The obituary that follows is of George Psychoundakis, who as a young man was a runner for the resistance in Crete during the German occupation in World War II. First of all he ran for local partisans groups or andartes, but from about 1941 he did most of his work with the Special Operations Executive. At the end of the war George was mistakenly taken for a deserter and locked up. He spent around 16 months in gaol and whilst there he wrote his wartime memoires. Somehow Paddy became aware of his incarceration and had George released. He then helped George by translating his memoires into English and sorting out a publisher. The book has been translated into many languages and is called The Cretan Runner. This obituary includes a section written by Paddy at the end.
First published: 12:10AM GMT 18 Feb 2006 in the Telegraph
George Psychoundakis, who died at Canea, Crete, on January 29 aged 85, was best known for his extraordinary account of clandestine life in the Resistance after the German occupation of his island in 1941; the book was translated into English by Patrick (now Sir Patrick) Leigh Fermor, and enjoyed success in Britain as The Cretan Runner.
George Psychoundakis was born on November 3 1920 at the village of Asi Gonia, perched high in a mountain pass in central Crete. He was the eldest of four children, born to a family whose only possessions were a single-room house and a few sheep and goats.
Education at the village school was basic; but unlike most of his fellows George learnt to write as well as read, and gleaned what learning he could from books lent by the schoolteacher and the village priest.
When the German invasion of Crete began, he was 21, a light, wiry, elfin figure who could move among the mountains with speed and agility. While the Germans imposed their rule with the utmost brutality, Psychoundakis was among the many who guided straggling Allied soldiers over the mountains to the south coast, from where they could be evacuated.
As the Resistance grew more organised, Psychoundakis became a runner, carrying messages, wireless sets, batteries and weapons between villages and secret wireless stations, always on foot, always in danger, often exhausted and hungry, over some of the most precipitous terrain in Europe.
It was gruelling work, but in an interview many years later Psychoundakis made light of the hundreds of miles he covered at a run: “I felt as if I were flying, so light and easy – just like drinking a cup of coffee.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of a handful of SOE officers whose job it was to co-ordinate the Cretan resistance, first met Psychoundakis at the end of July 1942 in a rocky hide-out above the village of Vaphé.
The messages Psychoundakis was carrying were twisted into tiny billets and hidden away in his clothes: “They were produced,” wrote Leigh Fermor, “with a comic kind of conjuror’s flourish, after grotesquely furtive glances over the shoulder and fingers laid on lips in a caricature of clandestine security precautions that made us all laugh.” His clothes were in rags, one of his patched boots was held together with a length of wire – but his humour and cheerfulness were infectious.
Humour and danger went hand in hand. Psychoundakis told how a couple of German soldiers decided to help him with an overladen donkey, which was carrying a heavy wireless set under bags of wheat. The Germans beat the poor creature so hard that Psychoundakis was afraid they would knock off the saddle-bags – but mercifully their attention was drawn to some village girls, and the soldiers started flirting with them instead.
He also describes British officers with wry amusement – one had “pyjamas, a washbasin, and a thousand and two mysterious objects. He wore a row of medals on his breast, and had a rucksack full of geological books which he studied all day long.”
At the same time, the harshness of everyday life was everpresent. Near starvation at one point with another SOE officer, Jack Smith-Hughes, Psychoundakis described how they picked broken snail shells off blades of grass and ate them, pretending that each was more delicious than the last.
A bed of springy branches in a dry cave was a luxury: George spent many a night freezing on a rain-soaked mountainside, listening out for German search-parties, knowing what they would do if he were caught. Tales of torture, burning villages and summary executions were all too familiar. On the one occasion he visited England, in 1955, Psychoundakis was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. Continue reading