The first ever biography of Lt Cdr Mike Cumberlege by Robin Knight is a precious record of a remarkable man – a British naval officer whose exploits in Greece and Crete during World War II are the stuff of legend.
“He knew the risks and what the outcome might be if he were caught. But he loved Greece and the Greeks, and the months he spent ashore were wonderful… I know of no other case of such varied qualities combined in one person. He was truly Elizabethan in character – a combination of gaiety and solidity and sensitiveness and poetry with daring and adventurousness – and great courage.”
So wrote a wartime colleague of British Royal Navy officer Mike Cumberlege in 1946 after hearing the awful news of his friend’s death. It’s a testimony – revealed during Robin Knight’s early research for this book – that will forever define Mike Cumberlege.
While the stories of some of the most iconic Allied agents who took part in undercover work in occupied Greece and Crete during WWII have become widely known, (the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Xan Fielding and John Pendlebury), one vital narrative has been missing, until now.
Cumberlege’s story is not only one of the most powerful of its kind – a tale of adventure and extraordinary bravery in the face of huge odds, but it’s one of the most tragic, given his murder in a Nazi concentration camp just weeks before Germany was defeated in 1945. He was 39 years old.
In The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE author Robin Knight reveals not only new and fascinating biographical detail about this truly legendary figure, but gripping accounts (and never previously published photographs) of his operations, commanding what was called the Allied ‘para-naval force’ in the Aegean between February 1941 and his capture in April 1943.
Para-naval force is a grand title, but when Cumberlege was put at its helm, the ‘force’ consisted of one reconditioned fishing ketch, which – after an unsuccessful attempt to sabotage the Corinth Canal – would at Mike’s insistence find itself at the centre of the storm in late May 1941, as the Allies were routed in the Battle of Crete.
The ‘force’ Cumberlege headed, (an adjunct to the Middle East section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) based in Egypt) would go on to undertake some of the most daring operations undertaken in the Mediterranean during WWII.
Soon after the Allied surrender in Crete in June 1941, the key vessels in Cumberlege’s modest fleet – (used to ferry supplies from Alexandria to the Cretan Resistance, as well as evacuate Anzac and other Allied soldiers left behind from the battle) were a converted 30-foot caique called Escampador and a former fishing trawler, the 48-foot Hedgehog. It is the exploits of these two craft, Escampador with Cumberlege; and Hedgehog, captained by Royal Navy officer John Campbell, that reflect a powerful and poignant chapter of WWII as it was fought in the eastern Mediterranean.
Passionately researched, Robin Knight’s biography is an important book and required reading for anyone with an interest in WWII history, Greece’s occupation, the Battle of Crete, SOE and the Cretan Resistance. Its last harrowing chapters, detailing the atrocious brutality Mike suffered at the hands of his captors, give a chilling insight into Nazi war crimes, and all that Mike and his Greek brothers-in-arms were fighting against.
With exclusive access to the Cumberlege family’s archive of letters, documents and photographs, and a host of other critical sources, Knight has been able to piece together a rich narrative which gives the reader a deep insight into Mike’s nature and personality.
Polymath, poet, and artist – loving husband and father, a sensitive soul, ‘good with his fists’ when needed, Mike Cumberlege comes alive through Knight’s detective work. This is a book that shines new and penetrating light on a man whose life and actions will forever inspire.
The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE by Robin Knight is available from www.fonthill.media