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Special Operations Executive (SOE) Crete produced its own written history at the end of World War II, and this has been so widely followed since then that it has become an orthodoxy. What this narrative neglects is the deliberate strategy, engineered by the Cretan section head, Major Jack Smith-Hughes, of isolating and undermining the strongest, best-organized, and most popular resistance organization in Crete, the National Liberation Front (EAM), in favor of the much less popular SOE-created, pro-Royalist organization, the National Organization of Crete (EOK). Only one SOE officer, Major Terence Bruce Mitford, questioned this policy—and this only after he attached himself as British Liaison Officer (BLO) to the armed wing of the National Liberation Front, the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS) in Western Crete in the final months of the occupation. This article argues that the SOE strategy ensured the inevitability of civil war in Crete following the end of the Nazi Occupation.

The strategic purpose of British Special Operations Executive (SOE), established on 22 July 1940, was—in Churchill's famous phrase—to "set Europe ablaze" (Beevor 1981, 12; Foot 1984, 30; Stafford 2000, 12). More formally, its task was "to coordinate sabotage, subversion and secret propaganda against the enemy overseas" (Wilkinson and Astley 1993, 75). However, the historiography of SOE makes it plain that the process of establishing and developing this secret organization was one of Byzantine complexity, and it was riddled with interdepartmental and interpersonal feuds of a Machiavellian nature (Sweet-Escott 1965; Beevor 1981; Wilkinson and Astley 1993; Foot 1984; Mackenzie 2000; Stafford 2000; Williams 2003; Bailey 2009, 2015).

The problem began with the three separate secret organizations which were the predecessors of SOE. These were: [End Page 125]

  1. (1). D (Destruction) Section of MI6, concerned with sabotage (including "moral sabotage") in enemy-occupied countries. This section recruited reliable British people in neutral countries facing occupation as an embryonic subversion and sabotage organization (Sweet-Escott 1965, 19–21; Mackenzie 2000, 4–5.

  2. (2). MI(R) (Military Intelligence: Research). This section was located in the War Office and was quite distinct from D Section. Its function was to orchestrate guerrilla warfare, as well as the training for it, and was staffed by soldiers (Sweet-Escott 1965, 28).

  3. (3). EH ("Electra House"). This section was technically part of the Foreign Office, although it involved the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was concerned with propaganda, including so-called black propaganda. It was subsumed subsequently under what became known as the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), a completely separate organization from SOE, and so plays no further part in our story (Mackenzie 2000, 5–7).

It can readily be seen, however, that the tasks of these three organizations were prone to overlap, and when SOE was eventually formed, the interests of sections (1) and (2) clashed frequently. Both D Section and MI(R) had assets in the Balkans at the start of the war, and these were eventually passed on to SOE, complete with internal contradictions, when it was formed. But apart from some minor sabotage, little of note was achieved (Sweet-Escott 1965, 64; Mackenzie 2000, 47), and the fact of the matter was that there were no British Intelligence agents between the Balkans and the English Channel in 1939 and 1940 (Sweet-Escott 1965, 39).

Thus, when established in 1940, SOE was "a fledgling organisation scarcely capable of setting fire to anything at all" (Bailey 2014a, 43), as well as one with extremely patchy intelligence-gathering facilities (Williams 2003, 4). And as William James Millar Mackenzie observes, "it was not then—it was never—a popular department elsewhere in the public service" (2000, xx). Its principle rival was the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) of the powerful Foreign Office. Its agents' tasks were to lie low, remain invisible and silent, and gather appropriate intelligence in overseas countries. SOE's brief to create and/or support clandestine resistance armies meant military irregulars not only making a lot of noise blowing things up and ambushing occupying forces to the peril of MI6 agents but also liaising with left-of-center organizations, which were often opposed to national governments recognized as legitimate by British foreign policy. The Foreign Office—and many Regular Army staff officers—therefore [End Page 126] viewed these upstart irregulars with distaste, labeling them as "toughs" and "thugs" (Ogden 2012, 313). Nevertheless, SOE became an important part of the British war effort with a complement of 13,000 operatives by 1945, with thousands of male and female agents working behind enemy lines, serviced by dedicated Royal Air Force and Royal Navy units (Stafford 2000, 238). Many of these agents were to meet grisly ends in Gestapo torture-chambers or concentration camps.

The political implications of such clandestine work in the Balkan theater were recognized explicitly from SOE's earliest days. A Middle East Headquarters Staff Paper of December 1941 reads:

It is well to make it initially clear that subversive activities, if they are to be effective, can only be built up upon sound political movements. The creation of a political background will therefore be the first objective of S.O.E. in implementing the forgoing directive.

(TNA HS3/155)

It is equally clear that this directive suggests that it is the task of SOE to decide what this "sound" political background was to be. However, SOE was soon to be surprised by the Byzantine politics of resistance movements in the Balkans. Historian and former SOE agent Basil Davidson put it succinctly:

Plenty of ordinary folk were ready to risk their lives, but only, as it soon transpired, if they were not risking them for king and conservatism. In these countries of bitter pre-war dictatorships, it further transpired, the self-sacrifice and vision required to begin an effective resistance, and then rally others to the same cause, were found only among radicals and revolutionaries.

Davidson's point can be grasped readily when it is realized that prewar Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia were all characterized by monarchies which were authoritarian, despotic, and reactionary—but which were not Fascist states like Germany and Italy.1 King Zog of Albania was a tribal chieftain who crowned himself king in 1927, established a military dictatorship that simply assassinated opponents, seized the country's gold for his own corrupt use, and effectively sold out Albanian economic resources to Mussolini's Italy (Bailey 2009). After a decade and more of chronic political coups and countercoups between republicans and monarchists, Greece's King George II prorogued the Greek parliament illegally in 1936 and installed the dictatorship of General Metaxas, who promptly suppressed trade unions, banned strikes, and attacked communists and socialists (Woodhouse 1968). The state of Yugoslavia had only come into existence at the end of World War I and comprised ethnic groups—Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim—continuously at loggerheads with each other (Williams 2003). Following violent clashes between these groups, King Alexander [End Page 127] dissolved the parliament in 1928 and instituted personal rule, a device which satisfied none of the disparate ethnic groups in his kingdom. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) had been banned in 1920, but Alexander instituted an aggressive persecution that drove it underground, where it regrouped under Josip Broz, more commonly known as Tito. Alexander was assassinated in Paris in 1934, but his direct personal rule was continued by the regent, his cousin Prince Paul. In each of these three countries, members of such banned communist parties, with their hard-won experience of underground organization, were prominent amongst the "radicals and revolutionaries" that Davidson believed could offer effective resistance.

There are several other points worth bearing in mind when considering SOE's operations in the Balkan countries of Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia. In a very English manner, SOE recruited its operatives through the so-called old boy network of public schools, elite regiments, and London clubs. Thus its members were largely drawn from the British upper class and bourgeoisie. That said, there was a distinct lack of personnel in this clique with experience of the Balkans. Further, any idea of setting up "secret Resistance armies" in occupied Europe was hopelessly unrealistic, as the nationals of these countries were in an acute state of shock following the Nazi blitzkrieg. And when the Balkans were overrun in Spring 1941, SOE did not have one wireless set operational in the region outside Athens (Williams 2003, 10–12). In Cairo, the chaos was labyrinthine:

Nobody who did not experience it can possibly imagine the atmosphere of jealousy, suspicion and intrigue which embittered the relations between the various secret and semi-secret departments in Cairo during that summer of 1941, or for that matter for the next two years.

On the island of Crete, the situation was quite distinct from elsewhere in the Balkans, including mainland Greece, for three reasons. First, MI(R) agent John Pendlebury had arrived back in Crete on 12 June 1940 with the cover of British Vice-Consul (Grundon 2007, 245). His prewar archaeological work and numerous expeditions on foot in the mountain areas of the island had given him both an unrivaled knowledge of the terrain and a formidable personal network amongst the local Kapetanioi. Pendlebury's mission was to prepare resistance groups which would operate from the mountains (Grundon 2007, 245). His personal charisma was such that he had soon established several such groups based on the three Kapetanioi, Antonis Grigorakis ("Satanas"), Manolis Bandouvas, and Georgios Petrakogiorgos, who were known to British Intelligence as "Pendlebury's Thugs" (Grundon 2007, 248–249). In a very real [End Page 128] sense, then, Crete was unique in the resistance game in the Balkans in that it had potential guerrilla bands in place before the Nazi Occupation. Further, the experience of six centuries of draconian foreign rule, first by Venetians (1205–1669), and then by the Ottomans (1669–1898), as well as the Cretans' numerous armed uprisings, had resulted in a martial society characterized by Patrick Leigh Fermor thus:

The habit of centuries . . . impelled resistance to the occupation at all costs. It also bequeathed lawless customs which now wreak havoc among the Cretans themselves. They are virtually weaned on powder and shot; every shepherd goes armed, and a worship of guns and great skill in handling them dominate the highlands.

(Leigh-Fermor 1983, 126, quoted in Damer, 1989, 4)

While the shepherds of the Cretan mountains might have been natural-born guerrillas, there were serious drawbacks to this situation. On the one hand, Pendlebury operated completely on his own, and his relationships with the Cretan Kapetanioi were personal; they were not shared by any other British Intelligence agents at the beginning of the war. On the other, neither Pendlebury nor the subsequent Cretan SOE controlled these Kapetanioi, who were not only literally a law unto themselves but also jealous of each other. This had grave implications for the Cretan resistance, as will be demonstrated. Finally, Pendlebury himself was caught and executed by the Germans during the Battle of Crete (Grundon 2007, 318).

The second complication in Crete following the German airborne invasion and eventual Allied surrender was the presence of more than a thousand British and Commonwealth soldiers, both evaders and escapers, on the run in the mountains following the Battle of Crete (Damer and Frazer 2006, 73). While the Cretan villagers rose magnificently to the challenge presented by caring for these men, the fact was that the Kapetanioi wanted them off the island as quickly as possible, as they were overstraining scarce supplies of food, and horrific reprisals were taken against locals who sheltered them. Consequently, the early preoccupation of SOE at the Middle East Headquarters (MEHQ) was concerned with evacuating these men. This situation did not exist anywhere else in the occupied Balkans.

The third factor which made the situation in Crete distinct was its relatively ease of access to Cairo by sea, either by surface craft or submarine. It was therefore easier to infiltrate and exfiltrate agents than in mainland Greece, Yugoslavia, or Albania—always provided there were vessels available.

Thus, even before the first SOE agent landed on Crete, the island presented a set of characteristics that made it unique as far as organizing guerrilla [End Page 129] resistance in the Balkans was concerned. There are two additional considerations that were faced by all SOE personnel in the Balkans, including Crete. First, they had to be prepared to work with a number of different resistance organizations. Second, the proposed guerrilla organization was not very well defined. Was it to be a guerrilla army? Or a guerrilla band? Or guerrilla bands? And who was to control these guerrilla formations? The MEHQ, the SOE officers on the ground, known as British Liaison Officers (BLOs), or the Kapetanioi themselves? The lack of clarity about these issues was to prove a formidable challenge to the SOE agents sent to Crete, as we shall see.

This article examines the operations of SOE in Crete in the light of these observations, providing a critical analysis of the historical orthodoxy about its involvement with the Cretan resistance. This orthodoxy is presented in a series of commentaries: Dolby (TNA HS8/428); Dunbabin (TNA HS5/724); Moss 1950; Fielding 1954; Beevor 1991; Kokonas 1992; Smith-Hughes 1992; Cooper 2012; Leigh Fermor 2014. Several more recent English-language accounts merely repeat this orthodoxy uncritically and present no new findings or analyses (Ogden 2012; Davis 2013; Stroud 2015). The key elements of the orthodox account of events are:

  • • a large-scale, unified Cretan resistance existed and was the best organized in Europe;

  • • SOE's organization of this resistance prevented the horrors of the Greek Civil War from breaking out in Crete;

  • • the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe was a significant military achievement;

  • • the German order-of-battle and logistic dispositions in Crete were known to MEHQ in detail; and

  • • several hundred Allied soldiers on the run following the Battle of Crete were evacuated by SOE.

Examples of this orthodoxy are contained in the following quotations. Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example, noted:

Wise guidance by the [resistance] Organization leaders, resolution and endurance among the guerrilla units, the bravery and the self-sacrificing ardour of all the Cretans and the fact that all political differences—which worked havoc in the rest of occupied Europe—were set aside for the duration of the emergency—all this resulted in what was, perhaps, the most successful, harmonious and effective resistance movement in Europe.

(John Murray Archive. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Archive Acc. 13338/380–384, 4) [End Page 130]

In March 1945, Jack Smith-Hughes claimed:

We can trustfully [sic] say that we went to Crete in 1941 and found it antimonarchist with practically no Communists, and that today, in spite of all that has happened on the mainland, there has been no wasteful civil war between the factions.

Furthermore, Nikos A. Kokonas observed that "the subsequent civil war of 1946 to 1949 which brought such disaster to mainland Greece, scarcely affected Crete at all" (Kokonas 1992, 21). In similar vein, Antony Beevor maintained that "Crete would be spared the worst ravages of the Greek civil War largely because EOK [National Organization of Crete] . . . succeeded in bringing together the various non-communist groups into a surprisingly effective alliance" (1991, 270). In fact, Beevor's summary of the intelligence work of the Inter-Services Liaison Department (ISLD) in Crete was as follows:

The bank of intelligence built up comprised the most comprehensive survey of enemy dispositions and communications in any part of Europe. If Allied Forces Headquarters had decided to invade Crete rather than Sicily in 1943, they could not have had a better basis for planning, nor a more willing resistance organisation to attack and disrupt the German communication system behind the lines.

A first point about this orthodoxy is that while it is true that 869 British and Commonwealth officers and men on the run made it to North Africa, not all were evacuated by SOE. Of these, 205 made it under their own steam shortly after the surrender following the Battle of Crete, usually by commandeering and repairing abandoned barges/landing-crafts, or liberating, as it were, Cretan fishing-boats. The rest were evacuated subsequently by SOE using British and Greek submarines and surface crafts, but the last of these men were not free until summer 1943, two full years after the Battle of Crete (Damer and Frazer 2006).

Two further points about the orthodoxy are that: (1) the sheer scale of German reprisals in Crete is consistently played down; and (2) the numerous Greek-language accounts of the Cretan resistance and the role of SOE are consistently ignored.2 In fact, what the orthodoxy actually provides is an account of SOE's operations in Crete rather than those of the Cretan resistance itself.

Despite the repeated claims of the orthodoxy, our argument is that SOE's aim had far more to do with political control than armed resistance. The consequences were that: (1) SOE's operations had little strategic military value; (2) SOE demonstrated an abiding ambivalence towards the whole question of guerrilla activity; and (3) there was a very long and bloody delay in liberation. [End Page 131] SOE was supposed to work with local resistance movements, and what follows is an outline of the strands of the potential Cretan resistance with which it might have worked.

The Cretan resistance movement: 1941–1942

The Cretans rose spontaneously and immediately against the German airborne invasion on 20 May 1941. However, the potential for organized resistance existed long before then. There were five aspects to this.

First, as we have seen, Cretan society was characterized by the presence of a collection of local Kapetanioi, leaders of armed bands formed on a local, clan basis. They were concentrated in the mountainous massifs of Lassithi in the east, Psiloritis and Kedros in the center, and the White Mountains in the west.

Second, when the German invasion took place, the vast majority of Cretan men of fighting age were away with the 5th Cretan Division chasing the invading Italians, the despised Makaronades, out of Epirus in Northwestern Greece and deep into Albania. But there were still 12,500 Greek men in military uniform in Crete. They were made up as follows (Kokonas 1989, 102–103): With the exception of the Gendarmerie, all these men had been transferred from the mainland when Operation Marita, the German invasion of Greece, commenced. The recruits were young National Servicemen who had not finished their basic training and who lacked adequate weapons to the extent that in some cases their rifles were of World War I vintage or earlier, while in the Kastelli sector, their ammunition amounted to 30 rounds each (Clark 1981, 78–79; Hill 2010, 205, 409). Those unsuitable for frontline duty were soldiers with wounds or frostbite from the fighting on the Albanian front.

Eight Battalions of New Recruits: 8,000
School of Gendarmerie Recruits: 1,000
Army Officer Cadets: 300
Battalion Unsuitable for Frontline Duties: 2,000
Gendarmerie: 1,200
TOTAL: 12,500

Third, Cretan women of all ages, old men, and young boys also fell upon the Germans spontaneously and with a terrible ferocity, their weapons being ancient rifles, kitchen knives, and agricultural implements, such as sickles and pitchforks. George Psychoundakis, who witnessed it, put it like this:

Out of the sky, the winged devils of Hitler were falling everywhere. The news soon spread to the farthest corner of the island. "German parachutists are dropping!" [End Page 132] the cry went round, and everyone—men and women, great and small—ran to the scene of action to attack the enemy, armed as they were, with guns that anyone would have sworn were taken from some museum.

Fourth, in Crete, there were in prominent positions a large number of Reserve or passed-over Greek Army officers, such as Andreas Papadakis, Emmanuel Mandakas, and Khristos Tsefakis, usually Venizelist Republicans embedded in an antimonarchist and anti-Metaxas culture that derived from the bitter conflicts of the interwar years between royalists and republicans.

Fifth, there were a number of communist prisoners on the island of Gavdos off the southwestern coast of Crete. Seven of these escaped, met up with other communist escapees from Folegandros and other islands, and set about organizing an island-wide resistance organization as early as June 1941 (Polioudakis 2002, 51; Janes 2013, 4–6). As Mackenzie says in his history of SOE:

But this grouping [EAM] well to the left of centre existed before the end of 1941, and it was linked on the one hand with the Communists, on the other with the energetic group of Republican officers who controlled Station 333.3 It was a native phenomenon, not conceived or instigated by SOE.

From this original, spontaneous outburst of resistance against the German airborne attack, various organizational aspects soon became apparent. In addition to the first point above, these included: (1) family and clan-based networks, like the Paterakis family in Koustoyerako and the Vandoulakis family in Vafes; (2) The National Liberation Front (EAM), along with its armed wing, the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS), which although established by members of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), was a broad front organization uniting liberal, republican, antimonarchist, and KKE elements in a manner distinctly more fluid and democratic than in mainland Greece; and (3) networks of Greek Army officers, including both those who had been in units fighting the Germans or Italians and those in the Reserve or passed over. Sometimes individuals could be members of all three groups, and certainly the Cretan organizations negotiated with each other from the very beginning, showing that the potential for united action was very strong. It is also to be remembered that all of these groups were collecting and storing abandoned or captured British and German weapons. In short, SOE was faced with an extremely complicated situation in Crete. [End Page 133]

SOE Crete: Organization and personnel

SOE Crete was an anomaly from the start. Its origins lie with a paranaval group based on three officers: Lieutenant-Commander Francis Pool and Lieutenants Mike Cumberledge and John Campbell. The latter two were highly skilled and professional naval officers who conducted systematic reconnaissance operations for evacuation and landing sites on the southern coast after the Battle of Crete on HMS Hedgehog and Escampador. Pool was sent to Crete at the end of July 1941 by MEHQ, which had learned from debriefing escaped personnel that there were substantial numbers of British and Commonwealth soldiers still stranded on the island.4 By the end of August 1941, Pool had evacuated guerrilla leader Kapetan Satanas, and some 200 soldiers, including Lieutenant Smith-Hughes, an escaped POW, from Crete to Cairo.

Smith-Hughes was a 22-year-old, overweight Royal Army Service Corps officer whose military experience was limited to running a field-bakery in Hania before the Battle of Crete (Fielding 1954, 23). But because of his experience on the island, and the fact that while on the run he had met Lt.-Col. Andreas Papadakis, the founder and leader of the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Crete (AEAK), he was recruited by SOE and seems to have become the acting head of the Cretan desk almost by default. What is important about Smith-Hughes was that he was an avowed monarchist and bitterly antileft. His end-of-the-war SOE Report—composed when he had become a Major—read:

Maj. SMITH-HUGHES is in every respect quite above the average officer of his age. He is intelligent, quick witted and industrious. He possesses a remarkable memory for facts and dates and his knowledge of CRETE and GREECE is great. He fails to attain what would be perfection by his deep, almost morbid hatred of anything tainted with left political views which leads him at times to commit errors in judgment.

(TNA HS9/760/1)

Smith-Hughes's political bias was to have profound implications for SOE's operational policy in Crete, as we shall demonstrate.

SOE's initial policy in Crete was to prepare for an Allied invasion and simultaneous armed uprising. This was made clear in a report as early as December 1941: [End Page 134]

14. CRETE.

S.O.E. Activities Recommended:

Concentration on preparations for an outbreak of guerrilla warfare combined with the formation of a Fifth Column in anticipation of our invasion. Preparations to be ready by middle of 1942.

(TNA HS3/155)

However, this invasion was more of a fantasy than a reality given the military situation in North Africa. In October 1941, Captain Smith-Hughes, a Greek speaker, was sent back to Crete in a British submarine along with Sergeant Ralph Stockbridge of the Intelligence Corps and ISLD, a covername for MI6 (Kokonas 1992, 33). Their mission was to ascertain the situation of the remaining British troops on the run on the island, as well as to contact and strengthen relations with the local leaders whom Pool had met earlier, with a view to assessing the potential of the resistance. SOE officer Captain Christopher Woodhouse then arrived in Crete in November 1941 on HMS Hedgehog with the specific task of evacuating as many of the remaining soldiers as possible from the beach at Treis Ekklesies (Damer and Frazer 2006, 125). Smith-Hughes managed that evacuation, packing the boat with a record 86 soldiers (Damer and Frazer 2006, 257–259). Subsequently, he and Woodhouse worked closely together on a follow-up mission, gathering more than 100 troops at the same beach. Despite three attempts to get them off, bad weather prevented the arrival of another boat or submarine, and the entire evacuation had to be aborted. This debacle set back SOE's operations on Crete badly; Woodhouse left in April 1942 very pessimistic about the future of SOE on the island (TNA HS5/678; Kokonas 1992, 41–42).

In February 1942, an SOE planning report entitled An Appreciation of Para-Military Activities to Support Operations for the Recapture of Crete estimated that beside the arms already hidden in Cretan hands, another 17,000 rifles would be needed to guarantee an effective uprising in conjunction with a British invasion (Kokonas 1992, 40). That constituted a total weight of 2,000 tons, and the carrying capacity available to SOE at that time was 20 tons a month. To supply this amount of arms was clearly beyond the resources then available to SOE.

Meanwhile, SOE officer Captain Xan Fielding had been sent to Crete in January 1942 after a briefing by Smith-Hughes and established himself in the western part of the island with a triple mission: to organize further evacuations of the stranded soldiers, liaise with the existing Cretan resistance groups, and to gather intelligence (Kokonas 1992, 36–37). Fielding had a cosmopolitan background and had joined the Cyprus Regiment as an Intelligence Officer [End Page 135] shortly after the outbreak of war, even though regimental soldiering was anathema to his bohemian disposition. He spoke French, German, and Greek, and this, along with his intelligence background, ensured his early recruitment into SOE. Even more important for future events on Crete, Fielding and Smith-Hughes were to become close friends. However, neither officer had any combat experience or training in irregular warfare.

Fielding based himself in the Apokoronas area. While he did report the existence of large numbers of British troops still on the island, his main task, as briefed by Smith-Hughes, was to contact Colonel Papadakis's AEAK organization, with a view to assessing its potential for effective resistance. Smith-Hughes had passed through Papadakis's hands after escaping from a POW pen following the Battle of Crete. Although this Cretan officer had an effective committee, which Fielding was eventually able to manipulate to good effect for intelligence-gathering purposes, the Colonel's overblown self-perception as the so-called Leader of the Cretan resistance was to cause the young SOE officer endless trouble until he managed eventually to evacuate Papadakis by convincing him and his family to leave Crete in order to escape capture by the Germans (Beevor 1991, 264; Kokonas 1992, 49).

But the biggest and best-organized resistance grouping in Western Crete was EAM/ELAS, led by General Emmanuel Mandakas, who was not a member of KKE, but a Venizelist republican officer with, in Cretan terms, left-wing sympathies. One of Fielding's own comrades-in-arms, SOE officer Patrick Leigh Fermor, provided this assessment of the local communists in his first report from Crete:

5. The Communists.

This is the only organisation that is an actual Pan-Cretan working concern. They have cells and representatives in all important villages, and a good idea of security. . . . The truth is that they are not red but pink, and in England would be known as Socialists or Left-Wing intellectuals.

(NLS. John Murray Archive. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Archive Acc. 13338/374).

Be that as it may, Fielding seems to have made no attempt to meet Mandakas during his first tour of duty in early 1942. It may be that he did not trust the latter; it may be that he was warned off contacting this leftist officer by Smith-Hughes. In either case, however, it does suggest a serious error in judgment on the part of a very young, relatively junior, and thoroughly inexperienced officer when it came to military matters.

Whatever the circumstances, Fielding and Mandakas did not meet at this time, a strange omission given that the General commanded the allegiance of [End Page 136] a large number of republican officers and men. In fact, throughout this period, the winter of 1941/1942, the main action involving both the men on the run and intelligence gathering took place in Central Crete. From his base in Vaphes, protected by the Vandoulakis clan, Fielding also decided in each locality in Western Crete "to appoint . . . a local guerrilla leader who would notify [him] of his potential strength and eventual requirements" (Fielding 1954, 63). It is to be noted that this 22-year-old officer was arrogating to himself the right to appoint a "local guerrilla leader." The fact that the various Cretan resistance groups might already have their own leaders, or might have wanted to appoint them themselves, seems to have eluded Fielding. The implication was that he was only going to appoint guerrilla leaders who would do what they were told by British MEHQ, represented by himself.

Fielding was joined in Crete in April 1942 by Captain Tom Dunbabin, who arrived with a second radio to relieve Woodhouse. Dunbabin had two tasks when he arrived: evacuating the remaining Allied soldiers in his area and restoring relations with the Kapetanioi, which had broken down earlier in the year. The first task was completed with two evacuations on 23 May and 6 June. Improving relations with resistance leaders also got off to a good start when Dunbabin had a conference with five of them on 27–28 May.5 Meanwhile, urgent meetings had been taking place in Cairo to work out an appropriate response to resistance leaders. This resulted in a firm statement from the Commanders-in-Chief that the situation in the Western Desert precluded any substantial help for resistance groups in the coming months (TNA HS5/678: Minutes of 23rd Meeting of the Commanders-in-Chief, Held on 25 June 1942).

The group that Dunbabin met on 27–28 May was made up primarily of the Kapetanioi. While they were the ones best prepared for military action, they were also the ones most likely to instigate it precipitately. While Dunbabin was prepared to support them with airdrops and other deliveries, they did not have pan-Cretan support, and he did not believe that they could provide the necessary leadership at that level. Furthermore, he was unable to control them totally, a situation he could not countenance. As he said: "Their fundamental weakness was their open war with authority."6 He had also come to believe that:

We need an organisation in the towns and villages. The era in which wanted men took to the hills with their rifles is past. With the forces of occupation at their present strength there is no prospect of a guerilla war such as BO-PEEP [Bandouvas] and SELFRIDGE [Petrakogiorgos] would have liked.

(TNA HS5/723)

In June 1942, Captain Patrick Leigh Fermor arrived with another radio, bringing the number of SOE officers in Crete to three (TNA HS5/728: Report [End Page 137] 1. Provinces of Canea and Retimo). But in North Africa, the British withdrawal to El Alamein meant that supplying the Cretan resistance had absolutely no priority, and the problem was compounded by a lack of boats. Shortly afterwards, in August, Fielding was evacuated and left while escorting Papadakis and his family (TNA HS5/725; Harokopos 1993, 157–185).

Meanwhile, Dunbabin had been contacting resistance leaders in Central Crete and convened a meeting on 2 October to discuss the formation of a new organization. Those attending were a combination of army officers—Major Evangelos Khairetes, Major Antonios Betinakes, Lt. Apostolos Katekhakes, 2/Lt. Evangelos Psaltakes—and professionals working in Heraklion, such as Aristeides and Konstantine Kastrinogiannes and Professor Emmanuel Katsoules (TNA HS5/723; Kokonas 1992, 50; Smith-Hughes 1992, 160–161). The organization became known as the National Organization of Crete (Ethniki Organosis Kritis, or EOK) (Kokonas 1992, 50). Smith-Hughes argues in his history of SOE in Crete that EOK was a much-needed counter to forces on the left (KKE/EAM/ELAS), without providing any reason why such a counter was necessary (Smith-Hughes 1992, 161). Beevor takes a similar view, although he completely overlooks the Heraklion origins of EOK, suggesting that it originated in the west among elements of AEAK (1991, 246, 270). In our view, the formation of EOK was an extremely divisive move, driven by political rather than military motives, rupturing the resistance movement irrevocably. It deliberately ignored the existence of the well-organized EAM/ELAS. Fielding had his first meeting with Mandakas in December 1942 after he returned to Crete. It did not go well, with suspicion on both sides, and no attempt was made to foster an ongoing relationship with EAM, which by then was gathering strength in Western Crete.

A summary of SOE's position in Crete in 1942 thus indicates that it was ineffective to a degree in terms of orchestrating the resistance. The reasons were:

  • • it was hopelessly undermanned, as it had only a few, young, inexperienced officers on the island feeling their way;

  • • communications were poor, as the radios were out of action much of the time;

  • • there was a shortage of boats to continue contact with Egypt by sea, and the few that were available were small and slow, effectively useless in winter;

  • • it had failed to evacuate the remaining soldiers on the run; [End Page 138]

  • • it failed to deliver arms and ammunition in any realistic quantity to the resistance; and

  • • it failed to develop enduring relationships with existing resistance leaders, including Mandakas and the Kapetanioi.

On the plus side, SOE proved its worth in gathering intelligence for MEHQ, and it did establish EOK, even if it was an unrepresentative paper organization.

In February 1943, Dunbabin left Crete and took with him to Cairo two of the founding members of EOK, Apostolos Katekhakes and Aristeides Kastrinogiannes, both of them civilians. In March, together with Smith-Hughes, the small party visited the Greek Prime Minister, Mr. Emmanuel Tsouderos, and obtained official recognition for EOK from the Greek Government (TNA HS5/723; Kokonas 1992, 57). This was a coup for Smith-Hughes, as it gave EOK a legality that no other resistance organization in Crete possessed. From this time onwards, it also sharply differentiated SOE in Crete from SOE in mainland Greece:

In Crete, unlike the mainland of Greece, S.O.E. selected their contacts not so much by virtue of their activity against the Axis as by virtue of their acceptability to H.E. the King of the Hellenes and M. Tsouderos [the Greek Prime Minister].

(TNA HS5/418: EOK Organization in Crete)

SOE Crete adopted this policy knowing full well that Crete was largely republican and antimonarchist.

SOE expansion in Crete: 1943

The year of 1943 saw a distinct acceleration of the tempo of SOE's activities in Crete. This was due to the Joint Planning Staff's Directive for the organization, which had four main planks. First, guerrilla activities should be aimed at diverting German forces from the eastern front. Second, it should intensify German's manpower shortage by increasing her internal security problems in occupied territories. Third, there was to be an increase in guerrilla activity and sabotage in Greece to create a diversion from the impending attack in the Central Mediterranean. Fourth, there was also to be an effort to build up the Greek king and his government—while also avoiding the growth of antimonarchical elements in Greece. And the BBC was instructed accordingly:

Full prominence will be given to the work of the King and his government on behalf of Greece. It will be emphasised that in the eyes of Great Britain and the [End Page 139] world, the King is now the embodiment of the independence and future liberation of Greece. There will be no mention of past dissensions in Greece.

(TNA CAB119/43: Directive for 1943)

This last instruction must have been music to Smith-Hughes's ears.

However, the efficacy of the Joint Planning Staff's strategy can be judged by the fact that in early 1943, the German garrison in Crete was increased to 45,000, and the Italian to 32,000 (Beevor 1991, 271). That is, there was one enemy soldier for every five Cretan civilians. Large-scale guerrilla operations were self-evidently impossible in the face of such numbers. Even small-scale operations faced the risk of heavy reprisals. This did not stop SOE support for resistance forces, which continued in an uneven way, with generosity being provided to favored groups, like EOK, while it was denied to others, such as EAM.

In Central and Eastern Crete, the leading figure in the summer of 1943 was one of Pendlebury's Kapetanioi, Manolis Bandouvas. Leigh Fermor visited his HQ in the Lasithi Mountains and was enthusiastic in his support for him. There were around 80 followers in his band, and 3,000 more available at short notice (Kokonas 1992, 66). Leigh Fermor arranged an arms drop while he was there and strongly recommended further support after he left (Leigh Fermor 2014, 141–144).

Shortly after this event, the armistice in Italy was announced (8 September 1943), and for a brief period the occupation of Lasithi, which up until then had been under Italian forces, was in question. Dunbabin had arrived back in Crete by this time, but neither he nor Leigh Fermor were consulted when Bandouvas decided to attack the enemy. Three Germans were killed at Kato Syme, two small garrisons at Viannos eliminated, and an Italian outpost was disarmed (Kokonas 1992, 67–68). Bandouvas then tried to order a general mobilization in Heraklion, but this was immediately countermanded by Dunbabin. This was followed by the ambush and destruction of a German detachment at Kato Syme with 113 killed, 71 wounded, and 13 taken prisoners. The German response was swift and uncompromising. A large force, up to 2,000 strong, stormed through the districts of Viannos and Hierapetra, destroying seven villages and killing more than 500 inhabitants. Bandouvas was forced to leave Crete soon afterwards, in disgrace both with SOE and a large part of Eastern Crete (Dunbabin [TNA HS5/724]; Kokonas 1992, 67–71; Gerontis 2008). Following this disaster, Dunbabin moved quickly to reassure other resistance leaders. SOE support would continue, but restraint would be advised. British defeat in the Dodocanese destroyed all hope of benefit from the Italian armistice, as well as an Allied invasion of Crete. [End Page 140]

In Western Crete, there was also a major increase in guerrilla activity over this period. This began when Fielding, closely pursued by the enemy, was forced to move his headquarters to the district of Selino in the southwestern corner of the White Mountains. The main purpose of this move was for Fielding to arrange the evacuation of the last group of soldiers on the run, and also to establish a safe wireless station. He was still on his own, in charge of a vast area, but in July 1943, Sergeant Dudley "Kiwi" Perkins was landed to assist him (Fielding 1954, 175–176). Perkins was to prove a natural and formidable leader of the local guerrilla band, which included the legendary Paterakis brothers. But here, too, there were to be heavy reprisals for guerrilla activity, as well as the destruction of three mountain villages, Koustoyerako, Moni, and Livathas. There was also one major difference from what happened in Eastern Crete: the local guerrilla forces fought back and for six months held off much larger and better equipped detachments of Germans trying to gain control of the mountains. SOE could have taken advantage of this success but for some inexplicable bungling, which cost the lives of British and Cretan personnel, along with the abandonment of their outpost in Selino for several months.

Fielding's political position soon became clear. As Mandakas had moved his headquarters to this area, Fielding met the local ELAS leaders—but not the General himself—and not surprisingly, they asked for arms. But, Fielding said, they "refused to accept my suggestions as to how they should be distributed and used. Naturally, I could not acquiesce to their wishes" (Fielding 1954, 179). However, the Greeks manning the nearby ISLD wireless station were EAM/ ELAS supporters and put their radio set at the disposal of Mandakas, who contacted Greek Army Headquarters in the Middle East, claiming that he commanded a 12,000–strong guerrilla army. This claim was reported in the international press, thus embarrassing Fielding enormously and hindering his strategy of bolstering EOK.7 Further, Mandakas accused Fielding of interfering in the internal political affairs of Greece by refusing to supply arms to ELAS, an accusation which, while true, caused Fielding intense humiliation (TNA HS5/669; Beevor 1991, 283).

The local guerrilla band had been charged initially with protecting Fielding's base and the wireless station, but he now also promoted it to offensive operations, thus attracting more recruits. This was to have dire consequences for the three villages in the area, Koustoyerako, Moni, and Livadas, as we shall see. And the suspicion must be that Fielding's change of direction with this band was to aim it eventually at ELAS in the region. Certainly, Fielding was quick off his mark to arrange for arms and ammunition to be dropped for it on three separate occasions (Fielding 1954, 190). He was well aware that there [End Page 141] was a danger of it "going into action prematurely," but he also thought the risk "was worth taking in view of the general war situation, which might . . ., [he] hoped, at any moment demand an armed uprising in Crete" (Fielding 1954, 191). Fielding was plainly out of touch with MEHQ strategy, as well as its lack of interest in Crete.

At the same time as Fielding was in trouble over the selective distribution of arms, he was in even greater trouble over the choice of military commander for Hania. On the left, it was assumed that the most senior, most experienced, and most popular leader, General Mandakas, would be the obvious choice. Fielding taunted them by deliberately delaying the decision, considering three candidates, and then naming as his choice the weakest and most ineffectual of them, Major Emmanuel Nikoloudes (Kokonas 1992, 63). Shortly afterwards, Fielding met the ELAS Colonel Gregorios Kondekakis, who protested strongly against the decision. He insisted that if Fielding "did not recognise Mandakas as the official leader of the Cretan resistance, then EAM would not recognise him as the local representative of MEHQ." Fielding says they both lost their tempers, and he said to the Colonel, "You'll have to recognise whomever I appoint as a leader—even if it's only a donkey" (Fielding 1954, 179).

Not only did this demonstrate Fielding's arrogance to a man nearly three times his age and an experienced soldier of a superior rank, but also his real attitude towards EAM/ELAS. In his memoir, Fielding tries to dismiss the remark as "a purely figurative phrase" (Fielding 1954, 179), but the damage had been done. Not surprisingly, it infuriated EAM/ELAS members, making Fielding's position in Western Crete precarious.

In the meantime, the Germans made their hand clear. Infuriated by the activities of the Selino band over the summer of 1943, a large force of Germans surrounded Koustoyerako on 1 October and herded all the women and children into the square, the men sleeping as usual in the mountains. Just as the German machine-gunner was about to mow down the women and children, he was shot dead by Kostas Paterakis perched on the top of a crag 400 meters away overlooking the village. The local men with Paterakis killed several more Germans, and the rest fled (Beevor 1991, 295; Damer 2004). Knowing what would ensue, the women and children took off into the mountains with what supplies they could carry. On 3 October, the Germans dive-bombed Koustoyerako, Moni, and Livadas to rubble, burned what remained to the ground, stole all the livestock, and attacked the andartes (guerrillas, partisans) in force persistently until mid-October. However, in a demonstration of classic guerrilla warfare, the Germans were repulsed with heavy casualties, while the andartes took very few casualties. As winter set in and snow fell, Perkins organized airdrops of [End Page 142] tents and supplies for the homeless villagers, thus ensuring the immortality of his name in the region. And over the rest of that winter, Perkins and his band successfully defended themselves against enemy incursions by a specialist unit made up of mountain troops (TNA HS5/730: S/Sgt D.C. Perkins. Report 2, 26 October–19 December 1943; Elliott 1987, 114–117).

There are two points to be made about this action in Selino. First, whatever MEHQ might have had in mind in terms of strategy in Crete, Fielding clung to his "hope" for "an armed uprising," linked to the bands of Kapetanioi in Central and Eastern Crete. In this delusion, he must have had at least the tacit support of Smith-Hughes in Cairo; he certainly did not have the support of MEHQ, which was trying to dampen expectations of imminent military action in Crete. Consequently, Fielding must bear some responsibility for the destruction of the three Selino villages and the privations of their inhabitants. The Selino band of andartes was entirely a local initiative on his part.

Second, in spite of attempts to suggest that the Selino band was made up entirely of EOK supporters, the fact was that while they were closer to EOK than EAM, they were really an independent group (Sanoudakis 1988). Furthermore, in the fighting which took place after the destruction of the three villages, the English-language sources suggest that it was conducted by only about 12 partisans led by the Paterakis brothers (Elliott 1987, 110–111; Beevor 1991, 295–96). However, Greek sources, which are much more extensive and detailed, make it clear that there was active involvement of some 40 men from the three villages, and also from Ayia Roumeli in Sfakia. This group included both EOK and EAM supporters, and also the three Greek soldiers from the ISLD wireless post at Asfendilapo, led by Lieutenant Manolis Pimplis (Vlontakis 1976; Varthinoyiannis 1988; Konchylaki 1993; Paterakis 1996). This suggests a degree of cooperation between the local Cretan political right and left, which is denied by the English-language sources.

While this fighting was going on, Fielding was absent, having gone to consult Dunbabin. But his main EOK Intelligence operative in Hania, Captain Markos Spanoudakis, set up an important clandestine meeting between EOK and EAM near Theriso on 7 November, when an agreement on a program of immediate and postwar cooperation was reached, and a committee of three representatives from each party was set up under the chair of Mandakas (NLS. John Murray Archive. Alexander Wallace Fielding Collection. Acc. 13327/1; TNA HS5/726; Beevor 1991, 299). Fielding managed to attend this meeting after a forced march from Asi Gonia, but he was exhausted and by his own account slept through most of it (Beevor 1991, 299; Fielding 1993, 214). [End Page 143]

Notices were circulated informing the Cretan public of this agreement (Vlontakis 1976, 88). Beevor claims that the purpose of this meeting was to serve as proof of the persistent attempts of the SOE officers in Crete to "prevent civil war" (1991, 299). But there is no evidence whatsoever that EOK and EAM were at each other's throats at this time; EOK was largely still a paper organization, if well organized under Tzefakis in the Rethimnon area, and with a small intelligence-gathering presence in Hania under Spanoudakis. It is more plausible that the latter realized that the large, well-organized EAM/ ELAS could not be boxed out of the military action, and there had to be some form of cooperation if Fielding's plan for an armed uprising was to be sustained. The plausibility of this can be gauged by the fact that shortly after the meeting, Nikos Skoulas, the leader of the EOK delegation, wrote to Fielding, asking him for his views on the agreement. Fielding's reply was that: "regarding the military cooperation I cannot exclude the EAM members, provided they cooperate militarily" (Vlontakis 1976, 88). The implication is that Fielding had a goal beyond mere military matters. Given his considerable efforts to keep EAM/ELAS out of the action, Fielding could not have been pleased with this agreement brokered by his Cretan EOK ally.

