Tag Archives: Special Operations Executive

John Pendlebury and the Battle of Crete – Paddy’s speech

John Pendlebury at Knossos

John Pendlebury at Knossos

The following is the text of a speech given by Patrick Leigh Fermor at Knossos, Crete, on 21 May as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Spectator 20 October 2001

John Pendlebury is an almost mythical figure now, and, in some ways, he always was. Everyone connected with ancient or modern Greece, and not only his fellow archaeologists, knew all about him. He was born in 1904. In addition to his classical triumphs at Winchester and Cambridge, a dazzling athletic fame had sprung up. He broke a 50-year record at the high jump by clearing the equivalent of his own height of six feet and flew over hurdles with the speed of a cheetah. His classical passion was humanised by a strong romantic bent; he revelled in novels about knights and castles and tournaments. And all suspicion of being a reclusive highbrow was scattered by his love of jokes and his enjoyment of conviviality. A strong vein of humour leavened all.

The British School of Archaeology was his Athens anchor and wide learning, flair and imagination led him to many finds. He dug for several Egyptian seasons at Tel-elAmarna, but Crete became his dominating haunt. He was on excellent but independent terms with Sir Arthur Evans but, when he was away from Knossos and the Villa Ariadne, he was constantly on the move. He got to know the island inside out. No peak was too high or canyon too deep for him to claw his way up or down. He spent days above the clouds and walked over 1,000 miles in a single archaeological season. His companions were shepherds and mountain villagers. His brand of toughness and style and humour was exactly right for these indestructible men. He knew all their dialects and rhyming couplets. Micky Akoumianakis, the son of Sir Arthur’s overseer, told me he could drink everyone under the table and then stride across three mountain ranges without turning a hair.

This is the moment to slip in a word about Nicholas Hammond, the brilliant scholar and archaeologist turned soldier, and a very old friend of Pendlebury’s, whose involvement in the run-in to the battle and whose adventures in the caique Dolphin deserve an entire saga of their own. (It is he who should be writing about Pendlebury, not me, But he was 94 this year and died, lucid to the end, in April. Just before he died, he wrote to me saying, ‘I’m sure you’ll do him proud’; so I must do my best.)

Pendlebury in Cretan dress

Pendlebury in Cretan dress

Pendlebury’s knowledge of the island was unique, and when, in the end, he managed to convince the sluggish military authorities, he was sent to England, trained as a cavalryman at Weedon, commissioned as a captain in a branch of military intelligence and then sent back to Crete as the British vice-consul in Heraklion. It was typical that he referred to his military role as ‘trailing the puissant pike’, like Pistol in lienly V. He didn’t mind that his consular cover story in Heraklion fooled nobody. But his mountain life changed gear: he presciently saw that the Cretan veterans of the old wars against the Turks would be vital to the eventual defence of the island. These regional kapetanios, natural chiefs — like Satanas, Bandouvas and Petrakogiorgis, and many more with their sweeping moustaches and high boots — had many virtues and some, perhaps, a few faults, but they were all born leaders. They were all brave, they passionately loved their country and they recognised the same qualities in Pendlebury. They trusted his judgment when he began to organise a system of defence, arranging supply lines, pinpointing wells and springs, preparing rocks to encumber possible enemy landing places, storing sabotage gear, seeking out coves and inlets for smuggling arms and men, and permanently badgering the Cairo authorities for arms and ammunition.

When the Italians invaded Greece from Albania and were flung back by the Greek counter-attacks, the probable sequel became clear at once: Germany would come to the rescue of her halted ally. The whole Wehrmacht was available and so was Germany’s vast Luftwaffe. The implications were plain. Pendlebury and the Cretans made guerrilla strikes on Kasos, the Dodecanesian island 25 miles from the eastermost cape, and there was a far-flung caique operation on Castellorizo. off the south coast of Turkey_ Like all Crete, Pendlebury lamented the absence of the 5th Cretan division, which had covered itself with glory in Albania, only to be left behind on the mainland. With them, and the 10,000 rifles Pendlebury longed for, he felt that the island could be held forever. But, to his exasperation, the arms only came in driblets. Even so, there was hope.

If the worst happened, Pendlebury was determined to stay and fight on with the guerrillas until Crete was free. His stronghold would have been the Nidha plateau, high on the slopes of Mount Ida. It was grazed by thousands of sheep, inaccessible by roads, riddled with caves — Zeus was born in one of them — and it could only be reached through the key village of Krousonas (the stronghold of Pendlebtny’s friend, Kapetan Satanas) and the great resistance village of Anoyia (the eyrie of Kapetans Stephanoyianni Dramoudanis and Mihali Xylouris). During all this time, the knowledge that the rest of Europe was either conquered or neutral and that England and Greece were the only two countries still fighting was a great bond.

We must skip fast over the German invasion of Greece. Most of the British forces, which had been taken from the battle in the Libyan desert to help the Greeks, got away from the mainland with the Royal Navy’s help and the island was suddenly milling with soldiers who had made it to Crete. I was one. I was sent from Canea to Heraklion as a junior intelligence dogsbody at Brigadier Chappel’s headquarters in a cave between the town and the aerodrome.

The daily bombings were systematic and sinister. Obviously, something was going to happen. It must have been during a lull in this racket that I saw Pendlebury for the first and only time. One man stood out from all the others that came to the cave,’ I wrote later on. I was enormously impressed by that splendid figure, with a rifle slung like a Cretan mountaineer’s, a cartridge belt round his middle, and armed with a leather-covered swordstick.

One of his eyes, lost as a child, had been replaced by a glass one. I heard later that, when out of his office, he used to leave it on his table to show that he would be back soon. He had come to see the Brigadier to find out how he and his friends could best contribute, and his presence, with his alternating seriousness and laughter, spread a feeling of optimism and spirit. It shed light in the dark cave and made everything seem possible. When he got up to go, someone (Hope-Morley?) said, `Do show us your swordstick!’ He smiled obligingly, drew it with comic drama and flashed it round with a twist of the wrist. Then he slotted it back and climbed up into the sunlight with a cheery wave. I can’t remember a word he said, but one could understand why everyone trusted, revered and loved him.

We all know a lot about the battle: the heavy bombing every day, followed at last by the drone of hundreds of planes coming in over the sea in a darkening cloud, and the procession of troop-carriers flying so low over the ground they seemed almost at eye-level, suddenly shedding a manycoloured stream of parachutes. When the roar of our guns broke out many invaders were caught in the olive branches and many were killed as they fell; others dropped so close to headquarters that they were picked off at once.

Heraklion is a great walled Venetian city. The enemy forced an entry through the Canea Gate, and after fierce fighting they were driven out by the British and Greeks with very heavy losses. This was the first astonishing appearance of Cretan civilians, armed only with odds and ends — old men long retired and boys below military age, even women here and there — suddenly fighting by our side, all over the island. In Heraklion the swastika flag, which had briefly been run up over the harbour, was torn down again. The wall was manned by Greek and British riflemen, successful counter-attacks were launched and, apart from this one break-in, the town and the aerodrome remained firmly in our hands until the end.

After leaving the cave, Pendlebury and Satanas headed for the Kapetan’s high village of Krousonas by different routes. They hoped to launch flank attacks on the steadily growing throng of dropped parachutists west of Heraklion. He got out of the car with a Cretan comrade and climbed a spur to look down on the German position. They were closer than he thought and opened fire. Pendlebury and his friend fired back. Here the fog of battle begins to cloud things. Pendlebury and a Greek platoon were still exchanging fire with the Germans when a new wave of Stukas came over and Pendlebury was wounded in the chest. He was carried into a cottage, which belonged to one of his followers, George Drossoulakis, who was fighting elsewhere and was killed that same day. But his wife Aristeia took him in and he was laid on a bed. The place was overrun with Germans; nevertheless, one of them, who was a doctor, cleaned and bandaged the wound. Another came in later and gave him an injection. He was chivalrously treated. The next morning he told the women of the house to leave him. They refused and were later led away as prisoners. A field gun was set up just outside . . and a fresh party of parachutists was soon in the house. Here was an English soldier dressed in a Greek shirt and with no identification. A neighbour’s wife saw them take him out and prop him against the wall. Three times they shouted a question at him, which she couldn’t understand. Three times he answered ‘No’. They ordered him to stand to attention and then opened fire. He fell dead, shot through the head and the body.

The battle raged on. Heraklion stood firm and we had similar tidings from the Australians and Greeks defending Rethymnon. After the lines of communication had been cut, we had no glimmer of the turn things were taking at Maleme over in the west. We thought we had won. The news became still more bitter later on, when we learnt that enemy casualties had been so heavy that for a time they had considered abandoning the campaign.

Much later we learnt what happened to Pendlebury. At first his body was buried near the spot where he fell. Later, the Germans moved him to half a mile outside the Canea Gate beside the Rethymnon road. I remember bicycling past his grave the following year dressed as a cattle-dealer. It was marked with a wooden cross with his name on it, followed by liritischer Hauptmann’ . There was a bunch of flowers, and new ones were put there every day until the enemy shifted the grave to somewhere less central. (He now lies in the British war cemetery at Souda Bay.) Meanwhile legends were springing up. For the Cretans, it was the loss of an ally and a friend with a status close to that of Ares or Apollo For the enemy, he was a baleful and sinister figure, a darker T. E. Lawrence, and perhaps he was still lurking in the dreaded mountains. Many bodies were exhumed until a skull with a glass eye was dug up and sent to Berlin — or so they said. According to island gossip, Hitler had been unable to sleep at night for fear of this terrible incubus, and kept the trophy on his desk. To the SOE officers who were sent to Crete to help the Resistance, he was an inspiration. His memory turned all his old companions into immediate allies. We were among friends. Pendebury — Pedeboor Pembury — however it was pronounced, eyes kindled at the sound.

John Pendlebury

John Pendlebury

We must go back to 28 May 1941, seven days after Pendlebtuy’s death and the night of the evacuation. The British troops were lining up to board the ships that were to carry us to Egypt. I was interpreter. Everyone felt downhearted at leaving the Greek friends who had fought beside us for the last eight days. The battered and silent town smelt of burning, explosions, smoke and fresh decay All at once, an old Cretan materialised out of the shadows. He was a short, resolute man, obviously a distinguished kapetan, with a clear and cheerful glance, a white beard clipped under the chin like a Minoan and a rifle-butt embossed with wrought-silver plaques. He said he would like to talk to the ‘General’. The Brigadier was a tall man and an excellent commander, tanned by a lifetime’s soldiering in India. The kapetan reached up and put his hand on the Brigadier’s shoulder and said, ‘My child,’ — paidi triou’ in Greek — ‘we know you are leaving tonight; but you will soon be back. We will carry on the fight till you return. But we have only a few guns. Leave them all you can spare.’ The Brigadier was deeply moved. Orders were given for the arms and a Black Watch lieutenant led away the kapetan and his retinue. As we made our farewells, he said, in a kind but serious voice, ‘May God go with you, and come back soon.’ Meanwhile, escorting destroyers from HMS Orion and HMS Dido were stealing towards the mole.

It was only later, looking at photographs, that the old man was identified as Pendlebury’s friend, Kapetan Satanas. He died the next year, after handing his gun to a descendant, saying, ‘Don’t dishonour it.’

Looking back, he represents the innermost spirit of Crete. Ever since, the two men have seemed to symbolise the brotherhood-in-arms that brought our two countries so close together and made us feel that this season of desolation would somehow, against all the odds, end in victory and the freedom they were all fighting for.

Patrick Leigh Fermor addresses the Special Forces Club on its 40th anniversary

Opening paragraph Special Forces Club 40th anniversary dinner

Opening paragraph Special Forces Club 40th anniversary dinner

My thanks to Gaz Wild who discovered this gem in the PLF archive of the National Library of Scotland last year. There are two versions, one a pdf of Paddy’s original with many handwritten corrections, and a tidied up draft made after his death. It would have been written in 1985 for the 40th Anniversary Dinner of the Special Forces Club, and is referred to in a letter of Paddy’s to Rudi Fischer dated 10 November 1985, which appears in Dashing for the Post page 393, para 2. Paddy remembers especially John Pendlebury, Mike Cumberlege, and Manoli Paterakis.

