The British are coming. While the partisan leadership suspected that the British action on the Albanian coast pursued a hidden strategic agenda, the British got easily disheartened after the first troubles.



After the withdrawal of the VI Assault Brigade from the coast Vlora - Saranda, the Supreme Command of the National Liberation Army extended the control of the XII Assault Brigade to the whole area between Gjirokastra and the coast. As the partisan troops required regrouping along stretched positions, their pressure on the German forces eased. The German command decided to use the lull in the fights to regroup in southern Albania, and especially reinforce their garrisons along the coast - in Shenvasi near Saranda, in the castle of Borsh and on the Qeparo Mountain, in Spile near Himara, and in Llogara. The goal of those reinforcements was to enable free movement of troops along the coastal road Vlora - Himara - Saranda and clear the region of Kurvelesh of the partisan forces.

German forces were deployed in fortified garrisons and camps equipped with guns and mortars. The area between Vlora and Himara was secured by the XXI Army Corps (2,000 men from the 297th Inf.Div.), while the area between Saranda and Borsh was controlled by the XXII Army Corps (500 men). More troops were deployed around the city and in the port of Vlora; there were also deployed nine artillery batteries, in this three - on the Sazan Island. The perimeter of the German defences was based on the fortified outposts at Grykepisha, Mifoli bridge, Bestrova, Penkova, Drashovica, Mavrova, Kanina, Tragjasi, Dukati plains, Llogara pass, Karaburun peninsula, Spile and Himara, Borsh, Shenvasi, Kakavija and Saranda. The German command counted that there it would be able to oppose both partisan attacks, as well as a possible Anglo-American landing. Any possibility of co-operation between the partisan forces and the Western Allies were dismissed in the German command.

Meanwhile communication along the road Vlora - Saranda was substantially hampered, and possible only in convoys escorted by armoured vehicles. The partisans exercised a complete ease in the choice of targets along the road, while enemy garrisons were virtually blocked within fortified areas through frequent surprise assaults. The garrison in the castle of Borsh could be supplied only by sea; on the other hand, fields around Borsh were heavily mined.

Against those forces operated elements of the XII Assault Brigade, whose control stretched from Shenvasi to Fterra, to Pilur, and from the vicinity of Drashovica and Vlora to the banks of River Vjosa, while the area of their concentration, training and reinforcement was in the area of Kuc and Kurvelesh. Together with armed detachments of local peasantry, they kept under control the road linking Saranda with Vlora, harassed enemy garrisons, and prepared themselves for the final fights for Saranda, Himara and Vlora.

But there was yet another factor, which caused that the Supreme Command attached a special attention to the operations of the XII Assault Brigade; attention so big that since the end of July the Supreme Command maintained direct and constant radio-communication with the brigade's command.

Already since May, due to the favourable development of the situation on the southern coast of Albania, the Supreme Command contemplated possibility of landing there of Anglo-American troops (commandoes). Therefore, it was considered of utmost importance that the troops of the XII Assault Brigade, together with local partisans and armed volunteers, take under their control key points and roads on the coast and set there strong garrisons. Swift partisan operations in that area were supposed not only to liberate it, but also to prevent the enemy from surrendering to the Allies together with the areas under their control. In the course of such actions the entire Albanian coast had to be secured from seaborne operations, and they were controlled directly by the Supreme Command. Acting without direct orders from the Supreme Command was forbidden. In special cases units of the XII Assault Brigade might be authorized to act according to circumstances upon prior consent of the supreme commander Enver Hoxha.

At the same time the liaison officer attached to the headquarters of the I Operations Zone informed brigade's staff that the British command was planning a seaborne landing of a commando group at night from 28 to 29 July in order to eliminate the German outpost in Spile (near Himara). The arrival of the message to the staff of the brigade coincided with the information from the supreme commander that two days earlier Enver Hoxha discussed that action with the representative of the Anglo-American command at the General Staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Palmer. According to that information, the action in question had to be limited to the area of Spile, and after the action British commandoes had to withdraw from the Albanian territory immediately. The action at Spile was ostentatiously supposed to manifest co-operation between the Allies and the National-Liberation Front, but in fact, when Hoxha proposed a combined Anglo-Albanian action, Palmer evaded any commitment for that, quoting that he was authorized to negotiate only a purely British operation.

A parallel proposal of common Anglo-Albanian action at Spile was made at the headquarters of the XII Assault Brigade to the British liaison officer. Yet, the result was the same as in Palmer's case - the British objected to any Albanian involvement. Nevertheless, as the preparations for the British landing were under way, the headquarters of the XII Assault Brigade made it known to the liaison officer that detached Albanian battalions had been deployed around Himara, while in the area of Borsh and village Vuno another Albanian partisan group was readied to come to the aid of the landing British commandoes, should it become necessary. That task was assigned to the 4th Battalion, Kurvelesh Territorial Battalion, and volunteers from the coastal areas.

The garrison of Spile numbered 82 soldiers of the 523th Regiment, which held positions between Saranda and Vlora. But its main task was to hold the base in Spile, which was the key position enabling counter-attacks against partisan forces, and uninterrupted communication along the roads.

To carry that task, German forces had heavily fortified their defence positions, placed in rough terrain, deployed a lot of weapons, and supplied the troops with huge stocks of ammunition. Moreover, through a sophisticated network of communications, they assured that detached rapid-response units would be promptly informed about partisan attacks and introduced in menaced sectors. Such rapid-response units were deployed in Llogara and Borsh. In case of a loss of Spile to assaulting partisan forces, which after all was deemed impossible, the headquarters of the 297th Division issued orders to pull out German troops to the Llogara Pass, and hold it at any cost.

On the British side to the Spile operation were assigned about a thousand of commandoes with 6 landing crafts. The convoy included 2 destroyers and 6 motor-boats. The landing in designated sectors at Himara and Porto Palermo was to take place between 23:00 and the midnight on 28 July, while the assault on the German positions at Spile had to commence at 5:30 on 29 July. The assault would follow a combined barrage of ship artillery and bombing from the air.

As it occurred later, the barrage did not inflict any substantial damage on the enemy defences. German casualties were minimal: one officer killed, one wounded, and several soldiers shell-shocked.

Upon disembarking on the shore, the British soldiers did not undertake any serious attempt to scout the German garrisons. They had just gathered together in few spots outside the range of the enemy fire. That regrouping, however, did not go unnoticed on the German side, and soon German troops went to a counter-attack against the scattered British groups. As a result, the British suffered heavy casualties yet before the assault on the main objective could commence. Three or four attacks on German outposts were repelled with casualties. Overall, the British action was rather clumsy, especially so, that relatively weak German forces could have been overwhelmed, had a substantial superiority, especially in firepower, had been mounted.

Albanian partisans at the same time undertook a number of sorties from their positions against the German outposts around Himara to come to the aid of the fighting British. To them it came as a surprise when at 14:00 the British command, without achieving the objective of the landing, ordered withdrawal to the ships. They were convinced that such an order could be issued only after complete annihilation of the German base. Nevertheless, the British were in such a hurry to embark the ships that they had left behind close to 100 bodies of the killed, as well as several wounded, including one officer, and many rifles, machine-guns, munitions and 7 mortars. On the other hand, although fewer in numbers, the Germans had got encouraged by the British withdrawal, and counter-attacked.

In those circumstances the command of the XII Assault Brigade ordered its 4th Battalion to stay on its positions prepared for immediate attack to relieve the withdrawing commandoes, and possible assault on the German positions at Spile.

It was not the best moment for such an action. The alerted German garrison, pulled out of the pursuit after the British, could now turn against the partisans with the whole firepower of theirs, which included two 80mm mortars, eight 50mm mortars, one 75mm mountain gun, 12 heavy machine-guns and soldiers' individual weapons. On top of that they were deployed on fortified positions, attack against which would make a difficult task.

In that situation the partisan command decided to form assault groups to attack the Germans. Using mountainous landscape of the area, riddled with hills and gorges, assault groups closed the enemy positions to the grenade-throwing distance. While masking their movements behind folds of terrain, partisans surrounded German emplacements on positions convenient for suppressing their fire and further attacks from blind spots of their fortifications.

The partisan assault, with individual weapons and hand-grenades, surprised the Germans, but they had no intention to give in. Pitched fights flared up everywhere, and especially on the slopes of the hill of Spile. There the partisans captured a machine-gun nest and started suppressing enemy fire from the nearby positions, helping the attackers to wedge into the German lines. Soon the partisans strengthened their fire with a captured mortar. Nevertheless, the Germans, under the cover of incessant machine-gun fire, tried to reinforce their positions at Spile with troops transferred from other sectors of their perimeter. To prevent consolidation of the enemy defences, the command of the XII Assault Brigade engaged in battle its 4th Battalion reinforced by local volunteers. Their furious assault decided about the outcome of the battle on the slopes of Spile hill. German officer Hermann Frank thus remembered the defining moment of the German defeat:

