In 1943, in the darkest depths of the Second World War the British sent a small, select group of intelligence officers from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into Nazi-occupied Albania. Living under extreme conditions, one step ahead of capture at all times and short on supplies and support, the SOE personnel began to produce immediate results. They weren’t on their way to winning the war singlehandedly. They were doing a superb job of tying down German forces desperately needed elsewhere by the Third Reich.

London took notice. The bureaucrats woke up. They did what bureaucrats do, even ones in uniform. They sent in a general. They sent in a staff. They sent in a radio transmitter so large that it required a train of donkeys to move it ponderously through the trackless Albanian countryside.

Image courtesy of The Imperial War Museum (Second mission: Major David Smiley, Captain Julian Amery and Colonel Billy McLean at Mal i Bardhe, September 1944.)

A lean, flexible outfit became a top-heavy nightmare. SOE went from being the hunters to being the hunted. The fixed headquarters the general had established was overrun by Nazi forces. The general himself was captured.

In the aftermath some lessons were learned. All attempts at creating fixed headquarters and establishing staffs were abandoned. SOE officers went back to working in small groups and living with the Albanian forces they advised and supported. London learned and adapted.