Lives remembered: Colonel David Smiley

David Smiley (left) and “Billy” McLean in Albania 1944

This article has no credit but I think from the Times. David Smiley is to me one of the most fascinating characters from the days of SOE and the unique group that assembled at Tara under Sophie Tarnowska. Smiley was a hard fighting soldier who excelled as an irregular. You can read more about him in obituaries from The Times and the Telegraph. If you can find a copy of his book, Albanian Assignment, I thoroughly recommend it.

Andrew Tarnowski writes: Your record of the passing of Colonel David Smiley (obituary, Jan 14) should not be without a mention of his part in one of the most glamorous and eccentric episodes of the Second World War: life at the Villa Tara in Cairo during 1943-44. He was one of a boisterous handful of dashing young SOE officers who lived between missions for several months at the villa they called Tara in Zamalek, on Gezira island. Under the presiding genius of Countess Sophie Tarnowska, a young and beautiful refugee Polish aristocrat, it became a centre for high society of all nationalities, with parties that ended, as often as not, with an orgy of broken glasses, pistols fired at the ceiling and smashed windows.

“We lived on a lavish scale,” Col Smiley wrote later, “and Tara became notorious for its riotous parties and for the eccentric behaviour of its occupants. It became my second home, and the time we spent there was the happiest and most amusing of the whole war.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the inmates, recalled Smiley’s arrival at Tara with Billy McLean from their exploits in Abyssinia, Greece and Albania. “Cavalry sabres stuck out of the bedrolls the suffraghis lugged upstairs . . . and assegais and strange Ethiopian swords stuck out as well, pre-Albanian trophies from the wild tribal levies they had commanded all through the Abyssinian Campaign,” he wrote in an account of life at Tara.

When I interviewed Smiley for a book in 1997 he told me that the famous kidnapping of the German General Kreipe on Crete in 1944 by Billy Moss and Leigh Fermor (recorded by Moss in his book Ill Met by Moonlight) was planned at Tara. Billy, who later married Sophie Tarnowska, and Leigh Fermor dreamt up the plan one night at a nightclub, the Club Royal de Chasse et de Pêche, and then Smiley remembered that they all worked out the details.

“We all planned that particular operation in the bathroom at Tara. We were all pretty well stark naked and on the wall was steam; the walls were tiled. I remember we were drawing with our fingers on the wall, a sort of road here; we’d be able to stop the German general’s car there; we’d have a covering party there — all that sort of stuff. But it was all in the bathroom.”

I think their life at Tara, perhaps, gives us a glimpse of the spirit of those men. It shows that fine soldiers as they were, they were also lots of fun.

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Obituary from 2006 – George Psychoundakis the Cretan Runner

George Psychoundakis during the Resistance

The wartime resistance fighter and SOE courier George Psychoundakis, who became a writer and literary translator, has died in Chania, Crete, at the age of 85 (2006 obituary). He won international fame in 1955 with the publication of his memoir of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, The Cretan Runner, which was translated with inimical lyricism by Patrick Leigh Fermor (later Sir Patrick), who had been parachuted on to the island to help organise the resistance.

By Simon Steyne

First published in the Guardian 21 February 2006 (and later corrected – see below)

Born in the mountain village of Asi Gonia, George had only a brief schooling before becoming a shepherd, a craft that made him familiar with the island landscape’s every feature. He joined the resistance as soon as the airborne German invasion of Crete began on May 20 1941, and operated as a messenger for Leigh Fermor, who took over command of the underground forces in western Crete from Xan Fielding in January 1942. Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits became widely known through his own writings and Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of him in the 1957 film, Ill Met by Moonlight, about the kidnapping of the German commander General Karl Kreipe.

George’s memoir told the story of the German occupation and the Cretan resistance from the time of the invasion to the island’s liberation on May 23 1945. His effortlessly poetic account reflected a passionate love of his homeland and its people, a geologist’s and botanist’s eye, the wonder of a young shepherd’s experiences during furlough in Egypt and Palestine, chortling bemusement at the habits of the upper-class British agents, and deep comradeship with his fellow resistance fighters – not least Manoli Paterakis and “Michali” (Leigh Fermor’s codename), who remained his lifelong friends.

George and I got to know each other in Crete in 1990. At our first meeting, he held up his map stolen from a German guard post. Against the lamp, the light shone through the pinholes left by the flags charting troop movements – and smiling with typical wryness, he displayed the helmet he had also taken from the guard “after I’d slit his throat” (an incident not recounted in his book). As a student of the German resistance, I had interviewed communists and social democrats who had been anti-fascists long before the war. But when I asked George why he had immediately joined the resistance in Crete, he looked at me as though I was from another planet and replied with one word: “philopatria” – love of my country.

George Psychoundakis in 2004(?)

George was imprisoned after the war because there was no record of any Greek military service, and in those 16 months he wrote his memoir in exercise books filched by Leigh Fermor from the British School in Athens. Dispatched to fight in the civil war for two further years, he finally returned to his village. His sheep had been stolen in 1941 – he once offered me the ruined hut to rebuild as a home in Crete – and, soon embroiled in a family feud that was to dog the rest of his life, he began a period of isolated existence as a charcoal-burner.

