Category Archives: Obituaries

Transylvanian Saxon and polymath, Rudolf Fischer – obituary

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer, who has died aged 92, was a historian, linguist and polymath who advised and guided foreign writers through the minutiae of eastern European history, language, etymology and ethnography; the foremost of these, Patrick Leigh Fermor, acknowledged in 1986 that his debt to Fischer was “beyond reckoning”.

First published in the Telegraph 12 June 2016.

Fischer’s friendship with Leigh Fermor began after Fischer wrote a letter to him full of praise for A Time of Gifts (1972), the first volume of Leigh Fermor’s travel trilogy, with, attached to it, a long list of all the inaccuracies, misspellings and contradictions. Months passed without a response, and Fischer feared that his constructive criticism had gone down badly. In fact, Leigh Fermor was delighted, and wrote, eventually, asking if Fischer could bear to advise on his next volume. Gradually drafts of Between the Woods and the Water starting appearing in parcels from the Peloponnese which Fischer pored over meticulously.

There resulted a correspondence which lasted for decades, thrashing out the finer points of Transylvanian history, language, costume, traditions and legends. Fischer also read and made corrections to Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous, volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, published in 2013, and edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.

Among others he also helped Bruce Chatwin, Robert Kaplan (who devoted an entire chapter to him in Eastward to Tartary), Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Robin Hanbury-Tennison, Adam Sisman and William Blacker, many of whom made the pilgrimage to his small book-lined flat in Budapest.

Rudolf Fischer was born on September 17 1923 in the medieval city of Brasov, Kronstadt, in the Transylvania region of Romania. His father, Josef Fischer, was a Hungarian Jew, a descendant of the Hatam Sofer, the 19th-century leader of the Haredic movement which resisted modernisation and mysticism. His mother, Bertha Meldt, was a Saxon Lutheran. Rudolf attended the local Saxon school. But talk of war prompted his father to migrate with him to Australia, leaving his wife and younger son behind, for fear that the older one, Rudolf, would be enlisted.

The next few years were spent helping his father on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Sydney and serving in the alien corps of the Australian army in New Guinea, before attending Sydney University, where he met his first wife, Janet Gleeson-White.

At university Fischer studied under John Anderson, a Scottish philosopher, whose acolytes formed the libertarian movement known as the Sydney Push, one of whose principles was that no statement or assumption was to remain unchallenged. This, as one writer on Australian philosophy, James Franklin, later observed, was all very well but “hard on the wives and children”.

In the early 1950s Fischer moved to Britain, earning a living as a teacher. He felt that cultural life of London compensated for the poor living conditions in an attic flat; it was a view not shared by his wife, who was struggling with small children. So in 1957 the family travelled back to Australia. The marriage broke down, however, and Fischer returned alone to Europe in 1962 where, on a visit to Romania, he met his second wife, Dagmar von Melchner, a distant cousin.

After living in Greece for eight months, the couple moved to London, where, in 1968, Fischer became English Language editor for the New Hungarian Quarterly – an achievement given that his first language was German – and so they moved to Budapest, where they remained for 48 years. There, with Dagmar, he brought up his second family, deepened his knowledge of Central Europe and became a guide, critic and friend to writers of all nationalities who passed through Budapest.

Fischer’s library was packed with obscure 19th-century reference books on the Balkans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as a large map from 1853 of Europäischen Turkei – more accurate, he assured everyone, than the modern ones. Rudolf Fischer was a link to the pre-war Saxon world of Transylvania, and with his fine moustache, upright and dignified manner, collection of exotic Eastern European hats and excellent grasp of all the relevant languages, he more than fitted the part.

He was buried in Brasov in the family grave in a small Saxon Lutheran cemetery at the end of the street on which he had been born.

He is survived by his second wife Dagmar and his five daughters.

Rudolf Fischer, born September 17 1923, died February 18 2016

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Reg Everson and his powdered egg breakfast for General Kreipe on Mount Ida

From time to time I plan to re-publish some of the best blog posts as we have over 700 posts on here and many get lost. This first re-post was inspired by my attendance last night at the presentation by Dr Roderick Bailey – Hazardous Operations: British SOE Agents in Nazi Occupied Greece – which was both informative and entertaining. The story of Reg Everson and powdered egg was first published on 10 June 2012 …

At Paddy’s funeral last year, I stayed afterwards for a drink with a small group at the hotel  which used to be the Dumbleton estate manor house, originally home to Joan’s family. A man from Wales introduced himself as Vince Tustin. I recognised the name as I had been in touch with Vince by email in the preceding weeks on the subject of his father-in-law who was in the SOE.

