by William Dalrymple
First published in the New Statesman 4 December 2014
On 20 May 1941 the German army launched its airborne assault on Crete with the largest parachute drop in history: in less than an hour 15,000 men fell slowly into the olive groves and vineyards of the island. They had no idea that the British, using Ultra intercepts, knew of their plans and were sitting waiting for them. Resistance was so staunch – as much from ordinary Cretans as the Greek, New Zealand or British army units stationed there – that the elite Fallschirmjäger regiment was almost entirely wiped out in one day.
The story of that extraordinary civil resistance, and the long saga of the continued Cretan defiance of the Nazis throughout the rest of the war, is now well known. Perhaps the most famous moment of all is the abduction of the Nazi commandant of the island, General Heinrich Kreipe, on 26 April 1944 by a team of Special Operations Executive agents led by Paddy Leigh Fermor, later one of the great contemporary prose stylists and travel writers of our time.
There already exist at least four excellent accounts of this story. The first off the block, only five years after the war, was William Stanley Moss’s yarn Ill Met By Moonlight, which became a popular Powell and Pressburger film with the role of Paddy played by Dirk Bogarde. Five years later, a Cretan perspective came from a messenger in the resistance, George Psychoundakis, whose Greek manuscript, The Cretan Runner, partly written in prison, was translated into English by Paddy. I was a devoted disciple of Paddy, and the last time I went to stay with him in Greece he gave me his own annotated copy of Psychoundakis’s book. I have it by me as I write.
In 1991 the young Antony Beevor wrote the episode up in the first of his celebrated sequence of Second World War books, as Crete: the Battle and the Resistance. Finally, two years ago, Beevor’s wife, Artemis Cooper, brilliantly retold it in her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: an Adventure.
Given the startling quality of these four accounts it is fair to ask if there is anything a new account can possibly add. The answer in this case is, surprisingly: a lot. Abducting a General brings into print for the first time Paddy’s own account of the kidnap, originally written for Purnell’s History of the Second World War, but up to now never published at full length (5,000 words were commissioned; Paddy characteristically delivered 30,000; 25,000 words were cut, and appear here for the first time, other than a brief extract in Cooper’s 2003 anthology Words of Mercury). The book also contains Paddy’s intelligence reports, sent from caves deep within Crete. Meanwhile Kidnap in Crete by Rick Stroud provides a rollicking outsider’s account, written with great verve and dash, containing much telling new material, some of which is gathered from previously untapped Cretan sources.
In 1941 the Allies seemed on the verge of defeat. The Nazis, who had already swept through most of northern Europe, had succeeded where the Italians, their Axis allies, had failed in Greece, and within a few weeks had broken through and taken Athens. Now they wished to take Crete and hold it as a staging post for evicting the British from Egypt and North Africa.
Given the advance knowledge of Nazi plans, Crete should have been the first German defeat of the war. But a fatal misunderstanding, which led the British wrongly to expect a substantial naval assault, turned the battle into a defeat. Despite record casualties the Germans managed to take several crucial airfields and land large numbers of reinforcements. By 27 May the British had begun to withdraw, but could rescue only half their soldiers: 16,000 were ferried to Egypt, but 17,000 spent the rest of the conflict as prisoners of war.
Nevertheless, communications remained open between the Allies in Alexandria and the spirited Cretan Resistance, and by early 1942 plans were afoot to raise morale through a series of intelligence operations. These were designed to disrupt the German occupation and avenge its horrors – mass executions and the punitive massacre of entire villages.
As a fluent Greek speaker, the 26-year-old Leigh Fermor was quickly singled out for intelligence work on the southern front and was sent first to Albania, then to Greece, as a liaison officer working with the Greek army. After the fall of Greece he found his way to Crete just in time to fight in vain against the German invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria, where he set up house with several other SOE agents and a refugee Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska, who moved in with her few possessions: “a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses”.
Before long Captain Leigh Fermor was sent back to Crete to work with the resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into occupied Crete disguised as shepherds. For a year they lived a troglodyte existence in sheepfolds and under the stalactites of Cretan mountain caves, commanded by Tom Dunbabin, a former classicist who was a fellow of All Souls.
Occasionally, Paddy, dressed in a double-breasted suit as “a Heraklion gadabout”, would descend to the capital to gather intelligence. There he delighted in tempting fate by carousing at parties where German officers were present, on one occasion even teaching them the pentozali, a traditional Cretan dance said to make the dancers dizzy five times over. Paddy’s bravado once came close to backfiring when his companion Micky Akoumianakis offered everyone cigarettes that were quickly recognised as English, “and the dance came to an abrupt halt when the Germans asked him where he had got them. Thinking on his feet, Micky said he had bought them on the black market, which had been flooded with stuff left behind by the retreating allies. The soldiers fell for the story, drank more raki and the dizzying lessons went on.”
The port from which Paddy set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. “It was a bad, low moment in the war,” he once told me. “The Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.” He described watching wave after wave of Luftwaffe planes heading over in formation, and wondering if there were any hope of defeating the advance. It was partly for this reason that his bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale by kidnapping the German commander of the island.
The general’s routine was studied and the various possibilities for ambushing considered. In the end it was decided to stop his car at night on a deserted stretch of road between the officers’ mess, where Kreipe liked to play cards of an evening, and Villa Ariadne, his residence on the edge of the Palace of Knossos, where he would return each night for his dinner. The plan was to knock out the driver with a cosh and bundle the general on the floor of the staff car, with a knife to his throat, while Leigh Fermor would take his place, and his hat, and impersonate him as they drove to safety. That he was a man of the strictest routine and great punctuality made the idea in the end irresistible.
In Paddy’s own account of the abduction of Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at 9.30pm by a British SOE party dressed in the stolen uniforms of German military police, nor as they drive coolly through no fewer than 22 German checkpoints in the city of Heraklion with the general lying gagged at their feet, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle Kreipe into the Cretan highlands and thence to a waiting British submarine – but instead as “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida”:
We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte . . .”
It is the opening line of one of the few Horace odes I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off . . . 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 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.
In her biography, Artemis Cooper has already drawn attention to the terrible moral dilemmas Leigh Fermor suffered during his work with the Cretan resistance, when the Nazis would wipe out whole villages in response to a single ambush. She also writes illuminatingly about the moment Paddy accidently shot his Cretan friend Yanni Tsangarakis, embroiling himself in a blood feud that was resolved only in the 1980s.
Rick Stroud’s account in Kidnap in Crete also examines these matters at length and provides what is probably the fullest, most fluent record of the kidnap yet written, while giving the Cretan partisans a more central role than they have received in any account since that of Psychoundakis. Weighing up the operation in the final chapter, he concludes that, “seen in isolation, the abduction was exactly what Kreipe called it: ‘a Hussar stunt’ – dangerous, exhilarating and with elements of an undergraduate prank about it. But Kreipe’s capture was one in the eye for the oppressors and a great morale booster for the islanders. Whatever it cost in life and property, many saw it as worth it. Even so, it is impossible to argue that the kidnap caused no reprisals.”
Reading these two accounts, it is easy to see why Pressburger originally landed on the Kreipe Operation for a movie: it inspired further fictional accounts (and then films) of similar operations, by Alistair MacLean in books such as The Guns of Navarone, which were once essential reading for all schoolboys of my generation. Having tried out these films on my kids, and seeing how slow they now look by contemporary standards, I can only hope that some producer quickly buys up the rights for both these books. It’s clearly time for a reshoot. l
Buy William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan