Tag Archives: Nikos Ghika

John Julius Norwich – 1929-2018

Barry Cryer and John Julius Norwich at an Oldie lunch in 2017

Very sad news over the weekend to hear of the death of John Julius Norwich, writer, diplomat, broadcaster, father of Artemis Copper (Paddy’s biographer), and friend of Paddy and Joan. Thank you to AJ for sending me this link to his final article for the Oldie magazine. Like John Julius, it was Paddy that led me to my interest in Byzantium, although my Byzantine output is nothing like the wonderful three volume history of Byzantium that John Julius wrote.

First published in The Oldie, 1 June 2018.

By John Julius Norwich.

A new show at the British Museum – about three great lovers of Greece – takes me right back to the 1950s. The English painter Johnny Craxton (1922-2009) was a joy – the only dinner guest we ever had who came on his motorbike and left his leathers in the hall. He always came on his own; we were all intrigued by the idea of his long-term boyfriend, whom we never met. I think Johnny saw Greece as a larger Crete – just as Neville Chamberlain was always said to see Europe as a larger Birmingham. Johnny loved Crete with passion.

The Athenian painter Nikos Ghika (1906-1994) provided me with my first breath of Greece in the summer of 1954, when we went to stay with him in his lovely old house on the island of Hydra.

Also staying there were Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor. Ghika later designed the serpentine pebble mosaic floors at Kardamyli – the Leigh Fermors’ enchanting house in the Mani. It was Paddy that I knew best of the three. Our friendship lasted from the 1950s until his death in 2011 at the age of 96.

In the spring of 1955, when we were living in Yugoslavia – I was working at the British Embassy – a letter arrived from my mother. She had been offered a caique for a fortnight’s sail among the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor were coming; could we come, too? At the end of August, we drove down from Belgrade to Athens, and boarded the Eros at Piraeus.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and my best. Paddy lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, people and literature. And nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly.

As we sailed from island to island – and, in those days, there were almost no tourists, and I can’t describe what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, about those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men such as Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis, whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the West over words such as ‘filioque’ and ‘homoousion’, his talk taking in all the mystery and magic of the Byzantine world. Twenty years later, I was to write a history of Byzantium myself; but I doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, I should ever have done so.

One day we were in a taverna on Santorini. Britain and Greece were then at the height of the Cyprus dispute and Paddy was, of course, firmly on the Greek side. Suddenly a member of the party at the next table, hearing us speaking English and being slightly drunk, launched into a stream of anti-British invective. We pretended not to notice. Then, suddenly, he and his companions burst into song.

‘Quick,’ whispered Paddy. ‘National anthem – everybody up.’

We leapt to our feet while he, naturally knowing all the words, sang them at the top of his voice. The mood of the other table changed immediately; and they were still more impressed when he continued with all the following verses – solo by now, since no one else knew them. Abject apologies followed: the ouzo went round once more, and we all departed friends.

It was characteristic of Paddy that, when he and Joan decided to build themselves a house in Greece, they chose the remotest corner: Kardamyli, at the far end of the Mani, the second of the three peninsulas that form the southern coast of the Peloponnese. And oh, how they loved it.

Paddy basically designed it himself. I remember him saying, while the building was in progress, ‘I want it to be part of outdoors, so that, if a chicken were found wandering through the library, no one would be a bit surprised.’

By November 1969, with its vast supply of bookcases, a huge desk and plenty of room to pace over a stone floor, the ‘powerhouse for prose’, as Paddy liked to call it, was ready at last. The two books describing his teenage walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, were both written there, together with hundreds of letters, articles and the jeux d’esprit which he so loved, and of which he was such a master. But those dread enemies procrastination and distraction were always hovering behind him, tempting him away. And as we shall see, they were to get him in the end.

Kardamyli was a huge success. It became the epicentre of Paddy’s world. For the first time, at 54, he had a home of his own. He continued to travel around Europe to see his innumerable friends, but it was here, I feel quite sure, that he was happiest. Outside Europe he was seldom tempted to roam. Except, surprisingly, for the Caribbean. A year or two after the war, he and Joan were persuaded by their old friend (and mine) Costa Achillopoulos to accompany him on a longish tour of the islands.

The result was Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which was published in 1950, and also his second, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, an exquisite little novella which was his only venture into fiction.

The islands fascinated him. His chapter on voodoo is a masterpiece. And then, when he got to Barbados, what did he find? A tablet in the churchyard of St John’s, carved with Doric columns and the cross of Constantine, reading: ‘Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Churchwarden of this parish 1655-1656. Vestryman twentye years. Died Oct 3. 1679.’

