The Times Literary Supplement describes this as “The last Renaissance man’s account – until now available only in Greek – of how German bombs wrecked his boat but not his spirit”. Enjoy.
Translated by Adrian Bartlett.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 5 June 2013.
Since 1976 my family has been to a small town in the eastern Peloponnese nearly every year. Early on we heard, from the local bus driver and others, how the Germans had sunk an escaping Englishman’s boat in the local harbour in 1941. The Englishman in question was Patrick Leigh Fermor. Later we made friends with Stratis Kounias, a man from the town, a distinguished academic who also returned there every summer. Stratis had embarked on writing a wartime history of the area and on hearing that we knew “Paddy” he asked for an introduction. Leigh Fermor agreed to write an account of the event. I am quite sure he had written and talked about it many times before – some of the phrases are repeated in the biography by Artemis Cooper (reviewed in the TLS, November 16, 2012); but this time he recounted it in Greek for the benefit of Stratis Kounias, although Stratis speaks perfect English. The following is my translation.– Adrian Bartlett
And now over to Paddy …
A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF MY ESCAPE
I had arrived in Greece as a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps in November 1940. We were a branch of the Allied Military Mission. After Christmas we drove to Albania and were based at Koritsa as liaison officers to the 80th regiment led by Lieutenant-General [Georgios] Tsolakoglou.
I went along the whole front – Pogradec, Krystallopigi, Argirocastro, Tepeleniou, Leskovik, Ioannina and so on. I stayed two months there and after the German invasion I was asked to come down to Athens with the personnel intelligence unit, under the regiment commander Peter Smith-Dorrien (son of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien who fought in the First World War).
After the slow retreat from Perdika, Ptolemaida and so on we were for a time as if in the pass at Thermopylae, but eventually got to barracks in Athens. With the rapid advance of the Germans, Field Marshal Maitland-Wilson gave the order to prepare a second escape route from Greece, if a somewhat unorthodox one.
The Greek authorities had requisitioned for us a lovely sailing caïque. She was called Ayia Barbara, anchored at Sounion and belonging to Paulo Mela. She had a renowned captain in Michaelis Mistho from the Demon of Sparta. Apart from myself and P. Smith-Dorrien there was a wireless-operating sergeant, a very nice corporal who I think was called Costas Varthis, and six soldiers.
Our orders were to take possession of the caïque and proceed to a meeting with Field Marshal Wilson at Mili, on the east coast of the Peloponnese. We left Sounion on the afternoon of the April 24, 1941, the sergeant and I having previously destroyed our truck by pushing it into a gully at Sounion. We went past Hydra and moored off the island of Dokos.
In the morning there were many enemy aircraft, the thud of bombing, and trails of smoke in the direction of Nauplion. Later we heard they had set on fire the English ship the Ulster Prince; many British were either killed or captured. We waited till late afternoon to weigh anchor and it was night when we moored at the quay at Mili. It was very crowded there, hundreds of trucks and Greek and British soldiers in retreat. I called out repeatedly the name of the motorcyclist, Matthew, who was to wait for me there and take me to the Field Marshal, whom I finally found.
He had come from Athens with Prince Peter who was liaison officer to our mission, Field Marshal Wilson having come in another car. Also there was the government Deputy President, Vice-Admiral Sakellariou. These were going to Crete in a Sunderland aircraft. Our own aim in our present circumstances was to work our way south along the coast of the Peloponnese, to help other British and Greek military stragglers who wanted to get to Crete and had missed a ship.
Admiral Baillie-Grohman and Brigadier General Galloway joined the Ayia Barbara, and also some more men. We weighed anchor and headed south. After half an hour we pulled alongside an English battle cruiser, the HMS Bahram [Edit: Should HMS Bahram read HMS Barham which was lost at sea on the 25th November 1941?], which took all these men on board. We, with our original company from Sounion, P. Smith-Dorrien, Lieutenant Philip Scott, consul to Field Marshal Wilson, and six soldiers stayed on the Ayia Barbara and we set off at 1.30 am. Smith-Dorrien appointed Philip Scott responsible for the British personnel and me for the Greeks as I knew Greek fairly well, having travelled a lot around Greece before the war.
On the way we had some engine trouble, a blade of the propeller broke which compelled us to reach shore before sunrise. Our intention had been to head for Ieraka and hide the caïque, but in the morning of April 27, at 5.30, we arrived at Leonidion and moored at the quay in Plaka.
We hid the radio under some olive trees, took our weapons, had some breakfast. Our orders were to let no one board the caïqe during the day. Soon we would be taking up our headquarters in Crete.
At 1.30 pm a reconnaissance Fiesler-Stork plane flew over, at 2 another came and dropped four aerial torpedoes on the beach and did little damage, and then came some bursts of machine gun fire. At 2.15 they dropped another bomb close to the quay and at 2.30 a depth charge fell beside the Ayia Barbara, breaching her below decks and sinking her, with just half the mast showing above water. Luckily our boat had saved some important documents.
From then until 7pm the bombardment and dive bombing didn’t stop. One of the bombs fell close to us and wounded Captain Michaelis in the leg and damaged the radio, but to our surprise we repaired it enough to take with us, but not sufficiently to send our news to headquarters.
