The letter to the mysterious Mr Todhunter about Bob Bury

A letter dropping out of a book, in a hotel room in Ithaka. The letter referring to a wartime colleague in Palestine from 1941. The letter writer being Paddy to a mysterious “Mr Todhunter”. A delightful little article. Who can identify Mr Todhunter? What do we know about Bob Bury in Palestine? We know he met Paddy in Crete in 1944. You can comment at the end of this article or contact me.

By Andrew Pippos

First published in The Australian, 17 January 2015

A common feature among reviews of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work is a reference to him as the greatest travel writer of his time. Because of such reviews I’d intended to read Fermor some day — the highest praise is a memorable introduction — but still hadn’t got around to it when I came across his 2003 collection Words of Mercury on the bookshelf of a hotel room in Ithaka, Greece, about two years ago.

A handwritten letter dropped from between the pages when I opened this book — and it may as well have fallen out of the sky, it may as well have been addressed to me, given my surprise to open a book by a famous writer and find inside a letter from the author himself.

Addressed to “Dear Mr Todhunter”, the letter was signed “Paddy Leigh Fermor” and dated 2004. Fermor turned 89 that year. His handwriting was both pretty and difficult to read: some words resolved only after you stared at them long enough. In the letter, Fermor asked Todhunter for help with his next project. Before coming to the nature of this help, he first offered some background: in 1941 he was visiting an Allied camp near Mount Carmel, Palestine, when he met a troop of Kurdish fighters led by a “clean-shaven figure with gold-rimmed spectacles”, whom Fermor learned was an Englishman named Bob Bury.

This Bury, “a delightful chap”, was training Kurds to form resistance groups in the event the Nazis broke through in the Middle East.

Next, Fermor’s letter told a story about his 1944 abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete. On a beach in southern Crete, Bury was among the small team of British soldiers who came ashore to meet Fermor and take custody of the captive general.

Kreipe and Fermor and the soldiers then sailed to Cairo. Bury would be killed a few months later in Italy.

Fermor wrote to Todhunter: “I want to write something about him (Bury), and would very much like to be in touch with his kith and kin. The only thing anyone seems to know about him is that he went to Eton. Would the provost of Eton know his family? I would be most beholden for any guidance!”

Todhunter, from what I can gather, was an editor in London. Years ago he might have visited the village of Vathi in Ithaka, stayed in that hotel on the town’s lake-like harbour, and left behind the letter and book by Fermor. Perhaps the book arrived there some other way.

Who was Bury? Did Fermor intend to write a story about him? The letter described Bury coming ashore in occupied Crete “with Tommy gun at the ready, very disappointed there would be no rough stuff involved”. He might have been a wartime version of the aristocrat who sought adventure in the crusades or the colonies.

After finishing school in 1933, Fermor walked across Europe to Constantinople, later writing about this experience in a trilogy of travel books, only two of which were published in his lifetime: A Time of Gifts, which tells of his travels from Holland to the Danube, and Between the Woods and Water, which takes him to the border of Serbia and Romania.

A final volume, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2013.

Wanting to know whether he did discover more about Bury, and why, at the age of 89, he wanted to write about an acquaintance who died 60 years earlier, I sent an email to Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper. She replied the next day: “Paddy never did write about Bob Bury, but he used every possible excuse to postpone work on the book he was supposed to be writing — the third volume of his trilogy about his walk across Europe. He also thought about writing a book on Crete and another on Romania, but they never came to anything either.”

Cooper might have forgotten that she had already replied to my email, because a month later she wrote again: “Dear Andrew, Sorry I’ve been so slow to reply to you.” Cooper suggested the Bury material was for a book about Fermor’s time as a British special operations officer in occupied Crete. She added: “By 2004 Paddy’s eyesight was deteriorating fast: he could not admit it, but it was too late to begin any major project.”

Both replies provide for the one picture: Fermor avoided work on the unfinished trilogy by writing about his war stories from Crete (and such a book, Abducting a General, was published late last year). In that letter he was pursuing whatever idea gave him pleasure. Fermor, who died in 2011 at 96, intended to write as his blindness approached. He was already very old but had many years of work ahead of him.

Andrew Pippos is a Sydney-based writer.

