Balkan Bedlam: British Special Forces in World War II Albania

January 24, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIBalkansAlbaniaBritainCovert Ops

Balkan Bedlam: British Special Forces in World War II Albania

Britain’s Special Operations Executive conducted abortive covert operations in Albania during 1943-1944.

Here's What You Need to Know: Needing Albania as a major source of chromium, the Germans rushed in two divisions after Italy's surrender.

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to organize guerrilla resistance against the Nazis, he famously ordered it to set Europe on fire. But those officers heading into the wildest, most remote, part of Europe would be the ones almost burned—by their erstwhile allies instead of their common enemy.

Occupying 11,000 square miles of the Balkan peninsula facing the west cost of the Adriatic Sea with Yugoslavia to the north and northeast, Macedonia and Greece to the east and southeast, Albania was what the Old West might have resembled had Billy the Kid and the Apaches won out over the sheriff and the cavalry. Its one million people were torn by deep religious divides—Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim—and even worse, by sometimes violent tribal differences, the Ghegs in the north, Tosks in the south.

Guerilla War in Albania

After 500 years of Ottoman rule, Albania finally achieved independence in 1912, but the German prince installed by the great powers as king to stabilize the country fled in a year. In 1924, a northern tribal leader seized power and proclaimed himself King Zog I, his rule in equal parts comic opera, corrupt, and cruel. He survived 56 attempts on his life, once shooting it out with assassins in the Vienna Opera House, but made his fatal mistake in reneging on debts he owed Italy. Benito Mussolini landed five Fascists divisions in Albania on April 7, 1939.

A confused Albanian policeman asked the Italian troops for their passports. “We have none. We’ve come to occupy your country,” an Italian officer answered. In five days, for five Italians and 15 Albanians killed, the Fascists did just that. Zog exited for Greece in a caravan of limousines with as much in gold and luxury items as he could carry. But the Albanians now had someone else to despise even more than Zog, and sporadic guerrilla resistance began.

After Mussolini entered World War II on the side of Hitler, the British sent a colonel into Albania in April 1941 to help the resistance, but he was soon captured. It would not be until April 16, 1943, that two more SOE officers, Lt. Col. Neil McLean and Captain David Smiley, parachuted into northern Greece and crossed the border.

Others would follow, including a former lieutenant in the Spanish Foreign Legion, Peter Kemp; Himalayan explorer Bill Tillman; and Reginald Hibbert, whose view of events in Albania in the years to come would put him bitterly at odds with his fellow SOE officers. “Now that we were on Albanian soil, we had achieved the first part of our mission,” David Smiley wrote in a memoir, Albanian Assignment, decades later. “The next stage—getting in touch with Albanian guerrillas and encouraging them to fight the common enemy—was not to prove so easy.”

SOE operations were hampered by woeful British ignorance about Albania. London had only a lower-level diplomatic presence there before the Italian occupation, and the main source of information had been an elderly Englishwoman who had lived there for 20 years.

Worse, the language was one of Europe’s most ancient, obscure, and difficult. “We were mostly dependant on interpreters,” Peter Kemp was to write, “whom we could trust neither to render our own words faithfully nor to give us a true picture of local reactions.” While on a mission to the capital, Tirana, Kemp’s SOE companion pulled out a handkerchief to blow his nose and their Albanian guide quickly yanked it from him. “No Albanian peasant would use a handkerchief,” Kemp realized.

Clashing Political Beliefs in the Allied Camp

The mission’s conduct and ability to navigate the labyrinth of Albanian politics were not helped by the strongly conservative bent of most of its members. After the war, Neil McLean became a Tory Member of Parliament on the party’s fringe, while Peter Kemp was one of the few Englishmen to fight with Franco’s side during the civil war in Spain. In September 1942, the Albanian Resistance had merged into a shaky Levizje Nacional Clirimtare (LNC, Council of National Liberation), but the dominant group in it had more in mind than just driving out the Italians.

