One of Leigh Fermor’s colleagues, another distinguished classicist named Montague Woodhouse, once told me that Greek villagers urged him to strike the hardest possible blows against the Nazis, so as to make the inevitable reprisals worthwhile. He lived up to this by demolishing the Gorgapotamos viaduct in 1942, wrecking Nazi communications. But the brutality of the combat doesn’t negate that moment of civilized gallantry at Mount Ida, where the idea of culture over barbarism also scored a brief triumph. (Woodhouse went on to become a Conservative politician and active Cold Warrior, but while fighting Hitler he was quite happy to work with Communist and nationalist fighters, and he wrote in his memoirs that “the only bearable war is a war of national liberation.”)
What a cast of literally classic characters this league of gentleman comprised. Bernard Knox went with poet John Cornford to fight for the Spanish Republic, was later parachuted into France and Italy to arrange the covert demolition and sabotage of Vichy and Mussolini, and, after the war, set up the Center for Hellenic Studies at Yale. Nicholas Hammond, who had walked rifle in hand over the mountains of Epirus and Macedonia, later suggested from his study of the terrain that those seeking the burial treasure of Philip of Macedon might consider digging at Vergina. (He was right.) Some of the brotherhood was very much to the left: Basil Davidson helped organize Tito’s red partisans in Bosnia, and after the war he went to work with the African rebels who fought against fascist Portugal’s dirty empire. Frank Thompson, brother of the British Marxist historian Edward Thompson, was liaison officer to the resistance in Bulgaria before being betrayed and executed. Others were more ambivalent: Sir Fitzroy Maclean was a Tory aristocrat but helped persuade Churchill that Tito’s forces in Yugoslavia were harder fighters than the monarchists when it came to killing Nazis. On the more traditional side of British derring-do, Billy McLean and Julian Amery emerged from the guerrilla resistance in Albania with a lively hatred of Communism and later took part in several quixotic attempts to “roll back” the Iron Curtain. Col. David Smiley saw irregular action in almost every theater, and in the 1960s and 1970s he organized the almost unique defeat of a Communist insurgency in Oman.
Now the bugle has sounded for the last and perhaps the most Byronic of this astonishing generation.
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!
He had hoped to join the Irish Guards, but took the commission offered by the Intelligence Corps which gave him the opportunity to return to Greece. As a British Liaison Officer he followed the Greek army’s early successes against the Italians on the Albanian border in late 1940. When the Germans invaded the following April, the British and Greek forces retreated southwards. Leigh Fermor escaped by caique to Crete, where he took part in the battle in May 1941 against German paratroopers; when the battle was lost he was evacuated to Egypt. He was sent back to occupied Crete in June 1942, as one of a handful of SOE officers who were helping the Cretan Resistance.
After the Italian surrender in August 1943 he was contacted by the Italian general Angelo Carta. Rather than co-operate with the Germans, Carta wanted to leave Crete. Leigh Fermor saw him safely to Egypt – a mission which sparked the idea of kidnapping a German general. Promoted to major, he returned from Cairo to Crete in February 1944. With his second-in-command, Capt William Stanley Moss, and a hand-picked team of resistance fighters, the ambush took place on 26 April, when General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the Sebastopol Division, was pulled out of his car on his way to his villa.The hardest part was not so much the capture but the getaway. The wireless broke down, German troops flooded the south coast, from where they had planned to rendezvous with a Royal Navy launch, and the General hurt his shoulder in a fall. The party spent two weeks in caves and sheepfolds in the White Mountains, making their way over the snowy ridges of Mount Ida to a more secluded evacuation point. German patrols kept up the pressure, and leaflets were dropped warning that anyone who gave aid and succour to the kidnappers could expect the most severe punishment. No one gave them away.
The success of the operation and the discomfiture of the occupiers gave the Cretans a tremendous boost: as one of them put it, “the horn-wearers won’t dare look us in the eye!” William Stanley Moss’s diary was made into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (and later a film with Dirk Bogarde.) Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO and remains a hero on Crete. But he never published an account of his own experiences on the island.