October 15, 2000
JIM CHESSHIRE, who has died aged 83, played a notable part in sabotaging enemy armoured and supply columns in occupied Albania during the Second World War; when eventually captured, he was imprisoned at Colditz.
A chartered surveyor by profession, Chesshire had been commissioned into the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of war and was then recruited by the Special Operations Executive. His brief would be to handle explosives, exploit opportunities for demolition in occupied Europe and give support to partisan groups.
He soon came under the command of Brigadier "Trotsky" Davies (so called for having displayed "a kind of disciplined bolshevism" as a Sandhurst cadet). In the summer of 1943, Chesshire, by then a sapper major, boarded a Halifax bomber in the north African desert, together with Davies and a wireless operator named Sergeant Smith. The aircraft was bound for Albania where the three men parachuted into the Chermenika mountains.
Chesshire soon put his explosives training to the test by blowing up the approach to a bridge used by enemy military traffic in the area of Labinot. Concealed from view, he calmly ate his supper while enemy transport passed by, before fixing the charges and detonating them at midnight. As well as carrying out further demolitions, Chesshire used his surveying expertise to organise a building programme at Davies's expanding mission camp at Biza.
He designed and built numerous huts and stables before extreme weather necessitated a move to winter quarters at Orenje, below the snow line. He was just finalising arrangements to settle in there when, as so often happened in the Balkans, news of a rapidly advancing German column called for a further move, to Martenash.
As he travelled across the rugged terrain, Chesshire kept his spirits up by reading a batch of letters from a girlfriend that had arrived by air drop; he rationed himself to a letter a day. Davies, meanwhile, made do with an edition of Blackwoods magazine containing an article about Brigadier Bernard Fergusson and his Chindits in Burma. Among the many fellow SOE personnel whom they came across in their travels was Peter Kemp, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and later a war reporter.
Kemp, too, was spending an eventful time in Albania, travelling about by mule, cultivating local resistance and evading capture. Chesshire's luck, though, ran out in January 1944, when he and his comrades unexpectedly came under enemy fire. He was hit in a thigh, while Davies was wounded in his stomach and heel. Sergeant Smith, a former RAF air gunner who had volunteered for the SOE after finding life in a desert bomber squadron a trifle tame, insisted on staying with them.
Davies reminded him that badly wounded men should be left to their fate, to which the uncompromising Yorkshireman retorted: "You're in no position to give me orders." With that he dragged Davies and Chesshire to the shelter of a stone sheepfold and tended their wounds as best he could.
Smith had just got a fire going when a bullet cracked into the stone wall of the fold, followed by a hail of fire from all sides. Apparently heedless of the danger, Smith walked out shouting "Inglisi ferriti" ("Englishmen wounded"). "They're massing for the kill," he reported on his return. Then all hell broke loose. The attackers, bandoliered Albanians who had sided with the Germans, charged. Although Smith carried on returning fire, the three Englishmen were quickly overwhelmed.
Chesshire and Davies were placed on makeshift stretchers for a terrible journey through mountains and icy streams. Davies developed diarrhoea and Chesshire - coaxed by Smith: "Come on sir, cough up another of her letters" - ruefully provided the necessary paper. They eventually reached a hospital in Tirana where they were seen by German doctors. Chesshire was then taken away by the Gestapo, accompanied by motorcycle outriders, to an underground cell in Belgrade.
There he was treated so savagely that when he finally arrived at Colditz Castle, he was too ill to take part in the routine prison camp activities. Davies later joined him at Colditz, from where they were eventually liberated by advancing American troops in April 1945. Sergeant Smith was repatriated from an RAF camp.
For his actions in Albania, Chesshire was awarded an MC in 1944. James Hugh Cecil Chesshire was born at Stourport, Worcestershire, on December 28 1916. He went to Marlborough and then joined Chesshire Gibson, a firm of chartered surveyors in Birmingham founded by his great-great-great grandfather in 1784.
On his return from Germany, Chesshire resumed with the firm, became a partner in 1947 and helped initiate a period of growth and expansion. The partnership increased from two to 16; seven offices were opened in Birmingham, one in London - in Mayfair - and one in Los Angeles. In the 1950s, the firm worked for Laing Properties on the development of the Bull Ring shopping centre; and they advised on Birmingham Chamber of Commerce's move from New Street to Edgbaston.
Chesshire himself looked after much of the firm's business in the West Midlands, including the purchase of a site for Harrods in Birmingham's city centre. He also oversaw the growth of residential and agricultural departments which handled the sales of many fine houses and estates. By the time he retired in 1984, the firm was almost unrecognisable from the Chesshire Gibson he had joined before the war.
Chesshire was chairman of the West Midlands branch of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in 1961-62. He was a Freeman of the City of London. Jim Chesshire's wife Joan (née Drury) predeceased him. They had two daughters.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov