Staff Sergeant Bruce Chisholm, chief clerk at SOE training headquarters in Palestine
As the clock ticked towards midnight on October 16, 1943, six men from Britain’s Special Operations Executive parachuted into the treacherous mountains of Albania. Their mission, ordered by Churchill, was to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Its codename: Operation Spillway.
Among them was the most unlikely special forces operative of all, Staff Sergeant Bruce Chisholm, chief clerk at SOE training headquarters in Palestine.
The slightly built, bespectacled administrator had only just scraped through his Army entry medical.
He’d been declared Grade II, unfit to fight, a soldier for light duties only, when he jumped from a Halifax bomber into the Albanian winter.
He took with him a sidearm – and the Olivetti typewriter with which he usually typed up minutes of SOE meetings and military memos on the unit’s personnel and logistics.
By the time he was rescued nine hellish months later, he had contemplated cannibalism and survived only by drinking fresh blood from a goat he killed with a knife when he was close to death. He’d been machine-gunned, kidnapped and robbed, and escaped from captivity by ripping up the floorboards of a long-drop lavatory and jumping into the squalor below.
He had waded waist deep through glacial rivers, slept in stables or on the open mountain, and was reduced to surviving on snow-melt and the occasional walnut. He had also shot, at point-blank range, an Albanian traitor about to murder him.
The slightly built, bespectacled administrator (centre) had only just scraped through his Army entry medical
Afterwards, while the officers from Operation Spillway were awarded a George Cross and a clutch of Military Crosses and Distinguished Service Orders, the clerk who went to war with them chose obscurity. Chisholm returned to Britain and became a grocer, fishmonger and florist in Dorset.
The story of the combat clerk – believed to be the only one in the history of SOE – would have remained untold had it not been for a quirk of family fate.
Chisholm died, age 46, in February 1964, his poor health exacerbated by a fondness for gin and, perhaps, the damage done to his 5ft 8in, ten-and-a-half-stone frame in Albania.
Half a century later his military papers, a handful of photographs and a beautifully written 5,000-word account of his extraordinary feat were discovered in a long-unopened box by his son Oliver, now 75. Prior to that, he had known nothing of his father’s wartime heroism.
SOE author and expert Dr Roderick Bailey, of Oxford University, has confirmed Staff Sgt Chisholm’s heart-stopping memoir tallies with other contemporary accounts. It adds new and vivid detail to a remarkable chapter of British military history.
Bruce Chisholm, formerly a clerk in London, enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps, the Army’s administration unit, in September 1939 at the age of 22. Posted to SOE’s training base near Haifa, Israel, in the summer of 1943, he completed parachute training in August that year because it meant an extra two shillings a day in his pay packet.
He took with him a sidearm – and the Olivetti typewriter (pictured) with which he usually typed up minutes of SOE meetings and military memos on the unit’s personnel and logistics
It also meant that when legendary SOE commander Brigadier Edmund ‘Trotsky’ Davies – so called for having displayed a ‘kind of disciplined Bolshevism’ as a Sandhurst cadet – was hand-picking an elite team for his Albanian operation, he discovered he had a clerk qualified to jump into combat with him.
Davies planned to set up a British SOE base in the country, then considered to be a ruinously hostile geographic terrain overlaid by a near-medieval society.
The former occupying power, Italy, had collapsed, and the Germans believed it was ripe for the taking. Churchill tasked Davies to get there first and conscript Albania’s ragbag assortment of guerrilla groups into the Allied fight.
The Brigadier needed a clerk to record his meetings with leaders such as communist henchman Enver Hoxha, who would later become Albania’s dictator, and type up the accords and agreements Churchill sought.
That’s why Chisholm found himself ordered out of the balmy 27C Mediterranean warmth of Haifa and parachuting through the Albanian night towards flares marking a drop zone near Bize, 25 miles east of the capital Tirana.
But Operation Spillway was doomed. The speed of the German advance and infighting among warring Albanian factions compromised the men, trapping them in country with a bounty on their heads.
They had no choice but to split up and make a run for it through the mountains with a handful of Albanians and some Italian allies. On Christmas Eve 1943, four days after they’d eaten their last mule and three weeks since they’d last slept under cover, Hitler’s forces caught up with Chisholm’s cadre.
The terrified clerk fled the ensuing gunfire, forded a river and hid alone in a thicket of brambles. The next morning he made his way back to camp where, starving and exhausted, he considered eating one of his former comrades.
Pictured: German troops on the Russian front line during winter
‘There was the glassy-eyed body of one of the Italians; he had been stripped of everything but one sock. I looked at the Italian and for a terrible moment toyed with the idea of food, but my stomach and my heart revolted,’ he revealed in his memoir.
‘I searched the area but apart from two other naked bodies, I found nothing but six walnuts. I ate them, found another place to cross the river and lay down in the same spot as the night before. It was Boxing Day.’
He may have escaped, but he was without money, provisions, comrades or any method of contacting SOE headquarters in Cairo. He decided to seek refuge higher in the mountains where he stumbled across a goatherd’s summer hut and a lonely goat which had been separated from its flock.
