Albanian Subversion

Albanian Subversion

The Albanian Subversion is one of the earliest and most notable failures of the Western covert paramilitary operations behind the Iron Curtain. Based on wrong assessments about Albania, and thinking that the country was ready to shake off its Stalinist regime, the British SIS and the American CIA launched a joint subversive operation, using as agents Albanian expatriates. Other noncommunist Albanians and many nationalists worked as agents for Greek, Italian and Yugoslav intelligence services, some supported by the U.K. and U.S. secret services. A Soviet mole, and later other spies tipped off the missions to Moscow, which in turn relayed the information to Albania. Consequently, many of the agents were caught, put on a show-trial, and either shot or condemned to long prison terms at hard labor.

The Albanian subversion cost the lives of at least 300 men and for a long time has remained one of the most carefully concealed secrets of the Cold War. For the West it was a humiliating operational disaster, whereas for the East, while an operational triumph, news of Western infiltration would have send the wrong message throughout the Communist bloc.


The reason behind the operation in Albania was a relatively simple one: it was separated from the Soviet Bloc by Yugoslavia, which had split with Stalin's Soviet Union in June, 1948. Albania was also the poorest European nation, and was home to about one million people, many still divided along semi-feudal lines. There were three major religious groups and two distinct classes: those people who owned land and claimed feudal privileges and those who did not. The landowners, only about 1% of the population, held 95% of the cultivated land as well as the principal ruling posts in the country's central and southern regions. Refusing to reform during the regime of King Zog many of them were steeped in the same Oriental conservatism that finally destroyed the once mighty Ottoman Empire.

During World War II, the Albanian society was split into several amorphous groups: nationalists, communists, royalists, traditionalists - the latter both tribal and feudal in nature. It was the Communist National Liberation Front that emerged victorious, mainly due to the ideological discipline instilled in their troops, but also because they were the only force which had consistently fought the Italians and Germans. Many nationalists and the royalists could not deny some collaboration with Italian and/or German occupiers.

However, Albania was in an unenviable position after World War II. Greece hungered for Albanian lands it claimed, while Yugoslavia wanted Albania merged into a Balkan confederation. The Allies recognized neither King Zog nor a republican government-in-exile, nor did they ever raise the question of Albania or its borders at major wartime conferences. No reliable statistics on Albania's wartime losses exist, but the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration reported about 30,000 Albanian dead from the war, 200 destroyed villages, 18,000 destroyed houses, and about 100,000 people made homeless. Albanian official statistics claim somewhat higher losses.

Operational plans

In this post-war chaos that was Albania the allies decided to launch their operation. The plan called for parachute drops of royalists into the Mati region in Central Albania. The region was traditionally known as a bastion of Albanian traditionalism and moreover praised for their loyalty to King Zog, himself an offspring of one of the regional clans. The original plan was that, if Britain could parachute enough well-trained agents, they could organize a massive popular revolt, which then the allies would supply by air drops. In time, this revolt would spill out a civil war. The trouble that this would cause the Soviet politics was worth the risk, and if it did succeed, then it could be the starting point of a chain reaction of popular revolutions throughout the Eastern Bloc. The project appeared so appealing that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had no hesitation in putting in into operation. It was run in detail by an agent who had come into SIS and Special Operations Executive (SOE). The chief of SIS, Stewart Menzies, was not enthusiastic about the paramilitary operation but saw it as a way to appease the former SOE “stinks and bangs people.” In addition, the British wanted the United States to finance the operation and to provide bases. Senior British intelligence officer William Hayter, who chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), came to Washington, D.C. in March with a group of Secret Intelligence Service members and Foreign Office staff that included Gladwyn Jebb, Earl Jellicoe, and Peter Dwyer of SIS and a Balkans specialist. Joined by SIS Washington liaison Harold 'Kim' Philby, they met with Robert Joyce of the US State Department’s Policy and Planning Staff (PPS) and Frank Wisner, who was the head of the Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC), and other U.S. intelligence officials such as James McCargar and Frank Lindsay. McCargar was assigned to liaise with Philby on joint operational matters. Unbeknownst to the SIS and CIA, though, Philby was a communist, and spy for Soviet foreign intelligence.

There was no scarcity of anti-communist Albanians and the recruiters promptly found them the Displaced Persons camps in Greece, Italy, and Turkey. The manpower recruitment for what the British codenamed Operation VALUABLE, the Americans FIEND, consisted of 40% from the Balli Kombetar (BK) National Front, an organization formed during World War II on a nationalist program committed to creating a Greater Albania; 40% from the monarchist movement, known as Legaliteti; and the rest from other Albanian factions.

Operation Valuable/Fiend

A dozen Albanian emigrés were recruited and taken to Malta to train for an Operation Valuable pilot project. The SIS trained these men in the use of weapons, codes and radio, the techniques of subversion and sabotage. They were dropped into the mountains of Mati throughout 1947, but failed to impress the inhabitants of the region into a larger revolt. The operation dragged on until 1949. There were sabotage attempts on the Kucova oilfields and the copper mines in Rubik but no real success in raising a revolt. Then, the US government weighing up the political situation, decided to lend a hand. In September 1949, British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin went to Washington, D.C. to discuss Operation Valuable with US government officials. The CIA released a report that concluded that “a purely internal Albanian uprising at this time is not indicated, and, if undertaken, would have little chance of success.” The CIA asserted that the Hoxha regime had a 65,000 man regular army and a security force of 15,000. There were intelligence reports that there were 1,500 Soviet “advisers” and 4,000 “technicians” in Albania helping to train the Albanian army. NATO was concerned that the USSR was building a submarine base at Vlora. On September 6, 1949, when NATO met for the first time in Washington, Bevin proposed that “a counter-revolution” be launched in Albania. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson was in agreement. NATO, established as a defensive military alliance of the North Atlantic region, was now committed to launching offensive covert operations against a sovereign nation in the Balkans. NATO member countries agreed to support the overthrow of the Hoxha regime in Albania and to eliminate Soviet influence in the Mediterranean region. Bevin wanted to place King Zog on the throne as the leader of Albania once Enver Hoxha was overthrown.

This time a better class of commando was needed so an approach was made to King Zog in exile in Cairo to recommend men for the job. Zog had no hesitation in offering his entire Royal Guard. Many accepted the opportunity including Captain Zenel Shehu, Captain Nalil Sufa and Hamit Matjani, an agent who had been into Albania several times since 1946. Matjani, known as "The Tiger" , had a courage and ferocity which contemporaries describe as legendary. These three gathered a small army by setting up a Committee of Free Albania in Italy, Egypt and Greece as a front for recruitment and training.

On October 3, 1949, the first group of 20 Albanian commandos, known as "The Pixies" by SIS, were landed on the Albanian coastline south of Vlora, which was the former territory of the Balli Kombetar. This was the start of Operation Valuable. "The Pixies" had been brought across the Corfu channel on a British sailing vessel, Stormie Seas. British intelligence officials had trained the Albanians since July on Malta. Albanian government security forces interdicted the commandos, killing four and forcing the others to flee south to Greece.

For two years after this landing, small groups left regularly from training camps in Cyprus, Malta and Germany, the entire series of operations was a disaster, with Albanian security forces interdicting the insurgents. Occasionally, the Albanian authorities would report on “large but unsuccessful infiltrations of enemies of the people” in several regions of the country.

The last infiltration took place a few weeks before Easter 1952. In a desperate effort to discover what was going on Captain Shehu himself parachuted with Captain Sufa and a radio operator in the Mati region. The Albanian militia was waiting for them at their rendezvous point, a house owned by Shehu’s cousin, a known supporter of Zog. The militia forced Shehu’s operator to transmit an all clear signal to his base in Cyprus. The operator had been schooled to deal with such situations by using a fail-safe drill which involved broadcasting in a way that warned it was being sent under duress and therefore should be disregarded. But the militia seemed to know the drill. The all clear signal went out and four more top agents, including Matjani, parachuted into an ambush at Shen Gjergj (Saint George), near the town of Elbasan. The Albanian army was waiting in a big circle, guns cocked, and the guerrillas landed in the middle of it. No one surrendered. Those not killed were tried in April, 1954.


