Back in my teens, in the mid- to late-Sixties, I used to subscribe to the occasional Purnells partwork. The two in particular that I remember were Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, which I collected in its blue and gold binders and in which I learned that the accompanying essays were far more interesting, informative and better written than the chapters from Churchill’s original book that opened each weekly part, and the History of the Second World War which came with black and gold binders. I still had both sets until a few years ago, I think they disappeared when I was redesigning my study.
Anyway, Patrick Leigh Fermor was originally commissioned to write about the abduction of General Kreipe from Crete for the History of the Second World War. What I have learned, from reading as much about Fermor as I seem to have done over the last few years, is that if you wanted 5,000 words from him it was probably wise to commission 500. The editor of History of the Second World War asked for 5,000 words; sometime after the deadline, Fermor delivered 30,000 words. The editor, exasperated, as I am sure he must have been, slashed the article down to the required 5,000 words and published it. This book is the first time the original piece has been published in full.
The chances are that I read that original truncated piece with great interest. You must remember, this was the 1960s, less than 25 years since the end of the war. The war occupied a massively disproportionate percentage of the television we watched, the films we saw, the books and comics and so on that any and all of my contemporaries consumed. We could not, not yet at least, break away from our fascination with the war. Besides, I knew this story. There had been a film about it, Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor, which was on the tv a lot in those days. Bogarde was singularly ill-cast as Fermor, but I didn’t know that and he was a very romantic hero. Moreover, we had, somewhere around the house, a battered old hardback of the original book by W. Stanley Moss upon which the film was based. In private, Fermor was rather cutting about this account by his second-in-command on this escapade, but it was still a good boy’s own adventure story.
When I first knowingly encountered Fermor’s writing, in a book club edition of A Time of Gifts, I really didn’t associate him with the hero of this adventure, they seemed to me to be two totally different people. If I’d had a chance to read Abducting a General before I came across the account of his walk across pre-war Europe, there is no chance I would have made such a mistake. This book is full of the traits I have come to associate with his travel writing. It is discursive, crowded with often elaborate metaphors, full of vivid descriptions of landscape and wildlife, not afraid of extended asides about the past. It is, in sort, beautiful writing, not what you might normally associate with an account of a daring World War II adventure. Given that, as a person, Fermor seems to have been something of a shit, he is totally redeemed by his writing.
As for the story, it remains stunning, It was, in all truth, a pointless exercise. By the time the plan was put into operation, during the spring of 1944, Crete was a backwater of the war. The allies had long since landed in mainland Europe through Italy; the second front in Normandy was about to open; and in Russia the German army was in full retreat. All the Germans on Crete could do was hold on, hope that the tide of war might change once more, or prepare to abandon the island. So kidnapping the German commander on Crete served no strategic purpose. It wasn’t even the right General. Originally the plan was to take General Muller, who had a very bad reputation on the island and who had been responsible for a number of atrocities against the civilian population. But between Fermor’s return to the island in February 1944 and the landing of Billy Moss and the rest of the team some seven weeks later, Muller had been recalled and General Kreipe had replaced him. Although Kreipe does not seem to have been popular with his own troops (there were reports of celebrations in German barracks when news of the kidnapping got out), he seems to have been somewhat conciliatory towards the Cretans. Nevertheless, the plan had started so they decided to go through with it. It had some propaganda value, little intelligence value, and it was good for the reputation of the SOE.
The difference between Moss’s colourful adventure story and Fermor’s much shorter account, is that Fermor was anxious to give full due to the Cretan people who aided them during the nearly three weeks that the operation took. And it was, as this account makes clear, a mass operation. There were two British SOE agents involved, Fermor and Moss, and some four or five others got involved at various points; but there were a hundred or more Cretans who took part in the kidnapping, assisted in the weeks of travel across the island, acted as runners to other agents and guerrilla groups, provided shelter and food, warned of German movements, or helped in other vital ways. In general, Fermor seems to have been an outrageous snob, the only group with whom he seemed to feel himself belonging on a level were Cretan mountain men, but sense of belonging shines through this book.
The account of the kidnapping, and more particularly of the arduous journey after the kidnapping as they clambered around the slopes of Mount Ida, hid in caves and valleys, tried to establish contact with HQ in Cairo to arrange a boat to pick them up, and the steady westward movement as German forces blocked the beaches they had intended to use for their escape, occupies something like half of the book. The rest is made up primarily of Fermor’s wartime reports from Crete. He served for most of the war on Crete between summer 1942 and December 1944, and apart from his official report on the Kreipe kidnapping, made from a Cairo hospital bed, none of them resemble military reports. Rather, they sound very much like his later travel writing; there is a curious devilmaycare attitude about strolling through the streets of Heraklion, sticking up propaganda posters under the noses of the Germans, and so on. At one point, in preparing for the Kreipe operation, he is very nearly caught when he offers English cigarettes to some German soldiers, but manages to talk his way out of it. He seems to have relied on a golden ability to talk his way out of anything.
The book concludes with a guide to the route of the abduction for anyone who wants to follow the path in modern day Crete. It’s a curious thing, but I confess if I had enough money to afford a trip to Crete and rather fewer years, I’d probably be keen to do just that myself.