The country’s Communist Party had been founded in Tirana in secret, in November 1941. Its general secretary, Enver Hoxha, had been educated in Paris and, ironically for a Marxist, owned a tobacco shop. The military commander, Mehmet Shehu, had also fought in Spain—with the Loyalists, against Kemp’s side.

Of these characters, Smiley wrote, “Hoxha had quite a sense of humor, and over a glass of raki could be cheerful and amusing, in contrast to his dour and morose companion, Mehmet Shehu…. He may have disliked us, but at least he concealed his feelings, whereas with Shehu, you could feel the hostility.”

“This dilemma was our constant companion in our efforts to promote resistance: if we were to do our job properly, we were bound to put innocent people in jeopardy; they had to stay and face reprisals while we found safety in flight,” wrote Kemp. “In the service of our country, we simply had to harden our hearts.” So the British radioed for arms drops, joined in attacks on the Italians, and helped the communists organize a partisan brigade.

“The Best of a Very Bad Lot”

Italy’s sudden capitulation in July 1943, though, made the situation for Albania only worse. Needing Albania as a major source of chromium, the Germans rushed in two divisions. Then, the LNC’s fragile cohesion finally came apart, Republicans forming the Balli Kombetar (BK, National Front), while Major Abas Kupi, the leader McLean and Smiley most favored, led Legalite, incredibly seeking the restoration of the despised King Zog.

The SOE leadership ended up seeing Hoxha as “the best of a very bad lot” and dropped most of its arms to him. Never mentioning Reginald Hibbert’s name in his account, Smiley bitterly complained that the “BLOs [British Liaison Officers] attached to the partisans repeatedly told by them that Kupi was collaborating with the Germans, had absorbed these lies and signaled them.”

The political infighting soon affected the fighting with the Germans. Smiley and BK personnel were preparing an ambush when communist partisans turned up and tried to muscle their way in charge.

“The object, without doubt, was to prevent the Balli Kombetar from carrying out an ambush that would give them credit in the eyes of the British,” Smiley seethed. He angrily ordered them off “and a short while later my temper was cooled by the fine sight of a big German half-tracked troop carrier…. As the carrier drew closer, every one of us held his breath; then it went up on the mines with a flash of orange flame followed by a cloud of smoke, and the sound of the explosion echoed through the hills. I had taken a photograph as the mines exploded; by the force of the explosion, I estimated that all eight mines must have detonated at once. Once the smoke had cleared, everyone opened fire on the troop carrier; I exchanged my camera for the 20mm Breda, and was delighted to see several of my shots score direct hits. A few Germans jumped out of the carrier and tried to run back down the road but all were shot, and the others tried to take cover behind the carrier. In time, the shooting stopped and a silence followed only broken by the groans of some of the wounded.”

Eighteen German soldiers died.

But when McLean, Smiley, and Kemp were preparing with the communists to ambush a large oncoming German column, Mehmet Shehu suddenly called it off. “Our battalion has been surprised by a German post on that hill,” Kemp recalled Shehu’s claim. “We must withdraw.”

“Do you mean to tell me that 800 partisans cannot attack and wipe out a post of 20 Germans?” McLean raged. Shehu could not be budged, and the British had to settle for shooting up a solitary passing staff car.

“At that time, we attributed this fiasco to rank cowardice,” Smiley wrote. “In fairness to Shehu, however, he was a brave man, and to the partisans themselves, we did not then know that Shehu had received a directive ordering him not to fight the Germans and Italians, but to preserve his brigade in readiness for fights with their political opponents that lay ahead.”

“I am a Soldier and Not a Politician”

In November 1943, McLean and Smiley were brought out of Albania by patrol boat for debriefing in Cairo while a new mission led by Brig. Gen. Edmund Davies parachuted in to take over. Davies got a rude introduction to guerrilla resistance, Albanian communist style, in his first encounter with Hoxha. “The military situation depends entirely on the political situation, so why will you not first give us your impression of world politics?” These were Hoxha’s first words to Davies.

“Because I am a soldier and not a politician,” was Davies’s frustrated response. His aggravations continued to mount as his constant wrangling with the resistance groups to reunify and discipline them left him little opportunity to attack the Germans.