Tag Archives: SPILLWAY

First Blood

Mule path from Labinot to Xibrake

Walking the ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ from Labinot to Xibrake

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

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 Thanks to my friend Ferit Balla, who holds the unpublished memoirs of the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, I knew just where Davies et al emerged from the hills – the village of Xibrake.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

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

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

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

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

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

A bite from an Albanian hell hound

Ouch. Six months on and still no sign of rabies

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

Village hospitality in Albania

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

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

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

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

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Sanctuary

Partisan memorial in Qarrishtë

The decaying partisan memorial in Qarrishtë. Davies and his SPILLWAY mission got as far as the dip in the mountain ridge in the far distance, then had to turn back

I raise my hat to bloggers who are able to post once a week (or more). Despite my good intentions, I’ve fallen massively behind on even posting on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago. And I’m about to fall even further behind, as this post will barely mention the Special Operations Executive.

Last week Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip and myself drove into the Shebenik-Jabllanicë national park, to the northeast of Librazhd, in the company of Aleksandër Trajçe of the Association for the Protection & Preservation of the Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA). Our target was the village of Qarrishtë, which I unsuccessfully tried to reach last summer on foot from Fushe-Studën, on the other side of a small mountain ridge.

Qarrishtë Albania on a map

Map of the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, Albania, with Qarrishtë marked. Fush-Studën is about three to four hours walk north, via the pass to the right

Aleksandër was keen to speak to the farmers in Qarrishtë about the forthcoming two-year hunting moratorium recently announced by the new government here, and also to get a grip on how they were dealing with the bears and wolves that inhabit the forests around the village.

I was keen to see Qarrishtë as Brigadier Trotsky Davies’ SPILLWAY mission almost reached it (they spent a night in freezing conditions on a ridge high above the neighbouring village of Kosharisht, and then had to turn back due to the number of nationalist gangs out looking for them. The most dangerous of these gangs being that led by the local bandit Aziz Biçaku, who was eventually to capture Davies and hand him over to the Germans (he was awarded the Iron Cross, which I think was pinned on him by Himmler).

Elton was keen to visit Qarrishtë as during the war the villagers hid nearly 30 Jewish fugitives from the Germans, and he was curious to see if there was any memory of this.

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip

Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip with the team from PPNEA, on the road from Librazhd to Qarrishtë

We left Librazhd at about 10am, after a hearty breakfast of tasqebab and pilaf at the excellent Restaurant Biçaku, which I’d insisted we eat at purely because of the name. The drive to Qarrishtë from Librazhd takes around two hours, with an awful lot of up and then even more down. Strictly 4×4 only.

At this time of year (February) Shebenik-Jabllanicë national park should be under a good few feet of snow, but 2014 is super-naturally mild. Shame, as I’d hoped to see it as the SPILLWAY mission had (though with the protection of 21st-century cold-weather kit).

First thing we saw when we arrived a the village were two memorials, one a typically neglected and half-falling-down communist shrine, the second a small concrete job dedicated to Mefail and Njazi Biçaku, for saving 26 ‘Izraelitëve’.

A memorial commemorating the role of the Biçaku family from Qarrishtë in saving 26 Jews from the Germans during World War Two

A memorial commemorating the role of the Biçaku family from Qarrishtë in saving 26 Jews from the Germans during World War Two

We wandered deeper into Qarrishtë, and as is the way when you rock up unannounced in an Albanian village, were almost immediately invited to take coffee with the first family to spot us. This family happened to be a branch of the Biçakus, and were justifiably proud of their relatives’ brave actions during the war. Aziz Biçaku, though, was another matter.

The eldest, Zegir, who must have been 85 if he was a day, remembered Aziz Biçaku well. He had a very distinguished grey moustache, apparently, but was nothing more than a bully and a bandit; the archetype of the Albanian gangster so beloved of Hollywood today. Not a nice man by any account. When the communists came to power he managed to escape to Istanbul, said Zegir, which backs up what I’d been told by the local historian Ferit Balla, who also tells me Davies tried to track Biçaku down himself after the war.

Zegir Biçaku

Zegir Biçaku remembers Aziz Biçaku well. Not a nice guy, was his view

As for the 26 Jews, they were hidden in the forest and fed by Mefail and 17-year-old Njazi throughout the winter of 1943/44. This seems to have been standard practise in Albania under German occupation. Not one single Jew was handed over to the Germans – Albania was the only country occupied by the Germans to end the war with more Jews than it had at the start.

View to Macedonia

Looking towards Macedonia from Qarrishtë

Curiously, the villainous Aziz Biçaku must have known that his relatives were hiding Jews, yet he never betrayed them to the Germans due to the strong local code of honour. Shooting British officers is one thing, but betraying your neighbours and family is quite beyond the pale.

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, in 1961 the communists imprisoned Mefail for ‘collaborating’ with Jews. He died in prison eight years later.

It turns out that a Jewish-American photographer, Norman Gershman, has made a documentary about the experience of Jews in Albania during the war. It’s called BESA: The Promise, and has already picked up several awards at film festivals. You can find out more about it here.

Qarrishtë in winter

Few villagers choose to stay in Qarrishtë over winter, and many have left the village permanently for the urban delights of Librazhd or Elbasan

Oh, and as for bears and wolves, there are apparently lots of them about. In summertime the bears will come right into the village to raid the beehives and steal fruit. But wolves are the big problem, as they kill more than they need to, and can destroy a flock of sheep if they’re feeling frisky. The bear is a ‘gentleman’, the Biçakus told us, as he’ll only kill one lamb, whereas wolves kill everything they can.

Qarrishtë road

Driving back to Librazhd from Qarrishtë

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 7-8 January 1944

Brig 'Trotsky' Davies (centre) with Fred Nosi (left) and Major Neil 'Billy' McLean, at Bizë October 1944

Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies (centre) with Fred Nosi (left) and Major Neil ‘Billy’ McLean, at Bizë October 1944

We left Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and the remnants of his SPILLWAY mission in the village of Kostenje, where he hoped to lie low and give his men time to recover from their forced march over the mountains of the Çermenika massif.

My main source both for this blog and for tracing the mission’s route on the ground has been the diary kept, against orders, by Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, which was unearthed by Dr Roderick Bailey when researching his book The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, and is now held by the Imperial War Museum in London. I thought it would be interesting to throw into the mix a few pages from Enver Hoxha’s somewhat scurrilous memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania (which you can find as a free PDF here; it’s actually quite a good read if you can cope with Hoxha’s verbosity and the repetition of “so-called” every other page).

It’s fair to say that Hoxha’s memoir, published in the early 1980s,  is unreliable on all sorts of levels.

After we had completed all our preparations for the march, through the snow and winter blizzard, I went to the house where the General [Brig Davies] was staying. I sat down. He offered me a cigarette and I talked to him about the plan. He was worried, kept looking at the Colonel [Nicholls] and seemed as if he wanted his permission.

«Let the Colonel decide,» he said. The Colonel was sitting on a stool.

I said with a laugh, «Whether or not the Colonel likes the idea…» And I reached over to where he was sitting and slapped him on the knee. I could not finish my sentence, because he gave a loud cry followed by a deep groan.

«Excuse me,» I said. «Did I hurt you? What’s the matter?»

«I am very ill, Mr. Hoxha,» he said. «I can’t move. I am afraid my leg is becoming gangrenous.»

«What? How is it possible, Colonel?» I said in surprise. «Why didn’t you inform me earlier, so that we could take urgent measures? General, we must save the Colonel’s life. Have we your permission to act?»

«Do you have any possibilities?» he asked me.

«Dr. Dishnica must see him in the first place, and then I think we must transfer him as quickly as possible to Tirana. We have our doctors there,» I replied.

«But is this possible?» asked the General in astonishment.

«We can get him to Tirana within a few days and the operation can be done immediately,» I said.

