2017-09-07 / Opinions

Book Review

The Ariadne Objective
Reviewed by

We like stories about heroes – well, if they are our heroes. World War II has supplied many such stories. This one is about a group of brave British soldiers who spent many harrowing months on the island of Crete, helping the Cretans resist the occupying Nazis.

Wes Davis, a professor and sometime archaeologist, focuses mainly on Patrick Leigh Fermor. An adventurous soul, he had walked across Europe when he was just 18. An indifferent student, he spent more time on “extracurricular” activities than on study. But he loved the natural world and “could shoot the tobacco out of a cigarette from twenty feet away.” Those skills would serve him well later.

Meanwhile, as he trekked across the soon-to-be war torn landscape, he formed easy friendships and learned languages, including some German and some Greek. Greece was his favorite place, but when Britain and France declared war against Germany, he went home and joined the army. “His experience before the war soon drew the interest of the War Office, and before long he wound up in intelligence and was on his way to the Mediterranean.”

Soon he was deployed to German occupied Crete to assist John Pendlebury in guerrilla operations. Pendlebury did not survive the war, and unlike Fermor, left no journals and reports. He carried a sword cane, and was revered by the Cretan hill men, so that legends grew up around him.

The resistance fighters were mostly old men, the young Cretans having been deployed elsewhere. They had few weapons and relied on old, rusted rifles. Sometimes the women would appear, carrying kitchen knives and broomsticks. They certainly did not lack courage, and welcomed the help of the British fighters. They had to be very careful. Attacks on the Germans might (and often did) result in reprisals against the villages.

The German army had parachuted into Crete and controlled the beaches and sea lanes. The British were able also, however, to provide weapons and personnel by parachute and landings, with the help of the Cretans and radio contacts. Even so, especially during the early months, the British learned to eat and sleep whenever there was an opportunity. They stayed mostly in the hills, and the people of Crete were as hospitable as their own poverty would permit. Although much that Fermor wrote in his reports was light-hearted, it was very dangerous work that he and his comrades did. If they were caught, they would be shot as spies. In addition to supporting guerilla action, their job was to report such matters as German troop movements and numbers, shipping traffic in the ports, and activity at the airfields. When interviewed before being sent to Crete, one officer was asked if he had “any personal objection to murder.”

Several of the Greek patriots are profiled, especially one who wanted to kill Germans no matter the consequences. After one such action, more than 500 villagers were murdered, including men, women, and children. In an epilogue, Davis gives an account of what some of the survivors did after the war. The Ariadne Objective is entertaining and informative, and is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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