John Pendlebury (1904-41) was a legend by the time the Battle of Crete erupted on the serene paradise island of Crete. Dubbed the “Cretan Lawrence” by the invading Germans during WW II, the adventurer and archaeologist was shot in the first months of the Nazi occupation of Crete while organizing bands of guerrillas to fight the invaders. Known by locals for his humanity, humor, and bravado, Pendlebury was also famous for his intimate knowledge of Crete, its people and language, acquired by total immersion in all things Cretan while engaged as curator of the Knossos archaeological projects outside Heraklion. Pendlebury’s passion for the ancient world first took him to Egypt, where he was Director of the excavations at Tell el-Amarna, city of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen, Nefertiti. The dauntless Pendlebury was undoubtedly the inspiration for the film hero “Indiana Jones” – a man who carried a sword cane and glared out at the world through one glass eye – the Englishman earned his place in the mind and hearts of the Cretan people.
Beloved friend, Crete will guard your memory
among her most sacred treasures.
The soil which you excavated with the
archaeologist’s spade and watered with a
warrior’s blood will for ever enfold you with
(renowned Greek archaeologist)
The story below is an unabridged account of one of Crete’s most fascinating heroes. Take from a chapter of the book rare book ‘John Pendlebury in Crete’, written by Nicholas Hammond. The fascinating narrative reveals a desperate time in our world, and how a now legendary Englishman became a Cretan, to fight so bravely against devastating odds. My thanks to “Stelios Jackson Walks Crete” for the excerpt.
Meetings with John Pendlebury were always memorable. My first during the war was in a dingy, dark and depressing basement room in the War Office, when the retreat towards Dunkirk was at its height. We had been summoned for special duties, he from his cavalry regiment and I from teaching in Cambridge. The mists of unreality, which had enveloped me after my first experience of Red Tabs and the hocus-pocus of ‘special service’, were dispelled by the sight of John poring over the latest maps of Crete. He had already a firm grasp of the situation. In his mind’s eye he was planning the organization of Crete for resistance with a clarity of purpose and a care of detail which were fully fledged. He hated that vague hovering around the fringe of the subject which is not uncommon in staff officers far removed from the scene of action and which is infinitely discouraging to volunteers for ‘special service’; and so he had swooped on to the practical details of planning with unbounded energy and enthusiasm. He talked to me of swordsticks, daggers, pistols, maps; of Cretan klephts from Lasithi and Sphakia; of hide-outs in the mountains and of coves and caves on the south coast; of the power of personal contacts formed by years of travel, of the geography of Crete, its mules and caiques, and of the vulnerable points in its roads. Sometimes we talked in the War Office, sometimes in his club, sometimes by ‘phone, when John used the ‘tch-kappa’ of the Cretan dialect and I replied in the broad vowels of the Epirote dialect; for secrecy was the salt of success, as he saw from the start. His enthusiasm fired me to collect my notes on Albania, list my contacts and map my roads, although the chances of war never carried me farther than within sight of the Albanian frontier in 1943. During our few days in London we were learning the tricks of the trade. But the rising confusion of the retreat in France cut short every course of instruction on which we were sent or were about to be sent. Apart from firing a few detonators in a conference room at the War Office and contracting gelignite headaches by blowing up some mud and angle-irons in a suburban gravel-pit, we learnt very little; but we were inspired by an R.E. officer, who had seen service in Norway, and by the sight of troop trains bringing survivors from Dunkirk. On the 3rd of June we were sent off from London by a staff officer in full dress Guards’ uniform, a spectacle which even in those days struck us as incongruous. Of the party of experts who set off on a fine June morning for the Middle East, none was more optimistic than John and none knew his terrain more thoroughly; for Crete was in his blood and he knew its mountains, as the Greeks say, stone by stone. It was inspiring to feel that our special knowledge and experience would be put to effect in one form or another. The entry of Italy into the war was expected in a matter of days—hence our route by Corsica, Bizerta, Malta, Corfu, Athens—and the Italian bases in Albania threatened the Balkans.
John was eager to learn all that the experts among us knew of Albania, which looked like being the first scene of any subversive operations—and he certainly intended to be in the first line. He questioned me thoroughly about the harbour 1939, and about the Albanian attitude towards Italy, the minority in North Epirus, the mountain-routes and the vulnerable points in the roads leading from Greece into Albania. Before leaving England he had studied the recent Italian maps which showed the construction of new roads in South Albania, and he consulted me and the others about their significance. His firm grasp of practical detail and his insight into the character of Balkan peoples made his conversation inspiring and his proposals sensible. He tackled the others in the same manner and was distressed to find sometimes that their knowledge did not extend beyond the 1920’s and fell below the high standard of accuracy which he himself demanded. On landing at Corfu we gazed across the trait to the barren mountains of South Albania and discussed the harbours of Santa Quaranta and Butrinto and the wild interior called the Kurvelesh, lying between the Acroceraunian range and the birthplace of Ali Pasha at Tepeleni, which was to prove the limit of the Greek advance in the coming winter. If John had been sent to Albania, he would have got off to a flying start. As it turned out, the Greek authorities at Athens viewed our party with not unjustifiable suspicion; John and some others were allowed to land and the rest of us were sent on to Egypt. We next met in early May 1941 when Albania and the Greek mainland had been lost. The intervening months had taught us a great deal about the difficulties of our job. The department for which we worked had not at that time acquired the full recognition of the regular branches of the services. It was necessary for the man on the spot to win the personal confidence of the local naval and military officers, who at first regarded his nose as false and his schemes as harebrained. John had succeeded to a remarkable degree in winning this confidence; his unique knowledge of Crete, his personal charm, his tenacity and determination, and his aggressive views had overcome most opposition. During the winter, when I had been arranging to send caiques to the Dodecanese, Naval Intelligence officers at Alexandria had spoken with enthusiasm of John as a man they trusted. And I found the same respect for him at Souda and Herakleion, when I landed from Greece. The next difficulty was one of supply, which was short in the Middle East. During the winter all available arms for guerrilla warfare had gone to Abyssinia, and in the spring they were sent to the Greek forces in Albania and to arm the forces in Jugoslavia which later emerged under Mihailovitch. John had been pressing for priority to arm his Cretans but so far with little success. The greatest difficulty was to maintain secrecy. One normally worked under some cover either as a civilian or as a soldier, a technique which was more easy in a big city such as Athens or in a cosmopolitan country like Palestine. In preparing Future guerrilla bands it was necessary to choose the key personnel with the greatest care and to ensure that their activity did not become known; for before the time for action they had to be trained in weapons, explosives and organization.
The selection of hide-ups for dumps of stores, the reconnaissance of roads and of coves, and the choosing of targets had all to be done with the maximum of security. In preparing for the planting of agents with suitable cover in cities, where they could maintain wireless communication, collect intelligence and undertake sabotage under eventual enemy occupation, nothing was more vital than secrecy. In Crete this was a peculiarly difficult problem. John was universally known, with that complete familiarity which is almost unparalleled outside Greece, and every Cretan would speculate about the activities of so public a figure. As he had come to Greece when she was a neutral country there could be no doubt that the Germans had had their eye on him. To secure secrecy in his key personnel and in his agents must have been a harassing task, for the Greek is not by nature either secretive or cautious or modest. Later, when I served with the Allied Military Mission in Greece, we relied not so much upon the secrecy of the guerrillas as their garrulity; for they spread so many rumours that the German Intelligence rarely penetrated the barrage. Our meeting in May was at Herakleion, where John had his headquarters. A few days before, I had joined the company of H.M.S. Dolphin, a Haifa-built variation of the armed caique, which had shot down several planes in Greece during the evacuation. Her skipper was Mike Cumberlege, a natural buccaneer of superlative courage, whose single earring was as famous as John’s swordstick; his cousin Cle Cumberlege, a regular Major in the Royal Artillery, had escaped from a distasteful staffjob to take charge of the two-pounder and machine-guns on the caique. The mascot of the crew and my particular buddy was able-bodied seaman Saunders, possessing the efficiency and humour engendered by seventeen years of service on the lower deck; we had met before when he sat on a magnetic mine and I drove the truck carrying it through the middle of Athens during an air-raid. At Herakleion we exchanged the last member of our crew, a Jewish engineer, for a South African private of the Black Watch, Jumbo Steele, an independent youngster who had run away from home as a boy and was still eager for adventure. Jumbo was a first-class shot with any weapon; a few weeks later this saved some of us, for he winged the Messerschmitt 109 which had already killed Cle and Saunders and wounded Mike and was coming in to give us the coup de grace. But when the Dolphin put in to the little Venetian harbour at Herakleion all was as quiet and as sunlit as in the early summer days of peace. After the frequent raids in Greece and at Souda we liked Herakleion and decided to stay for several days and overhaul our engines. And in the evening I walked up through the narrow streets above the harbour to see John in his small rooms up a single flight of stairs.