A special treat for the holiday period. I hope that you enjoy it.

19850000-plf_address_sf_club_40th_anniversary

19850000-plf_address_sf_club_40th_anniversary-tidied

The Sabotage Diaries – video by author Katherine Barnes


The Sabotage Diaries from Katherine Barnes on Vimeo.

I first wrote about this excellent book in March. Author Katherine Barnes has now produced a video which is worth a watch, even if only to view some of the extraordinary photographs showing SOE operations in mainland Greece.

The Sabotage Diaries is the thrilling story of Allied engineer Tom Barnes, who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Greece In 1942 with eleven others to sabotage the railway line taking supplies to Rommel in North Africa. The target chosen was the Gorgopotamos bridge. Tom led the demolition party to lay the explosives while fighting raged between the Italian garrison and a combined force of Greek resistance fighters and Tom’s fellow-soldiers. A great story of courage and endurance.

Buy The Sabotage Diaries

The Wildest Province

David Smiley (left) and "Billy" McLean in Albania 1944

David Smiley (left) and “Billy” McLean in Albania 1944

The stories of the activities of those who served in SOE are still emerging thanks to the availability of hitherto classified archives, and the release of personal diaries and accounts by those involved, in many cases, after their deaths. We are able to understand so much more of the successes and failures of the country missions, the work of individuals, and the strategic political and military context. Diligent researchers and authors are accessing these materials and writing new accounts which can raise as many questions as they answer, and debunk myths such as the extent of communist infiltration of British operational Staff HQs.

I have just got around to reading Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle, which charts the story of SOE operations in Albania over the period 1940 to 1945. It is an incredibly well researched book, presenting the story from ill-fated early attempts to overthrow the Italians in 1940-41 by MI6 and SOE, to the commencement of the more organised missions of “Billy” McLean and David Smiley, through to the expansion into well over a dozen different teams spread over all parts of the country.

The hardships experienced by them all, especially during the long and harsh winter of 1943-44 are unimaginable. There are many examples of personal bravery, doggedness, and also treachery by Nationalist elements within Albania. The Partisans, led by this time by Enver Hoxha and his LNC staff were almost wiped out in the north as were the SOE missions there. Further ‘drives’ against the LNC in the south in early 1944 had almost similar results. Bailey’s book argues that the significant efforts put into these eradication attempts by the Germans, and the high quality of troops they deployed, demonstrated the success of the resistance by the LNC and the overall quality of the Partisan Brigades, as well as the positive impact of the SOE mission to Albania. However, the fighting quality of Albanian Partisans was variable resulting in continued debate about whether or not back some Nationalist groups. Growing suspicion of the British by the increasingly communist LNC made SOE’s mission in Albania during 1944 and into 1945 increasingly difficult and towards the end almost impossible.

For those who have an interest in SOE operations and Albania, or who want to understand more about British and Allied operations in the Balkans this is a highly recommended book. You will want to know what happens to the individuals and the story for some did not end in 1945, but continued with the British sponsored MI6 and CIA attempt to overthrow Hoxha’s regime in 1953 which ended in disastrous failure and death for many.

Read more on the Blog about SOE operations in Albania: 

One Man’s Great Game: Lieutenant Colonel “Billy” McLean

Albanian Assignment

Buy The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle paperback here and the hardback here.

New Book: The Sabotage Diaries

Sabotage diariesThis book made much more sense to me following the excellent talk by Dr Roderick Bailey about the psychological effects of SOE operations on the men involved. Dr Bailey spoke at length about Operation Harling and this team.

The The Sabotage Diaries is written from the first person perspective of Tom Barnes (from his diaries) so has all the gripping suspense of a novel. It is a thrilling read of wartime exploits, daring, intrigue and resourcefulness. It is the true story of Allied engineer Tom Barnes, who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Greece in October 1942 with a small team of sappers and special operations officers. Their brief was to work with the Greek resistance in sabotage operations against the German and Italian occupation forces. Under-equipped and under-prepared but with courage to spare, their initial mission was to blow up a key railway bridge, cutting Rommel’s supply lines to North Africa, where the battle of El Alamein was about to begin. Operation Harling was only the start of a lengthy and perilous clandestine mission.

Written by Tom Barnes’ daughter-in-law, award-winning author Katherine Barnes, and drawn from Tom’s wartime diaries, reports and letters, plus many other historical sources and first-hand accounts, The Sabotage Diaries is a vivid and gripping tale of the often desperate and dangerous reality behind sabotage operations.

Buy The Sabotage Diaries

Reg Everson and his powdered egg breakfast for General Kreipe on Mount Ida

From time to time I plan to re-publish some of the best blog posts as we have over 700 posts on here and many get lost. This first re-post was inspired by my attendance last night at the presentation by Dr Roderick Bailey – Hazardous Operations: British SOE Agents in Nazi Occupied Greece – which was both informative and entertaining. The story of Reg Everson and powdered egg was first published on 10 June 2012 …

At Paddy’s funeral last year, I stayed afterwards for a drink with a small group at the hotel  which used to be the Dumbleton estate manor house, originally home to Joan’s family. A man from Wales introduced himself as Vince Tustin. I recognised the name as I had been in touch with Vince by email in the preceding weeks on the subject of his father-in-law who was in the SOE.

‘Reg Everson, my father-in-law, spent three years on Crete and much of that time he worked closely with Paddy as a radio operator.’ said Vince.

His wife then joined us and after a while she said ‘I asked my mum and dad why I was called Patricia. It was an unusual name for a girl in Wales at the time. And my dad told me I was named Patricia after his good friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. They had served together in Crete.’

Such was the impression that Paddy made on people. It is a lovely story in itself, and perhaps serves a reminder on this first anniversary of his death, that Paddy affected the lives of  many, in different ways, as a man as well as a writer.

Vince told me that in the 1950’s Reg was interviewed by a local reporter.

I am sure that Reg didn’t want it to sound as if he was alone [on Crete]. He was a quiet mild mannered gentleman, and was in the Royal Signals from 1931 to 1946 and like so many servicemen lied about his age to get in, he was only 15 when he enlisted. For the three years he was on Crete his wife didn’t hear from him. His commanding officer was the only contact she had. People in the village even thought Reg had left her!

It wasn’t until I wrote a piece in the local paper that people understood where he had been because he didn’t speak about it. In the newspaper cutting from the 50s Reg talks about his involvement in the kidnap of General Kreipe and how he cheered up the General by making him some powdered egg for breakfast on Mount Ida.

We have his forged Cretan papers here, also a leaflet that was dropped by the Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal and Africa Star among other medals. He was also presented with a solid silver medal for bravery from the Maharaja of India.

Reg Everson deployed to Crete with Xan Fielding, and Xan refers to this in his account of his time in Crete “Hide and Seek”.


In the newspaper interview Reg describes how he was summoned with his radio to Mount Ida to join the kidnap gang, but he had to wait for his heavy radio batteries to arrive so he made himself useful and he made breakfast for the General on Mount Ida …

“The General was pretty glum, but he perked-up a bit when I made him some breakfast with egg powder. Paddy Leigh Fermor and the others had to go on the run again with General Kreipe before my batteries arrived: so we couldn’t get the news [of the successful kidnap] back.”

Whilst we often hear the stories of the officers in SOE, we should not forget that they were supported by a large team including signallers such as Reg Everson who were especially brave. They risked being located by the Germans who were constantly trying to find the source of their signals to destroy the radios, and capture the highly skilled and valuable operators.

More derring dos and don’ts from Paddy Leigh Fermor

With General Kreipe

Billy Moss (L) and Paddy (R) With General Kreipe

Justin Marozzi gives us a review of Abducting a General, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Kidnap in Crete, by Rick Stroud. An exhilarating account of Paddy’s hair-raising kidnapping of a Nazi general that was ultimately of dubious strategic value.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in The Spectator, 4 October 2014.

Recent years have seen the slim but splendid Patrick Leigh Fermor oeuvre swell considerably. In 2008 came In Tearing Haste, an entertaining collection of letters to and from Deborah Devonshire, followed last year by The Broken Road, the posthumously sparkling and long-awaited completion of the ‘Great Trudge’ trilogy, which finally delivered the 18-year-old Paddy from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Now comes another volume, setting out in full for the first time one of the great moments in a life heavily laced with glamour and incident.

It takes some chutzpah to kidnap a German general — and serious presence of mind to get away with it. Paddy, the Special Operations Executive commander of a group of 11 Cretan andartes, or guerrilla fighters, together with his second-in-command Captain William Stanley Moss, had excessive stores of both. At 9.30 p.m. on the night of 26 April 1944, the Anglo-Cretan desperadoes intercepted the car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the 22nd Luftlande Division.

Paddy then impersonated the general as the Moss-chauffeured car drove on through 22 German checkpoints, the hair-raising prelude to an 18-day Nazi manhunt described in exhilarating detail in both of these books. The moment one morning when the Englishman overheard the captured general reciting an ode by Horace is already famous. The autodidact and show-off couldn’t help jumping in and finishing the stanza:

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 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.

After many terrifying moments, some shattering climbs and descents and no shortage of near misses, Kreipe was finally spirited away onto a British ship headed for Cairo and the swashbuckling operation was over.

If the immediate success of the kidnapping is in no doubt, what of the much more vexed question which haunted its mastermind for years: was it worth it? The point of it all had been to inflict a major blow on enemy morale. Extensive steps were taken to ensure there were no Cretan reprisals by making it appear an exclusively British mission — but to no avail. The Germans, 75,000 strong on Crete, already had a viciously enforced policy of reprisals on the island, taking 50 Cretan lives for every one of their own soldiers killed. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, Kreipe’s predecessor and the original target of the operation, was nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Crete’ after committing a number of such atrocities.

With Kreipe kidnapped, Müller was sent back to Crete pour décourager les autres and on 13 August gave the order to raze the village of Anogia, long a centre of resistance. In a characteristically methodical operation that lasted from 13 August to 5 September, 117 people were killed and 940 houses destroyed, together with vineyards, cheese mills, wine presses and olive groves. Other villages in the Amari valley received the same treatment, with hundreds more civilians slaughtered.

Roderick Bailey, the SOE historian who has written the introduction to Paddy’s account, argues that the kidnapping operation had ‘no strategic or tactical value’. A senior British staff officer in Cairo had opposed it from the start, arguing that ‘the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but … the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives’. Kreipe himself called it a Husarestück, a Hussar stunt. More recently, Kimonas Zografakis, who sheltered the kidnappers, described Paddy as ‘neither a great Philhellene nor a new Lord Byron… he was a classic agent who served the interests of Britain’, causing ‘terrible suffering’. This last comment looks unduly harsh and certainly does not square with the lifelong friendships Paddy forged with his Cretan brothers-in-arms, nor with the deep affection most Greeks had for him.

Abducting a General, unlike Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, is the work of a mature man, anxious to pay proper tribute to the Cretans who were the backbone of the resistance and ran by far the greatest risks. His SOE reports, which run to 90 pages here, provide gripping cinematic portraits of Leigh Fermor the soldier.

Warrior, writer, lady-killer, Paddy was also a boulevardier who loved his threads. Page three finds him rhapsodising about his Cretan mountain shepherd disguise:

Breeches, high black boots, a twisted mulberry silk sash with an ivory-hilted dagger in a long silver scabbard, black shirt, blue embroidered waistcoat and tight black-fringed turban…

and that’s without mentioning the flamboyant moustache, homespun goat’s hair cloak, stick, bandolier and gun. Enough to frighten any Nazi general.

Click here to buy Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete

Click here to buy Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

Russians on Crete, oligarchs and controversial journalism

"Billy" Moss with his Russians

“Billy” Moss with his Russians

I was woken from my post New Year slumber by an email from someone called John Helmer who claims to be the longest-serving western journalist in Moscow. He said that he wanted to write a review of An Adventure and asked for the Paddy Blog community’s help in clarifying one or two points about mentions of Russians in Crete and whether or not Paddy had fired his weapon on any other occasion other than the unfortunate accident that led to the death of Yannis Tsangarakis. This all sounded fair enough and the Russian angle was clearly one that would make his article interesting for his Russian readers.

The experts on this subject generally are those involved in trying to prove the actual route of the kidnap in Crete as they have amassed a huge amount of general evidence in their years of research. Billy Moss mentions the Russians in Ill Met by Moonlight (and is pictured with them) and in his sequel, War of Shadows, they are mentioned regularly, forming a key part of his strike force in the vehicle ambush that Moss leads (see War of Shadows).

We passed on this information to Helmer who then wanted to dig deeper into the Russian angle. The problem is very little evidence exists, but Moss, who spoke Russian, mentions them time and time again. Helmer  remained unconvinced, stating that they may have been Bulgarians which is clear nonsense.

There are references to escaped Russians serving in ELAS units (see Sarafis, 1964) on the Greek mainland. When this was mentioned to Helmer he seemed to think that Moss was recruiting Russians as some sort of counter-propoganda move by the British against communists. Clearly Moss saw them as well-trained and aggressive fighters. Other sources have said that in other post-war SOE accounts mention is also made of Russians fighting alongside Cretan partisans.

Unless documentary evidence exists we may never know the extent of the number of Russians prisoners used as forced labour on Crete as they may well have been slaughtered by the retreating Germans (but where are they buried?). Any that did survive and fell into British hands were probably shot by their own side upon return to Russian control as happened in so many places. In war life is cheap; Russian life even cheaper.

Whilst these arguments were put to Helmer he clearly decided that was going to write a most extraordinary review full of venom and hyperbole. Some sources have previously questioned the Australian journalist’s balance and indeed it is said that he has a controversial reputation in Moscow with apparently inappropriate contacts to a number of Russian oligarchs. This short article appears to sum up what some think of his work and character.

Helmer makes some good points about the weaknesses in Paddy’s character, and Artemis’ biography, but it is a pity that he wraps up his prose with so much pent-up spite that the meaning is lost. Quite a lot of the ‘Paddy Magic’ has been lost as Cooper has revealed much more about the man behind the curtain, but his achievements and the pleasure he gave to so many cannot be taken away. It is certain that Helmer has missed a trick by not pursuing the Russians in Crete idea further.

This review is one to add to the list of reviews of the book, and a negative view is always welcome. You just wish that he could have done it with some style. Paddy would have liked that.

Read Helmer’s review here or click the picture.

A man so charming he won over his hostage

Charles Moore reviews ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: an Adventure’ by Artemis Cooper (John Murray) 

By Charles Moore

First published in the Daily Telegraph 08 October 2012.

The single most famous story about Patrick Leigh Fermor is his kidnap of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete in 1944. The fugitive party of two British officers and three Cretans spent an uncomfortable night on the slopes of Mount Ida. As the dawn broke, and lit the mountain, Leigh Fermor heard the General muttering the first line of Horace’s Ode to Thaliarchus: “See, Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow.” Leigh Fermor recognised the Latin, and quoted the rest of the poem. As he later put it, “…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.”

This moment of ancient, shared civilisation overcoming a terrible present is a great theme. It is the subject, for example, of Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion, in which a French and a German officer on opposite sides in the First World War feel that they share what really matters.

Leigh Fermor’s long life (he died last year aged 96) was full of dash, variety and colour. He wrote beautifully, and entranced beautiful women. He was physically brave, and travelled widely, intrepidly and observantly. He was, in a self-taught way, learned, and a superb linguist. He could sing, dance, compose impromptu poetry and make everyone laugh. He and his wife Joan built a house in Greece of such character and interest that John Betjeman called it “a book in itself”. He was a war hero and, like Byron, a model for many aspiring writers greedy to combine art and life, rather than choosing between one and the other. I knew Paddy a bit myself, and I have never met a man with more charm, by which I mean the ability to create in his interlocutor the feeling of pleasure and possibility. But was it all a grande illusion, a wonderful holiday from reality?

Artemis Cooper was a family friend of Leigh Fermor, and loved him dearly. This excellent, well-sourced book is sympathetic to him. But she is aware of how he could be painted differently, and states the case. Was he, for example, a show-off and a sponger (he was chronically short of money and depended heavily on Joan’s private income)? Was he, as Somerset Maugham put it, “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”? Was he, both in life and art, a sort of Peter Pan, shying away from anything grown-up (such as fatherhood), always looking for a Wendy so that he could go on having smiling, heartless fun? He was once asked to contribute to a book about great parties in history with the astonishing title of Memorable Balls: does the phrase fit the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor?

There are certainly moments when it feels like it. The information that Joan used to give him cash so that he could visit prostitutes is one. So – though there is artistic reason for it – is his tendency to present the product of his imagination as fact. Some even argue that the famous kidnap was a piece of useless swagger – what Kreipe called a “hussar-stunt” – which ensured that the Cretans, in reprisal, were treated even more bestially by the Germans.

One cannot ignore these criticisms, and Leigh Fermor felt them himself. Like many delightful, gregarious companions, he doubted whether he deserved to be loved. But, in Artemis Cooper’s convincing reading, he wins in the end.

First, he wins as a friend. He was always grateful to people who helped him (not a well-known characteristic of most writers). He thanked them beautifully, and he did what he could to help them in return. He was famously hospitable, and his life was cluttered by efforts to advance the careers of others, particularly impecunious Greeks. As an editor, I quite often asked Paddy to write things. Most commissions would be refused or – he was famous for this – arrive incredibly late, but whenever I asked him to contribute a memoir of a friend who had just died, he did it with great speed and generosity.

Second, he wins as a writer. Not everyone likes what Lawrence Durrell called (in praise) his “truffled style”, but, unlike so much “fine writing”, it is saved by its energy and wit, its close attention to detail, and its astonishing virtuosity.

I think the friendships and the art went together. Leigh Fermor was profoundly sensitive to human character, particularly in its oddities. His interest in peasants, or monks, or petty gentry, cut off from industrialisation, his fascination with their traditions and customs, their languages and dialects (the more obscure the better) was a human interest, not an academic one. He loved them, and he wanted to rescue and decorate their story.

His most famous books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his journey on foot, which began in 1933, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. They capture, with painterly vividness, what he saw and whom he met. And because those scenes and people were almost obliterated by the Second World War and then by communism, by writing about them afterwards, he gave them the eternal status of literature rather than mere memoir.

In the early Seventies, Greek television did a sort of This is Your Life, in which Leigh Fermor was reunited with his Cretan companions and with General Kreipe himself. How had Paddy treated him, journalists asked the general. “Ritterlich. Wie ein Ritter,” Kreipe replied – “Chivalrously. Like a knight.” Possibly such virtues are dead, but if so, we are the poorer. In life and in literature, Patrick Leigh Fermor proved that chivalry was not all illusion.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life

Patrick Leigh Fermor: extract from the new biography

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

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

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

First published in the Daily Telegraph 29 September 2102.

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

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

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

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

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

The Kreipe pennants – the story of their rediscovery by Billy Moss’ daughter

The pennants from General Kreipe’s car

Discovering the full details behind a particular story or event is often tricky with clarifications, enhancements, or downright contradictions emerging sometimes many years after the event. Fortunately we have not had to wait so long for some further detail to be added to the story I ran last year about what happened to the pennants on General Kreipe’s car at the time of the kidnap, and their subsequent discovery many years later.

‘Billy’ Moss’ daughter Gabriella Bullock read Artemis Cooper’s account of how the pennants were found after so many years in a trunk in Paddy’s house at Kardamyli. Gabriella then wrote to me to ask me to pass on the full story behind their (very fortunate) re-discovery in Ireland some years before and how they were passed by her mother (Sophie Moss née Tarnowksa) to her. It sounds like we are very lucky to have them at all.

Gabriella’s account starts during a recent visit to Crete …

In Rethymnon we met the delightful people who run the Folklore Museum. This is where the pennants from the General’s car are now housed, in accordance with PLF’s wishes. We found that they were very interested in the story of how the pennants were randomly and luckily rediscovered, and this leads me to think that the story definitely has a place on your website

In the early 1950s my family lived in Co. Cork, Ireland, but moved back (supposedly temporarily) to London in 1954. My parents intended to return, and left many of their possessions in the safe-keeping of various Irish friends or in store. My father never did go back to Ireland; indeed, in 1957, eight years before his death in 1965, my father also left England never to return. As things turned out, however, it was also many years before my mother went back, and all that had been left in storage was lost.

A number of years after my father’s death my mother bought a cottage near Cork, and thereafter divided her time between London and Ireland. I was staying with her at the cottage one summer in the late 1970s when a friend of hers announced that she had a trunk belonging to us which she wanted to return; it had been sitting in their attic since the 50’s.

A battered tin trunk duly arrived with my father’s name, rank and regiment painted on the outside in white. My elder sister has it now and it is, without doubt, the one described in the first chapter of our father’s book A War of Shadows, even down to the grains of sand:

“an old letter, a scrap of notepaper smeared with the sweat of one’s hip-pocket, the rain-spattered pages of a diary, an operational report written in the bloodlessly forbidding vocabulary of a headquarters’ clerk – these relics, discovered in a tin trunk which still creaks with grains of sand when you open the lid…”.

My mother opened and unpacked it, and said to me, “I think you’d better have these”. Amongst the things inside it were my father’s original diary, already entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, in remarkably good condition and perfectly legible, and the two German pennants.

It was a heart-stopping moment. My mother gave these things to me, and I gratefully and unthinkingly received them. I was in my mid-twenties then. The diary I still have. As for the pennants, they were much prized, and adorned a wall in my house for nearly 15 years.

But one day about 17 or 18 years ago, when I was re-reading IMBM, it dawned on me for the first time that in fact since it was Paddy who had taken them as trophies from the General’s car, they were rightfully his. So I gave them to him. This was in the early 90’s. Paddy was completely astonished, and moved, to see them again, so unexpectedly, after 50 years! He was awfully pleased, and after his death they were donated to the Folklore Museum in Rethymno, in accordance with his wishes.

And now they are back in Crete, which is absolutely as it should be.

With best wishes,

Gabriella Bullock

Further reading:

The Kreipe pennants

Articles about the kidnap in the Ill Met by Moonlight category

Reg Everson and his powdered egg breakfast for General Kreipe on Mount Ida

At Paddy’s funeral last year, I stayed afterwards for a drink with a small group at the hotel  which used to be the Dumbleton estate manor house, originally home to Joan’s family. A man from Wales introduced himself as Vince Tustin. I recognised the name as I had been in touch with Vince by email in the preceding weeks on the subject of his father-in-law who was in the SOE.

‘Reg Everson, my father-in-law, spent three years on Crete and much of that time he worked closely with Paddy as a radio operator.’ said Vince.

His wife then joined us and after a while she said ‘I asked my mum and dad why I was called Patricia. It was an unusual name for a girl in Wales at the time. And my dad told me I was named Patricia after his good friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. They had served together in Crete.’

Such was the impression that Paddy made on people. It is a lovely story in itself, and perhaps serves a reminder on this first anniversary of his death, that Paddy affected the lives of  many, in different ways, as a man as well as a writer.

Vince told me that in the 1950’s Reg was interviewed by a local reporter.

I am sure that Reg didn’t want it to sound as if he was alone [on Crete]. He was a quiet mild mannered gentleman, and was in the Royal Signals from 1931 to 1946 and like so many servicemen lied about his age to get in, he was only 15 when he enlisted. For the three years he was on Crete his wife didn’t hear from him. His commanding officer was the only contact she had. People in the village even thought Reg had left her!

It wasn’t until I wrote a piece in the local paper that people understood where he had been because he didn’t speak about it. In the newspaper cutting from the 50s Reg talks about his involvement in the kidnap of General Kreipe and how he cheered up the General by making him some powdered egg for breakfast on Mount Ida.

We have his forged Cretan papers here, also a leaflet that was dropped by the Germans. He was awarded the Military Medal and Africa Star among other medals. He was also presented with a solid silver medal for bravery from the Maharaja of India.

Reg Everson deployed to Crete with Xan Fielding, and Xan refers to this in his account of his time in Crete “Hide and Seek”.


In the newspaper interview Reg describes how he was summoned with his radio to Mount Ida to join the kidnap gang, but he had to wait for his heavy radio batteries to arrive so he made himself useful and he made breakfast for the General on Mount Ida …

“The General was pretty glum, but he perked-up a bit when I made him some breakfast with egg powder. Paddy Leigh Fermor and the others had to go on the run again with General Kreipe before my batteries arrived: so we couldn’t get the news [of the successful kidnap] back.”

Whilst we often hear the stories of the officers in SOE, we should not forget that they were supported by a large team including signallers such as Reg Everson who were especially brave. They risked being located by the Germans who were constantly trying to find the source of their signals to destroy the radios, and capture the highly skilled and valuable operators.

London Gazette Moss MC and Fermor DSO announcement

Billy Moss and Patrick Leigh Fermor

A copy of the Supplement to the London Gazette dated 13 July 1944, which announces the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Captain (temporary Major) Leigh Fermor and the Military Cross to Lieutenant (temporary Captain) Stanley Moss.

You can find the pdf here Moss MC and PLF DSO announcement (once open scroll down) or an online link here.

William Stanley Moss

"Billy" Moss with his Russians

There appears to be no surviving obituary for Billy Moss (if anybody can find one please contact me). His Wikipedia page has to serve as a substitute.

Ivan William “Billy” Stanley Moss MC (1921–1965), was a British army officer in World War II, and later a successful writer, broadcaster, journalist and traveller. He served with the Coldstream Guards and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He was a best-selling author in the 1950s, based both on his novels and books about his wartime service. He featured events of his SOE years in Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe (1950), which was adapted as a British film released under the main title in 1957. Moss travelled around the world and went to Antarctica to meet the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

He was known as William Stanley Moss, or I. W. S. Moss, or W. Stanley Moss, or plain Bill or Billy Moss – but never as “Stanley Moss”.  Stanley was the surname of a female forebear.  All family members (including Billy and his two daughters) were given this name, which was considered part of the surname, though not hyphenated.  Much like “Leigh Fermor”.

Early life and education

William Stanley Moss, (called Bill or Billy) was born in Yokohama, Japan. His mother was a White Russian émigrée, and his father, an English businessman. The family survived the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Moss attended Charterhouse in England (1934–39).

Soldier

In the autumn of 1939, Moss, aged 18, had just left Charterhouse and was living in a log cabin on the Latvian coast. By the outbreak of war, he reached Stockholm, and succeeded in crossing the North Sea to England in a yacht. After full training at Caterham, he was commissioned as an ensign into the Coldstream Guards. He served on King’s Guard at the Court of St. James’s punctuated by bouts of Churchillian duty at Chequers.

Posted to reinforce the 3rd Battalion, the Coldstream, after the losses at Tobruk, Moss fought with Montgomery’s Eighth Army chasing Rommel across North Africa to Alamein and finished up the campaign in Chianti and Pantellaria. He returned to Cairo, where he was recruited into Force 133 of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Tara, Cairo

In 1943 in Cairo, Moss moved in to a spacious villa, with a great ballroom with parquet floors, which four or five people might share. Moss chose to live in the villa rather than the SOE hostel, “Hangover Hall”. He moved in alone at first, then bought his Alsatian puppy, Pixie; Xan Fielding, who had worked in Crete, joined him. Next was Countess Zofia (Sophie) Tarnowska, forced to leave Poland in 1939 by the German invasion, followed by Arnold Breene of SOE HQ. Finally Patrick Leigh Fermor, an SOE officer who had spent the previous nine months in Crete, joined the household. The villa’s new inhabitants called it Tara, after the legendary home of the High Kings of Ireland.

Sophie Tarnowska and two other women had been asked to share the house with the SOE agents, but only she went through with it, after the men pleaded with her not to let them down. Estranged from her husband, she moved in with her few possessions (a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses). She protected her reputation while living in the all-male household by the invention of an entirely fictitious chaperone, “Madame Khayatt”, who suffered from “distressingly poor health” and was always indisposed when visitors asked after her. The group were later joined by SOE agents Billy McLean, David Smiley returning from Albania, and Rowland Winn, also active in Albania.

Tara became the centre of high-spirited entertaining of diplomats, officers, writers, lecturers, war correspondents and Coptic and Levantine party-goers. The residents adopted nicknames: “Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk” (Countess Sophie Tarnowska), “Sir Eustace Rapier” (Lt-Col. Neil (Billy) McLean), “the Marquis of Whipstock” (Col David Smiley LVO OBE MC), “the Hon, Rupert Sabretache” (Rowland Winn MC), “Lord Hughe Devildrive” (Major Xan Fielding DSO), “Lord Pintpot” (Arnold Breene), “Lord Rakehell” (Lt-Col Patrick Leigh-Fermor DSO) and “Mr Jack Jargon” (Capt W. Stanley Moss MC). By the winter of 1944, the Tara household had to leave their battered villa and move into a flat. Their landlord secured their eviction on the grounds that the villa had not been let to “Princess Dneiper-Petrovsk” et al., as stated on the villa’s name plate.

Abduction of General Kreipe

Moss is best remembered for the capture of General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete and abduction of him to Egypt, in April and May 1944. He and Leigh Fermor led a team of Cretan Andartes, part of the Greek resistance.

Moss and Leigh Fermor thought of the Kreipe abduction one evening in the Club Royale de Chasse et de Pêche (Royal Hunting and Fishing Club) and planned it during the winter of 1943. On the last evening before Moss and Leigh Fermor set off, Smiley presented Moss with the Oxford Book of English Verse – his companion from Albania – for good luck.[2] McLean gave him a complete Shakespeare dedicated, “To Bill, with best of luck for Guernsey, Bill”.

Promoted to the rank of Captain, at age 22 Moss set off with Leigh Fermor, age 29, to Crete in 1944. Leigh Fermor landed by parachute. Moss, unable to jump due to cloud cover, followed several weeks later, landing by boat on the south coast where he joined Leigh Fermor, Andartes and other support. Walking north, they passed through Skinias, Kastamonitsa and Haraso. Just south of Skalani, they prepared for the abduction. Throughout the operation, as they travelled across Crete, they were hidden and supported by the Resistance and the local population.

Moss and Leigh Fermor, disguised as German soldiers, stopped the General’s car. With the help of their team, the driver was bundled out and the General and car seized. With Leigh Fermor impersonating the General, and Moss his driver, and with the General bundled in the back, secured by their Cretan team, Moss drove the General’s car for an hour and a half through 22 controlled road blocks in Heraklion. Leigh Fermor took the car on, as Moss walked with the general south into the mountains to Anogeia and up towards Psiloritis. Reunited, the entire abduction team took the general on over the summit of Psiloritis before descending, aiming for the coast. Driven west by German forces cutting off escape to the south, they travelled to Gerakari and on to Patsos. From here, they walked on through Fotinos and Vilandredo before striking south, finally to escape by ship.

After the war, a member of Kreipe’s staff reported that, on hearing the news of the kidnapping, an uneasy silence in the officers’ mess in Heraklion was followed by someone saying, “Well gentlemen, I think this calls for champagne all round.”

Post-war correspondence explains that Kreipe was disliked by his soldiers because, amongst other things, he objected to the stopping of his own vehicle for checking in compliance with his commands concerning troops’ reviewing approved travel orders. This tension between the General and his troops, in part, explains the reluctance of sentries to stop the General’s car as Moss drove it through Heraklion.

Moss was recommended for and received the Immediate Award of the Military Cross: “For outstanding courage and audacity.”

The episode was immortalised in his best-selling book Ill Met by Moonlight (1950). It was adapted into a film of the same name, directed and produced by Michael Powell and released in 1957. It featured Dirk Bogarde as Patrick Leigh Fermor and David Oxley as Moss.

The abduction is commemorated near Archanes and at Patsos.

Damasta Sabotage

Returning to Crete in August 1944, Moss led a resistance group consisting of eight Cretans and six escaped Russian soldiers in launching an ambush on German forces, intent on attacking Anogeia, on the main road connecting Rethymno and Heraklion. They chose an ambush site by a bridge in the Damastos location, one kilometre west of the village of Damasta. After the team destroyed various passing vehicles, among which was a lorry carrying military mail to Chania, the German force targeting Anogia finally appeared. It consisted of a track of infantrymen backed up by an armoured car. Moss and his group attacked the troops, Moss destroying the armoured car by dropping a grenade into the hatch. In total, 40 to 50 Germans and one Russian partisan were killed in the clash that followed. The operation is described in full in Moss’s book A War of Shadows (1952) and commemorated at Damasta. Moss’s exploits in Crete are recorded in the Historical Museum of Crete.

Macedonia and the Far East

After being promoted to Major, Moss served in Macedonia. Toward the end of the War, he served in the Far East, also described in A War of Shadows.

Marriage and family

In Cairo in 1945, Moss married Countess Zofia Tarnowska, his former housemate.  She was the granddaughter of Count Stanislaw Tarnowski (1837–1917) and a direct descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia.

They had three children: Christine Isabelle Mercedes, Sebastian (who died in infancy) and Gabriella Zofia. Initially living in London, they moved to Riverstown House, County Cork in Ireland. They later returned to London. They separated in 1957.

Writer and Traveller

Moss achieved success as an author with three novels, as well as his two books based on his wartime adventures. In addition, he travelled to Germany and wrote an investigation of post-war Germany, studying what happened to gold accumulated by the Nazis: Gold Is Where You Hide It: What Happened to the Reichsbank Treasure? (1956).

Disappearance of Reichsbank and Abwehr Reserves

Between 1952 and 1954, Moss joined up with his friend and former SOE agent, Andrzej Kowerski, (who adopted his cover name, Andrew Kennedy, after the war), in order to unravel a mystery of the final days of the Third Reich. In April and May 1945, the entire remaining reserves of the Reichsbank – gold (730 bars), cash (6 large sacks), and precious stones and metals such as platinum (25 sealed boxes) – were dispatched by Walther Funk from Berlin under armed escort to be buried on the Klausenhof Mountain at Einsiedel in Bavaria, where the final German resistance was to be concentrated. Similarly the Abwehr cash reserves of hundreds of thousands of dollars where hidden nearby in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Shortly after the American forces overran the area, the reserves and money disappeared.

Moss and Kennedy travelled back and forth across Germany and into Switzerland and corresponded with fugitives in Argentina, to research what had happened. They talked to many witnesses before finally establishing what had become of the treasure. What Moss and Kennedy uncovered, and the conclusions they reached on the various people responsible for the disappearances, have not been disputed to this day. The disappearance of Major Martin Borg, the US Military Governor of Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the time, has not been explained.[22] (And? who and what?)

Later, Moss and Kennedy went on to uncover the consequences of Heinrich Himmler’s order of 28 October 1939, which confirmed the Lebensborn programme. They researched what had become of the children born as a result of the order.

Antarctica

He continued to travel extensively first to New Zealand from where, on 14 February 1958, he flew in a Globemaster aircraft (with one engine cutting out six hours from his destination) to Scott Base at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica to report on the arrival of the first Antarctic crossing achieved by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957-8 led by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary. Months later, he returned to New Zealand in the icebreaker, The Glacier.

Sailing the Pacific

Taking to sea from New Zealand again, he sailed with Warwick Davies, John Ewing, Rex Hill and Bill Endean in Endeans’s 47 ft Alden-rigged Malabar ketch, the Crusader,[23] through the islands of the Pacific via Tahiti, Pitcairn Islands, Easter Island and the Galapagos Islands to Panama, eventually landing at Nassau, Bahamas in December 1959.
Jamaica

He moved on to Kingston, Jamaica, where he settled. He died on 9 August 1965, aged 44.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s complete SOE file now on-line

I am very pleased to be able to present the complete SOE file of Patrick Leigh Fermor which was released to the public in August 2011 by the National Archive at Kew. My thanks go to Steven Kippax who is an SOE historian for gathering this information.