‘It came quite readily to me,’ he recalled, ‘and as I smoothed it with one hand, I took my knife with the other and slashed its throat. But I was much too weak and just scratched it. With a startled bleat, it skipped 20 yards and eyed me reproachfully.
I searched the area but apart from two other naked bodies, I found nothing but six walnuts. I ate them, found another place to cross the river and lay down in the same spot as the night before. It was Boxing Day
‘I flung myself full length. Grabbed a hind leg and held on. This time I made no pretence of friendship. Laying with all my weight on top of him, I sawed away with the knife until the blood spurted over my hands. Cupping them together I drank the warm liquid and it felt as if new life was pouring into me almost as it left the goat.
‘I dragged the goat into the hut and gathered some wood. Feverishly I pulled matches out of my pocket but then there was a noise – a dislodged stone rattled against the rocks. I froze. Seconds later a stealthy footfall. I crossed silently to the side of the door and drew my revolver – all the frustrated hours of waiting for the food welled up inside me and I was ready to kill, kill anything that came between me and my goat.’
The noise proved to be an Italian ally and an Albanian guerrilla also hoping to conceal themselves in the goat hut, and the trio feasted together. Three days later, with the Albanian acting as a guide, Chisholm was reunited with five other men from Operation Spillway and a small band of Italians.
But any sense of salvation was premature. The group was ambushed by German forces, their only cover a 3ft wall of snow, their only escape route back up the mountain.
‘Up we started, it was a nightmare!’ wrote Chisholm. ‘One foot would go right up to the thigh in snow and start slipping when the other was moved. Frantically down on all fours, pulling, crawling, sliding, swearing – slowly, so slowly we went up yard by yard.
‘But the enemy were getting closer and the firing more accurate. The man in front of me was hit, spun round, fell and slid down past me. Vainly I reached out for him as he passed. Fear spurred me on. Up three yards – down two – another body rolling down and nearly taking me with it. There was a queer kind of groan behind me and I turned to see an Italian sliding slowly away with his hands grasping in front of him.’
By the time he had reached the summit, everyone else was, again, dead or gone. Lame, frostbitten and fighting through snow drifts taller than he was, the man who’d joined the Army to push a pen began the long trek to find safety. Trying to obtain maize bread from mountain men, he was robbed, taken hostage and imprisoned in a crude village house.
Before he was to be handed over to the Germans in Tirana, he decided to make one last inglorious escape attempt. Chisholm went to the lavatory, a wooden balcony with a hole in the floor planks. ‘The evil-smelling place was nauseating. Silently as possible, I forced to boards apart, swung myself through the hole and dropped. The landing was not pleasant but at least soft,’ he wrote.
It was then his luck changed. Back in the mountains, he met an Albanian couple who took him in but obliged him to remove his boots.
‘My position seemed to be getting worse and worse if that was possible – no gun, no revolver, no friend and now, no boots! In the pitch dark I pushed the goats out of the way, found a corner, sat down and resigned myself to fate. There was nothing else to do,’ wrote Chisholm.
‘Later I learnt the man put my boots on and walked for six hours before taking them off, putting his own cloth shoes on and returning home. Apparently my footprints were followed as far as he went.’
It was an act of mercy that saved his life. While Chisholm was reported as missing, presumed captured or dead, back in Britain, the Albanian couple fed him and gave him shelter in a filthy stable.
‘He called himself “a soldier of no importance”, yet his contribution to Operation Spillway, his courage and sheer determination to make it out alive, suggest he was far from that
Though a network of partisans he was able to make contact with other surviving SOE operatives, all with similar extraordinary stories to tell. Finally, with support from Cairo, he was evacuated to Berane in Montenegro and flown out of the Balkans. It was July 1944 and he’d been living on his wits since Christmas.
Of the 13 other SOE members who parachuted into Albania on his section of Operation Spillway, two would not survive, four were captured and seven escaped. Chisholm celebrated by taking four weeks’ leave before returning for service in the Mediterranean until the end of the war. Two years after being demobbed, he married second wife Dulcie, by whom he already had a child, Oliver. The couple settled in Sherborne, Dorset, where they opened their grocers and fishmongers, before becoming publicans.
The former staff sergeant chose not to share his extraordinary story with his loved ones but to write it down as a private record. The document was hidden in a box which was shipped to Australia when a family member emigrated. It was returned to a mightily surprised Oliver last year.
Today he says: ‘My father called himself “a soldier of no importance”, yet his contribution to Operation Spillway, his courage and sheer determination to make it out alive, suggest he was far from that.
‘His commanding officer in the SOE liked to say he’d “take anyone from anywhere”. It seems he took his chief clerk to Albania and made a hero of him.’
The only thing Chisholm did not include in his searing account is that he killed a man at close quarters to save his own life. That fact is recorded on a scrap of paper in the files of America’s wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Despite all that was done to him, he appears to have been unable to admit how much of a soldier he had truly become.
His typewriter appears to still be in Albania. Brigadier Davies was in possession of an Olivetti when he was rescued by Albanian friendly forces. Today it’s in a mountain museum near the ill-fated SOE base in Bize, the perfect posthumous tribute to the clerk who went to war.