many of the photos seem to have been taken by another British Liaison Officer, the mountaineer Bill Tilman, who I had always assumed was homosexual. Rod reckons he was asexual, but perhaps his penchant for the turn of a partisan heel suggests he was just terribly, terribly repressed. He did bathe in mountain streams each and every day through the harsh winter of 1943/44, which has to mean something.

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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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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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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.

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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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