THE CRETAN RUNNER

 

George Psychoundakis was born in the village of Asi Gonia, high in the Mouselas valley in western Crete, on 3rd November 1920. George was born to Nicolas and Angeliké into a very poor family. George was the eldest of four children, he had two sisters and a brother all born to a family whose only possessions were a single-roomed house and a few sheep and goats. His education in the village school was rudimentary but unlike most of his fellow students George learned to read and write. Despite his lack of education George’s enthusiasm for learning was enormous and he scavenged everywhere for knowledge, learning what he could from books borrowed from the schoolteacher and the village priest. 

  

He became a shepherd as you would expect in a village of only a few hundred inhabitants. Tending his family's few sheep and goats, an occupation which enabled him to develop an intimate knowledge of his part of the island. Unbeknown to him the goat tracks would be used to carry messages, goods and people. Caves were used for shelter by the sheep and goats and became a very important asset for the allied forces in the forthcoming war becoming their homes and weapon storage areas. 

  

Crete had a tradition of resistance to invaders. The island only obtained its freedom from Turkey in 1898 with the numerous uprising during the long occupation. Mountainous terrain helped maintain an independence of character and willingness to bear and use arms by Cretans, young and old.

 

George Psychoundakis, was 21. A light, wiry, elfin figure who could move among the mountains with speed and agility. This toughness which George had developed on a daily basis tending his flock, was to be of great value during World War II. When enemy forces parachuted on to Crete in May 1941, he immediately went down to the nearest town of Episkopi in Rethymnon, which was about 15km away from his home. He was joined by  many Cretan people who fought fiercely. Despite their efforts and those of their allies, Crete fell to the German army and the island was occupied. Although allied troops were evacuated, thousands were left behind. British submarines would arrive periodically off the southern coast around Preveli 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'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 those tracks known only to George and his goats.

  

In the autumn of 1941, George was taken to meet two Englishmen who had arrived in Crete from Africa. They were from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) 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. When there was a vessel from Africa, George had to meet it and bring back messages from Cairo and elsewhere. The job of a war-time runner in the Resistance Movement was the most exhausting and one of the most consistently dangerous of all. In that first month, George remembers twenty-eight such journeys across the spiny mountains of the island. After that, he mentions in a comment that he was given a pair of good boots so that he ‘really could walk’ – up until that time he had been wearing shoes soled with old car tyres, and held together with wire. He often wore a row of medals on his breast, and had a rucksack full of geological books which he studied all day long.

  

Further English agents arrived on the island, bringing wireless receivers 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 the mountains well protected caves, often with no food except for cattle fodder sometimes only grass and the islands sustaining food through all hard times - 'snails'. Food drops from Cairo were organised, but often these went astray, and 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 and took along an ancient donkey. On his way back, 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 heavy wireless, which had been hidden under sacks of wheat, on his back the rest of the way to the agents’ current hideout.

   

These 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, another hideout was set in place. Unfortunately there was a traitor in camp and various betrayals led to the capture of one of the wireless operators, who was then shot.

 
George was taking 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 morning 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 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 use to near-starvation conditions, he made the most of the food and explored the city with enthusiasm. However, as time passed and with no sign of his recall, George began to get restless and keen to be back on the front line in action again.

  

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 that July George was trying to get back to Crete – 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 one day when he was 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 quite regularly.

  

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 an 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.

During an incident one of the British wireless operators made derogatory comments about Cretans, which upset George 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 fellow partisans had a very narrow escape.

  

George approached his missions with humour and charm that made him a popular figure in the resistance, as well as with the British officers serving under cover. One such officer was the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom George formed a lifelong friendship. Patrick Leigh Fermor, was one of a handful of SOE officers whose job was to co-ordinate the Cretan resistance, first met George at the end of July 1942 in a rocky hide-out above the village of Vaphe. Patrick's  first memory of George was that when the moon rose he got up and threw a last swig of raki down his throat with the words "Another drop of petrol for the engine", and stumbled towards the gap in the bushes with the furtiveness of a stage Mohican or Groucho Marx. He turned round when he was on all fours at the exit, rolled his eyes, raised a forefinger portentously, whispered the Intelligence Service! and scuttled through like a rabbit. A few minutes later he could see his small figure a mile away moving across the next moonlit fold of the foothills of the White Mountains, bound for another fifty-mile journey. 

 

Patrick 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 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 Hania, 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,- it was said "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 Hania was freed. He went later in his life to a few of the celebrations and read out some of his poems about the war and the slavery of the occupation.

After being held up in Hania 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 Hania surrendered. And as he had vowed, George Psychoundakis was there, in the crowd, to celebrate the victory.

  

However hard it had been in the resistance, with the Cretan summers baking hot and its winters being particularly cold in the hills and mountains. The shortage of food and more times than not hiding in a cold, dripping cave with deep snow outside was not fun, and there was, of course, an enemy to contend with. However, the island's fighters were never put to the ultimate test - they had been hoping that Crete might be a starting point for the invasion of southern Europe. 

The British offered him payment for his work, but he turned down the offer because, as he said, he worked for his country and not for money. 

In spite of the help he gave to the allies, he had a bad time after the war as well.  His paperwork was not in order, files had been lost, so he was arrested and imprisoned as a deserter after the liberation and was confined for 16 months in spite of being honoured by the British with the BEM (Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service) and £200 for his services during the war.

   

Whilst in his confinement he started to write down his memories from his service in the SOE and the Cretan resistance movement. On his release he got a job building roads, and lived in a little cave in the hills.  Here he continued his writing by the light of an oil-lamp.  Leigh Fermor asked if he could see the results. Without a word he dived into his knap-sack, fished out five thick exercise books tied in a bundle, and handed them over. His former superior Patrick Leigh Fermor, later Sir Patrick, discovered his plight and also his manuscript, translated and had it published under the title The Cretan Runner in 1955.

Following the war, George was forced to fight in the civil war. He returned to Asi Gonia after two years only to find his family poorer than ever and 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, until his book was published. 

Also during this period he wrote the book The Eagle's Nest which deals with the life and customs of the mountain people in the villages in the vicinity of his home village. This book has so far not been translated into other languages. George's resilient sense of humour never failed, though bouts of more bad luck continuing to dog his life.  With the money he earned from The Cretan Runner he bought some grazing land, and became immediately embroiled in a dispute with neighbours but still being realistic saying - "but if I'd bought land by the sea, I'd be a rich man now!"  They were hard times for someone who had done so much to help not only is fellow islanders but the rest of the world in the war years.

George also made considerable contributions to Cretan culture. He was knowledgeable about Crete's tradition of oral poetry and also wrote himself. Possibly his greatest achievement is his translation of Homer's works, The Iliad (560 pages) and The Odyssey  (474 pages) from the old Greek language into Cretan dialect.  For this he was honoured by the Academy of Athens. Seen against his humble beginnings and of only two or three years of occasional village education, this is really remarkable.

 

Absurdly, in recent years he, together with that other hero of the Greek resistance, Manoli Paterakis (who also assisted in the abduction, in 1944 from Crete, of General Kreipe), had been the caretaker at the German war cemetery on Hill 107 above Maleme until his retirement. 

  

In November 1942 Bruno Brauer replaced General Waldemar Andrae as commander on Crete. He tried to make his officers treat the Cretans with more respect. On 25th March, Greek National Day, he released 100 Cretan prisoners from jail, one of whom was Constantinos Mitstakis who later became Prime Minister of Greece. He quickly got the reputation as hard but fair and the most humane commander of Crete.
It was George who buried Bruno Brauer when he was moved to Crete three years after his execution. Bruno Brauer was ironically executed for war crimes, aged 54.

 

Bruno Braeuer's grave at the German 
military cemetery Maleme.

 

George Psychoundakis ran from Kastelli-Kissamou on the north western coast of Crete to Paleochora on the south western coast in one night. The distance along the present main road is 70km. Through the wild and rugged landscape with deep ravines, where he had to run to avoid the Germans, the distance may be at least twice as far.

 


George Psychoundakis is survived by his wife Sofia, their son and two daughters.

 

George Psychoundakis BEM, shepherd, partisan and writer was the Cretan Runner. He died in Hania, Crete, on January 29th, 2006, aged 85 years, only three months or so short of the 65th Anniversary of the Battle of Crete, of which he was so much a part. A feat recognised in 1955 when he was awarded the King's Medal for courage in the Cause of Freedom.

The Cretan Runner was not published in Greece until 1986.

  

Title: The Cretan Runner: Author: George Psychoundakis.
ISBN 0-7195-3475-5: Published by John Murray.

 
 
 

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