Linear B decipherment: credit where credit is due

LINEAR B is an ancient Greek language used by the Mycenaeans from mainland ‘Greece’ in the 2nd millennium BC. Although it was found at Knossos in Crete it is not a Minoan language (‘Minoan’ is Sir Arthur Evans’ name for ancient Cretans). Linear A is most likely Minoan but we do not know what that language is. The reason so much Linear B has been found at Knossos is because the Mycenaeans took over there around 1450BC. The clay tablets inscribed with Linear B have survived because, although originally sun dried, they were hardened, and so preserved, by the fire that destroyed Knossos (and also Pylos on mainland Greece).

Linear B

Linear B is a combination of pictogram and linear signs. The former were relatively easy to identify (well, some of them). Alice Kober (see below) was able to interpret male from female animals.




 Pictograms – using the bottom one (sheep, etc) and the numbers’ code below, see if you can decipher some of the Co 903 Linear B tablet below (answer at the end)


Linear B tablet Co 903 from Knossos (1450 BC)


Sir Arthur Evans excavated at Knossos from 1900 and discovered three different types of ‘writing’. He called them hieroglyphics (engraved pictures on sealstones), Linear A and Linear B. Linear A was limited in number so undecipherable but Evans had some 2000 Linear B tablets from Knossos and he was determined to decipher them himself but to no avail. Unfortunately, in his determination to be the first to discover the language he refused to allowed anyone else to see the tablets (other than a small number – see below) during his life-time.

Painting of Arthur Evans (from the Ashmolean Museum)

On the 1st July 1952, Michael Ventris (an architect), after years of study, announced on the radio that he had deciphered Linear B as ancient Greek. There is no doubt that Ventris was a genius but he would not have made his discovery so soon had it not been for the America classicist, Alice Kober. She had been privately working on Linear B since the beginning of the 1930s and was also a bit of genius herself. As with Ventris, she was good at learning languages and, whilst holding down a full-time job as a teacher at Brooklyn College, she learnt ancient Hittite, Old Irish, Akkadian, Tocharian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Basque, Chinese and Sanskrit. She felt she needed these languages to prepare herself for the study of Linear B. She also taught herself braille so she could teach classics to the blind.


Michael Ventris

Her main problem was the lack of tablets she had available to her to study. She only had about 200 – around 150 of which Evans had published and another 38 which Johannes Sundwall had published, without permission, having seen them at a museum in Crete – much to Evans’ annoyance. On Evans death in 1941, Kober had a breakthrough – Evans’s executor, Sir John Myers, allowed her to see Evans’s drawings of all his Linear B finds. She visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where they were kept and had 6 weeks to copy as many as she could.


Alice Kober 

Not long afterwards, the American archaeologist, Carl Blegen, unearthed many more Linear B tablets at Pylos on the west of mainland Greece. Kober wrote to him to ask if she could see them but he declined. At this time she was working with Emmett L. Bennett Jnr. It was Bennett who worked out that there were 89 syllabic signs to Linear B – this repertoire of signs was crucial to both Kober’s and Ventris’ work.


Emmett L. Bennett Jnr.

Kober worked on a card system database and end up with some 180,000 cards plus around 40 notebooks. Perhaps her main contribution was the vastly important discovery that Linear B made use of inflection. This means it has a different ending to the word depending on gender and/or declension – like Greek and Latin (remember amo, amas, amat … at school?). She discovered this by finding a group of three different endings to the same beginning of a word – Ventris called it her ‘triplets’. She then drew up a grid showing the relationships among the characteristics in the abstract – a phonetic pattern of consonants and vowels (which signs shared a consonant and which signs shared a vowel). Syllabic patterns were beginning to emerge. Sadly she died, probably of cancer (she was a heavy smoker), in May 1950 at the age of 43, before she was able to conclude her work. This was left to Ventris.


Kober’s ‘triplets’ – first two characters are the same  but with different underlined endings: inflection

It was this grid and knowledge that Linear B was inflected that Ventris worked from and realised that the endings were not grammatical but derivational (extending the size of words – e.g. just add ing on to an English word). He decided that Kober’s triplets might be place names and this led him to identify words such as the town of Amnisos (a-mi-ni-so) and from here the derivation fitted in: a-mi-ni-si-jo  meaning  ‘men of Amnissos’. The same then applied to Knossos (ko-no-so) and so forth. Simples! Linear B was Greek. He had cracked it!


However, in finally deciphering the language he gave Kober little credit for it on his first radio broadcast and only occasionally mentioned her involvement thereafter.

Even after his announcement Ventris was still in doubt, as were some academics. It wasn’t until Blegen came across 400 more tablets at Pylos in the Summer of 1952 that Ventris’ theory was confirmed and the sceptics faded. After studying the tablets in Spring 1953, Blegen obligingly sent his report to Ventris and one tablet in particular, the ‘tripod’ tablet, ta 641, stood out (see picture below). This tablet, using Ventris’ decipherment, contained the words ti-ri-po-de and ti-ri-po (dark and light blue rectangles on picture below) meaning, in Greek, two tripods and tripod respectively, with a picture of a tripod associated with each ‘sentence’ further along the tablet (red squares on picture below) [1].   On the line below, using Ventris’ decipherment, were the words di-pa  me-zo-e  qe-to-ro-we (green rectangle) meaning, in Greek, large four-handle goblet  and next to that a picture of a large four-handle goblet (yellow square); then the words  di-pa  me-zo-e  ti-ri-we-e (brown rectangle) meaning large three-handle goblet with a picture of a large three-handle goblet next to it (purple square). It all fitted!


Linear B ‘tripod’ tablet Ta 641: top line, in dark blue rectangle, ti-ri-po-de (two tripods), light blue rectangle ti-ri-po (tripod), in red squares a tripod with the number of them next (vertical dash);  middle line, in green rectangle, di-pa  me-zo-e  qe-to-ro-we (large four-handle goblet), in yellow square a large four-handle goblet; in brown rectangle,  di-pa  me-zo-e  ti-ri-we-e (large three-handle goblet), and in purple square a large three-handle goblet

Ventiris first set eyes on Linear B when he was aged 14. Some of the tablets were on display at Burlington House in London and he was visiting with his school group from Stowe. Evans was there and told Ventris and his chums that it had not yet been deciphered. From that day Ventris was determined to have a go at it. It had been his ‘life-time’ ambition, but now, in 1952, having done it, he was at a loss as to what to do next. He wasn’t interested in the language itself, just cracking its ‘codes’. He returned to architecture but soon lost interest and suffered depression. Then, in September 1956, aged 34, he crashed his car and was killed. Some speculate it was suicide (his mother had depression and committed suicide), others put it down to a tragic accident. We’ll never know.

So, when we talk about Linear B decipherment, Michael Ventris’ name always comes to the fore. Although credit must go to him for finally breaking the ‘code’, some credit must go to Emmett L. Bennett Jnr and a great deal of credit must also go to Alice Kober. So there you go.



[1] The full reading of the left-hand tripod in the picture is: ti-ri-po-de  a(i)-ke-u  ke-re-si-jo  we-ke  II (2)  meaning ‘two tripods cauldrons of “Cretan” workmanship’ The full reading of the right-hand tripos is: ti-ri-po  e-me  po-de  o-wo-we I (1)  meaning ‘one tripod cauldron of “Cretan” workmanship’.


Further info:

On Ventris, see YouTube video A Very English Genius – 7 parts; Click here for Part 1  (see Part 4 for Bennett and Kober)

Reading: A good book on Evans’, Kober’s and Ventris’ contributions to Linear B is Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Profile Books, 2014; on Linear B see John Chadwick’s Reading Linear B and related scripts, The British Museum Press, 2001 (Chadwick was a great help to Ventris after his announcement that he had deciphered the script).


Next week: Back to Hollywood and fact or fiction – Spartacus


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

Dr Quentin St John Balacava appeared late for our meeting. He said:

“My dear Artemus, profound apologies old boy, but I just could not find a parking space. Got one eventually. I Looked up to heaven and said, ‘Lord take pity on me.  If you find me a parking place I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up Whisky.’ Miraculously, a parking place appeared. So I looked up again and said, ‘Never mind Lord, I found one.”’

Art Smth

‘E’ for Excellent class submarines in the Dardanelles

REGARDING LAST WEEK, not all subs were like the K class. For example, there was the E class which, in some cases, was highly successful, particularly in the Dardanelles.

First to succeed in the Dardanelles was E14 commanded by Lt-Cdr Edward Courtney Boyle (actually B11 was first with Lt Norman Holbrook in December 1914, but his was only a brief visit but sinking the Messudieh in the processs). E14‘s task was to penetrate the Dardanelles, make her way through to the Sea of Marmara and cause as much havoc as possible to Turkish shipping and its supply routes to its troops at Gallipoli. Four other submarines had failed previously (E15, AE2, Joules and Saphir).


Lt Norman Douglas Holbrook

A submarine travels fastest on the surface by way of diesel engines. When it has to submerge the engines are shut down and the sub runs on batteries which only have a limited life before they need to be recharged. This has to be done on the surface by way of the engines. The faster the underwater current flowing against the sub, the faster the sub has to go and this exhausts the batteries much quicker. Got it? The possible hazards E14 faced:

  • Mines (the highest proportion of submarine losses were due to mines)
  • Nets
  • Shore-based guns (there were many and, at night, they had searchlights)
  • Shore-based torpedoes
  • Enemy vessels (patrol craft and destroyers)

Now, submarines could dodge the latter three when submerged, although even using the periscope (needed for taking bearings) would attract fire from the shore-based guns. The distance she had to travel up the Dardanelles was some 35 miles and it was assumed she could not do this submerged all the way against an unknown underwater out-flowing current – presumed anything from 2-6 knots. At some point she would have to surface and re-charge her batteries – and become a sitting target (or so it was thought – but they would have a go anyway!).


Turkish defences in the Dardanelles

It would have been very useful to know the underwater currents, as this obviously affected the speed of the submarine submerged. It would have been easy to have measured them during peacetime – and this may have been done as the British had a Naval Mission in Constantinople before the war. Here it trained the Turkish Navy right up until the outbreak of hostilities with the Germans and the Turks. Admiral Limpus (commander at the Mission) was asked if he or his staff could supply any useful information about the Dardanelles and particularly the currents. The reply, “There’s been a high level decision about that. Admiral Limpus and his staff have been instructed not to supply any information which would be used against the Turks.”  “Why not?” asked one sub commander (Lt-Cdr Nasmith – see below). The reply, “Well, I suppose it would not be considered quite gentlemanly.”   Can you believe that?! Never mind the safety of our submariners – it’s just not British, old boy, to take such advantage of the enemy – not ‘playing the game, what’! [1].


Edward Courtney Boyle

Anyway, E14 successfully found her way under the mines and into the Sea of Marmara on 27th April 1915. It transpired that there was no opposing current at that depth and so progress was much quicker than anticipated. For the first five days she managed to cause some confusion among the Turkish shipping but did not sink anything. She did meet up with AE2, an Australian submarine under Lt-Cdr H.G. Stoker. Unfortunately AE2 was sunk on her return journey by the guns of the Sultan Hissar, and the crew were picked up by the Hissar.

Boyle on HMS E14

E14 had a bit of bad luck with her torpedoes (either missing targets or failing to explode – nothing unusual with either at that time) but she did manage to sink two gunboats and two transports, one of the latter, Gul Djemal, carrying some 4000 reinforcements to Gallipoli. As a result, this was the last time the Turks attempted to send troops to Gallipoli by sea (it was much more inconvenient and slower by land). What Boyle wished for was a deck gun for sinking smaller light ships rather than wasting torpedoes.

Bolye made a second successful trip into the Marmara, arriving on 10th June 1915 – this time with a six-pounder deck gun which was to prove most useful [2]. He managed to cause suitable chaos amongst Turkish shipping before making a third successful visit. He received the VC for his first mission into the Marmara.

Then there was E11 commanded by Lt-Cdr Nasmith. Fortune smiled on E11 as she also got through the Dardanelles, under the mines, to Marmara, without the need to surface. During May/June 1915, she too caused havoc amongst the Turkish ships running supplies from Constantinople to the front lines at Gallipoli. This she successfully achieved, torpedoing five large steamers, two small steamers and a gunboat. Also she was the first to attack shipping in the Golden Horn, the harbour at Constantinople, for 500 years.



Nasmith always tried to retrieve any of his torpedoes that missed their targets. He did this by setting them to float and then disarmed their detonators and returned them to the sub. Not an easy – or safe – task, particularly in heavy seas. As with Boyle, he also had some great opportunities to destroy light vessels and even trains if he had had a deck gun.