He had a much clearer sense of impending crisis than we whose nerves had relaxed after experiencing the evacuation from Greece. He thought a German attack on Crete would not be long delayed and he realized how ill-prepared we were to face it. The loss of the entire Cretan division in Epirus, as a result of the Greek armistice, was particularly galling and he spoke of it with the same warmth as the Cretan people, who had approved the assassination near Canea of the divisional commander for escaping without his men. If only the older generation of Cretans could be armed, they would give a good account of themselves; but the arms were not available, and even his own men, who were organized for guerrilla warfare in the event of Crete being overrun, were far from adequately armed. He told me something of his own organization, for he was probably turning over in his mind the offer he made to me later of staying with him in Crete if the worst should happen. John Pendlebury’s thugs, as they were named in more orthodox circles, were all personal acquaintances from the time of his travels and they owed him a deep personal devotion; they had been selected with an insight which none other than John could have brought to bear, and they covered the majority of mountain and coastal villages.
Next morning John came down to the Dolphin. He and Mike Cumberlege took to one another at once. Both were men of vigorous speech and independent ideas, with great force of character and abundant humour; and both possessed that clear-headed audacity which undertakes the apparently more dangerous course after a detached study of the advantages and disadvantages. They possessed too a simplicity of motive in facing or inviting danger, something much more spontaneous and automatic than the ordinary man’s sense of duty, a rare quality which I only met once again during the war. This virtue, this “areth“, made them incomparable leaders of limited numbers of men such as subversive operations envisage. It was typical of their confidence in one another that they had soon planned a joint operation, a raid on Kasos. The Dolphin was to carry over John and a party of his Cretans, leaving soon after dark; they would carry an Italian post by assault and bring back prisoners who might divulge any preparations for an attack on Crete. John had previously made a reconnaissance raid on this part of Kasos, and this time he was eager to baptize his Cretans with the offensive spirit. There were of course a number of incalculable factors, which made the operation less simple than it looked. The Dolphin could only carry a small number, some fifteen men apart from ourselves, and the post in question might have been strongly reinforced, if an attack was pending. The Dolphin was also slow and we calculated that with a favourable wind and sea we should still be out in the Kasos channel when dawn broke on our return; and that meant the probability of attack from the air, to which we could reply with our four machine-guns on anti-aircraft mountings. But it was clearly a worthwhile operation; and the naval and military authorities were agreeable to our attempting it.
