Military men write better prose than most – by the nature of their work they eschew ambiguity and long-windedness in favour of plain-speaking – and Christie Lawrence was no exception to the rule. ‘We were very tired of Crete’ runs the opening sentence of Irregular Adventure, which was published by Faber in 1947 and is one of the neglected masterpieces of the Second World War.
As a 24-year-old captain in Robert Laycock’s No. 8 Commando, Lawrence was caught up in the chaos that followed the German invasion of Crete in May 1941, when British troops were forced to evacuate the island; and although his book describes his subsequent adventures fighting with the Chetniks in German-occupied Yugoslavia, Crete is its point of departure.
According to his fellow-officer Evelyn Waugh, all those serving in No. 8 Commando were ‘highly individualistic’ characters who had volunteered because they sought service more adventurous than was offered at the time by normal regimental life. ‘No one could ask for a better thriller,’ Waugh declared in his introduction to Irregular Adventure: Lawrence’s exploits ‘should bring encouragement to all who may be in danger of doubting whether knight-errantry is still possible in the conditions of modern war’. Six years earlier, in the shambolic retreat to the south coast of Crete, Waugh caught a last glimpse of Lawrence in a cave near Sphakia. ‘He or I or both of us were slightly delirious,’ he recalled. ‘I remember his telling me a rambling story of his having run into a rock on a motor-bicycle. Then carrying two rifles he wandered off again, alone, in the direction of the enemy.’
Whereas Waugh made his way back to Cairo, Lawrence was captured by the Germans and sent, via Athens, to Salonika for the long train journey north to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Life for British prisoners-of-war was a good deal harder than one imagines, and food was in short supply. ‘It is a shock t
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