On her return through the Dardanelles, E11 snagged the mooring wire of a mine dragging it with her for some distance. If it came in contact with the sub and exploded the sub would have been completely destroyed and all her crew killed. Nasmith skillfully lost it by carefully reversing his boat and the mine’s mooring wire slipped off the sub’s hydroplane and disappeared. Her return was watched by HMS Grampus whose crew cheered her.

e 11

HMS E11 being cheered by the crew of HMS Grampus

During that trip, E11 sunk  a large Turkish gunboat, two transports, one ammunition ship, three store ships and four other vessels. As with Boyle, Nasmith was awarded the VC. He went on to complete two more successful missions in the Marmara, sinking a large number of Turkish vessels including the battleship, Barbarosa (which he had been after on his first trip).


Martin Nasmith

If you read my last blog you will recall that the sub K3  sunk with Prince Albert (future King George VI) on board. Happily no harm came to him and he was rescued. Interestingly,  Nasmith, when a Lieutenant commanding the sub D4, also had Prince Albert on board as a passenger, along with King George V and Winston Churchill. He (Nasmith) managed not to sink and safely returned his VIPs to port.  He is reported to have said that he wondered what would have happened to the course of 20th history if he had sunk that day! Doesn’t bear thinking about really.


Prince Albert (1917) having survived K3

Finally, there was Lt-Cdr Archibald Douglas Cochrane in E7 (E12, with Lt-Cdr K. Bruce, had made it to the Marmara but the trip was cut short due to defective motors). E7 ventured into the Marmara  at the end of June 1915 – with a six pounder gun (they were becoming the norm) – to relieve Boyle. On the 2nd July, E7 surfaced off the coast of Rodosto and was fired at by several Turkish riflemen but it was well out of range. E7 fired her deck gun at them and they all scattered like frightened sheep!


Typical WWI  deck gun on a submarine

It wasn’t until the 10th July that E7 had her first successful torpedo attack – on a circa 4000 ton steamer. Then, as had Nasmith, he attacked shipping at Constantinople, destroying ammunition vessels in the harbour near the Topkhana Arsenal. He then focused on trains – they were the main method of transporting troops following Boyle’s sinking of Gul Djemal (above) and, by now, also supplies. After spending three weeks in the Marmara, E7 was relieved by Boyle on his third venture  into the Marmara on E14. Cochrane had sunk one gunboat, five steamers, seventeen large sailing vessels, and various light vessels that had been anchored off the Topkhana Arsenal.



On his second trip to the Marmara, on the 4th September 1915, Cochrane and E7 were not so lucky. They came up against wire netting and attempted to break through at full speed (usual method). This did not work and E7 got caught up in the net. A couple of mines exploded near to her hull. This cleared her of the netting but Cochrane was forced to surface into the open arms of a Turkish ship. He and his crew were taken prisoner. He was to escape only to be recaptured and then escape again – this time successfully. Cochrane was awarded the DSO and bar (latter for his escape). He didn’t get the VC as motoring under enemy mines was now too easy!!

NPG x4655; Sir Archibald Douglas Cochrane by Walter Stoneman

Archibald Douglas Cochrane MP, circa 1936

Between them, E11, E14 and E7 had sunk over 300 vessels including two battleships, a destroyer and five gunboats and had prevented the reinforcement of Turkish troops to Gallipoli by sea. Fine job, chaps! The last submarine in the Sea of Maramara was E2 and she was recalled on 2nd January 1916 as no longer required after the final withdrawal of troops from Cape Helles.

Boyle ended his naval career as a Rear-Admiral. By 1926, Nasmith was Rear-Admiral, Submarines, and was to be appointed the Second Sea Lord in 1935, retiring an Admiral in 1946. Cochrane retired from the Navy a captain, became an MP for East Fife then Dunbartonshire and ended up as Governor of Burma and with a knighthood.



[1] In His book, Destintion Dardanelles, Michael Wilson reports that in the early days of the war, neither Britain nor Germany envisaged the use of submarines as a means of waging war on the other’s commerce. When Lord Fisher suggested that this may be a future option for the Germans this was rejected out of hand by both Admiral Prince Louis Battenburg and Winston Churchill, with Captain (Commodore) Roger Keyes saying “we all discarded this possible behaviour as impossible and unthinkable.”  Disgraceful behaviour – just not cricket!!  Needless to say, the Germans did attack our commerce.

