|The story of George
Psychoundakis who acted as a runner in the Cretan Resistance.
|There were many brave local people from Crete who played a part in the
Resistance movement against the Germans. Not many of them made a record of
their experience. One exception was George Psychoundakis who wrote a book
called The Cretan Runner to describe his time as a runner for the British
intelligence officers who were put on to Crete to help to run the
resistance. Psychoundakis died in January 2006, I have added his obituary
from the Daily Telegraph. George's book was translated by one of these officers, Patrick
Leigh Fermor, some years after the war, he also helped George to get the book
published. Leigh Fermor described his first meeting with George.
|"He wore a black Cretan shirt, his clothing was
in tatters and his patched boots - the semi-detached sole of one of which was
secured to its upper with a thick strand of wire - were coming to bits on his
feet. When he took off his fringed head kerchief to untwist one of his
messages, his forehead was shaded by a raven black shock. A small,
carefully tended moustache ran along his upper lip. He was small in
stature and as fine-boned as an Indian, looking little older than sixteen,
though he was actually twenty-one. He was lithe and agile and full of
nervous energy. His eyes were large and dark, and his face, in repose,
thoughtful and stamped by a rather melancholy expression which vanished at once
in fits of helpless and infectious laughter that almost anything seemed to
At the time that Leigh Fermor took over George as his runner, from Xan
Fielding, it was mainly to work Western Crete. That was the area George
knew, and his little village of Asi Gonia was in the hill country of that
region. He had never left Crete and had rarely visited the main towns of
Hania and Rethymnon. In this area where he had grown up, and where he
shepherded the family sheep flock, he ran messages between villages, resistance
groups and Allied Officers. It was a dangerous existence with the Germans
always on the lookout for any helping the Allies.
George came from an extremely poor family, and in spite of the help he gave
to the Allies, he had a bad time after the war as well. His files had been
lost, and when the war ended the Greeks imprisoned him as a deserter!
After this had all been sorted out and he returned to his village he found that
he had to work as a navvy on road building. They were hard times for
someone who had done so much to help. George's involvement really started
when Commander Pool (Pool would later assist Lew Lind
to escape from the island) came ashore on
Crete from a submarine a few months after the Allied evacuation. The
British wanted to take off those troops who had not been evacuated and were now
wandering the Cretan mountains. They were to be taken off by submarine
from the area of Preveli monastery, in a number of submarine trips.
George's village of Asi Gonia lay en-route for many of these men passing to
Preveli from Hania and Rethymnon, George would act as their guide to other
villages on the route. This evacuation route finally came to the ears of
the Germans, who subsequently plundered the monastery and set up a strong point
at Limni to spot submarines coming in on these trips. At one point in his
book George describes a journey of some 20-25 miles over the mountains with a
sick Major, taking him to a doctor in one of the villages. It is humbling
to see the self-sacrifice of many of these poor people, doing all they can to
assist their Allied "friends".
In October 1941 George started to come more into contact with the espionage
side of the resistance. His "Uncle" Petrakas took him to meet a
Cretan resistance leader, Colonel Papadakis (with whom George would have a great
deal of contact and some arguments in the coming years). Here he met Jack
Smith-Hughes (Yanni), and would become his runner. He had previously met
Yanni in August when he had guided him to Preveli to leave by submarine for
Egypt. As a runner George had to carry important messages around the
mountains and if you have been on holiday to Crete and seen the rugged terrain
you get some appreciation of the effort it took to act as a runner. While
the Cretans stayed, many of the British Officers came and went, returning to
Cairo for orders, new assignments etc., and George would find himself acting as
runner for a variety of different "chiefs". When Smith-Hughes
left he became runner for Xan Fielding.
Re-supply for the groups on the would either be via the submarine runs
bringing in radios, batteries etc, or by air drop to designated points in the
mountains, hopefully undetected by the Germans. George describes one of
these drops which took place soon after Fielding arrived, they were desperately
short of supplies and in February '42 called for one to take place near Manika
in the mountains behind Sfakia. In George's description of the drop he
describes the tension and the slight farce that took place. Although the
single aircraft arrived as expected, the noise in the mountains made the people
on the ground believe there was more than one. Two and two made five, and
they became convinced that it was the Germans. Also, not used to hearing
parachutes descending they convinced themselves that what they heard were
paratroops coming from the more than one aircraft they thought they had
heard. They convinced themselves they were in a trap and moved off.
Well, after a while they realised it was a re-supply drop and not a German trap
and the supplies were collected up.
By May of 1942 the network around George's village and across to the Amari
area was growing larger, George was runner for Captain Woodhouse
(Monty), Tom Dunbabin as well as Xan Fielding. He also led two leading local figures
from the coast to the mountain interior, two Greeks known as Manoli and
Vengeli. While guiding these two together with their "wireless
stores, the codes, the new crystals the orders...." they were at great risk
if they were caught. All through George's book he writes without exaggeration
or drama, but they were brave men and women.
|I started this section with Leigh Fermor's description George, the first
time he met him. In his book George describes L.F. or Michali as he
was known to them.
"Mr. Michali was a tall man, full of
life, with a beautiful moustache and curly brown hair. He wore
Cretan breeches and boots, a black shirt and a fringed turban, and he had
dyed his whickers and hair in such a way that he seemed the image of a
|George gives good descriptions in his book of the caves and places that
he and the others operated from. They were forever moving about the
mountains, sometimes because of German movements, sometimes because of the
change of climate from summer to winter. Those of us who take
holidays there tend to see Crete in the warm summer weather, but in winter
the high central mountains are often covered in snow, and it can be very
cold. At the end of October '42 they got a second radio operator,
somewhat by accident. An RAF aircraft had been shot down over
Heraklion. While three of the crew were burnt to death in the
aircraft, three baled out. One of these three was the wireless
operator and he was passed on the Leigh Fermor's group, he was Flight
Sergeant Jo Bradley. Some time after this George talks of one of his
high points. Following an air drop of supplies on Mount Ida George
got a Smith & Wesson revolver "this was the granting of my
|After operating for some 13 months, constantly moving to evade the
Germans, they had a major setback in November '42. Their radio
operator, Manoli, was captured by the Germans while his colleague Vangeli
managed to escape. George describes how Vangeli's sister bravely hid
the wireless from the Germans until her brother returned a few days
later. This was a brave thing to do, she could have been shot if
discovered with the wireless. It was especially brave as she had
witnessed Manoli and 37 of the villagers taken off to jail. They had
been betrayed by a Cretan, called Komninas. Later the Germans
released all those captured except Manoli and two others. On the
20th December, 1942, they were executed by firing squad in Ayia jail.
|To survive as a member of the resistance it helps to have some good
luck. A little after Christmas '42 (as best I can estimate, George
does not put too many dates in his book) George's house was raided by some
German soldiers while he was asleep. The whole family was led away,
but George managed to escape and although the Germans interrogated family
and friends, he stayed free. Luckily none of the family were
imprisoned or executed. He felt that he had been betrayed by a
Cretan, but did not discover who it was who tried to deliver him up to the
|In January '43 George asked Xan Fielding (Mr. Aleko) if he would get him
a trip to Cairo as he was totally exhausted. In early February
George and a group of others set off across the mountains, reaching the
south coast at Treis Ekklesies (Three Churches) on the night of 14/15
February '43. Sea sick on his first ever boat trip, George and the
others reached Mersah Matruh on the north coast of Africa. They were
welcomed by Major Smith-Hughes (Yanni) who George had previously led to
Preveli in August '41 to be taken off by submarine.
|Once in Egypt George was able to act the sightseer for the first time,
he went to the pyramids, to a museum (first time in his life) and also
learnt to ride a bicycle for the first time. In amongst the
sight-seeing he was also enrolled into the Greek forces, although he did
not join the group he was allotted to. He was "seconded to
Force 133, the espionage service of our Allies in Greece." As
George's return to Crete was still some way off, he managed in June to get
leave to visit Palestine to see the Holy Places. It is obvious from
George's description of all that he saw around Jerusalem that he must have
been very moved by it all, as well as by the Church of the Nativity in
Bethlehem. As he says at the end of his trip " I went to bed
early in the Olympus Hotel [in Jerusalem], filled with enthusiasm for my
presence in that sacred city, the centre of worship of the whole of
Christendom." For George this had been something of a
pilgrimage. He had been in Palestine some 10 days, and on the 24th
June '43 he started back to Cairo.
|On the 1st of July he started the journey back to
Crete, initially by train through the North African desert, through the
battle landscape of El Alamein the ruined town of Tobruk and on to the
port at Derna. Getting away from Derna to Crete was eventful, and
took a number of tries as they were turned back both by weather and German
fighters. Eventually they got away in the third ship that tried,
this one also happened to be the same one that had taken him from Crete in
February. As they approached Crete in the dark they saw the signal
flashes from Xan Fielding (Mr. Aleko). Fielding was in command of
Western Crete with Patrick Leigh Fermor (Mr. Michali) in command of
Eastern Crete. One of those who went ashore with George was a New
Zealand Sergeant Major who was Fielding's 2nd in command, he was D.C.
Perkins (Vasili) who would become something of a legend but would later be
killed in an ambush. It was now the 29th July '43.
|George's life as a runner continued much as before, but got a little
more exciting in October. In the mountains, expecting a group from
his village, George and the others he was with ended up in a gun fight
with a small detachment of Germans and Italians. As an adjunct to
all this, George's group also had a Greek traitor they were holding who
was interrogated by them and then executed by pistol shots to the
head. Justice was rough on both sides. The Germans who had
been in the firefight were only a small detachment, the larger force came
after them and took their own retribution on the locals. George says
it was Shubert's battalion and they "burnt Kali-Sykia";
"Alones they looted from top to bottom"; "in the next
couple of days they shot thirty of the villagers who had handed over
arms." Interestingly George says that some of the battalion
were Greeks from villages in Crete.
|The months rolled on into 1944 with the groups having occasional near
brushes with the Germans, worrying about the Germans learning of their
whereabouts and constant movement from one hiding place to another.
George describes one success for his group when they learnt of the planned
movement of a cargo ship from Suda. They passed the information to
Cairo and had the satisfaction of seeing, from their mountain vantage
point, the sinking of the ship by a submarine soon after it sailed.
By the end of April George was somewhat put out by the antics of one of
the British contingent and was requesting to go back to Cairo and join the
Greek unit from which he was seconded. He was unhappy with some of
the comments of Harry Brooke, the radio operator, who he felt had been bad
mouthing Cretans, many of whom had helped and sheltered him. This
conversation between George and Pavlo (Capt. Dick Barnes) took place while
they were waiting for a boat to arrive near Rhodakino on the south coast
to take some people off the island. They were almost caught in a
trap. George had been given the task of signaling out to sea for the
expected boat. George became suspicious when the approaching boat
did not seem to have the engine note he would have expected. When it
got in close the boat began machine gunning the shore. Luckily all
|In June 1944, a new British Officer arrived, Hugh
Fraser who had brought gold coins to help fund the operations.
Fraser was known as "Levtheri", and was guided by George on a
journey to Prine.
|One of the well known exploits of the Cretan
resistance and their British Officer helpers was the kidnap of
Major-General Kreipe in April 1944 by Leigh Fermor and his group. The
kidnap was the subject of the book and film "Ill met by
Moonlight". Although George was not a party to the kidnap
itself, he was involved in running messages for Leigh Fermor associated
with the removal of the General from the island to Cairo. [I hope to
have a page on this exploit later]. In August the Germans destroyed
many villages in the Kedos region claiming this was a reprisal for help
given by villagers in the kidnap of General Kreipe. George, who had
seen the burning from Mount Ida believed it was their way of terrorizing
the people of Crete in their last months on the island.
|The German occupation of Crete was by now drawing to a close.
George and all the resistance groups were as a active as ever, as were
other more political groups (E.O.K and E.L.A) who were surfacing in these
last months. George referred to this period as "the time passed
quietly and we had no more serious misadventures: nothing but endless
journeys to Alones, to Asi-Gonia, to Rhodakino, to Argyroupolis to
Prine." He was constantly criss-crossing the mountains in the
centre of the island.
|In the beginning of October the Germans started
to pull back from their many positions on the island, to concentrate
around Hania. The situation in Europe was causing them to withdraw
from "peripheral" theatres into mainland Europe and the defense
of Germany. George and his associates signaled these movements to
Cairo. On the 14th October their group heard that the Germans were
leaving Rethymnon, George was unhappy that he could not be in the city the
day that the Cretans moved back in. He had been guarding their
equipment in the cave. "We were sick at heart at the thought of
having missed that first free day of explosive joy and enthusiasm; the
precious moment we had been awaiting for three and a half years!"
|In January 1945 the differences between the rival political groupings
came to a head in a fire fight around Rethymnon. As so often happens
when the object of a resistance movement is overcome, the groupings turn
to internal rivalry. The E.O.K. was Liberal, anti-communist and pro
Western Allies. The E.A.M. was communist and not as strong on Crete
as the E.O.K.
|Also in January George moved his "operational area" from the
centre to the west of the island, working between Paleochora on the south
coast and Kastelli in the north (scene of the German reprisals in the
first days of the occupation). Times were easier now. The
Germans, still on the island, were around Hania, but George was able to
move about pretty freely. "It was February now and carnival
time was coming on." In Rethymnon, after a boat trip from
Kastelli he says "..it was Carnival Sunday, and we went to a cinema
that night which was all in carnival array." Somewhat different
to his three years hiding in caves in the mountains.
|The situation was now drawing to a conclusion. Prisoner exchanges
were arranged with the Germans, and on the 31st March '45 George was asked
by Dennis Ciclitira (Dionysos) to be present at Georgioupolis when 30 Germans were exchanged for 10
Cretans. The Germans in Hania, fearing reprisals for what they had
done to the islanders during the occupation, would not surrender to the
Greeks, only to the English. On the 23rd May, 1945, after 4 years,
"freedom returned to the town of Cania." George finishes
his account of his part in the resistance on Crete with the following
sentence. "I reached the market-place, when all at once I heard
shouts and music and cheers, and realizing the entry had begun [into
Cania], I ran towards the shouting as fast as my legs would carry
|On my last holiday in Crete (1999) I heard from a holiday guide that
George was still alive, and that he was one of the Cretans who sometimes
helped with the upkeep of the German war cemetery.
|In June 1998 the
following article was printed in the Telegraph newspaper. It is a
record of a meeting between George and Patrick
forged in wartime Crete between Patrick Leigh Fermor and shepherd George
Psychoundakis was commemorated in George's memoir about the Resistance,
The Cretan Runner. With the book republished, it was time to meet again.
Story by Allison Pearson
|TWO old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an
Englishman. A voluble eye-popping tenor and a growly teddy-bear bass.
"Remember the sick doctor we disguised as an old woman and carried
for miles to get help?" "Yes, and remember when you dressed up
as a general and kidnapped a real one!"
|They interrupt each other. They sigh for the dead. They laugh for dear
life, knowing exactly how much it can cost. Although one of the men speaks
only Greek, I think I can detect a rhythm to their reminiscing: the Cretan
talks everything up and the Englishman plays it right back down again. The
sudden memory of one "bad Greek" acts on the Cretan's weathered
face like a drawstring, pulling it taut to a scowling walnut. But the
Englishman, all silky diplomacy, jumps in and offers a more optimistic
assessment of the fiend in question: "I think he just lost his head a
|Later, when the Cretan mentions the Englishman's name in the course of
what sounds like a pretty fulsome tribute, his friend stops translating
for me altogether. What did he say? "He was more than kind about
me." Yes, but what did he say? "Oh, I couldn't possibly repeat
|The bashful Briton is Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor, traveller,
scholar-gypsy, war hero and writer of genius. His fiery friend is George
Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner, an extraordinary
account of the anti-Nazi Resistance on the island, which was translated by
Leigh Fermor and is now republished.
|There have been other memoirs of wartime Crete, such as Xan Fielding's Hide
and Seek and Ill Met by Moonlight, W Stanley Moss's record of
the kidnapping of General Kreipe (later made into a movie, with Dirk
Bogarde assigned to fill Leigh Fermor's dashing boots). But those were
visitors' books. George's story, as Leigh Fermor points out in the
introduction, is unique. It is no longer the locals who are colourful
aliens, but the Allied officers and their wireless operators - good sorts
and good sports in the main but, none the less, foreigners with some very
dodgy customs. "A most peculiar man," George says of one buffer.