Some local people appeared, with bread, eggs, one or two chickens, wine and so on, and showed us much kindness, although it had been a terrible day.
P. Smith-Dorrien and I tried to buy one of the other small caïques in the harbour, but all had been damaged in the bombardment and were not fit for sea. We tried mules but failed again. We hoped to find a caïque further south. We passed the night there, in two convenient caves at the end of the beach. We went very early into Leonidion for provisions. The enemy were firing all around, but stopped at midday. I tried to salvage some things from the sunken caïque but without success. At 7 pm the Leonidion police brought and placed at our disposal a boat from a nearby village. It belonged to Panayioti Nikos Moschoviti, or Tsana, from Poulithra. The crew was the son of Nikos and another four of his relations. We agreed that they would take us to Kyparissia. Whether or not we could find a way to make progress, we had taken a decision to go for it, come what may. The local people were very keen to help us. We all boarded the boat, twenty-three of us together with the six crew, packed in like sardines, and we set off south under oar. Meanwhile the Greek crew of the Ayia Barbara set off to their respective homes while we stayed with Captain Michaelis, without whom we would have perished, Smith-Dorrien said.
The crew rowed for about six hours and at 5.30 am on April 29 we arrived at Kyparissia, coming to a dry river bed, 3–4 kilometres from the village. P. Smith-Dorrien and I tried to buy a caïque and in the evening we found one: Ayio Nikolao, 40 tons, which belonged to Pericles Meneksi, for 300,000 drachmas. After a moment we heard that the Germans had reached the village, and as luck would have it, eleven New Zealanders arrived by rowing from Porto Heli.
Many British troops had arrived in Kalamata by road in trucks and armoured vehicles. Many went to Crete on the Greek warships which were there, the others who stayed put up a fierce resistance to the advancing Germans, making an assault with bayonets, and many died or were taken prisoner. This year they are erecting a memorial in Kalamata in their honour.
The eleven New Zealanders were in a bad state of fatigue; we took them into our company and all left together at 9 pm. On April 30, we arrived at Velanidion and all had a day on the beach to recover. At 9 pm we tried to set off to Crete but the engine wouldn’t go into forward drive and broke down. P. Smith-Dorrien, Captain Michaelis and I made the steep climb to the high village, hoping to find someone to mend the engine or to find another caïque, without any success.
Meanwhile we learnt that the Germans had reached Monemvasia, Neapoli and Kalamata. The New Zealanders wanted to put to sea immediately but Smith-Dorrien forbade it. Then five more New Zealanders arrived and an Australian. A good mechanic from Velanidion, Nikolaos Kostakos, a relation of Captain Michaelis, patched up the damaged engine after many hours. We also found three Cretan soldiers who were trying to find a way to get home so we took these too. At 9 pm we set off for Cape Spatha on the north of Crete with the mechanic, N. Kostakos.
On May 2 we had extremely strong headwinds and violent storms. We were losing oil and a bearing was overheating; the engine died. We did the unthinkable and turned back with an improvised rig for the sails and got to Antikythera at 12. Smith-Dorrien, Captain Michaelis and I went to the village of Potamos and found there a very large caïque, the Despina, which belonged to Captain Nikolaos Manika from Chios and it was agreed that he would take us to Crete in exchange for 45,000 drachmas. He took all of us, leaving the following night, another four Australians having arrived there by various means. We now had 150 men, British and Greek, of all ranks. There was another caïque there which went to Crete with us. N. Kostakos stayed with the Ayio Nikolao in order to take care of the repairs and then take it on to Crete.
We weighed our anchors at 10.30 pm on May the 3rd and arrived on the 4th, mooring at Kastelli Kissamou at 5.30 am, where we organized a wonderful feast in a taverna. We were all quite ravenous, and then found a truck to take us to Chania.
P. Smith-Dorrien wrote warmly of Philip Scott and with much praise for Captain Michaelis Mistho, who later played a role in the secret transport of caïques in the Middle East, and I met him later in the war. Also we had the finest impressions of Corporal Costas Varthis and the wireless operators, always willing and with good humour in difficult moments. Lastly we felt grateful to all the Greeks who took care of us and helped us warm-heartedly in difficult times.
After sixteen days the war came to Crete in one part or another. A few months later Philip Scott was killed in battle in a western invasion, and Smith-Dorrien was killed towards the end of the war by a bomb falling on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
These notes are based on my own recollections, much helped by the account written by P. Smith-Dorrien on our eventual arrival at Chania in Crete. Following the death of Philip Scott, his father Sir Samuel Scott collected his letters and published them as a small book. One letter describes our flight and it is around this that I have written. About the night we left Leonidion he writes: “We all got into the boat, eleven English, six Greeks and the others that stayed on after the loss of the Ayia Barbara. The Greeks rowed for six hours with hardly a break. They were absolutely wonderful. We covered 15 miles and arrived at a fishing village further south”.
On our turning back after our first attempt to reach Crete, he writes:
“The caïque travelled badly and the mainsail was torn.”
He was about 20 years old, I was 26 and Smith-Dorrien between 30 and 40.
I love Leonidion and the whole of Tsakonia.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Kardamili, August 2, 1995