“There was a rush . . . our torches illuminated the interior of the car — the bewildered face of the General, the chauffeur’s terrified eyes . . . [The] chauffeur was reaching for his automatic, so I hit him across the head with my kosh [blackjack] . . . and George . . . dumped him on the road. I jumped in behind the steering-wheel, and . . . saw Paddy and Manoli dragging the General out of the opposite door. The old man was struggling with fury . . . shouting every curse under the sun . . . [We bundled] him into the back seat [and he] kept imploring, ‘Where is my hat? Where is my hat?’ The hat, of course, was on Paddy’s head.”
First published in Time magazine 4 September 1950
Why a German general’s hat should be on a British officer’s head is pretty much the gist of III Met by Moonlight. For as the staff car, driven by Author Moss, moved along the road in northern Crete, sentries at no less than 22 German traffic-control posts smartly saluted the behatted “general”‘ and waved the car on. They had no inkling that prostrate on the floor in the back seat lay the real general, with guns pointed at his head. Twenty days later, on May 16, 1944, kidnaped Major General Karl Kreipe was handed over to British authorities in Cairo, putting finis to what Harold Nicolson has called “one of the best adventure stories that I have read.”*
Behind the Lines. The scheme of raiding German-held Crete and trotting off with the divisional commander was the brain child of youthful Major Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Captain W. Stanley Moss, who had achieved the schoolboy dream of becoming secret agents. At their base in Cairo, they shared a villa and sampled the fleshpots of Egypt. It was in a nightclub that they first hatched the plot that was to land their party from a motor launch on the south coast of Crete.
The two Britons could depend on help from guerrillas and from intelligence corpsmen hidden in the hills. One British agent, a Cretan, actually lived next door to General Kreipe’s Villa Ariadne, near the north coast. Through him, Moss and Leigh-Fermor learned the general’s daily routine to a nicety—off to headquarters by car at 9 a.m., back in the evening any time after 8 or 8:30 p.m., depending on how many rubbers of bridge he stayed to play.
Slowly, painstakingly, the two agents planned a night ambush. Hidden guerrillas lay at vantage points on the road to the villa, a buzzer and torch flashes relayed warnings of the general’s approach to the waiting kidnapers, who were in German uniforms.
After the snatch, the general (who quickly became resigned and quite amiable) was marched from cave to cave half the length of Crete, while the furious Germans fruitlessly finecombed the island. By the time a Royal Navy motor launch nosed in to a southwest beach and took off both captive and captors, Moss and Leigh-Fermor knew that they had achieved their principal aim—to astound the enemy and make him the laughingstock of the local population.
Author Moss wrote his story in the mid-’40s, but the British War Office refused to let it appear then. Today, having reached the elderly age of 29, Moss is a bit abashed by the “22-year-old exuberance (almost bumptiousness) with which it was written.” Bumptious or not, it is one of the most melodramatic and audacious stories of the war.
*And notably more successful than another daring plan hatched in Cairo. In November 1941, British commandos under 24-year-old Lieut. Colonel Geoffrey Keyes made their way 200 miles behind Axis lines in an attempt to capture or assassinate Nazi General Erwin Rommel. At night, with cork-blackened faces, Keyes and his commandos achieved complete surprise, wrecked Rommel’s HQ with grenades. But Keyes was killed and Rommel was untouched: he had gone to a birthday party.