Tag Archives: Billy McLean

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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A review of Artemis Cooper’s Cairo in the War 1939–1945 by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy on the roof of Tara in Cairo

Paddy on the roof of Tara in Cairo

So it seems we can still find the occasional piece of Paddy’s original writing to get us excited. He reviews his good friend Artemis’ book, remaining very formal and making no mention of his friendship! Who else though was better placed to review this book than one of the residents of the infamous Tara?

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

This article first appeared in the TLS of September 1, 1989.

 

Artemis Cooper’s introductions and accompanying text to Duff and Diana Cooper’s published letters, A Durable Fire (1983), and to Lady Diana’s Scrapbook (1987), had a strong dash of her grandmother’s humour and lightness of touch; but only a most clairvoyant critic could have predicted Cairo in the War, 1939–1945. Her account, though it sticks punctiliously to fact, is as hard to put down as good fiction . The research is wide, detailed and scrupulous. She lays hold of the military background – the dramas unfolding just off-stage, but threatening to break out of the wings at any moment – with a soldierly grasp; and she seems to have talked at length with all the surviving dramatis personae.

Unleavened by personalities, military history can be heavy on the hand, and politics too, once the urgency has gone. The author’s skill redeems them both. As for the complex country and people on whom the war had impinged, she has segregated the strands with great discernment – the Copts, the Arabs, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, all the sects and enclaves of the Mediterranean and the Levant, the Helleno-Judaeo-Ptolemaic nexus of Alexandria, the fellahin and the effendis and the nationalists, the rivalries of the Western European powers, with their local allegiances and clients and phobias, and, above all, the reigning Albanian dynasty and the predominating British presence and tutelage.

The author is particularly helpful and fair about the tensions between the last (in the persons of the young King Farouk and the proconsular Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson), which culminated with British tanks all round the Palace, near-abdication and an enforced change of government: the German advance in the desert was the raison d’état. The enemy was held and driven back; certain froideurs remained at the top; but, astonishingly, the surface of the luxurious, dazzling and hospitable social life was hardly ruffled. At times this resembled the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo, at others the Congress of Vienna: “The Kings sit down to dinner and the Queens stand up to dance . . .”. The pool at the Gezira Sporting Club sluiced hangovers away, the willow smacked the leather, polo-balls whizzed there all afternoon, and roulette-balls plopped at the Mohammed Ali after dark. There were enticing restaurants and enterprising night-clubs, party followed party and bedtime often coincided with the first muezzin’s call from the minaret of Ibn Tulun. Guilt about rationed London bit sharp now and then, but for those on short leave from the Desert, not deep.

Among the missions and staffs and the permanent officials, intrigue and gossip were as intense as in Mrs Hauksbee’s Simla. The author is eerily well informed about Groppi’s Horse and the Short-Range Shepherd’s Group and, a fortiori, about GHQ at Grey Pillars and SOE at Rustam Buildings (particularly the latter) and all the cross-currents, promotion-mania and the clashes – eg, “Bolo” Keble and Fitzroy Maclean – the political schisms of Southern Europe and their repercussions in Egypt. The pages on spies and counterespionage and raiding forces are one of the most impressive parts of the book.

The author is perceptive about the frustrations and amusements of all ranks of the assorted armies. There were shaming moments, but on balance it seems that arrogant behaviour towards the Egyptians may have been more frequent among the commissioned than the other ranks. In the case of a pasha who was insulted beyond endurance by a very drunk officer, nemesis was brisk and condign. The oblivious offender was inveigled to the pasha’s house. Most would have kept quiet, Artemis Cooper observes, but he was soon telling everyone, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night — dashed unpleasant. I got buggered by six Nubians.”

In spite of the strains on high, the diplomatic world, the military, the cosmopolitan, the purely decorative and the intellectual interwove to a surprising degree, and lasting friendships were formed. The contribution of Greeks such as Seferis, and transplanted Greece-addicts like Lawrence Durrell and Robin Fedden, were important here. Poets and writers teemed, and Personal Landscape, the Nilotic equivalent of Horizon, was impressive. The author unfolds the catalogue of personalities with humour and understanding, though she is unduly dismissive of Sir Charles Johnston: cf his sonnet “The Lock”, and his Pushkin translations. The only omissions I can spot are Elizabeth David, the painter Adrian Daintrey and the writer-painter Richard Wyndham. Perhaps she should have included an eccentric cavalryman called Colonel Wintle, who got into hot water for taking a surrendered Italian general to luncheon, in full uniform, at the Turf Club.

The book ends with the calamitous post-war aftermath. Like the abstruse anecdotes, the range and choice of the photographs will promote sighs of delighted recognition and occasional ground teeth, and it is hard to think, on finishing, how this demanding book could have been handled better, more lucidly or more entertainingly.

You can buy Artemis Cooper’s Cairo in the War: 1939-45 on Amazon.

Albanian Assignment

David Smiley (left) in Albania with "Billy" McLean

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.

Colonel David Smiley, front 3rd right and band of Albanian fighters

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.

Albanian Assignment is available on Amazon and occasional copies may pop-up on eBay.

Related articles:

 Colonel David Smiley: Blues officer and MC recipient – Times obituary

 Colonel David Smiley – Telegraph obituary

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

 Alan Hare MC – Obituary from The Independent

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

When you get involved with the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor, you find all sorts of possible avenues to explore. One group I am trying to bring together on the blog are the occupants of Tara in Cairo during the war. Given my interest in the Balkans, Albania in particular, I followed the route of “Billy” McLean and the British Military Missions to Yugoslavia and Albania which were manned by SOE men. Billy was an occupant of Tara and Xan Fielding wrote his biography. Of course Paddy was there as well.

In the course of my investigations I have read, in the last few weeks, the book Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean who as a very young Brigadier was personally chosen by Churchill to lead the mission to Tito’s partisans, and Billy McLean’s biography – One Man in His Time. Both books are interesting and I will review them if I have time. I have to say I was a little disappointed in Xan’s writing style, but it is workmanlike and is probably an accurate portrayal.

Billy McLean’s life is absolutely fascinating. He was a real adventurer and never stopped his adventures or travel until he died in 1986. I have dug out his obituary from the Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries – Heroes and Adventurers, and as I did before with Xan Fielding’s obit, I have retyped it word for word as I cannot find an online version.

Go on, explore your own Paddy related avenue, and maybe write to me and we can publish for others to hear about!

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 20 November 1986.

Lieutenant Colonel “Billy” McLean, who has died aged 67, spent 40 years playing his own version of the Great Game. Like some latter-day knight errant, he travelled tirelessly in the Muslim world, working always against the encroaching influence of the Soviet Union, while at the same time seeking adventure among tribal peoples.

McLean’s unusual life often had elements of intrigue that no one else could unravel. “What is Billy really up to?” was a question that would be asked at the bar of White’s Club as he set off on another trip to Jordan or Iran, Morocco or the Yemen.

In McLean’s character there were shades of Buchan and Lawrence and Thesiger. All seemed to coalesce in the Yemen, where from five years, from 1962, McLean helped the royalists under Iman al-Badr to resist President Nassar’s attempts to take over the country. He made numerous reconnaissances in the Yemen desert and many arduous journeys, by camel and on foot, to the royalist forces in their remote mountain strongholds.

It was entirely due to McLean that Britain never followed America in recognising Nassar’s, and the Soviet Union’s, puppet republican government in the Yemen; and it was he who persuaded the Saudis to increase their aid to the Iman’s forces. Thanks also to McLean, the royalists received Western mercenary support and arms from the RAF. Largely as a result of McLean’s efforts, North Yemen did not become one of Nassar’s fiefdoms and did not join its neighbour South Yemen (Aden) in the Communist camp.

Neil Loudon Desmond McLean was born on November 28 1918, a direct descendent of “Gillean of the Battle-Axe”, known in Argyll in the 13th century.

After Eton and Sandhurst (where he rode several winners in point-to-points), McLean was commissioned into the Royal Scots Greys and sent to Palestine [prior to the war] in 1939.