Click on the image to go to the new page which is in the Photographs section.

“He is consistently hunted by the occupying troops” – The commendation for Paddy’s OBE

It is clear the original intention was to award Paddy a DSO, but that was struck out in favour of an OBE. Paddy was later awarded the DSO for his part in the Kreipe abduction. Interestingly they had difficulties with his surname … Fermor is crossed out and replaced by Fermer!

The commendation reads:

This officer infiltrated into Crete on 22 Jun 42. Since that date, by his courage, cheerfulness and steadfastness, he has been most valuable in maintaining morale among the civilian population in most difficult circumstances.

At different times he has been in charge of our revolutionary and espionage services in the prefectures of Canea, Rethymnon and Heraklion and has been responsible for providing much valuable information regarding enemy activity and intentions. In addition he has made a personal reconnaissance of the ports of Suda and Heraklion under most hazardous circumstances.

On his own initiative he has organised defeatist campaigns in the ranks of German troops. With complete disregard for personal safety … he has carried these enterprises through to a successful conclusion.

He is still in Crete, where his determination, devotion to duty, and steadfastness of purpose have been invaluable in helping the local population to sustain their faith in their allies.

He is consistently hunted by the occupying troops.

Signed by Head of Mission 9 Apr 43.

(requested that should the award be made there should be no publicity for security reasons.)

The source for this is the Kew public records office. This is not in Paddy’s SOE file.


How to Kidnap a General – a review of Ill Met by Moonlight

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

“There was a rush . . . our torches illuminated the interior of the car — the bewildered face of the General, the chauffeur’s terrified eyes . . . [The] chauffeur was reaching for his automatic, so I hit him across the head with my kosh [blackjack] . . . and George . . . dumped him on the road. I jumped in behind the steering-wheel, and . . . saw Paddy and Manoli dragging the General out of the opposite door. The old man was struggling with fury . . . shouting every curse under the sun . . . [We bundled] him into the back seat [and he] kept imploring, ‘Where is my hat? Where is my hat?’ The hat, of course, was on Paddy’s head.”

First published in Time magazine 4 September 1950

Why a German general’s hat should be on a British officer’s head is pretty much the gist of III Met by Moonlight. For as the staff car, driven by Author Moss, moved along the road in northern Crete, sentries at no less than 22 German traffic-control posts smartly saluted the behatted “general”‘ and waved the car on. They had no inkling that prostrate on the floor in the back seat lay the real general, with guns pointed at his head. Twenty days later, on May 16, 1944, kidnaped Major General Karl Kreipe was handed over to British authorities in Cairo, putting finis to what Harold Nicolson has called “one of the best adventure stories that I have read.”*

Behind the Lines. The scheme of raiding German-held Crete and trotting off with the divisional commander was the brain child of youthful Major Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Captain W. Stanley Moss, who had achieved the schoolboy dream of becoming secret agents. At their base in Cairo, they shared a villa and sampled the fleshpots of Egypt. It was in a nightclub that they first hatched the plot that was to land their party from a motor launch on the south coast of Crete.

The two Britons could depend on help from guerrillas and from intelligence corpsmen hidden in the hills. One British agent, a Cretan, actually lived next door to General Kreipe’s Villa Ariadne, near the north coast. Through him, Moss and Leigh-Fermor learned the general’s daily routine to a nicety—off to headquarters by car at 9 a.m., back in the evening any time after 8 or 8:30 p.m., depending on how many rubbers of bridge he stayed to play.

Slowly, painstakingly, the two agents planned a night ambush. Hidden guerrillas lay at vantage points on the road to the villa, a buzzer and torch flashes relayed warnings of the general’s approach to the waiting kidnapers, who were in German uniforms.

After the snatch, the general (who quickly became resigned and quite amiable) was marched from cave to cave half the length of Crete, while the furious Germans fruitlessly finecombed the island. By the time a Royal Navy motor launch nosed in to a southwest beach and took off both captive and captors, Moss and Leigh-Fermor knew that they had achieved their principal aim—to astound the enemy and make him the laughingstock of the local population.

Author Moss wrote his story in the mid-’40s, but the British War Office refused to let it appear then. Today, having reached the elderly age of 29, Moss is a bit abashed by the “22-year-old exuberance (almost bumptiousness) with which it was written.” Bumptious or not, it is one of the most melodramatic and audacious stories of the war.

*And notably more successful than another daring plan hatched in Cairo. In November 1941, British commandos under 24-year-old Lieut. Colonel Geoffrey Keyes made their way 200 miles behind Axis lines in an attempt to capture or assassinate Nazi General Erwin Rommel. At night, with cork-blackened faces, Keyes and his commandos achieved complete surprise, wrecked Rommel’s HQ with grenades. But Keyes was killed and Rommel was untouched: he had gone to a birthday party.

A map of Crete as drawn by Paddy on operations in Crete

This map was  hand drawn by Paddy, probably whilst on operations in Crete 1943-44, including, perhaps, a self-portrait. The map is from Paddy’s SOE file.

The reverse of the map …

The drawing is typical of Paddy’s style. Compare it with this sketch sent to us by John Stathatos, about which John tells us:

This delightful sketch of himself in Cretan dress was penned at the top of a letter to my mother dated 17th November, 1944; as he explains, “I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy”.

"I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy"

Related article:

Traveller’s Rest by John Stathatos

The oral heroic poetry of the Kreipe kidnap

I have extracted this from a fairly long book review about Professor M I Finley’s 1978 revised edition of his book The World of Odysseus. It has a fascinating section about an oral heroic song from Crete that is about Paddy and the Kreipe abduction, and how it had evolved in just the few years since the end of the war.

From Triumph of a Heretic by Bernard Knox, first published in the NYRB 29 June 1978.

It is now more than two decades since the Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge (who was then an ex-professor from Rutgers) published a book which in a limpid, hard-hitting prose and with a bare minimum of footnotes attempted to draw “a picture of a society, based on a close reading of the Iliad and Odyssey, supported by study of other societies….” This is how Professor Finley characterizes the book now, in the preface to a revised edition which makes only minor changes in the original text but adds two valuable and stimulating appendices, replying to criticism and bringing the argument up to date. He goes on to claim that “the social institutions and values make up a coherent system” which, however strange to us, is “neither an improbable nor an unfamiliar one in the experience of modern anthropology.” The fact that the later Greeks and the nineteenth-century scholars found it incomprehensible on its own terms he dismisses as “irrelevant” and adds that “it is equally beside the point that the narrative is a collection of fictions from beginning to end.” ….

… Oral heroic poetry is not a medium that preserves historical fact—as Finley pointed out, with a reference to the Chanson de Roland, which made out of a Basque attack on Charlemagne’s rear-guard an assault by Muslim beys and pashas, all carefully identified by names which are “German, Byzantine, or made-up.” A modern example, from the Second World War and from Greece itself, strengthens his case and gives a fascinating glimpse of epic “history” in the making.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Here, in Notopoulos’s summary, is the heroic song the bard produced:

“An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis (not one of the actual guerrilla band) appears before the English general (Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank) and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

“In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

“Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri (that is what the bard calls Kreipe). The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform (only his cap in the actual event) and begs for mercy for the sake of his children (a stock motif in Cretan poetry).

“After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs (airplanes in the actual event). The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia (the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida). The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.”

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire-blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

To read the full article click here.

SOE’s correspondence to Paddy trashing the draft of Ill Met By Moonlight

“We have had the opportunity of reading this through and I must confess it seems to me the most unutterable trash. Literary criticism is, however, not within our province of officiality. Apart from that there are quite a number of points which it is undesirable to see published … and I very much doubt if descriptions such as that of General Gubbins acting as a horse in a sham bullfight would be sanctioned by those concerned.” Thus starts a correspondence from the War Office to Paddy on the subject of a draft of Stanley Moss’ book.

In April 1945 the War Office were in receipt of a draft Moss’ book Ill Met by Moonlight. Paddy’s recently released SOE file shows that not only were they sensitive to the security aspects of the book, but these Staff Officers thought very little of its literary style.

It appears that Moss had given Paddy ‘full powers’ to deal with the publication of the book. This seems to have dragged Paddy into some degree of trouble.

In a letter dated 29 March 1945 an officer says “LEIGH-FERMOR does not submit willingly to discipline, and I think, requires firm handling.”

The correspondence is quite amusing “Good taste and discretion are hardly attributes of the writer as illustrated by his description of one of his lady friends as an “over-sexed mongoose”. It is clear that the final version was quite severely edited, but some of the missing parts are quoted at length by Staff Officers who clearly had too much time on their hands .. or were they merely jealous that they had missed out on all the fun in Cairo?

Paddy himself in a covering letter to Colonel Talbot Rice with the submission of the draft for clearance says; “It is not a very good book – too much is made of too little” But he did think it would “sell like blazes”.

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A reconstruction of the Kreipe abduction in Crete

I believe this is something of a regular event in Crete. The story of the Kreipe abduction and then a ‘reenactment’ of the abduction on the actual spot it took place. The action starts at 2 minutes 20 seconds!

Don’t forget we have a whole section on these events and video as well:

Paddy talks about the abduction

General Kreipe, Paddy and the abduction gang on Greek TV 1972

more stories related to Ill Met by Moonlight 

Related article:

The Kreipe pennants 

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. 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.

This precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

Ill Met by Moonlight film review

Ill Met by Moonlight movie poster

For a decade and a half, the partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger illuminated the cinema with an array of extraordinary films. But the massive reputation the team garnered during and immediately after World War II – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes in just five years! went into steep decline in the Fifties. There were no Archers films at all between The Tales of Hoffmann (’51) and Oh… Rosalinda!! (’55), and both of those were disastrous failures, critically and financially. Perhaps to cover themselves in the ultraconservative British film industry, Powell and Pressburger finished their partnership with two conventional war adventure movies – rattling good yarns that, alas, were widely perceived as rattling just a bit too much.

First published in Film Comment 13th March 1995 v 31:n2. p37(4)

The Battle of the River Plate (’56) was a box-office success and had a royal premiere, but it now looks like the corniest of the Archers movies. An account of Britain’s first major naval victory of WWII, it does have the great virtue of showing actual ships maneuvering about in an actual ocean instead of models in a tank – Powell’s main pleasure in directing the movie, one imagines. But this is exasperatingly offset by far too many shots of actors on studio bridgehead sets being doused with water as they strike poses in front of a cyclorama. The local color Powell provides is a bit sticky, too, given that Uruguay, where the German battleship Graf Spee was forced to seek shelter before being tricked into self-destructing, was and still is a nation notorious for its concealment of Nazis. Peter Finch, as the captain of the Graf Spee, manages an impressive performance, but none of the other actors in a lively cast Anthony Quayle, John Gregson, Patrick Macnee, Anthony Newley, Christopher Lee, John Schlesinger in a bit as a German sailor – has much chance to create a real person. The Germans are all decent fellows, really, whilst the characterization of the Brits is entirely on the level of good-show-chaps caricature.

Powell seemed rather attached to this movie in later years, but had no love at all for the very last Archers film, Ill Met By Moonlight (’57). “I felt imprisoned by the facts,” he was wont to complain; and there were problems with the script Pressburger provided. Ian Christie’s book about Powell, Arrows of Desire, goes so far as to refuse to list the film as a collaboration at all, his filmography (reproduced, incomplete and inaccurate as it is, in Powell’s memoirs) giving Powell’s name alone as writer, producer, and director. Dissension between Powell and Pressburger coincided with antagonism from the Rank Organisation, which refused them money for color. Once the film was finished, so were the Archers.

After Ill Met By Moonlight, then, the deluge. It would be foolish to suggest that the film – miserably renamed Night Ambush for U.S. release and cut by 11 minutes – is anywhere near the level of the team’s masterworks. Even so, it’s more interesting than legend suggests. The (true) story, set in occupied Crete in 1943, concerns the kidnapping of a German general (Marius Goring) by Cretan partisans led by a British officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor (Dirk Bogarde). Film buffs will recall that the real Leigh Fermor was one of the scriptwriters of John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven (also the author of some bestselling travel books). Then again, the film seems to ask, who exactly is the “real” Patrick Leigh Fermor – or the real anyone? Taking its title from a play concerned with dreams and disguises, magic and power, Ill Met By Moonlight is all about questions of identity.