In September, SOE Cairo had decided it was vital to increase the number of SOE officers in Crete (Fielding 1954, 209). Two or three men were plainly insufficient given the mountainous terrain and the unreliability of the wireless sets with their heavy charging engines. Captain Sandy Rendel was landed on 23 September to replace Leigh Fermor in Eastern Crete, who had orchestrated the clandestine evacuation of the Italian General Carta, leaving on the same boat. At the end of October, Captain Dick Barnes and Company-Sergeant-Major William Knox were landed. Barnes was destined for Rethimnon prefecture, while Knox was to replace Perkins. Captain Dennis Ciclitira, previously a staff officer at the Cretan desk of SOE, was landed on 20 December to replace Fielding in Western Crete. But these exchanges were botched. Barnes and Knox were landed in the far east of the island and had a three-week trek overland before meeting Fielding in Apokoronas. Further, Fielding did not like Ciclitira, and given that Perkins was both highly efficient and perceived by the local Cretans as their leader, Fielding seems to have persuaded the NCO to stay on, saying, "I felt confident that so long as Kiwi was present, Dennis's mission in Crete would succeed" (Fielding 1954, 221). But Kiwi Perkins was an NCO and Ciclitira a commissioned officer, which complicated matters. [End Page 144]

SOE versus EAM/ELAS: 1944

The year of 1944 started well for the Cretan Resistance, when ELAS wiped out eight members of the feared Schubert antiguerrilla unit near Meskla; this German unit was disbanded shortly afterwards (Kokonas 1992, 76). Towards the end of the previous year, Fielding had moved his HQ to Kaloyero on the coast with the onset of the winter snows, and then left on 20 January, when Lieutenant G.G.A. Barkham was landed. Shortly afterwards, an increase in German activity intimated that they had got wind of the new camp. But Ciclitira was unhappy with the security of the camp and ordered all personnel, about 40 strong, out on patrol. As he said: "This order was taken with rather bad grace, but off they went" (TNA HS5/722: Report on Crete by Capt. D.J. Ciclitira, Dec 43–Feb 44). Ciclitira's unease was justified, for the next morning they received warning of an approaching German patrol. Perkins, with the aid of Vasilis Paterakis, laid an ambush. The fighting lasted all day, resulting in six German dead and another fifteen wounded, while only one andarte was injured. What is surprising is that late in the morning, during a lull in the battle, Ciclitira decided to remove himself from the Selino area to Apokoronas (TNA HS5/722: Report on Crete by Capt. D.J. Ciclitira, Dec 43–Feb 44; Final Report by Major D.J. Ciclitira). On the face of it, this seems a completely incomprehensible action. Beevor suggests that there was a "clash of wills" between Perkins and Ciclitira, with the former refusing to leave the island (Beevor 1991, 300). It is evident that Ciclitira simply did not have Perkins's experience in guerrilla warfare, his leadership qualities, or his detailed knowledge of the local terrain.8

In any event, some two weeks after fleeing from Kaloyero, Ciclitira sent a message to Perkins and Barkham ordering them to come for a meeting with him near Kyriakoselia and to bring a radio set with them. Barkham did not feel up to this and left the task to Perkins. On the way, Perkins was killed on 25 February in a German ambush at Stefanoporo.9 Then, on 23 March, Knox was killed in a German raid (Kokonas 1992, 79). In both cases, there has been talk of betrayal by locals, although this has never been proven (TNA HS5/722: Reports by Capt. G.G.A. Barkham and Major D.J. Ciclitira; Elliott 1987, 153–54;). One critical issue seems to have been that the locals had had enough of the operations of the Selino band and were worried that their villages would suffer the fate of Koustoyerako, Livadas, and Moni, as the Germans had now established a series of outposts stretching from Souyia up to the Omalos, effectively containing the rebel area. The Germans had also taken 500 locals as hostages (Elliott 1987, 147–148). [End Page 145]

Whatever the precise reasons for the deaths of Perkins and Knox, they were a blow to SOE in the area, and they were avoidable. These two NCOs could have hidden indefinitely in the Selino mountains; in fact, Perkins had said that he could hold out until the end of the war provided he was supplied by parachute drops (Elliott 1987, 160). Ciclitira should have left Perkins on his own. His death meant the end of the Selino band in the formation he had led. Right/ left political splits soon appeared, as did ugly accusations of pilfering stores and gold sovereigns. The band effectively became an independent unit under the command of Vasilis Paterakis but aligned with EOK. The whole guerrilla movement in Selino was Fielding's creation and not part of a larger MEHQ strategy. Fielding left Perkins to get on with it, and Ciclitira was not prepared to accept that. The upshot was that Selino was now abandoned by SOE.

These events highlighted unresolved issues around the whole question of guerrilla policy in Crete. The Afrika Korps had been beaten and surrendered in North Africa. Sicily had been invaded and captured. The Allied armies were fighting their way north through mainland Italy. Crete was now of no strategic importance whatsoever. However, it still had a large German garrison augmented by those Italian units that had elected to fight on. SOE's job was to keep the lid on the simmering pot. But this presented a major problem, as EAM/ELAS in Crete was growing in strength daily.

The November 1943 agreement regarding cooperation between EOK and EAM did not last long, but for a short while there was a unified command. However, the Greek government-in-exile now intervened. It sent Group-Captain Emmanuel Kelaïdes to Crete with the task of creating unity amongst the different resistance groups (Kokonas 1992, 81, 105). He convened a couple of pan-Cretan EOK meetings, and then proposed a meeting with EAM, with a view to creating a joint command. EAM refused to join, arguing that such an action would give recognition to the Greek government-in-exile and the king. However, efforts to bring the resistance groups together continued. Simultaneously, the Greek government made concessions, such as a guarantee of free elections after the war, in an attempt to neutralize the widespread opposition to the monarchy. And in a decision which was to have consequences for Fielding, it declared at the Lebanon Conference on 20 May 1944 that all resistance groups were to be considered members of the regular Greek armed forces.

On 15 June 1944, SOE in Cairo produced a plan which reasserted the main objective of "harassing and subverting the enemy garrison in CRETE by every means at the disposal of Force 133." It continues: [End Page 146]

After the failure of the LEBANON Conference to induce EAM to take an active part in the reorganised GREEK Government, it appears improbable that HMG's future policy will be sympathetic to giving EAM any large measure of material or financial support. It is generally agreed that the organisation of EAM in Crete as elsewhere is superior to that of any other organisation and that is more likely to mis-appropriate for political purposes the support given to it by the Allies.

(TNA HS5/681: Appreciation and Plan for Crete, June 1944)

However, as has been demonstrated, the "Allies"—meaning the British—gave very little if any support to EAM/ELAS in Crete. Smith-Hughes himself said of this period:

We resolutely stuck to our policy of never giving a single sovereign to EAM; we had, for the sake of appearance, to give them a little material from time to time, but it was only a fragment of what we gave to those whom we knew we could trust, the leaders of EOK.

Be this as it may, it is incredible that SOE did not consider attaching a BLO to EAM/ELAS, given its own admission of it as a "superior" organization, if only to establish how it achieved this superiority.

Rather surprisingly, this plan also noted that "the total number of guerrillas which could be raised if need be is approximately 20,000" (TNA HS5/681: Appreciation and Plan for Crete, June 1944). Given SOE's abandonment of any notion of an armed insurrection in Crete, it is hard to see what that need might be. But a note of reality is introduced later in the same plan, when it is stated that there are "some 400 non-party guerrillas in the mountains of Crete who have been equipped by us and who are primarily interested in ridding CRETE of the GERMANS" (TNA HS5/681: Appreciation and Plan for Crete, June 1944).

In other words, the outcome of all SOE's work with the Cretan resistance was a mere 400 supposedly reliable guerrillas. But whether intentional or not, the plan ratified Smith-Hughes's policy of denying all support to EAM—and even made it explicit:

The general conclusion is that in order to achieve our object without risking given [sic] EAM the means whereby they could gain mastery over all other organizations on the island, we should concentrate on establishing missions in each of the three target areas, and rely upon the existing bands of non-party guerrillas to protect our Missions and provide them with such support as they require to carry out their tasks.

(TNA HS5/681: Appreciation and Plan for Crete, June 1944)

SOE now flooded Crete with BLOs, with the function of the small, "nonparty," that is, non-EOK-affiliated, guerrilla groups being to protect their bases. [End Page 147] Given that there were now no specific military targets in Crete, SOE's political role was explicit: to control and contain ELAS. The role of these BLOs was thus to monitor ELAS.

Meanwhile, there had been important shifts in SOE personnel. On his return to Cairo in early 1944, Fielding faced a couple of bitter realities. First, the Greek government-in-exile had no intention of keeping its promise to recognize all resistance groups as members of the regular Greek armed forces. It had not the slightest intention of recognizing ELAS. This put Fielding in an impossible position, as under SOE instructions he had broadcast this deceit throughout his area. Second, he also quickly realized the second front would open in Western Europe and not in the Balkans. As he said himself:

This was a bitter disappointment after the dreams I had cherished of a glorious internal uprising supported by a British invasion, for which every patriot in the island was still preparing; and though I never for a moment questioned the wisdom of this official decision, I could not help feeling that because of it our efforts in Crete, humble though they were, had all been in vain.

Another consideration which Fielding does not mention is that his life might well have been in danger back in Crete given the numerous subterfuges in which he had been involved on behalf of SOE.

On top of this, his friend, Smith-Hughes, resigned from the Crete desk of SOE on 12 April 1944 over plans to amalgamate the Cretan section with the mainland Greek section. Although he had persistently argued that the Cretan situation was different from that on the mainland, it is also true that he would have lost the very considerable independence in policy-making which he had assiduously built up. This resignation must have affected Fielding, who now volunteered for the French section of SOE (Fielding 1954, 223).

The most celebrated event of 1944 was, of course, the kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss on 26 April, along with his successful evacuation to Cairo on 14 May. As there is now a substantial literature, albeit of a hagiographic nature, on this operation, it is not our intention to rehearse the events here. But two points about the orthodoxy will be made.

First of all, it is claimed that Patrick Leigh Fermor went out of his way to avoid German reprisals against Cretan civilians as a result of this operation, a claim he himself makes (Leigh Fermor 2014, 23). By and large, this was true, but as Beevor admits, the large village of Anoyia was burned to the ground with the loss of 45 lives locally, with German General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller specifically citing the Kreipe kidnapping as a reason (1991, 316). Second, again [End Page 148] as Beevor admits, the kidnapping had no strategic value whatsoever (1991, 311), a view shared by Bailey, who wrote the Foreword to Leigh Fermor's own published account of the event (Bailey 2014b, xxviii). It did nothing to advance the war effort, and while it might have temporarily lifted Cretan morale, Kreipe appears not to have been missed by the Germans—and had little if anything of intelligence value to reveal to his captors. In actual fact, the whole operation was opposed by Lt.-Colonel Bickham Sweet-Escott, an SOE staff officer in Cairo:

I was asked whether I thought we should let this operation go ahead. I made myself exceedingly unpopular by recommending as strongly as I could that we should not. I thought that if it succeeded, the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but that the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives.

