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Certainly not Cricket

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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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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 to see Englishmen, educated at the world’s most famous universities, scavenging for potato peelings,’ Lawrence writes, adding that ‘the greatest shock is when you find yourself scavenging with them’. A former journalist who – rather inconveniently, as it turned out – wore large horn-rimmed specs, Lawrence was intrepid, ingenious and determined to escape. Earlier attempts had come to nothing, but as the cattle-trucks trundled slowly through Serbia, he managed to force open a barred window and leapt out. After the dust and dryness of Greece, Serbia seemed like a paradise, overflowing with plums for the eating, and mulberry trees, and fields of maize in which to hide when danger threatened, and mustachioed men in waistcoats who needed no excuse to hand out glasses of raki. Lawrence was overwhelmed by the ‘boundless hospitality’ of the Serbian peasants, but he was determined to make his way to Turkey, a neutral country, and he set off for northern Greece and the Turkish border. Within spitting distance of Turkey he was captured by Bulgarian soldiers, and was back in a train heading north. Once again he made his escape – only to find himself back in Serbia, not far from where he had started out. Serbia in high summer may have seemed idyllic, but Lawrence soon realized that the fighting in Yugoslavia was an unusually brutal affair, made worse by the fact that it was as much a civil war as a war against the Germans. The right-wing Chetniks, led by Dražha Mihailovich, were supported, for the time being at least, by the British, but the scale and the savagery of German reprisals made them increasingly reluctant to take action against the occupying forces; nor were they prepared to co-operate with the altogether more ruthless partisans, communist guerrillas who were supported by Russia after the Soviet Union entered the war in June 1941. And, to complicate matters further, a group of Chetniks led by Kosta Pechanats were actively collaborating with the Germans, fighting both the partisans and Mihailovich’s forces. Later in the war, Churchill switched his support from Mihailovich to the partisans on the recommendation of Fitzroy Maclean and Bill Deakin, who felt that Tito was far more committed to fighting the Germans, and after the war the hapless Chetnik leader was shot on a golf course outside Belgrade. In the meantime, Christie Lawrence – ‘Krsta Lorents’ to his new comrades-in-arms – spent a year fighting with Mihailovich’s Chetniks. He ‘tried not to flinch’ when a heavily bearded guerrilla leader seized him in a bear-like embrace, and kissed him on the lips. He taught himself Serbo-Croat, and was soon involved in ambushing enemy convoys, blowing up bridges and acting as an intermediary between various factions, some of whom were more interested in fighting each other than the enemy. Winter was coming on, and life in the snow-covered mountains was almost unendurable: he lost one of his boots in an enemy attack, and incurred frostbite as he hobbled about the hillsides with a heavily bandaged foot; posing as a Slovenian, he made his way into war-torn towns and villages to meet up with fellow-resisters, rubbing shoulders with collaborators and German soldiers in bars and cafés; a touch of romance was provided by Danielle, a dashing Jewish girl who performed wonders with a machine-gun: she is killed in action and Lawrence is soundly berated for dragging her body back to be buried while leaving her precious machine-gun behind. But in the end his luck ran out: captured once again by the Germans, ‘I had that slightly sick feeling you get when you are first in to bat, only worse.’ The last three sentences of Irregular Adventure are as laconic as its opening. He had been put in a windowless cell and chained to his bunk by a black-clad SS man clutching a tommy-gun. ‘He went outside and shut the door. Then the light went out. And I knew that I was in the hands of the Gestapo.’ Two years after the war had ended, in November 1947, Evelyn Waugh had lunch with Christie Lawrence. ‘His circumstances are not easy, with a wife and child, no house but lodgings,’ Waugh noted in his diary, adding that ‘his health and sanity are enfeebled by Gestapo torture’. He had earned £180 from sales of Irregular Adventure, but although the reviews had been good, there were no plans for a second impression. He was keen to join the colonial service, ideally in Uganda. Waugh offered him financial help if he stayed in England, but nothing came of that: a month later Waugh saw his army friend Basil Bennett and reported that ‘he has given Chris Lawrence £300 and had a sharp note in reply. Why?’ ‘The end of this book raises the hope that there will be a sequel,’ Waugh wrote in his introduction to Irregular Adventure, but none was forthcoming. Christie Lawrence is not mentioned by any of Waugh’s biographers, and his book has – like its creator – vanished into oblivion. Trawling through David Astor’s papers, I came across one mention – no more – of a ‘Christie Lawrence’ in Northern Rhodesia, and the British Library Catalogue lists alongside his wartime memoir a book called Mary Goes to School, published in Lusaka in 1960 by the Northern Information Department. One longs to know what happened to this remarkable if tormented man. It used to be claimed that the Second World War produced little lasting literature when compared with the First. Yet the memoirs in particular are often outstanding, and many of the best – Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, David Smiley’s Albanian Assignment, Julian Amery’s Sons of the Eagle – are set in the Balkans. Irregular Adventure is a wonderful piece of work, and deserves to be better remembered.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Jeremy Lewis 2013


About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis’s most recent book, Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family, is now available in paperback. He is researching a biography of David Astor, the former editor of the Observer, to be published by Jonathan Cape.

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