Recent years have seen the slim but splendid Patrick Leigh Fermor oeuvre swell considerably. In 2008 came In Tearing Haste, an entertaining collection of letters to and from Deborah Devonshire, followed last year by The Broken Road, the posthumously sparkling and long-awaited completion of the ‘Great Trudge’ trilogy, which finally delivered the 18-year-old Paddy from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Now comes another volume, setting out in full for the first time one of the great moments in a life heavily laced with glamour and incident.
It takes some chutzpah to kidnap a German general — and serious presence of mind to get away with it. Paddy, the Special Operations Executive commander of a group of 11 Cretan andartes, or guerrilla fighters, together with his second-in-command Captain William Stanley Moss, had excessive stores of both. At 9.30 p.m. on the night of 26 April 1944, the Anglo-Cretan desperadoes intercepted the car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the 22nd Luftlande Division.
Paddy then impersonated the general as the Moss-chauffeured car drove on through 22 German checkpoints, the hair-raising prelude to an 18-day Nazi manhunt described in exhilarating detail in both of these books. The moment one morning when the Englishman overheard the captured general reciting an ode by Horace is already famous. The autodidact and show-off couldn’t help jumping in and finishing the stanza:
The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine, and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.
After many terrifying moments, some shattering climbs and descents and no shortage of near misses, Kreipe was finally spirited away onto a British ship headed for Cairo and the swashbuckling operation was over.
If the immediate success of the kidnapping is in no doubt, what of the much more vexed question which haunted its mastermind for years: was it worth it? The point of it all had been to inflict a major blow on enemy morale. Extensive steps were taken to ensure there were no Cretan reprisals by making it appear an exclusively British mission — but to no avail. The Germans, 75,000 strong on Crete, already had a viciously enforced policy of reprisals on the island, taking 50 Cretan livesfor every one of their own soldiers killed. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, Kreipe’s predecessor and the original target of the operation, was nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Crete’ after committing a number of such atrocities.
With Kreipe kidnapped, Müller was sent back to Crete pour décourager les autres and on 13 August gave the order to raze the village of Anogia, long a centre of resistance. In a characteristically methodical operation that lasted from 13 August to 5 September, 117 people were killed and 940 houses destroyed, together with vineyards, cheese mills, wine presses and olive groves. Other villages in the Amari valley received the same treatment, with hundreds more civilians slaughtered.
Roderick Bailey, the SOE historian who has written the introduction to Paddy’s account, argues that the kidnapping operation had ‘no strategic or tactical value’. A senior British staff officer in Cairo had opposed it from the start, arguing that ‘the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but … the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives’. Kreipe himself called it a Husarestück, a Hussar stunt. More recently, Kimonas Zografakis, who sheltered the kidnappers, described Paddy as ‘neither a great Philhellene nor a new Lord Byron… he was a classic agent who served the interests of Britain’, causing ‘terrible suffering’. This last comment looks unduly harsh and certainly does not square with the lifelong friendships Paddy forged with his Cretan brothers-in-arms, nor with the deep affection most Greeks had for him.
Abducting a General, unlike Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, is the work of a mature man, anxious to pay proper tribute to the Cretans who were the backbone of the resistance and ran by far the greatest risks. His SOE reports, which run to 90 pages here, provide gripping cinematic portraits of Leigh Fermor the soldier.
Warrior, writer, lady-killer, Paddy was also a boulevardier who loved his threads. Page three finds him rhapsodising about his Cretan mountain shepherd disguise:
Breeches, high black boots, a twisted mulberry silk sash with an ivory-hilted dagger in a long silver scabbard, black shirt, blue embroidered waistcoat and tight black-fringed turban…
and that’s without mentioning the flamboyant moustache, homespun goat’s hair cloak, stick, bandolier and gun. Enough to frighten any Nazi general.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, Abducting a General: £16, Kidnap in Crete: £14.99, Tel: 08430 600033. Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.