By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Of 14 sorties flown by British World War Two pilots supplying anti-fascist fighters in Albania on Oct. 29, 1944, 12 returned to base in Italy, one failed to discharge its load and "the other is missing and assumed to have crashed", according to military records.

For seven decades, the Handley Page Halifax bomber was believed to be at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. Then, last October, a British and U.S. team climbed 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) into the Albanian mountains to locate its wreckage, which had been spotted by a villager out collecting herbs.

"Clearly what we found was enough to suggest we had found the remains of a big four-engine bomber," said Chris Casey, a doctor at the U.S. embassy in Tirana and part of the expedition.

A British-born aviation enthusiast, Casey trawled the Internet but was frustrated in his attempts to pinpoint the identity of the plane or its crew.

The vital clue would come in the form of a gold ring, engraved "Joyce & John" and held in safe keeping by an Albanian villager and then his son.

Jaho Cala found the ring in 1960 while collecting metal and wood in the mountains, when Albania was shut off from the outside world by the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha.

"He gave it to me when I got married in 1971, but told me clearly the ring did not belong to our family and I was to return it to its owner after communism ended," Jaho's son, Xhemil Cala, told Reuters.

Twenty years later, with Albania rid of communism, Cala took to wearing the ring while serving as a police officer. But he had not given up returning it to its rightful owner. He said the ring would not stay put on his finger, twisting as he slept.

"It is not yours, that is why," Cala quoted a Muslim cleric as telling him.

"OVERWHELMED"

Cala tried to intercept a visiting British envoy to pass him the ring, but was shooed away by defense ministry guards. When his commanding officer visited Britain, Cala gave him the ring but he brought it back saying he had no luck finding the owner.

Finally, he appealed to a regional government official, who alerted the British embassy more than two years ago.

"The ring ... really helped us to solve this riddle," said Casey said.

A flight engineer, Sergeant John Thompson and Joyce Mozley got married in June 1944 but only spent a weekend together before he was posted overseas, Alan Webster, Thompson's nephew, told Reuters at a ceremony in Tirana on Monday.

Gerd Kaceli, a military assistant at the British embassy, said Thompson's plane had dropped supplies to the Biza valley, but on turning west to return to Italy it clipped the top of the mountain and crashed, killing the crew.

Kaceli said Thompson's widow had remarried after the war and had died in 1995. He also spoke of "mystical" powers that had combined to shed light on the fate of the plane.

At the ceremony in Albania's Defence Ministry, Cala kneeled as he handed the ring to Thompson's 92-year-old sister, Dorothy Webster, along with a fuel gauge from the aircraft and a piece of rock from the mountain that brought it down.

"Your brother helped to liberate my country. He will never be forgotten," Defence Minister Mimi Kodheli told Webster.

"I remember him very well, as if it were yesterday," Webster told Reuters, adding she was "overwhelmed ... getting all these keepsakes that we never thought we would ever get".

(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones)