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 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.