Xan and Daphne Fielding with Dirk Bogarde on the set of Ill Met by Moonlight

Under the credits, we see Dirk Bogarde in uniform; then, unexpectedly, we see him in the flamboyant outfit of a Cretan hill-bandit. A title informs us that Major Leigh Fermor was also known by the Greek code-name “Philidem.” In other words, there are two of him (at least), and on one level the adventure the film is about to unfold reflects a conflict in his personality. It’s a conflict shared, unknowingly, by his Nazi opposite number, the fierce, arrogant General Kreipe (an unlikely “proud Titania,” but it’s true that he “with a monster is in love” – the monster of Nazism). Kreipe’s human side is so rigorously repressed by the demands of war and “glory” that he is genuinely unaware of it; ironically, this humanness, which constitutes the true manhood of this Teuton warrior, is revealed by a boy (equivalent to Shakespeare’s Indian Prince?) – who, in turn, is the most grownup person in the movie.

Ill Met by Moonlight movie poster - Bogarde as Paddy the flamboyant Cretan

If “Philidem” appears under the credits, caped and open-shirted, a romantic dream-figure out of an operetta or a storybook, he is first seen in the film proper as a coarser, more down-to-earth version of the same thing – an ordinary Cretan peasant in a shabby suit, waiting for a bus. When he makes contact with the Resistance, his personality fragments further. To some, he is the mystical Philidem, Pimpernel of the Hellenes and righter of wrongs. To others he is “Major Paddy,” the happy-go-lucky Englishman of popular movie myth conducting war as if it were a branch of amateur theatricals, a gentleman adventurer relying on breeding to get him through and making fun of the whole business. To Bill Moss (David Oxley), the newly arrived junior officer sent to assist him, he is the cool, fast-thinking professional soldier. And to himself? In his quietly passionate defense of Cretan life and culture, he seems someone else again: a scholar and aesthete outraged by the barbarism and folly of war, and by the moronic arrogance shown by his captive toward the Cretan people.

Whatever his persona, Leigh Fermor is a chameleon who never seems to change very radically in himself. Perhaps because he has this quality of seeming all things to all men – and being those things – he remains unfazed by the monolithic might of the German military machine. Fluent in Greek, he can also speak German like a German and is easily able to assume another disguise, that of a faceless Nazi officer. Although he and Moss make fun of themselves – “If only I had a monocle!” muses Moss when Leigh Fermor tells him he “looks like an Englishman dressed like a German, leaning against the Ritz bar” – they are able to effect the kidnapping with an ease that seems appropriately Puckish. General Kreipe is ignominiously thrust onto the floor of his own limousine, gagged, and sat upon by a couple of the peasants he so despises. Kreipe’s rage is compounded by his firm conviction that he has been snatched by “amateurs” – a belief Leigh Fermor and Moss slyly make no objection to, knowing how it will gnaw at his already shaky Master Race self-confidence.

Soon, partisans and captive are up in the hills, where they stay for most of the movie (though the biggest of the film’s mountaineering set-pieces, a nocturnal descent through fog, was filmed on elaborately stylized studio sets). Once there, Kreipe determines to leave a trail for following German troops to pick up on – his cap, buttons from his uniform, even a couple of medals from his impressive display of such baubles never realizing that each emblem of his authority is no sooner dropped than it is retrieved by the vigilant Moss.

Rare Ill Met by Moonlight movie poster

Among Major Paddy’s partisans is a young war orphan, Nico, who has, while shinning up and down the mountains, much occasion to complain of his need of a pair of boots. Nico knows that the cost of a new pair will always be far beyond him; Kreipe, who has been friendly enough toward him in a rather patronizing way, seizes on this need by showing the boy his own impressive footwear and offering a gold coin with which to buy an identical pair. A German gold coin, he stresses, not one of the sovereigns Leigh Fermor keeps a supply of; it is, in fact, a coin the General is known to keep as a good-luck charm. Nico is impressed by the General’s largesse. But, of course, the Nazi requires a quid pro quo. All Nico has to do, when he goes down the mountain, is tell the searching German patrols where the General is, using the coin as a bona fides. But Kreipe has misjudged the boy (indeed, he can be said to have misjudged the whole of the human race): it never occurs to him that the boy will not do what he says. What Nico actually does is simply point the patrols in the wrong direction, leading them into an ambush; the magic gold coin is lucky for the Greeks, not the Germans. This makes the escape from Crete of the Britishers and their ill-met prisoner the easiest part of their long journey.

Once aboard a British ship, and naked of the symbols of military power, the General seems a new person – not such a bright man, not such a strong man, but also not such a bad man, either. He is visibly moved by the return of his possessions, especially the gold coin: despite his genuine pleasure in Nico’s company, Kreipe had assumed that the boy, like every non-German, is someone who can be bought and sold, and that “friendship” had been merely his gift, and not a privilege from which he might derive spiritual benefit rather than tactical advantage. The very simplicity of Nico’s ruse in deflecting rescue was the, final humiliation, the last stage in General Kreipe’s lengthy symbolic disrobing – which is precisely why his possessions can now be given back to him. If he started this modern midsummer night’s dream as imperious as Oberon, he ends it as foolish as the donkey-headed Nick Bottom. But then, Bottom the simple weaver is always better-liked by everyone than the unearthly and tyrannical monarch of Shakespeare’s enchanted forest.

And from his elaborate humiliation, the stiff-necked German learns a good deal about himself and about humanity. His curt acknowledgment at film’s end that he has been kidnapped not by amateurs but by professionals is also his acknowledgment of his own fallibility and that of the creed he has so proudly espoused. And so he regains a measure of dignity, along with those tokens of an identity he no longer needs. Nico himself get his new pair of boots after all (they belong to Leigh Fermor, who is barefoot in his final exchange with his prisoner), but, by a sad irony, is about to change identity as well: he will wait out the rest of the war far away from Crete in the distant England of which he has heard much but knows nothing. But at least he has a friend – a real friend, now – in General Kreipe, who has learned that the respect of an uneducated boy is worth more than a medal from the Fuhrer. “Gentles, do not reprehend / If you pardon, we shall mend.”

And Patrick Leigh Fermor, aka Major Paddy, aka Philidem – and, if you stretch your imagination just a smidge, aka Robin Goodfellow? – what of him? In the film’s closing moments, he is far from being self-assured intellectual or dashing amateur adventurer or legendary outlaw of the hills. He’s just a tired man who wants to go home and rest up. “How do you feel?” asks Moss. “Flat” is the reply. “You look flat!” says Moss. “I know how I’d like to look …” murmurs Leigh-Fermor wistfully. Moss knows what he’s going to say, and joins in the litany: “Like an Englishman dressed like an Englishman – and leaning against the Ritz bar!” It’s easy to imagine them ordering drinks at that renowned watering-hole with all the suavity required by this little fantasy. Still, the film’s last images of Crete receding in the distance, until all we can see is the sea, suggests that maybe Major Paddy’s heart is really back in those hills in the “fair and fertile” land that has become as much a Powellian landscape of the mind for us as the studio-built Himalayan convent of Black Narcissus or the monochrome Heaven of A Matter of Life and Death. And, as we depart both Crete and this film, we may reflect that being “dressed like an Englishman and leaning against the Ritz bar” would, for Patrick Leigh Fermor constitute yet another disguise. After all, he was Irish.

… now watch the movie trailer.

Ill Met by Moonlight

Related articles:

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

General’s long trip home

Paddy’s mugshots from his SOE file

Soon I hope to be able to bring you more information from Paddy’s SOE file which is at the National Archive in Kew, courtesy of Steven Kippax who is an SOE historian and researcher .

Here is a taster. The man himself looking pretty dashing but uncompromising for his official SOE mugshot!

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life

The abduction gang - PLF centre Moss to his left

This is a wonderful find brought to us by Blog reader Erik Bruns.

Many will remember the TV show This is Your Life. Greek television had their own version, and in 1972 it was Paddy’s turn to be embarrassed and surprised by meeting again people that he had come across in his life. His surprise and clear delight at meeting with the ‘Abduction Gang’ of Cretan Andartes is clear. The ‘senior’ partisans, Manoli and George (see picture left) are the first two guests, and they seem barely changed.

The highlight must be when the presenter introduces a slightly frail General Heinrich Kreipe. Paddy is delighted to see him again, and immediately starts to talk to the General in German saying how good it is to see him after all these years.

I am amused as one of the Cretans takes the General’s arm to help him sit down; maybe he did the same before on that road to the Villa Ariadne, but was perhaps a little less gentle on that occasion!

There follows what is one of television’s most wonderful scenes as Paddy acts as translator answering the presenter in Greek and then switching back to German to speak to the General.

Take fifteen minutes of your life to watch Paddy, and all these great men, as they share their experiences of an event which took place thirty years before, with great animation and clear joy.

I have a feeling that there was a pretty good party afterwards with plenty of Ouzo and Retsina!

Crete, Greece: Ghostly soldiers on the Battle of Crete anniversary

The Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay in Crete where the main anniversary commemorations will take place

It was sunny but cold, last month in Crete – what the locals call “ilios me dontia”, sun with teeth. I sat on the beach at Sfakia on the south coast of the island. Around me a toddler played among the stones while taverna owners were applying final licks of paint in preparation for the new tourist season.

My late father sat on the same beach in May 1941. Around him there was chaos and despair. Evelyn Waugh, who was there too, later captured the scene in the novel Officers and Gentlemen: “The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere. Some were quite apathetic, too weary to eat; others were smashing their rifles on the stones, taking a fierce relish in this symbolic farewell to their arms.”

This tiny harbour is the finish to the story of the Battle of Crete, which started 70 years ago on Friday, May 20 — a significant anniversary that will be commemorated across the island. There are few veterans left now, but strands of the narrative may still be picked up among the rocks and wild flowers of the beautiful western end of Crete.

I had long meant to do this journey, to discover what my father – and thousands of others – went through. He himself hadn’t been the best source as he wouldn’t say much about it. And then he died, with the story largely untold.
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To help me uncover it, I enlisted the services of a Briton who has been a resident of Crete for 25 years and offers guided tours of the key sites. For Tim Powell, tourist guide, musician and lover of all things Cretan, the Battle of Crete was characterised by the heroic resistance of the civilian population. “This ‘insurgency’ led to a declaration that for every German soldier killed, 10 Cretans would be executed — which of course did nothing to stop them,” he said.

He started the story at the end, the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda Bay where the main anniversary commemorations will take place. The 1,500 headstones memorialise some colourful characters, none more vivid than John Pendlebury, an archaeologist with a glass eye who was operating in Crete as a secret agent when he was killed on May 22 1941.

The battle and its aftermath of guerrilla resistance threw up a cast of such chaps — suave British secret agents, brave Cretan warriors, even a monocle-wearing German aristocrat — whose deeds are recorded in some compelling accounts. Ill Met by Moonlight, for example, recounts the kidnap of the German General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944, masterminded by the secret agent (and future travel writer) Patrick Leigh Fermor.

But the Crete campaign also included many ordinary soldiers and civilians whose names and actions remain unrecorded and for whom the experience was far from glamorous. One of them was my father, a lance sergeant in the Northumberland Hussars, who was evacuated to Crete from Athens towards the end of April 1941 after mainland Greece fell to the Nazis.

He dug in with a force of about 21,000 combat-ready British, Australian, New Zealand and Cretan soldiers to defend the island. The Germans launched their attack on May 20 in wave after wave of paratroop drops by parachute and glider. What followed was a series of military blunders on both sides in which the Allies managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The key fighting took place around the airfield at Maleme, and Hill 107 above it, to the west of Chania. Since 1974 Hill 107 has been the site of the German War Cemetery on Crete, the last resting place of 4,465 soldiers of whom nearly 2,000 were killed on that first day.