‘Reg Everson, my father-in-law, spent three years on Crete and much of that time he worked closely with Paddy as a radio operator.’ said Vince.

His wife then joined us and after a while she said ‘I asked my mum and dad why I was called Patricia. It was an unusual name for a girl in Wales at the time. And my dad told me I was named Patricia after his good friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. They had served together in Crete.’

Such was the impression that Paddy made on people. It is a lovely story in itself, and perhaps serves a reminder on this first anniversary of his death, that Paddy affected the lives of  many, in different ways, as a man as well as a writer.

Vince told me that in the 1950’s Reg was interviewed by a local reporter.

I am sure that Reg didn’t want it to sound as if he was alone [on Crete]. He was a quiet mild mannered gentleman, and was in the Royal Signals from 1931 to 1946 and like so many servicemen lied about his age to get in, he was only 15 when he enlisted. For the three years he was on Crete his wife didn’t hear from him. His commanding officer was the only contact she had. People in the village even thought Reg had left her!

It wasn’t until I wrote a piece in the local paper that people understood where he had been because he didn’t speak about it. In the newspaper cutting from the 50s Reg talks about his involvement in the kidnap of General Kreipe and how he cheered up the General by making him some powdered egg for breakfast on Mount Ida.

We have his forged Cretan papers here, also a leaflet that was dropped by the Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal and Africa Star among other medals. He was also presented with a solid silver medal for bravery from the Maharaja of India.

Reg Everson deployed to Crete with Xan Fielding, and Xan refers to this in his account of his time in Crete “Hide and Seek”.


In the newspaper interview Reg describes how he was summoned with his radio to Mount Ida to join the kidnap gang, but he had to wait for his heavy radio batteries to arrive so he made himself useful and he made breakfast for the General on Mount Ida …

“The General was pretty glum, but he perked-up a bit when I made him some breakfast with egg powder. Paddy Leigh Fermor and the others had to go on the run again with General Kreipe before my batteries arrived: so we couldn’t get the news [of the successful kidnap] back.”

Whilst we often hear the stories of the officers in SOE, we should not forget that they were supported by a large team including signallers such as Reg Everson who were especially brave. They risked being located by the Germans who were constantly trying to find the source of their signals to destroy the radios, and capture the highly skilled and valuable operators.

Chryssa Ninolaki – part of the Greek resistance on Crete

Chryssa Ninolaki, centre, with Stephen Verney, left, and her brother, Tassos.

By Tony Knight

First published in The Guardian, Monday 3 October 2011

My friend Chryssa Ninolaki, who has died aged 80, played a courageous part in the struggle for freedom in Crete. She was a true ambassador for her native island, which she loved.

At the beginning of the second world war, when Chryssa was a pupil at the French school in Chania, her family moved to her grandfather’s farm near the monastery of Chrysopigi on the outskirts of the city, to escape the bombing. After the fall of the island in 1941, Chryssa and her family were part of the Greek resistance and supported the work of the Special Operations Executive agents who operated in the White Mountains, Xan Fielding, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Stephen Verney among them.

Chryssa and her family spent the war living next to a German garrison. Her parents and her brother, Tassos, carried out acts of defiance at great risk. On one occasion, they moved a cache of arms buried in the orchard just hours before the property was searched. They became part of an underground network assisting, sheltering and hiding British and Commonwealth soldiers for escape attempts on the island’s south coast. “We are crazy people: we act first and never mind the consequences,” Chryssa once told me.

After the war, Chryssa started to work for holiday companies, first the Travel Club of Upminster and then Simply Crete. She was a very different type of travel representative, freely sharing her beloved Crete with many British visitors. For the 50th anniversary, Chryssa took visitors on her celebrated Battle of Crete tours. A close friend reflected the feelings of many when she said: “For me, Chryssa was Crete. She brought so much joy to so many Brits.” Chryssa is survived by her sister, Helen.

Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld: Veteran of the SOE

Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld

Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld

A wonderful obituary of this brave and colourful figure who probably did not know Paddy, but was in the SOE, and whose story is well worth reading anyway. For some reason it is no longer available on the Telegraph website where it was published on 29 June 2012.  You can read a pdf of it here. The version below is written by Phil Davison and was published in the Independent on 21 June 2012. Thank you to Mark Granelli for bringing this to my attention.

Descended from an ancient French noble family, Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld was one of the last surviving French agents of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret organisation set up by Winston Churchill to aid anti-Nazi resistance fighters. There are now believed to be only two surviving French agents of the SOE, which Churchill ordered to “set Europe ablaze” through sabotage.

While General Charles de Gaulle organised his Free French Forces (FFL) from his London base, some Frenchmen were hand-picked and trained by the SOE before being sent back to their occupied country to provide money, equipment and training to the local maquis. De la Rochefoucauld was recruited by Captain Eric Piquet-Wicks, who was in charge of the SOE’s RF Section of French nationals based at 1 Dorset Square, London. They worked in parallel with, though not always in agreement with, the more famous F Section run by the legendary spymaster Maurice Buckmaster. The SOE would later be dubbed “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.

De la Rochefoucauld received parachute, sabotage and commando training at secret locations in England and Scotland, including “silent killing” techniques taught by the renowned duo Fairbairn and Sykes – designers of the famous commando knife – at Arisaig, Inverness-shire, before being parachuted back into his homeland.

Dropped into France twice by the RAF, captured twice by the Nazis and once sentenced to death by firing squad, he survived by using the unarmed combat skills taught to him in the Scottish Highlands. He killed one German guard by strangling him, donned his uniform and shot two more guards to escape. He attacked an electric power plant at Avallon in the Morvan mountain massif of Burgundy, but perhaps his greatest feat, in the spring of 1944, was blowing up France’s biggest munitions factory, at Saint-Médard near Bordeaux, occupied by the Nazis and crucial to their war effort.

Count Robert Jean-Marie de la Rochefoucauld was born in Paris in 1923 into one of France’s oldest aristocratic families with records dating back to the 10th century. The family controlled most of what is now the Charente department, based in the magnificent Château de la Rochefoucauld on the river Tardoire, where a branch of the family still lives. On his maternal side, Robert was descended from the old de Wendel family. He was 16 when the Nazis stormed into France in May 1940.

Young Robert was living underground in Paris when he was tipped off by a sympathetic post office worker that someone had denounced him to the Gestapo as a “dangerous terrorist”. Deciding to join de Gaulle in London, he hooked up with the Resistance, who helped him cross the border into Spain in late 1942 along with two British RAF pilots shot down over France.

The three were apprehended by Franco’s police and interned for two months in the infamous Miranda de Ebro camp for foreign prisoners which had been used by Franco’s forces as a concentration camp for Republicans during the Civil War. De la Rochefoucauld was lucky to have been with the British airmen: Britain’s ambassador to Spain sprang all three of them and arranged an RAF flight to London.

Once there, de la Rochefaucould met de Gaulle at the latter’s headquarters in Carlton Gardens but, partly thanks to his two airmen friends, found himself recruited by the SOE. Churchill had asked his Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, to set up the clandestine SOE, partly to resist any German invasion of Britain and partly to support resistance groups in Europe. When de la Rochefoucauld told de Gaulle that the British SOE wanted to recruit him, the latter reportedly replied: “Even allied with the devil, it’s for France. Allez-y.”

Kept in the dark as to what his missions would be, De la Rochefoucauld was trained in unarmed combat at Arisaig, and later at RAF Ringway near Manchester (parachute training, including jumps from as low as 400 feet) and finally at the SOE’s “finishing school” on Lord Montagu’s estate around Beaulieu in the New Forest. Those who didn’t quite cut it were sent to the “cooler,” Inverlair Lodge in Scotland, where they were quarantined, albeit in comfort, so that they couldn’t reveal SOE missions. (Inverlair later became the inspiration for the backdrop to the 1960s television series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan.)

After first parachuting into the Morvan region and destroying the Avallon plant, de la Rochefoucauld was caught by the Nazis and condemned to death, but escaped. He reached Calais, where a pro-Resistance fishing boat got him to a British submarine and back to England. After parachuting back again to the Bordeaux region, he led local maquis fighters in blowing up the sprawling Saint-Médard munitions plant 12 miles outside Bordeaux. The noise, at 7.30pm on 20 May 1944, was heard for tens of miles around and gave a major boost to the Resistance with D-Day in the air.

De la Rochefoucauld then linked up with the famous résistant known as Aristide – real name Roger Landes, a bilingual British citizen (Independent obituary, 12 August 2008) – but was again arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the Fort du Hâ in Bordeaux, a fortress built by Charles VII in the 16th century. He considered two options, one of them to take the cyanide”L-Tablet” hidden in the heel of his shoe, which would kill him within 15 seconds. But he took the second option, faked an epileptic fit, strangled his guard and shot dead two others before fleeing.

After the war, de la Rochefoucauld trained French commandos in Indochina and for their assault on the Suez Canal in 1956. On retirement from the military, he set up a transport business in Senegal and ran a plantation in Venezuela to import bananas to Europe. He also served from 1966-96 as the popular mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée in north-central France, where he died.

Robert de la Rochefoucauld published his memoirs in 2002, titled La Liberté c’est mon plaisir. His awards included Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance and Britain’s Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld is survived by his wife Bernadette (née de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron), his son Count Jean de la Rochefoucauld and three daughters, Astrid, Constance and Hortense.

Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld, wartime SOE agent: born Paris 16 September 1923; married Bernadette de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron (one son, three daughters); died Ouzouer-sur-Trézée, France 8 May 2012.

Reg Everson and his powdered egg breakfast for General Kreipe on Mount Ida

At Paddy’s funeral last year, I stayed afterwards for a drink with a small group at the hotel  which used to be the Dumbleton estate manor house, originally home to Joan’s family. A man from Wales introduced himself as Vince Tustin. I recognised the name as I had been in touch with Vince by email in the preceding weeks on the subject of his father-in-law who was in the SOE.

‘Reg Everson, my father-in-law, spent three years on Crete and much of that time he worked closely with Paddy as a radio operator.’ said Vince.

His wife then joined us and after a while she said ‘I asked my mum and dad why I was called Patricia. It was an unusual name for a girl in Wales at the time. And my dad told me I was named Patricia after his good friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. They had served together in Crete.’

Such was the impression that Paddy made on people. It is a lovely story in itself, and perhaps serves a reminder on this first anniversary of his death, that Paddy affected the lives of  many, in different ways, as a man as well as a writer.

Vince told me that in the 1950’s Reg was interviewed by a local reporter.

I am sure that Reg didn’t want it to sound as if he was alone [on Crete]. He was a quiet mild mannered gentleman, and was in the Royal Signals from 1931 to 1946 and like so many servicemen lied about his age to get in, he was only 15 when he enlisted. For the three years he was on Crete his wife didn’t hear from him. His commanding officer was the only contact she had. People in the village even thought Reg had left her!

It wasn’t until I wrote a piece in the local paper that people understood where he had been because he didn’t speak about it. In the newspaper cutting from the 50s Reg talks about his involvement in the kidnap of General Kreipe and how he cheered up the General by making him some powdered egg for breakfast on Mount Ida.

We have his forged Cretan papers here, also a leaflet that was dropped by the Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal and Africa Star among other medals. He was also presented with a solid silver medal for bravery from the Maharaja of India.

Reg Everson deployed to Crete with Xan Fielding, and Xan refers to this in his account of his time in Crete “Hide and Seek”.


In the newspaper interview Reg describes how he was summoned with his radio to Mount Ida to join the kidnap gang, but he had to wait for his heavy radio batteries to arrive so he made himself useful and he made breakfast for the General on Mount Ida …

“The General was pretty glum, but he perked-up a bit when I made him some breakfast with egg powder. Paddy Leigh Fermor and the others had to go on the run again with General Kreipe before my batteries arrived: so we couldn’t get the news [of the successful kidnap] back.”

Whilst we often hear the stories of the officers in SOE, we should not forget that they were supported by a large team including signallers such as Reg Everson who were especially brave. They risked being located by the Germans who were constantly trying to find the source of their signals to destroy the radios, and capture the highly skilled and valuable operators.

An interview with Sir Fitzroy McLean

Continuing the current theme of SOE and the Balkans, many of you may find this interview with Sir Fitzroy McLean as fascinating as I did.

He talks about this life and his writing, starting with the excellent, Eastern Approaches which covers his time in Moscow, and then his wartime experiences culminating with his evaluation of Tito, and the march on Belgrade.

Related articles:

Sir Fitzroy Maclean Bt: Obituary

Sir William Deakin, historian and founding Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford

Albanian Assignment

David Smiley (left) in Albania with "Billy" McLean

In his Introduction to David Smiley’s Albanian Assignment, Paddy describes Smiley as ‘Lieutenant Jekyll’ and ‘Captain Hyde’, variously at home with his Regiment, the Royal Horse Guards, amongst a “squadron of sabres and scarlet plumes” but also in the “caves, chasms, scorpions and fleas, random rifle-fire and ricochets, explosions, (and) the oaths of muleteers” in Albania or the Arabian peninsula. His life was truly one of excitement and adventure, but one which he was happy to end growing almonds and olives in Southern Spain.

We know little about Albania – it remains Europe’s poorest country and is still almost totally ignored by the media – and perhaps even less about the events there during World War Two. In two important books, Smiley’s Albanian Assignment and Xan Fielding’s biography of Smiley’s colleague “Billy” McLean’ we learn much about what was not so much a war against the invading Italian’s and Germans, but a political war focused on preparations for a civil war between the Nationalist and Royalist factions on the one hand, and Enver Hoxha’s Communists on the other. I enjoyed following Smiley’s route, on the map in the book, through the mountains, including time spent on the beautiful Lake Ohrid. He spent some of his time criss-crossing my own route through Albania along the Via Egnatia which I walked in 2009.

Smiley’s style is very much like I imagine his soldiering would have been; clear and to the point. We don’t have lingering descriptions of the beautiful Albanian landscape but straight to the point analysis of the motives of the participants, and the events that took place during his two SOE missions to Albania between April 1943 and October 1944. He was a man of action, never happier than when ‘blowing something up’.

The situation between the partisan (Communist) resistance and the Royalists was so complex that the mission became intensely political, with McLean and the future British government minister Julian Amery trying to keep the Albanians from fighting each other and instead killing Germans. Smiley was sent off with small cetas of Royalist Albanians and some very brave British NCOs to kill as many Germans as he could and to blow up as many bridges as he could to delay the German withdrawal, with a fair degree of success. But the politics were never far away and once whilst Smiley was setting an ambush against the Germans, they were counter ambushed by Communist partisans.

Albanian Assignment is not a long book. It is easy to read and full of interesting and exciting episodes. It is one of the many amazing stories about the bravery of SOE officers and soldiers punctuated by explosions, forced marches, long and boring tribal meetings, and brave acts, but ultimately the book is dominated by betrayal: of the SOE men on the ground and the people of Albania by Hoxha’s partisans, and those communist officers in the SOE HQ in Bari who would have seen Smiley and McLean handed over to Hoxha for humiliating treatment at best, or being shot at worst. The figure of Kim Philby also appears. After the war, Smiley worked with MI6 to train and insert Albanian nationalists into Albania in order to provoke an insurrection against the fragile Communist regime. Many of the Albanian patriots were shot as they landed on the beaches, just a few managing to escape into Greece. It was Philby who passed on the details of the operation to the Russians who in turn informed Hoxha.

Colonel David Smiley, front 3rd right and band of Albanian fighters

Our by now familiar cast from Tara in Cairo also make an appearance as Smiley joined McLean by living there when not on operations. Paddy not only writes the introduction but Smiley also mentions Paddy’s wartime activities on a couple of occasions. Smiley  continued with a regular military career after the war, ultimately commanding his Regiment, but also carrying on his irregular activities with MI6 and fighting insurgents on the Arabian Peninsula which he describes in the book Arabian Assignment.

David Smiley died in 2009 after a long and eventful life. You can read his Telegraph obituary here. Many of his colleagues had successful post-war careers. “Billy” McLean entered politics and was also engaged in irregular warfare in Arabia. Julian Amery was a leading Conservative politician, and Alan Hare (who was forced to eat his trusty mule during the deprivations of the harsh winter of 1943/44) became chairman of the Financial Times. Many of the communist leadership ended up being purged over the years, with a large number ending up either being shot or committing suicide. Enver Hoxha himself died in 1985 after leading Albania into total isolation and poverty.

Albanian Assignment is available on Amazon and occasional copies may pop-up on eBay.

Related articles:

 Colonel David Smiley: Blues officer and MC recipient – Times obituary

 Colonel David Smiley – Telegraph obituary

 One Man’s Great Game: Lieutenant Colonel “Billy” McLean

 Alan Hare MC – Obituary from The Independent