[2] Boyle desperately wanted a deck gun and went to the Constructor’s office on a Sunday for a pad for the gun to be fitted. He reported his frustration as the official in the office was “unable to put anyone on the job today – there is no work on a Sunday unless very pressing.”  How British again.  What’s next? – Tell the enemy they can’t attack at the moment, it’s tea-time ……


Next week: Back to Crete – you know I want to. Deciphering Linear B – credit where credit is due


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I opened the morning newspaper and was dumbfounded to read in the obituary column that I had died.  I quickly phoned the Dean of my College, an esteemed but aged colleague, Professor Aluicious Grantham-Hardrascal.

“Did you see the paper?” I asked him, “They say I died!!”

“Yes, I saw it!” replied Aluicious.  After a pause he added, “Where are you calling from?”


‘K’ for Klot class submarines

I HAVE ALWAYS been fascinated by submarines but not to the extent of serving in one! Equally, I have always admired those courageous and/or mad enough to do so. One such individual, a navigational officer, Michael Highwood, was kind enough to show me around the Submarine Museum and HMS Alliance, a 1947-1973 ‘A’ Class submarine, at Gosport the other week and it just confirmed all my aforementioned thoughts.

alliance3         alliance

HMS Alliance – scary. She looks enormous from the outside but you can’t swing a guinea-pig inside.

This brings me on to my tales of submarine woe – the WWI ‘K’ class sub. This has got to be the worst ever RN vessel design. If ‘K’ dosen’t stand for the designer whose name should be Klot, it should certainly stand for Katastrophe. During WWI we had various types of ‘conventional’ submarines but Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, was keen to build a large and fast submarine to accompany the Grand Fleet. He commissioned the design of the K class. They were to be longer than a football field – over 100 yards – three times the size of the, then, existing British E class submarine. It was  not a good idea.


Admiral of the Fleet Lord ‘Jacky’ Fisher of Kilverstone (1841-1920)

The Director of Naval Construction, Sir Eustace Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, came up with the design for ‘K’ class submarines and to satisfy Fisher’s need for the submarine to achieve at least 20 knots on the surface (to keep up with the fleet) he decided that they would have to be driven by steam turbines with funnels. Yes, funnels on a submarine. On diving, the two funnels folded back into wells which were sealed with hatches.  Even so, I’m no ship designer but even I can see possible problems on the surface with heavy seas entering the funnels and putting the boiler out ….  Yep, with a submarine with funnels, there must be trouble ahead.


Sir Eustace Tennyson-d’Eyncourt (1868-1951) 

Well trouble was ahead, but not just because of funnels. Twenty-one K class subs were initially ordered to be built in 1915 and 1916 at Vickers & Maxim in Barrow. One of the design’s major difficulties was diving in haste – a rather important requirement for a submarine I would have thought. The average sub was expected to be able to dive below the surface between 30-40 seconds. K class subs took 5 minutes to dive! This made them ‘sitting ducks’ to say the least. Anyway, let’s have a look at their track record:

  • K3 was the first to be launched around May 1916 with Prince Albert, the future King George VI, on board. When she tried to dive she sunk head first to the bottom with her stern above the water line with propellers spinning wildly in the air. Luckily no lives were lost – just face. Drowning Prince Albert would definitely have been be a little embarrassing for the Royal Navy.
  • K5 disappeared for no known reason, on the 20th January 1917, in a mock battle in the Bay of Biscay. Wreckage was found and it was assumed she must have exceeded her maximum depth.


HMS K5 under steam – weird site for submarine

  • K13 (now who is going to want to serve on a boat numbered 13?), on 29th January 1917, dived at Gaire Loch. The boiler room flooded (those funnels again?) and the sub sank to the bottom. Following an incompetent rescue mission, sadly 25 lost their lives. She was salvaged and renumbered K22 (no, not finished with her yet).
  • K4 ran aground at Walney Island also in January 1917 (and not finished with her yet).

K 4 aground at Walney island

HMS K4 aground at Walney Island

  • K4 was then rammed by K1 on 18th November 1917 (and still not finished with K4 yet).
  • K2 suffered an internal explosion and caught fire. There were no fire extinguishers on board (surprised?) but, fortunately, she was able to surface and the fire was extinguished with buckets of sea water passed down hand-to-hand (don’t even ask!).
  • K6 sat on the bottom with a failed compressed-air system. She was fixed and refloated but this did not bode well for what was her her trial run (shall we have another go?).
  • K 14, on her trial run, developed leaky plates and electrical fires – but that was to be the least of her problems (more on her below).

The above last three incidents were just examples of problems that occurred on all of the first thirteen K class boats during their trials between January and May 1917.


HMS K3 with the surrendered German Grand fleet in background

There’s more. June 1917, four K class subs were involved with an anti-submarine sweep in the North Sea with destroyers and conventional submarines. During the ten day operation no U-boats were destroyed, yet the Germans sunk nine British merchant ships who were supposedly being protected by the British force. But there was action: in the confusion, K7 was identified as a German U-boat and depth charged, fortunately unsuccessfully, by two British destroyers. She (K7) then found a genuine U-boat and fired at it with a torpedo at point blank range, hitting the U-boat but no explosion followed. K2 was reported lost with all hands by the Fair Isle lighthouse who had seen the submarine suffer an explosion, believing her to have hit a mine. The Admiralty sent out telegrams with the bad news to the crews’ next of kin who were naturally all devastated. Two days later the submarine appeared unidentified at night at Skapa flow causing a general panic as no one recognised it. Fortunately no one fired on her. The explosion the lighthouse had seen was K2 firing its gun at the lighthouse!


K’ class submarine complete with two funnels (K26 was launched after the war in 1919)

Then came calamity with a capital ‘K’. Operation E.C.1 on the 1st February 1918 was to prove ‘K’ class subs were a total liability and the event became known as the ‘battle’ of May Island, although it wasn’t a battle as such. Let’s set the scene: The battlecruiser, Courageous, led the operation along the Firth of Forth. Behind her came the cruiser, Ithuriel, with five K class subs. About five miles behind came four more battlecruisers, and behind them the cruiser, Fearless, with four K class subs. Behind them, at the tail of the entourage, came the huge battleships with escorting destroyers. A force to be reckoned with – or so you would have thought. This is what happened:

  • First of all eight armed trawlers mine-sweeping in the Firth approached the fleet and a mist appeared. Ithruel lost visual contact with Courageous and went off-course. There then came confusion among  the five K subs. They were trying to follow Ithruel’s lights but were bewildered by the flashing navigational lights of the trawlers. K14 tried to avoid the trawlers by going hard to starboard, but in the process jammed her helm. Her commander stopped engines otherwise he would be going around in circles. K22 (the salvaged K13 above), steaming at 19 knots (despite the mist), ploughed into K14.
  • The battlecruisers (five miles behind) were soon bearing down blind on the carnage caused by K22 and K14. The battlecrusier, Inflexible, as its name perhaps denotes, ploughed into K22.
  • Behind Inflexible came the cruiser Fearless and the four other K subs, all at full speed. Fearless rammed K17 and sunk her.
  • Also moving at full speed was K6 as it crashed into K4 (the one mentioned twice, above), which for some strange reason had stopped and had no lights on. She sank and nearly took K6 with her.
  • Desperate attempts were being made to rescue the crews of the sinking K subs when the tail-end escorting destroyers appeared and blindly ploughed through the survivors of K17.



Despite all this, K class subs were still being constructed after the war (see K26 in pic above) – and still failing. On the 25th June 1921, K15 sunk minding its own business at its mooring at Portsmouth. It was due to a loss of pressure causing dive vents to open – bit careless. And just to mention the inevitable, also in 1921, K22 (again), dived with both her funnels open ……



The tragedy of this unnecessary loss of life and destruction is difficult to comprehend. Rear-Admiral Ernest Leir commented, “The only good thing about K boats was that they never engaged the enemy.”  It makes you wonder whose side Tennyson-d’Eyncourt was on when he designed the K class submarine.



German U-boats caused a great deal of trouble at the beginning of the war and Great Britain had to come up with a way of detecting their presence. The solution was to sail the merchant ships in convoy supported by warships. However, before this was decided upon, the public were encouraged to come up with ideas. Well-meaning as some of them were, one or two were, shall we say, not all that practical. Suggestions included the training cormorants to drop bombs,  seagulls to spot periscopes, and sea-lions to spot U-boats. How these birds and sea-lions were going to distinguish between U-boats and allied subs and then (with regard to the latter two) communicate to the authorities wasn’t explained! In saying that, on the sea-lion suggestion, apparently the Royal Navy expended some effort – and sea lions – in a feasibility study ….. (if you don’t believe me, read Peter Lawrence’s book on A Century of Submarines, Tempus, 2001).