Many fell not to soldiers but to civilians. “The Germans had never seen something like this in Europe,” explained George Bikoyiannakis, the owner of the Café Plateia in the village of Galatas near Chania, the site of fierce fighting. “These people were fighting with farming tools. Even broomsticks. They would tie kitchen knives to them and use them as spears.”

George runs a little museum next to the church that commemorates the heroic efforts of locals and New Zealanders to defend the village. The Kiwis are remembered in the name of a street, Neozilandon Polemiston, which means “Road of the New Zealand Warriors”. Down a narrow alley, a garden gate has been fashioned from an old piece of British Matilda tank.

The civilian resistance — by women and priests and as well as men young and old — offended the Nazis’ sense of how war should be waged and their commander, General Kurt Student, ordered reprisals to be carried out “with exemplary terror”. The sites of these massacres are marked by monuments across the island, some of them displaying the skulls and bones of victims behind glass.

At Alikianos a marble column and canopy bear witness to one of the bravest feats of the Battle of Crete, in which 850 lads of the locally recruited 8th Greek Regiment held out for a week against German onslaught. More than 200 villagers, ranging in age from 14 to 80, were subsequently shot in reprisal.

“The Germans were surprised because the women didn’t turn away,” said Powell. “They watched their husbands and sons being executed.” The significance of the action at Alikianos is that it bought the Allies time to organise the evacuation of Crete. On May 27, realising the island was lost, the Allied commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg, ordered his forces to retreat south across the Levka Ori, the mountains that form the snowy spine of Crete, to an embarkation point on the southern coast.

My father and his fellow Geordies abandoned the ground they held around Chania and joined the exodus. The route they took, with little or no food, in rotting boots, under frequent attack from Stuka dive bombers, was nicknamed the Via Dolorosa. Today you can drive it in your little Nissan or Peugeot hire car.

In 1941 it was a dirt track that ended in the five-mile-long Imbros Gorge. A Stuka was shot down as it came in for the attack here. Its propeller is one of the prize exhibits in the war museum at Askifou, which lies on the Via Dolorosa. Walking the gorge myself, I tried to imagine the Stuka screech my father once remarked on, but all I could hear was goat bells.

His reward for reaching Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships evacuated 16,000 men over four nights, was to be told there was no room for him. He would have to stay behind and wait to be captured. All told, 5,000 Allied troops didn’t make it off Crete. None of those left behind was above the rank of lieutenant colonel.

One eyewitness talked of the “damnable and disgraceful scramble for priority, a claim to the privilege of escape based on rank and seniority”. Evelyn Waugh thought it a shameful episode. My father didn’t mention it.

After sitting on the beach at Sfakia I sat down for lunch at one of those spruced-up tavernas and ordered a plate of gigantes, butterbeans in tomato sauce. Then I remembered that butterbeans were my father’s favourite thing to eat. He would have appreciated a plateful as he sat twiddling his thumbs just a few feet away, waiting to be captured.

He spent the next four years, from the ages of 20 to 24, in various POW camps in Germany, but he took it all on the chin. The only bit I can remember him grumbling about was having to march the 50 miles back over the mountains, along the Via Dolorosa, after being taken prisoner. He said he could have done without that.

By Nigel Richardson – First published in The Telegraph

Related articles:

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

Ride of the Valkyries: The Vichy perspective on the German invasion of Crete

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

Crete: 11th Day Movie with Paddy

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a major in the Paras during the Second World War

This profile by William Dalrymple is perhaps the most well known of all the on-line pieces about Paddy. I have so far been reluctant to add it to the blog, but as my blog is meant to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for all things Leigh Fermor I have decided its time has come.

 

By William Dalrymple

First published in the Telegraph 06 Sep 2008

At 18 he left home to walk the length of Europe; at 25, as an SOE agent, he kidnapped the German commander of Crete; now at 93, Patrick Leigh Fermor, arguably the greatest living travel writer, is publishing the nearest he may come to an autobiography – and finally learning to type. William Dalrymple meets him at home in Greece

‘You’ve got to bellow a bit,’ Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor said, inclining his face in my direction, and cupping his ear. ‘He’s become an economist? Well, thank God for that. I thought you said he’d become a Communist.’

He took a swig of retsina and returned to his lemon chicken.

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now, and that’s one reason why I am off to London next week. Glasses, too. Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally, the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish…’

He trailed off. ‘The amount that can go wrong at this age – you’ve no idea. This year I’ve acquired something called tunnel vision. Very odd, and sometimes quite interesting. When I look at someone I can see four eyes, one of them huge and stuck to the side of the mouth. Everyone starts looking a bit like a Picasso painting.’

He paused and considered for a moment, as if confronted by the condition for the first time. ‘And, to be honest, my memory is not in very good shape either. Anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Winston Churchill – couldn’t remember his name last week.

‘Even swimming is a bit of a trial now,’ he continued, ‘thanks to this bloody clock thing they’ve put in me – what d’they call it? A pacemaker. It doesn’t mind the swimming. But it doesn’t like the steps on the way down. Terrific nuisance.’

We were sitting eating supper in the moonlight in the arcaded L-shaped cloister that forms the core of Leigh Fermor’s beautiful house in Mani in southern Greece. Since the death of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, Leigh Fermor, known to everyone as Leigh Fermor, has lived here alone in his own Elysium with only an ever-growing clowder of darting, mewing, paw-licking cats for company. He is cooked for and looked after by his housekeeper, Elpida, the daughter of the inn-keeper who was his original landlord when he came to Mani for the first time in 1962.

It is the most perfect writer’s house imaginable, designed and partially built by Leigh Fermor himself in an old olive grove overlooking a secluded Mediterranean bay. It is easy to see why, despite growing visibly frailer, he would never want to leave. Buttressed by the old retaining walls of the olive terraces, the whitewashed rooms are cool and airy and lined with books; old copies of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books lie scattered around on tables between Attic vases, Indian sculptures and bottles of local ouzo.

A study filled with reference books and old photographs lies across a shady courtyard. There are cicadas grinding in the cypresses, and a wonderful view of the peaks of the Taygetus falling down to the blue waters of the Aegean, which are so clear it is said that in some places you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the seabed far below.

There is a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air; and from below comes the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore. Yet there is something unmistakably melancholy in the air: a great traveller even partially immobilised is as sad a sight as an artist with failing vision or a composer grown hard of hearing.

I had driven down from Athens that morning, through slopes of olives charred and blackened by last year’s forest fires. I arrived at Kardamyli late in the evening. Although the area is now almost metropolitan in feel compared to what it was when Leigh Fermor moved here in the 1960s (at that time he had to move the honey-coloured Taygetus stone for his house to its site by mule as there was no road) it still feels wonderfully remote and almost untouched by the modern world.

When Leigh Fermor first arrived in Mani in 1962 he was known principally as a dashing commando. At the age of 25, as a young agent of Special Operations Executive (SOE), he had kidnapped the German commander in Crete, General Kreipe, and returned home to a Distinguished Service Order and movie version of his exploits, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing him as a handsome black-shirted guerrilla.

It was in this house that Leigh Fermor made the startling transformation – unique in his generation – from war hero to literary genius. To meet, Leigh Fermor may still have the speech patterns and formal manners of a British officer of a previous generation; but on the page he is a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly a single living equal.

It was here in the isolation and beauty of Kardamyli that Leigh Fermor developed his sublime prose style, and here that he wrote most of the books that have made him widely regarded as the world’s greatest travel writer, as well as arguably our finest living prose-poet. While his densely literary and cadent prose style is beyond imitation, his books have become sacred texts for several generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden, Nicholas Crane and Rory Stewart, all of whom have been inspired by the persona he created of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of books on his shoulder.

As Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, Leigh Fermor ‘was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient – pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope… We fret about our kids’ Sats, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. In his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron – his hero, and to some extent his template. In between he has joined a cavalry charge, observed a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and plunged into a love affair with a princess. He has feasted atop a moonlit tower, with wine and roast lamb hauled up by rope. He has dwelt soundlessly among Trappist monks.’

For myself, it was the reading of his travel books while at Cambridge that inspired me to attempt to follow in his footsteps. With a paperback of Leigh Fermor’s in my backpack, I set off to Jerusalem following the route of the Crusaders during my first summer vacation. Meeting my hero for the first time at Bruce Chatwin’s house, just before the publication of my first book in 1989, was the nearest thing I have had to a formal graduation ceremony as a writer, the moment when you suddenly feel that maybe you really have passed out of your novitiate.

Foremost among Leigh Fermor’s books are his two glorious Greek travelogues, Mani and Roumeli; an exquisite short study of monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence; and most celebrated of all, an account of his journey in the early 1930s, travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, from Holland to Constantinople. On and off for nearly 70 years Fermor has been working on a trilogy about this epic walk. The first volume – and many would say his masterpiece – A Time of Gifts was finally published in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, followed nine years later. Since then, 22 years have passed with no sign of volume three, the book that should take us to the gates of Byzantium.

Leigh Fermor is now 93 and his fans are getting anxious. But travel writers have longer professional life expectancies than most – Norman Lewis, for example, produced four books between his 88th birthday and his death five years later – so we should not give up hope. Indeed, on a low table when Leigh Fermor showed me into his study, lay an 8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.

In the meantime, Fermor fans have a small savoury to keep them going until the final course is served. This week John Murray is bringing out In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between Leigh Fermor and the last surviving member of the Mitford sisterhood: Debo Devonshire, his close friend for nearly half a century. The letters are the nearest thing Leigh Fermor may ever get to writing an autobiography, faithfully chronicling his movements since the mid-1950s with the same detailed, painterly, highly written style that he uses in his travelogues.

Though inevitably slighter than his more polished work, the book includes wonderful accounts of some of his most celebrated adventures, such as his disastrous visit to Somerset Maugham at Cap Ferrat. Here he describes the elderly Maugham’s face as ‘so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille, or chained to a bench of a galley, or inside an iron mask for half a century’.

Having committed the faux-pas of appearing to draw attention to Maugham’s stammer at dinner, Leigh Fermor, who had initially been invited to stay for a week, was approached by his host at the end of the evening who offered him ‘a hand as cold as a toad, with the words “W-w-well I’ll s-s-say g-good-b-b-bye now in c-case I’m not up b-by the t-time y-you l-leave.”?’

It emerged that Leigh Fermor’s proof of the book had yet to reach the Peloponnese, so after supper I produced my own copy. He frowned: there had been a disagreement between the authors and their publisher over the cover produced by the artist John Craxton, who has illustrated all Leigh Fermor’s book since the 1950s, and the book was now covered with something more sketchy, and clearly not at all to Leigh Fermor’s liking. ‘Debo and I complained,’ he said, holding the book almost to the end of his nose and peering disapprovingly at the illustration, ‘but they kept on about business trends or some such jargon. What was it now? Market forces, that’s it. Well I never…’

As he flicked through the proof, I asked if the rumours were true: that after a lifetime of writing in longhand, he was now finally learning to type, the quicker to finish the third volume of his masterpiece.

‘Well, not exactly,’ he replied. ‘At the moment I seem to be collecting typewriters. I’ve got four now. People keep giving me their old ones. But it is true, I am planning to take typing lessons in Evesham this September.’ He paused, before adding, ‘In truth, I am absolutely longing to get down to it, before my sight gets any worse.’

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915 to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, the director general of the Geological Survey of India, and the ‘sophisticated and wild’ Eileen Ambler. His mother was a bohemian and highly literate woman, who loved reading to her children and encouraging them to learn poetry by heart. She had been brought up in the wilds of Bihar, as a result of which Leigh Fermor can still sing, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in Hindi. ‘Although I was brought up in England,’ he remembered, ‘India was a presence in the household, like voices in the next room.’

Almost immediately Leigh Fermor was deserted by his parents. It was the war, and they had to return to India; given the threat of U-boats, it was decided to leave the young Leigh Fermor in England so that someone would survive if the ship were torpedoed. The boy was sent to a farm in Northamptonshire where he was allowed to run free. ‘I think it formed me, you know,’ he said. ‘Made me restless and curious. I was constantly climbing trees and hayricks.’

