Category Archives: Paddy's Writing

Swish! Swish! Swish! podcast read by Dominic West

The ruined Maniot tower village of Vathia, Deep Mani, September 2021. Copyright Tom Sawford 2021

Many of you enjoyed reading the short chapter written by Paddy for inclusion in a Greek version of Mani, but not published elsewhere until it was “discovered” this year.

The LRB have now managed to secure Dominic West to read the piece for a podcast which I hope that you will all enjoy.

Listen to Dominc West read Swish! Swish! Swish! here.

Read Mary Beard’s 2013 review of Mani and Roumeli from another LRB article here.

Remembering Paddy – Travel Writing world podcast with Artemis Cooper, Colin Thubron and Nick Hunt

Patrick Leigh Fermor – Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος,

Patrick Leigh Fermor – Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος

Perhaps you recall I introduced the excellent Travel Writing World podcast to you some months’ ago and bemoaned the Paddy deficit on the site. Editor Jeremy Bassetti has, as promised, remedied this with a 10th anniversary round table discussion with Artemis Cooper, Colin Thubron and Nick Hunt.

Listen to the episode here.

My roots burnt with Greece

A team of firefighters from Serbia tries to extinguish a wildfire in the village of Glatsona on the Greek island of Evia. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

We have all watched the wildfires around the globe with some degree of horror and awe this summer, perhaps even real trepidation about the future of this warming third rock from the sun that we inhabit. As I think about a trip to the Mani later this year, my thoughts have also been about what we might find there; will the hills around Kardamyli be fire blackened? How will things have changed? This moving article by David Patrikarakos gives us some idea of the impact beyond the dreadful burning of forests. It speaks of the personal impact, and how close things have come to places many of you know in the Mani.

By David Patrikarakos

First published in The Spectator

On 11 March this year my father passed away from prostate cancer after several weeks in a hospital in central Athens. As we sat around his bed, I remember thinking that I was watching 3,000 years of Greek history slowly perish before my eyes. My father was an only child, and I am British. His line of Greeks is at an end.

Now fires have ravaged Greece and the olive trees that stood in my ancestral village for centuries have burnt to the ground. This year has seen the almost literal burning away of my roots: because if I am British, I am also a Greek — of sorts. This much is inescapable. My name is Patrikarakos, Pa-tri-ka-ra-kos, which falls — like a slab of Cycladic marble — between me and those I meet. So luminously foreign, so palpably un-English. I remember as a child reading that Ian Fleming had chosen the name James Bond for the main character of a spy novel he wanted to write because its two blunt monosyllables were, he said, ‘brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and very masculine’. What then of my endless syllables and vulgar vowels, which fuse together in ululating cadences, and sound so alien — and presumably feminine — to British ears?

If my name screams ‘foreign’ to the British it signals something else to Greeks. Its stem — ‘akos’ means only one thing: that I originate in the Mani, a region of the Peloponnese in southern Greece. The origins of the word ‘Mani’ mean ‘a sparse and treeless place’ — and it’s apt. The land is hot and arid, the terrain mountainous and inaccessible. It was only relatively recently that a road able to reach many of its villages was built. Previously they had been accessible only by sea.

The people, who claim descent from the ancient Spartans, are notoriously ungovernable. Mani is home to vendettas. For centuries families killed each other through the generations over long-forgotten disputes. When my father died, we pondered what to do with the old family rifle that had been passed down to him. It was beautiful: rich brown wood married to deep grey metal. I had visions of it hanging on my wall, speaking to a history that, though distant, is not forgotten. I called a contact at the police to check out the legality of this.

‘Hmmm,’ he told me over video call, scratching a stubbly chin. ‘Theoretically you need to take it to a police station where they can confirm it’s been decommissioned and then register it.’

He paused. ‘The thing is… this is from the Mani, right?’

I replied that it was.

‘Yeah, the problem is that every so often we get a gun in from there and it turns out to have been used to shoot someone in a vendetta years ago, which causes no end of problems. I’d just bin it if I were you.’

I binned it.

Since ancient times Maniots have been pirates and warriors — impossible to enslave. The Mani is mentioned in Homer’s ‘Catalogue of Ships’ in the Iliad, while the Maniots supplied Augustus with troops for his battle with Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. During the Greek war of independence against the Turks, the Greeks emblazoned ‘Freedom or Death,’ on their flags. The Maniots, though, replaced ‘Freedom’ with ‘Victory’ because, of course, the Mani had always been free.

If the Mani is famous for war, it is also famous for its olive trees. Mine were in my ancestral village of Skamnaki — the name means little stool — in the region’s east, close to Gythion bay in the plateau between mount Taygetos and the sea. The olive groves stood among some fields down a slope not far away from the thick stone house that my pappoús, my grandfather, and his family grew up in.

Their loss has scarred the entire village. Some are inconsolable; these people grew up in the shadow of trees that are now reduced to ash. For Maniots, olive trees symbolise a deeper emotional relationship with place: if the Mani is unconquerable, it is in large part thanks to its olives, through which the people could trade and feed themselves. Mani’s famous independence is inseparable from its trees. When enemies want to hurt the region it is the trees they attack. During the 1821 war of independence, Ibrahim Pasha ordered his army to burn several Mani villages to the ground, torching the olive trees in each one. The local population starved to death.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the English travel writer who lived in Mani, talks about the importance of the olive harvest there. ‘Each tree has its personality,’ he tells us. ‘Every branch and knot and hole is familiar, and to damage one is an unlucky, almost a wicked act.’ This is because if the trees mark this land they also demarcate its people. Maniots are not Cretans for many reasons, but not least because they don’t beat their olive branches to make the olives fall as Cretans do — they don’t want to bruise the trees. They have a deeper connection with them. They know that trees surround their houses, their buildings, their churches.

And if the trees sit at the heart of community life, they have also powered social progress. For years, women were barred from taking part in almost all activities outside of the home except for the harvest: then they would put on old clothes and go out into the groves with the men and children. Everyone understood this relationship, which was clear and synergistic. The people tend the trees, and in return the trees give them olives — the source of life.

In the end, we cannot escape our roots. Here, it is the roots of the trees that sit deep in the ground, anchored to the soil and the story of families. Every Maniot understands that their history is interwoven with the olive trees — the two sets of roots perennially intertwined, indivisible from the land. It is something that I too now finally understand — if only in their demise. The fires in Greece have meant for me, not just the destruction of some vines but a rupture with history itself, and for my family, they have meant that once again we will come together this year to mourn death.

Swish! Swish! Swish!

Paddy’s observations on the Mani olive harvest, the war stories of old men, and where to find the best olive oil! A Paddy original recently surfaced. 

By Patrick Leigh Fermor (unknown provenance sent to me by a friend)

‘Where are you off to? Sit down.’ One of the two cheerful old men, who were smoking crosslegged under the branches, patted the ground beside him. Silvery vistas of gnarled and half-hollow olive trees opened fanwise all round them and there was a cicada grinding and scraping on every branch. A donkey under a wooden saddle grazed a little way off, trailing his long rope through the stubble. A wide hat with green muslin sewn to the brim lay beside one of the old men, and a rusty tin smoke-gun, fitted with primitive bellows that beekeepers fuel with dried dung. He was on his way to his beehives: one of those rows of faded blue wooden cubes that one sees high up in the heather in the summer months.

When I was beside them on the ground and about to light a Papastratos No. 1, the mule owner said: ‘Put it back, boy. Try one of ours from Kalamata.’ I took a Karelia from his packet. He lit it with flint and steel and a long yellow wick and I lay back in an aromatic cloud. It was a baking day with long needles of sunlight piercing the brittle shade of the leaves. The Deep Mani! It had never seemed hotter.

The beekeeper took a pitcher of water out of a little cave among the roots and passed it. I took a long pull of water from the cool and clammy vessel. ‘There’s nothing worse than thirst,’ he said, putting it back. ‘I’ll never forget when we were fighting the Turks on the river Sangarios, the day we captured the mountain of Çatal Dag – you remember, Petro?’ Petro nodded. ‘The confusion was terrible! Our chaps here, the Turks there, dust and smoke everywhere. Dead men, dead horses, wounded men, everyone covered with dust; caps, helmets, fezes – all lost, everything all over the place and upside down! It was a hot August, just like today. And thirst, po, po, po! Never ask! One of our boys who had lost touch with his company, suddenly spied a spring up the mountainside. He ran and flung himself down and started to drink. Then another one arrived and lay down beside him. They made room for each and went on drinking. When they had drunk their fill they sat up and looked at each other with a sigh of contentment. Suddenly our boy realised that the other was a Turk! Panayia mou! A young infantryman, just like him! And, at the same moment, the other realised he was sitting beside a Greek!’ He paused. ‘Just think! A Romios and a Turk, side by side! And the battle still going on all round them. Cannons! Horses! Flags! Shouting! Sabres! Bayonets! Bugles!’

‘Yes, but what did they do?’ The tension was intolerable. Barba Stavro’s eyes were twinkling in their lined sockets.

‘The whistle of bullets – we still had the old-fashioned single-shot Gra rifles then – orders and counter-orders shouted in both languages … mortars, shells, explosions! Wounded and dying all over the place.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘War is a terrible thing!’

‘But what did they do, Uncle Stavro? You are torturing us!’

‘Especially with modern weapons, amán! amán!’ He was gazing into the distance, pensively twisting his white moustache with his forefinger. ‘They say the atom bomb – my granddaughter read me all about it, from the Kathimerini – the last atom bomb, I mean, that they exploded at – what’s the place called? Bikini? – in the Pacific Ocean.’

I seized him by the knees. ‘Yes, but what did they do?’

‘Who? Ah yes, our chap and the Turk … I’m glad you asked …’ There was a long pause. ‘Well,’ he said, taking pity on us at last, ‘they did exactly what you or I would have done. They jumped up and ran away from each other as fast as they could!’

We all laughed. In Albania, in 1941, I asked an old friend what the retreat in Asia Minor had been like, and without hesitation, he said: ‘Like the retreat of the Grande Armée from Moscow, but with sand instead of snow.’ One catches the atmosphere in a flash. It is from the uncomfortable, the haphazard, the comic, that one learns what things were really like.

I wish Anna Comnena had possessed a single spark of these old men’s spirit. But Byzantine chroniclers lacked this blessing: hieratic formality and a slowly fossilising language stifled it; it was beneath their dignity. If Barba Stavro and Barba Petro had been there in 1259, when the Byzantines beat the Frankish army at the Battle of Pelagonia, it would be more than just a date. They would tell us about a Burgundian baron’s charger casting a shoe, or a squabble between two Thracian archers over a plate of beans, and all would be different. Xenophon had the life-giving gift; so did Makriyannis. These old Maniots idling the morning away with me under the hot leaves had it to a supreme degree. The bell round its neck clanked every time the donkey moved to a new patch of stubble, while we were marching in imagination with the Peloponnese Division all over Asia Minor.

These marvellous old men abound, but they will be getting scarce soon. I mean the ones who, in about 1912, received ten years of wars as a coming-of-age present: unambiguous, self-reliant, upright, humorous and philosophical men; weathered by a thousand hardships, and often illiterate, they are equipped with an intelligence that leaves their native simplicity intact. It was in Crete that I first came across these indestructible old men, with their white moustaches and their clear eyes; and, later on, all over rustic Greece and the islands. They gave one a hint of what Kolokotrones must have been like. Nestor, perhaps.

Until that morning, the Asia Minor campaign, which had ended thirty years earlier, had always seemed as remote as the Anabasis. Now, it might have ended last week. Their reciprocal memories egged each other on: the laundry lost in the Meander river … the deaf lance-corporal in Ortaca … Trouble with the town commandant of Süsürlük … Leave overstayed in Smyrna … The over-zealous sergeant-major at Ushak and the confusion caused by his orders, given in mangled Katharévousa.

The tale of a calf ‘acquired’ by a hungry platoon before the battle of Afion-Kara Hissar reminded me of another I had heard a couple of weeks before in the Outer Mani; it had been told me by the hero of the anecdote, who had been on sentry duty at night in a trench as a newly arrived recruit in the Halka Bunar line, in front of Smyrna. I repeated the story: how, all of a sudden, through the darkness, he had heard steps drawing closer from the direction of the Turkish front line. Perhaps it was the spearhead of a night attack! (No password! It couldn’t be one of our night patrols. No answer to my challenge; so I fired. Down went the enemy!) Alerted, the whole front stood to arms, fire broke out all along the line and continued till daybreak, when the raider turned out to be a donkey which had strayed between the two armies. (‘I know the man who told you this!’ Petro said. ‘I’m from the Outer Mani too.’) ‘Ever afterwards,’ the storyteller had concluded, ‘the whole regiment used to tease me about being the heroic donkey-slayer.’ I didn’t tell the story very well, but they laughed politely; and as I finished, the donkey grazing nearby let out a series of desolate brays. Barba Stavro put a finger to his lips: ‘Quieter, Mihali,’ he said. ‘He heard you.’

After a moment, Barba Petro went on. ‘Some people think trees can understand what we say. They like company. At least they like being close to human beings.’ It was an interesting idea. I suggested that it might limit conversation: one didn’t want to corrupt our benefactors. ‘They don’t really hear us, of course,’ he went on. ‘It’s because the trees near to a house always do best. It’s probably all the dirty water the women throw out of the doors, and the mules and donkeys tied up under the branches. Chickens, ducks, pigs, it all helps … And another thing: the trees talk as well as listen!’ He laughed. ‘Do you know what an olive tree says to its master, to help him get a good crop? No? Well, first it says: “When you plough me, you caress me.” Later on in the year it says: ‘When you manure me, you ask me a favour.” But at harvest time it says: “When you prune me, you command me!”’

Throughout this peninsula the olive tree reigns unchallenged. All life revolves round them. They are treated with respect and love: the respect that is accorded to sovereigns and the love that is bestowed on one’s family. Each tree has its personality: every branch and knot and hole is familiar, and to damage one is an unlucky, almost a wicked act; when a plan for the building of a new road or the widening of an old one condemns thousands of them to death, the grief is deep and general. On the eve of such a slaughter I came on a woman wandering among her olives. She had come to say goodbye. ‘They won’t be here tomorrow,’ she said, laying her hand on the rough bark, dry-eyed, but only just. ‘Twenty of them are coming down. I’ve known them since I was a little girl. They were my dowry.’ Next day the destruction began, and on the day after, kilometres of trees lay uprooted to make way for another broad band of asphalt to tear its way through those once silent groves.

I asked my companions how the olives were gathered: did they beat them from the branches with long reeds or poles, as I had seen it done in Crete? They were horrified. Beat them down? Only from the lopped branches on the ground. On the tree itself they were all picked by hand, to avoid bruising the twigs and the shoots: a long task. ‘In some of our Outer Mani villages,’ Barba Petro said, ‘they have started using an instrument like the comb people have for carding wool after the sheep-shearing – it’s just a bit of wood with some nails through it, really, and a handle. It does the work in half the time. You just comb the branches.’

‘Is that so?’ Barba Stavro was as impressed as though he were learned of the discovery of steam power for the first time. When they had discussed it in detail, he turned to me and said: ‘You must come back when they are gathering them. It’s a fine sight.’

I have seen it now. After the first brief rains a note of preparation runs through the Mani; the whole atmosphere begins to change. The blacksmiths hammer away at the great containers which have replaced the old amphorae, and in the olive presses you hear the first trial thumps of the engines which now do the work of the blindfold circling mules. Spraying has delivered the crop from the onslaught of the dacus fly. But the autumn sky has returned to its summer emptiness: ‘Will God rain on us?’ the question goes up. The clouds which at last assemble along the crests of the Taygetus resemble the sails of a relieving fleet after a long siege. At last the first drops fall on the dust like dark scattered stars that soon join and overflow in puddles. By the time it ends, young grass has sprung up in a haze between the tree trunks; sea-squills expand their dark spikes, cyclamen are sprouting among the rocks; and the branches, which have steadily been losing their angular distortion, droop in semicircular arcs under the weight of their berries, like the trees on a willow pattern plate. All has been washed clean and all that the dust and the distance veiled through the hot months leaps forward in glittering detail. Now and then a light wind travels through those thousands of trunks and lifts the pointed leaves so that the silver undersides flicker and flash in the thin November sunlight as though a shoal of millions and millions of fish, prompted by a subconscious mass decision, were changing direction. The ripple dies down and all is still again.

A few mornings later there are sudden voices among the trees after a whole year of silence and the olive groves fill up with figures and animals. Great rectangles of sacking, helped out by a bright blanket here and there, are spread out under each tree in turn like rafts of colour. Ladders ascend into the boughs, the figures group and regroup, men shout from the branches and the women, standing about or sitting in a ring below, beat the lopped and fallen twigs with sticks. The unflagging swish! swish! swish! is the predominant sound all through the harvest. The olives that patter on the cloth like rain are piled in pyramids; children who are too young to be left alone in the empty village chase each other between the trees; dogs bark, mules nibble the new grass and white goats tear the leaves from the stripped twigs that cover the ground.

The women wear their oldest clothes. They are patched again and again, and except for dark pleats and folds that retain their earliest colours, have been faded by the sun and bleached by a hundred washings to pale harmonious hues. Similar groups are assembled in the great level groves; they are scattered on the ascending ledges of terrace that climb until the last trees disperse among the high rocks like puffs of gunfire. The groups, the colours, especially those on the ledges of the perpendicular mountainside, compose themselves like the biblical scenes frescoed on church walls; almost – with the seated and standing figures, the waiting animals and the criss-cross of ladders – into crucifixions infinitely reproduced, except that all is cheerful here. Then men plying their small curved saws at the top of the ladders engage the women beside and beneath them in banter; flocks of girls perch invisibly in cages of leaves. Their songs drift charmingly along the groves. Loaded with bursting sacks and goaded by the cheerful blasphemies of their drivers, strings of mules labour through the dappled light and shade down the lanes to the olive presses; the throb of their engines has suddenly become the heartbeat of all the villages.

Everything gathers here. Animals stamp and neigh and collide and rear, swift hands disentangle them; strong backs are bent double under the sacks. Greetings are shouted and gossip has to be exchanged in voices of thunder to overcome the din of the engine and the roar of the great turning stones. Each peasant watches his cataract of olives poured into the wooden jaws; and when at last the pale jade-green jet of the first oil gushes from the spout below, he dips into it a piece of bread and munches it, feeling the happiest of mortals.

These are private and local scenes, cut off from the outside world. Everyone who doesn’t belong here has fled long ago, at the same time as the swallows. (Not quite everyone, or these lines would not be being written.) One morning there is a confetti of snow on the high peaks of the Taygetus; in a day or two they are an unbroken white, a dazzling background to the oranges with which the village trees are now heavy. The harvesting goes on through the winter solstice until the cut twigs and branches cover the ground and choke the lanes. The aromatic smell of bonfires drifts through the clipped and lightened branches; plumes of pale smoke ascend into the bright air. At night the stars sparkle like icicle splinters. Then the cypresses shudder in anticipation, and the wind comes and drenching rain. Tremendous waves roar up the inlets like an invasion to boom and echo in the caves with which the whole coast is undermined. The waves soar along the cliffs, opening in fans that cover the headlands and offshore islands with canopies of water and foam, to collapse and fall back with a gasp of pebbles. The onslaught reverberates through towers and archways and rooms like the sound of a battle offstage. Nowhere does one feel more cogently the succession of the seasons and the tilt of the earth’s axis. By now every house has its new oil stored in giant containers; the household is safe for another year. The windowpanes are streaming. The stripped trees stretch their roots through the soaking dark red soil; their torpid subterranean energy will cover the branches again by Easter with millions of pale, minute and star-like flowers.

But a shadow falls over these scenes, a small one during that summer day years ago while Stavro and Petro were talking; longer now. For the flight from the Mani continues, and each year the population that gathered the olives grows less. Sometimes, to replace them, troops of women come down from Western Thessaly, strange and fascinating costumes appear in the lanes, the Karagouni accent is heard, even a phrase or two of Koutzovlach. But they are no solution. The great flocks have already vanished from the high summer pastures of the Taygetus. In the north, the brushwood folds of the Sarakatzans, their customs and costumes, and their conical wigwams – those last surviving symbols, perhaps, of the most ancient Greek way of life in the country – have vanished from the Zagora ranges and the Agrapha, and the bells of their flocks sound fainter and fainter every year. Are the olives of the Mani to follow? Some pessimists think so: ‘Where are the hands to harvest them?’ they ask. Where indeed? Ask in Kalamata and Athens, ask in Essen and Düsseldorf, in Duisburg and Cologne and Friedrichshafen, in Melbourne and Adelaide and Sydney; ask in Toronto and Montreal …

Will the day come when the best oil on the planet ceases to flow; when the silver cord is loosed, as in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, and the grinders cease because they are few and the doors shall be shut in the streets?

The best oil on the planet. Stavros and Petro had no doubts about it. We all agreed that Greek olives were the best. I said, ‘What about Amphissa?’ They turned on me with pitying tones. No, no. The Mani was the place. But where in the Mani? ‘Here!’ Stavro said. His forefinger, which was as hard as a goat’s horn and nearly as wrinkled, gave the ground a gnomic tap. Then he gathered his beekeeping gear and got up, stretching himself and yawning. ‘We’ll go home and try some. And swallow an ouzo or two to revive us after our labours.’ We all laughed; we were streaming with sweat, but not from toil. We had lain there talking for more than three hours. Petro collected his mule, which had wandered away some distance.

‘Stavro,’ he said as we set off. ‘Deep Mani olives are good. I’m not saying they’re not. But the best are the ones in the Outer Mani. The whole world knows it. It’s not just because I come from those parts – far from it. But it’s everybody’s opinion.’

‘So be it,’ Stavro said. He gave me a secret dig with his elbow and the ghost of a wink. I asked Petro where the best in the Outer Mani come from. ‘From Liasínova,’ he answered without hesitation. There was a scarcely audible chuckle from Barba Stavro. I asked Petro where he came from. ‘Me? You mean where do I come from?’ Then, in airy tones of slight surprise at the unexpected coincidence, he said: ‘From there. From Liasínova, that’s to say.’

It was a splendid illustration of local prejudice. But now, after many years and mature consideration, I think there was a lot in what he said. Certainly, the best olives in Greece come from the Outer Mani; and definitely from the region of Liasínova. But from Liasínova itself? I think a truly impartial and objective opinion might place the actual pinpoint of unsurpassable excellence a little further down the coast – only three or four kilometres away. More towards Kardamyli, perhaps.

Editor Note: Since publication some of you have come forward with ideas about the source of this. I like the one from Pietro Basile best:

Hello Tom,
here’s the current source for Swish, swish, swish.
Apparently it was written for a Greek edition of Mani but never published.
No mention of who found it, but great piece, if one actually actually knows Greece.
My guess is that he wanted to have it it included as a special homage to his area but whoever was the editor thought it was a bit corny…
Regards,
Pietro

Updated – The Art of Travel with Patrick Leigh Fermor

We originally posted this recording in March 2012. It really does not seem so long ago! David Turner had found a recording from somewhere and converted it to digital. I uploaded it to Soundcloud where it resides to this day. 

The recording is from a BBC Radio 4 programme entitled “The Art of Travel” (broadcast c.1990-1992) in which Annette Kobrak interviewed Paddy for about 26 minutes concerning his early life and his journey to Constantinople. There are some good discussions about his travels after Between the Woods and the Water, about Bulgaria and into Constantinople.

However, an even better digital version is now available on BBC Sounds here, and at this time of remembering Paddy it’s good to hear his voice once more.

https://patrickleighfermor.org/2012/03/11/patrick-leigh-fermor-the-art-of-travel-broadcast-c-1990-1992/

If the BBC prevents you from listening because you are abroad, try my Soundcloud version below.

I am indebted to David Turner for taking the time to convert this to digital and very successfully too – the sound quality is excellent!

You can listen online or download (press the downwards pointing arrow on the right hand side menu bar of the player).

Escape from Fortress Crete

Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Stanley Moss (top row, second and third from left) with ­other members of the group that abducted the German general Heinrich Kreipe, Crete, April 1944. Estate of William Stanley Moss/Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Stanley Moss (top row, second and third from left) with ­other members of the group that abducted the German general Heinrich Kreipe, Crete, April 1944. Estate of William Stanley Moss/Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

In one of the most audacious feats of World War II, two British undercover agents and a group of Greek partisans in Nazi-occupied Crete kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of the German garrison’s foremost division. Over eighteen days, with a net of enemy troops tightening around them, they marched him across the island’s mountains to be transported on a motor launch to Egypt.

By Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review, March 11 2021

“Of all the stories that have come out of the War,” a radio announcer declared triumphantly, “this is the one which schoolboys everywhere will best remember.” The exploit was celebrated in 1950 by its deputy leader William Stanley Moss in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, which became a popular movie produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The leader of the operation, Patrick Leigh Fermor (played onscreen by Dirk Bogarde), was to become a legendary figure in postwar Britain and Greece, as well as the most revered travel writer of his generation. But his full account of the action, Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete, wasn’t published until several years after he died. Beside its sheer drama and the frequent fineness of Leigh Fermor’s writing, the story resonates with half-answered questions. Was the exploit worth it? What, if any, was its strategic effect? Above all, were the atrocities visited afterward on Cretan villages by the Germans an act of vengeance for the abduction?

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in Leigh Fermor’s life and work. Since his death in 2011, a fine, full-scale biography by Artemis Cooper has appeared; his archive at the National Library of Scotland has been mined for new material; and two volumes of his letters, Dashing for the Post and More Dashing, in which he recounts inter alia his periodic returns to Crete, were edited by Adam Sisman. On the last of these journeys, in 1982, Leigh Fermor was delighted—and perhaps relieved—at his rapturous reception from his Cretan comrades-in-arms, still inhabiting his wartime haunts: whiskery old men now, who feasted him mountainously for days.

Their memories are long and bitter. The Nazi occupation of Crete, and of all Greece, was a particularly brutal one, in which perhaps 9 percent of the nation’s population perished, and almost the entire Jewish population of the island, destined for death camps, was drowned when their transport ship was mistakenly torpedoed by a British submarine. Hundreds of villages, including many in Crete, were razed.

These memories have recently surfaced again in the rhetoric of Greek politicians. Germany, ironically, is Greece’s main creditor. In protesting German stringency in the face of their towering debt, the Greeks raised the old question of war reparations, maintained by Germany to have been settled in 1990. In 2015 the Greeks demanded a further $303 billion for damaged infrastructure, war crimes, and repayment of a Nazi-enforced loan from Greece to Germany. The present Greek prime minister has pursued this less stridently than his predecessor, but the demand remains.

This rankling bitterness would not have surprised those members of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who operated undercover in the Cretan mountains, and who witnessed firsthand the Greek hatred of their oppressors. Part of Leigh Fermor’s motive in producing his own account of Kreipe’s abduction was to pay tribute to the intransigent courage and resolve of the local inhabitants.

Yet the writing of the operation originated by chance. In 1966 the editor of Purnell’s History of the Second World War, an anthology of feature-length essays, commissioned Leigh Fermor to record the operation in five thousand words. But Leigh Fermor was not one for shortcuts, and he produced over 30,000 words, almost a year late. Eventually a version appeared in Purnell’s History, stripped down by a professional journalist, and shorn of most of the color, drama, and anecdote that characterized the original.

It is easy to see how this original—published as Abducting a General —exasperated the Purnell’s History editor. From the start, although it records every tactical move, it reads more like a vivid and expansive adventure story than a military report. On the night of February 5, 1944, signal fires glitter on a narrow Cretan plateau as Leigh Fermor parachutes out of a converted British bomber. It is the start of things going wrong. Clouds close in, and his fellow officer “Billy” Moss cannot drop down after him. It is two months before they rendezvous on the island’s southern shore, after Moss has arrived from Egypt by motor launch.

Leigh Fermor was twenty-nine, Moss only twenty-two, but both had seen hard war service. Moss, a captain in the Coldstream Guards, had fought in North Africa, but had no previous experience of guerrilla warfare. Leigh Fermor, on the other hand, had already been in Crete fifteen months, disguised as a shepherd, gathering intelligence and organizing resistance. He spoke fluent Greek and had struck up warm friendships among the andartes, the region’s guerrillas.

The island where they landed was the formidable German Festung Kreta, Fortress Crete, garrisoned by some 50,000 soldiers, but menaced by a hinterland of lawless mountain villages. The British target at first had been the brutal General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (who would be executed for war crimes in 1947). But he had recently been replaced by General Kreipe, a veteran of the eastern front, who for propaganda purposes was considered an equally promising prize.

Such a kidnapping would undermine the morale of the German forces, Leigh Fermor wrote; it would inspirit the resistance (which had suffered recent reverses) and prove a setback to the Communist propagandists who were seeking to divide the Greek island as they had the mainland. He proposed to his SOE superiors in Cairo that the action should be “an Anglo-Cretan affair”:

It could be done, I urged, with stealth and timing in such a way that both bloodshed, and thus reprisals, would be avoided. (I had only a vague idea how.) To my amazement, the idea was accepted.

In a curious lapse of German security, Kreipe was driven unescorted each evening five miles from his divisional headquarters to his fortified residence. At a steep junction in the road Leigh Fermor, Moss, and a selected band of andartes lay in wait after dark until a flashed warning from an accomplice signaled the car’s departure. As the Opel’s headlights approached, the two SOE officers, wearing the stolen uniforms of German corporals, flagged it down with a traffic policeman’s baton.

On one side Leigh Fermor saluted and asked in German for identity papers, then wrenched open the door and heaved the general out at gunpoint. On the other, Moss, seeing the chauffeur reach for his revolver, knocked him out and took his place at the wheel. Meanwhile the Cretan guerrillas manacled the general, bundled him into the back of the Opel, and dragged the driver to a ditch. Leigh Fermor put on the general’s hat, three andartes held the general at knifepoint on the seat behind, and Moss drove off in the direction that the enemy would least expect: toward the German stronghold of Heraklion.

Along the road, and within the city’s Venetian walls, the general’s car, with its signature mudguard pennants, cruised past raised barriers and saluting sentries. In the blacked-out streets the car’s interior was almost invisible. Moss drove through twenty-two checkpoints. Occasionally Leigh Fermor, his face shadowed under the general’s hat, returned the salutes. Then the car exited the Canea Gate and they went into the night.

In the eighteen days that followed, the party often split and reformed. The Opel was abandoned near a bay deep enough to give the impression that a British submarine had spirited the general away. Anxious that no reprisals should be taken against the Cretans, Leigh Fermor pinned a prepared letter to the front seat:

Gentlemen,

Your Divisional Commander, General Kreipe, was captured a short time ago by a BRITISH Raiding Force under our command. By the time you read this both he and we will be on our way to Cairo.

We would like to point out most emphatically that this operation has been carried out without the help of CRETANS or CRETAN partisans and the only guides used were serving soldiers of HIS HELLENIC MAJESTY’S FORCES in the Middle East, who came with us.

Your General is an honourable prisoner of war and will be treated with all the consideration owing to his rank. Any reprisals against the local population will thus be wholly unwarranted and unjust.

Beneath their signatures they appended a postscript: “We are very sorry to have to leave this beautiful motor car behind.” Other signs of British involvement—Players’ cigarette stubs, a commando beret, an Agatha Christie novel, a Cadbury’s chocolate wrapper—were scattered in the car or nearby.

At daybreak the general was hidden in a cave near the rebellious village of Anoyeia. Leigh Fermor was still in German uniform when he entered the village with one of the andartes. “For the first time,” he wrote,

I realised how an isolated German soldier in a Cretan mountain village was treated. All talk and laughter died at the washing troughs, women turned their backs and thumped their laundry with noisy vehemence; cloaked shepherds, in answer to greeting, gazed past us in silence; then stood and watched us out of sight. An old crone spat on the ground…. In a moment we could hear women’s voices wailing into the hills: “The black cattle have strayed into the wheat!” and “Our in-laws have come!”—island-wide warnings of enemy arrival.

Yet his party’s progress soon came to resemble a royal procession. Guerrilla bands and villagers who recognized what had happened greeted them with jubilation and supplied food, guides, and escorts. But the going was very hard. Thousands of German troops were fanning across the mountains in search of them. Reconnaissance planes showered the country with threatening leaflets. Still, the group vanished from German sight among the goat tracks and canyons east of Mount Ida, whose eight-thousand-foot bulk straddles a quarter of the island. They crossed it in deep snow.

The general was a heftily built, rather dull man who trudged with them in reconciled gloom. He was not a brute, like Müller, but the thirteenth child of a Lutheran pastor whose chief worry, at first, was the loss of his Knights’ Cross medal in the scuffle. Sometimes a mule was found for him, but he fell twice, heavily. “I wish I’d never come to this accursed island,” he said. “It was supposed to be a nice change after the Russian front.”

On the slopes of Ida one dawn, where the two SOE officers and the general had been sleeping in a cave under the same flea-ridden blanket, Leigh Fermor placed the incident that he celebrated more than thirty years later in his A Time of Gifts. Gazing at the mountain crest across the valley, the general murmured to himself the start of a Horatian ode in Latin. It is one that Leigh Fermor knew (his memory was prodigious), and he completed the ode through its last five stanzas:

The general’s blue eyes had 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. 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.

By now German troops were spreading across the long southern coast, from which the general would most likely be shipped to Egypt on a motor launch or submarine summoned by radio. But the radios and their clandestine operators were forced to relocate continually by German maneuvers, a crucial wireless-charging engine broke down, and messages (carried by runners) quickly became redundant as enemy troops took over remote beaches.

Yet Leigh Fermor’s party, sometimes guided by andartes’ beacons, slipped through the tightening cordon, and arrived at the defiant haven of the Amari Valley villages. It was another eight days, far to the west, before they found an undefended beach, made contact with a radio operator and with SOE headquarters in Cairo, and were promised a boat for the following night. In a last, ludicrous hitch, as Leigh Fermor and Moss attempted to flash the agreed Morse code signal for the rendezvous into the dark, they could not remember the code for “B.” But another of the group did; the motor launch returned, and they embarked for Egypt in euphoria, after shedding their boots and weapons for those comrades left behind.

It was soon after his capture, on the road beyond Heraklion, that General Kreipe, a tried professional soldier, asked, “Tell me, Major, what is the object of this hussar-stunt?”

In Abducting a General Leigh Fermor stresses morale: the blow to German confidence and the boost to Cretan resistance and pride. Immersed as he was in the emotional politics of the island, he felt the endeavor to be worth the risk. But others questioned it. Strategically it was irrelevant, and under his eventual interrogation the general yielded nothing of interest. “Kreipe is rather unimportant,” concluded the British War Office. “Rather weak character and ignorant.” The historian M.R.D. Foot, to Leigh Fermor’s irritation, called the abduction merely a “tremendous jape,” and even before the project was sanctioned, a senior SOE executive in Cairo, when asked if it should proceed, objected. The executive later wrote:

I made myself exceedingly unpopular by recommending as strongly as I could that we should not. I thought that if it succeeded, the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but that the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives. The sacrifice might possibly have been worthwhile in the black winter of 1941 when things were going badly. The result of carrying it out in 1944, when everyone knew that victory was merely a matter of months would, I thought, hardly justify the cost.

The cost may have been high. Some three and a half months after the general’s kidnapping, with the brutal Müller again the island’s commander, the Germans razed to the ground the recalcitrant village of Anoyeia. Müller’s order of the day was unequivocal. For Anoyeia’s longtime harboring of guerrillas and of British intelligence, for its murder of two separate German contingents, and for its complicity in Kreipe’s abduction:

We order its COMPLETE DESTRUCTION and the execution of every male person of Anogia who would happen to be within the village and around it within a distance of one kilometre.

Nine days later the Amari villages suffered the same fate, with 164 executed. The Greek newspaper Paratiritis, an organ of German propaganda, cited their support for the Kreipe abduction as the reason.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943

Leigh Fermor, by then convalescing in a Cairo hospital, was shattered by the news. Yet in retrospect he realized that some four months—an unprecedentedly long time—had elapsed before the German reprisals, which were usually instantaneous. There are historians who agree that citing Kreipe’s abduction was little more than an excuse, and that the real, unpublishable reason was that within two months the German forces were to start their mass withdrawal west across the island, exposing them to hostile regions like Amari that flanked their line of retreat. Colonel Dunbabin, Leigh Fermor’s overall commander, in his final report on SOE missions in Crete, shared this assessment, adding that Müller’s purpose was “to commit the German soldiers to terrorist acts so that they should know that there would be no mercy for them if they surrendered or deserted.”

When Leigh Fermor returned to the island soon after, his Cretan friends comforted him that the German revenge would have happened anyway: “These were consoling words; never a syllable of blame was uttered. I listened to them eagerly then, and set them down eagerly now.”

These thoughts and memories, of course, were written in retrospect. By the time of their composition in 1966 and 1967 Leigh Fermor had already completed a novella, a brief study of monastic life, and three travel books, including two fine descriptions of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. His Abducting a General, besides its value as a war document, slips readily into narrative reminiscent of a dramatic travel book, peppered with anecdote and irresistible asides. This is part of its allure. Military data merge seamlessly with the evocation of people and landscapes. A threatening storm is evoked in images of aerial pandemonium above a landscape of rotting cliffs and lightning-struck gorges. (One sentence of Proustian complexity runs to 138 words.) A cave in which the abduction party shelters from the exposing daylight is described with an eye for more than its military use:

It was a measureless natural cavern that warrened and forked deep into the rocks, and then dropped, storey after storey, to lightless and nearly airless stalactitic dungeons littered with the horned skeletons of beasts which had fallen there and starved to death in past centuries: a dismal den, floored with millennia of goats’ pellets, dank as a tomb.

The second, shorter section of the book is devoted to Leigh Fermor’s contemporary War Reports. Most valuable is his account of another evacuation. In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allies, and General Angelo Carta, commander of the 32,000-strong Italian Siena division occupying eastern Crete, was being hunted by the Germans. Through Carta’s counterespionage officer Franco Tavana, who handed over detailed Italian defense plans, Leigh Fermor organized the general’s escape, from a chaotic beachhead, to Egypt.

Even the reports are vivid with incident. On a clandestine visit to Tavana, Leigh Fermor hid under a bed from intruding Germans, “clutching my revolver, and swallowing pounds of fluff and cobwebs.” Crouched in the cellar of an Orthodox abbot, while sheltering from an enemy patrol—“It was a very near thing”—he glimpsed the Germans’ boots two feet above him through the floorboards. Elsewhere he describes how—heavily disguised—he taught a trio of drunken Wehrmacht sergeants to dance the Greek pentozali. It comes as a shock to realize that any Allied operative arrested on the island would be brutally tortured, then shot.

Leigh Fermor’s courage, generosity, and high spirits famously endeared him to the Cretans. He sang, danced, and drank with them. Naturally generous and uncritical, he describes almost every mountaineer as a model of hardiness and bravery: “Originality and inventiveness in conversation and an explosive vitality…. There was something both patrician and bohemian in their attitude to life.” He might have been describing himself. “We could not have lasted a day without the islanders’ passionate support.”

Among the Cretans Leigh Fermor most admired was a slight, high-spirited youth named George Psychoundakis (affectionately code-named the “Changebug”), whom the SOE used as a runner carrying messages over the mountains. This impoverished shepherd, whom Leigh Fermor’s confederate Xan Fielding called “the most naturally wise and instinctively knowledgeable Cretan I ever met,” could cover the harsh terrain at lightning speed, although he dressed in tatters and his disintegrating boots were secured with wire. After the Occupation ended he was mistakenly interned as a deserter and eventually went to work as a charcoal-burner to support his destitute family. It was at these times—in prisons, and in a cave above his work-site—that he labored on the book that became The Cretan Runner. It was translated by Leigh Fermor, who had discovered its author’s whereabouts after the war.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Uniquely, it is a narrative written from the lowliest rank of the Greek resistance, by a man who was barely educated, and records four years as a dispatch carrier through the precipitous harshness of western Crete. Sometimes he rendezvoused with British arms drops or guided escaping Allied soldiers to the sea, and he evaded capture by swiftness, resourcefulness, and a profound knowledge of the terrain. He wrote:

My tactics on the march were to know few people, in order that few should know me, even if they were “ours” and good patriots. I kept my mouth shut with everybody, even to the point of idiocy, and these two things kept me safe to the end.

His book is an unaffected day-by-day drama, direct and demotic at best, only occasionally swelling into literary grandiloquence when he feels the subject (patriotism, the dead) requires it. Years later this self-taught prodigy translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into his vernacular Cretan, using the meter of the seventeenth-century romance Erotokritos, and was richly rewarded by the Athens Academy.

Leigh Fermor’s translation of this difficult work arose from his love of Cretan culture as well as respect for Psychoundakis. But his personal immersion in the island came at cost. One of his War Reports expands wretchedly on his accidental shooting of a partisan and great friend, Yanni Tsangarakis. Its recounting clouded his face even in old age. And misgivings that his Kreipe operation—brilliant and brave as it was—brought retribution on the island he loved may never have quite left him.

General Kreipe arrives in the UK

PW capture report on Kreipe

This is the last post in the series created by the excellent Chris White. He first published this on Facebook in 2020. During the first months of the pandemic, I was copying and pasting and adding his pictures to recreate here on the Paddy blog. I know that many of you have enjoyed this and your comments are appreciated. There will be a couple of follow on posts to tidy up this series, but once more, a huge round of thanks to Chris. I look forward to seeing Chris at the 10th anniversary dinner in June and passing on my personal appreciation.

29th May 1944. General Kreipe arrives in the UK after a brief period of time in Cairo being interrogated. Again, it is front page news.

Kreipe in UK 1

Morale boosting news item in ‘Union Jack’

Union Jack 1

20th May 1944

The kidnap is reported in a morale boosting news item in ‘Union Jack’, the newspaper produced for Allied Forces in the Second World War.

This is the edition for Allied forces fighting in Italy.

Union Jack front page

Union Jack 2

Front page news

Kreipe headlines 2

19th May 1944

And finally the full story becomes major, even front page, news in Britain. Mirror, Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Express all report the kidnap – often alongside the major battles happening in Italy…

Kreipe headlines 1

Kreipe headlines 3

Kreipe headlines 4

Kreipe headlines 5

Kreipe headlines 6

General Kreipe arrives in Cairo after flying from Mersa Matruh

Kreipe Cairo arrival 1

16th May: On the motor launch’s arrival in Mersa Matruh the General and the rest of the kidnap group were officially welcomed by Brigadier Barker-Benfield and the General spent his first night of captivity sharing a room with the Brigadier in the Officers Mess.

Kreipe Cairo arrival 2

Kreipe headline 17 May

Kreipe Cairo arrival 3

Waiting for the motor launch to arrive

RN Motor launch rescue Fermor Kreipe

14th May 1944

The final hours…..they have gathered in the rocks behind Peristeres beach, just below the village of Rodakino…..different andarte bands have joined them from the surrounding villages…and they are waiting for the motor launch to arrive…….

Paddy writes:

‘…..we all lay up till nightfall on a ledge in a deep hollow of the cliffs where an icy spring trickled down the rocks……Then we crossed the short distance to the little cove we hoped to leave from. It seemed to us all, with its walls of rock on either side and the sand and the pebbles, the lapping of the water and the stars, a quiet place for our adventure to end. As we stood about, talking in whispers at first, though there was no one to be afraid of, Andartes climbed down the rocks in two and threes to join us. There were the Rodakino Kapitans Khombitis and Manoli Yanna and Andrea Kotsiphis, and there too, suddenly, with the great fair moustache that had made us christen him Beowulf, was Petraka, the kapitan of the Asi Gonia band and one of our oldest friends on the island. He had brought a contingent of Goniots to join the other Andartes in guarding our departure and also to say goodbye. The place was filling up like a drawing room: groups were lounging about in the rocks or strolling with slung guns quietly conversing’

‘There was a slight coil of mist over the sea so it was not till she was quite close that we saw the ship. We could hear the rattle of the anchor going down; then two boats were lowered…….
The moment had come….We all pulled off our boots to leave behind; this was always done; even in rags they came in useful. Soon we were saying goodbye to Petraka and the Rodakino Kapitans and Yanni Katsias and the guerrillas and lastly to Antoni Zoidakis. We all embraced like grizzly bears. I tried to persuade Antoni to come with us; he wavered a moment and then decided against it. I wish he had. A sailor said “Excuse me Sir, but we ought to get a move on.”

As we neared the ship, the figures waving along the shore had begun to grow indistinct among the shadows and, very fast, it was hard to single out the cove from the tremendous mountain mass that soared from the sea to the Milky Way. The ship grew larger, her pom-poms and Bofors A.A. guns shining in the starlight. When we drew alongside sailors in spotless white were reaching down into the bulwarks to guide the General up the rope ladder (“That’s right Sir! Easy does it!”) while we – Billy, Manoli and George and I – helped from below. A moment later we were on the deck in our bare feet and it was all over.’

Peristeres beach 1

Peristeres beach 2

Peristeres beach 3

Peristeres beach 4

Peristeres beach 5

Peristeres beach 6

“Wunderbar, Herr General! We’re leaving!”

May 13th 1944

Nearly there…waiting in the rocky fissure outside Alones….

Paddy writes:
“Well, Herr Major, how are the plans for our departure progressing?” By now the General had become as solicitous for the success of our departure as we were.

“Wunderbar, Herr General! We’re leaving!”

It was true, the order of release or the promise of it, had come through. The German drive through the Asi Gonia mountains had driven Dennis to earth and put his set momentarily off the air. But messages from Cairo were beamed now to all stations and when the great news came through, Dick himself, hearing of our local troubles, and making a dash clean across the Nome of Retimo, reached our cheerless grotto long after dark. The boat would put in at a beach near Rodakino at 22 hours on the night of the 14th /15th May. – “10 o’clock tomorrow night!” It was in exactly a day from now. We would only just be able to manage it.

The thing was to get the main party to the coast under cover of darkness. I sent Billy off with George and the others and Yanni Katsias and his two wild boys by a short route which would bring them by daybreak to a place where they could wait for us. The General, Manoli and I would go by a much longer and safer way, where the mountains were so steep and deserted that, with a cloud of scouts out, we could move by day without much danger. Unfortunately it was too steep and uneven for a mule so the General would have to go on foot. But the sky was clear and there would be a bright moon and starlight.

The Krioneritis mountains which we were to cross are not one of the highest ranges of Crete, but they are among the steepest and are certainly the worst going. They are bare and, except for an occasional thistle or thornbush or sea squill, as empty of vegetation as a bone yard; the place is ringed with craters and fractured into a jig-saw of deep crevasses; worst of all there is not a path or even a flat square foot in the whole of this wilderness. The region is a never-ending upside-down harrow armed with millions of limestone sickles and daggers and yataghans.
Sustained perhaps by the thought of an end to his ordeal, the General tackled this Via Crucis with scarcely a groan. Helped by Manoli and me when he stumbled and then by the guerrillas that shimmered like ghosts out of the vacancy, he moved across the landscape in a sort of trance.”

Dennis Ciclitira has joined them and has a working radio

May 11th 1944

Things are looking up! Dennis Ciclitira has joined them and has a working radio set up the valley in Asi Gonia. And they hear from Ianni Katsias that the closest beaches – at Rodakino – has potential as a pick up point.
They spend the day and evening resting and recovering. They are all very tired and the General is clearly suffering. Billy Moss recorded, after the General fell off the mule the day before:

“General in great pain, saying: ‘I’ve had enough. Why don’t you shoot me and get done with it’.”

Paddy writes:

Rumours of a German descent on the region had prompted Stathi to conceal us in such a cramped and precarious eyrie the night before; next morning all seemed serene: we climbed up to a commodious and beautiful ledge of rock where the General was consoled for the agonies of the ascent by the coloured blankets and the cushions spread there under the leaves by my god-brother (Stathi) and Stavro (an old drinking companion of mine) and by the marvellous banquet of roast sucking pig and kalitsounias, – crescent shaped mizithracroquettes – and the wicker demi-john of magnificent old wine which was waiting. Stathi was a great bon viveur and a paragon of kindness and generosity as well as being Kapetanios of an armed band. His eager blue eyes kindled with delight to see us demolishing his feast. He hoped, (and so did we) that we could lie up here in luxury until we slipped off over the hill to the boat. There was a rushing stream hard by and sweet smelling herbs all round us and the trees were full of nightingales. We banqueted and slept and talked and sang. The sun set through the surrounding peaks and as we lolled exulting on the soft rugs under the moon and the stars, for ever plied with fresh marvels by the two brothers, who sped to and from the village like kindly djinns, this sudden change in our affairs seemed to all of us as magical as the sudden transportation to paradise for beggars in a Persian story.’

The General falls from his mule

10th May 1944

After a day resting in Photeinou the party continue to travel westward. They are heading to the Kato Poros gorge outside the village of Vilandredo.

Paddy writes: ‘A mishap occurred on this long night’s march: the girth of the General’s mule broke and sent his rider tumbling down a steep precipice. We chased after him; we thought at first that one of his shoulder blades was damaged; we arranged a sling and after a while the pain seemed to go. But his right arm remained in a sling for the rest of the journey. It was an anxious moment.

Outside the little village of Vilandredo we were met by kind and enthusiastic Stathi Loukakis and his brother, yet another Stavro.

He led us all, dog-tired and woe-begone, to a built up cave that clung to the mountainside like a martin’s nest. It was only to be reached by the clambering ascent of a steep ladder of roots and rocks – up which our disabled captive could only be hoisted by many hands and slow stages.’

Michael Powell was led to the cave in !951, and we finally tracked it down in 2015.

Our sun is rising

Chris White (C) with Charidimos Alevizakis (L) the nephew of Ianni Tsangarakis, Paddy’s greatest friend and guide. Charidimos had been a messenger for Paddy – and told us most emphatically that he and Paddy ‘were brothers.’

9th May 1944

After another day resting in Patsos the party head westward – reinforced by George Harokopos and George Pattakos, who supplies a mule for the General to ride on.

Paddy writes:

‘Our way westward over the plateau of Yious was our familiar east to west route over the narrowest part of western Crete. “Our sun is rising”, George had said as we set off at moonrise. It was a favourite saying in these nocturnal journeys. “Off we go,” Manoli said, “Anthropoi tou Skotous.” This phrase “men of Darkness!” was a cliché that often cropped up in German propaganda when referring to people like us, and we had eagerly adopted it. We were off, I hoped, on the last lap of our journey.’

‘Among the rocks and Arbutus clumps there was an ice-cold spring which was said to bestow the gift of immortality. We all lay on our faces and lapped up as much as we could hold. I told the General about the property of the water. He leant down from the saddle of his mule and asked urgently for a second mug.’
There destination for the night is the village of Fotinou – but they have to cross the main road from Rethymno to Spili without being spotted.

‘Men with guns whistled from the rocks and when we answered ran down to meet us and shepherd the party across the perilous highway. Others joined us out of the moonlight as we climbed into the conical hills where Fotinou is perched. Suddenly there was an alarm of a German patrol approaching directly ahead. Our party, by now quite large, fanned out along a ridge and lay waiting.’

‘Luckily it was only another contingent of our growing escort. There was relief and laughter. By the time we got to the grove of Scholari outside Fotinou, we were very numerous indeed. Most of the troop was composed of old Uncle Stavro Peros and his eighteen sons and their descendents with several members of the Tzangarakis and Alevizakis families as well. Andoni, the youngest of the Peros brothers had just contracted a dynastic match with the daughter of a family with whom the Peros tribe had been locked in discord for generations; so an atmosphere of concord and rejoicing reigned in the hills.’

In 1951 the film director Michael Powell, as part of his research for “Ill Met By Moonlight’, had visited the village, and photographed the Peros family.

In our early research trips we were able to meet Despina Peros, who had married Andoni Peros – the dynastic match – and whose olive grove they had stayed in. Despina was very proud of her association with the kidnap and that she had fed the group.

And on our first research trip in 2010 we met Charidimos Alevizakis, the nephew of Ianni Tsangarakis, Paddy’s greatest friend and guide. Charidimos had been a messenger for Paddy – and told us most emphatically that he and Paddy ‘were brothers.’

We might have been in a drawing room

8th May 1944

Tha main party stay resting outside Patsos. Billy writes about having a bathe in the tumbling stream nearby.
In the evening Paddy and Giorgos arrive from Genna and the group are reunited again.

Paddy writes: ‘The party, when I found them, were star-scattered about a tumble-down stone hut shaded by a clump of tall plane trees and a beetling rock with a waterfall and a deep pool. George Harocopos and his old father and his pretty little sister were looking after them in this Daphnis and Chloe décor.’

‘”Good morning, General. How are you?”
“Ah, Good morning, Major. We missed you.”
We might have been in a drawing room.’

The party are joined by another villager from Patsos – Giorgos Pattakos – who we were privileged to meet several times on our early research trips

‘All was going according to plan’

7th May 1944

Messages are beginning to bear fruit….and Paddy realises they will have to travel further westward. They still don’t have a plan on how to depart but they are now getting better links with Cairo via the radio set at Dryade and their brave messenger, George Psychoundakis. Paddy and George stay on in Genna a further night.

In the evening Manoli, Billy, the General and the main party travel further westward to the village of Patsos, where they stay in a sheepfold in a gorge by a tumbling stream.

Paddy writes: ‘On the night of the 7th, the party with the General moved by an easy night march to Patsos, which was only two or three hours away from me. They were being fed and guarded by George Harocopos and his family, (George, a thoughtful and well read boy, later to become a gifted journalist, was the son of a very poor, but very brave and kind family, all of whom had been great benefactors to the wandering British). All was going according to plan.’

But when we saw the branding mark, We only stole the ram, Sir

6th May 1944

Paddy and Giorgos remain based in Genna – messengers coming and going as they desperately try to arrange a safe beach to be picked up from. Giorgos Psychoundakis returns with Dick Barnes – known as Pavlos.

Paddy writes: ‘This reunion with Dick – like many occasions in occupied Crete when one wasn’t actually dodging the enemy – became the excuse for a mild blind. ‘Mr Pavlo and I set off to Yeni,’ writes George Psychoundakis in ‘The Cretan Runner’, “where we found Mr Mihali (me) and Uncle Yanni Katsias. We sat there till the evening and the sun set. Yanni took us to the east side of the village where they brought us some food and first rate wine and our Keph (well-being) was great. The four of us were soon singing. Mr Mihali sang a sheep-stealing couplet to the tune of Pentezali, which went:

Ah, Godbrother, the night was dark
For lamb and goat and dam, Sir,
But when we saw the branding mark,
We only stole the ram, Sir.

The ram – the head of the flock – meant the General.’

Billy, Manoli, the General and the rest of the kidnap team remain in the sheepfold above Gerakari.

‘This is very satisfactory news’

5th May 1944

Paddy and Giorgos remain in Genna, coordinating messengers. They are joined by Giorgos Harokopos and Giorgos Psychoundakis, who then heads back off to the wireless set run by Dick Barnes at Dryade with a message.

The main party in the evening leave Gomara and walk up the Amari valley via the village of Gourgouthi to their next hideout – a sheepfold above the village of Gerakari.

And in London Orme Sargent, the senior Foreign Office officer at Under Secretary level working to SOE, sends a memo to Harry Sporborg, deputy to Major-General Colin Gubbins, Head of SOE, expressing great approval of the coup. ’I have just heard of the success of an Allied Mission in Crete in capturing a high German officer. This is very satisfactory news and I hope it will be possible to get the German out to Cairo as I believe is intended.’

[1] National Archives HS 5/416

‘… if my companions are feeling half as uncomfortable as I do they must be feeling terrible’

4th May 1944

The main party are still hiding in the valley of Gomara. Billy Moss records in ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’:
“It rained all night long , and, as was inevitable, we are soaked to the skin. Around me I see a picture of human misery, and I know that if my companions are feeling half as uncomfortable as I do they must be feeling terrible.”
Spirits are lifted in the afternoon when messengers arrive from Sandy Rendel and Dick Barnes.

Meanwhile in Fourfouras Paddy and Giorgos leave the comforts of Giorgos’ family home and travel 14kms further up the valley to Pantanassa…..searching for the whereabouts of a working radio set.

Paddy writes:

“Among the cypresses of Pantanasa George and I ran into a hitch. The Hieronymakis family, we knew, were in touch with at least one of our wireless stations. By ill luck it was about the only village in the region where neither of us had ever been. The Hieronymakis knew all about us, we knew all about them, but we had never met and there was no one to vouch for us. The old men were adamant: ‘You say you are Mihali, Mihali who? And who are Siphi (Ralph Stockbridge) and Pavlo (Dick Barnes)? Never heard of them. Tk. Tk. Tk! Englishmen? but, boys, all the English left Crete three years ago …?’ The white whiskered faces turned to each other for corroboration, beetling brows were raised in puzzlement, blank glances exchanged. They went on calmly fingering their amber beads, politely offering coffee. It was no good raging up and down, gesticulating under the onions and paprika pods dangling from the beams: every attempt to break through was met by identical backward tilts of head with closed eyelids and the placidly dismissive tongue click of the Greek negative. They wouldn’t give an inch until they knew (as they say) what tobacco we smoked. We could, after all, be agents provocateurs.”

“This impressive but exasperating wall of security was only broken at last, after two precious hours of deadlock, by the entry of Uncle Stavro Zourbakis from Karines – a friend of us all. Everything dissolved at once. In greetings, recognition, laughter, Raki, a crackle of thorns and sizzling in the hearth and the immediate summoning and despatch of runners to the two sets in the North West.”

Paddy and George move on for the evening back down the valley to the village of Genna, where they were to stay for several days:

“The goat-fold of Zourbovasili lay in rolling biblical hills. There was a round threshing floor nearby, where George and I could sleep on brushwood with a great circular sweep of vision. This place was to become, during the next three days, the centre of all going and coming of messengers as plans changed and options elapsed. But now, after the scrum of the last few days it seemed preternaturally quiet in the brilliant moonlight. Ida towered east of us now, Kedros due south: The White Mountains, which had come nearer to us during the day, loomed shining in the west. How empty and still after our huddled mountain life, was this empty silver plateau! A perfect place to watch the moon moving across the sky and chain smoke through the night pondering on the fix we were in and how to get out of it. There was not a sound except a little owl in a wood close by and an occasional clank from Vassilis’ flock.”

the Telegraph reports ‘martial law’ being declared on Crete

3rd May 1944

Another day spent in their hideout in the valley of Gomara. They are still stuck and have no contact with Cairo, and no idea of when, where or how they will get off the island.

But they have a plan….in the evening the party decide to separate.

Billy, Manoli Paterakis, the General and the main kidnap group will stay in Gomara.

Paddy and Giorgos Tyrakis will travel in the evening up the Amari to Fourfouras, Giorgos’ home village, in search of a working radio station.

They still remain in the news in the UK – the Telegraph reports ‘martial law’ being declared on Crete.

Front page news

2nd May 1944

If only they knew!

Paddy, Billy, the rest of the kidnap team and the General spend another miserable day in the ditch, fearing capture…but it is getting quieter for them, as the German patrols are now searching further up the mountain.

Meanwhile in the UK ….they are front page news – in the Express, Telegraph, Guardian and Times!

In the evening they decide to move a kilometre or so westward – to the valley of Gomara.

Giorgos Pharangoulitakis describes it his memoir ‘Eagles of Mt Ida’: ‘We decided to shift towards the valley of Gomara, just west of Ayia Paraskevi, a part where they had searched every inch, and where we could take up a better defence posture. It was a steep rocky place with a hole like a sort of grotto under a cliff where we could hide for the night.’

In the end they spend the night and the following day under the branches of ‘a very large pear tree …it was like an eagles nest’.

‘the General realises that our capture would prove fatal for him’

1st May 1944

A long and dangerous day spent hiding in the ditch outside Agia Paraskevi. Probably the low point for all in the journey, and where they are most vulnerable to discovery by the German cordon – Moss records Kreipe’s realisation of his personal need for the success of the operation in order to ensure his own survival:

“I think the General realises that our capture would prove fatal for him.”

They can hear German patrols, sometimes as close as 50 metres, searching for them.

Paddy records that food is brought to them from Agia Paraskevi:

‘Antoni unpacked bread, cheese, onions, a dish of fried potatoes, some lamb and a napkin full of ‘kalitsounia!’ – crescent shaped fritters full of soft white cheese and chopped mint. Then a big bottle of mulberry raki came out and a handful of little tumblers. ‘This will warm you up,’ he said filling them: ‘White flannel vests all round.’ He splashed politely over to our guest with the first one, saying ‘stratege mou” (my General) then to the rest of us. They went down our throats like wonderful liquid flame. ‘And here,’ he said pulling out a gallon of dark amber wine, ‘red overcoats for all.’

What they don’t know is that in Cairo SOE have made a public announcement that Kreipe has been kidnapped and has already been taken off the island by submarine and is on his way to Cairo.

However they are still stuck, with no way of contacting Cairo and have no idea – as yet – of how they will get off the island.

The descent of Mt Ida

30th April 1944

The descent of Mt Ida has been exceptionally arduous in the dark so the day is spent recovering in Vorini Trypa, the large cave above Nithavris on the side of Mt. Ida.

That evening, in the rain and mist, they leave the cave and head further down the mountain into the bottom the Amari valley.

It is a difficult and very dangerous journey as the Germans are hunting for the General and are in all the villages immediately around them.

They first head west to the village of Kouroutes and then south until they stop and hide in a stream bed outside Agia Paraskevi.

Paddy records: Rain came swishing down: ‘Marvelous for the olives’, Manoli murmured. We waded through a stream and began to climb again. The rain turned to sleet. At last the village of Aya Paraskevi was only half an hour away. The Germans would have sentries out, perhaps patrols; better to stop there. We piled into a ditch mercifully overgrown with cistus, thyme and myrtle; protection from view, but not from the rain.

The ascent of Mount Ida in wind and snow

In the snow on top of Mount Ida

29th April 1944

The weather is deteriorating and the kidnap team need to walk over the side of Mt Ida and down into the Amari valley. It will be a long and arduous day and night.

At midday the party leave Petradolakkia and skirt the side of the Nidha plateau. They are heading for the mitato belonging to Roti, where they will rendezvous with Kapetan Petrakogiorgos and his andartes who will escort them over the side of the mountain. They climb up to the plateau of Akolyta and in rain, wind and snow they head over until they can see signal fires in the Amari telling them it is safe to descend. They shelter in the remains of a mitato before descending. After a long and arduous descent they are led to Vorini Trypa – North Hole – a large cave with tunnels and caverns heading off from the back of it. This cave has been used by the Resistance on several occasions before this visit, and is used by Dunbabin and George Psychoundakis in August 1944.

“Ach so, Herr Major.”

28th April 1944.

PLF and the kidnap team spend the day at Petrodolakkia with Xylouris and his andartes, where they take many photos. Tom Dunbabin has sent 3 members of his team from the Amari to the hideout, including Reg Everson and a wireless. The plan is to send a message to Cairo so that an evacuation date and beach can be identified, but the radio is broken. They are stuck. PLF sends off various messages, including one to Dick Barnes who has a radio station near Rethymno. The team are joined by Grigori Chnarakis, Nikos Komis and Andoni Papaleonidas, who have walked up from the kidnap point. They are meant to bring with them the General’s driver, Alfred Fenske, but he has been killed on the journey.
At Bletchley Park the codebreakers decode a German signal stating that Kreipe has been kidnapped.

PLF records the following incident:

‘A curious moment, dawn, streaming in the cave’s mouth, which framed the white crease 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”

The opening line and a bit of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I was in luck.

” … Nec jam sustineant onus” I went on
“silvae laborantes geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto”

And continued through the other stanzas to the end of the ode. After a few seconds silence, the General said: “Ach so, Herr Major.” For five minutes the war had evaporated without a trace.[i]

[i] William Stanley Moss recorded this mutual love of the Classics in ‘Ill Met by Moonlight.’

‘Paddy discovered that the General is a fair Greek scholar, and, much to the amusement of our Cretan colleagues, the two of them entertained each other by exchanging verses from Sophocles.’

PLF and George Tyrakis rendezvous with the team

27th April 1944.

PLF and George Tyrakis rendezvous with the General and the rest of the kidnap team north of Anogia. In the evening they begin the long trek up the slopes of Mt Ida to the Xylouris sheepfolds at Petrodolakkia. On the way they rest briefly in one of the many mitatos (cheese huts) in the area.

Third time lucky … the kidnap is on!

26th April 1944.

Third time lucky…..the Kreipe kidnap team leave the Zographistos farmhouse outside Skalani and walk to the kidnap spot and wait for the General to drive past. At 9 pm they stop the car and the kidnap begins. The General is handcuffed and hidden on the back seat of the car. They drive past the Villa Ariadne and through Heraklion, entering by the Agios Giorgos gate and leaving by the Chaniaporta. They drive on into the mountains, stopping at Yeni Gave, where Billy Moss, Manoli Paterakis, Stratis Saviolakis and the General leave the car, heading up a track for a hideout in a ravine north of Anogia. PLF and Georgos Tyrakis drive for a further 2 kms and dump the car at Campo Doxaro, at the start of a track leading to the Cheliana ravine and the sea. They take with them the pennants from the car and head to the village of Anogia.

Abducting a General – locations by each day

The more observant amongst you may recall that this post was actually first published way back in February. That was to keep the time sequencing of the operation that ended with the kidnap of General Kreipe intact. Between then and now Paddy had been joined by Billy Moss and detailed planning and reconnaissance was underway, including refining the actual details of the kidnap action, rehearsing timings, working on signals, the dress to be worn (the famous captured German outfits), and of course, for any operation of this type, the extraction plan. I’ve repeated the post as the introduction to the series of narratives put together by Chris White which will commence in earnest tomorrow.

Over the next few weeks I am honoured to be able to share with you some work by Chris White, co-author of Abducting a General, who has spent many weeks and months on Crete over the years tracing the precise route and locations of the kidnap. In 2020, Chris posted this series on Facebook. He has approved it being repeated on here. Stories will pop up from time to time, and will run virtually day-by-day during the time period of the kidnap. I hope that you enjoy it.

Over to Chris ….

We start on February 4th 1944. Paddy parachuted on to the Katharo Plateau and was met by Sandy Rendel, whose base was in a cave a few miles away. The cave is now known as the Spiliaou ton Anglikon, the cave of the English. This week I have been exploring the area around the plateau and visited the cave…..a long stony walk through woods and ravines and along the sides of steep valleys.

The photos: the first shows where the cave is (centre of picture) in the landscape; the next three show the cave in more detail.