No Colours or Crest: The Secret Struggle for Europe by Peter Kemp

From my Notion template

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The second of the Peter Kemp war books – it details the bulk of the Second World War for him. By odd twists of fate, he volunteers for the most dangerous jobs imaginable, but is first (mostly) constrained by weather – then by terrain , then by people. Functionally his job changes from commando, to would be guerilla leader to outside sales, where the penalty for failure to meet quota is perhaps death. The sales job was trying to organize Albanian guerilla groups into an effective fighting force, which did not happen.


This seemed a lot like a diary that he filled supplemented with the benefit of hindsight, after action reports and historical perspective, which is not a bad thing, but the prioritization is odd – the march up the hill for the ambush that gets rained out gets the same number of pages and emphasis as getting chased by German patrols.

How I Discovered It

I read his first book – “Mind Were of Trouble”

Who Should Read It?

World War Two history buffs, people interested in the Balkans

How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • A reaffirmation on the importance of geography, weather and culture in history
  • A reaffirmation that there are winners and losers in all things
  • A reminder that the modern way of life, Britain in this time period would qualify, existed with other ways of life until quite recently in much more of the world than I would have thought. The existence of blood feuds being binding restraints on nationwide political movements was quite interesting. The primary political unit is not always the nation, or even the party, but also the family and extended family in a lot of the world.
  • I am now wondering how much of history was written by the victors in Eastern Europe – the standard narrative does not seem to be quite complete.


A strong Tory myself, I had served in the Carlist militia and the Spanish Foreign Legion, where my friends—Traditionalists, Conservatives and Liberal Monarchists—had no more sympathy than I for totalitarian regimes. But General Franco’s friendship with Hitler and Mussolini and his establishment of the Falange as the only political party in Spain had erased from most British minds all memory of the Communist threat he had defeated; even the Soviet-German Pact had not wholly revived it.

Poor Greta. She was a wonderful cook. But her naïve optimism did not save her from nearly six years in an internment camp.

I was all too conscious of my failure to set a proper example of indifference and courage. When the All Clear sounded I reflected sorrowfully that the last three years had left their mark upon my nerves.

He nursed a particular resentment against Hitler for what he regarded as an intolerable interruption of his private life. ‘Up to the age of thirty-five,’ he explained to me, ‘a man can work and drink and copulate; but at thirty-five he has to make up his mind which of the three he is going to give up. I had just passed my thirty-fifth birthday and made all my arrangements to give up work when that bloody Hun started the war.’

Easily the most junior of our party, I was delighted to find myself promoted overnight to the rank of Captain, which seemed to be the lowest rank on our Establishment.

This new organization, known as S.O.E., became responsible for all subversive activities in enemy-occupied territory. It received its directives through the Minister of Economic Warfare, and was staffed, surprisingly, by senior executives from several large banking and business houses, with a small but useful leavening of Regular Army officers, a few of whom had received Staff College training.

‘Save and deliver us, we humbly beseech Thee, from the hands of our enemies; abate their pride, assuage their malice, and confound their devices.’

took advantage of my leave to get married. Looking back from time’s distance I wonder how I could have been so foolish, complacent, and blind to my own character as to ask any girl, at my age and at such a time, to marry me; it is scarcely less remarkable, I suppose, that any girl who knew me well—and this one did—should have considered me a suitable husband. Our marriage lasted almost, but not quite, to the end of the European war.

In London, when we arrived after completing the course, my greeting from the staff officers of the Spanish section was not such as a hero might expect. Coldly the R.N.V.R. lieutenant said to me, ‘Perhaps you would care to read the concluding words of Major Edwards’s report on you?’ They ran simply: ‘Not once, nor twice, but three times have I seen this officer punctual.’

By religion a deeply sincere Roman Catholic, by tradition an English country gentleman, he combined the idealism of a Crusader with the severity of a professional soldier.

Thus, although we were also known as No. 62 Commando and were issued with green berets, March-Phillipps encouraged us to wear civilian clothes when off duty; this was in keeping with his conception of us as successors to the Elizabethan tradition of the gentleman-adventurer.

Reynolds was an Irishman, well known before the war as a sportsman, bon viveur, and playboy. On the outbreak of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 he went to Finland as a volunteer in Major Kermit Roosevelt’s International Brigade; having exchanged the comfort and cuisine of Buck’s for the icy forests of Lapland and Karelia, he endured bitter hardship with that ill-fated band of idealists before making his way to Sweden after the collapse of Finnish resistance. There

leave, I was ordered by Brigadier Gubbins to take a party of our officers on the parachute course at Ring way. I had been sleeping badly, with terrible nightmares of those screaming sentries, and I was glad of an opportunity to take my mind off the recent raid.

For a few months the supporters of Tito and Mihailović had worked together, although with mutual suspicion, for they were fundamentally opposed in outlook and objectives. By the end of 1941 their hostility to each other had flared into open warfare, so that their efforts were wasted in internecine strife.

Although Mihailović still enjoyed the official support of the British Government, Tito was not without friends in S.O.E.: one staff officer, in fact, so far allowed his enthusiasm to exceed his discretion that he was subsequently tried and convicted under the Official Secrets Act for passing confidential information to the Soviet Embassy in London.

in 1936, he had been the secretary and inspiration of the Cambridge University Communists. I had innocently supposed that Communists were strictly excluded from S.O.E., for I myself had been required to sign a declaration that I belonged to no Communist or Fascist party before I was enrolled in the organization. However, among my acquaintances at Cambridge there were a number of young men who had joined the Party in a spirit of idealism, only to leave it after the Soviet-German pact of 1939; I assumed that Klugmann was one of them. But I was wrong: like his contemporary, Guy Burgess, he was one of the hard core and today he is a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

At this time the social structure in the north was tribal, resembling that of the Scottish highlands before the Forty-five; in the south a rich landowning aristocracy exploited a landless peasantry which since the beginning of Turkish rule had been allowed neither the security of wealth nor the dignity of freedom.

There are three religions in the country, generally confined within geographical limits: in the south the majority of the peasantry is Greek Orthodox, though the land-owning Beys are Moslem; the centre and plains are predominantly Moslem, while the north is divided between the Catholic mountaineers of Mirdita and Djukagjin, and the Moslems of Kossovo and the wild north-eastern frontier. But religious differences seemed to be of little importance in comparison with the rivalry of Gheg and Tosk and the age-long hatred of both for their Slav and Greek neighbours. At

the end of the Balkan Wars the Ambassadors’ Conference of 1913 recognized Albania as an independent State, delineating for it frontiers which were acceptable neither to the Albanians nor to their neighbours.

Two years later he was back in the mountains of Mati, where he carried on a guerrilla war against the Italians and their German successors until the end of 1944, when he was overrun and driven into exile by the Communists who now dominate his country. In

‘In practice, exclusive control of the movement was retained in the hands of a small committee, all of whom were Communists. This committee, besides directing policy, appointed the guerrilla commanders, the political commissars, and the regional organizers. The former were most often, and the two latter invariably, Communists; while, in accordance with the best conspiratorial traditions, all three were kept under observation by Party members who held no official position at all. By these methods, seconded by the salutary liquidation of those who disobeyed or disagreed, the Partisan movement presently achieved a degree of discipline and cohesion of which few observers believed Albanians to be capable.

gradually became apparent that the arms and money which S.O.E. was dropping so lavishly into Albania were being conserved by L.N.C. and Balli Kombëtar alike for use against each other.

These instructions, which seemed clear and logical to us in Cairo, were to prove quite unrealistic in the field.

he had volunteered for Albania, he informed us, in order to keep himself in practice for his next Himalayan attempt.

Reading this last sentence I was reminded that the Encyclopedia Britannica listed the word ‘intelligence’ under three headings: 1. Human; 2. Animal; 3. Military.

Unlike most of the Partisan leaders he already had some practical experience of serious warfare, for he had commanded a company of the International Brigades in Spain; unlike most of them, also, he spoke good English. A sour, taciturn man of ruthless ambition, outstanding courage, and sickening ferocity—he had personally cut the throats of seventy Italian prisoners after a recent engagement—he tried hard to conceal his dislike and distrust of the British, because he admired the soldierly qualities of McLean and Smiley and valued the help they gave him.

the whole L.N.C. movement—was in the hands of the Chief Political Commissar, Professor Enver Hoxha, an ex-schoolmaster from the Lycée at Korçë. He was a tall, flabby creature in his early thirties, with a sulky, podgy face and a soft woman’s voice. Like Mehmet Shehu he was a fanatical Communist, cruel, humourless, and deeply suspicious of the British. He spoke excellent French but no English. Although physically a coward he had absurd military pretentions, which led him two years later, when his forces had made him master of Albania, to arrogate to himself the rank of ‘Colonel-General’. It

No wonder the villagers are fed up! They must either take to the hills and lose their property, or stay and be massacred. Sometimes, to escape reprisals, they do warn the enemy of L.N.C. ambushes, and it’s hard to blame them.

If I had been entranced before I came to Albania by the romance and glamour of guerrilla warfare, this was a sobering reminder of its squalor and injustice.

Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu were not building up their military formations in order to fight Germans or Italians, but in order to gain control of Albania for themselves by force; they were not going to risk serious losses in operations which to them were only of secondary importance.

Now a Bektashi monastery stood on the slopes. The Bektashi sect, which was influential in Albania, seems to have originated during Turkish times among the Janissaries and contains elements of different religions absorbed into the Islamic faith. In particular, its adherents are not forbidden the use of strong drink.

In accordance with custom our arms were taken from us when we entered the house. This gesture signified that as long as we were under his roof our host was responsible with his life for our safety; if anyone were to kill us our host must start Hakmarjë—a blood feud—with him and would be dishonoured in the eyes of all his neighbours until he avenged our death with that of the murderer. The

It was not unusual for as many as twenty members of one family to be killed in the same vendetta in the course of two or three generations.1 More than once an Albanian has said to me: ‘I cannot go with you to that house; I have enemies.’

few months after his appointment to command the Italian Partisans in Albania he absconded to the mountains, accompanied by his Staff, with a considerable sum of money given him by the Allies to feed and equip his men.

As soon as he heard the news of the surrender, on 9th September, Seymour hurried to Arbonë, where he sent a message to General Dalmazzo in Tiranë requesting his co-operation and asking for a meeting; unfortunately the message was not delivered until the next day, when the Germans were already in occupation of the capital. However, Dalmazzo sent a staff car to Arbonë, which took Seymour, wearing an Italian army greatcoat over his uniform, through the German control posts to Army Headquarters, where he had a long discussion with Dalmazzo’s Chief of Intelligence. At the same time, in an adjoining room, Dalmazzo himself was in conference with senior German officers, arranging his own evacuation under German protection to Belgrade; not until Dalmazzo had left Albania did Seymour learn the truth.

Moreover, to many patriotic Albanians it was by no means clear that an Allied victory was in the best interests of their country; they feared—perhaps I should say fore-saw—that it would result not only in the loss of Kossovo but also in their own subjection to Communist rule.

The Germans played cleverly upon these feelings. Firstly they made very few demands on the civilian population, to whom they behaved with courtesy and consideration, and secondly they made much political capital out of the Kossovo question. It is a measure of their success that when they set up a puppet government in Tirana they were able to induce Albanians of high principles and distinction to serve in it. As time went on it became more and more obvious that we could offer the Albanians little inducement to take up arms compared with the advantages they could enjoy by remaining passive.

we British Liaison Officers were slow to understand their point of view; as a nation we have always tended to assume that those who do not whole-heartedly support us in our wars have some sinister motive for not wishing to see the world a better place. This attitude made us particularly unsympathetic towards the Balli Kombëtar, although the latter was a thoroughly patriotic organization. The Balli refrained from collaboration with the Germans against us; indeed, they gave us much covert help; but they did sit on the fence, hoping to establish themselves so firmly in the administration of the country that the victorious Allies would naturally call upon them to form a government. Indeed, they were naïvely convinced that the British and Americans would be glad to entrust the government to them, in preference to the Communist alternative of the L.N.C. The leaders of the L.N.C. had good reasons for continuing the struggle; but their interests, of course, were not Albania’s.

He did nothing to raise my spirits by pointing out how conspicuous I should appear in the town, for not only did I look like a foreigner but I even walked like one; to the vast entertainment of Seymour, Myslim, and Stiljan he insisted on giving me lessons in the ‘Albanian Walk’. He was not impressed with my progress.

I had come to Tiranë unarmed, believing that a gun was more likely to get me into trouble than out of it.

Cairo agreed to drop the money, but in small amounts, and to disperse it among the various British missions in the country, hoping thus to control its expenditure. The result was the same: most of the money was diverted to finance the Albanian Communist Party, who took exclusive credit for such relief work as was done.

but I was unable to shake off the feeling that they intended to keep one foot in the German camp in order to conserve their strength for the real struggle for power with the Partisans.

From his first days in Albania he suffered continuously from dysentry, but his spirit and determination drove him to endurance far beyond his strength.

At first sight Fiqri Dine reminded me of an evil, black, overgrown toad; his manner was reserved and barely friendly, his speech patronizing.

In Dibra, we subsequently heard, the Germans had received a similar ovation; disgusted with the behaviour of the Partisans and grateful to the power that had united them with their kin in Albania, the Dibrans had turned their backs on the Allied cause.

But it derived also from the perpetual insecurity of life in the mountains, especially on the frontiers; there were very few families whose houses had not been burnt at least once this century by Turks, Serbs, Greeks, Austrians, Germans, Italians, or fellow Albanians.

must have shocked the Germans’ own allies, for even in their blood-feuds the Albanians would respect the lives of women and children.

he looked very frail, sitting in a corner swathed in bandages, but his wounds were healing well under the usual local treatment, which was to plug the bullet-holes with goat’s cheese.

My principal task was to explore the chances of forming a resistance movement among Albanians in Kossovo. When I sounded him on the subject Hasan Beg warned me, as I had feared he would, that the majority of Kossovars preferred a German occupation to a Serb; the Axis Powers had at least united them with their fellow Albanians, whereas an Allied victory would, they feared, return them to Jugoslav rule. Therefore, although most believed that the Germans would eventually be beaten, few would risk their lives to help in the process without some combined declaration by the Allied governments, guaranteeing the Kossovars the right to decide their own future by plebiscite.

when I was awakened by the sound of three rifle shots in quick succession; grabbing their weapons Zenel and the others ran outside, to return in a few minutes with the comforting assurance that it was only a tribesman settling accounts with his blood-enemy.

‘Old man, it looks as though you’ve walked out of one spot of bother straight into another. There’s a blow-up expected here any day between the Partisans and the local chiefs.’

I did not mention the matter in front of Salimani because he had a feud with the Kryezius, dating from the 1920s when the eldest Kryeziu, Cena Beg, had invaded Krasniqi with a force of gendarmerie to hunt down his outlawed rival, Bairam Curi. I heard more of this tale later.

I ordered them to return to Deg at once, adding that the Kosmet could do what they liked about it. What they did, I soon discovered, was to send word to the Germans that I was in Gjakovë.

Soon we were prowling through the twisting, cobbled streets of the town like small boys playing Red Indians.

