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John Pendlebury and the Battle of Crete – Paddy’s speech

John Pendlebury at Knossos

John Pendlebury at Knossos

The following is the text of a speech given by Patrick Leigh Fermor at Knossos, Crete, on 21 May as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Spectator 20 October 2001

John Pendlebury is an almost mythical figure now, and, in some ways, he always was. Everyone connected with ancient or modern Greece, and not only his fellow archaeologists, knew all about him. He was born in 1904. In addition to his classical triumphs at Winchester and Cambridge, a dazzling athletic fame had sprung up. He broke a 50-year record at the high jump by clearing the equivalent of his own height of six feet and flew over hurdles with the speed of a cheetah. His classical passion was humanised by a strong romantic bent; he revelled in novels about knights and castles and tournaments. And all suspicion of being a reclusive highbrow was scattered by his love of jokes and his enjoyment of conviviality. A strong vein of humour leavened all.

The British School of Archaeology was his Athens anchor and wide learning, flair and imagination led him to many finds. He dug for several Egyptian seasons at Tel-elAmarna, but Crete became his dominating haunt. He was on excellent but independent terms with Sir Arthur Evans but, when he was away from Knossos and the Villa Ariadne, he was constantly on the move. He got to know the island inside out. No peak was too high or canyon too deep for him to claw his way up or down. He spent days above the clouds and walked over 1,000 miles in a single archaeological season. His companions were shepherds and mountain villagers. His brand of toughness and style and humour was exactly right for these indestructible men. He knew all their dialects and rhyming couplets. Micky Akoumianakis, the son of Sir Arthur’s overseer, told me he could drink everyone under the table and then stride across three mountain ranges without turning a hair.

This is the moment to slip in a word about Nicholas Hammond, the brilliant scholar and archaeologist turned soldier, and a very old friend of Pendlebury’s, whose involvement in the run-in to the battle and whose adventures in the caique Dolphin deserve an entire saga of their own. (It is he who should be writing about Pendlebury, not me, But he was 94 this year and died, lucid to the end, in April. Just before he died, he wrote to me saying, ‘I’m sure you’ll do him proud’; so I must do my best.)

Pendlebury in Cretan dress

Pendlebury in Cretan dress

Pendlebury’s knowledge of the island was unique, and when, in the end, he managed to convince the sluggish military authorities, he was sent to England, trained as a cavalryman at Weedon, commissioned as a captain in a branch of military intelligence and then sent back to Crete as the British vice-consul in Heraklion. It was typical that he referred to his military role as ‘trailing the puissant pike’, like Pistol in lienly V. He didn’t mind that his consular cover story in Heraklion fooled nobody. But his mountain life changed gear: he presciently saw that the Cretan veterans of the old wars against the Turks would be vital to the eventual defence of the island. These regional kapetanios, natural chiefs — like Satanas, Bandouvas and Petrakogiorgis, and many more with their sweeping moustaches and high boots — had many virtues and some, perhaps, a few faults, but they were all born leaders. They were all brave, they passionately loved their country and they recognised the same qualities in Pendlebury. They trusted his judgment when he began to organise a system of defence, arranging supply lines, pinpointing wells and springs, preparing rocks to encumber possible enemy landing places, storing sabotage gear, seeking out coves and inlets for smuggling arms and men, and permanently badgering the Cairo authorities for arms and ammunition.

When the Italians invaded Greece from Albania and were flung back by the Greek counter-attacks, the probable sequel became clear at once: Germany would come to the rescue of her halted ally. The whole Wehrmacht was available and so was Germany’s vast Luftwaffe. The implications were plain. Pendlebury and the Cretans made guerrilla strikes on Kasos, the Dodecanesian island 25 miles from the eastermost cape, and there was a far-flung caique operation on Castellorizo. off the south coast of Turkey_ Like all Crete, Pendlebury lamented the absence of the 5th Cretan division, which had covered itself with glory in Albania, only to be left behind on the mainland. With them, and the 10,000 rifles Pendlebury longed for, he felt that the island could be held forever. But, to his exasperation, the arms only came in driblets. Even so, there was hope.

If the worst happened, Pendlebury was determined to stay and fight on with the guerrillas until Crete was free. His stronghold would have been the Nidha plateau, high on the slopes of Mount Ida. It was grazed by thousands of sheep, inaccessible by roads, riddled with caves — Zeus was born in one of them — and it could only be reached through the key village of Krousonas (the stronghold of Pendlebtny’s friend, Kapetan Satanas) and the great resistance village of Anoyia (the eyrie of Kapetans Stephanoyianni Dramoudanis and Mihali Xylouris). During all this time, the knowledge that the rest of Europe was either conquered or neutral and that England and Greece were the only two countries still fighting was a great bond.

We must skip fast over the German invasion of Greece. Most of the British forces, which had been taken from the battle in the Libyan desert to help the Greeks, got away from the mainland with the Royal Navy’s help and the island was suddenly milling with soldiers who had made it to Crete. I was one. I was sent from Canea to Heraklion as a junior intelligence dogsbody at Brigadier Chappel’s headquarters in a cave between the town and the aerodrome.

The daily bombings were systematic and sinister. Obviously, something was going to happen. It must have been during a lull in this racket that I saw Pendlebury for the first and only time. One man stood out from all the others that came to the cave,’ I wrote later on. I was enormously impressed by that splendid figure, with a rifle slung like a Cretan mountaineer’s, a cartridge belt round his middle, and armed with a leather-covered swordstick.

One of his eyes, lost as a child, had been replaced by a glass one. I heard later that, when out of his office, he used to leave it on his table to show that he would be back soon. He had come to see the Brigadier to find out how he and his friends could best contribute, and his presence, with his alternating seriousness and laughter, spread a feeling of optimism and spirit. It shed light in the dark cave and made everything seem possible. When he got up to go, someone (Hope-Morley?) said, `Do show us your swordstick!’ He smiled obligingly, drew it with comic drama and flashed it round with a twist of the wrist. Then he slotted it back and climbed up into the sunlight with a cheery wave. I can’t remember a word he said, but one could understand why everyone trusted, revered and loved him.

We all know a lot about the battle: the heavy bombing every day, followed at last by the drone of hundreds of planes coming in over the sea in a darkening cloud, and the procession of troop-carriers flying so low over the ground they seemed almost at eye-level, suddenly shedding a manycoloured stream of parachutes. When the roar of our guns broke out many invaders were caught in the olive branches and many were killed as they fell; others dropped so close to headquarters that they were picked off at once.

Heraklion is a great walled Venetian city. The enemy forced an entry through the Canea Gate, and after fierce fighting they were driven out by the British and Greeks with very heavy losses. This was the first astonishing appearance of Cretan civilians, armed only with odds and ends — old men long retired and boys below military age, even women here and there — suddenly fighting by our side, all over the island. In Heraklion the swastika flag, which had briefly been run up over the harbour, was torn down again. The wall was manned by Greek and British riflemen, successful counter-attacks were launched and, apart from this one break-in, the town and the aerodrome remained firmly in our hands until the end.

After leaving the cave, Pendlebury and Satanas headed for the Kapetan’s high village of Krousonas by different routes. They hoped to launch flank attacks on the steadily growing throng of dropped parachutists west of Heraklion. He got out of the car with a Cretan comrade and climbed a spur to look down on the German position. They were closer than he thought and opened fire. Pendlebury and his friend fired back. Here the fog of battle begins to cloud things. Pendlebury and a Greek platoon were still exchanging fire with the Germans when a new wave of Stukas came over and Pendlebury was wounded in the chest. He was carried into a cottage, which belonged to one of his followers, George Drossoulakis, who was fighting elsewhere and was killed that same day. But his wife Aristeia took him in and he was laid on a bed. The place was overrun with Germans; nevertheless, one of them, who was a doctor, cleaned and bandaged the wound. Another came in later and gave him an injection. He was chivalrously treated. The next morning he told the women of the house to leave him. They refused and were later led away as prisoners. A field gun was set up just outside . . and a fresh party of parachutists was soon in the house. Here was an English soldier dressed in a Greek shirt and with no identification. A neighbour’s wife saw them take him out and prop him against the wall. Three times they shouted a question at him, which she couldn’t understand. Three times he answered ‘No’. They ordered him to stand to attention and then opened fire. He fell dead, shot through the head and the body.