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

The Anglo-American Threat to America by Enver Hoxha

After consulting with Nicholls, the General told me they would be grateful if we could get this underway quickly and expressed the desire that Nicholls should be sheltered in the home of one of their men, a bey of Jella, if I am not mistaken.

«Wherever you like,» I replied, and without delay sent couriers urgently to instruct the comrades of Mat and Tirana to organize a refuge for the Colonel and the operation on him as quickly as possible. The General thanked me for our concern and the speed with which we were acting to save the Colonel and said that in these conditions he could not leave the vicinity of Tirana until the Colonel was better.

«That is understandable,» I said. «Then you shall stay with Baba Faja. He is on the way here if he hasn’t come already, and you will stay with him and his forces here, or perhaps in some other nearby zone.»

Baba Faja came and met the General. We said goodbye. I shook the General by the hand saying: «I’ll see you again in the zone of Korça,» but we never met again.

During those days a British Lieutenant called Trayhorn 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 [future Financial Times chairman Captain Alan Hare] 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 with- drew. 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.

Next time I’ll give the British version of events…

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 13-19 December 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 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: 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 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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Confusion in Fushe-Studën Part 1

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls' diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

Fushe-Studën, photographed (probably) from the ridge mentioned in Lt Col Arthur Nicholls’ diary. The village to the right is new(ish); the old village is by the Hasa Hotel in the far distance

I’m told that regular posting is the essence of good blogging, so apologies for the protracted gap. My excuse is that since the last instalment I’ve visited most of the key spots on the route of next year’s proposed trek in the footsteps of Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies’ SPILLWAY mission of 1943/44, along the way being savaged by a pack of terrifying Albanian killer hounds. So I have a lot of catching up to do…

Let’s start with my first trip to a village called Fushe-Studën, to the north of Librazhd (remarkably it has a Facebook page).

Davies and his team, along with Enver Hoxha, arrived here on Christmas Day 1943, as they attempted to break out of German encirclement. The main Librazhd-Dibër road (currently gravel but due for asphalt within a year or three; current traffic about a dozen vehicles an hour) runs through the village and, frankly, there’s not a more exposed spot to cross for 20km in either direction. The Brits were not happy, according to the diary kept by Davies’ second-in-command, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, now held at the Imperial War Museum London. With good reason – the party was seen, and came under fire as they walked the trail up the mountains on the other side of the road. They went off-piste, and ended up spending a freezing night at an altitude of about 1,800 metres, before being forced to turn back the way they came. Two weeks later Davies was in the bag.

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

Hotel Hasa, Fushe-Studën. Enjoys somewhat of a monopoly in the area

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a bit of an accommodation issue in the Çermenika region. Fushe-Studën, remarkably, has a hotel – Hotel Hasa (thanks to UNICEF honcho Detlef who blogs at Palm Tree Productions for tipping me off). So I decided to stay two nights. If the hotel was any good, I figured, it’d be an interesting option when the trek happens for real.

Well, the location isn’t bad – Fushe-Studën is right on the edge of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, which stretches to the border with Macedonia to the east. The park is beautiful (pictures to follow in a few posts) and has forests in which lurk brown bears, grey wolves and the famously elusive European lynx. As for the hotel… Well, it was a mixed experience. The owner, the eponymous Hasa, is living the Albanian dream – he owns a gas station, a coffee shop, a restaurant and a hotel. It doesn’t get better than that. But he’s not going to be profiled in Condé Nast Traveller any time soon. The room itself was clean (though a trifle bizarre in layout and more than a trifle brown), the bathroom less so. In fact whatever had last been deposited in the loo had clearly tried to climb up the side of the pan in a forlorn effort to escape before finally losing its battle with the flush. A few spots of congealed dark yellow urine had been left on the seat as an artful flourish. Of hot water there was none.