But we had first to overhaul the Dolphin and complete a reconnaissance of the beaches on the south coast for the Navy, which we had already begun from Souda. We had then gone by truck along the uncompleted narrow road which peters out like so many Greek roads above the torrent-bed on the east side of Sphakia—the torrent-bed where thousands were to take cover a few weeks later in the final stages of the evacuation. In the tiny cove of Sphakia we had met the first of John’s men, who took us by a diminutive caique across the azure swell to the Larger bay of Loutro; a good sailor and neither inquisitive nor talkative, he was the right type, and he knew the dangerous south coast well. He gave us information too about the small islets south of Crete. Mike was interested in these, for he was already looking for secret harbours which would make possible a return to Crete in small craft if it fell into the hands of the enemy. At the moment we were more concerned with landing beaches and coves on the south coast, where troops and supplies could be landed for the defence of Crete and avoid the heavily bombed harbours of the north coast. John gave us a number of suggestions for suitable points and accompanied our truck from Herakleion as far as the top of the pass leading to the plain of Messara. He wanted to consult me about his plans for demolishing some bends in the road; he had already driven some bore-holes for camouflet charges, and he had trained men in the neighbouring villages. Not many days later this strategic point was held by the Germans and was forced with some difficulty by a battalion of Argyll and Sutherland High-landers, who had landed on the beaches at Kokkinos Pyrgos and come north to relieve Herakleion. John had given us an introduction to one of his leading men in a village east of the plain, a bald-headed giant with a ferocious moustache and a large family of sons; he breathed blood and slaughter and garlic in the best Cretan style and marched us off at a fast pace to the inlet of Matala. The cliffsides of the inlet are riddled with caves, and the colours and style of the approach are reminiscent of smugglers’ coves in Cornwall, a picturesque place but too obviously suitable for use as a secret base. From Matala our guide took us on to the shelving beach of Kokkinos Pyrgos, suitable for beaching light craft, and to Ayia Galene where the water was so clear that we dived to gauge its depth; for it seemed possible that ships of moderate draught could be brought close inshore.
“On our return to Herakleion we received orders to go round to lerapetra and investigate the possibility of salvaging the cargo of a ship sunk offshore. A vessel of some 12,000 tons, she had sailed from Alexandria with a cargo of ammunition, light anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns and small arms—a cargo that might have turned the scales in the defence of Crete. But the Germans knew of her departure. Torpedoed in the open sea she limped into the roadstead of lerapetra, only to be sunk by German bombers, but she lay in fairly shallow waters. This meant delaying our raid on Kasos, which we fixed provisionally for the night of the 20th; we were to pick up John and his men on the evening of the 19th at Herakleion. Before leaving for lerapetra John gave us a dinner at the Officers’ Club overlooking the harbour; he insisted on Saunders coming, who as a regular seaman was somewhat abashed but greatly delighted at dining in an Officers’ mess. John was in tremendous spirits, keyed up by the increasing tempo of the German raids on Herakleion aerodrome and harbour during the last few days. They came over at dawn and at dusk, usually thirty strong, and had shot down the three gallant Lysanders which went up to engage them whatever the odds. John had come down to the Dolphin to take a machine-gun for the evening, when the German planes flew low over the town machine-gunning the harbour and we replied from our mooring close under the quayside. Souda, too, was being heavily bombed and salvage operations on H.M.S. York had been abandoned; we hoped to get the divers from there to help at lerapetra. The cruisers Fiji and Gloucester had also called at Herakleion a night or two before and sailed off to the north. The feeling that action would not be long delayed gave a spice to our dinner of fresh fish collected by the fishermen when bombs had concussed them. And Herakleion in May had plenty of fresh lamb and cheese and wine, which had made our stay unusually delightful. John had become an honorary member of the Dolphin’s crew as we had of his headquarters with the picturesque Kronis in full Cretan dress as guard. The Greek policeman who directed traffic under a large umbrella in the centre of the town always came down from his platform to share a morning drink with us. And the Greek commander of the town, when he knew we were friends ofJohn, allowed us to take on a sponge-diver from Kalymnos, called Kyriakos, who had fought as an infantryman in the Dodecanesian battalion in North Greece and had escaped by devious routes to Crete.