The battle raged on. Heraklion stood firm and we had similar tidings from the Australians and Greeks defending Rethymnon. After the lines of communication had been cut, we had no glimmer of the turn things were taking at Maleme over in the west. We thought we had won. The news became still more bitter later on, when we learnt that enemy casualties had been so heavy that for a time they had considered abandoning the campaign.

Much later we learnt what happened to Pendlebury. At first his body was buried near the spot where he fell. Later, the Germans moved him to half a mile outside the Canea Gate beside the Rethymnon road. I remember bicycling past his grave the following year dressed as a cattle-dealer. It was marked with a wooden cross with his name on it, followed by liritischer Hauptmann’ . There was a bunch of flowers, and new ones were put there every day until the enemy shifted the grave to somewhere less central. (He now lies in the British war cemetery at Souda Bay.) Meanwhile legends were springing up. For the Cretans, it was the loss of an ally and a friend with a status close to that of Ares or Apollo For the enemy, he was a baleful and sinister figure, a darker T. E. Lawrence, and perhaps he was still lurking in the dreaded mountains. Many bodies were exhumed until a skull with a glass eye was dug up and sent to Berlin — or so they said. According to island gossip, Hitler had been unable to sleep at night for fear of this terrible incubus, and kept the trophy on his desk. To the SOE officers who were sent to Crete to help the Resistance, he was an inspiration. His memory turned all his old companions into immediate allies. We were among friends. Pendebury — Pedeboor Pembury — however it was pronounced, eyes kindled at the sound.

John Pendlebury

John Pendlebury

We must go back to 28 May 1941, seven days after Pendlebtuy’s death and the night of the evacuation. The British troops were lining up to board the ships that were to carry us to Egypt. I was interpreter. Everyone felt downhearted at leaving the Greek friends who had fought beside us for the last eight days. The battered and silent town smelt of burning, explosions, smoke and fresh decay All at once, an old Cretan materialised out of the shadows. He was a short, resolute man, obviously a distinguished kapetan, with a clear and cheerful glance, a white beard clipped under the chin like a Minoan and a rifle-butt embossed with wrought-silver plaques. He said he would like to talk to the ‘General’. The Brigadier was a tall man and an excellent commander, tanned by a lifetime’s soldiering in India. The kapetan reached up and put his hand on the Brigadier’s shoulder and said, ‘My child,’ — paidi triou’ in Greek — ‘we know you are leaving tonight; but you will soon be back. We will carry on the fight till you return. But we have only a few guns. Leave them all you can spare.’ The Brigadier was deeply moved. Orders were given for the arms and a Black Watch lieutenant led away the kapetan and his retinue. As we made our farewells, he said, in a kind but serious voice, ‘May God go with you, and come back soon.’ Meanwhile, escorting destroyers from HMS Orion and HMS Dido were stealing towards the mole.

It was only later, looking at photographs, that the old man was identified as Pendlebury’s friend, Kapetan Satanas. He died the next year, after handing his gun to a descendant, saying, ‘Don’t dishonour it.’

Looking back, he represents the innermost spirit of Crete. Ever since, the two men have seemed to symbolise the brotherhood-in-arms that brought our two countries so close together and made us feel that this season of desolation would somehow, against all the odds, end in victory and the freedom they were all fighting for.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor addresses the Special Forces Club on its 40th anniversary

Opening paragraph Special Forces Club 40th anniversary dinner

Opening paragraph Special Forces Club 40th anniversary dinner

My thanks to Gaz Wild who discovered this gem in the PLF archive of the National Library of Scotland last year. There are two versions, one a pdf of Paddy’s original with many handwritten corrections, and a tidied up draft made after his death. It would have been written in 1985 for the 40th Anniversary Dinner of the Special Forces Club, and is referred to in a letter of Paddy’s to Rudi Fischer dated 10 November 1985, which appears in Dashing for the Post page 393, para 2. Paddy remembers especially John Pendlebury, Mike Cumberlege, and Manoli Paterakis.

A special treat for the holiday period. I hope that you enjoy it.

19850000-plf_address_sf_club_40th_anniversary

19850000-plf_address_sf_club_40th_anniversary-tidied

The Sabotage Diaries – video by author Katherine Barnes


The Sabotage Diaries from Katherine Barnes on Vimeo.

I first wrote about this excellent book in March. Author Katherine Barnes has now produced a video which is worth a watch, even if only to view some of the extraordinary photographs showing SOE operations in mainland Greece.

The Sabotage Diaries is the thrilling story of Allied engineer Tom Barnes, who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Greece In 1942 with eleven others to sabotage the railway line taking supplies to Rommel in North Africa. The target chosen was the Gorgopotamos bridge. Tom led the demolition party to lay the explosives while fighting raged between the Italian garrison and a combined force of Greek resistance fighters and Tom’s fellow-soldiers. A great story of courage and endurance.

Buy The Sabotage Diaries

The Wildest Province

David Smiley (left) and "Billy" McLean in Albania 1944

David Smiley (left) and “Billy” McLean in Albania 1944

The stories of the activities of those who served in SOE are still emerging thanks to the availability of hitherto classified archives, and the release of personal diaries and accounts by those involved, in many cases, after their deaths. We are able to understand so much more of the successes and failures of the country missions, the work of individuals, and the strategic political and military context. Diligent researchers and authors are accessing these materials and writing new accounts which can raise as many questions as they answer, and debunk myths such as the extent of communist infiltration of British operational Staff HQs.

I have just got around to reading Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, which charts the story of SOE operations in Albania over the period 1940 to 1945. It is an incredibly well researched book, presenting the story from ill-fated early attempts to overthrow the Italians in 1940-41 by MI6 and SOE, to the commencement of the more organised missions of “Billy” McLean and David Smiley, through to the expansion into well over a dozen different teams spread over all parts of the country.

The hardships experienced by them all, especially during the long and harsh winter of 1943-44 are unimaginable. There are many examples of personal bravery, doggedness, and also treachery by Nationalist elements within Albania. The Partisans, led by this time by Enver Hoxha and his LNC staff were almost wiped out in the north as were the SOE missions there. Further ‘drives’ against the LNC in the south in early 1944 had almost similar results. Bailey’s book argues that the significant efforts put into these eradication attempts by the Germans, and the high quality of troops they deployed, demonstrated the success of the resistance by the LNC and the overall quality of the Partisan Brigades, as well as the positive impact of the SOE mission to Albania. However, the fighting quality of Albanian Partisans was variable resulting in continued debate about whether or not back some Nationalist groups. Growing suspicion of the British by the increasingly communist LNC made SOE’s mission in Albania during 1944 and into 1945 increasingly difficult and towards the end almost impossible.

For those who have an interest in SOE operations and Albania, or who want to understand more about British and Allied operations in the Balkans this is a highly recommended book. You will want to know what happens to the individuals and the story for some did not end in 1945, but continued with the British sponsored MI6 and CIA attempt to overthrow Hoxha’s regime in 1953 which ended in disastrous failure and death for many.

Read more on the Blog about SOE operations in Albania: 

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

Albanian Assignment

Buy The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle paperback here and the hardback here.

New Book: The Sabotage Diaries

Sabotage diariesThis book made much more sense to me following the excellent talk by Dr Roderick Bailey about the psychological effects of SOE operations on the men involved. Dr Bailey spoke at length about Operation Harling and this team.

The The Sabotage Diaries is written from the first person perspective of Tom Barnes (from his diaries) so has all the gripping suspense of a novel. It is a thrilling read of wartime exploits, daring, intrigue and resourcefulness. It is the true story of Allied engineer Tom Barnes, who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Greece in October 1942 with a small team of sappers and special operations officers. Their brief was to work with the Greek resistance in sabotage operations against the German and Italian occupation forces. Under-equipped and under-prepared but with courage to spare, their initial mission was to blow up a key railway bridge, cutting Rommel’s supply lines to North Africa, where the battle of El Alamein was about to begin. Operation Harling was only the start of a lengthy and perilous clandestine mission.

Written by Tom Barnes’ daughter-in-law, award-winning author Katherine Barnes, and drawn from Tom’s wartime diaries, reports and letters, plus many other historical sources and first-hand accounts, The Sabotage Diaries is a vivid and gripping tale of the often desperate and dangerous reality behind sabotage operations.

Buy The Sabotage Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

More derring dos and don’ts from Paddy Leigh Fermor

With General Kreipe

Billy Moss (L) and Paddy (R) With General Kreipe

Justin Marozzi gives us a review of Abducting a General, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Kidnap in Crete, by Rick Stroud. An exhilarating account of Paddy’s hair-raising kidnapping of a Nazi general that was ultimately of dubious strategic value.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in The Spectator, 4 October 2014.

Recent years have seen the slim but splendid Patrick Leigh Fermor oeuvre swell considerably. In 2008 came In Tearing Haste, an entertaining collection of letters to and from Deborah Devonshire, followed last year by The Broken Road, the posthumously sparkling and long-awaited completion of the ‘Great Trudge’ trilogy, which finally delivered the 18-year-old Paddy from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Now comes another volume, setting out in full for the first time one of the great moments in a life heavily laced with glamour and incident.

It takes some chutzpah to kidnap a German general — and serious presence of mind to get away with it. Paddy, the Special Operations Executive commander of a group of 11 Cretan andartes, or guerrilla fighters, together with his second-in-command Captain William Stanley Moss, had excessive stores of both. At 9.30 p.m. on the night of 26 April 1944, the Anglo-Cretan desperadoes intercepted the car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the 22nd Luftlande Division.

Paddy then impersonated the general as the Moss-chauffeured car drove on through 22 German checkpoints, the hair-raising prelude to an 18-day Nazi manhunt described in exhilarating detail in both of these books. The moment one morning when the Englishman overheard the captured general reciting an ode by Horace is already famous. The autodidact and show-off couldn’t help jumping in and finishing the stanza:

The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine, and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

After many terrifying moments, some shattering climbs and descents and no shortage of near misses, Kreipe was finally spirited away onto a British ship headed for Cairo and the swashbuckling operation was over.

If the immediate success of the kidnapping is in no doubt, what of the much more vexed question which haunted its mastermind for years: was it worth it? The point of it all had been to inflict a major blow on enemy morale. Extensive steps were taken to ensure there were no Cretan reprisals by making it appear an exclusively British mission — but to no avail. The Germans, 75,000 strong on Crete, already had a viciously enforced policy of reprisals on the island, taking 50 Cretan lives for every one of their own soldiers killed. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, Kreipe’s predecessor and the original target of the operation, was nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Crete’ after committing a number of such atrocities.

With Kreipe kidnapped, Müller was sent back to Crete pour décourager les autres and on 13 August gave the order to raze the village of Anogia, long a centre of resistance. In a characteristically methodical operation that lasted from 13 August to 5 September, 117 people were killed and 940 houses destroyed, together with vineyards, cheese mills, wine presses and olive groves. Other villages in the Amari valley received the same treatment, with hundreds more civilians slaughtered.

Roderick Bailey, the SOE historian who has written the introduction to Paddy’s account, argues that the kidnapping operation had ‘no strategic or tactical value’. A senior British staff officer in Cairo had opposed it from the start, arguing that ‘the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but … the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives’. Kreipe himself called it a Husarestück, a Hussar stunt. More recently, Kimonas Zografakis, who sheltered the kidnappers, described Paddy as ‘neither a great Philhellene nor a new Lord Byron… he was a classic agent who served the interests of Britain’, causing ‘terrible suffering’. This last comment looks unduly harsh and certainly does not square with the lifelong friendships Paddy forged with his Cretan brothers-in-arms, nor with the deep affection most Greeks had for him.

Abducting a General, unlike Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, is the work of a mature man, anxious to pay proper tribute to the Cretans who were the backbone of the resistance and ran by far the greatest risks. His SOE reports, which run to 90 pages here, provide gripping cinematic portraits of Leigh Fermor the soldier.

Warrior, writer, lady-killer, Paddy was also a boulevardier who loved his threads. Page three finds him rhapsodising about his Cretan mountain shepherd disguise:

Breeches, high black boots, a twisted mulberry silk sash with an ivory-hilted dagger in a long silver scabbard, black shirt, blue embroidered waistcoat and tight black-fringed turban…

and that’s without mentioning the flamboyant moustache, homespun goat’s hair cloak, stick, bandolier and gun. Enough to frighten any Nazi general.

Click here to buy Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete

Click here to buy Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.