An awfully big adventure: William Dalrymple on Paddy Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits

William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor and Emmanouil Paterakis before the kidnap of General Kreipe. Photo: The Estate of William Stanley Moss

It is always good to read stuff by William Dalrymple. He is one of the writers whom I enjoy whatever he happens ot write, and I like listening to him too. In this New Statesman review he compares Abducting a General with Kidnap in Crete by Rick Stroud.

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 Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete

Buy Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Buy William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

3 thoughts on “An awfully big adventure: William Dalrymple on Paddy Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits

  1. Christos Paganakis

    It seems to me that W D needs to get his facts straight .

    For a start , German assault was not ” within an hour ” ; – lacking sufficient transport aircraft , the first wave were landed in the west on and around Maleme Airfield , which is west of Xania , in the morning , and the JU52 transports then had to return to their airfields , embark the second wave , and return to Crete , so that preliminary aerial strafing was not until 4pm at Rethymnon , and the first JU52 transports did not arrive at Herakleion until 5pm .
    The Fallschirmjaeger did not ” fall slowly “, these were combat drops where the planes were exited 600 feet above the ground , and often lower , to minimise the time the troops spent , vulnerable , in the air .
    And nobody was intended to be dropped into Olive Groves and Vineyards , because that would be bloody silly , guaranteed to cause casualties , to tangle men and kit in trees , and to break up units and hamper swift regrouping on the ground .
    The intended drop zones were the three airfields and suitable open adjacent areas . As with any massed airborne drop , some went astray , but the overwhelming majority were dropped pretty much as planned .
    Resistance WAS NOT ” as much from the native Cretans as from the Allied troops ” ; – for the simple reason that Crete had been progressively disarmed since Union with Greece less than a quarter century before by the Greek Government , who had installed a paramilitary police force on the island ( the Cretan Gendarmerie – Which DID fight the German invaders ) to enforce Athens’ law and order there on the restive inhabitants .
    Plus nearly all the young men had been conscripted into the Greek armed forces , and had mostly been sent to Epirus to fight the Italians on the Albanian front .
    Some ad-hoc formations of Cretans had been formed by people like John Pendlebury , and attacked the invaders with the ferocity one would expect of Cretans , but for the most part the Cretan population during May 1941 had very few young warriors and very slight means to fight with .
    The German airborne Division ( not regiment ) was not nearly wiped out . Casualties at Maleme were very heavy but many of the troops at Rethymnon and at Herakleion were temporarily prisoners . Certainly by the time General Ringel and the substantial part of his Mountain division arrived the German airborne troops in the west would form a single strong battalion battlegroup in his successful advance to conquer the island , but in terms of absolute casualties over half of the German airborne troops survived to fight another day .

    The British High Command had Ultra Intercepts , but these were kept very restricted ; – it is quite probable that Wavell , the Middle East C-in-C was not wholly privy to all the intercepts and it is highly UNLIKELY that Freyburg , Creforce commander was fully informed .
    Anyway , the Germans were not stupid and did not send any great wodge of complete operational orders by coded radio traffic , those went , as they still do , by teleprinter and by despatch riders , far more secure .
    ( the U-boat war could not do that – hence detailed instructions in that case WERE sent over the radio , which explains why the code-breaking was relatively far more successful in that part of the war )
    And in any event , knowing ( approximately ) what the enemy intends , has very little use when circumstances prevent your doing anything much about it .
    In General Freyburg’s case , he was obliged to have a linear defence which covered the three airfields , AND the likely places a seaborne force would land at .
    Nothing could move during the day due to complete German Air Superiority , and precious little at night due to the lack of transport , and the awful ( then ) island roads .
    Having personally walked along part of the old main east-west highway near Georgiopoli I can tell you it is a very difficult road for truck convoys , and this is a good bit that was improved since the war .

    YES THERE WAS a seaborne assault , but the Royal Navy caught part of this armada ( with 2000+ soldiers aboard , at night on the 21st / 22nd , 20 miles north of Xania .
    and a second task force went north on 22nd and broke up a larger convoy 20 miles from Milos with 5000 soldiers aboard .
    Many of the caiques in the first group were sunk , but only some 300 died , as the troops were in lifejackets and were pulled from the water the next day .
    Of the second group the convoy was simply scattered among the islands , but this effectively ended the seaborne bit of the invasion .

    The Germans did not succeed in taking several airfields – just the first , at Maleme . At both Rethymnon and at Herakleion the attacks failed completely .

    General Kreipe was NOT the german commander of the island , he commanded the Infantry division which was the main military unit on the island , a subordinate post .

    I’ll end there , save remarking that anyone who spends time “living a troglodyte existence under stalactites in caves ” will get very wet indeed ” .

    Plainly Mr Dalrymple’s understanding of caves equals his grasp of the history of the period .

    Not impressed .

  2. First Night Design

    Reblogged this on First Night History and commented:
    I am currently without a working computer and having to struggle with mobile data roaming, hence the recent lack of posts. Here is a reblog about Paddy Leigh Fermor and his exploits during The Second World War when it came to kidnapping a German general. Enjoy!

  3. Tim

    I too enjoy William Dalrymple’s work and there are a number of interesting insights in this piece.
    I am afraid though that I don’t share his enthusiam for a reshoot though as I have little doubt, whilst the true story is more than exciting enough for most of us, that there is a filmaker out there who will not want to meddle with the facts and further distort the record.
    Powell and Pressburger couldn’t resist ‘adding’ ( dentist scene and the young boy to whom Kreipe gave a gold coin) to the Billy Moss account, and I know of several film producers who have also tweaked their accounts for the audience.
    I think I must have read (and have) every English language book on the abduction, all of Paddy’s reports from when they were first released by the National Archives, similar reports from other agents, private papers from the families of a number of SOE agents, and reports from other libraries and museums. I have also read many contemporary relative reports from other ‘agencies’, such as the Royal Navy, in TNA.
    I was fortunate enough, with a few others, to get from Paddy, a copy of his original manuscript ‘Abducting a General’ in 2005.
    Although we are all familiar with the basic story, inconsitencies exist across most of the various accounts. The reasons are many and understandable given, for example, the risks associated with keeping notes whilst on active SOE operations, carrying cameras, and when the accounts were written.
    Debate continues about some of the locations amongst a number of researchers. I take the view that, if there was an associated contemporary report from say, the Royal Navy, then that is more likely to be the more accurate – even though it may contradict Paddy’s account and (post event) map.(see the insert in The Folio Society’s Hide and Seek)
    If I may set the record straight on a couple of points, Paddy was the only S.O.E officer successfully parachuted in to Crete though others, particularly Billy Moss, George Tyrakis and Manoli Paterakis, who were due to follow Paddy out of the Halifax bomber piloted by Warrant Officer Cyril Fortune, were trained to jump and were ready to.
    Such detail comes in part from an unmentioned but informative account, The Ariadne Objective by Wes Davis written after much research of TNA files and other source material. Davis, like Stroud, did research that built on the works by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper and both brought new information to add to previous accounts.There are also a few tidbits on my website.
    The reference to a waiting submarine is also wrong; I think it started with M. R. D. Foot, who was dismissive of the operation in his book ‘SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-46’. Paddy had left a note in Kreipe’s abandoned car, to the effect that the party had left a north coast bay by submarine, but subsequent events suggest it was not believed by the intended audience.
    Paddy and party left the island from a beach near Rhodakino, on the south coast, in a Motor Launch, ML 842, captained by Brian Coleman. (TNA Ref ADM 199 – 257)
    Though I have the very highest regard for the late George Psychoundakis, whose home I visted a number of times, I have never felt that his book The Cretan Runner (of which I have several signed copies) should be seen as very informative on the matter of the Kreipe abduction. George was indirectly involved, post abduction, in delivering vital messages concerning the hunt for a suitable embarkation beach and the value of his book ‘The Cretan Runner’ is more to do with the every day life of a runner, the andartes and local populations, and S.O.E. officers from a Cretan point of view – and is essential reading for enthusiasts of this period.
    Whilst each account that has followed Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlight, has added to it, I have read and heard enough to know that there is still room for a far fuller account or two.
    Who next?


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