In the calm yet menacing grandeur of that mighty massif looming through the twilight I saw embodied all the splendour and savagery of the Balkans; all the harsh nobility and fierce endurance of the land shone in the opalescent beauty of those ice-bound, snow-wrapped cliffs.

was painfully reminded of the local name for these mountains—Prokletijë, or Accursed.

‘We have nothing against you English,’ he added. ‘Only we don’t want the Communists here; and so we collaborate with

those whom they considered to be our friends. In the eyes of the new rulers of Albania collaboration with the British was a far greater crime than collaboration with the Germans.

Of the Partisan leaders with whom I worked some have survived to enjoy power and privilege: others have been devoured by the monster they helped. to rear.

Albania, now the most abject of the Russian Satellites, was a totally unnecessary sacrifice to Soviet imperialism. It was British initiative, British arms and money that nurtured Albanian resistance in 1943; just as it was British policy in 1944 that surrendered to a hostile power our influence, our honour, and our friends.

but it was not the disappointment or the boredom that irritated us—not even the needling of the Partisans—so much as the knowledge that we were sitting idle in a backwater while great things were happening in the war outside. I thank heaven that I was never so unfortunate as to become a prisoner of war.

These supplies came from the Americans, but the Political Commissar used all his ingenuity to persuade his men and the peasants that they came from Russia. He went to the trouble of explaining that the initials, U.S. which were clearly stamped on the packages stood for ‘Unione Sovietica’; had not the planes been Italian? Then of course the labelling would be in Italian.

‘At least refrain from treachery to your officers in the field. Such conduct is unworthy of prostitutes let alone S.O.E. Staff Officers.’ He very rightly rejected my amendment, which would have read: ‘Such conduct is unworthy of prostitutes or even S.O.E. Staff Officers.’

Quayle had just come out of Albania from the Valona area, where his life had been an uninterrupted nightmare in which the Germans had played only the smallest part.

I suppose that eight months in the Balkans can be lethal to anyone’s sense of proportion.

He proposed to send me to Hungary to work with a non-Communist resistance group near Gyöngyös, north-east of Budapest. I should have to drop in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, where the Slovak army was in revolt against the Germans, and cross the frontier to Hungary. It sounded an interesting assignment in a part of Europe that I had always wanted to visit.

In the years since the disruption of that curious manage a trois, the Anglo-American honeymoon with Russia, the various instances of Soviet treachery have faded from our memory, dulled either by the passage of time or by the frequency of repetition. The story of the Warsaw rising, however, provides a particularly odious example. In July the Red Army summer offensive across Poland was halted on the Vistula by the German Army Group Centre under Field-Marshal Model; on 1st August Russian forces under Marshal Rokossovsky—himself a Pole—were only five miles east of the capital. At this critical moment the Polish Home Army rose in revolt, joined by the entire civilian population of Warsaw.2 It may be that the rising was premature and that supply difficulties and heavy German reinforcements held up the Russians; perhaps the Poles were unduly sanguine if they forgot for the moment that it was the stab in the back from the Red Army in 1939 that brought about the final collapse of their resistance to the Germans, or if they expected Stalin to forget the great Polish victory on the Vistula in 1920 which drove the Red Army from their country. Nothing, however, can excuse the Russian failure to lift a finger in support of Bór-Komorowski; most infamous of all, the allied aircraft flying from Britain and Italy to drop supplies to the beleaguered Poles were refused permission to use the Russian airfields near the city. Knowing that the Armja Krajowa was opposed to Communism in Poland, Stalin was delighted to watch its destruction at the hands of the Germans; in the words of Dr. Isaac Deutscher, usually a sympathetic biographer, ‘he was moved by that unscrupulous rancour and insensible spite of which he had given so much proof during the great purges.’3 After a few weeks of lonely and heroic resistance, during which the Germans systematically reduced Warsaw to rubble, the remnant of the Polish garrison surrendered.

