In September 1943, by moonlight, John Mulgan parachuted into Nazi-occupied Greece, an ‘irregular’ in the British Army. In the gadgety traditions of James Bond, he had a tiny compass hidden in a fly button, silk maps sewn into his trouser seams, and a cyanide pill coated in rubber. Just in case.
The 31-year-old was fresh from a Special Operations Executive (SOE) training camp in Haifa, where he’d been schooled in sabotage: road ambush, concealment of electric detonators, and silent killing with hands or a knife. It all came from the SOE manual, a document still hush-hush today, offering an assortment of dark arts, even murder inflicted with a fountain pen.
It was four years since the start of WW2; four years since publication of Man Alone, Mulgan’s epic Hemingway-influenced take on sullen, forlorn masculinity playing out against the turmoil of the interwar years. The novel became a Kiwi classic; reportedly he didn’t even tell his English wife he was writing it.
But by April 1945 he was dead at 33, conked out in a luxury Cairo hotel – even preceding Katherine Mansfield, usually held up as our literature’s most premature passing. They found him in bed, dressed in green silk pyjamas. What happened?
John Mulgan and the Greek Left: A Regrettably Intimate Acquaintance, a riveting new book by Greece-based academics C.-Dimitris Goulenas and Ruth Parkin-Goulenas, probes Mulgan’s world of warfare and his problematic suicide, even hinting at foul play by his British masters as the wild Colonial went rogue.
What sets this provocative yet authoritative account apart is its Greek orientation; the authors are distinguished Greece-based academics, one New Zealand-born, who’ve spent years trying to crack the case, chasing heavily restricted files.
Born in 1911, Mulgan grew up clever, sporty and a bit dreary, amongst a set of super privileged, Anglocentric white Kiwi males, many of whom headed to England, and variously embraced the heady radical politics of the ‘Red’ Thirties.
Mulgan moved to Oxford in 1933. He worked in publishing and became a political observer and correspondent, posting dispatches to Kiwi newspapers about the ‘Popular Front’, the coalition of socialist parties emerging in France and Spain, comparing them favourably with a new Labour Government at home. He was shoulder-tapped for a stint in Geneva by the Savage administration.
After volunteering in 1938, he’d joined a British regiment, initially having a mixed, mostly quiet war; first garrisoned in Northern Ireland, then in North Africa where he chafed and all but mutinied under British command.
That changed when he signed up to a freewheeling SOE unit, later embedded and enmeshed with anti-fascist partisans belonging to ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army and their political wing EAM (National Liberation Front), chiefly helping harass and kill the occupying Nazis.
And so began Mulgan’s year of living dangerously, sleeping rough and roaming steep, inhospitable Greek hills redolent of the Kaimanawa Ranges in the central North Island where his fictional character Johnson hides out after shooting the boss.
And it is there that Mulgan found his mojo. By the autumn of 1944, as the Germans retreated, the ‘Major’ and ELAS partisans, armed only with small arms and mortars, famously halted an entire division, slaughtering many. He wrote of one particularly exhilarating night in Thessaly: he and his fellows celebrating a bloodthirsty railway station attack with roasted lambs and free-flowing ouzo.
Then there was his bromance with the ‘General’ (finally revealed here as ELAS commander Stefanos Sarafis, a Greek national hero) touched on in Mulgan’s wartime memoir Report on Experience: exploits topped off with all night drinking and fireside propaganda singalongs. He called himself ‘happier in this work than in anything I have done…the most interesting time of the war, perhaps of my life.’
Late in 1944 as the war’s end neared, Mulgan’s marvellous year, too, ended. Greece descended into bloody civil war as, in a sequence of complicated and fast-moving events, the British engineered the return of an unpopular right-wing government. Greeks call it the Dekemvrina, the battles of December. A drained Winston Churchill, fretting over Russian influence on EAM and communism in general in the volatile aftermath of WW2, callously, controversially cut the Greek Left loose. In Athens, right-wing brigades backed by the British fired on civilians supporting ELAS-EAM, with 28 killed in one day. RAF planes strafed leftist partisans like the ones Mulgan knew and openly adored. ELAS forces were defeated.
A shattered Mulgan helped SOE in the aftermath. On 19 April, he left Athens for Cairo and a briefing at British Army HQ, having successfully requested a transfer to the NZ Forces. Six days later he was dead.
Jan Morris describes wartime Cairo as:
the last great assembly point of the imperial power, the last place where, in a setting properly exotic, the imperial legions mingled in their staggering variety…there were kilts and turbans and tarbooshes, slouch hats and jodhpurs. There were Kenyan pioneers, and Indian muleteers, and Australian tank crews, and New Zealand fighter pilots, and South African engineers.
Once in Cairo, Mulgan wrote out a lengthy briefing to a friend in the New Zealand government, an insider’s report of British perfidy in Greece, typed while under oath to its watchful secret services.
The timing was delicate. Unusually sceptical of British war policy for a leader of a loyal Dominion, PM Peter Fraser was positioning himself for an activist role in a planned United Nations organization, likely to see Britain with a diminished role.
He’d supported an anti-British groundswell in New Zealand after the Dekemvrina, assuring the electorate that no Kiwi troops participated. It was this noisy ‘Hands off Greece’ movement that led Joseph Wilson, a sympathetic associate of Mulgan and leading External Affairs official, to seek a private briefing.
In the 4000-word report, Mulgan owned up to his ‘noble and regrettably intimate acquaintance’ with ELAS-EAM, a phrase used in the book’s title. The final paragraph was provocative:
The Communist party in Greece has a good future, with or without Russian support, because it has a good organisation and discipline and knows where it is going. If I were a young man in Greece now, I would be tempted to join it with the idea of trying to ameliorate it from within.
What happened next? Mulgan’s lethal overdose of morphine, the two other mystery people in his hotel room, the three letters he typed out, with their curious fabrications. These continue to bewilder and frustrate scholars.
So is the truth out there, in fading documents locked in Athens and London archives? Thanks to the diligence of C-Dimitris Goulenas and Ruth Parkin-Goulenas, we know a little bit more. They assert that the woman with whom, as biographer Vincent O’Sullivan notes, Mulgan passed his last nights likely was a notorious SOE agent. Highly trained, famously ruthless, she was skilled in using seduction to acquire information. Churchill called this individual, notable for her many aliases, ‘his favourite spy’.
We’ve come to know her as Christine Atherton, the woman in his bed to whom Mulgan wrote a letter. She’s named as Krystyna Gustava Skarbek, a former Miss Poland, celebrated in several books such as The Spy Who Loved: the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s First Female Special Agent of WW2.
She may have been Ian Fleming’s sometime girlfriend. He immortalised Skarbek as Vesper Lynd, Bond’s love interest in Casino Royale: a beauty ‘full of consideration without compromising her arrogant spirit’ who believes ‘in doing everything fully, getting the most out of everything one does.’
The authors patiently build their case. Skarbek was apparently based in Cairo in April 1945; the famous ‘Christine’ who gave evidence at his inquest formally identified herself as a Gustava Krystyna Atheston (sic).
More questions. Did Mulgan know of Skarbek’s true identity? What information was she trying to glean? To what extent was he in hot water with the British? And who was the third man, the mysterious other person in the hotel room? The authors speculate he was William ‘Bill’ Moss, a leading SOE operative known to Mulgan, the man who in 1944 famously helped Patrick Leigh Fermor abduct, on Crete, the German general Heinrich Kreipe.
In 1945, Cairo was a party town for troops on leave, a vital rest and recreation hub. Novelist Olivia Manning described it as ‘like a bureau of sexual exchange’. We learn that SOE operatives based in the city were renowned for hard, riotous partying. Bill Moss hosted drunken gatherings, Skarbek often in attendance. One night ended with a flaming sofa being thrown out of the window; at another, raucous guests shot out the light bulbs.
The authors conclude with a reference to the ‘considerable ambiguity’ over Mulgan’s ‘mysterious’ death. They take us further:
An even darker conjecture, one that hangs over this whole tragic episode is that ‘Atherton’/Skarbeck was indeed somehow involved in Mulgan’s death. Skarbeck’s famed daring and cool, her excellence in the art of ‘silent killing’…as well as her expertise as a gatherer and keeper of secret information all make this at least possible.
… Given the exceptional sensitivity of the information and opinions he had just sent to the New Zealand Ministry of External Affairs, it is not out of the question that his every move was under close observation. We may never know whether this observation was assisted by ‘Christine Atherton’.
The authors look forward to the day ‘when more documents are declassified or discovered’. In the meantime, we have what Vincent O’Sullivan, in his foreword to this book, calls ‘startlingly fresh’ information that means ‘the door now swings wide’ on the last days of John Mulgan.