Later, Paddy discovered that Ferdinando’s son Theodore had returned to England and had settled in Stepney, where he left a posthumous daughter baptised with the typically 17th-century name of Godscall Palaeologus.

She may have married, and had countless children; but, for the time being, this little girl in Stepney remains the last authentic descendant of the Palaeologi, the last imperial family of Byzantium.

Of course Paddy was a superb linguist; but I have never known anyone who enjoyed his languages so intensely. He loved on-the-spot translations: ‘To be or not to be’ in German, for example – occasionally recited backwards – or D’Ye Ken John Peel in Italian, which my daughter Artemis (his biographer) and I sang at his memorial service:

Conosce Gian Peel, con sua giacca tanta grigia?

Conosce Gian Peel, prima cosa la mattina,

Conosce Gian Peel, quand’ è lontano, è lontano,

Con suoi cani e suo corno la mattina.

And then there were the letters –letters that could have been written by no one else. Reading them, written at such terrific speed that sometimes they grow faint because the fountain pen can’t deliver the ink fast enough, one marvels at Paddy’s facility and fluency. And yet, when he was writing a book for publication, every sentence was a battleground. When, in July 1988, Sotheby’s sold the autograph manuscript of A Time of Gifts, it was described in the catalogue as follows:

‘c.450 pages, the majority written on rectos only, some on both sides, the first chapter on lined foolscap sheets, some cartridge paper, others lined, heavily revised and corrected, revised passages frequently written on separate sheets and pasted or clipped over the original, corrections or elucidations often in red ink, foreign or difficult words printed in the margin, many sheets with encouraging notes to the typist, often stapled or stitched with coloured thread into gatherings, generally of ten pages.’

I have an idea – I hate to have to say it and desperately hope I’m wrong – that Paddy’s last years were not as happy as the rest of his life had been. He missed Joan desperately after she died in 2003, he was getting old and he gradually had to face up to the fact that he would never complete the third volume of the story of that glorious European journey in his early youth. He produced bits and pieces for it by the dozen, but something always prevented him from organising them, connecting them and making them into a single coherent document. It was, I suppose, a kind of writer’s block.

He would seize on anything – letters, articles, translations, those ingenious word games he so loved – rather than face one of two facts: the first, that he must finish the job; the second – far worse – that he couldn’t. Eventually he knew that the second was the truth. When he came to London, people would say breezily, ‘How’s Volume III coming on?’, little realising that they were driving a dagger through his heart.

Volume III is not entirely lost. The Broken Road, compiled by Colin Thubron and Artemis, breathes Paddy through and through. And anyway, he has left us so much more to revel in.

As a travel writer, he was surely in a class by himself. But he was much more than a travel writer; he was the most extraordinary literary – and social – phenomenon I have ever known, and I am proud to have been his friend.

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Who were Ghika, Craxton and Leigh Fermor?

A lovely video produced by the British Museum to accompany the exhibition Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor. Narrated by the exhibition curators. Discover more about their extraordinary friendship, creativity and life spent living together in Greece.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor
8 March – 15 July 2018
http://www.britishmuseum.org/charmedlives

Supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation and organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery. In collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Craxton Estate.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor at the British Museum

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), Study for a poster. Tempera on cardboard, 1948. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

The British Musem has at last started to publicise this exhibition which focuses on the friendship of the artists Niko Ghika and John Craxton, and the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Their shared love of Greece was fundamental to their work, as they embraced its sights, sounds, colours and people.

Where? The British Museum, Room 5

When? 8 March – 15 July 2018

How Much? It is free!

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), John Craxton (1922–2009) and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) were significant cultural figures of the 20th century. Leigh Fermor is perhaps the most widely known of the three – largely through his travel writings – and Ghika and Craxton are now recognised as two of the most remarkable artists of this period. The three first met at the end of the Second World War, becoming lifelong friends and spending much of their subsequent lives in Greece. The time they spent together and their close bonds would shape each other’s work for the rest of their lives.

The exhibition brings together their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions in the UK for the first time. Highlights include Ghika’s extraordinary painting Mystras and Craxton’s exuberant Still Life with Three Sailors. Also featured is Craxton’s original artwork for the book covers of Leigh Fermor’s travel classics A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Many artworks and objects on display are on loan from the Benaki Museum, to which Ghika donated his house and works, from the Craxton Estate, and from institutions and private collections in the UK and Greece.

The exhibition focuses on four key places – Hydra, Kardamyli, Crete and Corfu – where they lived and spent time together. Hydra is an island where Ghika’s family home became a gathering place for the three friends, and Leigh Fermor built a house with his wife Joan at Kardamyli. Craxton restored a house at Chania on Crete, and Corfu is where Ghika and his second wife Barbara transformed an old building into an idyllic home and garden.

Together, these places chart the story of this remarkable friendship, and how the people and landscapes of Greece were a great influence on their enduring works.

How an idyllic Greek hideaway inspired a British war hero and travel writer

Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika with John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Joan Fermor, in 1958. Photograph: Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens.© Benaki Museum.

By Jamie Doward

First published in The Guardian

24 December 2017

Oh, to have been a fly on the bougainvillea-clad wall as the drinks flowed and the sun sank behind the beautiful house tucked away in a remote part of Greece.

One night a visitor might find Stephen Spender or Louis MacNeice. Another, Lawrence Durrell and John Betjeman.

But always holding court, cigarette in hand, ouzo glass raised, would be Sir Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, the war hero and travel writer often said to be the inspiration for his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond.

In the late 1950s, the house Leigh Fermor built with his wife Joan in Kardamyli, a seaside village located in the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese, became a haven for writers and artists drawn to its owner’s extraordinary charisma and the wild, arid beauty of the surrounding landscape.

It was here that Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 aged 96, built his close friendship with two men – the Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, who lived on Hydra before moving to Corfu, and the British painter, John Craxton, who lived for a time on Crete. Now the remarkable friendship is to be explored in a new exhibition at the British Museum that will open next spring.

Charmed Lives examines the influence that post-war Greece had on the three men and brings together in the UK for the first time their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions. Among the items on display will be Leigh Fermor’s typewriter (which he never managed to master), his binoculars and a Leica camera belonging to Joan, a professional photographer.

Striking paintings of Greek landscapes and local people by both Craxton and Ghika will feature alongside extracts from Leigh Fermor’s many books.

John Craxton’s ‘Still Life with Three Sailors’ reflects his Greek inspirations. Photograph: John Craxton

Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, a former British ambassador to Athens, who knew all three men and is one of the exhibition’s curators, conceded many would be drawn by the cult of Leigh Fermor, a polyglot and autodidact once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”

“There’s a tremendous fashion for him,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “In a way you’d expect it to diminish over time but the opposite is happening and it’s very difficult to explain. I don’t think it’s fully related to his work. It is for some people but there are others who are attracted by the legend.”

Much of Leigh Fermor’s legend is burnished by his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, made as an 18-year-old, and his heroics during the second world war when, leading a group of Cretan resistance fighters, he captured the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe in one of the most audacious acts in the history of the Special Operations Executive.

While his postwar books such as A Time Of Gifts cemented his legend and led to Leigh Fermor being regarded as one of the great travel writers, it transpires that the real-life 007 also dabbled as an artist and several of his works will be on display in the exhibition. These include six portraits of Cretan resistance fighters painted in 1942. They are the only ones out of around 20 similar paintings to have survived. The majority were destroyed as the Germans advanced.

“Paddy had an extremely acute visual sense and was himself an artist, an amateur,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “When he was walking across Europe, when he was 18 to 20 years old, around Vienna he had virtually no money and so he started drawing portraits of people to get enough to get a crust of bread or more.”

Llewellyn-Smith said the fact that all three men had died only relatively recently –Ghika in 1994, Craxton in 2009 – meant there was much to be gained by producing an exhibition of their lives and friendship now.

“A lot of people who knew them are still around, and therefore for those organising the exhibition, such as myself, it was possible to talk to them and get their memories and anecdotes. This couldn’t have been done if the exhibition had been delayed by many years.”

The organisers say they hope it will offer visitors an opportunity to reflect on Greece’s enduring role as a source of artistic inspiration. It may also offer a subtle reminder that British-Hellenic relations can be about more than that most famous of British Museum attractions, the Parthenon marbles. “This period when these three men got to know each other was a period of artistic and literary collaboration, almost a renaissance between British and Greek artists and writers,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “It didn’t have anything to do with politics and returning sculptures to Greece. That’s a different century.”

It may also offer clues as to why, despite smoking around 80 cigarettes a day, just like Fleming’s Bond, Leigh Fermor managed to live so long. “When he was in the Peloponnese he would go for walks every day in the mountains behind the house and he’d swim for half an hour every morning,” Llewellyn-Smith said.

