From Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure
by Artemis Cooper
Xan Fielding and Paddy met in Yerakari, a large village celebrated for its cherries, which sits at the head of one of the two valleys of the Amari. This area was so green and fertile that British officers coming down from their harsh life in the mountains called it ‘Lotus Land’. It was not their first encounter. Both remembered that they had met several years before, probably in the summer of 1933, but in Yerakari they embarked on a friendship that was to last until Xan’s death in 1991. ‘Like Paddy,’ wrote Fielding in his war memoir, Hide and Seek, ‘I had tramped across Europe to reach Greece. Like him, I had been almost penniless during that long, arduous holiday – but there the similarity between our travels ended, for whereas I was often forced to sleep out of doors, in ditches, haystacks or on public benches, Paddy’s charm and resourcefulness had made him a welcome guest wherever he went.’
Sabotage remained a top priority for SOE, but it was constantly impeded by other demands on the time and energy of those on the ground. Days and nights were spent waiting for messengers, or the next wireless schedule, or parachute drops, usually postponed because of the weather. Moving the wireless sets in their suitcases involved back-breaking marches through the night. There were also marches to the coast to meet incoming craft, marches through the mountains to secret conferences, marches to gather information. The Cretan terrain is among the harshest in Europe, and distances on a map bear no relation to the ground that has to be covered. When asked how far it was from one place to another, a Cretan would reply by saying it was ‘ten cigarettes away’, or however many he thought would be smoked en route.
Inevitably there were also days of tedium when there was nothing to do but wait, for a message or a runner. But for someone like Paddy, who enjoyed singing and poetry, the Cretans provided a rich seam of distraction. He picked up a range of Cretan songs, and was always ready for a round of mantinades, improvised rhyming couplets that were taken up by one person after another in the circle. Many of the older shepherds could recite great chunks of the Erotokritos, a seventeenth-century romance in the Cretan dialect, the recitation of which could go on all night.
The Battle of El Alamein had turned the German advance into a retreat, and the Afrika Korps was now being hounded out of Cyrenaica. There were tales of bad discipline, failure to salute officers and drunkenness.
Tom Dunbabin, Xan and Paddy did all they could to prey on German fears and frustrations. They dropped leaflets in German, stamped with swastika-bearing eagles as if they had been made by disaffected German soldiers. Xan and Paddy also began a chalk-scrawling campaign, enlisting young Cretans to help. ‘Wir Wollen Nach Haus’ (we want to go home) and ‘Wo Ist Unsere Luftwaffe?’ (where is our airforce?) and ‘Scheisse Hitler’ (shit Hitler) were the most common scrawls, but Paddy also took advantage of the rumours that Communism was spreading through the sullen German ranks. Some slogans read ‘Heil Stalin!’ or ‘Heil Moskau!’ accompanied by a defiant hammer and sickle. The success of his graffiti could be judged by the arrest of German soldiers, and searches of their billets and incoming parcels.
Xan was always surprised by the high sartorial style that Paddy managed to maintain in the roughest conditions:
‘Though we all wore patched breeches, tattered coats and down-at-heel boots, on him these looked as frivolous as fancy-dress. His fair hair, eyebrows and moustache were dyed black, which only added to his carnivalesque appearance, and his conversation was as gay and witty as though we had just met each other … at some splendid ball in Paris or London. His frivolity was a salutory contrast to Tom’s natural gravity and my own temper … It was also a deceptive quality, for although it enhanced his patent imaginative powers, it concealed a mind as conscientious and thorough as it was fanciful.’
At dusk on 25 May, about ten people were sitting around the sheepfold when there came a warning. Three hundred Germans were heading towards them. This happened so often that it aroused no particular alarm, but Paddy told everyone to get packed up and reached for his rifle. It had been cleaned and oiled that morning, and he thought it was empty. He was unaware that some of the company ‘had been amusing themselves by doing Greek and British arms drill with my rifle, and practising loading and unloading’.
‘I drew the bolt backwards and forwards, easing the springs to see if it was working smoothly after being oiled (without realising it, I had put a round in the breech). I pressed the trigger and the round hit Yanni, who was sitting by the fire a little distance away doing his sariki, through the left hip … [the round] had passed twice through his leg before entering the body. There were six wounds in all. We bound them up, but it was no use, and he died about an hour later, shedding very little blood. He did not seem to suffer a great deal, and said some very kind words to me before he died that I shall never forget.’
They buried him at dawn under two ilex trees, about a quarter of a mile from the camp. Yanni had been one of Paddy’s closest Cretan friends, and ‘the best and hardest worker we have ever had here’.
Those who witnessed the scene knew it had been an accident. They tried to ease Paddy’s shock and distress by reminding him that similar things happened all too frequently among the Cretans, whose approach to gun safety was casual, to say the least. ‘Everyone was extremely decent to me about this horrible accident,’ he wrote, although his own remorse was not so easily assuaged. ‘No amount of writing about it will bring Yanni back to life, nor excuse my not examining the magazine before closing the bolt, and I am not going to attempt it.’