The Silver Stain
The Silver Stain is the fourth in the Alex Mavros series and arrives after a seven year gap, as well as with a new publisher. It was interesting to exhume the old war horse, but I decided not to move the timescale on that far as I didn’t want Mavros to age too much. So it’s 2003 and the country is building up to the Olympic Games of 2004 – anyone wondering why I haven’t taken on the economic crisis that hit Greece in 2010 should note that the Games and the corruption and waste surrounding them were major components in the crisis.
Anyway, Mavros is off to Crete to track down the missing aide to a film starlet, who refuses to work until she’s found. Given that the film she’s involved in, Freedom or Death, is a major Hollywood production, the director and producer are very keen to get things back on the rails. But memories are long in Crete and the movie has stirred up old hatreds, not least in a village that’s now heavily into drug production. And, to make things even harder for Mavros, he finds that his long-dead father, Spyros, kept secret his involvement in the Cretan resistance against the Axis…
The genesis of the book was an issue that’s needled me since I first visited Crete in 1976. After all the horrors of the war, why are the Cretans so happy to accept German (and Italian) tourists? Okay, this is less of an issue now than it was when the war was still remembered by everyone, but it continues to puzzle me. Not that taverna-owners should put up signs saying, ‘No Germans’ – after all, very few Germans alive today had any involvement in the occupation and the massacres their compatriots carried out. But still, clearly a kind of deal with the devil has been made – we take your money and the past is forgotten. One of the points of The Silver Stain is that atrocities can’t – and shouldn’t – be forgotten: rather, they should be openly discussed and responsibilities apportioned and accepted.
Which leads me to the British – or more correctly, Allied – involvement in the Battle of Crete in 1941. The general in command of the defence of the island, Bernard Freyberg, was a New Zealander, who served at Gallipoli and won the Victoria Cross on the Western Front in the First World War. Many of the troops on the ground were Australians and New Zealanders, making the battle a brief and, unfortunately, depressingly similar rerun of Gallipoli – an inadequate response to the conditions of the campaign, capitulation and (much less successful) evacuation. No one doubts the courage of the front line soldiers, especially that of the Maoris in the vicinity of Maleme airfield, which was the key to German victory. The quality of Allied leadership is another issue. Despite months to prepare, defences and communication systems were inadequate. The RAF had been forced to give priority to the Western Desert, where Rommel was advancing on Egypt, so the Luftwaffe had command of the air, cowing the Royal Navy during daylight hours despite its high quality performance during the hours of darkness. But Freyberg had an ace up his sleeve – prior knowledge of German plans provided by the Enigma machine decoding team at Bletchley Park. Unfortunately, he felt unable to make full use of that knowledge for fear of the Germans realising their ciphers had been broken, so the advantage was lost.
Why did I make the Battle of Crete the centre point of what is, after all, a contemporary crime novel? I’ve noted one reason above. Another is more metaphorical. Greece has been treated as a pawn by the so-called Great Powers since the Crusades. The Battle of Crete was a prime example of the extreme violence that results from insensitive geopolitical decisions. It could be argued that the ongoing Greek financial crisis (2010-?) is another example of large countries treating small ones as minor irritants until it’s too late. As a novelist, I’m primarily interested in individual people, the ones who pay for the mistakes of politicians, generals and economists.
The reality of the Battle of Crete is that it should never have been fought. The Allies could have used it as a base from which to bomb the Romanian oilfields on which Hitler depended, while the Germans wanted to extend their influence in the Middle East from it. In the general scheme of things, however, neither of those aims was significant. Hitler was about to launch his assault on the Soviet Union, which possessed much more oil than Romania. The Allies needed every man in the Western Desert. In the end, Crete was one of Winston Churchill’s obsessions – like Gallipoli. The battle – although a disaster for the German elite paratroopers, never made an airborne landing again – was a waste of Allied and Cretan lives. As they showed, the Cretans were capable of fighting extremely effectively and should have been armed and formed into reserve units, which would have prevented at least some of the massacres of civilians. Or better still, armed and left to carry out their own sabotage operations, as on the mainland of Greece.
The Silver Stain tells the story of the battle from the point of view of a German paratrooper, a man whose motivations are complex. There is also a British survivor of the battle, who later served with the Special Operations Executive on the island. In this way, I attempt to show both sides of the military story. But there is also the Cretan side, and I provide this via different characters – the point being that the old enmities and friendships are more complicated than they appear on the surface at reunions and memorial services. A Hollywood film is just the plot vehicle to stomp all over the subtleties of the situation and open up old wounds…
For those who wish to learn more about the Battle of Crete, the following books are useful:
Anthony Beevor – Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (the book ultimately does neither justice due to lack of space, though it’s a good general guide with a useful bibliography);
George Forty – Battle of Crete (includes many valuable eye-witness statements);
N. A. Kokonas – The Cretan Resistance 1941-1945 (the official British SOE report, with comments from many of the famous names – Leigh Fermor, Stockbridge, Smith-Hughes; the latter ends with the poignant admission that the British involvement was ‘not a bad achievement’, as well as regretting the savagery of the German reprisals caused by SOE operations);
James Lucas – Storming Eagles (a worryingly upbeat account of the German paratroop force);
Roy Farran – Winged Dagger (an officer on the ground’s reminiscences - hero or villain? The latter is David Cesarani’s assessment of the soldier’s subsequent career in Major Farran’s Hat);
Evelyn Waugh – The Sword of Honour Trilogy (fiction by a participant - the second volume, the highly ironic Officers and Gentlemen, covers the retreat to the south of Crete – Waugh managed to get off the island);
C.K.Stead – Talking About O’Dwyer (fiction – fascinating novel revolving around the death of a Maori soldier in the battle of Crete and its longlasting effect on the characters).
||Crème de la Crime
||published April 2012