Xan Fielding’s Obituary from The Times

The following obituary of Xan Fielding was sent to me by blog correspondent Yvonne Carts-Powell to whom I am very grateful. It is from The Times and dated August 21, 1991. Times content is now subscription only so there is no point in putting up a link.

Xan Fielding, DSO, wartime secret agent and author, died in Paris on August 19 aged 72. He was born in India on November 26, 1918.

In his temperament, talents and physical courage Xan Fielding was well equipped to have made a mark in many spheres of life. Crete in the aftermath of the German invasion in May 1941 provided a theatre in which his individuality was able to blossom. Guerrilla warfare was particularly congenial to one of his character. He cherished the amateur’s view of war which saw it as a clash between the prowess of individuals and not as a contest between technologies backed by armaments industries and reserves of manpower. In addition to an innate romanticism, he possessed in abundance the classical Greek quality of arete (that excellence in thought and performance so often imperfectly translated as “virtue” in school texts) and revelled to the point of exultation in the exercise of his own initiative. Yet at the same time, through his mastery of the language and his psychological insight, he extended a discerning admiration to the often contrary and ferocious Cretan andarte groups which his efforts were designed, at least in part, to serve.

Regimental soldiering was anathema to him and the sharpest barbs of his wit were always reserved for the staff. But his exploits went far beyond being of mere nuisance value to the allied cause. In two remarkable years following the fall of Crete the efforts of Fielding and that other like-minded spirit, Patrick Leigh Fermor, built up a guerrilla network in the occupied island, facilitated the escape of many Australian and New Zealand soldiers who had remained in hiding and, most important, built up an intelligence network which provided invaluable information to the allies in North Africa on the movement of Axis materiel through this most important staging post.

Alas for the hopes of these romantics, who would have loved to have fulfilled the dream of the guerrillas and to have led an avenging descent out of the mountains to drive the German invader into the sea, such a moment was never to come. After the allied decision to invade Sicily and pursue the Italian option Crete was left to wither on the vine as a fruit to be plucked when a convenient moment should arrive. Guerrilla operations there were relegated to a sideshow and Fielding felt there was nothing more he could usefully do. More drama awaited him. Transferred to the Western European theatre, he was parachuted into France, captured by the Gestapo and escaped execution only thanks to the courage and resourcefulness of the ill-starred Christine Granville, to whom he later dedicated his book Hide and Seek (1954).

Alexander Wallace Fielding was born at Ootcamund, India, into a military family which had given long service in the subcontinent. His father was a major in the 50th Sikhs. After the death of his mother he was brought up in the South of France where her family had property and thus acquired fluent French. Sent to school in England at Charterhouse, he added the classics to his linguistic and cultural arsenal and acquired a profound knowledge of German through later studies at Bonn, Munich and Freiburg universities. This German sojourn gave him a thorough understanding of the nature of the Nazi threat to civilised values at a time when the British government under Chamberlain was temporising on the road to disaster. In a spirit of more than mild disillusionment Fielding wandered about Europe eventually gravitating to Cyprus. There after a short and unsuccessful flirtation with journalism on the Cyprus Times he ran a bar with not appreciably greater success. He simply could not comprehend the inability and unwillingness of his colonial compatriots to understand the island they administered while the automatic disdain which was extended to the governed populace was utterly odious to him. None of these attitudes endeared him to his British contemporaries and consequently made him a less than popular mine host in a colonial ethos. His determination to master Greek also made him an object of suspicion to the authorities, most of whom had neither the wit nor inclination to come to terms with the language. When war broke out Fielding went briefly to Greece, dreading the thought of being drafted into the forces in Cyprus and being forced to live by the dictates of the mess and the parade ground. But after Dunkirk, when Britain stood alone, this course came to seem a somewhat dishonourable one and he returned to Cyprus where he found a not totally uncongenial berth in army intelligence. Even this provided a somewhat circumscribed field for the exercise of his talents and it was not until after the German invasion of Crete that he was able to come into his own when he volunteered for service with the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Put ashore on Crete from a submarine with a load of explosives and weapons, Fielding quickly linked up with local resistance leaders and adopted the protective camouflage of a Greek peasant. Nowhere in occupied Europe was resistance organised so quickly and effectively as it was in Crete. Clandestine operations took shape almost in the very chaos of evacuation. Fielding was lucky to team up with that other great linguist, philhellene and guerrilla leader, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the mental kinship between the two men, who complemented each other in spite of their different temperaments, was instrumental in putting Cretan resistance operations on a sane and sound footing. Fielding realised at the outset that the task must be limited to building up an intelligence network and developing his guerrilla force with an eye to its use in the future, rather than wasting it in futile heroics which would certainly have drawn down ferocious reprisals on the unprotected civilian population. With great boldness he established an HQ not far from Crete’s northern coast from which he often sortied forth with impunity in his persona as a local to the town of Canea to visit the mayor who was astonished at the audacity with which the resistance leader virtually brushed shoulders with Wehrmacht officers on these calls.

