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The wildest province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle.

By Roderick Bailey. London, UK: Jonathan Cape, 2008; 405 pages. $27.62 (Amazon.com; hardcover). ISBN 9780224079167

Reviewed by Captain Edval Zoto, Albanian Army, Special Operations student in the Defense Analysis Department, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

To the WWII history readers, writing an entire book on the story of Special Operations Executive (SOE) engagement in Albania would seem a generous enterprise, but still quite intriguing. As to the facts, the hundred men gradually sent by the SOE into the country, just when the Axis power in the region was declining, and with the local resistance abruptly rising under the influence of communism, could not and did not make history. Strategically and politically, the British engagement in Albania in the years 1942-1944 resulted to be a big failure, since neither the SOE officers could play a substantial role in the combat activity of local guerrillas fighting the Axis forces, nor could they prevent the later installation of communism in Albania. The reasons of this outcome to the British military and political efforts in the Balkans during the WWII deserve more attention and Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, provides a thorough description of what the SOE mission accomplished in Albania. However, the book does not deal as much with the issues of British “grand strategy” for defeating the Axis forces by the use of local guerrillas supported by the SOE, such as with the challenges and dangers faced by British Liaison Officers on the ground. The author, besides being a military historian specialized in irregular warfare and special operations, recognized and appraised by the British government authorities, is also a decorated veteran of the British Army.

That said, the nicest thing of the book lies exactly in the deep research conducted by the author, who brings the personal accounts of the SOE officers operating in Albania. Colorful and dramatic descriptions of personal experiences of the SOE men in the wildest province in conjunction with “enough chiefs and tribes and rifle-wielding guerrillas to conjure lively images of Lawrence and the Arabs”, as Bailey writes about the social setting in Albania, cause compassion and at the same time justify the wrong-doing and risky choice of keeping diaries by the British guerillas in Albania. But, that was indispensable for understanding the detailed truth of what those men underwent during their underground mission. The act of keeping diaries by those men makes it clearer then Bailey’s investigation of their motives for joining the SOE in its Albanian campaign. At first, the British soldiers sent there were intrepid adventurers and probably that made the ones of them who made it until the end of the war in the Balkans, carry on their missions until the Germans left Albania. The book thoroughly describes all the sufferings, problems and challenges the BLOs faced in Albania. Since the beginning of the campaign they lacked proper intelligence from the ground. Earlier than the 1943 infiltration of the first group of BLOs, the only British military experience in Albania was a courageous but ill-planned revolt in 1941, which was to be realized by only one British officer followed by a couple of hundred indigenous forces. They failed immediately after being intercepted by the Italian forces and to the damage of the later mission neither contact with the local resistance could be established. After Italy used the Albanian territory as a platform for launching an attack against Greece and Yugoslavia, the necessity of deploying SOE operatives on the ground become imminent. The first SOE men infiltrated Albania in early 1943 by ground, after being parachuted in the neighboring Greece. They literally started from scratch. Their mission was to conduct guerilla warfare with the support of the local resistance in the attempt to make the Italians capitulate. Soon they had to change their plans since the political situation changed rapidly, after the Italians signed the armistice in September 1943 and the Germans stepped in. Beside the political changes form the ground, SOE operatives in Albania faced also problems due to political reasons in their own government. Greeks and Yugoslavs interfered often by pressuring the British government over the issue of which parties to support in Albania. Local forces often rejected cooperation with BLOs on the basis that the British government had not yet expressed its opinion over what would happen in Albania after the war. In the meanwhile communist forces were gaining strength supported by Yugoslav and Soviet advisers, and the British influence soon started to disappear. On these premises the SOE officers on the ground were found in-between the strategic and political uncertainties, the operational problems associated with the non-partisan nature of their mission, and also tremendous tactical risks. Bailey makes detailed descriptions of each major situation the BLOs faced in Albania but also minor events (to note also an extremely correct use of local places and actor’s names) that contribute in providing the reader with a lively image of the daily life of the British in Albania.

The book may be very interesting to irregular-warfare and special operations students and practitioners. It describes the preparation and conduction of the first special and clandestine operations in Albania, but also in Europe as well. Within the book are found in detail the entire processes of mission planning, force selection and training, contact development and infiltration, and later on the whole mission development. The management of operational security and communications with the SOE HQ, the coordination and relationships with local guerrilla forces and population, but also the conduction of sabotage operations described in the book offer to irregular-warfare students worthy insights. The author also puts a lot of attention on the dilemma that the BLOs had during the entire mission in Albania: which local forces to support when lacking proper indications from the HQ. Sometimes the British officers choose to avoid entrenchment in Albanian internal issues, and sometimes individual initiative was the playmaker, but all is worthy to read and think about critically.

The Wildest Province may also serve as a start point for a better understanding of the unsuccessful results of British and American secret operations in the late ‘40s and in the ‘50s attempting to overthrow the communist regime established in Albania.

 

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