Tag Archives: Cretan Runner

George Psychoundakis – The Cretan Runner’s obituary from The Times

A second obituary of George who as a fit young man risked life and limb running messages for the Cretan resistance and then for the SOE operatives in Crete. Paddy helped to get George out of gaol (when he was mistakenly detained by the Greeks as a deserter) and then translated The Cretan runner into English.

Cretan partisan who wrote an unvarnished account of the wartime occupation

First published in The Times February 23, 2006

AS a runner for the Resistance in Crete during the German occupation, George Psychoundakis carried messages over vast distances across one of the most mountainous regions in Europe. It was a life of constant risk — runners captured by the Germans were often tortured and shot. Wearing worn-out boots and with a minimum of rations, Psychoundakis would cover up to 50 miles in only a few days. The threat from collaborators meant that he often had to avoid villages, thus depriving himself of comforts that would have eased the rigours of his journeys.

Psychoundakis approached his missions with a humour and a charm that made him a popular figure in the Resistance, as well as with the British officers serving under cover. One officer was the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Psychoundakis formed a lifelong friendship. It was Leigh Fermor who translated Psychoundakis’s account of life under the occupation, The Cretan Runner, republished in 1998.

In his foreword Leigh Fermor writes how he was captivated by the Cretan’s “gift for play on words, for funny repartee, light verse, improvisation, unpredictable flights of imagination and his instinct for teasing the great . . . which earned him a universal licence as a jester”.

More than merely fleet of foot, Psychoundakis was quick of mind. Before the war, as a shepherd boy, he was fascinated by literature. Among a barely literate population, he had to pester the village priest and the doctor for books, and even composed his own epic poems. Psychoundakis represented the Greek oral tradition: he had even composed a two-hour-long poem about the war. It ended with George firing Leigh Fermor’s pistol into the air, swearing vengeance on the German “ cuckolds”. At night and when the weather was awful, Psychoundakis would sit with his comrades in their caves, reciting the 10,000 lines of the 17th-century Cretan poem, the Erotokritos.

George Psychoundakis was born in 1920, the son of a shepherd from the village of Asi Gonia in Western Crete. The family was very poor — Psychoundakis, his two sisters and brother were raised in a one-room house — and owned only a handful of goats and sheep. After a few years at the village school Psychoundakis too became a shepherd until the German invasion in May 1941.

Had the invasion not happened, it is probable that he would have remained an unknown shepherd, eking out a tough existence on the craggy Cretan landscape. But the occupation allowed him to broaden his horizons, for the contacts he had made with scholarly warriors such as Leigh Fermor gave him the opportunity to make a name for himself as a man of letters.

But the transition from mountain boy to writer was not easy. Despite being awarded the British Empire Medal after the war, Psychoundakis was arrested as a deserter and imprisoned for several months, losing his thick head of hair through worry. Afterwards, he was forced to fight in the civil war, returning to Asi Gonia after two years to find his family poorer than ever.

It was then that he wrote The Cretan Runner. When he and Leigh Fermor met again in 1951, Fermor marvelled at the uniqueness of such a document. Most writing about the occupation had been by the English or the Germans, but here was a heartfelt testament to the horrors of being occupied. The book was published in 1955, and became a great success.

Written in a simplistic style, it is an episodic account of hardships and dangers, with moments of great humour set against a background of murder and torture.

“Nobody talked, but the Germans had positive information. They lined them all up, and, as they refused to speak, prepared to execute the lot. But, before they could press the trigger of their heavy machine-gun, ten Germans fell dead. For some of the village men — about ten — had taken up position along the top of a sheer cliff above the village, from where they could watch every detail, and, at just the right moment, had opened fire. Not a bullet went wide.”

Even after the publication of The Cretan Runner, Psychoundakis continued to live in Asi Gonia. There he translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into his Cretan dialect, and he was honoured by the Academy of Athens. He lived off the land and held a variety of jobs. That one of these was as the caretaker for the nearby German cemetery was a shining example of Psychoundakis’s sense of forgiveness.

He is survived by his wife, Sofia, their son and two daughters.

George Psychoundakis, BEM, shepherd, partisan and writer, was born on November 3, 1920. He died on January 29, 2006, aged 85.

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Obituary: John Smith-Hughes who served in Crete with SOE

Young officer who served in Crete and then joined SOE working with many of Paddy’s colleagues. It is almost certain Paddy and Smith-Hughes met but there is no mention in this obituary.

by Antony Beevor

First published in The Independent Thursday, 17 March 1994

John Smith-Hughes, soldier and barrister: born 27 November 1918; OBE 1945; married 1945 Angela Louvaris (died 1972; one son, one daughter); died Tortola, Virgin Islands 4 March 1994.

LIKE many of those who joined Special Operations Executive in the Middle East, Jack Smith-Hughes possessed considerable intellectual talents matched by a lack of reverence for conventional army pieties. His path to SOE’s headquarters in Cairo had also been decidedly unpredictable.

