The plan was beginning to take shape: Billy and I would stop the car, dressed up as Feldpolizei corporals. Sometimes, but seldom, there was a motorcycle escort; and sometimes, other cars would accompany him. All this, assuming that the ambush was a success, would land us with an unwieldy mob of prisoners, unless the attack could be launched or scrubbed in accordance with last-minute information. There was also the danger of stopping the wrong car.
The risk from passing traffic still remained, possibly of trucks full of troops. Here we would have to trust to improvisation, luck, speed and darkness, and, if the worst happened, diversion by a party of guerrillas – un-lethal bursts of fire, flares all over the place, shoutings, mule carts and logs suddenly blocking the road to create confusion and cover our getaway with our prize. Still with reprisals in mind, we would only shoot to hurt as a last resort. It was vital for us to get into the mountains and among friends, away from the enemy-infested plain, and in the right direction for escape by sea, at high speed.
Many gaps and problems remained. Sending letters back to our base to cheer up Billy and the rest of the party, I spent the next days inside Herakleion with Micky and Elias, and our other old helpers, shifting from one friendly house to another, exploring the streets and entrances and exits of the great walled town, between twilight and curfew. Vaguely, as yet, an unorthodox method of getaway was beginning to form. Between whiles, there were secret meetings, not directly connected with the operation, with the group who ran the resistance and the information network in the city – doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, headmasters, reserve officers, artisans, functionaries and students of either sex, shopkeepers and the clergy, including the Metropolitan Eugenius himself – and visits to other cellars, reached through hidden doors and secret passages, where a devoted team reduplicated the BBC news for hand to hand distribution. (Ownership of an ordinary wireless set was punished by death.)
After months in the mountains, there was something bracing about these descents into the lions’ den: the swastika flags everywhere, German conversation in one’s ears, and the constant rubbing shoulders with enemy soldiers in the streets. The outside of Gestapo headquarters, particularly, which had meant the doom of many friends, held a baleful fascination.
Back at Knossos, Micky and I were talking to some friends of his in a ‘safe’ house when three German sergeants lurched in, slightly tipsy from celebrating Easter. Wine was produced; and Micky explained away the English cigarettes (brought in by Billy) which he had offered them by mistake, as black market loot from the battle in the Dodecanese. A deluge of wine covered up this contretemps, followed by attempts, bearishly mimicked by our guests, to teach them to dance a Cretan pentozali, in which we all joined.
Before rejoining the others in the mountains, we were standing with a shepherd and his flock, having a last look at Point A, when a large car came slowly round the corner. There were triangular flags on either mudguard, one tin one striped red, white and black, the other field grey, framed in nickel and embroidered with the Wehrmacht eagle in gold wire. Inside, next to the chauffeur, unmistakable from the gold on his hat, the red tabs with the gold oak leaves, the many decorations and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross round his neck on a riband – sat the General himself: a broad pale face with a jutting chin and blue eyes. I waved. Looking rather surprised at so unaccustomed a gesture from a wayside shepherd, the General gravely raised a gloved hand in acknowledgement, and our eyes crossed. It was an odd moment and, we thought, as we watched the car disappearing, a good omen.
I got back to the hideout at last on 16 April, which was Orthodox Easter Sunday, the greatest feast of the Greek year. Everyone was in high spirits. There was a paschal lamb roasting whole, and a demijohn of wine, for us all to celebrate our reunion and Orthodox Easter with a feast, and singing and dancing. Scores of hard-boiled eggs dyed red were clashed together like conkers, with cries of ‘Christ is risen’ and ‘He is risen indeed’. Those left over were propped up in a row and shot down for pistol practice. When all of them were smashed, after every toast, pistol magazines were joyfully emptied into the air in honour of the Resurrection. Though all the canyons sent the echoes ricocheting into the distance, the noise was quite safe in this dizzy wilderness. Anyway, Cretans are always blazing away.
I was sorry nobody had a lyra – the light, three-stringed Cretan viol, or rather Rebeck, carved from beech and played on the knee with a semicircular bow – as George was an expert player. Siphoyannis had brought several neighbouring shepherds, however, and the dancing to our songs, underlined with clapping, was nimble, fast and elaborate.