"He had pyjamas and a washbasin."
|Even more baffling for the Cretans, who think Nature is a place where
you go and shoot things, the buffer turned out to be an amateur botanist
and geologist: "He was not only in love with different kinds of weeds
but with stones as well."
|Paddy and I have been sitting in the front room of George's small
vine-clad house, outside Khania in western Crete, for more than two hours
now. At least one of us is reeling under the bombardment of Cretan
hospitality. Celestial cheese tarts made by Sofia, George's wife, have
given way to nuts, glistening sweetmeats and, as if that weren't enough,
shots of tsikoudia, a spirit so lethal it feels less like drinking a
liquid than sipping scalded air. After three of these, I am not entirely
sure whether the spools on my tape recorder are going round: after four, I
|George - one eye sleepy, the other coal black with embers of mischief -
is joking about whether he should have given lessons in sheep stealing (a
local speciality) to one of the wireless operators. "So when he got
back to Scotland he could have organised sheep rustling." Paddy
pretends, unconvincingly, to be shocked.
|Through the window behind them, you can see the White Mountains - a
range so towering and snowy, even on this May day, that it is hard to tell
where rock stops and cloud begins. More than half a century ago, those
slopes were Paddy and George's stamping-ground. "George's life was
dangerous and absolutely exhausting," explains Paddy. But George is
having none of it: "I felt as if I were flying. Running all the way
from the top of the White Mountains to Mount Ida. So light and easy - just
like drinking a cup of coffee."
|George has difficulty walking now - at 78 he leans on a stick as gnarled
as himself - but his mind can leap from memory to memory, as if he were
still flying. I ask George what he thought the British had learnt from the
Cretans and vice versa. "What they learnt, because there was very
little to eat, was to drink a lot and to dance and to shoot for joy in the
air. We saw how much they loved our country and it made us love it still
more. The fact that they loved Crete so much gave us even greater
|The first time George Psychoundakis met Patrick Leigh Fermor he thought
he was very tall. The young Cretan had just crawled on all fours through
thick bushes into the heap of boulders where the officer was hiding. In
fact, the Englishman was not especially lofty (a touch over 5ft 9in,
according to his passport). It was the Greek who was tiny. "As
fine-boned as an Indian," recalls Leigh Fermor. "Lithe and agile
and full of nervous energy."
|Anyway, height didn't matter much back then. It was the July of 1942 in
occupied Crete and the stature of men was not measured in inches, rather
in a bewildering range of abilities. These included: keeping cool when a
member of the Gestapo approaches your mule while it is carrying a
combustible load of wheat and wireless; keeping warm in a cave-bed with a
canopy of stalactites; and finding the courage to tuck into a dinner of
local produce - grass cooked with snails. "We took the grass blade by
blade, picked off the broken shells and ate it with much laughter,"
|Psychoundakis was a runner for the Resistance - a vertical postman, he
delivered messages and equipment at barely credible speed. On a map, Crete
doesn't look too daunting - a sirloin steak beaten to a succulent sliver
by a butcher. But it rises so sharply into such broken-toothed cragginess
that it is pointless to measure it in miles: the islanders calculate
distances in the time taken to smoke cigarettes. George's wartime business
was mainly conducted at eagle-height, or as he felt his way down the
vertebrae of his homeland towards some hiding place where even goats
|He was 21 years old when he first met the 27-year-old Leigh Fermor.
George addressed Paddy as Michali (all the Allied soldiers had Greek
nicknames) or sometimes Mr Michali in half-amused respect (irreverence
being the key to the Psychoundakis psyche). Paddy, meanwhile, code-named
George either the Clown or the Changeling, for his cockeyed wit, his
impish insubordination and a magical ability to spirit himself out of
|The two men were not just worlds apart: a glance at their biographies
suggests you would need to hire a time machine to bring them together.
Born in Asi Gonia, a village with a long history of giving invaders a hard
time (asi is Arabic for uncommandable), George lived the kind of peasant
life that had not changed for centuries. His family slept together in a
single room with a beaten earth floor. After a scratchy education at the
local primary school, he followed his father on to the mountains as a
shepherd. By the time German parachutes blotted out the sky in May 1941,
he had visited only two of Crete's towns and had never seen the capital,
|By contrast, Leigh Fermor was born into a smart Anglo-Irish family and
educated at prep school and King's, Canterbury. By 1939, he had walked
across every country between London and Constantinople - a stroll
commemorated in his two dazzling volumes, A Time of Gifts and Between
the Woods and the Water - and also appeared to have drunk in most of
their national literatures.
|Scrape through what Leigh Fermor called his "Fauntleroy
veneer", though, and you find a rougher grain. With his parents
abroad for the first four years of his life, Paddy was entrusted to the
family of a small farmer and, left uncultivated, he ran wild. The
experience, he later wrote, "unfitted me for the faintest shadow of
constraint". His behaviour at a flurry of schools led to his being
sent to two psychiatrists, although it is unlikely that either rivaled Paddy's clinical diagnosis of himself as "a very naughty boy".
He was finally expelled from King's for crimes that included "trying
to be funny" and holding the hand of a greengrocer's daughter. His
housemaster's report noted: "He is a dangerous mixture of
sophistication and recklessness, which makes one anxious about his
influence on other boys."
|Almost 70 years later, I find it hard to improve on that verdict, save
to replace the word dangerous with delightful. As it turned out, his
influence on other boys was all to the good, and the most remarkable boy
of all was George Psychoundakis.
|While Paddy was in Kent writing "bad and imitative verse" and
lapping up ancient Greek because it was a passport to a world of heroes,
George was scavenging books from the village priest and the doctor, and
occupying the long woolly hours by the sheepfold composing patriotic poems
and beady skits on local life. (An early effort entitled Ode to an Inkspot
on a Schoolmistress's Skirt sounds distinctly Paddy-like in its high-flown
|Although George's father, Nicolas, was illiterate, he could recite by
heart the whole of the Erotocritos, the 17th-century Cretan epic
poem that comprises 10,000 lines of rhyming couplets. And the rhythm
lodged in the son's head and on his tongue: poetry to these people was not
the object of solemn study but a spur to the spinning of legends and the
cue for a bloody good song.
|Which is to say that when the ragged and practically barefoot Cretan
wriggled into the hiding-place of the Englishman in 1942, they had more in
common than an enemy. George spoke only one perfect sentence of English -
"I steal grapes every day" - but Paddy soon extended his
repertoire. On long marches to the coast to meet supply vessels or during
the dark hours awaiting a parachute drop, the Britons taught the Greeks
folk-songs and the Greeks taught them mantinadas - waspish local couplets
with a sting in the tail.
|On their first trek together, Paddy recalls how George recited a poem he
had written on the unambitious theme of The Second World War So Far.
"It covered the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, the German
invasion of Greece and Rommel's final advance. It lasted more than two
hours and finished on a note of triumphant optimism and presage of
vengeance, which he emphasized by borrowing my pistol and firing it into
the sky with the remark that we would soon be eating the cuckolds
|Leigh Fermor, meanwhile, attempted to satisfy Psychoundakis's ravenous
curiosity about the world. What was Churchill like? Why do the Scots wear
kilts? How about astronomy, religion, trains? How many sheep does the
average Englishman own?
|The task of the British Special Operations Executive in Crete was to
assist the local Resistance. Having spent centuries in revolt against the
Venetians and the Turks, the islanders didn't actually need much
encouragement. During the airborne invasion in 1941, when many young
Cretans were away on active service, descending parachutists were met by
old men, women and children - by anyone, in fact, who could point upwards
and shoot. "Aim for the legs and you'll get them in the heart,"
ran the local wisdom. Four thousand Germans died. Those who survived took
swift revenge. Reprisals, read one Wehrmacht memo, "must be carried
through with exemplary terror". Between May and September of that
year, 1,135 Cretans were executed.
|The Cretan Runner begins with the invasion. "Out of the sky
the winged devils of Hitler were falling everywhere... the aeroplanes came
and went like bees in a bee-garden." One grounded plane is set upon
by furious locals till it resembles "a bit of bread thrown on to an
ant-hill". From the opening pages, you get a pungent impression of
the Psychoundakis style - a vertiginous mix of the epic and the demotic,
the Homeric and the homely. Of the enemy, George writes: "They
reached to our very bowels and provoked a storm in the soul of the race
like the hiss of a poisonous snake about to strike." No British
account of the battle of Crete could contain a sentence like that. Too
purple. Too embarrassing, frankly. But it feels utterly true to George and
the hot-blooded rhetoric of his race.
