The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle
By: CPT Edval Zoto, Albanian Army
Even to serious fans of WW II history, devoting an entire book to the operations of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in wartime Albania might seem to be a generous enterprise, but the story told by historian Roderick Bailey in The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle is intriguing. Both strategically and politically, the British SOE engagement in Albania was a complete failure. The 100 men who were sent by the SOE into the country between 1942 and 1944 to prevent an Axis takeover did not make history; they could neither play a substantial role in helping local guerrillas fight the Axis forces, nor could they prevent the subsequent installation of communism in Albania. The reasons for this failure of British military and political efforts in the Balkans during WW II deserve attention, and Bailey provides a thorough description of what the SOE mission did and did not accomplish in Albania.
The book, however, deals less with the issues of Britain's "grand strategy" for defeating the Axis forces by sending in SOE to support local guerrillas, and more with the challenges and dangers faced by those British liaison officers (BLOs) once they were on the ground. The action takes place at a time when the Axis' power in the region was declining and local resistance was abruptly increasing under the influence of Communist cadres. The author, a decorated veteran of British Army operations in Afghanistan, is a prominent military historian whose more recent works on irregular warfare and special operations have been cited by the British government.
The most engaging aspect of the book is the deep research done by the author, who had access to the personal diaries of the SOE officers who went into Albania. Bailey brings to life the colorful and dramatic experiences of these men in the wildest province, where they worked with "enough chiefs and tribes and rifle-wielding guerrillas to conjure lively images of Lawrence and the Arabs." The fact that the men kept such diaries, risky and unwise as it might have been, offers us the rare opportunity to understand their motives for joining the SOE's Albanian campaign. The British soldiers sent there were intrepid adventurers, which explains in part why many of them persisted in carrying out their dangerous, difficult, and ultimately futile missions until the Germans finally withdrew.
The first SOE men infiltrated Albania in early 1943 by ground, after being parachuted into neighboring Greece. They literally started from scratch. Their mission was to conduct guerilla warfare with the support of the local resistance in an attempt to make the Italians capitulate, but from the beginning of the campaign they lacked proper intelligence on the ground. They soon had to change their plans anyway, because the political situation changed rapidly after the Italians signed an armistice in September 1943 and the Germans stepped in to occupy the Balkans.
Besides the political changes on the ground, the SOE operation in Albania was also being affected by political problems at home. Greece and Yugoslavia were pressuring the British government over the issue of which political factions to support in Albania. This meant that local groups often refused to cooperate with the BLOs because Britain, as one of the world's "great powers," had not yet expressed its opinion on what would happen in Albania after the war. Meanwhile, Albanian Communist forces supported by Yugoslav and Soviet advisers were gaining strength at the expense of British influence. The SOE officers on the ground found themselves at the mercy of these strategic and political uncertainties while trying to deal with the operational difficulties of working without local support, not to mention the tremendous tactical risks of their mission. Bailey's detailed descriptions of both major operations and minor events provide the reader with a lively picture of the daily life of these daring Special Forces officers while they were in Albania. The Wildest Province may also serve as a starting point for understanding why British and American secret operations that attempted to overthrow the Albanian Communist regime in the late 1940s and '50s met with such failure.
Students and practitioners of irregular warfare and special operations may find this book intriguing for its descriptions of the preparations and conduct of what were the first special and clandestine operations in Europe. The book details mission planning, force selection and training, contact development and infiltration, and then the mission itself. How these men managed operational security and communications with the SOE HQ and developed relationships and coordinated with both local guerrilla forces and the civilian population, as well as how they carried out their sabotage operations, can offer some surprising insights for today's SOF officers.
About the Author(s): CPT Edval Zoto, Albanian Armed Forces, is studying special operations in the Defense Analysis department of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.