However, a much more important anomaly in the accounts of this kidnapping appears. Both Moss and Leigh Fermor claim that shortly before the actual operation, they received a letter from the local ELAS detachment asking if they were crazy and threatening to betray them to the Germans if the operation went ahead (Moss 1950, 85–87; Moss 2001, 88–89; Leigh Fermor 2014, 25). The inference is that it was a group of dastardly communists who were about to betray them, and Moss actually says the letter came from the "Arkhanais headquarters of the E.L.A.S. (Communist) Party" (1950, 86). But Greek commentators tell a different story. They all say that the letter came from Ilias Athanassakis of EOK in Heraklion, and that Leigh Fermor was actually visited by one of their leaders, Dr. Menelaos Lignos, who pleaded with him to abandon the operation for fear of drastic reprisals (Kavvos 1991, 455–456; Konchylakis 1993, 172; Polioudakis 2002, 234–235; Harokopos 2008, 125). If the Greek writers are to be believed, and we see no reason why not, then Moss and Leigh Fermor must be telling a deliberate lie, with the intention of smearing ELAS. Kreipe himself called his kidnap a "Hussar stunt" (Leigh Fermor 2014, xviii–xix). (In a more contemporary lexicon, Leigh Fermor and Moss would be called cowboys.)

In August 1944, Major Terence Bruce Mitford was landed in Crete along with the returning Major Dick Barnes and a newcomer, Lieutenant Stephen Verney (Kokonas 1992, 185). Mitford's infiltration was to prove interesting, as we shall see. A Greek-speaker, he had much experience in irregular warfare, starting in September 1940, when he and Jack Hamson were sent by D Section to assist John Pendlebury in a program of training for postoccupation sabotage and demolition in Crete. They trained Greek saboteurs on Souda Island [End Page 149] (Grundon 2007, 254). Mitford subsequently served with a unit of Kalpaks in Iraq, and with the Special Boat Service (SBS) in Sicily and the Dodecanese before arriving in Crete (Tasselli 2002). He was initially involved in training EOK andartes in heavy weapons (Psychoundakis 1978, 286).

An interesting overview of SOE's operations in Crete is contained in the detailed Report of Major Bill Royce of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) of 1 December 1944 (TNA HS5/684: Major M.W. Royce OSS, "Operations in Crete," 12 December 1944). OSS had become involved in Crete in association with SOE from early June, and while the Americans worked in close cooperation with Dunbabin and his BLOs, they were not under direct British command. Royce's Report made some illuminating points. About the Cretan guerrillas, he said:

THE ANDARTES (GUERRILLAS): As fighting troops their effectiveness was reduced to a minimum by lack of training and discipline, lack of arms and other equipment, and by their incompetent leaders. . . . In general, discipline was limited to a decided loyalty to their leader, and willingness to undergo privations (hunger and cold) for a period of time. There were few other signs of army discipline, and the men could not be relied upon to follow orders as a unit or carry out missions as individuals.

(TNA HS5/684: Major M.W. Royce OSS, "Operations in Crete," 12 December 1944)

Of the two main groupings of guerrilla bands, he said:

The ELAS (EAM) bands are better disciplined, have been in the field much longer, and have done most of what fighting has occurred. The BRITISH-trained and equipped bands are exceptions to the general rule, probably about 350 men. But it is generally agreed that 25 per cent efficiency would be a fair rating for those better bands.

(TNA HS5/684: Major M.W. Royce OSS, "Operations in Crete," 12 December 1944)

Royce played a considerable role in the withdrawal of the Germans from Eastern and Central Crete to a perimeter in the Hania area, a process which started on 1 September 1944, and was preceded by wholesale massacre and destruction in the villages of the Amari valley. He therefore had ample opportunity to see the Cretan andartes at work on the ground. His assessment of their potential would seem to constitute an implicit criticism of the whole military, as opposed to intelligence-gathering, strategy of SOE on the island. In spite of all its attempts and claims, SOE plainly did not control the guerrillas in Crete. The extent of SOE control reached only to the relatively small bands of "non-party" andartes who guarded the BLOs and their wireless stations. [End Page 150]

Smith-Hughes returned to the Cretan desk of SOE on 15 September 1944 (Smith-Hughes 1992, 165) and immediately set about constructing a plan for Crete, as Force 133 did not have one apart from the general aim of undermining German morale on the island. Noting that there were no British troops available for occupying Crete, he recommended that Major-General Nikolaos Papadakes be infiltrated into Western Crete as Military Commander, with himself as an advisor (TNA HS5/681: Smith-Hughes to GSO1, 20 September 1944). The purpose is explicit: "We may hope to bluff EAM into submission" (TNA HS5/681: Smith-Hughes to GSO1, 20 September 1944). He expands on this purpose in an extended version of the plan written the following day:


To maintain law and order in the Island by persuading EAM, together with other organisations, to accept the orders of the Greek Govt and GHQ, MEF, until the Govt can take over control and the Allies can start relief work.

(TNA HS5/681: Major Jack Smith-Hughes, "Proposed Plan for Crete," 21 September 1944)

In other words, by a sleight of hand, Smith-Hughes defined the problem in Nazi-occupied Crete as EAM without any reference to the actual military and political situation on the ground. He lost no opportunity to slander the organization: "The police are, to about 95% of their number, in Crete, Cretan-born, Liberals and disciplined; they sympathise with EOK. EAM, many of whose rank and file, particularly in CANEA, are criminals, dislike them and accuse them of collaborating with the Germans" (TNA HS5/681: Major Jack Smith-Hughes, "Proposed Plan for Crete," 21 September 1944).

Smith-Hughes also characterizes EAM as an organization which intends to commit "wholesale political massacres," an accusation for which he provides no evidence whatsoever (TNA HS5/681: Major Jack Smith-Hughes, "Proposed Plan for Crete," 21 September 1944). Therefore, his plan was to introduce a ready-made military government on the island loyal to SOE and the Greek government-in-exile. And to this end, he wanted Bandouvas returned to the Heraklion area to keep local EAM/ELAS under control. Given that Smith-Hughes was unrepentant about his political position, and this was well known within SOE, it seems almost incredible that his plan was accepted without question. The staff officer who forwarded his plan actually said in his covering note: "[This officer] has not recently visited the Island and has strong anti EAM views" (TNA HS5/681: Lt. Col. Affleck-Graves to OPS2, GHQ, MEF, 21 October 1944). In the light of this remark, the following instruction to Smith-Hughes in his brief appears farcical: "You will not take sides in any political issues or internal differences but will observe at all times a strictly correct attitude to [End Page 151] all sides" (TNA HS5/681: Major L.E.D. O'Toole, "Brief for Major Jack Smith-Hughes," 1 October 1944).

Farcical or not, Smith-Hughes and General Papadakes landed back in Crete on 5 October (Smith-Hughes 1992, 167). Bandouvas had similarly been landed to counter ELAS in the Heraklion area. The Germans evacuated Heraklion on 11 October and Rethimnon on 13 October, withdrawing to their heavily armed perimeter, complete with artillery, around the Maleme-Hania-Souda area (Beevor 1991, 323). By this time, SOE had eight officers in the field in Crete, four attached officers, and fourteen NCOs—a total of 26 personnel (Beevor 1991, 321–322).

Mitford and ELAS

Attempts to bring EOK and ELAS together continued throughout 1944. Ciclitira returned to Crete in late August and made it one of his first tasks. On 15 September 1944, a meeting near Zourva with Nikos Skoulas from EOK and Mitsos Vlandas from EAM agreed to establish a joint committee with equal representation from both groups "to manage the liberation struggle in the prefecture, oversee the smooth transition to liberation and guarantee the maintenance of law and order" (Janes 2013, 24). A joint brigade was formed, with headquarters at Panagia, just outside Hania town. But shortly afterwards, EOK broke away and formed an independent brigade at Lakkoi, the home village of Skoulas (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 21; Kokonas 1992, 106).10

In the meantime, the Germans had consolidated their position around Hania. Beevor describes the situation at the end of the second week in October, noting that there were six main bands of andartes, whose maximum combined strength was fewer than 3,200 men, who were up against 11,000 German and Italian soldiers within a perimeter of some 70 kilometers in depth (1991, 330).

As Royce said, the Germans were "sitting pretty" (TNA HS5/684: Major M.W. Royce OSS, "Operations in Crete," 12 December 1944). At some point in early October, Major Bruce Mitford was attached as BLO to the 14th ELAS Brigade, which was the main force facing Hania from its nearby base at Panagia. It is unclear precisely how, when, and why this appointment was made. Beevor says Dunbabin "sent" Bruce Mitford (1991, 329), but Dunbabin himself claims:

Major Bruce MITFORD went to CRETE on 20 Aug 44 to undertake training of guerrilla bands in weapons and sabotage. Owing to the partial German withdrawal shortly after his arrival this task was modified. He attached himself as [End Page 152] Liaison Officer to ELAS, CANEA. He had a very free hand, under my orders, and his apologia for EAM/ELAS shows how thoroughly he embraced their cause. He was the only officer of Force 133 to establish and maintain good relations with EAM/ELAS and the relevant sections of his report are worth reading for this reason.

(TNA HS5/729: Comment on Major T.B. Mitford's Report on His Activities in Crete by Lt. Col. T.J. Dunbabin; emphasis ours)

They are indeed. But it is worth repeating the striking fact that SOE left this posting until after the German withdrawal had begun—and only when one of its own officers appears to have suggested it. The implication is that SOE had not the slightest interest in what ELAS was up to. In view of the consistently positive reports of the military potential of ELAS, this seems a criminal oversight.

Mitford's report is a damning and indeed shocking indictment of SOE's attitudes and practice towards Cretan ELAS (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945).11 He had obviously met Smith-Hughes and encountered his anti-EAM/ELAS attitudes. In discussing the senior officers of the ELAS 14th Brigade, which faced the Germans at Panagia, and reporting favorably upon their military potential, Mitford said:

It will be noted that nearly all senior ELAS leaders are regular officers who have been invalided from the service. BLOs and others interested in CRETE must be familiar with MAJOR Smith-Hughes' jibe to the effect that ELAS bosses if thrown together would make about one complete man—a leg here and a kidney there, etc. The point of this jibe (apart, of course, from the humour) is the implication that that their warped bodies have warped their minds. Now I can assure the Major that the only mental warping I have noticed is their failure to share his politics; and that physically, despite their age and disability, they get around.

(TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 20–21)

Mitford also established that there was a "deliberate policy of starving ELAS out of action"; in fact, according to him, "the Brigade received no arms or ammo from any BRITISH source," even though "there was throughout a serious shortage of greatcoats, blankets and tents" (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 21–22).

Throughout October and November 1944, the Germans attacked ELAS at Panagia four times in force and each time were repelled, although they did burn down the village, as ELAS was forced to withdraw due to a shortage of ammunition. Mitford soon encountered the reality of relationships between [End Page 153] EOK and ELAS when after he arranged a parachute drop of urgently needed supplies onto the Omalos plateau, there was a "delay at Lakkoi owing to EOK refusal to supply animals" (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 5). The situation with food became so bad later that winter that Mitford reported as follows: "Also from our own rations I send secretly and improperly fourteen loads of dehydrated meat and potatoes to ELAS at Therisson" (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 10). Mitford goes on to state that ELAS discipline is excellent—there was no looting in the villages it occupied—and comments: "When it is remembered that both officers and men had but one meal a day (almost invariably beans), that at one period they were without bread for six weeks . . . [t]his ELAS restraint is commendable" (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 24). He continues:

Order was exemplary; local courts were established for civil offences wherever possible by EAM; and in each eparchy ELAS detached a certain number of is [sic] effectives to act—in cooperation with EOK where EOK condescended to play—as emergency police. . . . I put it that any suggestion that EAM did not maintain law and order in this nome [county] is untrue; further, that their behaviour toward prisoners and deserters was unexceptionable; that their treatment of traitors and collaborators was, with one exception, only correct.

(TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 45).

Mitford's long, detailed, and highly professional report makes many more similar points. We will conclude with one of his remarks about Smith-Hughes:

In an illuminating passage of a recent report this Officer remarks, "Crete is not normally anti-monarchical and should have been an easy prey to EAM's facile propaganda, but we were able to sabotage them from the earliest days." The remark gains its importance from the fact that SMITH HUGHES not only directed BRITISH policy in CRETE as a staff officer for nearly three years but had intimate contacts with the [British] Embassy, and was himself an admitted monarchist.

(TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 42)

In passing, Smith-Hughes was gilding the lily because Crete was very definitely antimonarchist, as has been seen.

Brigadier Karl Barker-Benfield, now the commander of Force 133, the SOE in Greece, commented on Mitford's report: "a) This report gives a clear indication of the good discipline and morale of this org. b) Maj MITFORD is not, of course, concerned with the political activities of ELAS and associated orgs [End Page 154] which follow the same terroristic lines as on the mainland" (TNA HS5/729: Liaison, 2 December 1944). This cynical dismissal of Mitford's report had serious outcomes. It meant that Smith-Hughes's antileft hysteria had gained hegemony not only within SOE but also the British military at large. The orthodoxy about SOE's involvement in Crete claimed that it prevented the Greek Civil War from occurring on the island. That this is a cruel fiction has been amply demonstrated by Colin Janes's book The Eagles of Crete (2013), as well as a number of books in Greek (see, for example, Kokovli and Kokovli 2002). While the sheer horrific scale of the atrocities of the civil war on the mainland was not replicated in Crete, what occurred was quite horrifying enough.

Early in 1945, Lt.-Col. Pavlos Gyparis, an experienced Greek Regular Army officer and diehard republican, was appointed initially as Town Major of Rethimnon and then Military Governor of Hania (Kokonas 1992, 115, 165). Gyparis immediately attacked ELAS with the assistance of EOK, and as a result civil war did break out in Crete, with ELAS andartes, including some hardcore communists, taking to the mountains. Gyparis hunted them down ruthlessly, and the heads of slain andartes were displayed on spikes in Hania town, including that of Vangelio Cladou, the only woman member of the Central Committee of KKE, the Greek Communist Party, in Crete (Janes 2013, 154). Eventually, only eight remained at large. In 1959, 14 years after the end of the War, KKE ordered them to disband and leave Crete, and six elected to go to Italy en route for Tashkent (Janes 2013, 184). However, two, Yorgos Tzobanakis and Spiros Blazakis, elected to stay. In an incredible story, they remained at large in the mountains until 1975, when they were amnestied and came out of hiding. They had been on the run for 25 years (Janes 2013, 185–197).

The story of the Occupation of Crete and the Cretan Resistance came to an end on 9 May 1945, when German General Hans-Georg Benthag signed an unconditional surrender in Heraklion. One week later, Brigadier Patrick Preston arrived with the advance party of British soldiers sent to enforce the surrender. Nevertheless, the Germans were permitted to retain their smallarms for "self-defence" (Beevor 1991, 338–339). The withdrawal and evacuation that followed was a massive exercise requiring the gathering and disposal of everything the garrison had accumulated during the years of occupation. This included machinery and equipment, all their heavy weapons, thousands of tons of ammunition, and large fuel dumps, as well as hundreds of vehicles.

On top of all this was the evacuation of over 10,000 German, Italian, and Russian troops. The Italians were sent by sea to Taranto in Italy, the Russians to Piraeus, and the Germans, who made up the majority, were sent to the Middle East. These evacuations stretched out over two months, only being completed [End Page 155] on 22 July 1945, more than nine months after the evacuations of Heraklion and Rethimnon (TNA WO204/9302: May–June 1945).

There was much frustration and anger among Cretans at the protection offered to enemy troops and the ease with which they were able to leave. This was compounded by the shipment of over 2,000 vehicles to mainland Greece, as well as large quantities of machinery and equipment. What Cretans witnessed for weeks on end was a continuous ferry service of heavily laden tank-landing ships (LSTs) and larger vessels sailing between Souda and Piraeus. They also witnessed the "wholesale destruction of ammunition of all calibres" being fired off the Hania coast with 800 guns, 10 hours a day every day for a whole week (TNA WO204/9302: Special Report on Operation "LANGTON," 9 June 1945, 2).

The final straw for many Cretan andartes was the issue of recruitment to the newly formed National Guard and the reorganized Gendarmerie. It was proposed that the National Guard be made up of 10 battalions, each with 30 officers and 500 other ranks, with partisans making up at least 3,000 of the more than 5,000 being sought. At the same time, the Gendarmerie would have its strength increased from 800 to 2,100 (TNA HS5/679: III Corps to Freedom, 15 December 1944). The formation of the National Guard began in late January 1945 and continued through to March. From the beginning, it was clear there would be discrimination against ELAS in favor of EOK, especially in the selection of officers. Mitford was able to witness this firsthand in the Hania Prefecture. Of the 42 officers that were enrolled there, fewer than one quarter came from ELAS, and they were all junior officers. When the authorities could not find enough EOK officers locally, they sent to Heraklion for them, ignoring the readily available local officers of ELAS. The final establishment was 9 to 1 against ELAS, even though they were the majority in the prefecture (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 50–51). Simply put, in Crete, as in mainland Greece, former ELAS andartes or EAM activists were personae non gratae.


As far as intelligence-gathering was concerned, SOE in Crete did an excellent job in conjunction with ISLD. In fact, as far as British officers were concerned, the two organizations were effectively isomorphic, and this is emphasized in the official report (Kokonas 1992, 33). Beevor's positive assessment of this aspect of SOE/ISLD's work, as part of the orthodoxy, is quite correct (Beevor 1991, 260). However, when ISLD operatives were Greeks, this close cooperation [End Page 156] could break down as a result of perceived British interference in internal Cretan politics, as the case of the Selino station demonstrates.

Generally speaking, the intelligence-gathering functions of SOE were organized in the towns of Crete, while the armed resistance, whether EOK or ELAS, was located in the mountains. In the towns, networks of Regular, Reserve, or passed-over Greek Army personnel took the initiative, while in the mountains, it was the role of shepherds. In this respect, the latter were merely continuing their historically given role from the time of the Venetian and Ottoman Rule. At one level, SOE knew this:

Our helpers came from all classes but first and foremost from the villagers and shepherds of the mountain areas. Without these we would not have carried on for a day. The shepherd is the true King of the mountains, knows everything that is happening, and most of them did all they could to help.

(Kokonas 1992, 121–122)

But at another level, SOE's reliance on the shepherds, and the bands of the Kapetanioi, suffered from an inherent contradiction. While these men were both courageous and hospitable to a fault, and usually reliable supporters of the British, the SOE officers in the field had a more romantic than anthropological understanding of the cultural complexity of their organizations. SOE did not and could not control these bands, as the case of Bandouvas makes evident. The members would only follow their Kapetanioi when they delivered the battles, martial glory, and booty that represented the historical role of such leaders in Crete. Sitting around for weeks and months at a time waiting for very young and inexperienced British officers to give the nod to armed insurrection was not in the script. In other words, as Major Royce of OSS noted astutely, these andartes were neither disciplined nor reliable (TNA HS5/684: Major M.W. Royce OSS, "Operations in Crete," 12 December 1944). Thus SOE had an uphill task organizing a coordinated resistance in Crete, and it is our contention that they never succeeded in delivering such a movement.

This pessimistic situation was amplified by a quite deliberate political policy orchestrated from 1942 onwards by the Cretan desk of SOE in Cairo in the person of Major Smith-Hughes, an avowed monarchist and unapologetic antileftist. This officer, and his doppelganger in Crete, Major Fielding, systematically ignored EAM, by common consent the most numerous and best-organized resistance movement on the island. This much was admitted by one of their own acolytes, Major Leigh Fermor (NLS. John Murray Archive. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Acc. 13338.374). Not only was EAM/ELAS ignored, but also as time went on and the organization grew in strength, SOE spared no effort in hindering its development and supply—in spite of repeated reports [End Page 157] about its efficacy. Smith-Hughes was able to persist in his biased policy for as long as he did for a very simple reason: the Cretan desk of SOE, B5, was housed in a building completely separate from Rustum Buildings, the SOE Headquarters (Beevor 1991, 249). Furthermore, the relatively small scale of operations in Crete compared to mainland Greece ensured that there were very few prying visitors from Headquarters.

The sheer scale of the malicious nature of this policy towards Cretan andartes, who were supposed to be allies, was only revealed finally in the reports of Major Mitford. Not only did SOE deny arms and ammunition to ELAS in the combat around Panagia in 1944–1945, but also food and clothing. Social scientists are not supposed to believe in crude conspiracy theories, but in the case of SOE in Crete, we are confronted by a sophisticated conspiracy orchestrated by a clique of British officers who managed successfully to hegemonize MEHQ with their reactionary ideology. To claim, as they did, that ELAS in Crete was a terrorist organization out to "massacre" opponents is not only a slander, but to claim also that SOE "prevented" the Civil War from breaking out in Crete merely adds insult to injury. It is our contention that SOE's biased policy in Crete was directly responsible for the fratricide in Crete, small-scale though that may have been compared to the wholesale slaughter on the mainland.

