Visit to Souda Bay War Cemetery, Crete

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Me at Souda Bay. The beach and War Cemetery in the background.

In April I was lucky enough to visit Crete twice. On the first of these visits I made my way to Souda Bay War Cemetery, just outside of Chania, to see John Pendlebury’s final resting place.

Souda Bay is one of the most tranquil spots that I visited in Crete. The water in the bay is as placid as a lake, a peaceful sandy beach runs between the sea and cemetery, and the cemetery itself is well cared for with lush green grass and plants surrounding the site.

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Main entrance to Souda Bay War Cemetery
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Souda Bay War Cemetery

This is, in fact, John Pendlebury’s 3rd resting place. Though the circumstances of his death (and whether or not he was actually dead) were sketchy for some time after the events, the details are now clearer. This is thanks to a concerted effort on Hilda Pendlebury’s part to establish what had happened to her husband in the confusion of the May 1941 Battle of Crete.

Material in the John Pendlebury Family Papers Archive includes testimonials gathered from local Cretans who interacted with John during his last hours, letters between Hilda Pendlebury and Herbert Pendlebury about John’s death, and letters from some who were with John in Crete such as Lieutenant Commander Mike Cumberlege (who died in 1945).

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John Pendlebury’s grave, Souda Bay War Cemetery

The exact circumstances of John’s death are detailed in ‘John Pendlebury in Crete’ (250 copies printed for private circulation in 1948). To summarise: on the 21 May 1941 John was wounded in battle outside of Canea Gate in Heraklion, taken prisoner and deposited in a local house for treatment; a new German unit arrived the next day, searched the house, took John outside and shot him; he was first buried near the main road from Heraklion to the west; later he was moved to the British part of the Heraklion cemetery; and then to Souda Bay War Cemetery.

On my second visit to Crete, we (I was with British School colleagues) visited the cemetery that John was buried in, and Pendlebury Street outside Canea Gate which should be (more or less) the site of John’s death/first burial.

A sign on Pendlebury street, “English Archaeologist, fell in the Battle of Crete”



Week 7, 16th-20th November

This week I have finished cataloguing the section of correspondence sent to Hilda Pendlebury, and begun cataloguing correspondence sent to John’s parents (Herbert and Lilian Pendlebury).

Some of letters that I catalogued at the beginning of the week were sent to Hilda after John’s death in 1941. These are evidence of how Hilda, Herbert and John’s friends and colleagues tried ascertain the exact circumstances of John’s death. This included gathering eyewitness reports from local Cretans (which are in the archive).

Photograph of John Pendlebury’s Grave at Souda Bay War Cemetery, Crete. Hilda visited John’s grave during a visit to Crete in 1947. Copyright: British School at Athens.

The letters sent to Hilda after 1941 also show how John was commemorated with an endowment for a school prize, a donation of books to the Villa Ariadne, obituaries, a bust in Heraklion (Crete) and the publication of ‘John Pendlebury in Crete’.

‘John Pendlebury in Crete’ was published in 1948 and includes a summary of what was known from investigations into John’s death in the form of a chapter written by Tom Dunbabin (‘Last Days – May 1941’). Hilda gave a copy of the book to many of John’s friends which prompted letters of reply reminiscing about John.

So many things come back to me as I think of him – his quirks and pranks as assistant secretary of the P.C.D.S. Ye Joyeux Companie of St Pol which he founded – a strange secret society assembled to tell stories, one of which was told by the Grand Seneschale on behalf of the absent Master of the College

(From a letter by Rowe Harding, a friend of John’s at Pembroke College)

I spent the second half of this week (back-in-time a few decades) cataloguing some of John’s childhood letters to his parents. I have been cataloguing letters sent from St George’s School in Broadstairs, Kent, from 1915-1916. The school faced out to the English Channel and John witnessed warships (passing by and once firing at a submarine), air raid sirens and being called to the “dug out” (air raid shelter), and aeroplanes and zeppelins flying overhead. This was all very exciting to a boy of 12 and the games he played with his friends often involved battles, raids on dormitories, and building armoured cars and trains.

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A file of letters from John to his parents (Herbert and Lilian Pendlebury), 1915-1916. Copyright: British School at Athens

Next week I will continue cataloguing John’s letters to his parents.

Week 6, 9th – 13th November

This week I have been continuing to catalogue letters sent to Hilda Pendlebury using the template in Microsoft Word (explained in the previous blog post).

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Letter sent home by John, Christmas 1940 Copyright: British School at Athens

Whilst reading the letters, which is necessary when cataloguing to item-level, I have been learning more about John and Hilda Pendlebury and people that they knew. The more I read, the more light is shed onto the characters that appear in the collection.

The letter that John sent home for Christmas in December 1940 reveals something of his attitude towards authority. ..

I am making a grand collection of tickings off – usually beginning “In future you should NOT repeat NOT”. As far as I can see the authorities are not unlike Greek grannies and are apt to stand roofs scolding people.

The amount of time it takes to catalogue each letter is extremely variable depending on how easy it is to understand the content of the letter, and how easy it is to read. Below is an example of a letter which took me a little while to decipher. It is from Hilda’s mother and mainly describes her illness, discusses David and Joan [John and Hilda’s children] and gives news of other extended family members.

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Side 2 of a letter to Hilda Pendlebury from her mother Copyright: British School at Athens

Next week I will continue cataloguing correspondence sent to Hilda Pendlebury, then make a start on cataloguing correspondence sent to John’s parents.

About John and Hilda Pendlebury…

John and Hilda Pendlebury (née White) first met at the British School at Athens in 1927.  Hilda was taking a sabbatical year from being a school teacher and John had been given a studentship to trace Egyptian finds in Greece. Together with other students from the school they travelled around Greece, hiking and visiting archaeological sites. In September 1928 John and Hilda were married in Britain.

John and Hilda Pendlebury on their wedding day, from the Pendlebury Family Papers. Copyright: British School at Athens
John and Hilda Pendlebury on their wedding day, from the Pendlebury Family Papers. Copyright: British School at Athens

In the following years of their marriage John worked as an archaeologist at Knossos, Tell el Amarna (in Egypt) and various sites around the Lasithi Plain in East Crete. Hilda often worked with John, but did not always accompany him once their children (David and Joan) were born in 1932 and 1934.

During the Second World War John was in Crete, utilising his knowledge of the language and topography of the island, and his extensive network of local friends, whilst working for the British Special Operations Executive (undercover as Vice-Consul).

John died during the German invasion of Crete in May 1941, but the exact circumstances of his death were not known for certain until years later. Hilda and John’s father (Herbert) undertook substantial investigations (which are documented in the archive) to find out what exactly had happened to John.

John’s final resting place is in Souda Bay War Cemetery in Crete, which Hilda visited whilst attending a memorial service in Heraklion in 1947.