Friday, August 12, 2011


Dear Friends,

He was not your ordinary man.  Anyone who would remove his glass eye and place it in the middle of his desk as a signal to others that he had left on a mission could scarcely be called ordinary.  Such was John Pendlebury.

John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury was born October 12, 1904 in London, the son of a well-known English surgeon.  At an early age, Pendlebury lost an eye as the result of an injury.  Some said he accidently poked a pencil in his eye, but others maintained he lost it when it became infected after having stumbled into a thorn bush.   At any rate, the end result was the same; his eye was removed and replaced with a glass eye.  However, in spite of this handicap, John Pendlebury refused to allow it to stand in his way of excelling, both in academics and athletics.

Pendlebury studied archaeology in England; Athens, Greece; and Cairo, Egypt, becoming an expert in both ancient Greek archaeology and Egyptian archaeology.  He divided his time between mainland Greece, Egypt, and the Greek island of Crete, but in 1930 he was appointed as Curator of the ruins at Knossos on Crete for the British School of Archaeology in Athens.  During this time, Pendlebury learned to speak Greek like a true Cretan, knew all of the mountain village dialects, hiked the length and breadth of the island several times, could out drink any Cretan, and frequently even dressed in traditional Greek clothes, including the very baggy pants which the British called, “crap catchers”. However, his blue eyes, light brown hair, fair skin and decidedly European features betrayed the fact that he was not a true Cretan.  Because of the way in which he had adapted to the customs and culture of Crete and even adopted many of the traditional forms of Greek folk lifestyle as his own, some have come to refer to John Pendlebury as a composite of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and Indiana Jones.  He certainly had a flair for adventure and could often be found wandering the wild, rugged mountain sides of Crete searching for undiscovered Minoan ruins or visiting remote mountain villages and making lasting friendships with the village leaders and elders.  But, John Pendlebury’s most exciting and most dangerous adventure lay just ahead.

By the mid-1930’s, the rumors and shadows of war had begun to creep across the European continent, and in 1938, John offered his services to British Intelligence, citing his intimate knowledge of Crete and most of the Greek islands, as well as most of mainland Greece.  He also had many personal contacts over the entire Aegean region of the Mediterranean Sea, which would be an invaluable source of intelligence should Great Britain and Germany go to war.  His wait was short-lived; when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, England declared war on Germany.  World War Two had begun!

In early 1940, John was summoned to England where he was commissioned as an officer in the British Army and received instruction in courses of intelligence gathering, sabotage, commando training and how to organize groups of resistance fighters who could fight from the mountains of Crete in the event of an invasion by either Italy or Germany.  When he returned to Crete in June of 1940, he had also been appointed as British Vice-Consul to Crete, which would now serve as his official cover.  After mainland Greece was invaded by the Germans on April 6, 1941, Pendlebury knew it would be only a matter of time before Crete was also invaded.  And then, on the early morning hours of May 20, 1941, the German invasion of Crete began, first with intensive bombing, followed with paratroop drops at the airfields of Maleme, Chania, and Heraklion, followed closely by support troop and equipment landings in gliders.  Pendlebury dressed in his Captain’s uniform, grabbed his sword cane, and made his way to the Brigade Headquarters located deep in a cave, where he met briefly with other officers before making his way to the Chania Gate, which was a part of the ancient, massive Venetian fortifications that surrounded the old city of Heraklion.  His intent was to encourage and rally the Cretan recruits defending the Chania Gate before making his way up into the mountain village of Krousonas to join the other resistance fighters.  John had already selected three impressive Cretan “kapetans” who were old fighters, heads of their clans, and widely respected for their leadership and tenacious fighting abilities.  These three men and their attendant bands of armed guerilla fighters became known to the Germans as “Pendlebury’s Thugs”.

The following day, Pendlebury left the Chania Gate and, while shooting and fighting his way out of Heraklion, was severely wounded.  One report said that he was wounded by a German Stuka aircraft, but another said that he was shot by German paratroopers.  At any rate, he received a serious wound to his chest and was taken to a house near Heraklion for care.  Once in the house, his uniform was removed so that his wounds might be dressed and bandaged.  A doctor was summoned.  A short time later a patrol of German soldiers arrived at the house.  When the German officer in charge discovered this wounded English soldier out of uniform, he declared that Pendlebury should be shot as a spy.  It was said the wounded Pendlebury was dragged from the house, propped up against a wall, and then executed.  His body was placed in an unmarked grave, as many others were at that time, and then forgotten.  Shortly afterwards, the battle for Crete was over, and the Germans set up occupation.

But then, something remarkable began to happen.  Reports started to come in of brazen guerilla attacks on German patrols led by a tall, fair-skinned man dressed in traditional Greek attire with a patch covering one eye.  He wore a long silver-handled Cretan dagger held close to his body with a wide sash.  He fought like a buccaneer - showing no mercy and taking no prisoners.  He seemed to be everywhere at once – he was seen on the south side of the island and at the same time in the White Mountains and on the same day in the Lasithi plains of central Crete.  He was like a phantom – a ghost which struck and then seemed to evaporate into thin air like the morning mist.  Hitler was enraged!  He demanded that the body of Pendlebury be located, dug up, and the glass eye plucked from its socket and sent to him.  Greek peasants were ordered to exhume the graves and then stick their fingers into the eye sockets to see if any one of them contained a glass eye.  Soon a body was found that reportedly had a glass eye.  That glass eye was sent to Hitler, and it was said that Hitler kept it on his bedside stand until his death.  But, John Pendlebury was not the only British soldier on Crete who had a glass eye. 

Today, at Souda Bay in the British War Cemetery on Crete, there is a gravestone which reads, “Captain J. D. S. Pendlebury”.  But, does the grave contain the remains of a man…or does it hold only a glass eye?  You decide.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead

P.S.:  Click on any photo for a larger image.

ABOVE PHOTO: Bob Armistead kneels
behind the grave of John Pendlebury in the
Souda Bay War Cemetery for fallen World
War Two British soldiers, airmen and seamen.
ABOVE PHOTO: The grave of John
D.S. Pendlebury at the British World
War Two Cemetery at Souda Bay, Crete.

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