August 25, 2000

Fighting Nazism and then Communism in Albania 

 

Northrop on a mission in Albania in 1944

 

TONY NORTHROP

 

Tony Northrop, former SOE and MI6 officer, was born on August 26, 1922. He died on August 12 aged 77

 

 

TONY NORTHROP spent a year in occupied Albania fighting alongside partisan guerrillas, and later drew on that experience for the first Cold War attempt by British Intelligence at rolling back communism through covert force. Between May 1950 and the end of 1952 he instructed Albanian émigrés in skills of sabotage and guerrilla warfare prior to their being sent back to Albania, where MI6 and the CIA hoped they would stir up trouble for Enver Hoxha's communist regime.

From the outset, however, the operation was doomed. The work of the Soviet spy Kim Philby, MI6's representative at the project's planning level, is thought to have ensured that these plans were in communist hands and ambushes were laid before any of the agents arrived - though such was the regime's grip on the country that the chances of success were in any case slim. The few agents who somehow survived the ambushes, escaped from Albania and returned to Northrop's training camp in Malta, told of informers and fierce security and of locals everywhere being too afraid to offer help or even shelter.

A mood of grim foreboding quickly settled on Northrop's trainees, or "pixies" as they were codenamed by MI6. When one disappeared from the camp, one morning in late 1951, Northrop eventually found the Albanian sitting quietly on a bench in a nearby town square. As he approached, the man saw him and at once clamped his hand to his mouth. To his horror Northrop realised the man was swallowing his cyanide capsule, issued to him a few days earlier in readiness for a mission. Northrop grabbed him by the throat, preventing him from chewing it and dying immediately, but the man swallowed it whole all the same. With minutes to go before the pill dissolved, Northrop managed to get the man to a hospital in time to have his stomach pumped, saving his life.

Northrop became convinced that the concept behind the operation - that it was possible to overthrow or even undermine Albanian communism by sending in a handful of armed Albanians - critically underestimated the strength of Hoxha's control of the country. Suspecting its futility and angry at the continued waste of life, he pressed his concerns on his superiors. But agents continued to parachute in or land by sea until late 1953, when the CIA and MI6 finally came to share his views and brought the operation to a close. By then, hundreds of Albanians had lost their lives.

Born in Heswall in 1922, the son of an English father and Irish mother, Anthony Ernest Northrop was educated first in Dublin and later in Surrey. Commissioned into the London Irish Rifles in 1941, he was sent to the Middle East and seconded to the Libyan Arab Force, an irregular unit operating behind enemy lines, before joining the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the autumn of 1943. That December, at the age of 21, he parachuted into the mountains of southern Albania to help to organise the resistance.

His arrival coincided with German offensives against all areas harbouring SOE missions. For much of the winter Northrop and other British personnel were hunted through the mountains in appalling weather. Some were captured, including the commander of all missions in Albania, Brigadier "Trotsky" Davies; others died. Brother officers saw Northrop as unflappable, extremely fit and "a perfect SOE type", well suited to coping with mountain and guerrilla warfare.

In the spring of 1944, while a liaison officer with Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Palmer's mission, Northrop at times dealt directly with Enver Hoxha, then leader of the partisans and of whom he came to take a particularly dim view.

On one occasion, when he was staying a night with Hoxha and his men, German soldiers entered their village and the partisans crept away, leaving Northrop asleep. He was awoken only by one of the villagers and bundled out of the back window as the Germans came in through the front door.

Evacuated from the coast in June, he parachuted back into Albania a month later in command of his own mission, spending the next few months hindering the German withdrawal from the Balkans with numerous ambushes and demolitions. He also further experienced the deteriorating relations between the Allies and the predominantly communist partisans with whom they were trying to work.

After leaving Albania in December 1944, Northrop joined Special Operations Australia (SOA) and dropped into Borneo in the last days of the war. When he and a local guide "bumped" an enemy patrol, Northrop received a sword wound to the forehead that temporarily blinded him and knocked him out. The guide killed the attacker, then carried Northrop for three days to a submarine pick-up and safety.

Once recovered and back in Europe, Northrop assisted Lord Russell of Liverpool's war crimes investigation team before leaving the Army in 1949. After a brief period in Jamaica with the Colonial Office he was recruited by MI6, his integrity and quiet modesty as much as his wartime experience making him an ideal candidate for that type of work.

From 1953 Northrop pursued a highly successful career worked with Unilever, working in the Congo, Ghana, El Salvador and Malaysia and retiring in 1981 as chairman of Unilever Exports Worldwide. A keen sportsman in his youth, having played rugby for the London Irish Rifles, in his retirement he indulged his passion for antiques and became something of an expert on silver.

Tony Northrop is survived by his wife Jean, and by their two daughters and son.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov