Happy Birthday John Pendlebury!
Next week, October 12, is the anniversary of the birth of John Pendlebury, archaeologist, soldier and ‘Rash Adventurer’. Dubbed the ‘Cretan Lawrence’ by his German enemies, his life exemplifies that type of eccentric Englishman, who in another age might have lived in relative obscurity, but who was brought to prominence by the calamity of War. Legend has it that Hitler became so obsessed with John Pendlebury that he wouldn’t rest until he knew he was dead and had his glass eye on his desk in Berlin.
John Pendlebury lost this eye when he was two years old and wore a glass one for the rest of his life. He studied Classics at Cambridge and got a distinction in Archaeology. He excelled at sport despite his handicap. Shortly after university, he was appointed curator at Knossos, the ancient Minoan city in Crete, by Sir Arthur Evans and oversaw the archaeological work that was taking place there.
He fell in love with Crete and its inhabitants and spent twelve years exploring every nook and cranny of the island. It was said of him that: “he knew the whole island like his own hand, spoke Greek like a true Cretan, could make up mantinadas all night long, and could drink any Cretan under the table."
Pendlebury knew that war would soon come and his knowledge of the island and its inhabitants led to him offering the benefits of his wisdom to the British authorities. After military training in Britain, he returned to the island with the task of organising an effective Cretan uprising in the event of any confrontation with the Germans. The job of these irregulars would be to resist and generally stir it up. He asked that the Cretans be supplied with 10,000 rifles, but in the event few were supplied and, tragically and crucially, they were left waiting in vain for weapons that might have made a difference in the battle that followed.
The German invasion of Crete started on May 20, 1941 and Pendlebury fought alongside his Cretan irregulars in the defence of Heraklion, armed with a swordstick. Shot in the chest, he was taken in by a local family, who tended his wounds, but fatally for him, they dressed him in Cretan clothes. Upon discovery by German troops, he was shot as a spy and his body dumped without funeral by the side of a road. Remaining in military clothing might have led to his survival.
At this point, the legend of John Pendlebury took hold as the Germans, unaware that he was dead, thought he was leading the Cretan resistance movement and expended much time and energy trying to find him. Communiqués from Berlin stated “the bandit Pendlebury will be caught and he can expect short shrift when he is found.” And the stories circulated that Hitler was obsessed with him. Eventually, a body with a glass eye was identified by the Germans as probably that of Pendlebury, and the search was wound down.
After the war, Pendlebury’s body was interred in the CWGC cemetery at Souda Bay. The inscription on his gravestone is a quote from the 352nd line of Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats: "He has outsoared the shadow of our night."
Patrick Leigh Fermor met John Pendlebury shortly before his death when the two were fighting in Crete, and there will be a few glimpses of Pendlebury’s legacy on our ‘Kidnapping a General’ tour led by Dr Roderick Bailey next year, including a visit to his grave at Souda Bay. There is an excellent biography of him, written by Imogen Grundon, which I recommend to anyone interested, called ‘The Rash Adventurer’. It’s hard to find, but well worth the effort.
by Michael Ivey