|Books and Good Reading
ISBN 0-7195-3475-5: Published by John Murray.
Around 7.99 GBPounds. (11.708 Euros).
The Cretan Runner: Prologue.
George Psychoundakis was a Cretan partisan during the German occupation of the island after the invasion of 1941. From a very poor family, George had a rudimentary schooling and then became a shepherd. His parents were very elderly and George was the only son. Despite his lack of education, George’s enthusiasm for learning was enormous and he scavenged everywhere for knowledge. He wrote his own poetry and memorised lengthy tracts of literature.
The Cretans fought furiously against the Germans during the invasion. There are legions of stories about the bravery of the people and their implacable hatred for the army occupying their island. A resistance movement sprang up immediately, co-ordinated and assisted by the British Special Operations Executive. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who translated this book and wrote the introduction, ran the SOE operation in the west of Crete for a few months in 1942. George Psychoundakis, with his knowledge of the mountains, was an ideal candidate for the resistance movement, and he became a ‘runner’ (messenger) for the SOE.
As Patrick Leigh Fermor says, ‘the job of a war-time runner in the Resistance Movement was the most exhausting and one of the most consistently dangerous of all’, and George Psychoundakis was involved as a runner throughout the occupation of Crete. His work was unpaid and done out of patriotism and a sense of duty to Crete’s allies – some of whom had been left behind in the mountains after the Allies evacuated the island. He braved hardship, tackled immense journeys on foot over rough mountains in all weathers, taking messages, carrying equipment and even guiding British stragglers to safety.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s introduction sets the scene and relates the story of his return to Crete after the war, his reunion with George Psychoundakis and their nostalgic visits to some of the villages involved in the resistance movement. A subsequent note relates that George’s family had become involved in some large-scale local problems which had meant that George had to take once again to the mountains, this time to eke out a spartan existence as a charcoal burner.
But the book itself deals with the amazing tale of George Psychoundakis’s war – the exciting story of his journeys through the mountains as a key member of the resistance.
The Cretan Runner: THE REVIEW.
Translated and introduced by Patrick Leigh Fermor
When enemy parachutists dropped into Crete in May 1941, the Cretan people joined fiercely in the fighting. But despite this, Crete fell to the German army and the island was occupied. Although Allied troops were evacuated, thousands were left behind. Submarines would arrive periodically off Preveli on the south coast to take off stragglers, and the Cretan people thought it their ‘sacred duty’ to care for these soldiers and lead them to safety.
Because of its location, George Psychoundakis’s village of Asi Gonia was an ideal hiding place for these soldiers and throughout that first summer of occupation, George took on the role of guiding them to other friendly villages. Sometimes these escaping men had to be disguised, and on other occasions they had to be led through the mountains on tracks known only to George and his goats.
In autumn of 1941, George was taken to meet two Englishmen who had arrived in Crete from Africa. They were from the Special Operations Executive in Cairo and were to set up an organised espionage service. George was asked to be their regular runner, taking letters and messages to known partisans to help set up this network. In addition, every time there was a vessel from Africa, George had to meet it and bring back messages from Cairo and elsewhere. In that first month, George remembers twenty-eight such journeys across the spiny mountains of the island. After that, he mentions in an aside that he was given a pair of good boots so that he ‘really could walk’ – up to that time he had been wearing shoes soled with old car tyres.
Further English agents arrived on the island, bringing wireless sets and explosives, and a network of sentries had to be posted on all major roads to keep the agents informed of any German activity. George carried messages between the agents, and during alerts or bad weather stayed in hiding in caves, often with no food except cattle fodder or grass and snails. Food drops from Cairo were organised, but often these went astray, were picked up by hungry villagers, or were siphoned off by other resistance leaders. This led to a falling-out between George and the self-styled ‘Leader of the Resistance in Crete’, a local man George suspected was responsible for some of the stores ‘going astray’.
On one occasion, George was sent to collect a new wireless set and took along an ancient donkey. On his way back with the wireless, he took a path through a village and ran into two Germans, who engaged him in conversation about his aged beast of burden. They followed him for a while, hitting the donkey with a stick, and were only diverted by the flirtatious smiles of some local girls. The ancient beast eventually refused to move any further and George had to hump the wireless set on his back the rest of the way to the agents’ current hideout.
