Somewhere Near to History The Wartime Diaries of Reginald Hibbert, SOE Officer in Albania, 1943-194

Note: a slightly expanded and edited version of the book review was originally published in the March 2021 edition of the RUSI Journal. The below version differs slightly in being the original accepted version, whereas the longer version was slightly expanded and published in the magazine- click here to read that version (login access may be required).

March 26, 2021

Hibbert, Reginald, Somewhere Near to History The Wartime Diaries of Reginald Hibbert, SOE Officer in Albania, 1943-194 (Signal Books, 2020), edited by Jane Nicolov

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

“A mysterious call is made for immediate volunteers for parachute duties” writes 21 year-old British Army cadet Reg Hibbert, in a secret diary entry of 25 July 1943.

The lower middle-class Londoner, whisked away by the war from Oxford his history studies, duly volunteers, “in hope of some cheap thrills” (p. 45)

He would get much more than that. The enigmatic call Hibbert answered took him to Egypt for paratrooper training before a 10-month Special Operations Executive (SOE) deployment in Albania’s mountains- the perfect finishing school for a later diplomatic career distinguished by complex civil-military assignments, ranging from Central America to the Far East.Although other British Liaison Officers (BLOs) published memoirs based on war diaries (firstly, Julian Amery’s 1948 Sons of the Eagle: A Study in Guerilla War),

Hibbert (1922-2002) is unique among SOE Albania veterans in that his original diary has been published. This happened in 2020, two years after Oxford history professor James Pettifer encouraged Hibbert’s daughter and literary executor, Jane Nicolov to organise the project. The fully-restored original text is supplemented by rare wartime photographs, contextual chapters and footnotes detailing the people, places and things Hibbert encountered.The book thus preserves a snapshot of the war’s crucial turning point in Albania

Being a diary, it is unencumbered by any revisionism or hindsight or desire to influence. By necessity, all of these factors affect the four SOE memoirs published between 1948 (Amery’s) and 1984 (David Smiley’s Albanian Assignment).A key question for historians of SOE Balkan operations has been alliances; that is, to what extent Britain’s local wartime patronage was influenced by BLOs’ preferences or by policy-makers higher up, and whether different policies could have yielded alternate outcomes.

Controversy has always surrounded Albania, where communist Partisan leader Enver Hoxha seized power and led one of the world’s most isolated and repressive dictatorships until his 1985 death.SOE veterans Amery, Smiley and Lt. Col. Neil ‘Billy’ McLean in particular criticised communism. In the field, they had worked with the Partisans but also advocated nationalist Albanian leaders- men who had either actively or passively collaborated with the Germans.

As Hibbert’s diaries reveal, the Albanian Partisans (like those of Marshall Tito’s in neighbouring Yugoslavia) as the most reliable anti- resistance element. The perceived machinations of some BLOs to infiltrate the Partisans with nationalists fed Hoxha’s paranoia.However, when Hibbert descended on Albania in December 1943, British policy still hoped for a happily reconciled national anti-German resistance.

The BLOs small and dispersed networks cultivated local alliances- leading to resource competition and a failure to overcome the Albanians’ own internal ideological and clan rivalries.

Hibbert sensed the looming disaster early on in his mission. His entries reveal – often comically – how the crafty villagers regarded their British guests as a profit-bearing enterprise in an environment of calculated risk.

While in mountainous northern Albania, Hibbert’s team liaised primarily with a conservative, clan-based society with pro-German sympathies. The internal Albanian rivalries expedited competition between the geographically-dispersed BLOs for resources, which came via airdrops authorised by HQ in Cairo (and later, Bari). Airdrops of supplies, arms and gold were especially valuable during the snowy winter of 1943-44, when BLOs relied on locals for indoor lodging.

Such materiel alone could prove Britain was more generous than Germany. Albanian villagers took considerable risks by housing and feeding BLOs, and Hibbert’s notes reveal how the mutual awareness of this risk factor became a point of daily negotiation.

Stylistically, Hibbert’s entries are well-crafted and concise, written in the present tense and generally, short (work preoccupied him and his notebooks were small). Structurally, the entries reflect the exigencies of clandestine life: weather conditions, marches through the mountains, unreliable radios, botched airdrops, arguments with villagers over theft of materiel, and endless negotiations with clan chiefs. Food is often discussed, as are the lice and fleas that afflict sleep in primitive quarters.

Of course, no diary can cover everything and Hibbert’s account is limited by the narrowness of his experience. Circumstances hamper communication with fellow BLOs and (dependent on radio status) higher command in Cairo/Bari. Being low in rank, he was never given the full picture but had to suss things out for himself; here, speaking Italian, French (and gradually, Albanian) helps Hibbert.

Some will criticise the absence of battle scenes. Yet Hibbert’s mission was specifically away from front-lines action. Indeed, one week after parachuting into Albania on 19 December 1943, after meeting his new SOE colleagues and witnessing “several political conferences with local leaders,” Hibbert presciently concludes that “there is little hope of a lively war here” (p. 57).

In spring 1944, military engagements increased as the Partisans consolidate their power. Nationalist leaders who figure prominently in the early entries (like northern clan chief Muharrem Bajraktari) fail to live up to their pledges, and the Partisans emerge as the main fighting force against the Germans. This complicated Britain’s presence but clarified where airdropped weaponry would go throughout spring-summer 1944.

Although Hibbert’s entries reveal a liberal outlook, his gradual pro-Partisan position is grounded by realist assessment of ground realities and mission mandate. Despite lacking prior regional experience, by two months into his tour, Hibbert had understood that Bajraktari’s inflexibility and ideological dream of a Greater Albania that would bite into neighbouring states was unrealistic.

Unlike BLOs who had been lobbying for the Partisans in the south, Hibbert only experienced the area when passing through en route to his Adriatic extraction on.The effusiveness of Hibbert’s field entries is greatly diminished in his post-evacuation entries written in Italy, where he finds life has become slow, dull, and devoid of that bucolic and anarchic freedom with which BLOs associated Albanian mountain life.

Ironically, this commonality of experience outweighed – at least briefly – personal differences when SOE men were extracted and reunited in Italy. “We live on the best of terms with other BLOs even with those who have been on the other side of the political fence in Albania,” attests Hibbert in a long entry dated 12 October-4 November 1944 (p. 216).

“We are all united by a common dislike of the firm – above all of Eliot Watrous,” Hibbert continues, eviscerating the SOE’s sycophantic Albania section chief. “No BLO is foolish enough to think that he has the power to change the face of history, to dictate the future of Albania.” (p. 216).

Although Hibbert’s entries reveal disillusionment and some pessimism regarding the SOE’s work in Albania, his post-extraction experience in Italy provided the necessary insights into how civil-military relations operate on the larger scale. Thus, his perspectives on both the field and “the firm” were formed before joining the Foreign Office in 1946.

In conclusion, Hibbert’s diaries are a treasure-chest of primary source material of exceptional historical valuable. His low rank and limited experience meant that, on a day-to-day basis, he never receives more than a few pieces of a very big puzzle; however, his lucid analysis indicates a mind adept at putting puzzles together. This book is highly recommended, both for specialists and general-interest readers of Balkan wartime history- and Britain’s role in shaping it.

 

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