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Misto Treska, President of Albania’s Cultural Relations Committee, says, “Naturally we maintain a large army. We have large enemies, large frontiers to defend. As to our Navy, it is very small. Enough to protect our coastline, nothing more. Its role is purely defensive. Whom should we attack? The biggest ships in our Navy can scarcely sail out of sight of land.”
Only to a land as tiny as Albania (200
utiles from north to south, 50 miles from east to west, two million inhabitants) would her neighbors look large. Yugoslavia to north and east, Greece to the south, have respectively nine times and five times her area and population. She expends much newsprint and broadcasting time hurling insults across the frontiers at them both—with Greece, as Albanians are always ready to remind the traveler, she is technically still at war.
Land of Marxist mystery, last lonely stronghold of pure Communism in Europe, the friend of no state but Red China, Albania preserves to the present day her traditional fears (all too often justified in four thousand years of history) of being absorbed by foreign conquest, of surrendering her peculiar culture and the independence of her tribes and clans.
“Spies” and “agents of foreign powers” are still being arrested, tried, and executed. The last big expose, every word of which was broadcast to the nation from the Palace of People’s Justice through street-corner loudspeakers, involved the Head of the Navy himself, Vice-Admiral Teine Seyko. Along with 11 other men, some of them government officials, he confessed to having been in league with “imperialist Americans, Greek monarcho-fascists and Yugoslavian revisionists” since 1947. Vice-Admiral Seyko has now been shot and the story of his trial, “The Plot to Liquidate the Popular Republic,” was one of Albania’s best-selling paperbacks last year.
Since then, the President told me, Albania has had no admiral, no one to wear the purple pennant with black double-eagle emblem in his flagship. Nor has she a Minister of Marine. Naval affairs occupy a minor part of the work of the Minister of People’s Defense. Her army is 60,000 strong—city streets are full of uniforms, and you cannot wander long around Tirana, the capital, without finding yourself by mistake in a barracks or officers’ club. The Air Force consists of a few khaki-colored, twin-engined transport planes and a squadron of Mig jets (seen in all their glory when Chinese potentates fly into Rinas airport)— and perhaps 4,000 personnel. The Navy numbers about 2,500, and not all of these are full- timers.
Where are the ships? You can tour the Albanian coastline from end to end, from the rocky riviera on the Corfu Channel in the south to the marsh-country of the Montenegrin border (Yugoslavia) in the north, without catching sight of the green-and-white ensign which denotes the warship pure and simple; without seeing much maritime life at all, in fact, apart from a few merchant ships anchored on the horizon off the shallow bay of Durres. The Albanians dislike the idea of
56 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1967
foreign vessels entering their chief commercial port. The dislike is mutual: foreign seamen say loading arrangements are unorganized, formalities irritating, shore-going facilities non-existent, and delays unacceptable. Durres harbor wears an abandoned look, but there is plenty of life two miles away on Durres beach, where people swim. Red-and-white motorboats skim back and forth along a line of buoys about two hundred yards offshore. They belong to the Policia Popullore, the People’s Police, and they are smarter than anything the Navy runs. Albania lets few foreigners in, and is careful to see that no native gets out.
What were described to me as the “big ships” of the Popular Republic’s fleet were lying beside the old bazaar on the lake waterfront of Shkoder in the north: 150-foot, postwar, ex-motor-fishing vessels of about 200 tons, each armed with a single, long-barrelled small-caliber gun something like a Bofors.
The topography of this region is curious. Albania’s longest river, the Drin, just touches Lake Shkoder, the Balkans’ biggest lake, collects the outfall and splits in two, the northern branch flowing 30 miles through a swift channel to the Adriatic Sea, the southern branch losing itself in a sandy delta and eventually oozing out across swamps. The halfdozen naval patrol boats, the cream of Albania’s navy, are locked on the lake, unfortunately being too big to get under the Shkoder road bridge into the navigable stream. That stream in any case—by a diplomatic decision fraught, one would think, with trouble—gives Albania no access to the sea, because the international commission that redrew Balkan frontiers after World War I gave its estuary to Yugoslavia.
