Patrick Leigh Fermor | Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete | New York Review Books | November 2015 | 31 minutes (8,432 words)
Below is an excerpt from Abducting a General, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s recently published memoir of a remarkable military operation in Crete: the kidnapping of a Nazi general. It was the only such kidnapping to have been successfully undertaken by the Allies. During his lifetime Leigh Fermor was Britain’s greatest travel writer, best known for A Time of Gifts. As recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
The sierras of occupied Crete, familiar from nearly two years of clandestine sojourn and hundreds of exacting marches, looked quite different through the aperture in the converted bomber’s floor and the gaps in the clouds below: a chaos of snow-covered, aloof and enormous spikes glittering as white as a glacier in the February moonlight. There, suddenly, on a tiny plateau among the peaks, were the three signal fires twinkling. A few moments later they began expanding fast: freed at last from the noise inside the Liberator the parachute sailed gently down towards the heart of the triangle. Small figures were running in the firelight and in another few moments, snow muffled the impact of landing. There was a scrum of whiskery embracing, a score of Cretan voices, one English one. A perfect landing!
The Katharo plateau was too small for all four of the passengers to drop in a stick: each jump needed a fresh run-in. So, once safely down, I was to signal the all-clear with a torch. But the gap I had dripped through closed; our luck, for the moment, had run out. We took turns to signal towards the returning boom of the intermittently visible plane just the other side of the rushing clouds until the noise died away and we knew the plane had turned back to Brindisi. Our spirits sank. We were anxious lest the noise should have alerted the German garrison in Kritza; dawn, too, might overtake us on the way down. Scattering the fires, whacking the loadless pack mules into action and hoping for a snowfall to muffle our tracks, we began the long downhill scramble. Tauntingly a bright moon lit us all the way. At last we plunged wearily through the ilex and the arbutus into the home-cave as the dawn of 6th February 1944 was breaking.
* * *
As it turned out, I stayed with Sandy Rendel in his cave for over a month. It was perched near a handy spring in the Lasithi mountains above the village of Tapais in Eastern Crete. Smoky, draughty and damp, but snug with strewn brushwood under the stalactites, it was typical of several lairs dotted about the island, each sheltering a signal sergeant, a small retinue of Cretan helpers and one each of a scattered handful of heavily disguised British Liaison Officers.
None of these BLOs were regulars. The only thing they had in common was at least a smattering of Ancient Greek from school. They all had a strong feeling for Greece and Crete and were deeply involved not only in the military grandeurs and miseries of the island, but, as the occupation lengthened, in every aspect of its life: the evacuation of our own stragglers, and (for training and re-entry) of resistance people on the run; in trying to help the bereaved, gathering information about the enemy, assisting commando raids and the dropping of arms and supplies, the organising of resistance and the composing of discord between leaders.
We became, as it were, part of the family. Our cave-sojourns were often brief. They were a cruel danger to the villages that supplied us with runners and with food and look-outs and we were often dislodged by enemy hunts in force. It was a game of hide-and-seek usually ending in a disorderly bunk to a new refuge in the next range. We could not have lasted a day without the islanders’ passionate support: a sentiment which the terrible hardships of the occupation, the execution of the hostages, the razing and massacre of villages, only strengthened.
A time of bitter weather ensued: postponements, cancellations and false starts. Night after night Sandy and I set out with our party for the plateau; again and again we heard the plane circling over the clouds; always in vain. Sergeant Dilley was permanently crouched over his set, tapping out, or receiving messages from SOE Headquarters in Cairo. (How far away it seemed!) We filled our long leisure lying round the fire, singing and story-telling with the Cretans, keeping the cold out with raki and wine. There were endless paper-games and talk and plenty of time, it soon turned out, to grow one of the moustaches that all Cretan mountaineers wear, and to get back the feel of mountain clothes: 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; augmented, when on the move, with a white hooded cloak of home-spun goat’s hair, a tall twisted stick, a bandolier and a slung gun, the apt epitome of a long and reckless tradition of mountain feud, guerrilla, and armed revolt against the Turks. There was time, above all, to think about the scheme on hand.
* * *
The idea of capturing the German commander had begun to take shape the autumn before. At the time of the Italian armistice, General Carta, commanding the Siena Division which occupied the easternmost of Crete’s four provinces, hated and resented his Allies. It had not been hard, abetted by his counter-espionage chief, with whom I had long been in touch, to persuade him at a midnight meeting in his HQ at Neapolis to leave for Cairo with his ADC and several staff officers and the plans of the defence of Eastern Crete. His conspicuously pennanted car was sent northeast and abandoned as a false scent while we set off on foot south-west. (The Germans moved in next day.) There had been a hue and cry, searches, observation planes, dropped leaflets offering rewards; but we had got them through and embarked them in a timely MTB (Motor Topedo Boat) in a little creek near Soutsouro. We were in Mersa Matruh next afternoon and Cairo next morning. (I had been in the island nearly two years.)
I put forward to the powers in SOE the suggestion of kidnapping General Müller. He commanded the 22nd Bremen (‘Sebastopol’) Panzergrenadier division based on Herakleion. It was the sort of action we all needed in Crete, I urged. The General was universally hated and feared for the appalling harshness of his rule: the dragooning of the population in labour-gangs for the aerodromes, mass shooting of hostages, reprisal destruction of villages and their populations, the tortures and the executions of the Gestapo. The moral damage to the German forces in Crete would be great; a severe blow to their self-confidence and prestige. It would have its effect on us, too: our correct but uninspiring task—trying to restrain random action in preparation for the mass uprising we all hoped for—was an arduous, rather thankless one. Above all, it would have a tonic effect among the Cretans; our spirits, after reverses in the Viannos mountains at the time of the Italian armistice, were low; and one important guerrilla band—that of Manoli Bandouvas—was in temporary dissolution. The deed would be a triumph for the resistance movement which had kept the island so effectively and improbably united; and it would be a setback for the emissaries of the mainland left-wing movement who—fortunately too late—were trying to spread the same discord in Crete as that which was already tearing the mainland apart. The suggested action would be, above all, an Anglo-Cretan affair, a symbol and epitome of the bond which had been formed during the Battle [of Crete in 1941] and the thirty months which had followed. It could be done, I urged, with stealth and timing in such a way that both bloodshed, and thus reprisals, would be avoided. (I had only a vague idea how.) To my amazement, the idea was accepted.
* * *
There was no need to look for the first recruit. Manoli Paterakis from Koustoyérako in Selino in the far west had been my guide for over a year. A goat-herd and ex-gendarme, he had fought fiercely against the parachutists during the Battle. A year or two older than me, tireless, unshakeable as granite, wiry as a Red Indian, a crack shot and as fast over the mountains as the ibexes he often hunted, he was (still is) the finest type of Cretan mountaineer (there will be many such in this account). Completely unselfish, he was in the mountains purely from patriotism, and his mixture of sense, conviviality, stoicism, irony and humour, linked with his other qualities, made him more valuable than ten ordinary mortals. We had been companions on hundreds of marches and in many scrapes; had even, last summer, made an abortive joint attempt to sink a German tanker with limpets in Herakleion harbour. Neither of us had meant to leave Crete with the Italians—Manoli had been present at all the recent doings at Italian GHQ—but rough weather had hastened the vessel’s departure, and, when we realised the anchor had been weighed, we were too far from shore to swim back in the dark. So, luckily, here he was in Cairo.
Finding another officer to take over during reconnaissances and to handle communications while I was away from our HQ—for lugging a wireless with batteries and a charging engine was out of the question—was harder; but luck still held. Bill Stanley-Moss, who had joined SOE from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream in the desert, was a worldly-wise and sophisticated twenty-two of great charm and looks; full of talents and high spirits and imagination, and a great friend and accomplice (with several other SOE companions—with whom we shared a house in Zamalek) in all the excesses which leave in Cairo excused or imposed. He jumped at the scheme and turned out to be an invaluable partner and perfect companion throughout.
Things began moving at once. I became a Major and a third pip descended on Billy’s shoulder; I found George Tyrakis who, though younger, was of the same stamp as Manoli; he had been evacuated from his village of Fourfouras in the Amari for training a few months before, after long service, and attached himself to Billy. They got on at once, though at first they were mutually incommunicado except for grins and gestures. The rest of the party would be recruited in Crete. Preparations went forward with zest.
We planned to drop by parachute as near Herakleion as possible; Sandy Rendel, warned by wireless, found an ideal place for it. But, after training in Palestine and many delays, it was not till early January, after a tremendous Egyptian Christmas, that we flew to Tokra airfield near Bengazi. Here, with a score of people about to be dropped to Tito’s partisans and the Greek mainland, we waited for days while the rain hammered on the tents; all in vain. Finally we were flown to Italy, arriving for the first night of The Barber of Seville in bombshattered Bari, now the swarming near-HQ of the Eighth Army. It was nice to be in a mainland European town again, but days of standing-by were hard to bear. But, at last, at half an hour’s notice, we were being driven south at breakneck speed through the conical villages of Apulia. A converted bomber waited on the runway at Brindisi, and we took off in dismal February twilight.
Soon we were alone in the pitch dark except for the despatcher and the parachutes, four of them for us, the others for huge cylindrical containers. In these, and about our persons, were the gear for our operation: maps, pistols, bombs, commando daggers, coshes, knuckledusters, telescopic sights, silencers, a sheaf of Marlin sub-machine guns, ammunition, wire-cutters, sewn-in files for prison bars, magnetic escape devices, signal flares, disguises, gags, chloroform, rope-ladders, gold sovereigns, stealthy footwear, Bangalore torpedoes, every type of explosive from gelignite and gun-cotton to deceptive mule droppings which, they said, could blow a tank to smithereens; all the things indeed on which espionage writers dwell at such fond length; also Benzedrine, field dressings, morphine, knockout drops and suicide pills to bite under duress, if captured in the wrong clothes. I hoped we would use none of them, especially the last.
Much later on, shouting through the noise of the engine, the despatcher roused us from the torpor which is oddly usual at such times. There was moonlight all round and then the glittering crags of the White Mountains and Ida and a rush of cold wind from the hole the despatcher had opened in the floor. ‘Spiti mas,’ Manoli said, looking down: ‘Home.’ But it wasn’t except for me.
* * *
The nightly circlings above the plateau were making the region too hot for us. The Kritza garrison was increased to a hundred—there were just under 50,000 enemy troops in the island—and the sweeps and ambushes, and occasional bursts of firing (although, in the dark, the Germans only managed to wound each other) were getting perilously near. Just as we were about to signal Cairo suggesting an alternative sea-borne rendezvous in the south, a message from them arrived proposing exactly this. (Billy and the others had left Italy for Cairo once more; finally they headed for Mersa Matruh.) Helped by a sudden thick mist, Sandy and I shifted out just in time, scattering with plans to join up later on.
March went by in travelling about in snowy and windy weather, gathering information, renewing contact and locating the whereabouts of old helpers that I would need. One item of news, late in March, came as a shock: General Müller was suddenly replaced by Kreipe, a General from the Russian front. All the delays seemed, retrospectively, more bitter. But, I consoled myself, the moral effect of the commander’s capture would be just as great, whoever he might be. All I could learn was that he had commanded divisions on the Leningrad and Kuban sectors and was decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
At last, at the beginning of April, Sandy, John Stanley—another old hand—and I, and a number of people for evacuation, were lying up in the mountainous prohibited zone above the south coast, not far from Soutsouro. We had a narrow shave a few miles inland, at the Monastery of the Holy Apostles: a heavily armed German foraging party arrived when we were in the middle of a feast. The Archimandrite Theophylaktos just had time to smuggle us into the cellar before they stamped in and insisted on a large meal. We crouched below listening to them among the Arabian Nights oil-jars until, heavily plied with wine by the Archimandrite, they reeled off singing.
* * *
At last, on the night of April 4th, the sound of a ship’s engine answered our third night of torch signals; soon a sailor in a rubber dinghy was sculling into the cove and throwing a rope . . . In no time our evacuees were aboard, the ship vanished into the dark, and there, on the rocks, almost unbelievably after all our troubles, were Billy, Manoli and George. We loaded the stuff on the mules, said goodbye to Vasili Konios, our protector in the area, and headed inland for the long climb to comparative safety; settling at last in a high ravine full of oleanders, with the sea shining far below.
There was little sleep for the remainder of the night, or next day: too much to talk about. Raki and wine appeared, two sheep were slaughtered and roasted. Spring had suddenly burst over the island and the aromatic smell of herbs had hit the newcomers miles out in the Libyan sea. As I hoped, Billy was amazed by the spectacular ranges all round, and becomingly impressed by the dash, hospitality, kindness and humour of the Cretans.
Our unwieldy caravan could only move by night. We left at dusk, and a long trudge up and down deep ravines, halting now and then at a waterfall or a friendly sheepfold, brought us to Skoinia, where we lay up in Mihali’s house. A day and a night were lost here, thanks to the visits of a string of our local leaders, including the huge Kapetan Athanasios Bourdzalis, who reappears later in these pages, and the arrival, in her mother’s arms, of a little goddaughter of mine. All this gave rise to a banquet and songs, this time with well-placed sentries, from which we rose for an all-night march north-east across half the width of the island and over the dangerous edge of the Messara plain; circling round garrisoned villages, and using the device, in unoccupied ones, of barking ‘Halt!’, ‘Marsch!’ or ‘Los!’ in the streets and raucously singing ‘Bomber über England’, ‘Lili Marlene’ or the ‘Horstwessellied’, to spread ambiguity about the nature of our party.
At one point light rain filled the lowlands with flickering lights: hundreds of village women were out gathering snails brought out by the shower. Before dawn we reached the lofty village of Kastamonitza and the shelter of the family of Kimon Zographakis, who had been with us from the coast; a young man of great spirits and pluck and a former guide on commando raids. The generosity and warmth of all his family was doubly remarkable, as an elder brother had recently been captured and shot for his resistance work. We had to stay indoors by day, as there was a German hospital in the village: enemy voices and footsteps sounded below the windows. The upper chamber became a busy HQ of sorting maps and gear and sending and receiving runners; being hopelessly spoilt all the while by our hosts and their sons and daughters.
* * *
High in the mountains above Kastamonitza, in a cyclopean cave among crags and ilex woods overlooking the whole plain of Kastelli Pediada, lived Siphoyannis, an old goat-herd and a true friend: the very place for the party to hide for a few days while I went to Herakleion to spy out the land. I reinforced the party with two additions here, both old friends, older than the rest, tough, robust, cheerful and unshakeable: Antoni Papaleonidas, originally from Asia Minor, who worked as a stevedore in Herakleion, and Grigori Chnarakis, a farmer from Thrapsano, just beneath us. The year before he had saved, in spectacular fashion, two British airmen who had baled out of a burning bomber. The party—Billy, Manoli, George, Grigori and Antoni, with Kimon as liaison with the village (and, by runner, with me in Herakleion), and with Siphoyannis’ vigilance up in those goat-rocks, near a good spring with a whole flock to eat—would be as secure as eagles. Everyone had taken to Billy at once, and he to them. He had abandoned his battledress with shoulder tapes for breeches and a black shirt and the cover name of Dimitri.
Meanwhile another runner—they usually carried their messages in their boots or their turbans—had brought Micky Akoumianakis hot foot from Herakleion. He was about my age, intelligent and well educated—none of the rest of the party were great penmen—and the head of our information network in Herakleion. By great luck, he lived next door to the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, just outside Herakleion; the large house, that is, built by Sir Arthur Evans for the excavation and restoration of the great Minoan site. Micky’s father, now dead, had been Sir Arthur’s overseer and henchman for many years. The villa was now the abode of General Kreipe.
My dress was readjusted by the family to look like a countryman’s visiting the big city: bleached moustache and eyebrows were darkened with burnt cork. Dye sometimes runs, striping one’s face like a zebra’s. There are many Cretans fairer than me, but Germans looked at them askance and often asked for their papers, thinking they might be British, New Zealand or Australian stragglers disguised. My documents were made out to Mihali Phrangidakis, 27, cultivator, of Amari. We said goodbye and set off, boarding the ramshackle bus from Kastelli; there were a few country people taking vegetables and poultry to market in Herakleion. The conductor was a friend. But my Greek, though fast and adequate, was capable of terrible give-away blunders, so I feigned sleep. The only other vehicles were German trucks, cars and motorcycles. We were stopped at one of the many road-blocks approaching Herakleion and two Feldpolizei corporals asked for our papers. About dusk, we were safe in Mihali’s house in Knossos, peering out of the window with his sister.
The fence began a few yards away, and there, in its decorative jungle of trees and shrubs, with the German flag flying from the roof, stood the Villa. Formidable barbed wire surrounded it. (I had been inside it once, during the Battle, when it was an improvised hospital full of Allied—and German—wounded and dying.) We could see the striped barrier across the drive and the sentry boxes, where the steel-helmeted guard was being changed. Enemy traffic rumbled past, to Herakleion, three miles away. Due south rose the sharp crag of Mount Jouchtas; to west and south soared the tremendous snow-capped massif of Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus. North, beyond the dust of the city, lay the Aegean sea and the small island of Dia. East of the road, on the flank of a chalk-white valley dotted with vines, the bulbous blood-red pillars descended, the great staircase of the Palace and giant hewn ashlars, slotted for double-axes, of King Minos.
* * *
After his first astonishment at the project, Micky was alive with excitement. At discreet intervals we explored all possibilities of ingress to the Villa in case we were reduced to burgling it, seizing the General, and whisking him away. It might have been possible; Micky had known the inside of the house since childhood. But the triple barriers of wire, one of which was said to be electrified, the size of the guard and the frequency of patrols offered too many chances for mishap. Besides, to avoid all excuse or pretext for reprisals on the Cretans, I was determined the operation should be performed without bloodshed. The only thing was to waylay the General on the way home from his Divisional Headquarters at Ano Archanes, five miles away, and, to gain time, plant his beflagged car as a false scent.
Micky summoned Elias Athanassakis, a very bright and enterprising young student working in our town organisation, and we reconnoitred the route together. There was only one good place for an ambush: the point where the steeply banked minor road from Archanes joined the main road from the south to Herakleion at an angle which obliged cars to slow down nearly to walking pace. Clearly, owing to the heavy traffic on the main road, the deed would have to be done after dark—and very fast—on one of the evenings when, as Elias learnt, the General stayed late at the Officers’ Mess in Archanes before driving home to dinner. This meant finding a hideout for us to lie up in near the road junction. Micky found it: the little vineyard cottage of Pavlo Zographistos outside Skalani, only twenty minutes’ walk from Ambush Point—‘Point A’. When we asked him, he agreed at once to hide us.
The plan was beginning to take shape: Billy and I would stop the car, dressed up as Feldpolizei corporals. Sometimes, but seldom, there was a motorcycle escort: sometimes, other cars would accompany him. All this, assuming the ambush was a success, would land us with an unwieldy mob of prisoners, unless the attack could be launched or scrubbed in accordance with last-minute information. There was also the danger of stopping the wrong car. To avoid these hazards, Elias undertook to learn all the details by heart—silhouette, black-out slits, etc.—until the flags could clinch the matter at close quarters; and better still, he planned to lay a wire from a point outside Archanes to the bank overlooking Point A, along which an observer—himself—could signal with a buzzer the moment the General got into his car. A colleague on the bank would then flash the information to us by torch, and we, and the rest of the party who would be hiding on either side of the road, would go into action the instant the car appeared.
The risk from passing traffic still remained, possibly of trucks full of troops. Here we would have to trust to improvisation, luck, speed and darkness, and, if the worst happened, diversion by a party of guerrillas—un-lethal bursts of fire, flares all over the place, shoutings, mule carts and logs suddenly blocking the road to create confusion and cover our getaway with our prize. Still with reprisals in mind, we would only shoot to hurt as a last resort. It was vital for us to get into the mountains and among friends, away from the enemy-infested plain, and in the right direction for escape by sea, at high speed.
Micky and Elias were sorry to hear we couldn’t evacuate our prisoners by air, in Skorzeny style: the Germans had put all the big mountain plateaux out of action for long-range aircraft by forcing labour-gangs to litter them with cairns of stones; and the smaller ones, even had they been suitable for small planes, were far beyond their fuel range from the airfields of Italy or the Middle East. But they cheered up when I told them that the BBC had promised to broadcast, and the RAF to scatter leaflets all over Crete announcing our departure with the General, the moment we were safe in the mountains. This would call off some of the heat, and confusing phenomena—flares, fires, unexplained musketry in the opposite direction to our flight, cut telephone wires, whispering campaigns and contradictory rumours planted within informers’ earshot—could further perplex the hue and cry. Should our distance from communications delay action by the BBC and the RAF, it would be all-important, in order to exonerate the Cretan population, somehow to convince the enemy that their Commander’s disappearance was due to capture, not assassination, and by a force under British command.
Many gaps and problems remained. Sending letters back to our base to cheer up Billy and the rest of the party, I spent the next days inside Herakleion with Micky and Elias and our other old helpers, shifting from one friendly house to another, exploring the streets and entrances and exits of the great walled town between twilight and curfew. Vaguely, as yet, an unorthodox method of getaway was beginning to form . . . Between whiles, there were secret meetings, not directly connected with the operation, with the group who ran the resistance and the information network in the city—doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, headmasters, reserve officers, artisans, functionaries and students of either sex, shopkeepers and the clergy, including the Metropolitan Eugenius himself—and visits to other cellars, reached through hidden doors and secret passages, where a devoted team reduplicated the BBC news for hand-to-hand distribution. After months in the mountains, there was something bracing about these descents into the lions’ den: the swastika flags everywhere, German conversation in one’s ears and the constant rubbing shoulders with enemy soldiers in the streets. The outside of Gestapo HQ, particularly, which had meant the doom of many friends, held a baleful fascination.
Back at Knossos, Micky and I were talking to some friends of his in a ‘safe’ house when three German sergeants lurched in, slightly tipsy from celebrating Easter. Wine was produced; Micky explained away the English cigarettes (brought in by Billy) which he had offered them by mistake, as black market loot from the battle in the Dodecanese. A deluge of wine covered up this contretemps, followed by attempts, bearishly mimicked by our guests, to teach them to dance a Cretan pentozali in which we all joined.
Before rejoining the others in the mountains, we were standing with a shepherd and his flock having a last look at Point A when a large car came slowly round the corner. There were triangular flags on either mudguard, one tin one striped red, white and black, the other field grey, framed in nickel and embroidered with the Wehrmacht eagle in gold wire. Inside, next to the chauffeur, unmistakable from the gold on his hat, the red tabs with the gold oak leaves, the many decorations and the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross round his neck on a riband—sat the General himself: a broad pale face with a jutting chin and blue eyes. I waved. Looking rather surprised at so unaccustomed a gesture from a wayside shepherd, the General gravely raised a gloved hand in acknowledgement and our eyes crossed. It was an odd moment, and, we thought as we watched the car disappearing, a good omen.
* * *
I got back to the hideout at last on April 16th, which was Orthodox Easter Sunday, the greatest feast of the Greek year. I had sent Billy warning before leaving (on foot this time) that our Herakleion agents had heard that the Germans suspected that a large body of parachutists had been dropped in the Lasithi mountains; a rumour due, no doubt, to the noise of the plane night after night; so it was best to keep a look out. But really it was all to the good: if they made a sweep, the enemy would find nothing; the Katharo was only twelve miles from our eyrie as the crow flies; but, in mountains like these, the distance could be multiplied many times; also, when our operation happened, there was a chance the enemy might think it was the work of this ghost commando.
Everyone was in high spirits; all the arrangements had worked perfectly. The party had been eccentrically increased by the arrival, escorted by a shepherd, of two Russian deserters who had been shanghaied into the German ancillary forces: a Ukrainian and a Caucasian, rather amusing scarecrows with whom Billy, whose mother was a White Russian, was able to converse. They could be incorporated into the guerrilla covering-and-diversionary force. For this, Bourdzalis’s band, which was lying up only twenty-four hours’ march away, was the obvious one. I sent Antoni—a great friend of the old giant and a fellow refugee from Asia Minor—to bring him and fifteen men as fast as possible. Their arrival would be the signal for our departure for the target area.
Meanwhile, there was a paschal lamb roasting whole and a demijohn of wine for us all to celebrate our reunion and Orthodox Easter with a feast and singing and dancing. Scores of hard-boiled eggs dyed red were clashed together like conkers with cries of ‘Christ is risen!’ and ‘He is risen indeed.’ Those left over were propped up in a row and shot down for pistol practice. When all of them were smashed, after every toast, pistol magazines were joyfully emptied into the air in honour of the Resurrection. Though all the canyons sent the echoes ricocheting into the distance, the noise was quite safe in this dizzy wilderness. Anyway, Cretans are always blazing away. Siphoyannis had brought several neighbouring shepherds, and the dancing, to our songs underlined with clapping, was nimble, fast and elaborate. I was sorry nobody had a lyra—the light three-stringed Cretan viol, or rather Rebeck, carved from beech and played on the knee with a semicircular bow—as George was an expert player.
