The Wildest Province

David Smiley (left) and "Billy" McLean in Albania 1944

David Smiley (left) and “Billy” McLean in Albania 1944

The stories of the activities of those who served in SOE are still emerging thanks to the availability of hitherto classified archives, and the release of personal diaries and accounts by those involved, in many cases, after their deaths. We are able to understand so much more of the successes and failures of the country missions, the work of individuals, and the strategic political and military context. Diligent researchers and authors are accessing these materials and writing new accounts which can raise as many questions as they answer, and debunk myths such as the extent of communist infiltration of British operational Staff HQs.

I have just got around to reading Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, which charts the story of SOE operations in Albania over the period 1940 to 1945. It is an incredibly well researched book, presenting the story from ill-fated early attempts to overthrow the Italians in 1940-41 by MI6 and SOE, to the commencement of the more organised missions of “Billy” McLean and David Smiley, through to the expansion into well over a dozen different teams spread over all parts of the country.

The hardships experienced by them all, especially during the long and harsh winter of 1943-44 are unimaginable. There are many examples of personal bravery, doggedness, and also treachery by Nationalist elements within Albania. The Partisans, led by this time by Enver Hoxha and his LNC staff were almost wiped out in the north as were the SOE missions there. Further ‘drives’ against the LNC in the south in early 1944 had almost similar results. Bailey’s book argues that the significant efforts put into these eradication attempts by the Germans, and the high quality of troops they deployed, demonstrated the success of the resistance by the LNC and the overall quality of the Partisan Brigades, as well as the positive impact of the SOE mission to Albania. However, the fighting quality of Albanian Partisans was variable resulting in continued debate about whether or not back some Nationalist groups. Growing suspicion of the British by the increasingly communist LNC made SOE’s mission in Albania during 1944 and into 1945 increasingly difficult and towards the end almost impossible.

For those who have an interest in SOE operations and Albania, or who want to understand more about British and Allied operations in the Balkans this is a highly recommended book. You will want to know what happens to the individuals and the story for some did not end in 1945, but continued with the British sponsored MI6 and CIA attempt to overthrow Hoxha’s regime in 1953 which ended in disastrous failure and death for many.

Read more on the Blog about SOE operations in Albania: 

One Man’s Great Game: Lieutenant Colonel “Billy” McLean

Albanian Assignment

Buy The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle paperback here and the hardback here.

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