From Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure
by Artemis Cooper
Balasha was in her car listening to the radio when she heard the news that England had declared war on Germany, and in that moment she knew her time with Paddy was over. He did not want to leave her, but he was so keen to get back to London and join up that he started making arrangements at once. Her friends asked her why he was in such a hurry to go to war, could he not wait a week or two? Yet as Balasha wrote to him years later, she understood and made no attempt to hold him back: ‘your heart and soul were straining for it.’
With Henry Nevile, a friend who had been staying in Bucharest, Paddy made his way back to England by train, hoping to enlist in the Irish Guards. Being ‘of Irish descent’ was very much part of the romantic persona he had created for himself, and his desire to serve in the Irish Guards was a way of claiming that Irishness. What he really coveted, Paddy maintained, was the uniform, with its Star Saltire of St Patrick emblazoned on the cap badge and its buttons in groups of four. ‘I had read somewhere that the average life of an infantry officer in the First World War was eight weeks, and I had no reason to think that the odds would be much better in the Second. So I thought I might as well die in a nice uniform.’
On 14 November, Paddy was ordered to make his way to the Guards Depot in Caterham, and submit to a regime that came as a severe shock to his system. He was physically tough, but he now found himself in a place where his charm cut no ice and the pressure to conform was relentless: like going back to school, only more brutal.
The Intelligence Corps, on the other hand, were very interested in the fact that Paddy spoke French, German, Rumanian and Greek, and with the situation in the Balkans developing fast they offered him a commission. If he took it, he would be spared any more training at the Guards Depot, but he still clung to the hope of a commission in the Irish Guards.
He had an interview with the regiment’s commander. There was no opening for him in the Irish Guards at present, Lieutenant Colonel Versey told him: indeed, he might have to wait for months before the opportunity arose. Although most regiments at this time were desperate for young officers, Versey was in no hurry to commission this particular cadet: one of Paddy’s reports had described his progress as ‘below average’. The Intelligence Corps, on the other hand, were offering immediate employment and the opportunity to return to Greece.
The final, prophetic remarks on Paddy’s report were written by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Bingham: ‘Quite useless as a regimental officer,’ he wrote, ‘but in other capacities he will serve the army well.’
Monty Woodhouse was a Greek scholar with an austere cast of mind, who admitted that he was slow to appreciate Paddy’s qualities. ‘I first saw him on the platform at Glasgow, with an Irish Guards cap pulled so low over his eyes that he had to lean over backwards to look at you.’ The bone of contention between them was Greece. Woodhouse, who had a double first in Classics from Oxford and had studied in Athens, was an academic. Paddy, on the other hand, had lived among the Greeks, meeting Vlachs and Sarakatsans, soldiers, monks and shepherds. As Paddy put it, ‘This was always the real root of the friction, a constant jealous, unarmed struggle as to who had the greatest proprietary rights to Greece.’
At Gibraltar, they were transferred to the cruiser HMS Ajax, and went on to Alexandria. Then, on the final stretch to Athens, they stopped at Suda Bay in Crete to refuel. The ship would not leave for another three hours, so Paddy suggested to Woodhouse that they visit the island’s western capital, Chania. After a few rounds of coffee and sikoudia (a spirit made from mulberries) in the waterfront bars, they found it was getting late. A soldier of the Black Watch gave them a ride back to Suda in a truck full of oranges. Very drunk, he lost control of the truck and it overturned, sending an avalanche of oranges bouncing into the dust.
Woodhouse and the driver were unhurt but Paddy, who had been thrown out of the back with the oranges, was covered in blood from a gash to the head. Woodhouse was obliged to rejoin the ship without him, while Paddy was taken to a doctor in Halepa who insisted on his staying a night or two since the wound was serious.
This was Paddy’s first time among the Cretans, and he claimed an instant empathy: ‘They were like the Greeks, only more so.’