No Colours or Crest

I found the first installment of Peter Kemp’s autobiography, Mine Were of Trouble, a worthwhile look at the Spanish Civil War, especially since it was from the rare perspective of the Nationalist side. However, this blog is now more focused in the type of books it covers, so I didn’t review it.

This, the second installment, falls more within the penumbra of espionage history category.

Review: No Colours or Crest, Peter Kemp, 1958.

Yes, parachuting behind German lines into wartime Albania on a mission for the Special Operations Executive sounds exciting and the stuff of many a novel. And it was exciting for Kemp.

But it was also full of tedium, treachery, and frustration.

Kemp’s frustration started in September 1939 when war broke out. Kemp had only been back from his time in Franco’s Spanish Army for a month. Kemp had been severely wounded in the Spanish Civil War and admits his nerves were rather shot when he heard the air raid sirens now sounding in London.

Being patriotic, he wanted to go to war again, this time for his own country. His older brother had already been in the British Navy several years. But Kemp’s past worked against him:

Now the weight of Republican propaganda, backed by the formidable organization of European Communism, had dubbed Franco a Fascist, while many of my British friends regarded me as, at best, a Fascist fellow-traveller. Even those who sympathized with me feared that Spain would enter the war against us, although I had seen enough of the devastation and war-weariness there to believe that she would remain neutral.

The local draft board took a look at his recent wounds and told him to come back in six months.

But, in the way of British society then, word got around that Kemp wanted to serve, and, one day, he found a summons to the War Office. It was looking for men with his “special experience”. They could offer a “more interesting experience” than a regular regiment.

In January 1940, Kemp found himself with a group of men at the cavalry barracks in Weedon undergoing abbreviated military training – the most useful element being horsemanship.

In April 1940, he got his first assignment: a sabotage mission against a Norwegian rail line.

But, here, we first see the divergence between sensational thrillers and reality. The mission was cancelled after the submarine carrying the commandoes had to return to base after suffering damage from enemy depth charges.

The Allies withdrew from Norway before the mission could be rescheduled.

The group’s leader decided to establish a new school for partisan warfare and asked Kempt to join it. The training camp was at Inverailort House in the Scottish Highlands, and, in May 1940, Kemp himself undergoing further training there in map reading, fieldcraft, and demolitions. The first students in June 1940.

But it wasn’t until February 1941 that Kemp found himself in the newly created S.O.E. It was then more training for Kemp including someone who sounds like the famous William Fairbairn:

We had spent hours listening to lectures on map-reading, demolitions, and German Army Order of Battle; and we had been taught pistol-shooting and ‘unarmed combat’ by two ex-detectives from the Shanghai International Police. The senior detective had the manner and appearance of an elderly, amiable clergyman, combined with the speed and ferocity of a footpad; lulled by his soft tones and charmed by his benevolent smile, we would be startled to hear him conclude some demonstration with a snarled, ‘Then you bring up your right knee smartly into his testicles.’

It was then a secret deployment to Gibralter in preparation for covert action in Spain if Franco allowed German forces to enter the country. Kemp had to contemplate possibly fighting against his former comrades.

The mission, of course, never came about, and, in August 1941, Kemp found himself back in England for more training including the first of many parachute jumps that didn’t go to plan. At last, in August 1942, he finally saw action as part of a Small-Scale Raiding Force that landed on the Normandy coast and later on a raid on the German occupied island of the Casquets. Kemp was again wounded – accidentally by the knife of a fellow soldier as they exfiltrated in a boat.

Kemp did three missions altogether with the Small-Scale Raiding Force including its last one in November 1942.

In May 1943, Kemp found himself involved with the Jugoslav Section of the SOE headquartered out of Cairo.

The first hint of how things were going to go wrong later was when he met the intelligence officer for that section, a former secretary of the Cambridge University Communists. “I had innocently supposed the Communists were strictly excluded from the S.O.E.”, he remarks.

But I was wrong: like his contemporary, Guy Burgess, he [Klugmann] was one of the hard core and today he is a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

 (Burgess, was, of course, one of the famous Cambridge Five Soviet spies and defected to the USSR in 1951.)

S.O.E. operations in Rumania, Bulgaria, Jugoslavia, and Greece hadn’t fared well. But Albania, untroubled by civil war, was thought to be a better theater for operations.

After rather useless language training and a briefing on the country’s history and current political situation, Kemp was scheduled to drop into Albania in July 1943. But, since this isn’t an action novel, his plans were delayed by an attack of gout.

Finally, about a third of the way into the book, four three-man teams (officer, wireless operator, and demolitions expert) were dropped into the country in August 1943. Kemp incurred another of his jump-related injuries, this time a concussion.

The frustrations of Kemp’s time in Albania are summed up by a chapter heading: “Partisans and Parasites”.

Kemp, as always, vividly describes his few combat actions in Albania, but most of his time in the book depicts the frustrations of operating in an environment where his alleged partisan allies spent a great deal of time asking for more weapons and gold while putting forth a minimum effort to actually fight Germans. The partisans of the Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shebu camps were more interested in preparing to fight with each other after (and sometimes before) the Germans were pushed out of the country. Others were not even sure they wanted the Germans to leave since they dreaded Communist subjugation when that happened. Kemp dutifully passed on Hoxha’s request for additional aid. As with the case of Greek Communist partisans, the aid found its way into the party’s coffers and not the struggle to resist an invasion. Clan feuds also complicated matters.

Kemp and the rest of the S.O.E. men had to move around quite a bit. There is a lot of walking and riding through the mountains of Albania, a country whose beauty impressed Kemp.

Eventually Kemp found himself in the disputed region of Kossovo where no help was to be had for his mission.

By Feburary 1944, Kemp was out of Albania for good, and he takes time out to detail how many of his Albanian friends and comrades were killed by the Communists after they took over.

He returned to Italy in March, and there another famous name shows up:

There we met other B.L.O.s back from the Field, among them Anthony Quayle who had been on the Staff at Gibraltar when I was there in 1941. 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. Persecuted alternately by Partisans and Balli Kombëtar, pursued, threatened, robbed, and on several occasions nearly murdered, he had been reduced to living like an animal in a cave. He had been rescued by sea on the day that we had flown out of Berane; when I saw him he was suffering from malaria, jaundice, and nervous exhaustion.

Qualye was to fictionalize his experience in the novel Eight Hours from England.

Kemp was not pleased to see another Communist as his unit’s intelligence officer, John Eyre. They were to cross paths later in Indochina. He also got to meet Albanian King Zog.

In July 1944, Kemp was sent for a refresher course on “’cloak and dagger’ technique”. His next mission was to be to Poland.

. . . but political difficulties arose with the Kremlin. 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. [sic]

Kemp reminds us the Soviets deliberately stalled its advance to Warsaw so that an uprising there in August 1944 would be crushed – along with the politically troublesome Polish Underground Army. The USSR protested against any British intelligence mission to report on the fighting in Poland. The Poles were “’Fascists’ and ‘bandits’”.

Finally, after more preparations including language lessons, Kemp arrived in Poland in December 1944.

Kemp has praise for the Poles as a “gallant people who had done so much to help themselves” – unlike many Albanians.

But, while the Poles “produced no Quislings”, they were not united in their resistance. There were four resistance groups, and, occasionally, they fought each other to the death. They also didn’t have that much respect for their putative leaders in exile.

The Germans were aware of his party parachuting in, so Kemp had to spend a lot of time moving from place to place and hiding among the locals. But the Germans never captured them. On the 16th of January 1945, the Soviets arrived.

There was much boasting of Soviet prowse in the war and assurances the Russians really would leave Poland. Kemp notes the Soviet’s army’s mobility would not have been possible without

“aid from Lend-Lease the Russians would not have had the mobility to follow up their victories even if they had been able to achieve them.”

Some of the officers declared that, when they were through with Germany, they would fight Britain. Kemp and his men were held as prisoners for about a month and even interrogated. They were then taken to Moscow. There the N.K.V.D. tried to run a honey-pot operation on them.

Eventually, in March 1945, they were sent back to England.

While combat takes up relatively few pages in this book, this is a fascinating glimpse of the feel of S.O.E. operations, the frustrations of partisan warfare, and Communist treachery. Throughout it, Kemp gives us vivid pictures of the many people he met and his life there.

This and the earlier Mine Were of Trouble are fascinating looks at some most important events of Europe’s 20th century history from an unusual perspective.

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