Tag Archives: Cretan Runner

Obituary from 2006 – George Psychoundakis the Cretan Runner

George Psychoundakis during the Resistance

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 Psychoundakis in 2004(?)

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.

Advertisements

The Cretan Runner Museum

If holidaying in Crete this year, you may wish to make a visit to the Cretan Runner Museum. The Museum celebrates the life and achievements of George Psychoundakis, and is based in his village of Asi Gonia.

It was established by his son Nikos Psychoundakis and grandsons George and Stelios Psychoundakis, in a building built by the late George Psychoundakis himself. The purpose of this museum is to exhibit and share important documents, books, photos, missions with friends and colleagues and other various personal objects of George’s with the public instead of being stored away in cupboards and boxes.

A dedication in Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor with typical seagulls!

The museum has no website, but there is a Facebook page with further information.

New – Full length interviews with Kreipe and Paddy

We have all seen the famous 1972 video of Nico Mastorakis’ TV show “This is Your Life” which brought Kreipe and his old enemies together before the cameras. If you have not seen it you can find it here.

In this newly discovered video Nico Mastorakis presents a documentary about the whole kidnap event, and includes full length and exclusive interviews with Paddy and General Kreipe. The General even says that “next year I will spend my holiday in Crete.” I wonder if he ever did?

There is much more about the kidnap in the Video and Audio section. Take a visit now.

 

How to Kidnap a General – a review of Ill Met by Moonlight

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

“There was a rush . . . our torches illuminated the interior of the car — the bewildered face of the General, the chauffeur’s terrified eyes . . . [The] chauffeur was reaching for his automatic, so I hit him across the head with my kosh [blackjack] . . . and George . . . dumped him on the road. I jumped in behind the steering-wheel, and . . . saw Paddy and Manoli dragging the General out of the opposite door. The old man was struggling with fury . . . shouting every curse under the sun . . . [We bundled] him into the back seat [and he] kept imploring, ‘Where is my hat? Where is my hat?’ The hat, of course, was on Paddy’s head.”

First published in Time magazine 4 September 1950

Why a German general’s hat should be on a British officer’s head is pretty much the gist of III Met by Moonlight. For as the staff car, driven by Author Moss, moved along the road in northern Crete, sentries at no less than 22 German traffic-control posts smartly saluted the behatted “general”‘ and waved the car on. They had no inkling that prostrate on the floor in the back seat lay the real general, with guns pointed at his head. Twenty days later, on May 16, 1944, kidnaped Major General Karl Kreipe was handed over to British authorities in Cairo, putting finis to what Harold Nicolson has called “one of the best adventure stories that I have read.”*

Behind the Lines. The scheme of raiding German-held Crete and trotting off with the divisional commander was the brain child of youthful Major Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Captain W. Stanley Moss, who had achieved the schoolboy dream of becoming secret agents. At their base in Cairo, they shared a villa and sampled the fleshpots of Egypt. It was in a nightclub that they first hatched the plot that was to land their party from a motor launch on the south coast of Crete.

The two Britons could depend on help from guerrillas and from intelligence corpsmen hidden in the hills. One British agent, a Cretan, actually lived next door to General Kreipe’s Villa Ariadne, near the north coast. Through him, Moss and Leigh-Fermor learned the general’s daily routine to a nicety—off to headquarters by car at 9 a.m., back in the evening any time after 8 or 8:30 p.m., depending on how many rubbers of bridge he stayed to play.

Slowly, painstakingly, the two agents planned a night ambush. Hidden guerrillas lay at vantage points on the road to the villa, a buzzer and torch flashes relayed warnings of the general’s approach to the waiting kidnapers, who were in German uniforms.

After the snatch, the general (who quickly became resigned and quite amiable) was marched from cave to cave half the length of Crete, while the furious Germans fruitlessly finecombed the island. By the time a Royal Navy motor launch nosed in to a southwest beach and took off both captive and captors, Moss and Leigh-Fermor knew that they had achieved their principal aim—to astound the enemy and make him the laughingstock of the local population.

Author Moss wrote his story in the mid-’40s, but the British War Office refused to let it appear then. Today, having reached the elderly age of 29, Moss is a bit abashed by the “22-year-old exuberance (almost bumptiousness) with which it was written.” Bumptious or not, it is one of the most melodramatic and audacious stories of the war.

*And notably more successful than another daring plan hatched in Cairo. In November 1941, British commandos under 24-year-old Lieut. Colonel Geoffrey Keyes made their way 200 miles behind Axis lines in an attempt to capture or assassinate Nazi General Erwin Rommel. At night, with cork-blackened faces, Keyes and his commandos achieved complete surprise, wrecked Rommel’s HQ with grenades. But Keyes was killed and Rommel was untouched: he had gone to a birthday party.

Crete, Greece: Ghostly soldiers on the Battle of Crete anniversary

The Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay in Crete where the main anniversary commemorations will take place

It was sunny but cold, last month in Crete – what the locals call “ilios me dontia”, sun with teeth. I sat on the beach at Sfakia on the south coast of the island. Around me a toddler played among the stones while taverna owners were applying final licks of paint in preparation for the new tourist season.

My late father sat on the same beach in May 1941. Around him there was chaos and despair. Evelyn Waugh, who was there too, later captured the scene in the novel Officers and Gentlemen: “The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere. Some were quite apathetic, too weary to eat; others were smashing their rifles on the stones, taking a fierce relish in this symbolic farewell to their arms.”

This tiny harbour is the finish to the story of the Battle of Crete, which started 70 years ago on Friday, May 20 — a significant anniversary that will be commemorated across the island. There are few veterans left now, but strands of the narrative may still be picked up among the rocks and wild flowers of the beautiful western end of Crete.

I had long meant to do this journey, to discover what my father – and thousands of others – went through. He himself hadn’t been the best source as he wouldn’t say much about it. And then he died, with the story largely untold.
Related Articles

To help me uncover it, I enlisted the services of a Briton who has been a resident of Crete for 25 years and offers guided tours of the key sites. For Tim Powell, tourist guide, musician and lover of all things Cretan, the Battle of Crete was characterised by the heroic resistance of the civilian population. “This ‘insurgency’ led to a declaration that for every German soldier killed, 10 Cretans would be executed — which of course did nothing to stop them,” he said.

He started the story at the end, the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay where the main anniversary commemorations will take place. The 1,500 headstones memorialise some colourful characters, none more vivid than John Pendlebury, an archaeologist with a glass eye who was operating in Crete as a secret agent when he was killed on May 22 1941.

The battle and its aftermath of guerrilla resistance threw up a cast of such chaps — suave British secret agents, brave Cretan warriors, even a monocle-wearing German aristocrat — whose deeds are recorded in some compelling accounts. Ill Met by Moonlight, for example, recounts the kidnap of the German General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944, masterminded by the secret agent (and future travel writer) Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But the Crete campaign also included many ordinary soldiers and civilians whose names and actions remain unrecorded and for whom the experience was far from glamorous. One of them was my father, a lance sergeant in the Northumberland Hussars, who was evacuated to Crete from Athens towards the end of April 1941 after mainland Greece fell to the Nazis.

He dug in with a force of about 21,000 combat-ready British, Australian, New Zealand and Cretan soldiers to defend the island. The Germans launched their attack on May 20 in wave after wave of paratroop drops by parachute and glider. What followed was a series of military blunders on both sides in which the Allies managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The key fighting took place around the airfield at Maleme, and Hill 107 above it, to the west of Chania. Since 1974 Hill 107 has been the site of the German War Cemetery on Crete, the last resting place of 4,465 soldiers of whom nearly 2,000 were killed on that first day.

Many fell not to soldiers but to civilians. “The Germans had never seen something like this in Europe,” explained George Bikoyiannakis, the owner of the Café Plateia in the village of Galatas near Chania, the site of fierce fighting. “These people were fighting with farming tools. Even broomsticks. They would tie kitchen knives to them and use them as spears.”