He worked as a navvy and was even an extra in the 1964 film, Zorba the Greek. But later, George – no leftist – was supported by friends in high places in the conservative Nea Demokratia party. Partly through that patronage and, with evident irony, in 1974 he and his friend Paterakis became groundsmen at the German war cemetery at Maleme. As he reportedly said, “I’m surrounded by Germans, but none of them will talk to me.” But George’s long service at the cemetery affirmed his respect for the war dead; he knew what life was worth.

The Cretan Runner brought George little wealth and also irritations. Some on the island appeared to resent the greater recognition he enjoyed than others who had fought. John Murray published the first English edition, but it was pirated by Greek publishers who sold many copies for which George received no royalties. Penguin reprinted the book in 1998. His translation of Homer’s Odyssey from the ancient Greek into a modern Cretan dialect was published, to much acclaim, in 1979.

May 1991 saw the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Crete, and the commemorations included an exhibition at the National Army Museum in London. Its deputy director, David Smurthwaite, and I arranged for George and his wife, Sofia, to come to the royal opening, and during the week he visited Winston Churchill’s country home at Chartwell, Kent. George always had a deep affection and admiration for the wartime British and New Zealanders; Churchill and General Bernard Freyberg, the allied commander on Crete, were his heroes, and he had his photograph taken standing by a picture of Freyberg.

Visiting George was remarkable. Apart from lazy meals in tavernas run by his extended family and at home (memorably including a kid, slaughtered and grilled for us at his daughter’s house), lubricated by home-made rakis and everyday stories, there were times of sadness and almost farcical humour. One moment he was recounting the death of comrades or pointing to villages in the Amari valley burnt in reprisal for the Kreipe kidnapping; the next he was yelling for me to stop the car. “Here,” he said, with a grin that betrayed both pride and mischief, “disguised as a woman, I took a donkey loaded with explosives through a German checkpoint.”

He is survived by Sofia, a son and two daughters, and four grandchildren.

· George Psychoundakis, resistance fighter and author, born November 3 1920; died January 29 2006.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Friday March 3 2006.

In the obituary above we said that Patrick Leigh Fermor parachuted into Crete to help organise the resistance. In fact he arrived at Crete by sea. We said Leigh Fermor “filched” from the British School in Athens the exercise books in which Psychoundakis had written his memoir of the Nazi occupation. In fact he first saw them in 1951 when Psychoundakis himself showed them to him. The villages in the Amari valley were not burned in reprisal for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe; he had been kidnapped several months earlier.

Faces of the week

I’m digging deep into my archive of draft articles to surface some items about Paddy that have been languishing there, in some cases for years.

This piece tells us nothing new, but fulfils my original purpose to bring together all that I could find about Paddy online into one place. It also reminds us how much web pages have changed since 2004!! More of these to follow.

Click here to launch the page from the BBC.

 

 

Event – screening of Ill Met by Moonlight in Melbourne, Australia

Great to see that the inestimable Brent McCunn and the Cretan community in Melbourne have been able to arrange a screening of the film to mark the 75th anniversary of the kidnap. I’m sure it will be a great success. All are welcome but maybe best to add a comment here for numbers if you are in town and can make it.

Date – 12 May. Location – Melbourne Cultural Centre, Lonsdale St Melbourne. Further details will follow.

The event has the full backing the of the cultural events coordinator and the Cretan Community committee. Brent tells me that “as with all things Greek, final details are still being out into place. This is all organised by volunteers within the Greek community. Hopefully we will have a display of original era posters that promoted the original release of the movie. Efforts are being made too arrange some Cretan Music … this will be a free public event. We will also highlight the Moss Family Scholarship provided to Cretan Students from the royalties derived form the movie rights.”

Have a wonderful time and we look forward to the report!

The Cretan Runner Museum

If holidaying in Crete this year, you may wish to make a visit to the Cretan Runner Museum. The Museum celebrates the life and achievements of George Psychoundakis, and is based in his village of Asi Gonia.

It was established by his son Nikos Psychoundakis and grandsons George and Stelios Psychoundakis, in a building built by the late George Psychoundakis himself. The purpose of this museum is to exhibit and share important documents, books, photos, missions with friends and colleagues and other various personal objects of George’s with the public instead of being stored away in cupboards and boxes.

A dedication in Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor with typical seagulls!

The museum has no website, but there is a Facebook page with further information.

Dervla Murphy honoured by British Guild of Travel Writers

Hilary Bradt (L) and Dervla Murphy (R)

On March 8th, International Women’s Day, the British Guild of Travel Writers announced that they were celebrating Dervla Murphy by honouring her with a BGTW Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to travel writing. Dervla was nominated for this honour by BGTW member Hilary Bradt, who said of her career:

“Dervla is the real thing. In an age of gimmicks and promotions, she has travelled for the sheer love of it, for enjoying spectacular scenery away from the crowds, and for meeting people away from the trappings of civilisation. Her 26 fascinating books are a secondary consideration, a natural outcome of her desire to share her experiences and political views (politics are as interesting to her as other lands and cultures).

Dervla’s rejection of comfort is well known, and this has enabled her to travel and live as close to rural people in the developing world as is possible for an outsider. In her 88th year this award is richly deserved.”