Albania’s lake squadron, it seemed to me, spent most of its time fishing; and an officer told me that the ship’s companies (25 per boat) had planted 2,000 mulberry trees in a single night, in a crash aid-to-farmers evolution of the type the Ministry of People’s Defense is fond of ordering. Albanian naval administration reminds one of the medieval system, that put men and ships to peaceful uses until a national emergency threatened.
But Shkoder, the old Turkish-Venetian town of Scutari in the marshlands, inundated several times a year by Drin floods, might be called Albania’s northern naval stronghold. The squadron patrols a line between two islands where, only eight miles from the city, the lake passes into Yugoslavian territory. It demonstrated its combat capabilities a few years ago by intercepting a Yugoslavian motorboat, towing it to Shkoder and holding the crew prisoner. They were participating in a relay race from various parts of the country, carrying birthday greetings to President Tito, and the Albanian Navy’s coup invalidated the whole exercise.
Southward a hundred miles, where the salt swamps end and a 7,000-foot limestone massif stops short on the edge of the sea, Albania’s north-south highway (almost her only highway) meets the coast of Vlore, which has been a naval base of the Italians, the British, the Turks, Venetians, Romans and Corinthians at different stages of its history. Vlore (formerly Valona) is the fourth city of Albania (45,000), after Tirana the capital, Durres (Durazzo) and Shkoder (Scutari). It lies at the head of an inlet 20 miles deep—a gulf which looks, when you survey it from surrounding hills, like the arms of a nutcracker embracing a nut.
The nut is Sazan (Sasseno), a rock which commands the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, strategically important in Mediterranean Warfare throughout the centuries. Iron Curtain rumor, 15 years ago, said that Russia was basing nuclear submarines on steep-sided Sazan, and Western defense correspondents christened the island “Red Gibraltar.” Russian submarines certainly paid Vlore a Vlsit—their program was cut short by Albania’s dramatic break with her protector in 1961, when Soviet engineers, technicians and builders (including those bringing her shipyard and commercial port installations up to date) departed overnight, taking their blueprints with them.
If there are submarines at Sazan today, they must be Chinese. But it is noticeable that, although Chinese experts pervade every branch of Albania’s industrial life, they are rigidly excluded from Service activities. “We are not allies of the Chinese People’s Republic,” the President tells me. “We travel the same socialist road together, that is all. If she should try to interfere—in defense, for instance, as the Russians did—then ...” he makes a gesture of farewell.
Vlore is one large Albanian town where you see no Chinese at all. Indeed, the only ones you see anywhere on the coast are the thickbodied, solemn factory workers in coarse blue bathing suits like cut-down denims, who come down on weekends from Tirana to swim and sunbathe.
The Communist Party chairman of the Vlore region described the “Red Gibraltar” story as “journalistic nonsense.” There were submarine pens and caves for ammunition dumps cut in the rock of Sazan by Italians during the war; he himself had not seen them, had never been to the island and really knew nothing about it—which was rather like the Mayor of New York disclaiming knowledge of hong Island. From my hotel window, overlooking the bay, I saw small tugs towing strings of fishing boats out into the gulf. Every evening a water-boat sailed for waterless Sazan. Every evening from Uji Ftohte (Warm Springs) in Vlore bay, where the oil pipeline from Stalin City reaches the coast, a small tanker followed her.
When I prepared to photograph the double humps of Sazan from a balcony in the port area, a guide put his hand in front of my camera and said it was not permitted, that not even the Albanian press were allowed to take photographs from that point. Perhaps, after all, there was something slightly mysterious about Sazan. Yet the Party chairman instantly agreed to send me there for a day, to have a look around. It required approval from Tirana; all that day the lines were busy, and by the time approval came, the boat earmarked for the trip had gone on another job.