After dinner John and Mike made the final arrangements for the raid on Kasos for which John’s party was already prepared. He also discussed the possibility of my joining him after this raid, although Mike was loth to lose a Greek-speaking officer. John was confident that if Crete was lost his Cretans could be depended upon to carry on guerrilla warfare in the hills. He had received a considerable supply of stores and ammunition since our arrival at Herakleion and there was a large dump on one of the islands at Souda Bay which could be moved to suitable hide-ups. His main shortage was in small arms, but he had sufficient with which to start operations; and from his discussions with Mike he knew that communications could probably be kept open by sea from the south coast to Africa. It had always been his intention to stay in Crete and lead the resistance, and he never talked as if any other course was possible. Yet on the Greek mainland, where plans for forming nuclei for guerrilla warfare were too late to be effective, it was not intended that British personnel should remain behind; nor, so far as I know, was this either contemplated or done in Jugoslavia. John’s plan was therefore original and daring, and given his personal qualities as a leader in a limited area with a more or less homogeneous population the plan was full of promise. It required more resolution in an Englishman to stay behind voluntarily and be submerged by the German tide than to return later as many did when the ebb was likely to set in. But for John the choice did not exist; he felt himself a Cretan and in Crete he would stay until victory was won. In this singleness of purpose he was happy. And we felt his happiness that evening, which proved to be the last time we saw him. At lerapetra the water was clear enough for one to see the wreck lying on her side, and Kyriakos, who swam like a fish under water, explored the entries. It would require equipment from Souda to raise much of the cargo, and German reconnaissance planes were keeping an alert eye on lerapetra. While awaiting a reply to a signal, we slipped down the coast in the Dolphin to Sudsuro in order to explore a small cove which John had commended to us; tiny and well-hidden with a sandy beach, it had no houses within sight and its nearest neighbour was a small monastery of which the solitary and soft-headed monk pursued us to the shore in his desire to join the Navy. We thought this a compliment to Saunders, but he was unwilling to acknowledge it. Months later, when Saunders and Cle were dead, Mike and Jumbo brought their first ship into this cove in occupied Crete. On the way back from the cove the Dolphin put me off at Sudsuro to deliver a note from John to his agent there, a particularly charming villager with whom I sat in the evening light, looking out across the calm water of the bay. I got through by ‘phone to John and told him we had to await a reply from Souda and might be two days late on our rendezvous; part of his conversation was in Cretan dialect and part of mine in Epirote, just as it had been in London long ago.
“We were not delayed at lerapetra and on our way up the Kasos Strait we put in to the little desert island of Elasa which Mike wished to explore for future reference. While we were there he decided to cross that night to Kasos in order to pick up his bearings and test out the time factor without including the assault. Cle and I thought this a good idea, being perhaps more orthodox in our outlook on raids than John or Mike. We meant to sail an hour before dark. Then the engine failed to start. While Jumbo toiled at it, a patrol of four seaplanes passed down the strait and came back again, flying low but not spotting the Dolphin moored in a small cove with one bulwark touching the rock. Shortly after they passed over us, darkness fell and then we heard bombing and gunfire in the Kasos Strait which lasted for some time. We blessed our luck that we were not out in it that evening on our rehearsal; as a matter of fact it was the evening of the 20th, the original date for the raid. When our engine did start we put in at Sitia on a bright calm dawn with a dazzling sea; I wanted to give John a time for our arrival that evening at Herakleion, but I was told that the ‘phone was out of order and it had also been impossible to make contact through other stations with Herakleion. It seemed odd, but then Greek telephones are odd. As we coasted along towards Herakleion, we were several times fired upon from the shore and cursed the zeal of the Cretan coastguards and the slackness of the Navy in not giving them warning. It was only when we were fired on by machine-guns in approaching Herakleion that we felt something must be seriously wrong. So Mike fetched up at the extreme end of the mole, and Cle and I walked along the mole with a Mauser apiece. As we approached the Venetian fort which guards the entry into the inner harbour, we saw that machine-guns were covering us from the embrasures. To our right we could see nothing, being bounded by a high sea-wall; and then we saw the Nazi swastika flying on the electric power station not far off. In the inner harbour there were a number of British dead and in the street ends which abutted on the harbour we could see Greek soldiers firing from cover. The occupants of the Venetian fort were Greeks tending some wounded; they told us of the dropping of the parachutists and the departure that evening of the British troops to hold the aerodrome outside Herakleion. Greek troops and civilians were holding the west side of the town in desperate street-fighting, but they were unlikely to save the harbour. As it was already dusk, we put out to sea pursued by angry bullets.
“We did not see John again, for in the afternoon of that same day he was wounded and captured. During the rest of our days in Crete he lived in our minds, and he lives still in mine, for the others too are gone. What I have written of him does not describe what he did in Crete, for I never knew the detail of his work, but what he was to some of us in Crete. And this is perhaps more important; for the Cretans themselves and Englishmen who followed in his steps in Crete and in Greece saw in him the symbol of honour which knows no defeat and the spirit of undying resistance. (NH 1948)