The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle by Roderick Bailey - review by M R D Foot

M R D Foot

Albanian Operations

The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle


Jonathan Cape 406pp £25

Roderick Bailey takes his title from Byron, who called Albania in 1809 'the wildest province in Europe', a claim it still contests. Long under Turkish rule, it briefly became independent in 1914, but was conquered by Italy in 1939; much of it then still ran on the feudal system. A little larger than Wales, it was miserably poor, mostly barren and mountainous, with goat tracks rather than roads linking sparse villages inhabited by a verminous, thieving, gossipy peasantry who resented strangers.

Into this, as into many other countries, the infant Special Operations Executive sought to operate during the war against Hitler. Section D of SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service), one of SOE's predecessors, did manage to send a small mission in, overland from Yugoslavia, which did little and was soon withdrawn. Wavell, commander-in-chief in the Middle East and a strong supporter of irregular warfare, banned SOE from further efforts, lest they upset the Greeks. In Albania, as in neighbouring Greece and Yugoslavia, several local resistance movements grew up, one in each country under communist control. When SOE did begin to send its agents in, by parachute, in the spring of 1943, they found marked reluctance to do anything except in return for gold coin, and not much willingness even after payment.

For years, what little was known in England about Albanian resistance consisted of some harrowing anecdotes in two books, one by Julian Amery and one by Peter Kemp. They had both fought beside anti-communist Albanian guerrillas (Kemp had earlier fought for Franco), and this coloured their outlooks. Roderick Bailey has

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