Albanian security is applied by fits and starts and is seemingly dictated more by whim than logic. By one of the paradoxes that continually confront the traveler, entry to the naval dockyard at Vlore is free to all. Vlore’s great tourist attraction, in fact—the museum housed in a villa above which the eagle standard of independence was first raised in 1912, when the patriots rose against the Turks—is in the middle of the dockyard, among small slipways, hand-operated cranes, a vintage dredger of British manufacture, and two tumbledown jetties about 200 yards long. All this, and a somewhat dilapidated three-story building not much larger than a dwelling- house, called the “barracks,” constitutes the first naval port of the Popular Republic. Vlore city, a mile away, has been transformed within the past three years at the (to Albania) considerable cost of a million-and-a-half dollars; the Party chairman outlined his plans for the port, which included a dry dock and a deep channel, with facilities for handling ships of 5,000 tons.
Among the aging caiques and miscellaneous fishing craft that helped to prop up the jetties, four coastal minesweepers were berthed. They were of the Navy proper, wearing green-and-white ensigns (the half-fishing- half-naval craft wear the national flag, red with black eagle and five-pointed star) and bore the names of Albania’s rivers: Vijose, Semani, Drin, and Mali. Only Semani appeared to be in seagoing condition and I walked on board and strolled about for five minutes be-
58 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1967
fore a shipkeeper—sole representative of the crew—climbed on deck rubbing his eyes. The captain? On leave, he said. Other officers? There was only one, who was on leave. The vessel, 80 feet long, about 100 tons, carried four machine-guns, a depth-charge rack, and rails for minelaying. Her bridge, wheelhouse, and engine-room were locked.
The Navy had about ten such craft, the shipkeeper told me, gifts from the Russian Navy, some based at Vlore and some at Sarande, further south. What did they do with themselves? One day a month they went to sea. Sometimes they laid a moored mine and picked it up again. Sometimes they towed targets down the coast, for the artillery to shoot at. Occasionally they took part in combined operations with the People’s Army and the People’s Air Force. Orders were to conserve fuel.
Heading south from Vlore, climbing over the Karaburun peninsula, you get a splendid view of the tremendous inlet in which all the world’s fleets could find swinging room. I watched from the mountaintop, while the fishing boats, the water-carrier and the small tanker set off on their nightly missions. Nothing else moved in the gulf. Beneath me, at its apex, a wrecked merchant ship lay—a wartime casualty, beached by her Italian master under attack from British Spitfires. The wreck- buoy alongside her winked in the evening twilight, and I remembered having seen it winking long ago, on an earlier visit to the People’s Republic. The merchant ship has lain in Vlore Bay for 24 years, and the hoisting of the Albanian flag on her derrick-head, done this year, is just about the only attention anyone has paid her over the years.
The 50-mile-long Albanian Riviera borders the Strait of Otranto on the Ionian Sea (a half-day’s trip by road, so severe are the gradients and so rough the surface) and connects Vlore with Sarande (formerly Santi Quaranta, Forty Saints). Halfway along it, the road descends to Himare, a fishing port celebrated for the courage and hardiness of its sailors in the old times, when some of them manned ships of their own in the navies of Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia. When the Communist regime came to Albania, numerous Himariots fled in their boats to Corfu, 30 miles away across the Ionian Sea.
Educated in King Edward VI School, Stafford, England, Lieutenant Commander Gardiner joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1939. He served in the battleships Rodney and Royal Sovereign. A prisoner of war after the loss of the destroyer Bedouin in 1942, he escaped from the Germans the following year. He served in minesweepers and a submarine squadron from 1945 until his retirement in 1956. He is currently writing a history of the British Admiralty.
Most, my guide said, had now returned.
“What happened to them?”
“Some were punished, some went to prison, some lost social privileges. They have paid for their offenses; no one holds it against them any more. Some are serving in the Navy.”
Sarande, a pleasant, modern town on a crescent-shaped bay, is visible across the strait from the northern tip of Corfu and is only 12 miles from the Greek mainland frontier. The Italians—who rechristened it Porto Edda, after Mussolini’s daughter— established a small naval base during their occupation of 1939-1943 and also intended it to be a port of call on a trans-Adriatic shipping route. It was off Sarande Bay, in 1946, that the British cruisers Orion and Superb were fired on and the British destroyers Saumarez and Volage heavily damaged, with the loss of 40 lives.
