There’s an obituary at The Telegraph from February 2006, which anyone interested in the Cretan character should read. A war heroes life is briefly recounted, in verses that remind us of novel things like honor, patriotism, courage, and plain goodness. The death of George Psychoundakis at age 85 in Chania marks in bedrock legendary Cretan forthrightness. Here is another abbreviated retelling of Psychoundakis’ deeds.
Born in 1920 in the tiny village of Asi Gonia high up in the mountain passes of western Crete, George Psychoundakis grew up poor. He and his three siblings only had a rudimentary education. His parents Nicolas and Angeliké worked hard, but the family was still one of the poorest in their village. George got his real education as a shepherd. And as it turned out, this high mountain learning would serve his nation and others very well.
George’s knowledge and fortitude herding his family’s sheep and goats in the high Mouselas Valley of the White Mountains prepared him well as a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupiers of his island from 1941 until 1945 when Crete was liberated. Best known in modern times for his popular book about the German occupation. His “The Cretan Runner” would be the definitive story from the Cretan perspective. It was later translated by another hero, the famous Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was the British liaison instrumental in leading the Cretan resistance. As a message courier for the Allied resistance on the island, George’s knowledge of the terrain proved valuable. But geography was not his only expertise.
When the Nazi invasion dubbed Operation Mercury was launched, on 20 May 1941, George Psychoundakis immediately left for Episkopi, in Rethymno Prefecture. The shepherd took part in miraculous resistance to the invasion and later helped ferry British soldiers to the south to be evacuated. Soon, the famous Special Operations Executive (SOE) began organizing with the British, who sent liaison officers like Patrick Leigh Fermor to Crete clandestinely. It was in July 1942 when Psychoundakis began as Fermor’s runner, carrying messages between resistance groups and guiding parties unfamiliar with the territory. It was Leigh Fermor, you may remember, who was instrumental in capturing the German commander of Crete Heinrich Kreipe. Well, George Psychoundakis was also a vital participant in this legendary operation.
George was 21 when the Germans invaded Crete. A lithe figure, he was quick on his feet and in amazing condition from years of hard work up in the mountains. He was also atypical in that he’d learned to read and write despite his situation. A village priest had lent him books at a young age, and George loved to write. In later years he would make deft accounts of his experiences running weapons and messages across the high trails of remotest Crete. To give you an idea of the man, I simply have to cite The Telegraph and Leigh Fermor here as he speaks of the little twisted messages George tucked in his clothes:
“They were produced,” wrote Leigh Fermor, “with a comic kind of conjuror’s flourish, after grotesquely furtive glances over the shoulder and fingers laid on lips in a caricature of clandestine security precautions that made us all laugh.”
The author goes on to describe the worn clothes and patched boots George wore, and of his unshakeable humor. In the midst of all the harshness of war, and of everyday life under the harshest conditions, Psychoundakis exemplified the Cretan spirit. Crete can be a foreboding place in Summer and Winter, and the resistance fighters were constantly in the elements.
George and his comrades spent many nights freezing, tweaking their ears to hear the German search parties looking for them. In his recollections, the notorious stories of torture, of burning villages, and summary executions speak of an imponderable reality. Later on, when he visited England, in 1955, Psychoundakis was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. But, in a bit of bitter irony, the Cretan hero was arrested and imprisoned at war’s end because his papers were out of order. 16 months later, it was his comrade Leigh Fermor who got him released.
In another bitter twist, when Psychoundakis got back home he found his flock was gone. Penniless, and now the head of a poverty-stricken little clan, the courageous resistance fighter took the only work he could. Funny thing, when the British offered to pay him for his services in World War II, George turned them down saying he did it for his country. This was after jail.
Luckily, George had spent his time in prison writing the notes that would become The Cretan Runner book, which he then completed by the light of an oil lamp in a cave he took residence in. Leigh Fermor was the first to recognized Psychoundakis’s manuscript as a unique work, so he quickly translated it for his comrade. The book appeared first in English, translated by Leigh Fermor, in 1955.
George Psychoundakis never seemed to elude the Sword of Damocles that hung over him. Constantly shadowed by bad luck, the destitute war hero ended up as the caretaker of the German cemetery outside Chania. As the story goes, a German War Graves Commissioner came to the cemetery one day and was impressed by how well Psychoundakis looked after it. Surprised the caretaker could not speak German, he prompted the Cretan fighter to say:
“Well, there’s not much opportunity to learn it here. All the Germans I look after are dead.”
After The Cretan Runner George wrote the Eagle’s Nest in Crete, about legends of the island. He also translated Hesiod’s Georgic Works and Days, The Odyssey, The Iliad, and other works. Patrick Leigh Fermor described the man this way:
“George was a one-off, as they say. Nobody was remotely like him. Touchstone and Ariel spring to mind, and there is a dash of Kim. It was the oddity, independence, charm, curiosity, and imagination that gave him the cover-name of “Changeling” in our dispatches from Crete.”
George Psychoundakis was an amazing human being, a credit to his family, his fellow Cretans, and to all of us who value such epic strength. He was survived by his wife Sofia, their son and two daughters. I shall try and speak with them if destiny leads me to them. For those who travel to Chania Prefecture, you may wish to make a visit to the Cretan Runner Museum. The Museum celebrates the life and achievements of George Psychoundakis and is based in his village of Asi Gonia. I leave you with another amazing story about George.
The Cretan runners all performed exceptional feats and made essential contributions to the British operations during World War II. George’s efforts to deliver messages from Kastelli-Kissamos to Paleochora in the south bring to mind the 490 BC Pheidippides running 42 km from the battle of Marathon to tell about the victory over the Persians. That runner died after delivering the message. As for George, the distance he ran to avoid the Nazis over the White Mountains was twice as far. He made the trek over deep rivers and past Nazi outposts and patrols in one night.
As I said, the true Cretans are epic.