In his Introduction to David Smiley’s Albanian Assignment, Paddy describes Smiley as ‘Lieutenant Jekyll’ and ‘Captain Hyde’, variously at home with his Regiment, the Royal Horse Guards, amongst a “squadron of sabres and scarlet plumes” but also in the “caves, chasms, scorpions and fleas, random rifle-fire and ricochets, explosions, (and) the oaths of muleteers” in Albania or the Arabian peninsula. His life was truly one of excitement and adventure, but one which he was happy to end growing almonds and olives in Southern Spain.
We know little about Albania – it remains Europe’s poorest country and is still almost totally ignored by the media – and perhaps even less about the events there during World War Two. In two important books, Smiley’s Albanian Assignment and Xan Fielding’s biography of Smiley’s colleague “Billy” McLean’ we learn much about what was not so much a war against the invading Italian’s and Germans, but a political war focused on preparations for a civil war between the Nationalist and Royalist factions on the one hand, and Enver Hoxha’s Communists on the other. I enjoyed following Smiley’s route, on the map in the book, through the mountains, including time spent on the beautiful Lake Ohrid. He spent some of his time criss-crossing my own route through Albania along the Via Egnatia which I walked in 2009.
Smiley’s style is very much like I imagine his soldiering would have been; clear and to the point. We don’t have lingering descriptions of the beautiful Albanian landscape but straight to the point analysis of the motives of the participants, and the events that took place during his two SOE missions to Albania between April 1943 and October 1944. He was a man of action, never happier than when ‘blowing something up’.
The situation between the partisan (Communist) resistance and the Royalists was so complex that the mission became intensely political, with McLean and the future British government minister Julian Amery trying to keep the Albanians from fighting each other and instead killing Germans. Smiley was sent off with small cetas of Royalist Albanians and some very brave British NCOs to kill as many Germans as he could and to blow up as many bridges as he could to delay the German withdrawal, with a fair degree of success. But the politics were never far away and once whilst Smiley was setting an ambush against the Germans, they were counter ambushed by Communist partisans.
Albanian Assignment is not a long book. It is easy to read and full of interesting and exciting episodes. It is one of the many amazing stories about the bravery of SOE officers and soldiers punctuated by explosions, forced marches, long and boring tribal meetings, and brave acts, but ultimately the book is dominated by betrayal: of the SOE men on the ground and the people of Albania by Hoxha’s partisans, and those communist officers in the SOE HQ in Bari who would have seen Smiley and McLean handed over to Hoxha for humiliating treatment at best, or being shot at worst. The figure of Kim Philby also appears. After the war, Smiley worked with MI6 to train and insert Albanian nationalists into Albania in order to provoke an insurrection against the fragile Communist regime. Many of the Albanian patriots were shot as they landed on the beaches, just a few managing to escape into Greece. It was Philby who passed on the details of the operation to the Russians who in turn informed Hoxha.
Our by now familiar cast from Tara in Cairo also make an appearance as Smiley joined McLean by living there when not on operations. Paddy not only writes the introduction but Smiley also mentions Paddy’s wartime activities on a couple of occasions. Smiley continued with a regular military career after the war, ultimately commanding his Regiment, but also carrying on his irregular activities with MI6 and fighting insurgents on the Arabian Peninsula which he describes in the book Arabian Assignment.
David Smiley died in 2009 after a long and eventful life. You can read his Telegraph obituary here. Many of his colleagues had successful post-war careers. “Billy” McLean entered politics and was also engaged in irregular warfare in Arabia. Julian Amery was a leading Conservative politician, and Alan Hare (who was forced to eat his trusty mule during the deprivations of the harsh winter of 1943/44) became chairman of the Financial Times. Many of the communist leadership ended up being purged over the years, with a large number ending up either being shot or committing suicide. Enver Hoxha himself died in 1985 after leading Albania into total isolation and poverty.