Sarande today looks like an innocent seaside resort with charming bougainvillea-smothered villas and rest camps for workers scattered around its shores. Down on the waterfront the Army is in complete charge. Soldiers patrol the jetties, or more often lounge half asleep under parasols. The harborside hotel, during my visit, was full of khaki-clad, green-tabbed Army officers, none of them very young, who disappeared every morning in an elderly “Zyl” (Russian) bus for maneuvers in the coastal mountains. Out in the bay a very old freighter wearing the Panamanian flag rusted at anchor. Citizens said she had been a fixture there for as long as they could remember, and she looked it.
To voyage to Albania’s southernmost town, another lake city, the classical site of Butrinto, you need special “written papers,” as the Army calls them: a pass without which you cannot even step on to Sarande’s seafront, because Butrinto is a mere stone’s throw from the Greek border. My driver and interpreter, both of whom particularly wanted to come because bathing and fishing in Butrinto lake is so attractive, were refused permission, and watched me set off alone in one of the two naval boats which lay in the harbor. One, a converted caique, was on her last legs but was evidently in from a fishing expedition; the crew, neatly dressed in tropical jumpers and blue-jean collars aW italiana, were disentangling a live squid from the trawl.
The other boat was a small motor launch of the seaside trips-around-the-bay variety, with tattered canopy and grimy cabin but skippered by one of the Albanian Navy’s senior officers—a commander with a ferocious black mustache (historic symbol of masculinity in Balkan countries) who spoke French and who was the only person trusted, he said, to sail through the Corfu Channel; experience having shown that whole ship’s companies sometimes found the temptation to desert to Greece too much for them.
The Albanian Navy, he declared, was in a discouraged state. The Army controlled everything. Her fleet, 32 green-ensign ships— coastal minesweepers, and patrol craft—was, as I must have seen, a token force of secondhand vessels converted from fishing boats or lease-lent by Russia and Yugoslavia in friendlier days. No replacements were foreseen, unless the gift of a yacht by Mao Tse-tung to First Secretary Enver Hoxha, that had been spoken of, could count as one. The Popular Republic, busy industrializing itself with Chinese aid in many fields, had not yet tackled shipbuilding. The scandal raised by the “traitor” Admiral Seyko had brought morale low. Many naval ratings were part- timers, with fishing or farming jobs ashore.
Officers, said the Commander, received a general education to university standards and then special courses in Army establishments before going to sea. A seafaring background was usually enough to get a man into the Navy: most came from Durres, Vlore, or Sarande and were never out of sight of home. Albanian officers used to do all their professional training with the Yugoslav or Soviet navies, and took courses at the academies of Leningrad and Dubrovnik. All the senior officers of today were Russian or Yugoslavian trained, none, of course, were left from the Italian era before the war.
He himself was a minesweeping expert. He had been one of eight Albanian officers who met the Greeks across a conference table in Corfu, 12 years after the Corfu Channel disaster, and planned the clearance of mines off Sarande. It was probably the only real operation ever undertaken by the People’s Navy—and its part in it was confined to “observing” and providing follow-up craft in case mines should be found. (None were.)
The Commander’s little motor launch ran well, though noisily, on gasoline engines made in Germany in 1927. Her passengers (four Sarande town councillors and myself) outnumbered her crew. He took her to sea, he said, at least once a week, had made the long passage to Shengjin, near Shkoder, in her and had worn his senior officer’s pennant when the Southern Squadron joined the rest of the fleet for exercises off Cape Rodoni, north of Durres. They had fought a mock battle which lasted three days, and I asked the Commander who the “enemy” was—at which he looked surprised.
“Les Grkques, naturellement,” he said, “Parfois la sixieme Jlotte Americaine.'"
A Man of Few Words
After the last scheduled speaker at a Veterans’ Day program in Baltimore, Maryland, the protocol-conscious EMCEE, wishing to offend no one, asked the numerous dignitaries seated on the speakers’ platform if anyone would like to say a few words. After several politicos had spoken at length, the EMCEE asked a Naval Reserve Chaplain.
His reply was, “Only the Benediction, when the time comes.”
--------------------------------------------- Contributed by Lieutenant William F. Devine, U. S. Navy