Exploring Albania for the Telegraph and BBC

Ash Bhardwaj standing at the head of the valley that the British hid from their pursuers in.

A few years ago I gave a talk on storytelling skills at the Telegraph Adventure Travel Show. Whilst there I got chatting to Ed Reeves, an Englishman who had visited Albania to research a World War Two Special Operations Executive mission. He'd loved it so much that he stayed and was now running tours in the footsteps of this British group, who had spent months escaping German pursuers.

Given my connections to the military, and love of walking in the mountains, I was immediately intrigued, and began planning a trip with Ed to retrace the British route.

The journey gave me enormous respect for members of the Special Forces and underlined once again the horror of war. It's easy to read "they spent three months hiding from Germans in the mountains" and think of it as an elaborate game of hide and seek. But I found the walk hard in summer, with a full belly and good kit. The British did it with nothing to eat, in the middle of winter, and with shoes that were falling apart.

When I came home, I was invited to give a talk at a club founded by retired members of the Special Operations Executive. It was a privilege to share my experience with those who knew the realities of such endeavours, and then share it with a wider audience.

I wrote my article up for the Telegraph - I've included the text below, or you can follow the link here - and the BBC World Service asked me to do a report on From Our Own Correspondent. Follow this link and go to 17 minutes and 17 seconds to listen to the report, or click on the audio file here.

This was a particular highlight for me - I've listened to From Our Own Correspondent for years, and to finally hear my report being introduced by the legendary journalist Kate Adie was thrilling. But the most exciting element of the whole project was in shining light on a misunderstood country. 

You can read the Telegraph article below. Let me know what you think. Have you ever been to Albania?

The Telegraph Article: Tales of heroism on the Second World War's forgotten battleground

At the top of a steep meadow stood the crumbling remains of an old sheep pen. In the valley below, cooking smoke rose above the slate-tiled roofs of a village, and a light breeze carried the sound of wheat being hand-scythed. Rushing headwaters glinted in the sun where the Shkumbin river wound through the valley and disappeared around a bend. 

It was hard to imagine these mountains in eastern Albania being anything other than serene. But this, I discovered, was the very spot where Brigadier Edmund “Trotsky” Davies, who was leading Special Operations in Albania against the occupying Germans, was captured in 1944. 

As a part-time soldier, I thought I knew my military history, but I had no idea that the British had done anything in Second World War Albania. My guide to this little visited part of Europe was Ed Reeves, a man who is researching for a book about Davies and who has set up a specialist tour operator, Balkan Secrets.

We began in Bize where Davies – who earned the ‘Trotsky’ appellation for having displayed “a kind of disciplined bolshevism” as a Sandhurst cadet) – was dropped by parachute in September 1943. Today, Bize is a small Army training area. In the derelict, concrete shell of a communist-era farm, a café served soldiers the traditional Balkan breakfast of coffee, cigarettes and raki (a strong, clear spirit). There was no sign of Davies’s HQ, which included chairs, tables and even filing cabinets. 

The Abyss, by Robert Permeti. Which depicts the British trying to escape from their German pursuers.

The Abyss, by Robert Permeti. Which depicts the British trying to escape from their German pursuers.

We followed their route over a pass into the Gurakuq Valley, munching on plums that we plucked from trees. The gullies and ridges of this landscape make any walk longer than it looks. It was late afternoon when we arrived in the village of Orenje, and the house of Ferit Balla, whose father Beg, had given the British sanctuary.

“My father was a Partisan rebel,” says Ferit, “So of course he helped the British. But then the Germans came, and they took everything as revenge – meat, chicken, cows, even blankets – then they blew up the house. My father watched them do it from the hills.”

The stone guesthouse that we stayed in, with whitewashed walls and flagstone floors, is built on the same site. Ferit managed to retrieve some artefacts from the ruins, including the Olivetti typewriter that Davies had brought from Bize. He keeps it in a museum at the house, full of artefacts from the era.

The next morning we headed towards a pinnacle of rock, in which the Partisans had hidden a printing press, which they used to produce anti-collaborator leaflets. In hazy sunshine we picked wild strawberries until our mule-handler, Rushdi, quietly led us to a clump of trees.

“My family were Partisans,” he said, “My grandfather and great uncle were interrogated by the Germans, then killed on this spot when they refused to give up the location of the printing press. Their bodies were hung from those trees as a warning.”

Rushdi took the reins of his mule and we followed him to that precious location in a landscape of shattered limestone. A narrow cleft led between two columns of rock and we climbed a natural staircase. In a depression, protected on three sides by tall chalk walls, was the entrance to a cave, which could only be entered by sliding through a crack. No wonder the Germans never found it. I peeked inside, but it looked like the roof had been collapsed with explosives.

Parachute crates dropped by the British can still be found all across Albania, used by locals for all sorts of domestic tasks.

We carried on to an old military road. Hidden by forest, it crossed a ridge with a commanding view of the Shkumbin river, up to a plateau. Davies had spent a cold December night here, shivering in the open, but on a warm summer’s eve, it was the perfect place to pitch our tents. We gathered wood for the fire, and a full moon rose as we tucked into our dinner: a tasty soup made with vegetables from Ferit’s garden.

The following morning we brewed Turkish coffee on the fire, loaded the mule and skirted the mountain on a dirt road, where we found wolf-prints, bear-prints.

The sun was setting by the time we arrived in the village of Fushe-Stude where we camped in a field lined by cypress trees. Reeves had decided to start his tour company, after receiving some remarkable hospitality in a café here – help with a burst tyre, a delicious lamb meal and a bed for the night, all free of charge. 

That lamb alone is worth coming back for. Chunks of warm, doorstop bread were placed next to tomato salads and piles of tender, juicy meat. The lamb is confit-cooked in old milk churns for five or six hours, with nothing more than a bit of salt. The result is incredible flavour and meat that falls off the bone.

The next morning, a steep climb brought us to a ridge line directly above the Shkumbin river, with the Macedonian border five miles to the east. Davies had intended to escape that way, but the Albanian Partisan leader, Enver Hoxha, claimed that to do so would be treachery. Davies was blackmailed into turning north, towards the source of the Shkumbin.

We followed in his wake along overgrown pathways, squeezing past donkeys buried beneath their bundles of hay. The landscape and climate felt Mediterranean at these lower altitudes. 

We walked beside a braided river and camped next to an abandoned mill, then made the final push to the head of the valley. A steep incline brought us to the hedges of Kostenje. The village is totally inaccessible to vehicles; so farming hasn’t changed for centuries.

The site of Davie's last stand, in the field in the middle of the central ridge.

While asking for directions, we met a woman whose family had hidden a British soldier during the war. “It’s funny,” said her husband, “We were allies all that time ago. Then during the [Hoxha] regime we were enemies. Now we are friends again.”

An hour later, in a remote field high above Kostenje, we found the sheep pen. This was meant to be a Partisan safe house for Davies, but on the morning of January 8 1944, Davies got word that Albanian collaborators, led by Germans, were in Kostenje. Almost completely surrounded, the British climbed single file through deep snow to escape. Davies was shot twice and rolled down the slope. After recovering from his wounds he was taken to the Colditz prisoner of war camp in Germany where he remained until liberated by American forces in April 1945.  

I thought about my own walk over the past seven days and tried to imagine doing it in winter, with barely any food.  

It’s a spectacular spot and, because of its inaccessibility, remarkably tranquil. Tourism barely exists here, so I had only encountered incredibly friendly locals throughout. That remoteness had made it a nightmare for Davies and his men – but a memorable adventure for me.

Check out Ed's company, Drive Albania, here.