Blog 96 10/05/2020 In the footsteps of “The Poseidon Network”
In the footsteps of “The Poseidon Network”
Sometimes they say “It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.” When it comes to writing – and especially historical fiction – for me, much of that is true. Each time you start out, you are stepping into your character’s shoes, exploring their lives, their loves and losses, hopes and dreams, and quite often it’s a heartbreaking journey, especially if you’re writing about war – in this case WWII. I’d always wanted to write a WWII story set in Greece; one that would have the ingredients of a spy/thriller story that took the reader on a roller-coaster ride. My first novel, The Embroiderer, is set in Greece and Turkey, and while an important part of that is set in Athens during WWII, the story itself covers much more. The Poseidon Network is my first set in Greece, although the opening scenes are in Cairo. In this blog, I want to take you on a journey – a journey into the research and background that would eventually become The Poseidon Network.
Since living and working in Athens in the nineteen-seventies, I’ve always had a strong pull towards the country’s modern history. The events that took place since Greece became a country in its own right after the Greek War of Independence is etched in the Greek psyche. At the time I lived there, I heard their stories. But the first stories I heard were not in Greece, they were back in Leicestershire. My girl-friend’s mother was a war-bride from Athens who told me about hiding a British soldier in the cellar. What’s more, it was from her that I learned a fish soup recipe which I still cook today. So many of these women left their homeland for the strangeness of other countries, but given that Greece had descended into the madness of a bloody civil war that would see more deaths than WWII, they coped well.
Like all my books, they are based on fact, and the characters are composites of real and imagined people. In most cases, I’ve visited the areas I write about.
The Poseidon Network takes place in 1943/44 and is told from the male point of view. Larry Hadley is an SOE agent and familiar with the Balkans. While doubling up as a newspaper correspondent reporting on the war in North Africa, he is given a secret assignment to liaise with the White Rose, head of the Poseidon Network, and parachuted into mountainous Greece. The setting in Cairo is also important as it was the HQ for the Special Operations Executive in the Middle East. It was also a city full of intrigue and shady goings-on, where the adventurers and black-marketeers mingled with the crème de la crème of high society to pick up a little gossip. One never knew if you were dealing with a fifth columnist or a patriot – the ideal setting for a thriller/drama.
Once in Greece, I wanted to capture several important points, the first being the harsh life the Greek Resistance (Andartiko) experienced. Not only were they fighting the Italians and then the Germans, to make matters worse, they were fighting between themselves. For a great part of the war, the various groups united against a common enemy, but divisions simmered in the background between the main players – EAM (National Liberation Front, EDES (National Democratic Greek League and ELAS (National Popular liberation Front). Put simply – if one can ever put Greek politics in simple terms – the British representing the Allies, wanted to see the return of the King after the Germans left, while the Communists looked towards the Soviet Union. The success of the destruction of the Gorgopotamos Viaduct in late 1942, a coordinated effort between the British SOE, ELAS and EDES, proved they were capable of successfully working together. This mission was strategically and psychologically important because it halted supplies getting to Rommel in North Africa.
Life in the villages was not easy. The Italians were easier to deal with than the Germans and I wanted to show this through the destruction of a village which I called Kato Hora in the book. It is based on the Massacre at Komeno which took place in Western Greece in the summer of 1943. Today, a marble monument stands in the village square commemorating the names of 317 villagers who lost their lives, the youngest being one-year, the oldest, seventy-five. Komeno was under the command of the Italians who took a lenient approach to resistants (andartes) in the area, but on one particular day, a German reconnaissance team entered the village and saw rifles propped up against a tree. They immediately retreated to report it to the 1st Mountain Division at Ioannina and after informing Athens, decided to “teach the villagers a lesson”. The 15th August was the Feast of the Assumption and after being assured by the Italians it was fine to celebrate, they prepared for the festivities. At dawn the following day, the Germans encircled the village with instructions “to leave nothing standing”. A few fled into the nearby field, but at the end of the massacre the village was a burnt-out shell. Not even the priest was spared. It was one of the worst massacres to take place in Greece during WWII.
I was inspired to use the setting for a pharmacy in Patission Street after reading that one of the greatest resistance Greek heroines Eleni “Lela” Karagianni, the wife of an Attican pharmacist and the mother of seven children, used it with her husband to coordinate Greek resistance cells and their activities against the occupying Axis forces. Lela formed her own cell within the wider movement, code-named “Bouboulina” in reference to Laskarina Bouboulina, a female Greek captain who had fought against the Ottoman Empire during the Greek War of Independence. Captured and tortured by the Germans in 1944, she was sent to Haidari concentration camp, where she continued to organize resistance against the Germans. Lela was executed by firing squad on 8 September 1944. Coincidentally, I used to live around the corner from her house in Kypseli, a five minute walk from where her pharmacy would have been.
On the outskirts of Athens among Kifissia has traditionally been home to rich Greek families and major Greek political families since antiquity. During the Ottoman period, in 1667, Kifissia was visited by the Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi who described it as “a small country town set in a fertile plain of paradisaic beauty, with three hundred tile-roofed houses”.
The Monastery Chapel of the Virgin of the Swallow:
The history of Kifissia during the medieval period is obscure, but the remains of a monastery church dedicated to the Virgin of the Swallow (Panagia Chelidonas) is associated with a story about a battle fought there between local people and unspecified “invaders”. This chapel is a rare example of a monastery church originally provided with a fireplace, for the chimney remains.
The Infamous Bloccos:
“Bloccos” were lightening sweeps in which areas were blocked off and the inhabitants ordered to stand or sit and have their IDs checked. The worst affected areas were the Asia Minor refugee suburbs – working class, poor, and for the most part, pro-communist. In 1944 in the suburb of Kokkinia near Piraeus, dozens of motorized and dismounted soldiers of the German occupation together with Greek collaborators, surrounded the area at 3 o’ clock in the morning and ordered all men aged 14-60 to go to the main square. One of the worst parts of all these raids was that Greek traitors always wore a hood so that people would not recognize them as they went through the crowds pointing men out. Charged of being communists, members of the resistance, or anything else they could think of, the men were executed in groups. At the end of the day on 17th August, the corpses of at least 315 men aged 14-60 were buried in mass graves in the 3rd Cemetery. Several thousand more were sent to Haidari Camp to await execution or deportation. Another infamous blokko took place a few months earlier in the suburb of Kalogreza/Neo Ionia, not far from where I worked. My girlfriend’s father was one the few to survive because he pretended to be dead under a pile of bodies. He fled into the mountains until the war was over.
The Greek/Turkish Connection:
After seeing a Turkish documentary sent to me by a friend, I discovered the close relationship between the Greeks and the Turks in the Aegean during WWII, particularly around the area of Samos. This came as quite a surprise to me as it had been less than twenty-five years since the Asia Minor Catastrophe which culminated in the burning of Smyrna. Thousands were killed on both sides and more than a million and a half Greeks left Turkey for Greece in the population exchange. Needless to say, tensions were extremely high between the Greeks and Turks so I found it heartening that the Turkish villagers along the coastline aided smugglers and the Resistance helping Allied airmen, refugees, and any Greeks wanted by the Germans and Italians, to escape. Listening to their recorded conversations, the Turkish villagers all said “They are our brothers. We must help them.” The Greeks were in tears when they told of their help. It touched me so much that I knew from the beginning I would have to incorporate this into the plot.
Music and Food:
These always play an important part in my writing. Human beings thrive on these and it gives light and shade to a story. War time Greece saw one of the worst famines in all Europe with thousands dying in months. So you would wonder what they did eat. For the most part, the villagers scoured the mountainside for weeds, ate pulses like chick peas, and unless you had the luxury of chickens or sheep in the villages, meat came from the occasional horse or donkey that probably died of malnourishment and exhaustion. Contrast this with the fine food still eaten by the high-ranking Germans and Italians and upper-class Greeks and you begin to see how easy it is for politics to polarize the population. Even in Cairo, the elite are still dining out on Nile trout at the Gezira Sporting Club and having cocktail parties.
The Suffering Bastard is one of the most famous cocktails to come out of WWII Cairo. During this time, Shepheard’s Hotel was frequented by British officers and the press corps. The hotel was well-known for its Long Bar, and in particular its bartender, Joe Scialom. It was he who created this cocktail.
1 oz/30ml bourbon
1 oz/30ml gin
1 tsp lime juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters
4 oz/118ml of ginger beer (chilled)
Music: All the hits of the period were played on gramophones or played by bands and top-class singers in Cairo. As the war progressed, the Greek singer, Sofia Vembo fled Greece and entertained the Greeks in exile and soldiers, lifting their morale
And last but not least, there is a scene in the book set in the desert south of Cairo. A woman is bitten by a snake and would have died had it not been for an ancient tribal remedy. This remedy, told to me by a friend whose family were tribesmen from the Highlands of Eritrea, is still used today by certain tribes throughout North Africa. The affected person must take a drink of milk and spit it out once it is mixed with saliva. It should not be drunk. According to folklore, the way the milk curdles shows the healer whether the person has been bitten by a snake, and if so, which one. In this case it was a Horned Viper.