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn't

The room at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën. A curious lay-out, but clean. The bathroom wasn’t

What there was, was a lot of puzzlement from the usual collection of espresso-and-raki drinking men in Hasa’s coffee bar as to what I, a tourist, was doing in Fushe-Studën. Luckily I had a rare Albanian copy of Davies’ memoir, Illyrian Venture, which brought some clarity to the situation. Raki was poured and the jokes began as to who was a communist and who a Ballist (Albanian nationalists, mostly liquidated after the war by Enver Hoxha). The idea of walking for pleasure, though, remains alien to 99.9% of Albanians.

But walk I did. It was afternoon by now, so rather than strike out into the hills I circled the village and tried to get a sense of the landscape and figure out where Davies et al would have arrived from, and where they would have headed. Now, this is where I got a little bit confused. My main source for pinning down the route, as well as the diary kept by Nicholls, is Enver Hoxha’s memoir, The Anglo-American Threat to Albania. Hoxha, a city boy, did not know the Çermenika – in fact he apparently developed such an aversion to the area that he never visited again after he came to power. Some editions of Hoxha’s works include a map of the route. At the time of my visit I assumed the map was right, more or less. But when you walk around Fushe-Studën, it doesn’t make much sense.

This, I think, is the 'saddle' mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

This, I think, is the ‘saddle’ mentioned in the SPILLWAY diary. You can just see the line of the trail

The communist-era map has the group reaching the village from Okshtun (which I visited a couple of posts ago), then making an anti-clockwise circuit as far as the village of Qarrishtë, on the other side of a tributary of the Shkumbini river. The Brits have the group arriving at a ridge above Fushe-Studën and making for a ‘saddle’ in the hills opposite before heading over the highest part of the mountain. No river is mentioned, not that this means they didn’t cross one.

I’m 99% certain I stood on the same ridge as Davies. As far as I can see, there’s a shortlist of one, assuming you’ve arrived on the mule track from Okshtun. You can see the ‘saddle’ opposite. There’s even an old trail that leads up it (which I walked the following day). But the communist maps had the party striking off to the right (west, really), which would have them climbing the track over the hills behind the Hasa Hotel. The circuit would then have them re-crossing the road to the east.

Trouble with this is Nicholls’ diary says when they re-cross the road they were forced to climb an almost impossibly steep mountain. And the steep stuff is to the west of Fushe-Studën, not the east.

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You'll notice there's not a lot going on there

The area south of Fushe-Studën courtesy of Google Earth. You’ll notice there’s not a lot going on there

Does this really matter? Well, it does to me. Thankfully, I’ve since been lucky enough to spend some quality time with the unpublished memoirs of Kadri Hoxha (no relation to Enver), a local partisan leader who was guiding the group. His beautifully rendered map has the group arriving at Fushe-Studën, and making a clockwise circuit. They never crossed the river; instead spending several freezing hours lost in the woods on the mountain that separates Fushe-Studën from the river. This ties in with the topography and the Nicholls diary. The simple explanation for the confusion is that Enver Hoxha’s memory was slightly dodgy after three decades of absolute power (he wrote The Anglo-American Threat in the Seventies).

Why didn’t Enver’s minions ask Kadri’s advice? Probably because he spent 40 or so years after the war in the slammer as a suspected British spy.

Anyway, with light fading and confusion reigning I headed back to the Hasa Hotel, looking forward to a big plate of mish (lamb), pilaf (rice) and një gotë verë të kuqe (a glass of red wine). “No mish,” Hasa told me quite definitely, after a bottle of red had been opened. “Peshk“. So peshk it was – turns out the Hasa Hotel’s redeeming feature are several large fish tanks fed by a fresh-water spring. Hasa’s wife produced a truly delicious fish supper that would make put a smile on any tired trekker’s face. With strict instructions on the importance of bathroom hygiene, and an enquiry into the hot water situation, the Hasa Hotel might just find its way onto the Endurance Vile Trail itinerary after all.

Delicious fresh fish - the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

Delicious fresh fish – the speciality at Hasa Hotel, Fushe-Studën

More on Fushe-Studën to follow…

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