We were also handed, in an atmosphere of grim and silent sympathy, a small supply of ‘L tablets’, each containing enough cyanide to kill a man in half an hour if swallowed, in a few seconds if chewed; the idea was that we might find ourselves in circumstances where suicide would be preferable to capture. Fortunately or unfortunately we somehow mixed them up with our aspirin tablets and so decided to destroy our store of both.

We lived in a trullo, one of the beehive-shaped dwellings that are typical of the Apulian hill country. These quaint and cosy buildings, warm in winter and cool in summer, are said to date from pre-medieval times when taxation was levied on every house with a roof; their ingenious construction requires no mortar, the bricks supporting one another from foundations to ceiling, so that the roof could be quickly removed on the approach of the tax collector and as quickly replaced after his departure. From the terrace of our trullo on the hillside we looked eastward over silver-green olive groves to the lead-coloured waters of the Adriatic.

At first I thought my parachute must have been late in opening; but it turned out that the pilot, either through an error of judgment or in the excitement of finding himself so close to his native land, had dropped us all from a little over two hundred feet. If any of our parachutes had failed to open immediately there would have been a fatal accident.

It is well known, although it can bear repetition, that Poland alone among the countries occupied by Germany produced no Quisling.

As far as I know we were the first and only British officers to be dropped into the country.

Most savage of all were the German auxiliary troops belonging to the army of the renegade Russian General Vlasov. Vlasov was a Cossack who was captured at the beginning of the German offensive against Russia in 1941 when, according to some figures, eight hundred thousand Russian soldiers were taken prisoner. From these Vlasov recruited an army of Cossack, Ukrainian, Turkoman, Mongol, and other Asiatic troops, which the Germans employed chiefly on garrison and security duties in occupied countries. Knowing that they would receive no quarter if taken, these men fought to the last; such was their barbarity towards the civilian population that they were feared and detested throughout occupied Europe. In this part of Poland there were Ukrainian and Turkoman divisions on the river Pilica and Cossack patrols everywhere. The A.K. shot any of Vlasov’s men whom they captured, as they also shot all S.S. men; prisoners from the Wehrmacht were usually deprived of their arms and uniforms and then released.

We commented on the lack of interest that all of them, old and young, showed in the personalities of the exiled Polish Government in London—an indifference which we found everywhere in Poland. Mikolajczyk alone seemed to have a considerable following. It has often been remarked that governments in exile tend to lose touch with the people they claim to represent; they tend also to lose their respect.

with astonished admiration I saw that a detachment of our escort had emplaced itself behind a low bank and was firing on the tanks and the advancing infantry: some twenty-five Poles with rifles and one light machine-gun were taking on four tanks and at least a hundred well-armed Germans.

If there is any more disagreeable experience in warfare than that of running away under fire I hope I never meet it. There is none of the hot excitement of attack, but much more of the danger;

At that time, of course, the whole problem seemed academic and unreal; none of us could foretell the hideous future, none of us remembered Stalin’s pledge to Hitler in 1939 that Poland should never rise again; least of all could we suppose that those apostles of freedom, Britain and the United States, would underwrite by treaty such an odious conspiracy.

During the three days of our stay we became infested with the most prolific and ferocious crop of lice that I at least have ever encountered. For the Spanish, Albanian, and Montenegrin louse I had learnt to acquire a certain tolerance, even affection; but these creatures bit with an increasing and fanatical fury that excluded all hope of sleep and comfort.

As the evening progressed, the pace of the party quickened to a macabre and frenzied gaiety whose implications could no longer be concealed. However much these people hated the Germans—and there was not a man or woman in the room who had not lost at least one close relative fighting against them—they literally dreaded the Russians. Tonight they were saying good-bye to the world they had always known. The German occupation had brought unbelievable hardship and tragedy to their country and their class: Russian rule, they foresaw, meant extinction for both.

the Red Army’s method of living off the country during an advance was as devastating as their ‘scorched earth’ policy in retreat.

Such was the routine of our prison life. The N.K.V.D. had taken over the building from the Gestapo only two days earlier—with all fittings.

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