Patrick Leigh Fermor: extract from the new biography

Patrick Leigh Fermor with Billy Moss in Crete, April 1944, wearing German uniforms Photo: Estate of William Stanley Moss, by permission

The Telegraph ran an extract from the biography over the weekend. It was the Kreipe kidnap again!

In an extract from her life of the travel writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor, Artemis Cooper chronicles a daring kidnap in wartime Crete.

First published in the Daily Telegraph 29 September 2102.

After months of training in clandestine warfare in Palestine, Paddy Leigh Fermor joined the handful of SOE officers in occupied Crete who were working with the Cretan resistance in June 1942. His big chance came in the autumn of the following year when he formulated a plan to kidnap a German general: not just any general but the hated Gen Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, responsible for the butchery of the Viannos villages in September 1943. Supposing Müller were kidnapped and whisked off the island? At a time when Greece was beginning to feel like a backwater as the war pushed up through Italy, an operation of this kind would generate a lot of noise and publicity: it would make the Germans look remarkably foolish, and give a terrific boost to Cretan morale.

Despite questions being asked about the mission because of the risks it posed to Cretan lives, the plan went ahead on January 6 1944. A car came to pick up Paddy and his number two, Billy Moss, a young Coldstreamer who had had a spell guarding Rudolf Hess, in the early hours of the morning, and drove them to Heliopolis where they met the rest of the party.

They flew to an airstrip east of Benghazi, where they spent two miserable weeks in sodden tents waiting for the weather to clear. Since it refused to oblige, they were flown to Bari, hoping for better flying conditions there. On February 4 they took off from Brindisi for Crete, aiming for the Omalo plateau, a tiny, shallow bowl in the jagged, snow-covered peaks in the mountains south of Neapolis. For the pilot, the zone was so restricted that the team could not be dropped in a “stick” formation – he would have to circle and come in again four times, dropping each man off individually.

Snow and loose cloud swirled around the open bomb-bay, and far below they could see the dropping zone marked by three pinpricks of light formed by three signal fires. Paddy was the first to jump. Welcoming Cretan hands hauled him to his feet, and then all eyes turned again to the snow-streaked sky. Paddy gave the all-clear with a torch to signal his safe arrival, but the clouds were thickening and the pilot could no longer see the signal fires: he was forced to turn back.

The bad weather continued. Paddy spent the next seven weeks in a cave with Sandy Rendel, the SOE officer in charge of the Lasithi area. But in late March came news that threw the whole mission into question. The intended victim, Gen Müller, had been posted to Chania as commander of Fortress Crete. SOE Cairo was informed, but decided to go ahead with the operation anyway. After all, the aim was to boost Cretan morale and damage German confidence; from this standpoint, one general was as good as another.

The new target, who had succeeded to Müller’s post in Heraklion, was General Heinrich Kreipe. No one knew much about him, except that he had just arrived from the Russian front.

Billy, Manoli Paterakis and George Tyrakis finally reached Crete on April 4, near Tsoutsouros on the south coast. It was a happy reunion, but Paddy was busy overseeing the unloading of stores and the stowing of four German prisoners who were being taken back to Egypt. He seemed a different person from the recklessly ebullient party goer of Cairo.

They spent the rest of the night and next day near the beach, and with the stores mounted on the backs of four mules, they began the long march towards Heraklion.

Trying to slip past the villages on the road was impossible, since every dog in every yard began barking. On these occasions Paddy enjoyed laying a false trail by shouting orders in German, and singing Bomber über England, Lili Marlene or the Horst Wessel Lied. This had the added advantage of keeping the villagers safely in bed.

At Kastamonitsa they were joined by two experienced resistance men whom Paddy had worked with in the past: Antoni Papaleonidas and Grigori Khnarakis. Paddy had also summoned Micky Akoumianakis, who ran the intelligence network in Heraklion.

The first plan had been to abduct the general from the Villa Ariadne itself, but it was too well guarded. The only alternative was to set an ambush for his car on the last stretch of his daily journey back from his divisional headquarters at Archanes, where a downward slope would oblige the driver to reduce speed before joining the main road to Heraklion. As soon as he saw the car leave Archanes Elias Athanasakis, a student involved in the intelligence network, would bicycle hard to a point where an electric buzzer had been installed on a long wire, to signal the lookout on the higher ground. Three flashes from a torch from the lookout would tell the team to get into position.

To minimise the risk of reprisals, it was vital to convince the Germans that the abduction was planned by regular forces controlled from Cairo, and not the act of local “brigands and terrorists”. To underline the point, Paddy would signal Cairo as soon as they were safely away. The BBC would then broadcast the abduction, and the RAF undertook to drop leaflets over the island.

The ambush was to have taken place on April 23, but on that day the general returned to Knossos earlier than usual. Then it was reported that some of Bourdzalis’s men, who had been asked to provide backup in case of a fight, had come out of hiding to stretch their legs. News of the strangers was spreading. Reluctantly, Paddy had to call it off for the day. A few days later, on the 26th, the prospects were better.

The general was driven to his headquarters at Archanes at the usual time. Billy and Paddy changed into their German uniforms at dusk. Manoli, George and the others took their Marlin guns, and together they set off across the fields, arriving at the abduction point at about eight in the evening.

It was the first time that Billy had been there, and he noticed at once that the pitch of the road as it approached the junction was much steeper than he had expected. If the driver used the footbrake rather than handbrake to stop the car, it might be in danger of rolling away as its occupants were hauled out – but it was too late todo anything about it.

Hidden among the rocks and bushes were Manoli and George, Paddy and Billy in their German uniforms. Meanwhile, some other members of the team climbed on to the bank, ready to receive the signal the moment the general’s car had left Archanes and was on its way back to the villa.

The general later admitted to Billy that he had always felt rather uneasy about that junction; that if anything were to happen to him in Crete, he felt it would happen there. So perhaps it was reassuring to see two corporals in field grey step out of the darkness. He did not have time to notice the odd details of their uniforms that would have given them away instantly in daylight: the commando daggers, and Billy’s puttees, which had not been worn in the well-booted German army since the First World War.

As Paddy recalled later: “Billy waved his disc and I moved my red torch to and fro and shouted ‘Halt!’ The car came to a standstill and we stepped right and left out of the beams of the headlights, which, in spite of being partly blacked out, were still very bright, and walked slowly, each to his appointed door… I saluted and said ‘Papiere, bitte schön.’ The general, with an officer-to-man smile, reached for his breast-pocket, and I opened the door with a jerk – (this was the cue for the rest of the party to break cover) – and the inside of the car was immediately flooded with light. Then I shouted ‘Hände hoch!’ and with one hand thrust my automatic against the general’s chest – there was a gasp of surprise – flinging the other round his body, and pulling him out of the car.”

More men poured out of the darkness. Armed with coshes and guns, Paddy’s men helped him to restrain the shouting general. Handcuffs were forced on to his wrists and he was shoved into the back of the car. Meanwhile, Billy had yanked open the door on the driver’s side. The driver reached for the Luger at his belt. Billy struck him on the head with a cosh which knocked him out, and he was pulled from the car and dragged to the side of the road. Billy moved swiftly into the driver’s seat. The engine was still running, the handbrake was on, the fuel gauge indicated that the tank was almost full – and Paddy was sitting beside him, wearing the general’s hat. In the back of the car, Gen Kreipe had a knife held to his throat.

It was a moment of pure elation, with the kidnappers laughing and shouting and slapping each other on the back, while Micky leant through the window, cursing Germany and the general in a frenzy of pent-up hatred. Seeing the inside of the car still lit up like a beacon, Paddy smashed out the bulb with his pistol butt, and they set off towards Heraklion.

Billy drove through no less than 22 German checkpoints. Two factors tipped the odds in their favour. Gen Kreipe did not like checkpoints and used to growl at sentries who kept him waiting, so when they saw his car with its two unmistakable pennants they tended to wave him through. The blackout also came in handy. Although the streets were crowded with Germans, everyone looked like shadows; only odd chinks of light escaped from doors and windows. To anyone peering in, the back of the car would have been impenetrably dark. In the front, Paddy made sure that the general’s hat with its gold braid was visible, and not his face.

A day later Paddy, Billy and the general shared a blanket, with Manoli and George on either side, nursing their guns and taking it in turn to sleep. No one slept well, and as dawn broke and the sun illuminated the great snow-streaked hump of Mount Ida, the General murmured a line in Latin: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte…”

It was one of the few odes of Horace that Paddy knew by heart, and which he had translated at school. Taking up where the general had left off, he went on to the end of the poem.

“The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote, “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.”

‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure’ by Artemis Cooper is available to purchase here.

Related article:

Everyone fell in love with Paddy Leigh Fermor

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