At the end of 1940, Smith- Hughes, a portly and precocious 22-year-old subaltern in the Royal Army Service Corps, was shipped to Crete as part of the Allied garrison sent to defend the island after the Italian invasion of Greece. When the German airborne invasion took place in May 1941, he was in charge of shipping supplies to outlying detachments from Chania, in north- west Crete. On the night that Brigadier Robert Laycock and Evelyn Waugh landed with the Layforce commandos at Suda Bay, the most chaotic moment of the battle, Smith-Hughes was astonished to find himself walking up and down the jetty for a considerable time with General Bernard Freyberg VC, the Allied commander on the island. Freyberg was worried that the Australian force at Rethymno, on the coast to the east, would not receive the order to withdraw. Unfortunately, this concern for his troops meant that Freyberg was out of touch with his headquarters during several hours while the last Allied counter-attack collapsed in confusion.

The next day, retreat nearly turned into rout. Smith-Hughes was soon one of the 20,000 exhausted men making their way over the White Mountains to the southern coast for evacuation by the Royal Navy. He was one of the unlucky ones. On his way to join the queue on the last evening, he was turned back by an embarkation officer and told not to worry: the warships would be back again the following night. A couple of hours later, he realised that the man had lied to him. Captured by Austrian Alpine troops the next morning, he was marched back over the mountains, the most painful journey of all, to prison camp.

He escaped soon afterwards and hid at the house of Colonel Andreas Papadakis, who later proclaimed himself chief of the Cretan Resistance. George Psychoundakis, ‘The Cretan Runner’, then guided him to the monastery of Preveli on the south coast. Evacuated finally to Egypt by submarine, Smith- Hughes had the satistaction in a Cairo restaurant of encountering the embarkation officer again and telling him exactly what he thought of him.

To his surprise, Smith-Hughes was summoned to SOE’s Cairo headquarters, in Rustum Buildings – known to Cairene taxi-drivers as ‘secret building’. He was then sent back to Crete ‘to feel out the country and see who had influence’. Accompanied by Ralph Stockbridge of Inter-Services Liaison Department, the cover-name for MI6, he landed on 9 October 1941. Smith-Hughes was fortunate not to never encounter a German patrol or roadblock: his Cretan disguise only seemed to draw attention to his unusual bulk, his Britishly pink compexion, and his ungainly walk.

Smith-Hughes and Stockbridge set off to see Papadakis, the only person they knew who claimed to have influence. But Papadakis’s folies de grandeur made him impossible to use as a focus of resistance. Other leaders were sounded out, mainly those rallied by the archaeologist John Pendlebury who had then been executed by German paratroopers during the battle. Smith-Hughes handed over to Monty Woodhouse from Egypt shortly before Christmas and returned to Cairo, where he ran the Cretan desk at SOE headquarters with great skill.

Promoted to major, Smith- Hughes managed to preserve the section from the terrible infighting in Rustum Buildings by moving out to an annexe. It was Smith- Hughes who briefed and backed up Woodhouse’s successor, Tom Dunbabin, another distinguished archaeologist of great courage, and his two deputies, Xan Fielding for western Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor for eastern Crete. Unusually for SOE in the Middle East, the Cretan section, B5, was neither riven by animosity nor plagued by rivalry with ISLD. Smith-Hughes’s joint mission with Stockbridge laid the foundations for an unusual degree of co-operation between the two organisations, and he managed to maintain it even in the torrid bureaucratic warfare carried out by the ‘Gaberdine swine’ in Cairo.

The Germans did all they could to track down the ‘espionage organisation of Captain Huse’, as one of their reports put it. But perhaps the greatest contribution made by SOE officers in the field and in Cairo was to prevent the latent civil war between the Cretan nationalist EOK and the Communist-dominated EAM-ELAS from exploding into a war to the knife. After the liberation of Heraklion, when a reactionary kapitan shot and wounded one of the Communist andarte leaders, Dunbabin and Smith-Hughes managed to prevent an explosion by driving round the town in open jeeps, and persuading both sides to back away from a battle which would have led to the virtual annihilation of the Communists. The Nationalists, unlike their counterparts on mainland Greece, were untainted by collaboration and much stronger than the Left.

Smith-Hughes, with typical self-deprecating humour, recounted that his most terrifying experience during the war was the formal liberation of Kastelli Kissamou, on the north-west tip of Crete. As a mark of honour, the Cretan kapitan for the area insisted that he should ride with him into the town. Smith- Hughes, who had never felt comfortable with horses, was obliged to overcome his fears, and when the cheering crowds made the horse caracole, he had to hold on to the saddle with both hands.

After the war, Smith-Hughes turned his incisive mind and astonishing memory to the law, first in the Army, and then as a barrister at Tortola in the Virgin Islands, where he became Attorney-General. In 1991, he returned to Crete for the 50th anniversary of the battle and was one of the guests at the memorable all-night glendi in honour of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his Cretan comrades who abducted General Heinrich Kreipe in April 1944.

The obituary of George Psychoundakis aka The Cretan Runner

The Cretan Runner

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.

George Psychoundakis during the Resistance

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