M R D Foot

Albanian Operations

The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle

By

Jonathan Cape 406pp £25 order from our bookshop

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of SOE’s predecessors, did manage to send a small mission in, overland from Yugoslavia, which did little and was soon withdrawn.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.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter