The Balkans, between 1941 and 1945, were to be a main centre of British, and later American, special operations against the Germans, and, until the armistice of September 1943, the Italians also. Special Operations Executive (SOE), the organization established by Winston Churchill in 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’, made early contact with resistance forces in Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania, supplied them with arms and later infiltrated liaison teams into their ‘liberated areas’ by submarine, boat, aircraft and parachute.
One of the main difficulties encountered by SOE agents, most of whom were serving military officers, was mediating between the competing resistance factions. Some remained loyal to the governments-in-exile, others, the more ruthless and unified, were controlled by the local Communist parties, whose primary allegiance was to the Soviet Union and the cause of a post-war social revolution. In Yugoslavia the split was between the royalist Cetniks, led by Draza Mihailović, and Tito’s Communist Partisans; in Greece between the Communist E L A and the nationalist ED ES ; in Albania, which had been annexed in 1939 by Mussolini, between the Communist LN C and the nationalist Balli Kombetar. One of the most successful SOE operatives in Albania was David Smiley, an officer of the Royal Horse Guards. His account of the frustrations of organizing a simple ambush on a road used by German troops in August 1944, just before Hitler ordered a complete withdrawal from the Balkans, exemplifies the nature of the guerrilla war in southern Europe.
On 10 August I left Shtyllë to carry out an ambush with a Ballist çeta [Serbian ćeta, troop, hence Cetniks]. This had been arranged by McLean [a fellow officer] with Safet Butka to test, among other things, the willingness of the Balli Kombettar to fight the Italians and Germans. Fred Nosi and our attached partisans were strongly opposed to this move, and took steps to thwart it. The date fixed for the ambush was 12 August; McLean and I were keen grouse shots, and agreed that this would be an appropriate day to open the season.
Leaving Shtyllë with two guides and the faithful Yugoslavs carrying the Breda [Italian-built machine-gun], I arrived after some hours’ march at the village of Kurtes, where I found the whole çeta, some 200 men strong, drawn up for my inspection under Captain Qemal Burimi. He and 1 both made speeches, then spent the rest of the day in making our plan. Unlike the partisans, who always thought they knew best, Captain Burimi was prepared to listen to my advice and even take it. Next morning we moved nearer the road, not far from the burnt-out village of Barmash, where we made a close reconnaissance in daylight. On our way back to the village we had reached the top of some steep cliffs when we met a çeta of about thirty partisans sitting on top who had clearly been watching us. I recognized the leader, Petrit Dume.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘We are going to ambush the road tonight,’ he replied. ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘Down there’-he pointed to the corner of the road where Burimi and I had decided to lay the ambush; he had obviously seen us there.
It seemed clear to me that he had been put up to this by the LNC, probably on information from Fred Nosi; the object, without doubt, was to prevent the Balli Kombettar from carrying out an ambush that would give them credit in the eyes of the British and give the lie to the LNC allegations that they were collaborating with the Germans and Italians.
I grew angry at the thought that our plans might come to nought and said to Dume, ‘You cannot lay an ambush here tonight as I am doing one with Captain Burimi and his çeta.’ Dume replied that he had been given his orders and intended to carry them out. ‘If you do an ambush here tonight,’ I told him, ‘I promise you that the LN C will receive no more arms or money from the British Mission, and we will give all we get to the Balli Kombettar.’ I had no authority to make this threat, but it was all 1 could think up on the spur of the moment. However it seemed to work for, muttering oaths (probably directed at me), Dume led his çeta off down a track in the direction of Korçë. I wondered what his next move would be; I felt sure he had orders to wreck our plans, and would attempt to do so. In the event he did nothing and we saw no more of him.
We had found an ideal spot for the ambush, where the road had been cut out of the side of a very steep mountain and had numerous bends; the mountain itself dropped sheer below the road into a river, and a steep cliff above the road prevented anyone on it from escaping or taking cover. The hills rose again the other side of the river, and I planned to deploy the çeta on these hills; they would be about two hundred yards from the road, with a gully between them and the enemy.
During the night I took a party of ten men with sixteen mines down on to the road, intending to lay the mines in two groups of eight about 250 yards apart but out of sight of each other on either side of a bend in the road. When we had laid the first four mines a Halifax [bomber] flew over, one of the Albanians shouted ‘A lorry! a lorry!’ and the entire party ran away, never to reappear. I therefore had to dig the holes and lay the remaining mines myself, which took over four hours, luckily without any disturbance, and finished just before daybreak at about five in the morning. I climbed the hill to the çeta positions, exhausted and in a foul temper; there I found a very apologetic Captain Burimi. ‘My men have not had much training,’ he explained. I agreed. We took up our positions and a short while later my temper was cooled by the fine sight of a big German half-tracked troop-carrier approaching from the direction of Korçë; better still, on nearing I saw it was towing an 88-mm gun. Some of the çeta, now back in their positions near me, shouted ‘A tank! a tank!’ and ran away, but the less timid of their companions stayed with me; otherwise we were all ready and in position, and I had both my camera and the Breda gun trained on the spot where I had laid the mines. 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 20-mm 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. I asked Captain Burimi to send some of his men down to the road to get identifications and to try to push the gun off the road into the river bed below. A few men then cautiously approached the road, some shots rang out — presumably the wounded being finished off — and the gun was then unhitched and pushed over the side, but the half-track proved impossible to move because most of its front was blown away. After about half an hour the men returned from the road very pleased with themselves; I was happy too because they had collected the identifications I had wanted and various pieces of loot, and they told me eighteen Germans had been killed. Twelve were dead in the troop carrier, probably killed by the exploding mines; the six lying on the road behind the carrier had been shot. While they were excitedly telling their story I heard engines and then saw in the distance a large convoy of lorries coming from the direction of Leskovik; this was excellent, for they would blow up on the second group of mines before they could see the wrecked troop carrier. As they approached I counted twenty-three lorries but on checking that all the çeta had moved into their positions was saddened to see that all but about six men, and the two Yugoslavs who appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely, had vanished.
The first lorry went over the mines with a terrific explosion, the whole of the front and the cab disintegrating; I took another photograph. The rest of the convoy immediately halted; two Germans jumped out of the cab of each lorry and ran back down the road while the çeta shot at them. Through my binoculars I could see the bodies of five Germans lying by the first lorry, so I proceeded to shoot at the second with my Breda. I hit it with my third shot and it burst into flames, and I did the same to the third lorry. Had the full çeta remained in position with me I was convinced the entire convoy could have been destroyed, but after about ten minutes the Germans had reorganized themselves to shoot back, to which we replied; when I spotted a small party starting to climb our hill away on a flank, I considered it time to go, so with my attendant caddies, as I called them, we picked up the Breda and walked away.
Although my opinion of Albanian fighting quality was somewhat low I was very satisfied with the results, for we had killed twenty-three Germans without a casualty to ourselves, taken identifications of the First Alpine Division, destroyed a large troop carrier, one 88-mm gun, and three lorries. With better-disciplined and properly trained troops we certainly could have destroyed the lot.