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7 thoughts on “The letter to the mysterious Mr Todhunter about Bob Bury

  1. moragsmum

    My late father served at the SOE training establishment in Haifa, Palestine.
    I have a photo which (like a true SOE man) he ‘released’ very late in life.
    It was taken in 1944, but sadly no one with glasses appears in it, and only four of the people in it are identified, and then only by role, not name.
    If any readers are interested, I’d be glad to share it with them.

    Reply
  2. Johanna Hecht

    Check out the Wiki entry for Brig. Edward Joseph Todhunter. See if any part of his bio suggests a link. He was in Italy during the war and had links to SOE.

    Reply
    1. Christos Paganakis

      @ Johanna Hecht ; – I think you have identifed him , his wiki biography shows he was a fluent Italian speaker ,
      plus he had jobs as GSOs ( Which is brit-army-speak for the job of Staff officers in the command HQs of Brigades+Divisions+Corps+Army , which means he was doing Intelligence stuff as his job – and therefore would have had many links to the unconventional warriors and piratical wartime special units .
      Plus his military career – according to wiki – judders to a halt in May1944 on his return to the UK from Italy , very unlikely he was gardening for the rest of the war , nor during the post-war period when the cold war was raging and it was feared Italy might well go Communist – the days of Giovanni Guareschi’s ” Don Camillo ” )
      I’d guess he was a ” Funny ” from mid-1944 on .

      Idly hunting further around on the web for Bob Bury , I came across a synopsis of the Biography of Anders Lassen , the Danish officer of the SBS ( the amphibious equivalent of the SAS ) and found that Lieutenant Bob Bury was actually killed not in Italy , but in Spetsai island off the south coast of the Peleponesse on 30th September 1944 , by mistake . Apparently a group from a right-wing Greek resistance fighters unit mistook the patrol of SBS men for a rival unit of ELAS men and Bury was killed in the exchange of ” Friendly Fire ” .

      In September of 1944 the SBS had landed at Poros island around to the east ( opposite Galatas , scene of Paddy’s prewar extended sojourn with Balasha , in their old-watermill-lovenest )
      The German occupiers had abandoned Poros by then , and the good harbour there was wanted to be secured by the British Mediterranean Commanders as it lay closeby the approaches for the Allied occupation of Athens . The SBS were tasked with knocking out coastal defence guns on Aegina island further north up the Saronic Gulf , which ( as in fictional Navarone ) covered the sea-lane leading north to Pireaus / Athens / and the Salamis Naval base .
      The Spetsai thing appears to have been a side-expedition .

      Anders Lassen was killed in the North of Italy on another SBS commando raid in May 1945 .
      Hair-raising sort of bloke , makes PLF look a bit tame .

      Reply
  3. Stefan Wozowczyk

    We aren’t given the address that PLF wrote to. Or the source of the information that “Mr Todhunter” became an editor.

    Given the nature of the work these people did in the 1940s, you can’t help wondering if Todhunter (Todthunter?) might be a pseudonym.

    Stefan

    Reply
  4. Tim

    What has been published as ‘Abducting a General’ was I think pretty much written by 1966 for Purnell. With others who took part in the first “In the Footsteps of Heroes” in 2005, I had that manuscript in my hands, along with Paddy’s map, as we did the trip with Paddy supporting us at the end of a phone back in Kardamyli . I don’t think therefore, that the writing of his time in Crete and the abduction in anyway held up what was to be published as ‘The Broken Road’, certainly not after 1966.
    If there was to be another book about his time in Crete, with more about Bob Bury, then I am sure there will be some clues in his archive at NLS. I recall no specific mention of Bob Bury at the time of the 2005 expedition, or when we all had lunch with Paddy after the trip and when we discussed the abduction in some detail.

    Reply
  5. Tim

    Bob Bury was either SAS or SBS as far as I recall. The operation to recover Paddy and his captured Kreipe was Operation Bricklayer. It consisted of a number of trips to various beaches in Crete all but the last being cancelled for one reason or another as the Germans occupied the selected beaches. As things got more desperate and it looked like there may be a German reception committee at whatever beach was finally settled on, they went with SAS/SBS detachment aboard ready to fight it out. If memory serves, Jellicoe was in one party that was en route to a pick up at Prevelli beach, though that was cancelled fairly early on as the search for a suitable beach carried on.
    As mentioned, Bury and the like we’re said to be looking forward to a bit of a scrap and he was disappointed when the occasion didn’t arise.

    Reply

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