Shehu, Sufa , Matjani and others were put on a show trial, which found all guilty as charged. Shehu, Sula and the royal guards were to be shot, Matjani to be hanged. Many of the local inhabitants who were suspected of having helped the guerrillas, were jailed or forcibly located elsewhere in Albania. Whatever remained of the anticommunist resistance was virtually erased.

Those guerrillas who survived had no doubt they were betrayed: “Police were always waiting when a boat came ashore. How could they know where the boats would come unless a traitor would have told them? Also, people who had been our friends when we left Albania were often no longer our friends when we went back.”

Up to 300 agents and civilians who helped them were likely killed during the operation. Abaz Ermenji, co-founder of Balli Kombetar (BK) stated: “Our ‘allies’ wanted to make use of Albania as a guinea-pig, without caring about the human losses, for an absurd enterprise that was condemned to failure.” Halil Nerguti stated: “We were used as an experiment. We were a small part of a big game, pawns that could be sacrificed.” There is no question that the CIA and MI6 used the operation as a small-scale exercise in regime change. The stakes were small. Failure would not be noticed. John H. Richardson, Director of the CIA's South-East Division, terminated Operation Fiend. By 1954, Company 4000's 120 members focused on guarding a United States Air Force chemical weapons dump south of Munich; CIA training facilities outside Heidelberg, Germany shut down, as did a CIA base on a Greek island. Over time, the remaining Albanians were resettled in the US, UK, and the Commonwealth countries.


The Albanian episode illustrated how out of touch with the Albanian reality the Western politics were. First of all, Albania was a country divided amongst itself and the democratic principles for which these agents might claim to have fought and died for were totally alien to a semi-illiterate population. Secondly, these men represented the "Old Guard" of a bygone era, bent on the preservation of century-old privileges. Third, the communist forces were an organized, and ideologically indoctrinated force, competent and forged into countless battles against the Italians and the Nazis.

The communists also undertook economic measures to expand their power. In December 1944, the provisional government adopted laws allowing the state to regulate foreign and domestic trade, commercial enterprises, and the few industries the country possessed. The laws sanctioned confiscation of property belonging to political exiles and "enemies of the people." The state also expropriated all German- and Italian-owned property, nationalized transportation enterprises, and canceled all concessions granted by previous Albanian governments to foreign companies. In August 1945, the provisional government adopted the first sweeping agricultural reforms in Albania's history. The country's 100 largest landowners, who controlled close to a third of Albania's arable land, had frustrated all agricultural reform proposals before the war. The communists' reforms were aimed at squeezing large landowners out of business, winning peasant support, and increasing farm output to avert famine. The government annulled outstanding agricultural debts, granted peasants access to inexpensive water for irrigation, and nationalized forest and pastureland. Under the Agrarian Reform Law, which redistributed about half of Albania's arable land, the government confiscated property belonging to absentee landlords and people not dependent on agriculture for a living. The few peasants with agricultural machinery were permitted to keep up to forty hectares of land; the landholdings of religious institutions and peasants without agricultural machinery were limited to twenty hectares; and landless peasants and peasants with tiny landholdings were given up to five hectares, although they had to pay nominal compensation. Thus tiny farmsteads replaced large private estates across Albania. By mid-1946 Albanian peasants were cultivating more land and producing higher corn and wheat yields than ever before. As such the power base had gradually shifted from the old elite to the newer one. Also the communists had the support of some nationalists on account of thwarting Yugoslav plans for a Balkan Federation, which would have invalidated Albanian independence and made the country a Yugoslav republic. Even if Kim Philby had not done what he did, it is highly likely that penetration of the Albanian émigré groups by both foreigners and Albanian Communist agents would have destroyed the Albanian subversion.


* [ "CIA and British MI6 in Albania"]
* [ "World War II and the rise of communism, 1941-44"]

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