George runs a little museum next to the church that commemorates the heroic efforts of locals and New Zealanders to defend the village. The Kiwis are remembered in the name of a street, Neozilandon Polemiston, which means “Road of the New Zealand Warriors”. Down a narrow alley, a garden gate has been fashioned from an old piece of British Matilda tank.

The civilian resistance — by women and priests and as well as men young and old — offended the Nazis’ sense of how war should be waged and their commander, General Kurt Student, ordered reprisals to be carried out “with exemplary terror”. The sites of these massacres are marked by monuments across the island, some of them displaying the skulls and bones of victims behind glass.

At Alikianos a marble column and canopy bear witness to one of the bravest feats of the Battle of Crete, in which 850 lads of the locally recruited 8th Greek Regiment held out for a week against German onslaught. More than 200 villagers, ranging in age from 14 to 80, were subsequently shot in reprisal.

“The Germans were surprised because the women didn’t turn away,” said Powell. “They watched their husbands and sons being executed.” The significance of the action at Alikianos is that it bought the Allies time to organise the evacuation of Crete. On May 27, realising the island was lost, the Allied commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg, ordered his forces to retreat south across the Levka Ori, the mountains that form the snowy spine of Crete, to an embarkation point on the southern coast.

My father and his fellow Geordies abandoned the ground they held around Chania and joined the exodus. The route they took, with little or no food, in rotting boots, under frequent attack from Stuka dive bombers, was nicknamed the Via Dolorosa. Today you can drive it in your little Nissan or Peugeot hire car.

In 1941 it was a dirt track that ended in the five-mile-long Imbros Gorge. A Stuka was shot down as it came in for the attack here. Its propeller is one of the prize exhibits in the war museum at Askifou, which lies on the Via Dolorosa. Walking the gorge myself, I tried to imagine the Stuka screech my father once remarked on, but all I could hear was goat bells.

His reward for reaching Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships evacuated 16,000 men over four nights, was to be told there was no room for him. He would have to stay behind and wait to be captured. All told, 5,000 Allied troops didn’t make it off Crete. None of those left behind was above the rank of lieutenant colonel.

One eyewitness talked of the “damnable and disgraceful scramble for priority, a claim to the privilege of escape based on rank and seniority”. Evelyn Waugh thought it a shameful episode. My father didn’t mention it.

After sitting on the beach at Sfakia I sat down for lunch at one of those spruced-up tavernas and ordered a plate of gigantes, butterbeans in tomato sauce. Then I remembered that butterbeans were my father’s favourite thing to eat. He would have appreciated a plateful as he sat twiddling his thumbs just a few feet away, waiting to be captured.

He spent the next four years, from the ages of 20 to 24, in various POW camps in Germany, but he took it all on the chin. The only bit I can remember him grumbling about was having to march the 50 miles back over the mountains, along the Via Dolorosa, after being taken prisoner. He said he could have done without that.

By Nigel Richardson – First published in The Telegraph

Related articles:

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

Ride of the Valkyries: The Vichy perspective on the German invasion of Crete

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

Crete: 11th Day Movie with Paddy

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

 

George Psychoundakis in 2004(?)

A bond deeper than blood. The friendship forged in wartime Crete between Patrick Leigh Fermor and shepherd George Psychoundakis was commemorated in George’s memoir about the Resistance, The Cretan Runner. With the book republished, it was time to meet again.

by Allison Pearson

First published in The Daily Telegraph, Saturday 13th June 1998

Two old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an Englishman. A voluble eye-popping tenor and a growly teddy-bear bass. “Remember the sick doctor we disguised as an old woman and carried for miles to get help?” “Yes, and remember when you dressed up as a general and kidnapped a real one!”

They interrupt each other. They sigh for the dead. They laugh for dear life, knowing exactly how much it can cost. Although one of the men speaks only Greek, I think I can detect a rhythm to their reminiscing: the Cretan talks everything up and the Englishman plays it right back down again. The sudden memory of one “bad Greek” acts on the Cretan’s weathered face like a drawstring, pulling it taut to a scowling walnut. But the Englishman, all silky diplomacy, jumps in and offers a more optimistic assessment of the fiend in question: “I think he just lost his head a bit.”

Later, when the Cretan mentions the Englishman’s name in the course of what sounds like a pretty fulsome tribute, his friend stops translating for me altogether. What did he say? “He was more than kind about me.” Yes, but what did he say? “Oh, I couldn’t possibly repeat it.”

The bashful Briton is Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, traveller, scholar- gypsy, war hero and writer of genius. His fiery friend is George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner, an extraordinary account of the anti- Nazi Resistance on the island, which was translated by Leigh Fermor and is now republished.

The Cretan Runner

There have been other memoirs of wartime Crete, such as Xan Fielding’s Hide and Seek and Ill Met by Moonlight, W Stanley Moss’s record of the kidnapping of General Kreipe (later made into a movie, with Dirk Bogarde assigned to fill Leigh Fermor’s dashing boots). But those were visitors’ books. George’s story, as Leigh Fermor points out in the introduction, is unique. It is no longer the locals who are colourful aliens, but the Allied officers and their wireless operators – good sorts and good sports in the main but, none the less, foreigners with some very dodgy customs. “A most peculiar man,” George says of one buffer. “He had pyjamas and a washbasin.”

Even more baffling for the Cretans, who think Nature is a place where you go and shoot things, the buffer turned out to be an amateur botanist and geologist: “He was not only in love with different kinds of weeds but with stones as well.”

Paddy and I have been sitting in the front room of George’s small vine-clad house, outside Khania in western Crete, for more than two hours now. At least one of us is reeling under the bombardment of Cretan hospitality. Celestial cheese tarts made by Sofia, George’s wife, have given way to nuts, glistening sweetmeats and, as if that weren’t enough, shots of tsikoudia, a spirit so lethal it feels less like drinking a liquid than sipping scalded air. After three of these, I am not entirely sure whether the spools on my tape recorder are going round: after four, I don’t care.

George – one eye sleepy, the other coal black with embers of mischief – is joking about whether he should have given lessons in sheep stealing (a local speciality) to one of the wireless operators. “So when he got back to Scotland he could have organised sheep rustling.” Paddy pretends, unconvincingly, to be shocked.

Through the window behind them, you can see the White Mountains – a range so towering and snowy, even on this May day, that it is hard to tell where rock stops and cloud begins. More than half a century ago, those slopes were Paddy and George’s stamping-ground. “George’s life was dangerous and absolutely exhausting,” explains Paddy. But George is having none of it: “I felt as if I were flying. Running all the way from the top of the White Mountains to Mount Ida. So light and easy – just like drinking a cup of coffee.”

George has difficulty walking now – at 78 he leans on a stick as gnarled as himself – but his mind can leap from memory to memory, as if he were still flying. I ask George what he thought the British had learnt from the Cretans and vice versa. “What they learnt, because there was very little to eat, was to drink a lot and to dance and to shoot for joy in the air. We saw how much they loved our country and it made us love it still more. The fact that they loved Crete so much gave us even greater courage.”

The first time George Psychoundakis met Patrick Leigh Fermor he thought he was very tall. The young Cretan had just crawled on all fours through thick bushes into the heap of boulders where the officer was hiding. In fact, the Englishman was not especially lofty (a touch over 5ft 9in, according to his passport). It was the Greek who was tiny. “As fine-boned as an Indian,” recalls Leigh Fermor. “Lithe and agile and full of nervous energy.”

Anyway, height didn’t matter much back then. It was the July of 1942 in occupied Crete and the stature of men was not measured in inches, rather in a bewildering range of abilities. These included: keeping cool when a member of the Gestapo approaches your mule while it is carrying a combustible load of wheat and wireless; keeping warm in a cave-bed with a canopy of stalactites; and finding the courage to tuck into a dinner of local produce – grass cooked with snails. “We took the grass blade by blade, picked off the broken shells and ate it with much laughter,” recalls George.

Psychoundakis was a runner for the Resistance – a vertical postman, he delivered messages and equipment at barely credible speed. On a map, Crete doesn’t look too daunting – a sirloin steak beaten to a succulent sliver by a butcher. But it rises so sharply into such broken-toothed cragginess that it is pointless to measure it in miles: the islanders calculate distances in the time taken to smoke cigarettes. George’s wartime business was mainly conducted at eagle-height, or as he felt his way down the vertebrae of his homeland towards some hiding place where even goats didn’t dare.

He was 21 years old when he first met the 27-year-old Leigh Fermor. George addressed Paddy as Michali (all the Allied soldiers had Greek nicknames) or sometimes Mr Michali in half-amused respect (irreverence being the key to the Psychoundakis psyche). Paddy, meanwhile, code- named George either the Clown or the Changeling, for his cockeyed wit, his impish insubordination and a magical ability to spirit himself out of trouble.

Patrick Paddy Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss

The two men were not just worlds apart: a glance at their biographies suggests you would need to hire a time machine to bring them together. Born in Asi Gonia, a village with a long history of giving invaders a hard time (asi is Arabic for uncommandable), George lived the kind of peasant life that had not changed for centuries. His family slept together in a single room with a beaten earth floor. After a scratchy education at the local primary school, he followed his father on to the mountains as a shepherd. By the time German parachutes blotted out the sky in May 1941, he had visited only two of Crete’s towns and had never seen the capital, Heraklion.

By contrast, Leigh Fermor was born into a smart Anglo-Irish family and educated at prep school and King’s, Canterbury. [Just like someone else we know] By 1939, he had walked across every country between London and Constantinople – a stroll commemorated in his two dazzling volumes, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – and also appeared to have drunk in most of their national literatures.

Scrape through what Leigh Fermor called his “Fauntleroy veneer”, though, and you find a rougher grain. With his parents abroad for the first four years of his life, Paddy was entrusted to the family of a small farmer and, left uncultivated, he ran wild. The experience, he later wrote, “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint”. His behaviour at a flurry of schools led to his being sent to two psychiatrists, although it is unlikely that either rivalled Paddy’s clinical diagnosis of himself as “a very naughty boy”. He was finally expelled from King’s for crimes that included “trying to be funny” and holding the hand of a greengrocer’s daughter. His housemaster’s report noted: “He is a dangrous mixture of sophistication and recklessness, which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”

Almost 70 years later, I find it hard to improve on that verdict, save to replace the word dangerous with delightful. As it turned out, his influence on other boys was all to the good, and the most remarkable boy of all was George Psychoundakis.

While Paddy was in Kent writing “bad and imitative verse” and lapping up ancient Greek because it was a passport to a world of heroes, George was scavenging books from the village priest and the doctor, and occupying the long woolly hours by the sheepfold composing patriotic poems and beady skits on local life. (An early effort entitled Ode to an Inkspot on a Schoolmistress’s Skirt sounds distinctly Paddy-like in its high- flown cheekiness).

Although George’s father, Nicolas, was illiterate, he could recite by heart the whole of the Erotocritos, the 17th-century Cretan epic poem that comprises 10,000 lines of rhyming couplets. And the rhythm lodged in the son’s head and on his tongue: poetry to these people was not the object of solemn study but a spur to the spinning of legends and the cue for a bloody good song.

George Psychoundakis during the Resistance

Which is to say that when the ragged and practically barefoot Cretan wriggled into the hiding-place of the Englishman in 1942, they had more in common than an enemy. George spoke only one perfect sentence of English – “I steal grapes every day” – but Paddy soon extended his repertoire. On long marches to the coast to meet supply vessels or during the dark hours awaiting a parachute drop, the Britons taught the Greeks folk-songs and the Greeks taught them mantinadas – waspish local couplets with a sting in the tail.

On their first trek together, Paddy recalls how George recited a poem he had written on the unambitious theme of The Second World War So Far. “It covered the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, the German invasion of Greece and Rommel’s final advance. It lasted more than two hours and finished on a note of triumphant optimism and presage of vengeance, which he emphasised by borrowing my pistol and firing it into the sky with the remark that we would soon be eating the cuckolds alive.”

Leigh Fermor, meanwhile, attempted to satisfy Psychoundakis’s ravenous curiosity about the world. What was Churchill like? Why do the Scots wear kilts? How about astronomy, religion, trains? How many sheep does the average Englishman own?

The task of the British Special Operations Executive in Crete was to assist the local Resistance. Having spent centuries in revolt against the Venetians and the Turks, the islanders didn’t actually need much encouragement. During the airborne invasion in 1941, when many young Cretans were away on active service, descending parachutists were met by old men, women and children – by anyone, in fact, who could point upwards and shoot. “Aim for the legs and you’ll get them in the heart,” ran the local wisdom. Four thousand Germans died. Those who survived took swift revenge. Reprisals, read one Wehrmacht memo, “must be carried through with exemplary terror”. Between May and September of that year, 1,135 Cretans were executed.

The Cretan Runner begins with the invasion. “Out of the sky the winged devils of Hitler were falling everywhere … the aeroplanes came and went like bees in a bee-garden.” One grounded plane is set upon by furious locals till it resembles “a bit of bread thrown on to an ant-hill”. From the opening pages, you get a pungent impression of the Psychoundakis style – a vertiginous mix of the epic and the demotic, the Homeric and the homely. Of the enemy, George writes: “They reached to our very bowels and provoked a storm in the soul of the race like the hiss of a poisonous snake about to strike.” No British account of the battle of Crete could contain a sentence like that. Too purple. Too embarrassing, frankly. But it feels utterly true to George and the hot-blooded rhetoric of his race.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of a book that documents the burning of villages, the casual slaughter of comrades and a life of mesmerising danger is how often it makes you smile. No stranger to hardship anyway, George embraces discomfort as though it were a shy friend with a lot to offer. We see George at the end of a knackering three-day trek using pieces of wood to mime someone hobbling. We hear him enthusing over yet another dank hiding-place as though he were writing for some actionable travel brochure: “The cave was perfect. We collected our drinking and washing water from stalactites. We arranged luxurious couches for ourselves from the branches of various shrubs that were better than the softest mattress!”

Best of all, there is George richly enjoying his British friends, not least their congenital inability to walk over the rocky landscape. (In one incident, Leigh Fermor threw himself pluckily at a high stone wall in emulation of local bravado, only to fall off backwards: the Cretans in the party walked around the side of the wall, shaking their heads and laughing.)

SOE officer Ralph Stockbridge (centre, in the spectacles) with some of his comrades in Crete

“It was plain that George was enraptured with the excitement of our secret life,” says Paddy. The same could be said of all of them, I think. As a boy Leigh Fermor confessed to being guilty of “a bookish attempt to coerce life into a closer resemblance to literature”. In this case, the literature was Greek. The Cretans, for their part, seemed all too willing to live up to the legends the Englishmen had imbibed at school. Most battles look romantic only in retrospect, if then: Crete was different. It seems to have struck its leading men as touched with an air of romance, even as the drama was unfolding. As they approached by boat on a moonless night, the first the soldiers knew of the island was perfume, the scent of wild thyme that wafts miles out to sea.

Once on shore, they changed into local costume – breeches, black bandanas, embroidered waistcoats and spiffy jackboots. There were lessons in how to curl their new moustaches. They were an extraordinary bunch – poets, archaeologists, free spirits thirsty for adventure. SOE chose them because they had some knowledge of ancient Greek. But, as Leigh Fermor explains, since Greek was no longer compulsory at school, those who opted for it had already marked themselves out as “a perverse and eccentric minority”.

I cannot get enough of the photographs of the Resistance taken through those years in the mountains. Remember, these are snapshots captured at a time when to have a likeness of yourself in existence was itself a threat to that existence. There is the legendary Xan “Aleko” Fielding, looking uncannily like the young Hemingway. Gimlet-eyed and bare- chested, he regards the lens with Olympian amusement. And there is Yanni Tsangarakis, one of the bravest and most trusted guides, slightly woebegone behind a Zebedee moustache, and the redoubtable Manoli Paterakis, whose unforgettable profile suggests he may have been the love-child of Montgomery of Alamein and a peregrine falcon. [I think he’s trying to say he was nasally overendowed]

Looking at the smiley countenance of Tom Dunbabin – a fellow of All Souls in peacetime – you can see why he inspired such love; ditto the gaunt saintly faces of Aleko Kokonas, the schoolmaster of Yerakari, and his wife, Kyria Maria. And then, of course, there are Paddy and George: the first as debonair and unfeasibly handsome as Errol Flynn casting about for a galleon to capture; the second apparently auditioning for the role of Puck.

In Louis de Bernieres’s novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in wartime Cephalonia, there is a posh Englishman who lives in a cave and comes out declaiming ancient Greek. He is a bit of a joke. And, to be sure, there is something potentially laughable about the Boy’s Own aspect of all this dressing up and blowing stuff up. What redeems it from absurdity, what transforms it into real rather than fantastical heroism, is the nagging presence of death, which circled above these lives like a hawk. There was nothing comic-book about Anton Zoidakis, captured by German soldiers, tied to their vehicle and dragged along the road until his face and his life were wiped away. And even George’s account of merry scrapes is pulled up short when 20 Gestapo visit Asi Gonia: “They said I was wanted for interrogation and if didn’t go to Retimo before January 17 they would set fire to the whole village.”

Three of George’s fellow runners were executed, two after what the Wehrmacht would probably have considered exemplary torture. In his superb book Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Antony Beevor points out that the penalty for a shepherd caught whistling to warn of the approach of a German patrol was death.

War had transformed George Psychoundakis’s life. In February 1943, it enabled the former shepherd boy to travel abroad for the first time. He was spirited off to SOE headquarters in Egypt, where he was knocked sideways by wonders, not least the grass in the Gezira gardens: “Fat, short grass like green velvet carpet.” As for the zoo, “I could almost have deemed that I was in the middle of paradise”. The most misguided character in the whole of The Cretan Runner is the soldier who advised George not to climb up the Pyramids because it was “very tiring and tricky”. A short hop later, the Cretan runner got out his stiletto and “cut my name and fatherland” into a stone at the top.

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

On the day the war was over, a “high-spirited Mr Leigh Fermor” bought a dubious Mr Psychoundakis a lot of drinks. “If I drink all that I’ll be drunk,” protested George. “But my child, what is drink meant for? It’s no use for anything else,” replied Paddy.

Soon after, in a school where a whole village was gathered together, George recited a heart-stopping poem he had written on the lovely village of Yerakari, now destroyed, where once “white houses lay like doves asleep along the sill of heaven”. He had survived, but for a while it was hard to see what for.

Fortune, who had smiled on George in a time of insane adversity, appeared to doze off once the shooting stopped. Because of missing documents and in spite of his British Empire Medal (awarded in 1945), he was arrested as a deserter and imprisoned for several months. One can scarcely imagine the wound inflicted on his pride. Over three days, that great shaggy helmet of hair all fell out. Subsequently, he had to do two more years of fighting in the civil war. Returning at last to Asi Gonia, George found all the sheep stolen and his family in gruesome poverty. The Changeling had run out of magic.

George took a job as a navvy working on a road. At night, he sheltered once more in a cave and by the light of an oil lamp began to fill notebook after notebook with a furious, cramped hand. “I think he undertook this task as a kind of exorcism of the gloom of his circumstances, ” says Paddy. When they met up again in 1951, George gave his friend the completed work: Pictures of Our Life During the Occupation. Better known as The Cretan Runner.

Leigh Fermor, now living on the Greek mainland, took the precious grime-covered manuscript home to translate. George, meanwhile, was working to help his old friend, too. In 1943, with a German patrol approaching, Paddy, who was checking what he thought was an empty rifle, accidentally shot Yanni Tzangarakis in the leg. He died soon afterwards, but not before absolving his friend of all blame. Paddy was devastated: imagine killing the proud son of a country for which you were willing to lay down your own life.

This wretchedness was deepened by foolish rumours that eventually led to a vendetta being declared by some of Yanni’s relatives. This was only laid to rest after years of delicate negotiation by George, who found a very Cretan solution to the Englishman’s impasse: Paddy Leigh Fermor became godfather to Yanni’s great-niece. In Greek society, this bond is deeper than blood.

Two old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an Englishman. “We’d better censor that, George, it’s libellous,” says Paddy, trying to sound stern. As usual, he fails.

George goes off into the bedroom and comes back with a rifle. It is nearly as tall as he is, and its working parts are in similarly creaky order. As George poses with the gun, the photographer asks him to smile. George scowls and spits out a guttural retort. “Oh dear, oh dear,” says Paddy, shaking his head and laughing. What did George just say? “He said he won’t smile because he’s killing Germans.”

At the front of A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor quotes from Louis MacNeice’s great poem:

For now the time of gifts is gone
O boys that grow,
O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill.

Since the war, both men have found satisfactions. Leigh Fermor, though unfairly saddled with the label of travel writer, has become one of the greatest exponents of English prose.

Psychoundakis, meanwhile, has translated both the Odyssey and the Iliad into Cretan and been honoured by the Academy of Athens. Still, I can’t help wondering whether the time since their great adventure had been an anti-climax.

“To some extent all our lives were in those years,” admits Paddy. “Of course, one went on to do interesting things, but … ” George has come up now and stretches out his fingertips to reach the shoulders of his friend, the tall Englishman. “Ah, George says to tell you that those years up in the mountains were the best years of his life. He’ll never forget it. Never. And that’s why he wanted to commemorate our days together.”

Just as we are getting ready to leave, George gives Paddy a photograph. It is of George himself and Xan Fielding, taken somewhere in the mountains. You can just make them out. The emulsion is breaking up and great snowy specks of it are blizzarding them into oblivion. Yet looking back at the Cretan resisters, we see only a thrilling clarity. Their existence was both mortally serious and a great wheeze – perhaps a definition of the best kind of life you can hope to lead.

Years after the war ended, George Psychoundakis sang for his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor a mantinada. This is what it said:
With patience first and patience last, and doggedness all through,
A man can think the wildest thoughts and make them all come true.

Related articles:

The obituary of George Psychoundakis aka The Cretan Runner

General’s long trip home

Related category:

Ill Met by Moonlight

Crete: Island of Heroes

“The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary … When executions were to take place I would leave my desk and walk out onto the balcony to watch their moment of death. Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete.” So said General Alexander Andre, the German Commander of the Occupation Forces on Crete.

This video features pictures from the film 11th Day and includes some pictures of Paddy, including a new one to me at least of himself and Moss with the kidnap gang.

It is said that the Germans had never encountered the extent of civilian resistance that they encountered on Crete.

Retribution was swift. The German High Command wanted to break the spirit of the populace and do it quickly. In this they failed and failed miserably. In retaliation for the losses they incurred, the Nazis spread punishment, terror and death on the innocent civilians of the island. More than two thousand Cretans were executed during the first month alone and twenty five thousand more later.

Even in the face of certain death while standing in line to be executed, Cretans did not beg for their lives. This shocked the German troops. Kurt Student, the German Paratrooper Commander who planned the invasion, said of the Cretans, I have never seen such a defiance of death. General Alexander Andre, the German Commander of the Occupation Forces was amazed and said: “The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary. Cretans turn into mythical figures. They are so proud of their moment of death that one can hardly fail to admire their courage. When executions were to take place I would leave my desk and walk out onto the balcony to watch their moment of death. Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete.”

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

Crete: 11th Day Movie with Paddy

General’s long trip home

Related category:

Ill Met by Moonlight