The Albanian Subversion is one of the earliest and most notable failures of the Western covert paramilitary operations in the Eastern Bloc. The British SIS and the American CIA launched a joint subversive operation, using as agents Albanian expatriates. Other anti-communist Albanians and many nationalists worked as agents for Greek, Italian and Yugoslav intelligence services, some supported by the UK 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 trial, and either shot or condemned to long prison terms at hard labor
Albania’s relations with the West soured after the communist regime’s refusal to allow free elections in December 1945. Albania restricted the movements of United States and British personnel in the country, charging that they had instigated anticommunist uprisings in the northern mountains. Britain announced in April that it would not send a diplomatic mission to Tiranë; the United States withdrew its mission in November; and both the United States and Britain opposed admitting Albania to the United Nations (UN). The Albanian regime feared that the United States and Britain, which were supporting anticommunist forces in the civil war in Greece, would back Greek demands for territory in southern Albania; and anxieties grew in July when a United States Senate resolution backed the Greek demands.
A major incident between Albania and Britain erupted in 1946 after Tiranë claimed jurisdiction over the channel between the Albanian mainland and the Greek island of Corfu. Britain challenged Albania by sailing four destroyers into the channel. Two of the ships struck mines on October 22, 1946, and forty-four crew members died. Britain complained to the UN and the International Court of Justice which, in its first case ever, ruled against Tiranë.
After 1946 the United States and Britain began implementing an elaborate covert plan to overthrow Albania’s communist regime by backing anticommunist and royalist forces within the country. By 1949 the United States and British intelligence organizations were working with King Zog and the fanatic mountainmen of his personal guard. They recruited Albanian refugees and émigrés from Egypt, Italy, and Greece; trained them in Cyprus, Malta, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany); and infiltrated them into Albania. Guerrilla units entered Albania in 1950 and 1952, but Albanian security forces killed or captured all of them. Kim Philby, a Soviet double agent working as a liaison officer between the British intelligence service and the United States Central Intelligence Agency, had leaked details of the infiltration plan to Moscow, and the security breach claimed the lives of about 300 infiltrators.
Operation Valuable, or as BG/FIEND by the CIA was conceived by British intelligence to depose the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. It was one of the first attempts at “regime change” during the Cold War in the “denied areas” or “captive nations”.
There were several reasons why the UK sought to achieve a regime change in Tirana. It was meant as a “rollback” action, to deprive the Soviet Union of a client state. Strategically, Britain sought to deny the USSR naval bases on the Adriatic coast, which threatened British and US control of the Mediterranean. Britain was a naval power and securing sea lanes was of paramount concern. The operation was to consist of inserting UK and US trained commandos into Albania to organize guerrilla groups who would mount a coup that would overthrow Enver Hoxha. For the CIA, it would be “a clinical experiment to see whether large roll-back operations would be feasible elsewhere.”
In February 1947, Philby was appointed head of British intelligence for Turkey, and posted to Istanbul with his second wife, Aileen, and their family. His public position was that of First Secretary at the British Consulate; in reality, his intelligence work required overseeing British agents and working with the Turkish security services.
Philby planned to infiltrate five or six groups of émigrés into Soviet Armenia or Soviet Georgia. But efforts among the expatriate community in Paris produced just two recruits. Turkish intelligence took them to a border crossing into Georgia but soon afterwards shots were heard. Another effort was made using a Turkish gulet for a seaborne landing, but it never left port. He was implicated in a similar campaign in Albania. Colonel David Smiley, an aristocratic Guards officer who had helped Enver Hoxha and his Communist guerillas to liberate Albania, now prepared to liberate it from Hoxha. He trained Albanian commandos – some of whom were former Nazi collaborators – in Libya or Malta. From 1947, they infiltrated the southern mountains to build support for former King Zog.
A wave of subversive activity, including the failed infiltration and the March 1951 bombing of the Soviet embassy in Tiranë, encouraged the Albanian regime to implement harsh internal security measures. In September 1952, the assembly enacted a penal code that required the death penalty for anyone over eleven years old found guilty of conspiring against the state, damaging state property, or committing economic sabotage
The first three missions, overland from Greece, were trouble-free. Larger numbers were landed by sea and air under Operation Valuable, which continued until 1951, increasingly under the influence of the newly formed CIA. Stewart Menzies, head of SIS, disliked the idea, which was promoted by former SOE men now in SIS. Most infiltrators were caught by the Sigurimi, the Albanian Security Service. Clearly there had been leaks and Philby was later suspected as one of the leakers. His own comment was “I do not say that people were happy under the regime but the CIA underestimated the degree of control that the Authorities had over the country.” Macintyre (2014) includes this typically cold-blooded quote from Philby:
“The agents we sent into Albania were armed men intent on murder, sabotage and assassination … They knew the risks they were running. I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union and those interests required that these men were defeated. To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.”
In a 1981 lecture to the East German security service, Stasi, Philby attributed the failure of the British Secret Service to unmask him as due in great part to the British class system—it was inconceivable that one “born into the ruling class of the British Empire” would be a traitor—to the amateurish and incompetent nature of the organisation, and to so many in MI6 having so much to lose if he was proven to be a spy. He had the policy of never confessing—a document in his own handwriting was dismissed as a forgery. He said that at the time of his recruitment as a spy there were no prospects of his being useful; he was instructed to make his way into the Secret Service, which took years, starting with journalism and building up contacts in the establishment. He said that there was no discipline there; he made friends with the archivist, which enabled him for years to take secret documents home, many unrelated to his own work, and bring them back the next day; his handler took and photographed them overnight. When he was instructed to remove and replace his boss, Felix Cowgill, he asked if it was proposed “to shoot him or something”, but was told to use bureaucratic intrigue. He said “It was a very dirty story—but after all our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in any way”. Commenting on his betrayal of the operation to secretly send thousands of Albanians back into their country to overthrow the communist regime, which led to many being killed, Philby tries to turn it to his credit, even saying that he helped prevent another World War