The agents were continually on the move to avoid detection. Some hideouts were very high in the mountains and George’s job then became even more exhausting. Close shaves and scares were almost a daily occurrence, and when a second wireless and operator arrived, a second hideout was set up. Unfortunately there was a traitor in the camp and various betrayals led to the capture of one of the wireless operators, who was then shot.
On one occasion, George was allowed a few days rest at his family home when a party of Germans arrived at the house. The family left the house and George managed to sneak away unseen. He later learned that the Germans knew his name and had in fact been looking for him – he had been betrayed by an informer.
Other betrayals of the locations of hideouts led to frantic flights across the mountains, often in view of the pursuing soldiers. Once after waking to find he was buried in heavy snow, George wandered down to the coastal plain, where he was able to pick up news and food.
By early 1943 George was very tired and asked his superiors if he could have a short break in Cairo. They agreed and George was taken off by boat. After a short spell under cover in a camp full of German and Italian prisoners of war, George was taken into Cairo, and allowed to sample the delights of the city. Having been used to near-starvation conditions, he made the most of the food and explored the city with enthusiasm. However, as time passed and there was no sign of his recall, George began to get restless and keen to be back in action.
Hearing that he would be returning to Crete in about a month, George managed to fit in a visit to Palestine, eager to see Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee. For most of July George was trying to get back to Crete – but several attempts to land were foiled by German aircraft and bad weather. When they did eventually land on Cretan soil, George felt that the three months of inactivity had taken its toll on his constitution – until he discovered he had been asked to carry a bag full of heavy gold sovereigns up to the mountain hideout.
The Germans tightened their hold on the mountain villages as they learned more about the work of the British agents and Cretan partisans. Narrow escapes became more common and a number of supporters and helpers were interrogated or executed and villages were burned.
One hideout in use at the time gave an excellent view of the harbour at Souda Bay, and the agents were able to watch the loading of a large ship with military stores and German and Italian troops. The agents were able to signal the information to Cairo, and the ship was sunk by Allied torpedo. The loss of this ship and the men aboard had a powerful effect on the spirits of the Germans, who realised that they may not be able to leave the island in safety.
On one occasion, one of the British wireless operators made derogatory comments about Cretans, which upset George Psychoundakis greatly. He asked his superiors if he could be released from service and rejoin the Greek Army. They refused at first, saying he was too useful, but agreed to do so if George could find a suitable replacement for himself. George secretly decided that when he went to meet the next ship, he would get in one of the boats and leave. As luck would have it, the next mission went badly wrong; the boat that arrived was not British but German, and George and his fellows had a very narrow escape
Patrick Leigh Fermor and others were involved in the capture of the German military leader on the island, Major-General Kreipe. Despite leaving a message in the car that the General would be leaving the island, the Germans did not believe it was possible to get him away. As a result, the centre of the island was overrun with soldiers searching for their leader. When the message came through by radio that a boat would be arriving to pick up the General, George Psychoundakis was dispatched at top speed to get a letter through to Patrick Leigh Fermor. General Kreipe was taken off the island, in an operation which astonished the world.
The Germans burned eleven villages they said had sheltered the agents and the captured General Kreipe. However, the real reason for the burning was a campaign to terrorize the island before they retreated into a small area around Chania, where all their forces were to be concentrated. The Germans retreated from Lasithi and Heraklion – taking with them numbers of girls in the troop trucks, so they would be safe from attacks by guerrillas.
With even more Germans in the west of the island, the agents set up a hideout where they had a good view of the coast road. This way they were able to keep Cairo informed of movements, and were gratified by seeing the RAF bomb German columns on the road.
As the Germans pulled out of Rethymnon, there were enormous celebrations and George was sick at heart to have missed the opportunity to celebrate the city’s freedom, and vowed not to miss the occasion when Chania was freed. He went to a few of the later celebrations and read out some of his poems about the war and the slavery of the occupation.
After being locked up in Chania for five months, having lost all hope of survival or flight, the Germans laid down their arms. They refused to surrender to the Cretans, fearing reprisals for all their cruelty, and insisted on giving themselves up to the English. On May 23rd, 1945 – four years almost to the day after the fall of Crete, the Germans in Chania surrendered. And as he had vowed, George Psychoundakis was there, in the crowd, to celebrate the victory.