In his will, Leigh Fermor gave the house to the Benaki museum in Athens with instructions for it to be turned into a writers’ retreat. While some of Leigh Fermor’s devoted fanbase have grumbled about the pace of its renovation – which at one stage appeared to have fallen victim to Greece’s economic woes, – there are hopes the exhibition may elicit funds to speed things up.

If so, it would mean that more than half a century on from when Leigh Fermor built his idyll, it will once again help nurture a new generation of artists and writer.

Charmed Lives in Greece the exhibition will run at the British Museum 8 Mar-15 July 2018

Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

A letter excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published in The Paris Review
December 8, 2017

To Ann Fleming
c/o Niko Ghika
Hydra

18 September 1954

Darling Annie,

Very many apologies indeed from both of us (1) for neither having answered your lovely long letter, full of exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear—it was a masterpiece, and by far the best of any ex-Hydriot so far; and (2) for being such laggards in saying ‘thank you’ for The Dynasts. It really was kind of you to remember it. Joan is now in the thick of the first vol.—the second, which is reprinting, will follow soon, your bookseller says. It arrived just as we were about to run out of books. That green detective one, The Gilded Fly, which vanished so mysteriously, miraculously materialized on the hall table yesterday!

You were missed a great deal by everyone, including the servants, who still talk affectionately of Kyria Anna. Soon after you went, I got a letter from Kisty Hesketh, introducing her brother called Rory McEwen and a pal called Mr Vyner. You probably know the former, v. good looking, and a champion guitar player it seems, and probably very nice. They both seemed wet beyond words to us, without a spark of life or curiosity, and such a total lack of conversation that each subject died after a minute’s existence. We had sixty subjects killed under us in an hour, till at last even Maurice and I were reduced to silence. Joan did her best, but most understandably subsided into a bored scowl after the first few hours.

We heaved a sigh when they vanished after two days that had seemed like a fortnight … Your fortnight, I must say, passed with the speed of a weekend. Joan saw Maurice off in Athens, another sad wrench.

Diana, JJ and Anne finally turned up on the 2nd September. The last two left four days ago and D. is still here. They were not nearly such a handful as we feared, in fact very nice and easy and resourceful, Anne painting away industriously, or wandering off independently with JJ, who gave us lots of splendid guitar playing—always stopping in time & not boring at all. I think they enjoyed it very much. Diana, who is in your old room, seems as happy as she is anywhere now, and is very easy and unfussy, enjoying everything, loos, odd food, garlic, ouzo, retsina, etc., mooching about in the port, darting off to Athens, once to see Susan Mary Patten off a caïque (but she wasn’t there), once to see the Norwiches off, returning both times laden with Embassy whisky and so on, which was gratefully lapped up. We had a very entertaining old Greek friend for last weekend, Tanty Rodocanachi, which was a great success, lots of funny stories and old world gallantry … But Diana’s presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez in a very sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. Chips was on board, le Baron Redé, a horrible French count called Castéja [Lopez-Willshaw’s son-in-law] and a few other people who looked unmitigated hell, but I didn’t quite manage to take them in during our two hours on board. We all felt a bit bumpkin-ish as we clutched our weighty cut-glass whisky goblets and perched on the edge of satin sofas. We were put down at the little restaurant down the hill, to the wonder of the assembled crowds; and the Balkan dark swallowed us up. They were off for the Cyclades and Beirut.

But this was nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with an aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. It was followed by an immense three-masted wonder ship with silk sails, miles of corridor, dozens of Impressionist paintings, baths to every cabin and regiments of stewards, belonging to his brother-in-law, Niarchos. They have made 400 million quid between the two of them, and own, after England, USA and Sweden, the largest merchant fleet in the world, all under Panamanian flags; and all, it seems, acquired in fifteen years. We only saw Niarchos, who is young, rather good looking, very drunk and tousled, not bad really. On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr. Sailing beside it was another three-masted yacht, gigantic by ordinary standards, but by comparison the sort of thing one sees inside bottles in seaside pubs. This was also Niarchos’s, a sort of annexe for overflow, soi-disant, lent to Lord Warwick, though he is plainly some kind of stooge. He looked like a Neapolitan hairdresser run to fat. We did a certain amount of drinking and social chat on the big one (spurning Lord Warwick’s cockleshell) and wandered through labyrinthine corridors gaping at the fittings. I gathered from Pam C. next morning—the focus of all eyes on the quay in pink shorts, gilt sandals and a-clank with gems—that it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours, nobody knowing what is a test. Diana, Tanty, and the Norwiches got a lift in this to Athens (D. returning next day), and Joan and I trudged up to fried salt cod and lentils and garlic. We learnt on Diana’s return that the massed blast of our five breaths nearly blew the whole party overboard. There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich. What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?

Modiano’s Cyprus article was the best I have seen so far. After you left Athens, I accompanied the whole of the demonstration: oaths in front of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb, the burning of the Cyprus sedition proclamation, also of bundles of Union Jacks, cries of ‘Down with the English! Down with the Barbarians!’, then, from the steps of the University, an awful incendiary speech from the Rector that overstated the case so much (he ended with an undying curse and anathema to the English!) that nearly all the sensible Greeks feel ashamed. What a bore it is, and so foolishly unnecessary. Niko G[hika] comes back next week, but may not be able to stay on, as he is a lecturer in Athens. Joan returns sooner than me, so I’m going to keep my teeth into Hydra till the last possible moment. In spite of all the goings on, I’ve managed to keep on scribbling. I hate the idea of another uprooting and would like to stay till winter starts. Thanks again, dearest Annie, for The Dynasts, and do please write another London newsletter! Lots of love from Joan and Diana, also to Ian, and from me. All wish you were here.

Love
Paddy

Excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, selected and edited by Adam Sisman © 1940–2010 by the Estate of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Courtesy The New York Review Books.

A Ghika rock painting at Kardamyli?

image001I was sent this picture by email from Jeffrey Cox. I don’t recall seeing it during my recent visit. Does anyone else know anything about it? Is it some mythical character?

Greetings Tom.

I read your notes on your recent tour of Paddy’s house near Kardamyli.

Last April my wife and I also arranged a private tour of the house through Elpida. I had been alerted to a portrait painted by Paddy’s friend Nikos Hadjikriakos-Ghika on a rock exposed in the wall just inside Paddy’s front door. Here it is. To my mind it’s an amazing work – quite 3 dimensional.

Last weekend Britain based travel writer Dominic Green did a piece for our National broadsheet (The Weekend Australian) entitled “On the trail of Patrick Leigh Fermor” – plenty on Nikos but no mention of this portrait. Are you aware of it? Regards, Jeffrey Cox

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

Paddy. on Ithaca, 1946 by Joan Leigh Fermor

Part 2 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter.

“I went back to Cairo for a last Tara Christmas. But Tara was dissolving, and in March 1945 I was sent to England, where I joined a rapidly-put-together unit called the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force—inevitably SAARF—for an odd emergency. There was a fear that during the ‘Eclipse Period’—the predictable days, that is, between the faster momentum of the Allied advance and the final surrender of the German army—the Germans might carry prominent Allied prisoners of war off to some Tyrolean redoubt and use them as hostages or bargaining counters; and it was hoped that SAARF would be able to prevent this. Its members all had SOE and parachute experience in enemy territory. The plan was that, at the right moment in Eclipse Period, each team of three—in some cases, two teams together—would take off from an airstrip at the Sunningdale golf course, in Surrey, and drop near its allotted prison camp in Germany. Dressed in tattered POW uniforms, we would lie up in the woods, spy out the land, slip into POW working parties, get inside the camp, and then contact the senior British officer and open W/T communications with the spearhead of our advancing troops; these would then drop arms and supplies and give air cover while the garrison was overpowered or the commandant bluffed, until Allied troops arrived.

“I found myself paired with Henry Coombe-Tenant, a major in the Welsh Guards, a brilliant pianist and a member of the Athenaeum who after the war became a Benedictine monk at Downside. Our commandant was Brigadier Nicholls, nicknamed ‘Crasher’; he was impermeable as a bison. The target we were destined for was the dread Oflag IV C at Colditz, where several Prominenten were prisoners, including the king’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and relations of Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. The castle was deep in Saxony, and there was, of course, no resistance or SOE intelligence about it—nothing but aerial photographs to go on. We desperately needed more local detail.

“At this point I heard that an old friend, Miles Reid of the Phantom Reconnaissance Force, captured in Greece during the 1941 retreat, had been exchanged on health grounds, and precisely from Colditz; so I got leave to break security in the hopes of information, and dashed to see him at his home near Haslemere. When I told him of the Colditz scheme, he exploded. Had we heard nothing of the total impregnability of the fortress, of the thoroughness and rigor of the Appells, the checks and counterchecks, the scrutinies and roll calls? As for ‘working parties,’ since the inmates were all officers, these didn’t exist. There was absolutely no hope of the plan succeeding, and we would all be goners. Continue reading