|Perhaps the greatest surprise of a book that documents the burning of
villages, the casual slaughter of comrades and a life of mesmerizing danger is how often it makes you smile. No stranger to hardship anyway,
George embraces discomfort as though it were a shy friend with a lot to
offer. We see George at the end of a knackering three-day trek using
pieces of wood to mime someone hobbling. We hear him enthusing over yet
another dank hiding-place as though he were writing for some actionable
travel brochure: "The cave was perfect. We collected our drinking and
washing water from stalactites. We arranged luxurious couches for
ourselves from the branches of various shrubs that were better than the
|Best of all, there is George richly enjoying his British friends, not
least their congenital inability to walk over the rocky landscape. (In one
incident, Leigh Fermor threw himself pluckily at a high stone wall in
emulation of local bravado, only to fall off backwards: the Cretans in the
party walked around the side of the wall, shaking their heads and
|"It was plain that George was enraptured with the excitement of our
secret life," says Paddy. The same could be said of all of them, I
think. As a boy Leigh Fermor confessed to being guilty of "a bookish
attempt to coerce life into a closer resemblance to literature". In
this case, the literature was Greek. The Cretans, for their part, seemed
all too willing to live up to the legends the Englishmen had imbibed at
school. Most battles look romantic only in retrospect, if then: Crete was
different. It seems to have struck its leading men as touched with an air
of romance, even as the drama was unfolding. As they approached by boat on
a moonless night, the first the soldiers knew of the island was perfume,
the scent of wild thyme that wafts miles out to sea.
|Once on shore, they changed into local costume - breeches, black
bandanas, embroidered waistcoats and spiffy jackboots. There were lessons
in how to curl their new moustaches. They were an extraordinary bunch -
poets, archaeologists, free spirits thirsty for adventure. SOE chose them
because they had some knowledge of ancient Greek. But, as Leigh Fermor
explains, since Greek was no longer compulsory at school, those who opted
for it had already marked themselves out as "a perverse and eccentric
|I cannot get enough of the photographs of the Resistance taken through
those years in the mountains. Remember, these are snapshots captured at a
time when to have a likeness of yourself in existence was itself a threat
to that existence. There is the legendary Xan "Aleko" Fielding,
looking uncannily like the young Hemingway. Gimlet-eyed and bare-chested,
he regards the lens with Olympian amusement. And there is Yanni
Tsangarakis, one of the bravest and most trusted guides, slightly
woebegone behind a Zebedee moustache, and the redoubtable Manoli Paterakis,
whose unforgettable profile suggests he may have been the love-child of
Montgomery of Alamein and a peregrine falcon.
|Looking at the smiley countenance of Tom Dunbabin - a fellow of All
Souls in peacetime - you can see why he inspired such love; ditto the
gaunt saintly faces of Aleko Kokonas, the schoolmaster of Yerakari, and
his wife, Kyria Maria. And then, of course, there are Paddy and George:
the first as debonair and unfeasibly handsome as Errol Flynn casting about
for a galleon to capture; the second apparently auditioning for the role
|In Louis de Bernières's novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, set in
wartime Cephalonia, there is a posh Englishman who lives in a cave and
comes out declaiming ancient Greek. He is a bit of a joke. And, to be
sure, there is something potentially laughable about the Boy's Own aspect
of all this dressing up and blowing stuff up. What redeems it from
absurdity, what transforms it into real rather than fantastical heroism,
is the nagging presence of death, which circled above these lives like a
hawk. There was nothing comic-book about Anton Zoidakis, captured by
German soldiers, tied to their vehicle and dragged along the road until
his face and his life were wiped away. And even George's account of merry
scrapes is pulled up short when 20 Gestapo visit Asi Gonia: "They
said I was wanted for interrogation and if didn't go to Retimo before
January 17 they would set fire to the whole village."
|Three of George's fellow runners were executed, two after what the
Wehrmacht would probably have considered exemplary torture. In his superb
book Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Antony Beevor points out
that the penalty for a shepherd caught whistling to warn of the approach
of a German patrol was death.
|War had transformed George Psychoundakis's life. In February 1943, it
enabled the former shepherd boy to travel abroad for the first time. He
was spirited off to SOE headquarters in Egypt, where he was knocked
sideways by wonders, not least the grass in the Gezira gardens: "Fat,
short grass like green velvet carpet." As for the zoo, "I could
almost have deemed that I was in the middle of paradise". The most
misguided character in the whole of The Cretan Runner is the
soldier who advised George not to climb up the Pyramids because it was
"very tiring and tricky". A short hop later, the Cretan runner
got out his stiletto and "cut my name and fatherland" into a
stone at the top.
|On the day the war was over, a "high-spirited Mr Leigh Fermor"
bought a dubious Mr Psychoundakis a lot of drinks. "If I drink all
that I'll be drunk," protested George. "But my child, what is
drink meant for? It's no use for anything else," replied Paddy.
|Soon after, in a school where a whole village was gathered together,
George recited a heart-stopping poem he had written on the lovely village
of Yerakari, now destroyed, where once "white houses lay like doves
asleep along the sill of heaven". He had survived, but for a while it
was hard to see what for.
|Fortune, who had smiled on George in a time of insane adversity,
appeared to doze off once the shooting stopped. Because of missing
documents and in spite of his British Empire Medal (awarded in 1945), he
was arrested as a deserter and imprisoned for several months. One can
scarcely imagine the wound inflicted on his pride. Over three days, that
great shaggy helmet of hair all fell out. Subsequently, he had to do two
more years of fighting in the civil war. Returning at last to Asi Gonia,
George found all the sheep stolen and his family in gruesome poverty. The
Changeling had run out of magic.
|George took a job as a navvy working on a road. At night, he sheltered
once more in a cave and by the light of an oil lamp began to fill notebook
after notebook with a furious, cramped hand. "I think he undertook
this task as a kind of exorcism of the gloom of his circumstances,"
says Paddy. When they met up again in 1951, George gave his friend the
completed work: Pictures of Our Life During the Occupation. Better
known as The Cretan Runner.
|Leigh Fermor, now living on the Greek mainland, took the precious
grime-covered manuscript home to translate. George, meanwhile, was working
to help his old friend, too. In 1943, with a German patrol approaching,
Paddy, who was checking what he thought was an empty rifle, accidentally
shot Yanni Tzangarakis in the leg. He died soon afterwards, but not before
absolving his friend of all blame. Paddy was devastated: imagine killing
the proud son of a country for which you were willing to lay down your own
|This wretchedness was deepened by foolish rumours that eventually led to
a vendetta being declared by some of Yanni's relatives. This was only laid
to rest after years of delicate negotiation by George, who found a very
Cretan solution to the Englishman's impasse: Paddy Leigh Fermor became
godfather to Yanni's great-niece. In Greek society, this bond is deeper
|Two old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an
Englishman. "We'd better censor that, George, it's libellous,"
says Paddy, trying to sound stern. As usual, he fails.
|George goes off into the bedroom and comes back with a rifle. It is
nearly as tall as he is, and its working parts are in similarly creaky
order. As George poses with the gun, the photographer asks him to smile.
George scowls and spits out a guttural retort. "Oh dear, oh
dear," says Paddy, shaking his head and laughing. What did George
just say? "He said he won't smile because he's killing Germans."
|At the front of A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor quotes from Louis
MacNeice's great poem:
For now the time of gifts is
O boys that grow,
O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill.
|Since the war, both men have found satisfactions. Leigh Fermor, though
unfairly saddled with the label of travel writer, has become one of the
greatest exponents of English prose.
|Psychoundakis, meanwhile, has translated both the Odyssey and the Iliad
into Cretan and been honoured by the Academy of Athens. Still, I can't
help wondering whether the time since their great adventure had been an
|"To some extent all our lives were in those years," admits
Paddy. "Of course, one went on to do interesting things, but...
" George has come up now and stretches out his fingertips to reach
the shoulders of his friend, the tall Englishman. "Ah, George says to
tell you that those years up in the mountains were the best years of his
life. He'll never forget it. Never. And that's why he wanted to
commemorate our days together."
|Just as we are getting ready to leave, George gives Paddy a photograph.
It is of George himself and Xan Fielding, taken somewhere in the
mountains. You can just make them out. The emulsion is breaking up and
great snowy specks of it are blizzarding them into oblivion. Yet looking
back at the Cretan resisters, we see only a thrilling clarity. Their
existence was both mortally serious and a great wheeze - perhaps a
definition of the best kind of life you can hope to lead.
|Years after the war ended, George Psychoundakis sang for his friend
Patrick Leigh Fermor a mantinada. This is what it said:
With patience first and
patience last, and doggedness all through,
A man can think the wildest thoughts and make them all come true.
|I was contacted by Agapi Nix who wrote;
I read the comments of George Psychoundakis and I was wondering if he
knew my grandfather, Vlachaki Spiridon was killed in 1941 in Suda.
He was from Kastelli and fought against the Germans for the resistance.
They had run into the mountains, but as I'm told, a Greek betrayed them
and they were found by the Germans and captured, then taken to Suda and
put in a row with others and executed. My grandmother who was left
behind a widow, with four little children had a very difficult life.
I, of course, never knew him, but if possible, I would like to know if
anyone remembers him and could tell me more about him and what exactly