John Pendlebury and the Battle of Crete
Patrick Leigh Fermor
The following is the text of a speech given at Knossos, Crete, on 21 May as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete 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'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.
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.
The Rash Adventurer: A Life of John Pendlebury by Imogen Grundon, with a foreword by Patrick Leigh Ferrnor, will be published by Libri in Spring 2002.