Cormorant bomber


Next week: ‘E’ for Excellent class submarines – not all subs were like the K class, some actually succeeded. Let’s look at E7, E11 and E14 in Dardanalles in WWI


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I had another visit from my old chum Hamish McCondor the other day. He was in quite an irate mood. He growled,

“My neighbour knocked on my door at 2:30 am this morning. Can you believe that, 2:30 am?!

Luckily for him I was still up playing my Bagpipes.”

Art Smth

Ill Met by Moonlight: Hollywood fact or fiction?

IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT, Ill met by moonlight was a film about the kidnapping of a German General from Crete in 1944. And, yes, yes, we established last week that this film wasn’t made by Hollywood – but it’s all part of the ‘series’!


Film fact

The idea was to kidnap the German General, Freidrich-Wilhelm Müller, who was a particularly nasty commander of the German forces in Crete. He was responsible for hundreds of Cretan civilian reprisal executions and the razing of villages to the ground. He was known as the ‘Butcher of Crete’. The leader of the kidnappers was a British major, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and his side-kick was Capt. William (Billy) Stanley Moss (who wrote the book of the film of the same name – and probably has the T-shirt [1]). However, by the time the plan had been organised, Muller had been replaced by General Heinrich Kreipe. It’s probably just as well because, due to Muller’s nastiness, he would most likely have been killed by the Cretans long before Fermor & Co got anywhere near to getting him off the island.


Müller, he was tried for war crimes after the war and executed by firing squad in Athens on 20th May 1947 – the anniversary of the German invasion of Crete – nice touch

It all began on the 26th April 1944. Kreipe was being driven from his headquarters in Archanes to Villa Ariadne (previously Sir Arthur Evans’ villa) at Knossos where he stayed. It was 9.30 at night. Fermor and Moss were dressed in German corporals’ uniforms and waved the car down. The driver was hauled out and hit on the head by Moss, whilst Femor pulled Kreipe from the front seat. By now the remainder of the kidnapping force of Cretans had appeared. Three of them jumped into the back seat with Kreipe wedged between and one of them had a knife to his throat to keep him quiet.


Kreipe – not so nasty general

In the film, whilst planning the kidnapping, one of the Cretan look-outs was adamant that the car carrying Kreipe was a Mercedes; in fact in 1944, it was an Opel, but I suppose the public hadn’t heard much of that make of car at that time – but everyone knew Mercedes!


Moss (left) and Fermor dressed as German corporals (film fiction: Leigh Fermor did not kill two Germans in the dentist’s surgery and take their uniforms)

Four of the Cretans set off on foot with the dazed driver, Alfred Fenske, and they were to meet up with the others at Anoyeia. The fate of the driver was not mentioned in the film but he never made it to the meeting place. He was killed because he was too much trouble – not the ‘done thing’ for a British film in the 1950s.


 Map of the kidnapping on the road from Archanes to Knossos

Fermor & Co, with Moss driving (Billy not Stirling …… sorry), set off in the car to Heraklion, passing some twenty-two check points. Each time Fermor just shouted out the window, “General’s car” (but in German of course, otherwise it would have been a bit of a give-away) and pointed to the General’s pennant on the wing of the car. On the coast road to Anoyeai, at Yeni Gave (now Drosia), they piled out of the car and headed into the hills on foot. All except Fermor and one Cretan, George. They took the car past Heliana and left it prominently in the middle of the road with a note in it saying that this kidnapping was carried out by a British commando unit and had nothing to do with the Cretans. The idea was to prevent reprisals, but it didn’t work [2]


Major Patrick Leigh Fermor

The party then went up to Mount Ida, mid-Crete. It was during this trip that Kreipe awoke one morning and looked at the sun shining on the mountain and muttered to himself in Latin, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte …” [3]. Fermor recognised it as one of the few Odes of Horace that he knew and continued the quotation in Latin [4].  The two of them had a bonding.


Capt. William Stanley Moss

The plan was to come due south from Mount Ida and pick up the boat on the beach but it transpired that the beach in question was swarming with Germans. Fermor had asked the BBC to announce that the kidnappers had got Kreipe off the island and were on their way to Cairo. That way the Germans would think they had left Crete so no point in searching for them. Unfortunately, as in most plans, incompetence creeps in/communications fail and  the radio message announced that General Kreipe had been captured and “is being taken off the island”. This told the Germans that he was still there so searches continued in earnest!

