Here is an extract from The Girl Under the Olive Tree based on a factual account of how families stranded in Athens managed to get themselves across to Crete with some tragic results in May 1941. I have used this part of the real heroine's true story as a turning point in how my character, Penny, (who is based on Johanna Stavridi's life) uses her skills and saves lives
The convoy of diplomats and their families with an escort of
soldiers drove through the evening to the port of Monemvasia.
The diplomatic families were sailing on a steam yacht, Iolanthe,
while Penny’s more subtle exit was to be made with some
Greek political evacuees and diplomatic staff with their wives
and children in a Greek caïque, hired from some seafarer who
knew the remote islands in the Aegean.
‘We must travel only under cover of darkness,’ Bruce explained.
Penny shivered, glad of her Red Cross cloak and battledress
khaki borrowed from one of the army nurses, who’d given her
a tearful farewell and a medallion of St Christopher for safe trav-
elling. How could she be deserting them? Yet she knew her
own presence might put them at risk for harbouring a British
alien in their midst.
As they bumped along the now familiar rutted tracks she
stared out at the sheet of gunmetal that was the sea. It looked
calm enough, but danger lurked from submarines and the ever-
present dive bombers. She prayed she was not taking up
someone else’s precious space, but Bruce assured her that there
would be plenty of room on the caïque for stragglers and strays.
The Amalia looked seaworthy, which was more than could be
said for its captain. He looked like a pirate with his black beard,
and he was rolling on deck, drunk to the point of stupor. Bruce
and his friends threw him down into the hold in disgust.
‘Anyone know how to steer this thing?’ he yelled.
Two bronzed Anzacs in tattered shorts, waiting for a lift off
the beach, volunteered to get them started with the Greek crew,
who looked nervous. It was going to be a motley bunch sailing
the ship until they could sober up the captain.
Slowly and silently they edged through the water.
The Iolanthe, sailing ahead, was now just a speck on the horizon.
With the throb of the engines, Penny curled up under her cloak,
trying to snatch some sleep. Danger lurked under the water and
they all sat in total silence seeing the smoking wrecks of ships
lurching down into the deep. Penny stared out at the black
water, smelling the telltale fumes of oil and burning rubber with
only her thoughts for company.
Everything had happened so fast: bumping into Bruce,
collecting her case, her uniform and papers, saying farewell, all
in one afternoon. As she left the mainland shore behind, she
thought of Yolanda, wondering where she was and if she was
still alive. Soon the numbness and stupor of exhaustion and a
good helping of rough red wine settled her queasy stomach.
She woke at ﬁrst light, stiff-limbed and hungry, knowing that
they could easily be spotted by air. Bruce had ordered that no
men, guns, helmets or uniforms be visible. There was a tarpau-
lin for the men to hide under should the worst happen. Penny
felt she was holding her breath, looking out constantly for any
sighting of the enemy in the sky and under the sea. No one
spoke when only minutes later, they heard the throb of engines.
The Fates were against them but no one panicked. Now they
must put Bruce’s strategy to work.
‘Are you OK, Pen? You know what to do?’ he asked as he
ducked out of sight.
Penny nodded, trying not to shake as she whipped off her
cloak and trousers and ﬂung on a pair of khaki shorts, which she
rolled up to reveal her long legs. The Greek wives were sitting
in dresses and they spread out a tablecloth and lay down as if
they were sunbathing. Penny could see the Messerschmitt
swooping down low, and then it banked and turned, ready to
strafe the deck. Heart in her mouth, Penny shook out her hair,
showed off her tanned legs. ‘Show your legs, ladies,’ she ordered,
hoping they would act out this desperate attempt to fool the
pilot. ‘Wave! Look as if you are on holiday!’
Penny felt as if her heart were leaping out of her chest as she
looked up and waved a book in the air, trying to smile through
gritted teeth, hoping their ruse would work.
Then, to their immense relief, the pilot swooped down,
waved back to them from his cockpit, and sped off to look for
other prey, leaving the girls staring up into the sky, shaking at
such a close encounter.
‘Well done, Pen. I knew I could rely on you in a tight corner.’
Bruce smiled down at the prostrate women. ‘Hold to your
posts, ladies, we’re not out of danger yet. We’re heading for the
nearest uninhabited island.’
Penny watched a lump of rock slowly emerge from the haze
on the horizon and they sailed towards a shallow bay where the
Iolanthe was already moored. It looked like a paradise island of
white sand and turquoise-blue waters. There was plenty of
shade from the trees on shore and it was good to feel terra ﬁrma
I can climb any mountain but the sea unnerves me, Penny
thought as she jumped ashore to join the party already spreading
tablecloths and opening picnic baskets. The children were
letting off steam playing tag and hide-and-seek, with strict
orders to hide properly should any planes appear.
The Iolanthe had a Lewis gun on board, and ammunition, but
it had suffered some damage getting out of the harbour, and the
crew and some of the ofﬁcers were busy trying to make repairs.
Penny joined Judy Harrington, whom she’d once met at one
of the embassy parties with Evadne, sitting with the other
embassy wives for gin and limes under the shade of the huge
trees, lying back and wondering if she was in some bizarre
dream. Then they heard a warning klaxon from the yacht ring-
ing in their ears and the wives jumped up to gather the children
and run for cover. This time there would be no play-acting on
the beach as three heavy bombers thundered overhead. To her
horror Penny watched the Iolanthe blown out the water in a ball
of ﬁre and the Amalia was rocked with the blast. Immediately
Bruce and the Anzac soldiers were rowing out to the blazing
wreck even though there was ammo still exploding. In the
chaos of smoke and screaming, the wives yelled in terror for
their children to take cover. Suddenly the calm sea was rocking
with debris and burning oil, and the smell was of burning ﬂesh.
The survivors were dragged from the water. It was a terrible
sight on such a beautiful spot, but there was no time for delay.
The children were rushed away from the shore, while women
were screaming in horror, not knowing who had been killed.
Penny’s mind went straight from gin as a drink to gin as
disinfectant. What could she use to make a clearing station?
Alcohol to cleanse, salt water, bandages, stretchers, wood for
‘I’ll need clean shirts, underskirts, anything clean, cotton, silk.
You’d better rip them into strips,’ she ordered. Giving the stunned
women jobs might keep panic and shock at bay for a while.
The ﬁrst to come out were beyond her help. The others, she
examined, having read somewhere that salt water burns healed
better than dry ones. She hoped this was correct as she tried
carefully to peel fabric from skin.
There were nine dead men – crew, ofﬁcials and two soldiers
– six had third-degree burns and two were in shock. Shock played
havoc with the body if not recognized so she put these men in
the care of Marisa and Elpi, the Greek maids from the Iolanthe.
Bruce had superﬁcial burns on his arms but no blast injuries.
He was anxious to make repairs to their caïque now, take every-
one off the island and hide somewhere else in case the Stuka
dive bombers returned to ﬁnish them off. The captain, sobered
now by the morning’s tragedy, knew how to navigate to a safer
port where they could get help for the injured.
At nightfall, everyone gathered to bury the dead. It was a sad
party that limped across to Kimolos. Bruce stood on deck grim-
faced, his arms bandaged with Penny’s shirt. ‘Sorry, Pen, didn’t
mean to bring you into all this, but it was a good job we had someone
on board who knew what they were doing.’ He was looking at her with
admiration and Penny felt herself blushing. How strange they had once
met in their ﬁnery in a Highland ballroom and now they stood ragged,
burned and exhausted in this world of war.
‘Perhaps I was meant to be here . . . What’ll happen now?’
‘We’ll get picked up, not sure when, but there are too many
important chaps on board for us to be overlooked. Don’t know
what we’d’ve done without you.’
‘Where were we heading, before all this happened?’ she asked.
‘Over the wine-dark sea to the birthplace of Zeus, to the
island where Theseus overcame the Minotaur,’ he whispered.
She was too tired to take in his allusions and looked blank.
‘To Crete, last outpost of the King of Greece now,’ he
continued. ‘The show must go on and they’re preparing for the
next onslaught. You’ll be shipped out on the ﬁrst convoy with
the diplomatic wives and children, of course.’
That’s what you think, Penny thought, staring out across the
blue waters. She’d made herself useful, saved lives because of
her training here. Once again fate was conspiring to point the
way forward. Surely there was a role for her here more than
ever now? With a deep certainty in the pit of her stomach
Penny knew she’d not be seeing England for a very long time.