The name John Pendlebury will be familiar to admirers of Dilys Powell’s marvellous account of the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, where for a while he was curator in succession to Sir Arthur Evans. But the photograph on the jacket of this book shows him – inescapably English – proudly wearing a many-layered ancient Egyptian necklace, acquired, as we learn, when he was director of excavations at Tell el-Amarna, the city of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. Amazingly he held both posts simultaneously, moving from one to the other, at the age of twenty-five.
A foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor is enough to suggest that here was a man with a passion for Crete and Greece, most probably also a war hero – and both turn out to be true. Pendlebury was killed a few days after the German parachutists had landed at Crete, but for long afterwards he remained a mythical figure: immensely brave, handsome, with incredible stamina, and above all the organiser of fiercely loyal Cretan guerrillas. The Germans called him the Cretan Lawrence. Leigh Fermor describes him as giving a ‘wonderful buccaneer and rakish impression’, due in part to his having a glass eye. ‘His presence filled everyone with life and optimism and a feeling of fun.’
At school at Winchester and then at Pembroke, Cambridge, in the mid 1920s, Pendlebury was a champion athlete. He competed in hurdles with Lord Burghley, the inspiration for Chariots of Fire, and cleared 6 foot in the high jump, ending up with a Blue for athletics. Early on he developed