The rendezvous was then changed to Peristeres beach near Rhodakino. In the film, at the end, Kreipe tries to bribe a young Cretan boy, Niko, to go to the Germans who are guarding the Peristeres beach: in the first place there were no Germans on that beach; in the second place, Kreipe only spoke German and French which none of the Cretans could understand. So that didn’t happen. What was true was that the signal to the boat was to be SB in morse code and neither Fermor nor Moss knew morse code (well both knew S for SOS but neither knew B!). How could you make such a blunder after all the plans!! The man who came to their rescue, in the film Sandy (Rendel), was, in real life, Dennis Ciclitiras (credit where credit is due). Kreipe was taken off the island on 14th May, 18 days after his capture, and sailed to Cairo.


Leigh Fermor saying goodbye to Kreipe in Cairo

Kreipe was rather overwhelmed by the help and support, with guides, food, blankets and anything else needed, given everywhere they went by the Cretan islanders. In his book, The Cretan Runner, George Psychoundakis says that Kreipe remarked, “I am beginning to wonder who is occupying the island – us or the English.”

Kreipe was sent as a POW to Canada (near Calgary) and later transferred to Wales (Island Farm near Bridgend), then finally, Shugborough Park in Staffordshire. He was repatriated to Germany in October 1947 and died in Hanover in 1976, aged 81. In 1972, he attended a televised reunion with Fermor and some of his Cretan kidnappers (sadly Moss had died in 1965) [5]. When asked if he had any hard feelings he said no, otherwise he wouldn’t be on the show. Good loser! Click here for the TV show.

kreipe-fermor-later 1976 reunion – Fermor centre right, Kreipe right of him


[1] See also Patrick Leigh Fermor’s own recent book on the action, Abducting a General, John Murray, 2014.

[2] At first there were no reprisals as the new Commander, General Brauer, disliked Kreipe and seemed to consider the kidnapping somewhat amusing. However, when Müller returned to take Brauer’s place, it was a different story. The German reprisals included the burning of Cretan villages in the Amari valley, killing over 450 people. This was half (if not wholly) expected (despite Fermor’s note left in the car) and some considered the venture not worth the deaths that resulted. Others have suggested that there were other reasons for these reprisals which is why the Germans took so long to carry them out (the kidnapping took place in May, reprisals were in August). It has to be said that it had neither tactical nor strategic value, just good propaganda. Hmmmm …. I still have my doubts that it was ever a good idea bearing in mind the reprisals that would obviously follow.  I was recently told by a colleague of mine that a friend of his who knew Fermor was told by Fermor (who was living in Greece) that he (Fermor) could never go back to Crete because the German reprisals for capturing the general there had sparked a traditional blood feud against him as the indirect author of villagers’ deaths.


[3]  Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte
Do you not see how [Mount] Soracte is shining …

[4]  nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto

beneath a heavy covering of snow, and how
The laboring trees can no longer hold up their burden,
And how the rivers are frozen by the sharp cold?

[5] Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor OBE, DSO, was knighted in 2004 and died in 2011 aged 96.


Next week:  Let’s go back to the previous war ….. ‘K’ for Klot class submarines – a look at the disastrous K class WWI subs.


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I recently discovered the unrobbed tomb of the 3rd century BC Macedonian ruler, Philipidus Windsoros (sometimes known as Phil the Greek). He had around him the usual treasures to show off his power and wealth in life.  There was one interesting gold casket inscribed ‘due debtos’ (due debts) and containing four clay pots.  Clearly, dignitaries who had owed Philipidus money were happy to honour these debts on his death. In the first pot there were 30 gold coins and a note on papyrus I translated as stating that this was the sum owed to Philipidus and unpaid at his death – now settled, signed Leodinos of Sparta.  The second pot had 50 gold coins and a similar note signed Xernes of Persia.  The third pot, 70 gold coins and a similar note signed Konon of Thebes.  The fourth pot contained a similar note signed by Joseph of Israel, but no coins.  Instead another piece of papyrus was sown to it with the words ‘150 gold talents’ written on it, and signed by Joseph of Israel ……… It was a cheque.

Art Smth