Reasons to be suspicious – Albanian-British Relationships in the 1940s

Mother Albania, Martyrs' Cemetery, Tirana

Mother Albania, Martyrs’ Cemetery, Tirana

After liberating their country from the fascists Albanians were under continual external pressure from hostile government forces. At this time Albanian-British Relationships were at an all-time low. In not bowing down to this the Albanians were criticised for being ‘isolationist’ and ‘xenophobic’ whereas their actions were more a matter of survival.

But why was this nation of just over a million people so angry with the British that the government felt it didn’t want to co-operate with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in establishing a final resting place for those British soldiers who had died in the country in the fight against Fascism?

For the sake of brevity let us only mention the attempts of the British (along with the other major European powers) to influence developments in the Balkans for more than 70 years – since the Crimean War. Let’s just pass over the fact that when Zogu ran away from the Italian fascists when they invaded in 1939 he found shelter in the spartan conditions offered by the Ritz Hotel in London. Whilst his country was torn apart by war and an estimated 30,000 of ‘his’ people died in the next five years he spent a very comfortable war, ‘thank you very much’, in a country house in Buckinghamshire. This self-proclaimed king who had depended for his position at home by being in the pockets of the Italian fascists, a collaborator of the first order, was given exile in a country which, within a matter of months, was officially at war with Italy. But no internment for Zogu!

Also let us pass over the fact that gold reserves – that had been stolen from impoverished Albania by the fascists and which was to be decided (in 1948) by an international tribunal of the UK, France and the USA that it should be returned to the Albanian people – were being retained in the vaults of the Bank of England. This gold was not returned to the country until 1992 when the government of Berisha bowed before the might of a powerful international player, just as Zogu had done almost 60 years before with the Italians.

Here I want to concentrate on the situation and events of the immediate post-war years.

Greece

Britain supported (with arms, men on the ground as well as massive naval support) the monarchist Greek army against the Communists. Their eventual victory left a deeply divided society and this led to years of internal conflict and ultimately to the coup by the Generals in 1967, which meant the establishment of fascism until 1974.

British Labour Government

The UK Foreign Minister, Earnest Bevin, openly called for a ‘counter revolution’ in Albania. He was a virulent anti-communist, pro-US, supporter of nuclear weapons at ‘whatever the cost’, strong supporter of Korean War and for a British imperial presence throughout the world. He makes Blair appear like a left-winger.

Attempts to incite civil war

During the war British intelligence (SIS) and the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had been wary of the non-Communist forces as they had, without exception, been collaborators at one time with the Italian fascists. After the war, won by the Communist Partisans, the SIS – with the support of the nascent CIA (American Central Intelligence Agency) – used the contacts that had been made with these monarcho-fascists to try to incite civil strife in the seriously war damaged and weak country. These attempts went on well into the 1950s, all ending in ignominious defeat, a precursor to the equally disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco later to be played out in Cuba.

Corfu Channel Incident

Map showing territorial limit between Albania and Corfu

Map showing territorial limit between Albania and Corfu

This was by far the most confrontational event that took place in the immediate post-war years and is, in fact really three separate events, but all obviously related. This can be a long story and the interpretation of events will vary depend upon where you stand politically. I will try to present the events as I know them and then make a few comments – the British government has more than their fair share of opportunities to make their case known.

May 15, 1946 – two Royal Navy cruisers, Orion and Superb, were fired upon from Albanian shore batteries. There was no damage and no-one was hurt.

October 22, 1946 – a Royal Navy flotilla (don’t know exactly when a group of ships becomes a flotilla) was sent purposely to challenge the Albanians. In the group were the cruisers Mauritius and Leander and the destroyers Saumarez and Volage. Saumarez struck a mine and Volage was sent to tow it back the 16 miles to Corfu harbour. Just after starting the tow Volage also hit a mine and it took them more than 12 hours to make the journey. Forty four men were killed and 42 injured. The Saumarez was damaged beyond repair.

HMS Samaurez on tow back to Corfu harbour

HMS Samaurez on tow back to Corfu harbour

November 12, 1946 – a group of Royal naval ships, including an aircraft carrier, entered waters recognised to be in Albanian jurisdiction with the excuse that they were clearing mines in ‘self defence’ as they could be a hazard to shipping. This was done without consultation or permission being granted by the Albanian government. There was no hostile action on this occasion.

So, some comments.