Grenades are flying in the air. The rocks are cracking as they are falling on the positions where the soldiers are crouching in fear of death, which time after time seems inevitable. Behind the Germans' backs shells are falling from the heights. Partisans are attacking incessantly, while firing top-down from the mountains and successfully managing to knock out German troops. The positions of top-down attack offer the attackers a very good firepower. German soldiers know that to them there is no escape, if they do not receive any help from outside. But for this a miracle must happen, because German units scattered in vast space often get ambushed while moving through the inaccessible land infested with partisans. Moving now is suicidal. [Frank H. (1957).]

Partisans were unstoppable. But such a density of fire bore the risk of bringing "friendly fire" on the own troops, so partisan commanders ordered their men not to rush and to act without hurry. Commanders and commissars were ordered to act with consideration and cold blood, and not to move their troops without prior reconnaissance and organization of fire. People of Himara, who knew very well their place and the vicinity, helped very much to guide the partisans through the folds of terrain to the very edge of the German fortifications.

Those fierce fights had demonstrated that overwhelming the German defences by shelling them from the sea was not a necessary condition to win the battle. Tiny partisan artillery sufficed to concentrate fire on German fortified points and neutralize them one by one. Where artillery was not efficient enough - like in case of reinforced concrete bunkers - partisans did not fall back and deployed makeshift solutions, like mining the bunkers with powerful loads of explosives or setting them afire with inflammable mixtures.

Under the relentless pressure of the partisan forces the defence of Spile faded out. Only few troops evaded annihilation; others were killed or taken prisoners. The commandant of Spile also found himself among the prisoners. Partisans collected and buried bodies of the fallen British soldiers, left behind during the retreat. The command of the 297th Division in its reporting of the battle of Spile tried to minimize the partisan success, as it wrote: The garrison of the base held till the evening. Only the overwhelming all-at-once attack of the communist bands let the enemy to take the completely shattered base. [Frank H. (1957).]

Local people took part in the pursuit after the dispersed enemy troops alongside the partisans. They captured a German officer and his soldiers, who during the fights for Spile were in charge of supplies from Vlora. Their lorries loaded with food and supplies also fell in the hands of the partisans.

The command of the 297th Division, concerned with the defeat at Spile, created ad hoc a special assault group of 1,000 troops with artillery support to retake Spile and Himara. The group, called Poliecke, was ready to march out on 30 July. As the enemy column from Vlora left behind passes of Llogara and Dhermi, partisans ambushed it near Ilias. It was not until after two days of pitched fights, and bringing more reinforcements from Vlora, that the Germans made to Vuno, and on 1 August entered Himara and Spile. There, however, according to their own accounts, they found nothing but a pile of British helmets.

In course of incessant fights with the partisans, German troops were forced to leave Spile on 11 August. The analysis of the situation the Germans made after the battle, convinced them that there was no risk of a British landing on the Albanian coast, and the greatest anger to the German bases there was coming from the partisans.

Simultaneously with the battle of Spile, on 29 July, took place an Allied action against the enemy garrison in Borsh. According to the same scenario as in case of  Spile, the British bombarded enemy fortified positions in order to neutralize them. Bombardment from the sea was synchronized with the bombing and straffing from the British planes, but proved so inefficient, that caused more troubles to the movement of the partisan units rather than any serious losses to the enemy. It did not take much effort to the alerted Germans to understand that a seaborne assault would commence soon after. Therefore they assumed their combat positions and brought reinforcements. As the partisan forces approached the German positions, Companies A and B of the 1st Battalion were met with fierce and well-organized German fire. Partisans, who expected to catch the Germans unawares, were caught by surprise themselves and had to run for shelter. Meanwhile the rest of the troops of the 1st Battalion engaged German troops coming from Saranda to the aid of the Borsh garrison, and inflicted on them considerable losses in manpower and equipment.

In the evening of 30 July, Company A from the 1st Battalion attacked the German column moving from Borsh to Saranda, and destroyed three lorries with many killed and wounded. While the assault was under way, another column of 12 lorries and 1 armoured car left Borsh and came to the aid of the first column. Next day, 31 July 1944, another column of three lorries left Borsh. Combined enemy forces attacked partisans concentrated around the village. In the course of the fights the Germans lost further two lorries and some soldiers; while partisans evaded direct clashes and withdrew into the mountains, they eased the pressure on the garrison of Borsh.