With the battle for North Africa in full swing Crete had become a major staging post for the supply of Rommel’s forces and the intelligence Fielding was able to pass to the allies was invaluable. One of his most resounding successes was to be able to signal the precise air movements at Maleme airfield, thus enabling the RAF to intercept German supply aircraft on their way to the North African littoral.

After a spell in Egypt to rest and recuperate Fielding returned to Crete in 1942. In this second period one of his most remarkable feats was to engineer, in November 1943, a pact between the two main groups of andarte, the communist-led EAM-ELAS and the EOK, the national organisation of Crete.

But as the dream of liberating Crete faded Fielding felt more and more frustrated and early in 1944 he volunteered to join the French operations of SOE. Soon after being parachuted into the south of France, however, he and a French officer and another agent were stopped at a road block at Digne where minor discrepancies in papers, which had otherwise been forged with scrupulous care, led to their arrest and imprisonment by the Gestapo. Totally resigned to being shot, they were in fact rescued by the nerve and feminine guile of the SOE courier “Pauline”, Christine Granville, formerly a Polish countess. “Pauline” who had already been arrested herself but escaped after convincing her captors that she was a French peasant girl arrived at the prison at Digne and through a mixture of bribery and by telling the agents’ captors that the Americans had already landed on the French riviera, secured their release three hours before they were due to have been shot. Indeed Fielding was convinced that he was being marched from the prison to have precisely that sentence carried out on him and was astonished when he was, instead, bundled into “Pauline’s” car and driven off.

Fielding, who had already been awarded the DSO was given the Croix de Guerre by the French later in 1944 and did subsequently return briefly to Crete. But in the meantime Leigh Fermor had carried out his legendary abduction of the German general Kreipe later filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor and with no decisive further action in prospect the atmosphere there was something of an anti-climax for Fielding. He was sent briefly to the Far East by SOE but here, too, the war was coming to an end. After witnessing the winding down of operations in Indo-China Fielding made a journey to Tibet on his own account.

After the war he wrote a number of books. Besides his account of SOE’s Cretan operations he published The Stronghold which combined the experience of his days as a kapetan of the resistance with a scholarly knowledge and love of the island, its history and culture, all of which shone through in his account. Among his other books were Corsair Country, an account of a journey overland along the Barbary coast from Tangier to Tripoli, and The Money Spinner, an elegantly constructed history of the Monte Carlo casino. At one time Fielding’s linguistic abilities gave him a useful income as a translator and he was also a technical adviser on Ill Met By Moonlight. He had, in spite of illness, been able, recently, to attend Greek celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the battle for Crete, and was among allied officers awarded the the commemorative medal of the resistance on that occasion.

He was twice married, first, in 1953, to Daphne Bath, nee Vivian. The marriage was dissolved and he married, secondly, in 1978, Agnes (“Magouche”) Phillips, daughter of Admiral John H. Magruder of the US navy.

Related post:

Xan Fielding Obituary (from The Telegraph)

Related category:

Obituaries

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