At last, on the night of 4 April, the sound of a ship’s engine answered our third night of torch signals; soon a sailor in a rubber dingy was sculling into the cove, and throwing a rope. In no time our evacuees were aboard, the ship vanished into the dark, and there, on the rocks, almost unbelievably after all our troubles, were Billy, Manoli and George. We loaded the stuff on the mules, said goodbye to Vasili Konios, our protector in the area, and headed inland for the long climb to comparative safety; settling at last in a high ravine full of oleanders, with the sea shining far below.
There was little sleep for the remainder of the night, or the next day; there was too much to talk about. Raki and wine appeared, and two sheep were slaughtered and roasted. Spring had suddenly burst over the island and the aromatic smell of herbs had hit the newcomers miles out in the Libyan sea. As I had hoped, Billy was amazed by the spectacular ranges all round, and was becoming impressed by the dash, hospitality, kindness and humour of the Cretans.
Our unwieldy caravan could only move by night. We left at dusk, and a long trudge up and down deep ravines, halting now and then at a waterfall or a friendly sheepfold, brought us to Skoinia, where we lay up in Mihali’s house. A day and a night were lost here, thanks to the visits of a string of our local leaders, including the huge Kapetan Athanasios Bourdzalis, who reappears later in these pages, and the arrival, in her mother’s arms, of a little god-daughter of mine. All this gave rise to a banquet and songs, this time with well-placed sentries, from which we rose for an all-night march north-east across half the width of the island and over the dangerous edge of the Messara plain; circling round garrisoned towns, and using the device, in unoccupied ones, of barking ‘Halt!’, “Marsch!’, or ‘Los!’ in the streets, and raucously singing ‘Bomber über England’, ‘Lili Marlene’ or the ‘Horstwessellied’, to spread ambiguity about the nature of our party.
At one point light rain filled the lowlands with flickering lights: hundreds of village women were out gathering snails brought out by the shower. Before dawn we reached the lofty village of Kastamonitza and the shelter of the family of Kimon Zographakis, who had been with us from the coast; a young man of great spirits and pluck and a former guide on commando raids. The generosity and warmth of all his family was doubly remarkable, as an elder brother had recently been captured and shot for his resistance work. We had to stay indoors by day, as there was a German hospital in the village: enemy voices and footsteps sounded below the windows. The upper chamber became a busy headquarters of sorting maps and gear, and sending and receiving runners; being hopelessly spoiled all the while by our hosts, and their sons and daughters.
High in the mountains above Kastamonitza, in a cyclopean cave among the crags and ilex woods, overlooking the whole plain of Kastelli Pediada, lived Siphoyannis, and old goat-herd and a true friend: the very place for the party to hide for a few days, while I went to Herakleion to spy out the land. I reinforced the party with two additions here, older than the rest, tough, robust, cheerful and unshakeable: Antoni Papaleonidas, originally from Asia Minor, who worked as a stevedore in Herakleion, and Grigori Chnarakis, a farmer from Thrapsano, just beneath us. (Both became god-brothers of mine later. Such a relationship – synteknos in Crete, koumbares in Greece – is important and binding. One becomes a synteknos by baptising, or by standing best man to, somebody’s son or daughter.) The year before, Grigori Chnarakis had saved, in spectacular fashion, two British airmen who had baled out of a burning bomber. (One of them, Flight Sergeant Jo Bradley, before he was evacuated, became my signaller for several months, after my former signaller, Apostolos Evanghelo or Leros, had been captured and executed by the enemy.)
The party – Billy, Manoli, George, Grigori and Antoni, with Kimon as liason with the village (and, by runner, with me in Herakleion) and with Siphojannis’s vigilence up in those goat-rocks, near a good spring and with a whole flock to eat – would be as secure as eagles. Everyone had taken to Billy at once, and he to them. He had abandoned his battledress with shoulder tapes for breeches and a black shirt, and the cover name of Dimitri.
Meanwhile another runner – they usually carried their messages in their boots or in their turbans – had brought Micky Akoumianakis hot foot from Herakleion. He was about my age, intelligent and well educated – none of the rest of the party were great penmen – and the head of our information network in Herakleion. By great luck, he lived next door to the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, just outside Herakleion; the large house, that is, built by Sir Arthur Evans for the excavation and restoration of the great Minoan site. Micky’s father, now dead, had been Sir Arthur’s overseer and henchman for many years. The villa was now the abode of General Kreipe.
My dress was readjusted by the family to look like a countryman’s visiting the big city: bleached moustache and eyebrows were darkened with burnt cork. Dye sometimes runs, striping one’s face like a zebra’s. There are many Cretans fairer than me, but the Germans looked at them askance and often asked for their papers, thinking they might be British, New Zealand or Australian stragglers disguised. My documents were made out to Mihali Phrangidakis, 27, cultivator, of Amari. We said goodbye and set off, boarding the ramshackle bus from Kastrelli; there were a few country people taking vegetables and poultry to market in Herakleion. The conductor was a friend. But my Greek, though fast and adequate, was capable of terrible give-away blunders, so I feigned sleep. The only other vehicles were German trucks, cars and motorcycles. We were stopped at one of the many road-blocks approaching Herakleion, and two Feldpolizei corporals asked for our papers. About dusk, we were safe in Mihali’s house in Knossos, peering out of the window with his sister.
The fence began a few yards away, and there, in its decorative jungle of trees and shrubs, with the German flag flying from the roof, stood the Villa. Formidable barbed wire surrounded it. (I had been inside it once, during the Battle of Crete, when it was an improvised hospital full of Allied – and German – wounded and dying.) We could see the striped barrier across the drive and the sentry boxes, where the steel-helmeted guard was being changed. Enemy traffic rumbled past, to Herakleion, three miles away. Due south rose the sharp crag of Mount Jouchtas; to the west and south soared the tremendous snow-capped massif of Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. North, beyond the dust of the city, lay the Aegean sea and the small island of Dia. East of the road, on the flank of a chalk-white valley, dotted with vines, the bulbous blood-red pillars descended, the great staircase of the Palace, and giant hewn ashlars, slotted for double-axes, of King Minos.
To avoid all excuse or pretext for reprisals on the Cretans, I was determined that the operations should be performed without bloodshed. The only thing was to waylay the General on his way home from his Divisional Headquarters at Ano Archanes, five miles away, and, to gain time, plant his beflagged car as a false scent.