Dramatised in the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Dirk Bogarde rather improbably played the leading role, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s kidnapping of a German general in Crete in the spring of 1944 was one of the most dashing and unconventional episodes of the Second World War. Leigh Fermor published little on the subject during his lifetime – a very brief account is provided in his 2003 collection of essays, Words of Mercury – but Wes Davis’s book usefully plugs the gap. First published in America last year, too early to benefit from Artemis Cooper’s biography of Leigh Fermor, it draws on previously unpublished papers in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum, as well as on Antony Beevor’s exhaustive history of the German invasion and occupation of Crete, and on the published memoirs of other veterans of the long guerrilla war. The result is an exciting, fast-moving and crisply written adventure story.
Leigh Fermor’s mentor and precursor as a Cretan resistance leader was John Pendlebury, a Cambridge-educated archaeologist with a glass eye who had worked on the Minoan excavations at Knossos before the war and liked to wear traditional Cretan clothes, complete with cloak and turban. Pendlebury was captured and executed shortly after the German invasion of the island in May 1941, and Leigh Fermor took his place fighting alongside the andartes (‘guerrillas’) of the Cretan resistance. A passionate devotee of Greece and its people, Leigh Fermor had lived in the country after completing his famous walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul; he spoke (and sang) fluent Greek and had served as an intelligence officer on the Albanian border before making his way by schooner to Crete after the Germans invaded the Greek mainland. A natural adventurer with little time for conventional warfare, Leigh Fermor was ideal for the job; he was to spend the next three years on the run in Crete, hiding out in caves in the mountains, carousing with the locals and ordering up supplies of whisky, cigars and reading matter from Cairo. Every now and then he reported back to SOE headquarters for briefing and some brisk social life with Julian Amery, David Smiley and like-minded buccaneers in the house they shared on Gezira Island, where industrial quantities of vodka were brewed in the bath.
Xan Fielding, a fellow adventurer who was to become one of Leigh Fermor’s closest friends, played a similar role in western Crete, and he remembered how Leigh Fermor’s ‘fair hair, eyebrows and moustache were dyed black, which only added to his carnivalesque appearance’. He wore a waistcoat of ‘royal-blue broadcloth lined with scarlet shot-silk and embroidered with arabesques of black braid’, a crimson cummerbund with a dagger and a revolver tucked into it, black breeches and high boots. Leigh Fermor had learned German on his ‘Great Trudge’ across Europe and was intent on ‘seeing as much of the Huns as I could, listening to their conversations etc’. He once spent nine days in Heraklion, his moustache blackened with burnt cork and his bicycle boasting a swastika. On another occasion he hid under a bed to eavesdrop on a conversation.
The Italians had occupied the eastern third of Crete; in 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, with the Germans appearing prepared to attack their former allies, Leigh Fermor was involved in smuggling the Italian commander in Crete back to Cairo. Xan Fielding had earlier floated the idea of kidnapping a German general, and when the brutal General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller perpetrated a particularly vicious series of reprisals, Tom Dunbabin – another archaeologist and a fellow of All Souls – suggested that he should be their target. But Müller was replaced by General Heinrich Kreipe, whose abduction was perpetrated by Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss, the author of the bestselling memoir Ill Met by Moonlight, on which the film of the same name was based. Disguised in stolen German uniforms, they kidnapped Kreipe near his home, Villa Ariadne (built by Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos), and bundled him over the mountains to the south coast, from where they were picked up and taken to Egypt.
The best-known moment in the abduction occurred when Leigh Fermor, overhearing Kreipe quoting Horace while looking up at the snow-capped peak of Mount Ida, completed the stanza – it was ‘as though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before.’ And when, in 1972, Leigh Fermor and Kreipe were reunited for a television programme, the general described his abductor’s behaviour as wie ein Ritter – like a knight’s. But life as a guerrilla was not simply a matter of high adventures, romantic gestures and fearful tedium (‘I have completely run out of reading matter,’ Moss once complained to Cairo). ‘Have you any personal objection to committing murder?’ Fielding was asked by SOE before being posted to Crete. In the event, he had to shoot a captured German soldier whom he had grown to like, while Kreipe’s driver had his throat cut because he couldn’t keep up; and the threat of German reprisals against the Cretans overshadowed their every move. More will be revealed, no doubt, when John Murray publish Abducting a General, Leigh Fermor’s full account of the episode, in October this year; in the meantime, The Ariadne Objective is highly recommended.