At the end of the following year he went to occupied Abyssinia [Ed: Ethiopia] where he proved himself an outstanding guerrilla leader, as part of Orde Wingate’s Gideon Force. He led a force of Eritrean and Abyssinian irregulars – known as “McLean’s Foot” – against the Italians near Gondar.

His burgeoning career as an irregular soldier continued in Special Operations Executive; in 1943 he led a five man military mission to Albania, to co-ordinate resistance to the Axis powers. Peter Kemp (qv) described his first meeting with McLean when he parachuted into Albania to join the mission: “Approaching up the hill with long, easy strides came a tall figure in jodhpurs and a wide crimson cummerbund, a young man with long fair hair brushed back from a broad forehead and wearing a major’s crown on the shoulder straps of his open-necked army shirt.”

With one break, McLean remained in Albania until the German retreat from that country and inspired those under him with his military skill and courage. He was promoted to lieutenant-colonel at the age of 24.

His contacts with the Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha turned sour when the left-wing elements of SOE favoured the partisans at the expense of the Zogist faction led by Abas Kupi, which McLean supported against charges of collaboration with the Germans.

In 1945 he volunteered for SOE duties in the Far East, where he became military adviser in Kashgar, Chinese Turkistan. Here he learnt the ways of the Turkis, Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tajiks and Tartars, who were under threat of domination by the Soviet Union, and travelled extensively in Asia. McLean’s fascination and sympathy with Muslim minorities and tribal peoples would continue for the rest of his life. He devoted much of his time to the cause of the Pathans and the Kurds, as well as the royalist Yemenis.

After the war he sought election to Parliament, twice unsuccessfully for the Preston South constituency, in 1950 and 1951. He became Conservative MP for Inverness in 1954, and held the seat until the 1964 general election.

As a Highlander himself, McLean was able to identify with the Celtic character of his constituents. But they could not be expected to appreciate the reasons for his long absences on the Middle East.

While he was an MP, and afterwards, McLean was, as described by a colleague, “a sort of unpaid under-secretary for the Foreign Office”. His political contacts in the Muslim world were probably unique among Westerners, in particular his relationship with King Saud during the Yemen war and his personal friendship with King Hussein over many years. In the mid-1960’s he was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to “spring” a revolutionary leader from jail in Algeria [Ed: using a yacht and accompanied by King Leka of the Albanians who fancied coming along for the ride. The attempt was foiled by the CIA who wanted the ‘kudos’ of freeing the man, which they did some months later].

McLean was always passionate in defence of British interests, as he saw them, which did not always accord with the Government’s view. In his later years, still pursuing those interests he visited Somalia, Iran, Western Sahara, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, China, Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

In 1979 Harold Macmillan wrote to McLean: “You are one of those people whose services to our dear country are known only to a few.”

By his many friends and admirers he will be remembered as possibly the last of the paladins. While his role may not always have been appreciated in Britain, his independence and total integrity were recognised n all the countries where his influence was felt.

Alongside his flair for guerrilla fighting, he had a passion for secret enterprises, deep-laid schemes, and political complexities. He combined acute political understanding with military gifts ideally suited to irregular warfare.

His comrade-in-arms in Albania and the Yemen, David Smiley, has written of McLean: “His charming character seemed languid and nonchalant to the point of idleness, but underneath this façade he was unusually brave, physically tough and extremely intelligent, with a quick, active and unconventional mind.”

His wisdom, sense of humour, human curiosity and kindness endeared him to a wide circle of contemporary friends and younger people, who saw his values as ones they could respect without sentimentality or danger of being considered old-fashioned. He revelled in argument and banter, and was always interested in the opinions of the younger generation.

McLean was both a keen shot and underwater fisherman: one of his great pleasures was to spear moray eels off the coast of Majorca. He was very partial to Middle Eastern and Chinese cooking.

He married, in 1949, Daska Kennedy (neé Ivanovic), who supported, sustained and understood him during his unconventional life.

Related article:

Xan Fielding Obituary