George Psychondakis PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 03 November 2008 18:07

George Psychoundakis

Born: November 3, 1920, Asi Gonia, Crete

Died: January 29, 2006, Canea, Crete

Age: 85

Notable because: From a background of deep poverty and very little education, became a war hero, was locked up by the Greeks for many Months after the war and forced to endure many privations. His exposure to educated men in the War helped him to become a man of letters. He wrote 'The Cretan Runner' and went on to translate the works of Homer from Ancient Greek to Cretan dialect. Once ran the entire breadth of Crete in one night - possibly 140 km's across wild mountainous terrain - to carry important information for the war effort.


George Psychoundakis was a Greek Resistance fighter on Crete during the Second World War. He was a shepherd, a war hero and an author. He served as dispatch runner between Petro Petrakas and Papadakis behind the German lines for the Cretan resistance Movement and later, from 1941 to 1945, for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). During the postwar years he was at first mistakenly imprisoned as a deserter and wrote his memoirs which achieved worldwide success and finally he translated key classical texts into Cretan. He was married to Sofia and had three children.

George Psychoundakis was born in Asi Gonia (Αση Γωνιά), a village of a few hundred people high in the valley of the Mouselas valley in western Crete, the village was not serviced by a road until the 1950s. He was the penultimate son of Nicolas and Angeliké and belonged to one of the poorest families in the village. They lived in a one roomed home with an earth floor. After a minimum of tuition in the village school he became a shepherd, tending his family's few sheep and goats, an occupation which enabled him to develop an intimate knowledge of his part of the island. In the coming war caves would be used to live in and store weapons, and goat tracks would be used to carry messages, goods and people. Crete had a tradition of resistance to invaders, the island only obtained its freedom from Turkey in 1898, the numerous insurrections during the long occupation together with the mountainous terrain helped maintain an independence of character and willingness to bear and use arms.

The toughness which George Psychoundakis had developed was to be of inestimable value during World War II. The Cretan runners performed amazing feats and made essential contributions to the British operations in the Mediterranean. Pheidippides, who in 490 BC ran 42km from the battle of Marathon to tell about the victory over the Persians, died just after delivering his message. In comparison Georgios Psychoundakis ran from Kastelli-Kissamou on the north western coast of Crete to Paleochora on the south western coast in one night. The distance along the present main road is 70km. Through the wild and rugged landscape with deep ravines, where he had to run to avoid the Germans, the distance may be at least twice as far.

An airborne Nazi invasion began on 20 May 1941, Psychoundakis immediately went down to the nearest town Episkopi, Rethymno about 15km away, here he took part in an ill-armed resistance soon followed by defeat of the allies. The Cretans hid many hundreds of British forces left behind, and the resistance organised their movement to the south coast, from where they were shipped to north Africa, Psychoundakis helped guiding groups from village to village. By the autumn of 1941 SOE were beginning to organise with British liaison officers on the island, one of whom was Patrick Leigh Fermor who arrived clandestinely by sea in July 1942.. Psychoundakis acted as Fermor's runner, carrying messages between resistance groups and guiding parties unfamiliar with the territory. To quote from Leigh Fermor's introduction to the Cretan Runner:

When the moon rose he got up and threw a last swig of raki down his throat with the words Another drop of petrol for the engine, and loped towards the gap in the bushes with the furtiveness of a stage Mohican or Groucho Marx. He turned round when he was on all fours at the exit, rolled his eyes, raised a forefinger portentously, whispered the Intelligence Service! and scuttled through like a rabbit. A few minutes later we could see his small figure a mile away moving across the next moonlit fold of the foothills of the White Mountains, bound for another fifty-mile journey.

However it was hard in the resistance. Cretan summers are baking and its winters are cold, particularly in the hills. Food was often short and hiding in a cold, dripping cave with deep snow outside was not fun; and there was, of course, an enemy to contend with. The island's fighters were never put the the ultimate test - they had been hoping that Crete might be a starting point for the invasion of southern Europe. The island was eventually liberated in 1945.

The British offered him payment for his work, but he turned down the offer because, as he said, he worked for his country and not for money.

After the liberation Psychoundakis was arrested as a deserter and was confined for 16 months in spite of being honoured by the British with BEM (Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service) and £200 for his services during the war.

While in confinement he wrote down his memories from his service in the SOE and the Cretan resistance movement. His former superior Patrick Leigh Fermor, later Sir Patrick, discovered his plight by accident and managed to release him from jail by clearing up the misunderstanding.

Apart from freeing him from imprisonment, Leigh Fermor discovered his manuscript, translated and had it published under the title The Cretan Runner in 1955. The book has been translated to a number of European languages. After the war and his release from prison, Psychoundakis was first forced to fight in the civil war. Then he worked as a charcoal burner in the Cretan mountains to support his family until his book was published. During this period he wrote the book The Eagle's Nest which deals with the life and customs of the mountain people in the villages in the vicinity of his home village Asi Gonia. This book has so far not been translated into other languages.

Psychoundakis also made considerable contributions to Cretian culture. He was a repository of Crete's tradition of oral poetry and also wrote. Possibly Psychoundakis’ greatest achievement is his translation of Homer's works, Iliad (560 pages) and Odyssey (474 pages) from old Greek language to Cretan dialect. For this he was honoured by the Academy of Athens. Seen against the background of his two or three years of occasional village education, this is really remarkable.

Ironically, in recent years he, together with that other hero of the Greek resistance, Manoli Paterakis, had been the caretaker at the German war cemetery on Hill 107 above Maleme until his retirement. It was George Psychoundakis who buried Bruno Brauer when he was moved to Crete three years after his execution. A German War Graves Commissioner came to see it one day, and was impressed by how well Psychoundakis looked after it - though he was surprised that he spoke no German.

"Well, there's not much opportunity to learn it here," said Psychoundakis. "All the Germans I look after are dead."

Giorgos Psychoundakis in May 2004

Last Updated on Friday, 24 September 2010 16:43

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