  1. In May, at the very time that the Royal Naval ships approached the Albanian coast, British forces were involved in a bloody civil war in neighbouring Greece where the Albanians were in support of the Communist forces is it a surprise that the Albanians might have thought they were facing an invasion force and had the right to fire warning shots?
  2. In October why did the British send such a large force of naval hardware? Four ships of the line would have filled Saranda Bay. If they were genuinely searching for mines why not mine-sweepers? Surely they would have been better equipped to detect any potential danger. The British were later to accuse the Yugoslavs of having laid the mines, on behalf of the Albanians – as Albania had no such capability at the time – BETWEEN May and October. Now if I were in a conflict situation with a neighbour I would have people scanning that piece of water 24 hours a day to know exactly what was happening. The British later claimed they recovered up to 25 mines. Now I’m no expert on mine-laying but how would it have been possible for any ship, or ships, to do that without attracting attention? Even someone with a pair of binoculars on the hills in northern Corfu would have been able to see what was going on. And with such a huge force of military shipping in the area why didn’t the Royal Navy post a ship permanently, inside Corfu’s territorial waters, to monitor the situation? To have sent ships into an area that was unmonitored, un-surveyed, unknown is tantamount to ‘reckless endangerment’ on behalf of the British military and government. The families of the British seamen should have taken the British government to court on charges of murder for such incompetence.
  3. In November the Flotilla of Royal Navy ships knowingly entered Albanian territorial waters more for a show of imperial might than anything else. With the all-consuming arrogance of a weak and failing imperial power they didn’t like the self-inflicted damage of the previous month and wanted to show the Albanians that they could still do what they wanted, trampling all over international law that they say should be defended, unless it suits them to break it – like the US is doing on an almost daily basis as we enter 2013. At that time they were able to ‘recover’ more than 20 German-made mines which the British argued had not been in the water for more than a few months. This was all very convenient for the British to later bring up in evidence at the International Court of Justice. Now I wouldn’t say that the British would ever lie in an international forum (perish the thought) although the phrase ’45 minutes’ comes to mind when you consider how convenient this proof was. And the post-war Labour government was as duplicitous as any other when it came to international matters and the ‘protection’ of British imperial interests.
  4. Although there are places where the distance between Corfu and Albania is much narrower (it’s less than two miles at the narrowest point) the first practical place for any sea landing is the town of Saranda – the cliffs being quite steep further to the south and the only small bays around present day Ksamil being too shallow for major ships. Therefore why is it a surprise that the Albanians were so jumpy when they saw such a military force steaming towards Saranda Bay?
  5. What would have been the response of the British and French governments if a Soviet battle flotilla had sailed between Dover and Calais at that time? Would it have been seen as a friendly or a hostile act? Would the British (or the French) reacted in a different way?

Added to all this hostile activity Albania was:

not invited to the Conference of San Francisco on the founding of the United Nations,

not called to the London and Paris Conferences on War Reparations from Italy and Germany, and

not invited to take part in discussions on drafting the peace treaty with Italy.

All these Albania considered it had a right to attend following its sacrifice during the anti-fascist war. At the same time these were all moves to isolate and marginalise the country at the same time as other countries, ie Greece and Yugoslavia, were making moves to absorb Albania into their national boundaries.

Perhaps I’ve gone on longer than I really intended but I thought it was important to attempts to set the scene of the hostile environment that Albania found itself having to confront in the 1940s. The country has often been accused of suffering from paranoia but I’d again refer you to the scale of the damage that the country had sustained in the battle against fascism and the fact that Albania was a nation of a little over a million people.

If you want to address the issue of a paranoia look no further than the UK and the proposed renewal of Trident.

This incident was merely the culmination of anti-Albanian activity carried out by British and American imperialism which began in the early days of the Albanian national Liberation War. To get a greater and in-depth political analysis of this intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation have a look at Enver Hoxha’s memoir of the period The Anglo-American Threat to Albania.

Click here for the PRA’s request to attend the Italian Treaty meetings, here to attend the Peace Conference with Germany and here for Albania’s response to imperialist incursions into Albanian territorial waters.

Another source of background material to the efforts by the British and American imperialists to undermine the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania can be found in A Tangled Web, by Bill Bland and Ian Price, published in 1986. It only goes into detail about events up to 1955 as this was the latest date where documents were available to the public, following the British Government’s ’30 year rule’ where that period of time has to pass before (some) secret governments documents are released.

One thought on “Reasons to be suspicious – Albanian-British Relationships in the 1940s

  1. I am an Albanian who moved in UK in the late ’90’s. I have met 2 types of people:
    Type 1- those who have heard about Albania and Albanians mainly from newspapers (‘written in a hurry’ to quote a witty British stand-up comedian), TV programmes/movies (depicting Albanians as the villains of the world/pimps/drug dealers etc, etc) and anecdotal evidence from the above ‘reliable sources’ . Type 2 – people who have visited Albania like Michael Harrison (i am assuming this is a real person and judging by the web domain and comments, based in UK). I am old enough to have lived the ‘Communist era’ and also compare and contrast with a capitalism. Paranoid? Well, Michael presents some compelling evidence pro-paranoia. Villains of the world? Would you be surprised if i told you that the worst crime i ever heard of before the 90’s was someone hitting another with a bottle in a fight? The few ‘villains’ learned from the best and became better than the master – perhaps for the wrong reasons. Are all British ‘hooligans’, all Italians ‘Mafia’ or all French ‘frogs’ (don’t answer the last one!)? But thank you, Michael Harrison, for summing up Albania; to quote UK Foreign Office: ‘Albanians are very hospitable’.

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