The Battle of Crete: The SOE and Cretan Andartes

For thousands of years, the three rich but disparate ecologies of the strategically placed Aegean island of Crete formed a population consisting of fishermen and city dwellers along the coasts, orchard growers and townsmen of the highlands, and shepherds and bandits from the mountains, usually with foreign occupiers attempting to rule over them all. From the Minoan civilization at the height of the Bronze Age, the historic cycle of conquest, repression, animosity, and revolt between these four groups formed the Cretan character: freedom loving, independent, warlike, loyal, generous, frugal, and unforgiving to a fault.

Prior to the Second World War, the Cretans despised the heavy handed and overbearing policies of the Metaxas regime, and for the sins of not toeing the party line, Metaxas had the unruly inhabitants of the island disarmed. But the vendetta cycle must continue, so the Cretans did what they always did: they either made guns, stole them, smuggled them, or joined the army and borrowed them. The Greek Army’s 5th Cretan Division was a disciplinarian’s nightmare (or paradise, depending on the perspective) but its men forged a reputation for tenacity and belligerence that it would serve it well against the Italians in Albania. The departure of the Cretan Division for Albania in 1940 created a void on Crete that was only partially filled by the British garrison in 1941. The Cretans needed “their” army, and British Special Operations Executive was keen to help them fill the void.

The SOE was a covert British organization tasked with conducting sabotage, espionage and organizing resistance movements across occupied Europe. And nowhere was there a more eclectic group of operatives than in the Aegean, where the SOE recruits tended to be university dons, classicists, “businessmen”, archaeologists, and professors, united in their knowledge of the Greek language. The Aegean was an adventurer’s fantasyland and the exploits of the SOE operatives there read like James Bond novels. (Needless to say where Ian Fleming served…) On Crete, they formed their own clandestine pirate navy and set about organizing the civilian population with eventual goal of replacing the Cretan Division.

John Pendlebury and Yannis Markakis, 1933

One of the most famous operatives was the former curator of Knossos, Dr. John Pendlebury. An archaeologist, rugby enthusiast, and international high jumper before the war, Pendlebury knew every inch of the island and returned undercover as the Foreign Ministry’s vice consul. In order to let his friends know he was up in the hills reforming the guerilla bands that fought against the Turks the generation before, Pendlebury would place is glass eye on his desk as a signal to his friends. He had spent years on the island, and he Cretans considered him one of their own. All of the great Cretan guerilla captains for the rest of the war tied back to him.

On 19 May 1941, Pendlebury returned from the mountains where he meeting with the most famous of the Cretan “andartes kapitan”, “Satanas”. Satanas, Greek for “Satan” because the locals believed only the devil could survive so many vendetta dagger and bullet wounds, was just one of many andartes kapitans living in the mountains. Satanas and Pendlebury planned a resistance stronghold in the caves southwest of Heraklion where local legend claimed the titan Rhea birthed Zeus. But Satanas had one problem: he needed more weapons to properly defend it. Pendlebury could provide much assistance to the andartes, but proper military equipment was scarce in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Spring of 1941.

Little did Satanas and Pendlebury know, equipment would drop from the sky, like mana from heaven, the next day.

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