The Angry Hills – Leon Uris

The Angry Hills is Leon Uris’ second novel, coming on the heels of his much-appreciated Battle Cry. As with most of his books, this too has a personal connection; his uncle – a Jewish Pioneer who migrated to Palestine – was a soldier in the Palestinian Brigade, part of the British Expeditionary Forces in Greece during 1941 and taken prisoner by the invading German forces. Though the characters and the story are fictional, a lot of the events pertaining to the movements of the BEF and the description of the Greeks themselves comes from the diaries his uncle kept and which he gained access to.

It is a classic tale of the amateur, unprepared protagonist in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through adversities they gain a modicum of dexterity that allows them to stay a step ahead of the villains, coming to understand and appreciate the cause they have been thrust into. Our reluctant hero is the American Michael Morrison, a moderately successful author who is in Athens in 1941 to claim an inheritance left to his late wife. He doesn’t want to be there; the untimely death of his wife has left him embittered and cynical because Greece was one of the places they were supposed to have visited together. He is there only because of his lawyer’s insistence that he get the inheritance amount out of the country before it vanishes into the pockets of the invading Germans.

His presence coincides with that of the BEF retreating to evacuation points ahead of the advancing Germans. With Axis victory in Greece a given, the focus is on pulling out as many troops as they can before they get captured. Among the troops are two members of British Intelligence, Major Howe-Wilkins and his companion Soutar. Experienced in developing underground resistance, their mission is to obtain and get out of Greece a list of highly placed moles pretending to be collaborators but in reality, gathering information for the Allies. The list is in the possession of a lawyer named Stergiou, the same lawyer handling Morrison’s inheritance claim.

Waiting for Wilkins and Soutar is Konrad Heisler from the Gestapo. Heisler has a history with the pair, who have eluded him in Norway and France, so when a Greek collaborator informs him of their impending arrival, he gets in before them and sets a trap. Morrison unwittingly gets pulled into this fatal game of cat-and-mouse when he arrives at Stergiou’s place. The lawyer, while informing him the paperwork will take a few hours more, asks him to carry a letter to a colleague in England. It is the list of moles; Wilkins surmises that no one would suspect the American of being a courier and directs Stergiou to pass it through the writer.

Morrison agrees, seeing it as nothing more than a harmless letter, and heads off towards a pub to while away the hours before meeting Stergiou again. At the pub, he is joined by a New Zealander who introduces himself as Jack Mosley from the BEF. They drink together as they exchange stories and at the end of it, the sloshed Morrison makes his way back to the lawyer. The watching Mosley waits till he is out of sight, then gets into a car driven by Heisler, informing him that as far as he is concerned, the American is neither a spy nor a threat, and would in no way be involved with the list.

It is dark as Morrison arrives, and in his drunken state he doesn’t notice anything amiss until he trips over Stergiou’s bullet riddled body in his study. Sobering up, he tries to run out of the house, only to be confronted by the fatally wounded Major Howe-Wilkins brandishing a gun. Wilkins recognizes Morrison and gives him his badge and gun and tells him of a plane waiting at the airport, the badge will give him access to it. In his near incoherent state, he rambles about Soutar and the Germans before he dies, leading Morrison to believe they are the same and he should keep his distance.

The semi-sober Morrison tries to find a cab, but all the streets are deserted; the Greeks, mindful of the approaching Germans, have barricaded themselves in their homes. Walking down the empty streets, he finds himself being followed and is half crazed with fear when he finally finds a cab and heads towards the airport. The airport itself is in an uproar, with planes being readied to ferry the BEF troops out. Wilkins’ badge gets him through the armed barricade, where the soldier manning it informs him his plane will be ready to take off in ten minutes. He also tells him of a thin, short man wearing horn-rimmed glasses enquiring about the Major’s arrival. Morrison knows of no one who looks like that, and resolves to stay away from him, choosing to stay near the guard shack, but his brief sense of security is cut short by a squadron of Stukas strafing the airport.

Morrison watches as his way out of the country literally goes up in flames, bombed by the Stukas. In the bedlam following the attack, he hears someone calling for him, and hides in the guard shack. As the fires spread and the soldiers start evacuating, he has the presence of mind to change clothes with a dead soldier, but passes out before he can reach a truck. Luckily for him, he gets spotted and is thrown into one of the evacuating vehicles. He wakes up to find himself in a moving train, where a military doctor informs him they are heading towards the coast to evacuate by sea.

Morrison learns from the doctor that the commanding officer of the troops is a few cars ahead. Before he can get to him, he is spotted by Mosley, still masquerading as a BEF soldier. Turning back to avoid him, Morrison discovers the doctor being interrogated by a short man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Left with no other option, he opens the door and prepares to jump out of the moving train, but the train itself comes to a sudden halt; it is being bombed by Stukas. The haphazardly running troops conceal him from both his hunters, but he loses Wilkins’ badge in the mayhem.

The stranded soldiers make their way to the coast on foot, Morrison among them. Unused to the physical exertion, he is on the verge of giving up and collapsing many times over, but the soldiers around him keep pushing him to move, at times even dragging him along. They are compelled to hide through the day to escape the patrolling Stukas and make their way by night. Even then, while the other troops catch up on their rest and sleep, Morrison cannot afford himself that luxury. He stays awake, keeping an eye out for Mosley and the man with the glasses. By the end of the second day, the incessant marching and the lack of sleep and food threaten to turn him into a rambling lunatic.

The troops reach the coastal village of Kalamata in the Peloponnese, from where they will be evacuated. Morrison takes the chance to enter the village, getting some food and water from the villagers. They camp on the beach, waiting for nightfall, but as the scheduled hour of evacuation comes and goes, Morrison’s dread rises. Rumours of the ships being bombed by Germans run parallel to rumours of German paratroopers approaching from Kalamata, both of which turn out to be true and the troops are forced to surrender. In the ensuing chaos, Morrison escapes into the forest behind the beach, but before he can go any further, he is accosted by Mosley.

At gunpoint, the German spy threatens Morrison to hand over the list. Morrison, curious to see for himself what was it that people were ready to die and kill for, had opened the envelope and read the contents during the long march to the coast. The coded names and cities made no sense to him, but he concluded it would be safer to memorize it than have it on him, and having done so destroyed the envelope. He tells Mosley this, refusing to divulge the details even on pain of death. Mosley, under orders to destroy the list if he cannot obtain it, raises his gun to comply with his orders, and is instead shot from behind by the man with the horn-rimmed glasses – Soutar, Major Howe-Wilkins’ companion.

Soutar collects the relieved Morrison, handing him the dead Mosley’s gun, and leads him back to beach as he explains his escape plan. Posing as POWs, they will get into the train with the soldiers, and as soon as it is sufficiently dark, jump off and contact the Greek resistance. He also tries to get Morrison to tell him the contents of the list, but Morrison proves he has learned a lesson the hard way; he refuses while remarking if he is the only one who knows the names, Soutar will try harder to keep him alive. Boarding the crowded cattle cars with the other troops, they bide their time, fighting to stay conscious in the small space crammed beyond capacity.

Night falls, and as they get ready to jump from the moving train, Soutar gives Morrison one more piece of the puzzle – if they get separated, he is to make his way to Athens and contact Dr. Thackery of the American Archeological Society. Morrison jumps and gets wounded on impact, but Soutar is less fortunate. Alerted by the movement, he is shot by German sentries aboard the train and dies as he leaps off. Morrison, alone again and injured, makes his way to the nearest settlement before collapsing at the door of one of the houses.

Heisler receives news of Mosley’s body being found, and Morrison being on the prisoner train before escaping again. Aware that if the list gets out his career is over, he orders the entire area cordoned off to search for the missing American but comes up empty handed. That is because Morrison is no longer there. He has been spirited away by boat to a village in Paleachora, on the other side of Athens, by a fisherman turned smuggler named Christos. Christos, while reaping a windfall with the German restrictions, is like most of the Greeks a patriot and considers it his duty to harbor and aid an “Englezos” on the run.

Morrison comes to in Christos’ cottage, and the latter narrates to him how he came to be there. As he heals, tended to by Christos’ niece Eleftheria, he experiences a moment of peace in the storm. Undisturbed by the war or by the huge manhunt for Morrison, the village goes about its quiet, tranquil life. The days are spent working the fields, and in the evenings, while the women prepare dinner, the men gather at the local watering hole to exchange stories. This is often followed by a bonfire in the village square, everyone dancing the night away. The only intrusion of the war into their lives is the appearance of city dwellers from time to time, looking to buy food to circumvent the rationing by the Germans, and the presence of a some more British soldiers being hidden by the ever-defiant Greeks.

As the days pass, Morrison longs to stay back in the paradise he has found, but the knowledge of the list of names and the consequences thereof don’t let him rest. His repeated requests to Christos that he be allowed to leave, or failing that, a message be sent to Dr. Thackery in Athens, are met by evasion until he finally confronts him with an ultimatum. Caving in, Christos declares they will leave for the city the next morning. That very night though, the village is raided by German soldiers. Heisler, in his methodical manner, has followed a rumour of a British soldier being carried away by boat and arrived at Christos’ doorstep.

Taking advantage of the few minutes of warning they have, Morrison and the other British soldiers hide in the village church. They are met there by a hysterical Eleftheria, who describes how in the assault Christos stood up against the Germans and was shot for his efforts. The Germans begin searching the houses, and the other soldiers elect to stay and fight instead of running, giving Morrison and Eleftheria the opportunity to escape into the surrounding woods. The next morning, far away from the village but still close enough to see the smoke rise from its ruins, they decide to go to Eleftheria’s cousin who lives in a remote village a day’s walk away.

Eleftheria’s cousin is a seven-feet tall giant named Barba-Leonidas. He welcomes Morrison into his house, but upon seeing the closeness between him and Eleftheria, sends the latter away. When asked by Morrison, he lies that she will be returning over the weekend. With no choice but to wait, he spends the days helping Barba-Leonidas on his farm and learning from him the colourful history of the village, known as the Village of Thieves. The weekend arrives without Eleftheria, and Morrison has an argument with Barba-Leonidas until he finally backs down and sends for her. When she comes, Morrison sends her to Athens to contact Dr. Thackery.

Arriving in Athens, she conveys Morrison’s message to Dr. Thackery, who instructs an underground operative named Lisa Kyriakides to retrieve Morrison from the village and hide him on the outskirts of Athens; it will be easier to smuggle him out of the country from there. What Dr. Thackery and the rest of the underground don’t know is that Lisa is compromised. Her husband, a German collaborator, holds her children hostage, and she has been ordered by Heisler to inform them of a man of Morrison’s description asking for help. She and Morrison travel to Athens posing as a couple, and after a close call on the train with the authorities, reach their destination.

For days, his only contact with the outside world is Lisa, who is battling with herself – hand Morrison over to save her children or sacrifice her children for the greater good. In a moment of weakness, she instructs Heisler to have men waiting on a certain street, where she plans to take Morrison for a walk and “accidentally” run into the Gestapo. At the last minute, though, she has a change of heart and leads him away and back to the shed. The encounter makes her reach out to Morrison for emotional support, and they end up sleeping together.

Soon after, Morrison is ordered to meet a person who will take him to the extraction point. He arrives at the meeting place, but the contact doesn’t show up. Instead, he is met by Julius Chesney, a foreign correspondent who has a side business of smuggling British POWs out of Greece, partnering with rich Greeks who pay him for this. He offers the deal to Morrison, who is now grasping at straws. Giving Chesney a fake name, he agrees to meet the sponsor a few days hence.

On the way back, he is followed by Gestapo officers, and is helped evade them by a prostitute named Ketty, who uses her influence with the Garrison Commandant to avoid her house getting searched. Like most Greeks, she isn’t happy with the presence of the Germans in her country and agrees to help Morrison wherever possible. Coming back to his hiding place, he finds Lisa waiting for him with the news that the contact was captured by the Germans, so they must change the hideaway until another route can be created. Morrison doesn’t tell her about his meeting with Chesney, but as days go by without any movement, he is desperate enough to take his deal.

On the day of the meeting, he slips out and meets Chesney and the sponsor. After getting the money and giving him details of the boat he will be traveling aboard, Morrison is surprised when Chesney calls him by his real name and wishes him luck; he knew his identity all the time. It makes him wary, but not enough to stay away from the boat which he is sharing with three other escapees, a BEF soldier named Ben Masterton on his fifth escape attempt and a Jewish couple fleeing the Germans. Ben and Morrison bond over stories of his earlier escapes, while the Jewish couple keep to themselves. Just as they are convinced they are free, the captain of the boat betrays them and they are captured by a German patrol.

They are brought to prison, where Ben greets the Commandant as an old acquaintance, having been brought here twice before. The exasperated Commandant puts them in a cell to await processing – interrogation by the Gestapo – before they are released into the POW camp. On hearing that Heisler is the one who conducts the interrogations, the terrified Morrison seeks to contact Lisa before that can happen. Ben, with his knowledge of which guards can be bribed, helps him get a message out. He has no idea whether it has worked or not, until on the day of his transfer to the Gestapo quarters; their convoy is attacked, and he and Ben are sprung by the Greek underground.

Morrison meets Dr. Thackery and the other leaders for the first time and comes to know that Lisa has confessed to them about her predicament. They decide not to do anything on the chance that he might contact her, which he does. They now have an escape route, with a British submarine arriving a few days later, but the tricky part will be getting him out of Athens. Having fallen in love with Lisa, he insists she be allowed to escape with him. Since that is not possible without her children, an elaborate plan is hatched that will simultaneously retrieve them, provide an escape route and point Heisler in the wrong direction at the same time.

His plan involves both Ketty and Julius Chesney. One of the underground members approaches Chesney with information on the submarine’s landing site, which he sells to Heisler for a tidy sum. The location is fake, but Chesney, despite his earlier double dealings shows where his allegiance lies by playing his role perfectly. Meanwhile, Lisa’s children are freed from her husband’s clutches, and Ketty, who has a travel pass signed by Heisler himself, takes all of them to the real rendezvous point. The tale ends with Morrison, Lisa and her children boarding the submarine, while on a completely different beach, the defeated Heisler is executed by the Greek underground.

The book, while not long by Uris’ usual standards, nonetheless has quite a few of the characteristics that become the trademark of his later works. The subtle introduction of historical background during a lull in the action, the stories and anecdotes local to a place that make one feel part of it, the constant undertone of the search for something bigger than oneself, the visceral description of war and its consequences, and man’s eternal search for morality in the absence of order, all are the backbone of his works, and we get to see them here in their formative stage, before he fine-tuned his art.

We also see the evolution of his writing style where situations are narrated from the perspective of the characters. Military operations described in third person have a crisp, report style feel to it. At the same time, Morrison is a civilian and when seen from his eyes it is exactly how a non-combatant would view it – chaotic, confusing, terrifying, reaction over response. The same event when being shown though the Greek resistance fighters’ angle lies somewhere in between, perfectly capturing the essence of civilians having taken up arms, but not fully trained in battle tactics. It makes you immerse yourself fully in the story, making it more realistic. Battle Cry may be Uris’ first book, but if you want an insight into the man himself, read The Angry Hills before all his other works.

3 thoughts on “The Angry Hills – Leon Uris

  1. How would you summarize Morrison’s escape all along? Presence of mind?Courage?Luck?A series of fortunate events/people who wanted to help him out all falling into place serendipitously? Too good to be true?

    Have you known of any real-life stories that might have been an inspiration for Leon Uris. Today was the first time i read your links and that made me realize what i missed out on when i used to skip reading them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe Morrison’s story transitions in sync with the way his sense of purpose shifts. In the beginning, when his aim is to just survive, he is at the mercy of the circumstances and the people. Later, as his purpose shifts from himself to survival as a means to a higher end, he starts taking control of the situations and shapes the events himself.

      My take is that the shift in perspective gives him his “why” which in turn gives him the clarity he needs to be in command.

      There definitely are real life stories of individuals or groups of individuals who have found themselves in similar situations, and have come out on top after a fashion. I hope to cover some of them in my later posts!

      Like

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