BBC Obituary: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has died aged 96, was both a man of action and an intellectual.

From the BBC news website.

His exploits during WWII, when he led a group of British officers and Greek guerrillas which captured the German military commander of Crete, has become the stuff of legend.

After the war, through a series of colourful yet scholarly books, including A Time of Gifts and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, he re-invented himself as perhaps the finest travel writer of his generation.

Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor – known in early life as Michael and later to his many friends as Paddy – was born in London on 11 February 1915.

His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was a distinguished geologist and Fellow of The Royal Society who spent much of his career in India.

With his parents often abroad, Leigh Fermor enjoyed a carefree childhood, often with foster-parents on a farm in Northamptonshire.

European odyssey

After a brief, unhappy, sojourn “among the snake-belts and the bat-oil of a horrible preparatory school”, he progressed to King’s School, Canterbury, where one house-master dubbed him “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”.

“Sacked”, as he put it, from King’s following a teenage dalliance with the daughter of a town greengrocer, he read voraciously – Latin, Greek, Shakespeare, history – for the Sandhurst Military Academy entrance examination.

But deciding that the life of a peacetime soldier was not for him, Leigh Fermor determined, aged just 17, to walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

So, on 8 December 1933, a month after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he set off from London with just a small rucksack containing a few clothes, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s odes for company.

On just a pound a week he was to cross the continent, tramp-like, wandering through town, village and city, across mountains and beside rivers, sleeping in doss-houses and castles and, above all, writing.

This journey, which he chronicled much later in life in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods & the Water (1986), brought him face-to-face with the last blossoming of a now vanished Europe.

It was a world of gypsies, isolated farming communities whose ways had changed little since the Thirty Years’ War, faded Austro-Hungarian aristocracy and Mitteleuropean Jewish communities now lost to World War Two, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

Wartime intelligence officer

Erudition shone from every page, whether describing duelling in Heidelberg where “those dashing scars were school ties that could never be taken off” or the Carpathian mountains, with its “fiendish monocled horsemen, queens in lonely towers, toppling ranges, deep forests, plains full of half-wild horses… mad noblemen and rioting jacqueries”.

After reaching Constantinople he travelled extensively in the Greek archipelago, celebrating his 21st birthday in a Russian monastery on Mount Athos and witnessing a civil war before returning to Britain.

At the outbreak of World War Two Patrick Leigh Fermor – the scion of an Anglo-Irish family – enlisted in the Irish Guards.

With his intimate knowledge of south-eastern Europe and first-class linguistic skills, he soon found himself serving as the Intelligence Corps’ liaison officer to Greek Headquarters in Albania.

After fighting against the German forces then sweeping through Greece and the Balkans, he was posted to occupied Crete in 1942. There, for two-and-a-half years, he organised resistance to the 22,000 German troops occupying the island.

Disguised as a shepherd, he directed an operation to capture the island’s military commander, Major General Karl Kreipe.

After snatching the general and hijacking his staff car, Leigh Fermor and his British and Cretan comrades drove through the capital city, Heraklion, successfully negotiating 14 checkpoints on route.

As Major Leigh Fermor and his colleague, Major Stanley ‘Billy’ Moss, were dressed as German corporals, capture would have meant certain death. After three weeks hiding in the hills, they finally accompanied their precious cargo by boat to Cairo.

Rich prose style

This daring escapade, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, was immortalised by Moss in his 1950 book Ill Met By Moonlight. Dirk Bogarde played Leigh Fermor in the successful big screen adaptation.

After the war Leigh Fermor worked briefly as deputy director of the British Institute in Athens before resuming his travels.

His first book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), is an account of journeying in the Caribbean, the “ultimate purpose” of which, as set out in the book’s preface, was “to retransmit to the reader whatever interest and enjoyment we encountered. In a word, to give pleasure”.

This he did, through vivid descriptions of the languorous beauty of island life, the linguistic Tower of Babel bequeathed by colonialism and the continuing legacy of the slave trade. Architecture, history, culture, all were essential themes to Leigh Fermor, as central to his first work as to his last.

In 1953 he published a novel, The Violins of St Jacques. A fantasy set in the decadent world of early 20th Century Martinique, the book’s florid and luxurious romanticism proved a radical departure for its author.

But it was Greece, both ancient and modern, to which Leigh Fermor often looked for inspiration. Works like Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) explored the complex and colourful sweep of Hellenistic culture.

Together with the account of his transeuropean walk, they represent a formidable body of work.

Though he latterly lived in Crete, rarely visiting his homeland, Patrick Leigh Fermor was an archetypal Englishman.

The recipient of many awards and prizes – including a knighthood, the freedom of four Greek cities and as a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters – he was praised throughout the world as a thrilling writer, a real-life hero and a genteel observer of the human condition.

2 thoughts on “BBC Obituary: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

  1. Alison

    A sad Day indeed.
    Can I just mention 2nd to last paragraph .”Latterly lived in Crete” No the Peloponnese.


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