Unfortunately for the andartes of Cretan ELAS, they did not have a Major Klugmann on their side in SOE in Cairo.12 Ideology has real effects, and that can be demonstrated by the fact that as far as the Cretan resistance is concerned, the orthodoxy has remained unchallenged in the English-language literature until the present day.


In his book, Beevor writes:

After the war, a conspiracy theory developed in left-wing circles that the British officers in Crete had set out to destroy the Communists from the beginning. In fact, British officers on numerous occasions had done their best to prevent an open breach between Venizelist groups and EAM-ELAS.

(Beevor 1991, 274).

This is a willfully disingenuous statement on several levels. First, it conflates EAM and ELAS. ELAS was the armed wing of EAM, which in turn was a social and political movement. As Mitford said:

EAM is not a party but a federation of parties: a patriotic, democratic movement that has grown spontaneously without help or favour from abroad, out of the dictatorship of METAXAS and the agony of war and GERMAN occupation. . . . I [End Page 158] was chiefly impressed by its self-imposed discipline and its inculcation of a social sense. It is often said that EAM retains and controls its membership by terrorism. For W. Crete this is simply not true.

(TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 47–48)

The validity of Mitford's wartime judgment has been borne out by subsequent scholarly research by historians (for example, Mazower 1995).

Second, Beevor conflates EAM-ELAS and "Communists." But this is wholly illegitimate; it is, in fact, Smith-Hughes's deceit. As has been argued, Cretan EAM/ELAS, which although established by KKE members as early as September 1941, was a broad front organization uniting liberal, republican, antimonarchist, and KKE elements in a manner distinctly more fluid and democratic than EAM/ELAS in mainland Greece. What it was not was a doctrinaire communist movement orchestrated by sinister Stalinist commissars.

Third, to claim that BLOs had made possible the peace on numerous occasions between Venizelist groups and EAM-ELAS is questionable on two counts. First, the BLOs were in business to foment strife between the two groups, and second, EAM-ELAS was substantially Venizelist anyway. As Mitford reported, "it should be recorded that incidents between the EOK and EAM in CRETE have been remarkably rare. Order has been preserved; several ugly situations have been saved by calmness and goodwill on both sides; it is doubtful if any cases of murder on purely political grounds has yet occurred" (TNA HS5/729: Report on ELAS in the District of Canea, 2 December 1944, 3).

Further, when the Greek Civil War broke out in December 1944 on the mainland, Mitford asked Colonel Grigoris Kondekakis, the Cretan ELAS commander, what his intentions were, Kontekas replied that "as a good CRETAN, he had no intention of spilling blood, to leave a long legacy of blood-feud" (TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 38). The problem with Beevor's book is that—as we said at the beginning of this article—it is not about the Cretan resistance as such, but about SOE in Crete and its version of the Cretan resistance. As we have demonstrated, an antileft conspiracy did exist, and its eminence khaki was Smith-Hughes, who was aided and abetted in the field in Crete by BLOs Xan Fielding, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Tom Dunbabin, who shared his unbalanced views. As we have seen, Fielding's subsequent claim that he was sympathetic to some of EAM's demands is simply not credible. Leigh Fermor's prewar career had demonstrated his proclivity for the European aristocracy and monarchy. In case there was any doubt about that, nearly 40 years after the end of the war he was to deploy blatant Cold War rhetoric, arguing that "Communist organizations wrought chaos on the mainland; when, later on, they attempted to do the [End Page 159] same in Crete, only the scum were left for them to recruit" (Leigh Fermor 1983, 142). The hundreds of Cretans who did not betray Tzobanakis and Blazakis for quarter-of-a-century would appear not to have shared his offensive views.

Smith-Hughes's master-stroke was in arranging for the Tsouderos government to agree to recognize EOK as the only official Cretan resistance movement in March 1943. As Smith-Hughes himself says: "we were able to give a species of legality to the EOK as the official resistance movement" (1992, 161; emphasis ours). It was this situation which permitted SOE to refuse ELAS's repeated requests for arms and ammunition because they were not "official." That said, the refusal of SOE to supply ELAS with desperately needed small arms ammunition during the Panagia battles is indefensible, and the refusal to supply food and protective clothing during the subsequent winter outrageous. It is hardly surprising that many Cretans believe that SOE deliberately left the Germans armed for as long as they did after the final surrender so that they could inflict heavy casualties on the andartes of ELAS, if not liquidate them entirely, should the occasion arise.

In summary, while SOE's intelligence-gathering function in wartime Crete was undoubtedly an outstanding success, its overall policy was an instrument of political control to ensure that EAM/ELAS were powerless at the end of the war, and so would be incapable of impeding the restoration of the Greek monarchy, as well as Britain's strategic policies in the Middle East. Given Britain's cynical imperialist foreign policy in the Middle East—from the days of the Eastern Question in the nineteenth century right up to the Suez Crisis of 1956—this is, perhaps, hardly surprising (Gerolymatos 2010).

Seán Damer
University of Edinburgh
Ian Frazer
University of Otago
Seán Damer

Seán Damer is Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include World War II and the resistance in Greece, as well as the mountain peasantry of Crete. He is the author of From Moorepark to "Wine Alley": The Rise and Fall of a Glasgow Housing Scheme (Edinburgh University Press, 1989) and Glasgow: Going for a Song (Lawrence and Wishart, 2000).

Ian Frazer

Ian Frazer is Honorary Fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Otago. His current research interests include escape and evasion amongst Allied soldiers in wartime Crete, as well as the history of SOE Crete. His most recent publication, coauthored with Mike Sweet, is James de Mole Carstairs: Escape from Crete (Society for Cretan Historical Studies, 2016).


The authors would like to thank George Dalidakis, Tony Fallick, John Markakis, Jack Parr, and the anonymous referees of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies for comments on earlier versions of this paper.


1. Bulgaria and Romania are omitted from this discussion because they had quite different economic, ethnic, political, and social profiles from the three Southern Balkan countries, and are thereby irrelevant to the case of Crete. [End Page 160]

3. Station 333 was a clandestine radio station operated by the PROMETHEUS II organization in occupied Greece from November 1941 to September 1943 (see Alexiades 2015, 84).

4. These events are detailed in Damer and Frazer 2006, 70.

5. The leaders included Bandouvas, Petrakoyiorgos, Satanas, Dramountanes, Xylouris, and Papa Ioannis (TNA HS5/723: 2nd Field Report).

6. Beevor points out that Bandouvas "disliked the idea of receiving instructions from a young Englishman." He is probably referring to Woodhouse, but there is little doubt that the aversion applied more generally (1991, 244).

7. The reports were carried in the Egyptian Gazette of 22 September 1943, as well as the Evening Star in London (TNA HS5/669).

8. Ciclitira was also highly sceptical about the value of guerrilla warfare at this time in Selino and was an unlikely choice to succeed Fielding as Commanding Officer for Western Crete, especially when Selino was in the grip of a guerrilla war.

9. There is some discrepancy in the records over the date that Perkins was killed. Ciclitira gives the 25 February 1944 (TNA HS5/722). This is also the date on his headstone at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Suda Bay in Crete, as well as the date on the SOE Battle Casualty Record in his personal file (TNA HS9/1170/2). Barkham records the 26 February 1944 in his first report from the field (TNA HS5/722), and in the Final Report on SOE Missions in Crete 1941–1945, the date is 27 February 1944 (Kokonas 1992, 79). The memorial plaque at Stefanoporo in Crete has 28 February 1944, and this is the date preferred by both Elliott (1987, 151) and Grehan and Mace (2012, 250). If there is an official date, it is most likely the one on his personal file, 25 February 1944, which is also what appears on the official record at the Ministry of Defence in Wellington (Elliott 1987, 151).

10. There are more details about the history of the Joint Committee in TNA HS5/729: Report by T.B. Mitford on His Activities in Crete, 20 August 1944–13 March 1945, 35–36.

11. It is curious that not one of the English-language sources about the war and resistance in Crete mentions this report.

12. Major James Klugmann was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from his prewar days at Oxford University. He wound up as an officer in the Yugoslav section of SOE in Cairo and is widely credited with shifting British support from Mihajlovic's Royalist Chetniks to Tito's Communist Partisans. His career and influence are discussed in Davidson 1987 and Bailey 2005.


Archival Sources

The National Library of Scotland (NLS)

John Murray Archive. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Archive Acc. 13338.

374 PLF Report No. 1, June 42–June 43, Part 2: 5 Jan 43. [End Page 161]

380–384: Patrick Leigh Fermor Articles and Speeches Concerning the War in Crete; Tribute to the Greeks and the British Who Fell in the Cretan Resistance, 1941–1945. (Speech delivered at the unveiling of the monument raised to their memory by the men of the Allied Mission to occupied Crete, on the 25 May 1981, on the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Crete).

John Murray Archive. Alexander Wallace Fielding. Archive Acc. 13327/1.

The UK National Archives (TNA)

CAB119/43 Special Operations Executive: General, 1942–1943.

HS3/155 Policy Planning and Organization of SOE Activities; Report on Cairo Mission, 1942–1943.

HS5/418 Appointment of Political Adviser; EOK Organization in Crete; Subversion of German Troops, 1944.

HS5/669 Crete. Politics. Complaint about Activities of ISLD Agents and General Mantakas, 1943. HS5/678 SOE Crete. Operational Policy, 1941–1942.

HS5/679 Policy and Planning; Support to Guerrillas; Reorganization and Liquidation of Force 133, 1944–1945.

HS5/681 Operational Plans; Joint Planning Staff (JPS) Papers; Miscellaneous Reports, 1942–1945.

HS5/684 Policy and Planning; Disposal of Paranaval Section; Withdrawal and Reorganization of Force 133, New Crete War Establishment; OSS Operation, 1944–1945.

HS5/722 Crete and Personnel B–D, 1944–1945.

HS5/723 Crete. Lt Colonel T.J. Dunbabin; Part 1, 1942–1944.

HS5/724 Crete. Lt Colonel T.J. Dunbabin; Part 2, 1944–1945.

HS5/725 Crete. Major A.W. Fielding; Part 1, 1942–1943.

HS5/726 Crete. Major A.W. Fielding; Part 2, 1943–1944.

HS5/728 Crete. Major P.M. Leigh-Fermor, 1943–1944.

HS5/729 Crete. Personnel LEW–M, 1942–1945.

HS5/730 Crete. Personnel O–R, 1942–1945.

HS8/428 SOE Activities in Greece and Islands of Aegean, 1945.

HS9/760/1 SOE Personnel Files: Jack Smith-Hughes, 1939–1946.

HS9/1170/2 SOE Battle Casualty Record.

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