Albanian Assignment

I am a voracious reader of post-WWII Albanian history, yet almost all of my reading on the subject was done years before I started to keep a blog of book reviews in 2010. In the past thirteen years I see that I have only read two other books on the country. I bought Albanian Assignment by David Smiley around thirty years ago at a pop-up remainders bookstore. Three decades later and it’s time to finally read it.

During World War II Smiley was working on a British Special Operations assignment with the mission to infiltrate Albania to organize local resistance against the occupying Germans and Italians. His memoir–brief at only 168 pages–was a speedy read as a mixture of military strategy with uproarious observations. It isn’t often that one laughs out loud during a wartime memoir, but these passages continue to do so, even after multiple rereads:

“Enver Hoxha was an entirely different character–a big man with too much flesh and a flabby handshake.”

“Gerry Field had dropped out of the same aircraft as Tilman, actually managing to be sick as he was coming down in his parachute, which sounded very messy as he came down faster than his vomit.”

“Once they were formed up, there began a series of the longest and most boring speeches it has ever been my fate to listen to. Only the intermittent shouts of ‘Death to Fascism’ and ‘Liberty to the People’ kept me from falling asleep. McLean’s speech was by far the best, for it was the shortest. I secretly hoped that an Italian aeroplane would fly over and bring the proceedings to an end, but no such luck.”

“I was with a small partisan çeta at the time, and the leader suggested that as it led to the fortifications it might be worth blowing up. I heartily agreed, for I liked blowing things up.”

“I was getting pretty fed up at the thought of further inactivity. I can’t have been much good at hiding my feelings, for I overheard McLean remark to Amery, ‘David seems to be getting restless again; we must find him something to blow up.'”

“My shouted whispers had to be contained for half an hour while a German staff car was tiresome enough to have a puncture on the bridge and the occupants changed a wheel; some of us were actually under it at the time, not daring to move back for more explosives, for fear of being seen. One German reminded us of his presence by urinating over the side, but luckily he did not score a direct hit on any of us.”

Smiley painted a picture of himself as a modern-day Superman, which he no doubt was, parachuting into Albania and living undercover in forests among warring factions, surviving on the meagrest of rations. With scant resources to communicate and navigate, he was never captured by the enemy and although he wasn’t shot or maimed he did suffer recurring bouts of malaria.

The mission was in vain as Smiley was battling not only Germans and Italians but Albanians themselves who were on the brink of civil war. As one of the citations above shows (as well as the photos section), Smiley had encounters with Enver Hoxha who would later become the President of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, and who turned the country into a xenophobic isolated state of terror for over forty years.

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