A distinguished classical scholar, he was parachuted into wartime Greece to play a leading role in organising resistance groups
Thursday April 5 2001
Nicholas Hammond, who has died aged 93, was a classical scholar of great distinction and prodigious output. Like that of a number of his classicist and archaeologist contemporaries, his knowledge of Greece, its modern language and topography were put to good service by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in occupied Greece during the second world war.
He won scholarships to Fettes College and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. After an outstanding performance in the classical tripos, he was elected a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, at the age of 22. Summer vacations in the 1930s were spent in feats of walking that led to the unrivalled knowledge of the topography of northern Greece and southern Albania that was to stand him in such good stead during the war. His first-hand knowledge of Greece and its modern language (he also spoke Albanian) made him an obvious recruit for SOE.
When SOE first tried to send him into Greece in the summer of 1940, in the hope that he would be able to foment resistance in Italian-occupied Albania, he was denied entry by the suspicious Greek authorities. Once Greece had entered the war, their attitude changed, and he was allowed into the country in March 1941. On behalf of SOE, he taught sabotage techniques to Greeks, many of them communists, who were intended to act as the nucleus of post-occupation resistance groups. When the Germans invaded Greece in April 1941, he himself destroyed stockpiles of material of use to the enemy. He made the rendezvous with the caïque that was to evacuate him to Crete with only minutes to spare.
His SOE activities continued on Crete in the month before the German airborne attack on the island, one of his last acts being to blow up the ammunition dump that SOE had established on an island in Suda Bay. He had a narrow escape when two members of the crew of the caïque on which he withdrew to Egypt were killed in an air attack. On arrival in Alexandria, Hammond was invited to dinner by an admiral who sought, without success, to convince him that the Odyssey had been written by a woman.
Hammond’s expertise in sabotage techniques was deployed to good effect at SOE’s training school in Haifa, where Moshe Dayan was one of his pupils. After SOE’s success, in collaboration with Greek resistance groups, in blowing up the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct in November 1942, the military authorities in the Middle East gave a high priority to subversion in Greece, and Hammond was parachuted into Thessaly in February 1943. He experienced a hard landing and was knocked unconscious. At 35, he was 10 or more years older than most British liaison officers, and one of the very few who was already married.
Among his many exploits was a perilous clandestine journey to Thessaloniki disguised as a Vlach shepherd visiting the big city. So effective was the heavily-moustachioed Hammond’s disguise that he was asked for advice on cheese-making. Like many British liaison officers, he was frustrated by the amount of time he had to spend on politics and on trying to keep the peace between rival resistance groups, and his experiences led him to develop a marked antipathy towards the largest of these, the communist-controlled AM/ELAS.
In the summer of 1944, he temporarily assumed com mand of the Allied military mission to the Greek resistance. In this capacity he was responsible for handling the totally unexpected and precipitate arrival of a Soviet military mission in Greece. He established a good rapport with his Soviet opposite number, the enigmatic and reticent Colonel Grigorii Popov, at a series of “teas”. At one of these, hosted by Popov and consisting of a saucer of sliced tomatoes washed down with bottles of whisky, vodka and Georgian brandy, with a demijohn of ouzo in reserve, all five colonels present – three Russian, one American and one British (Hammond himself) – passed out, but without any of them revealing anything of substance about their respective missions.
Venture Into Greece, Hammond’s memoir of his wartime service – for which he was awarded the DSO and the Greek Order of the Phoenix – was written while he was recuperating in hospital after being evacuated from Greece in September 1944. It was not published until 1983, a time when Britain’s wartime role was the subject of impassioned debate in Greece.
After the war, Hammond returned as senior tutor to Clare College, where he remained until 1954, when he became headmaster of Clifton College, Bristol. In 1962 he was appointed professor of Greek at Bristol University, a post which he held until his retirement in 1973. He subsequently held a number of appointments as visiting professor at American and Australian universities. He served both as president of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies and as chairman of the British School at Athens, and was elected a member of the British Academy in 1968.
As don, as schoolmaster and in retirement, he published at a rapid rate, focusing in particular on the history of ancient Macedonia and Epirus, his research being informed by his intimate knowledge of the topography of these regions. In 1993, he published a further volume on the Allied military mission and the resistance in Western Macedonia.
When the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia emerged as an independent state in 1991, Hammond became a popular figure in Greece when he backed Greek protests that the Macedonians had plundered a name, Macedonia, and a symbol, the 16-pointed Star of Vergina, to which Greece claimed exclusive title. His suggestion, however, that the new state be given the ancient name of Paeonia was never very realistic. He retained his interest in Greek affairs until the very end.
Three weeks before his death, he and three Cambridge colleagues drew attention in a letter to the press to the threat to the site of the battle of Marathon posed by Greek plans for the 2004 Olympics.
He is survived by his wife Margaret and their two sons and two daughters. Another daughter predeceased him.
• Nicholas Geoffrey Lemprière Hammond, academic and resistance hero, born November 15 1907; died March 24 2001.