When his mother and sister returned to collect him three and half years later, he ran away from these ‘beautiful strangers’. In retrospect, Leigh Fermor thinks the experience of ‘those marvellously lawless years unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint’, something that marked the rest of his career, especially at school, where he was expelled from a variety of establishments until finding happiness at ‘a co-educational and very advanced school for difficult children’.

After that school was closed down due to a series of ‘vaguely guessed at improprieties’, Leigh Fermor moved on to the King’s School Canterbury. He liked the fact it was founded during the reign of Justinian ‘when fragments of Thor and Odin had barely stopped smouldering in the Kentish woods’; but his teachers were less sure about their new pupil: ‘He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ his housemaster wrote, shortly before expelling him. Unqualified to join Sandhurst, the direction in which his family had been pushing him, he attended crammers in London where he began to write poetry and to read voraciously.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings' Canterbury

One of the books he chanced across was The Station, Robert Byron’s newly published book about his travels through the monasteries of Mount Athos. A subsequent meeting with Byron in a ‘blurred and saxophone-haunted nightclub’ made Leigh Fermor, aged 18, ache to follow in the author’s footsteps and visit ‘serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’. He had also read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. With nothing to keep him in Britain he set off, having first borrowed a knapsack that had accompanied Byron to Athos, aiming to walk to that living fragment of Byzantium while living as cheaply as Orwell: ‘I loved the idea of roughing it.’

On the wet afternoon of December 9, 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, as ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’, Leigh Fermor left London, boarding a Dutch steamer at Irongate Wharf. His rucksack contained pencils, drawing pads, notebooks, The Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. He would not lay eyes on Britain again until January 1937, when he returned ‘for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels’.

‘I thought I’d keep a diary and turn it into a book, which of course is what I did,’ he said. ‘Except I am still writing that book more than 70 years later.’ It was not just that the journey gave Leigh Fermor the subject for his lifework, it ‘broadened my mind, taught me history, literature and languages. It opened everything up: the world, civilisation and Europe. It also gave me a capacity for solitude and a sense of purpose. It taught me to read and to look at things. It was a great education. I didn’t go to university, I went travelling instead.’

The journey also led him to meeting one of the two great loves of his life, a beautiful Byzantine princess named Balasha Cantacuzene. Leigh Fermor met Balasha in Athens, to which he walked after finally reaching Athos in early 1937. She was 12 years older than him, and had just separated from her husband, a Spanish diplomat. ‘She was 32, and I was 20. We met at just the right time and fell into each other’s arms. It was instant, we clicked immediately. We went off together and lived in a watermill in the Peloponnese for five months. I was writing, she was painting. It was heavenly.’

Balasha Cantacuzene

From there the couple moved back to Balasha’s rambling country estate in the dales of Moldavia, where they moved in with Balasha’s sister. Leigh Fermor has written that the two sisters were ‘good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I.’

For Leigh Fermor, this was one of the happiest periods of his life. For two years he lived there, savouring the last remnants of a world that was just about to disappear: ‘Her family was part of an old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world: country-dwelling noblesse of the sort described by Turgenev. They were intensely civilised people. The house was an old manor house, not grand, but delightful and full of pictures and books.

There was a butler who was always a bit tight, and no electricity, so we read with lamps and wicks. I spent the time reading my way through the whole of French literature and playing chess – when I wasn’t making a hash of writing this book.’ He paused, then added, ‘Of course I wanted to marry her, but she said, “Don’t be ridiculous – I’m much older than you.”?’

Both the romance and the world in which it was set were ended for ever by the war. ‘We were aware that war clouds were looming, but didn’t realise how serious it was. We were out on a picnic, some of us on horseback and some in open carriages, when someone shouted across the fields that the Germans had gone into Poland. I made the decision at once: if war had broken out I had to join the Army. I thought it would be over in six months.’

In the event, Leigh Fermor did not lay eyes on Balasha again for a quarter of a century. With the end of the war came the Iron Curtain, and Balasha could no more get out of Romania than Leigh Fermor could get in. When he eventually managed to find a way to get in as a journalist, he found Balasha living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. ‘We sat up and scarcely went to bed for 48 hours, laughing the whole time: “Do you remember?” By this time I was with Joan. Balasha took it all in such a philosophical and charming way. She was an extraordinary person.’

It emerged that the Cantacuzenes had been branded ‘elements of putrid background’ and Balasha’s lands had been confiscated soon after the end of the war. She had lost everything. The day Ceausescu’s commissar turned up she and her sister had been given quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum. In Leigh Fermor’s account of the reunion, he wrote how he ‘found them in their attic.

In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of 26 years… [But] early thoughts of leaving Romania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away.’

The same war that destroyed Leigh Fermor’s great love affair also made his name as a man of action. From Moldavia he returned to Britain and enlisted in the Irish Guards. As a fluent Greek speaker he was soon singled out for intelligence work, and was sent first to Albania and 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 Nazi invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria where he set up house with several other young intelligence 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 Leigh Fermor was sent back into Crete to work with the Cretan resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into the occupied island disguised as shepherds and established a troglodyte existence under the stalactites of mountain caves, commanded by a Fellow of All Souls. The port from which Leigh Fermor set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. ‘It was a low moment in the war: the Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.’ It was partly for this reason that Leigh Fermor’s bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale: kidnapping the German commander of the island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence 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 was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew 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.’

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

Back in Egypt, Leigh Fermor met his future wife, and the companion for the second half of his life. Joan Eyres Monsell was then working for the intelligence department as a cipher clerk. ‘She had a house near the Ibn Tulun mosque, and was very go-ahead,’ Leigh Fermor remembers. ‘She was a nurse when the war broke out, and had lived in Spain and Algiers before Cairo. We met at a party and hit it off very quickly.’

When the war was over, Joan and Leigh Fermor remained in Greece, wandering the country and initially finding work in the British Council, whose Athens office was then run by the other great British philhellene of that generation, Sir Steven Runciman. But as ever, Leigh Fermor’s wanderlust soon got the better of him, and before long he had resigned. In 1949 they caught a ship to the Caribbean, a trip that resulted in two books: a travelogue, The Traveller’s Tree, and a fine novel, The Violins of St Jacques. Both were written partially in Trappist monasteries, an experience that Leigh Fermor turned into his third and most tightly written book, A Time to Keep Silence.

It was in the early 1960s that Leigh Fermor married Joan and settled down with her in Kardamyli, to continue his life of writing travel books, interspersed with weekly book reviews for Cyril Connolly’s Sunday Times book pages. It is this more settled phase of life that is so well captured in the new book of letters between Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire. There are lovely descriptions of Leigh Fermor and Joan finding the bay at Kardamyli; the struggles to finish A Time of Gifts; Leigh Fermor’s surprise and pleasure at its rapturous reception; and the slow writing of its sequel.

The final 50 pages of the book have a more melancholy tone, as their friends begin to die, one by one: the English ones often of cancer, the Cretans, more dramatically, falling from precipices, and the like. Finally come the deaths of both Debo’s husband, Andrew, and of Joan Leigh Fermor: ‘The cats miss Joan bitterly,’ Leigh Fermor writes at the end of the book. ‘They are not the only ones… I keep thinking of things I must remember to tell Joan at lunch, knowing they could make her laugh. Letters addressed to her still arrive from distant parts, but even they are dying out now, and increasingly it’s only subscriptions to be renewed.’

Leigh Fermor enjoys a two-hour siesta after lunch – ‘Egyptian PT’ as he calls it. But on my last day in Kardamyli he emerged at 4pm, smiling from ear to ear. ‘Didn’t sleep a wink,’ he said. ‘Got quite carried away reading the book. I was rather dreading it, but was pleasantly surprised.’ He held up the proof approvingly. ‘Some passages are really awfully good.’

Paddy at home in the Mani

After our lunch we went up the mountain beside the house to see the Byzantine chapel around which the ashes of his friend Bruce Chatwin had been scattered. The chapel was very small – only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay in the rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above Kardamyli, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese.

The sun was slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat bells cut through the drowsy background whirr of cicadas as shepherd children led their flocks back for the night. It is perfect, beautiful, a peaceful place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Leigh Fermor whether he would like to be buried there, too.

‘Oh no,’ he replied instantly. ‘Joan is in Dumbleton. I’d rather like to end up there.’

It’s a characteristic of so many of the greatest English travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, for example, finally recognised ‘that I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin’, and the same is true of Leigh Fermor. For all his years in Greece, he remains almost the archetypal Englishman, in its best possible form: ‘My heart is in both,’ he said as we headed downhill. ‘England is not a foreign country to me.’ He paused and looked down over the Aegean, glinting now like broken glass far below us: ‘I do love both countries,’ he said as we headed on home. ‘I really do.’

Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor

This title from a book by the German author Michael Obert hits the spot for me. Like Michael I am also engaged in a ‘search’ for Paddy and I know from your comments and emails that many of you are finding your own ways to follow in Paddy’s footsteps and to understand and enjoy his works.

Following the publication of the Wolfgang Büscher video just a few days ago, I was contacted by Christian from Koln (Cologne) saying how pleased he was to see the video and at the same time sending me a couple of other articles from German newspapers and magazines. Christian made the point that in recent years there have been many features and articles published in Germany about Paddy, including Michael Obert’s book which provides the title to this article. Chatwins Guru und ich: Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor by Michael Obert is available from Amazon.

I have pdfs of two more articles and those of you who followed the blog in its early days may remember that I have previously featured a further article by Wieland Freund. Therefore, perhaps for the first time in one place, a collection of German (and Swiss) material about Paddy.

Der letzte Byzantiner by Wolfgang Büscher, first published in Die Zeit 24 May 2006

Wolfgang Büscher discussing A Time of Gifts video

Mit der Feder im Rucksack durch die Welt by Georg Sütterlin, first published in Der Bund 30 Aug 2005

Besuch beim Haudegen des Peloponnes by Wieland Freund first published in Welt Online 8 July 2007

New sites: SOE in the Balkans and the Levant

Many visitors to the blog are interested not so much in Paddy per se or his writing, but the activities of the Allied forces and the SOE in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean in World War Two.

This new website that I have stumbled across is devoted to these activities in the Balkans and the Levant which is Paddy’s sphere of operations. A quick glance however fails to turn up anything on Paddy, a big mistake, which I am sure will soon be corrected! However, it does appear to be a very useful archive for people conducting research into this theatre of operations.

If you have a particular specialised interest in the SOE then I would recommend joining the Yahoo Group Special Operations Executive which is updated daily with some fascinating and very detailed information. It would be a great starting point for research.


Crete: Island of Heroes

“The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary … When executions were to take place I would leave my desk and walk out onto the balcony to watch their moment of death. Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete.” So said General Alexander Andre, the German Commander of the Occupation Forces on Crete.

This video features pictures from the film 11th Day and includes some pictures of Paddy, including a new one to me at least of himself and Moss with the kidnap gang.

It is said that the Germans had never encountered the extent of civilian resistance that they encountered on Crete.

Retribution was swift. The German High Command wanted to break the spirit of the populace and do it quickly. In this they failed and failed miserably. In retaliation for the losses they incurred, the Nazis spread punishment, terror and death on the innocent civilians of the island. More than two thousand Cretans were executed during the first month alone and twenty five thousand more later.

Even in the face of certain death while standing in line to be executed, Cretans did not beg for their lives. This shocked the German troops. Kurt Student, the German Paratrooper Commander who planned the invasion, said of the Cretans, I have never seen such a defiance of death. General Alexander Andre, the German Commander of the Occupation Forces was amazed and said: “The courage of the Cretan facing the firing squad is legendary. Cretans turn into mythical figures. They are so proud of their moment of death that one can hardly fail to admire their courage. When executions were to take place I would leave my desk and walk out onto the balcony to watch their moment of death. Nowhere else have I witnessed such love of freedom and defiance for death as I did on Crete.”

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

Crete: 11th Day Movie with Paddy

General’s long trip home

Related category:

Ill Met by Moonlight