Next day was given over to planning with Billy and Micky and Elias, who had both come with me for the purpose. (Apart from them, only Manoli and George, utterly discreet, had been told of our plan and sworn in; new initiates were only sworn in when it was necessary for each of us to know the parts we had to play. On each in turn the news had the same electric effect.) We decided that the General’s car should not only be used as a false scent, but a getaway device as well; it should whisk the General and some of his captors from the scene at high speed. Where? It would be tempting to drive due south across the Messara plain and embark at Soutsouro, or some other combe on the south coast. This obvious scheme had several drawbacks. Firstly, it would be obvious to the Germans too; they knew we used those waters; and the way back to the main party for our only driver—Billy—after planting the car far enough away, would be too long and dangerous. Secondly, we would be fast on the move, and thus off the air to Cairo, for some time. Thirdly, should the enemy pick up our scent, those excellent roads could transport the large garrisons of the plain to the empty forbidden zone of low hills along the coast in a couple of hours; if necessary, they could fill the region with all the Germans in the Fortress of Crete. A cordon along the waterline and another inland could prevent any craft putting in, and, by intercepting our runners, cut us off from our distant wireless links with Cairo. Finally, with our backs to the sea in that region of sparse cover, they could run us to ground.
Far better to let the car, like a magic carpet, deposit us close to high mountains, with friendly shepherds for guides and caves and ravines to hide in till the first furore should die down. Runners could move fast and freely there; we could pick up our broken links with Cairo, and, via SOE, with the BBC, the RAF and the Navy, and arrange an evacuation further west. Above all, even with a slow-moving General on our hands, we could move more quickly than enemy troops. We would find a mule for him and, if the country grew too steep, put together a rough-and-ready palanquin; and there was always pick-a-back . . . A glance at the map at once indicated the vast bulk of Mount Ida, sprawling across a quarter of the island and climbing to over 8,000 feet; a familiar refuge to most of us, but, to the enemy, a daunting and perilous labyrinth haunted by guerrilla bands and outlaws. Not even a garrison of 50,000 men could completely cordon off that colossal massif; there would be gaps. A single road ran westwards along the north coast, to Retimo and Canea. South of this, the foothills climbed abruptly to the famous guerrilla village of Anoyeia, above which the welcoming chaos soared. North of the road and a couple of miles further west, a footpath ran four miles down the Heliana ravine to the sea. The point of junction would be the perfect place to leave the car. The place sprang to mind as, last year, I had waited three days there for Ralph Stockbridge and John Stanley to land by submarine. (They had announced their safe arrival by releasing carrier pigeons.) We could indicate to the enemy that we had left with the General by similar means, and scatter the path with corroborative detail.
There was only one drawback to this—Herakleion is girdled by a high Venetian city wall—unless it was an advantage: the only road from Point A to this desirable region ran clean through the heart of the city. It had one way in and one way out; there was a huge enemy garrison and numerous road-blocks and checkpoints; Anoyeia was twenty miles the wrong side of the city. There was no way round. But, we reasoned, after dark in the blackout, the occupants of the car would be dim figures; all that the people in the street could see, and then sentries and the patrols and the parties at the check-posts, would be the hats and two figures in German uniform in the front; and a shout of ‘Put that light out!’ would stop them from peering closer. Point A was only four miles from the town; with any luck we would be through it and away within half an hour of the capture; even less. The car would be observed driving normally in the streets, then leaving Herakleion westwards. Why not? By the time his staff began to grow uneasy, or the car was discovered—when, I hoped, the story of our submarine flight would come into play—we would have a long start up the side of Mount Ida.
Micky and Elias and I had discussed these possibilities in Herakleion; Billy’s thoughts, from poring over the map, had been heading in a similar direction; Manoli and George, when they were called in, leaped at the idea. Now that the scheme was decided, it seemed the only possible one. The results of a mishap in the town were too disastrous to contemplate; but a plunge straight into the enemy stronghold with their captured commander would be the last idea to occur to them. We were excited and hilarious at the prospect and Micky and Elias sped back to Herakleion.
Next day our wait was relieved by watching two squadrons of RAF bombers attacking Kastelli aerodrome. There was a lot of flak, but several large blazes and columns of smoke indicated heavy damage. Each explosion evoked delirious cheers and all the planes headed back for Africa intact. Next morning, after marching a day and a night non-stop, Bourdzalis arrived with his men. They were festooned with bandoliers and bristling with daggers ‘like lobsters’, as they say, but some of their arms were poor. (We could help here.) A few had been mustered in a hurry to complete the old giant’s nucleus. The oldest were white haired and heavily whiskered, the youngest had scarcely begun shaving. They were all in the hills out of pure patriotism and free of politics, and bent on striking a blow, whatever it might be. They refused the idea of a day’s rest. We had a meal under the leaves. Our own party, by slipping on battledress tops above their breeches and boots, and replacing their turbans with berets, assumed a semblance of uniform; each, beside his Cretan haversack, was slung with several Marlin guns. Billy and I made a similar change.
We waited for dusk to conceal our little column, now twenty-five strong, and moved off down the glen. I wanted to get them all to Skalani in a single giant stride, but it was too far over those rocks in the pitch dark. One or two of the elder guerrillas fell out, rather understandably. We just managed to reach Kharasso when the sky was growing pale; we hid all day in the lofts and cellars of two friendly houses, and set off again, wined and ravenfed, at nightfall; striking due west, over flatter and thus more dangerous country. We waded through streams noisy with frogs and passed through villages where the device of shouting in German again came to our help. Soon after midnight the guerrillas, the Russians and some of our party were safely hidden in a cave with a door containing an old wine-press. A little further down the dried-up river bed, Billy, Manoli, George and I were soon under Pavlo’s roof, only five miles from Herakleion and less than a mile from Point A.
* * *
Stealth was vital so close to a large enemy concentration: not a move in the open during daylight. Although no other houses were near, the vineyards were overlooked by footpaths on all sides.
Micky and Elias brought the news that the General habitually sat next to the driver; he often returned after dark; other officers sometimes sat in the back; his car was not always alone. Elias had elaborated—or simplified—the alarm system: by keeping a look out from a height in Archanes, he could watch the General as he left his HQ, or the Mess, for his car; then jumping on his bike, he could pedal like mad to a point where his end of the wire was concealed and send the information by buzzer along a much shorter length of line; a great improvement.
Micky produced German uniforms for Billy and me; I can’t remember where from—they were their summer field grey; he had got some campaign ribbons and badges, lance corporal’s stripes and caps; all quite convincing enough for the short time they would be seen. He even had a traffic policeman’s stick with a red and white tin disc. We tried them on with our own Colt automatics on the webbing belts with their Gott Mit Uns buckles and commando daggers as side-arms. I had just shaved off my moustache and Micky was photographing us when Pavlo gave the alarm: four Germans approaching the house. We dashed upstairs and waited, listening, with drawn pistols, as they lounged in and talked to Pavlo and his sister Anna. They were only on the scrounge for chickens and eggs; but when they had gone, we all had a stiff drink.
The best way of convincing the enemy that the operation was an outside job under British command seemed to be to leave a letter prominently pinned up in the abandoned car. I accordingly wrote out the following, heading: To the German Authorities in Crete, April 23, 1944: –
Your Divisional Commander, General Kreipe, was captured a short time ago by a BRITISH Raiding Force under our command. By the time you read this both he and we will be on our way to Cairo.
We would like to point out most emphatically that this operation has been carried out without the help of CRETANS or CRETAN partisans and the only guides used were serving soldiers of HIS HELLENIC MAJESTY’S FORCES in the Middle East, who came with us.
Your General is an honourable prisoner of war and will be treated with all the consideration owing to his rank. Any reprisals against the local population will thus be wholly unwarranted and unjust.
Auf baldiges wiedersehen!
P. M. Leigh Fermor
Maj., O.C. Commando
C. W. Stanley Moss
P.S. We are very sorry to have to leave this beautiful motor car behind.
We put wax seals from our rings after the names, for fun, and because such emblems were unlikely to be worn by partisans. It looked convincingly unlocal. I thought the message and the tone would be more convincing in English than in my German, which is fluent but as full of faults as an equally imperfect Greek German-speaker’s might be. The important-looking envelope, fitted with a safety pin, was addressed in the three languages in bold characters and tucked in the side pocket of my new outfit.
There were gaps that needed filling in the ambush party. Two were filled at once, by Nikos Komis (like Grigori, from Thrapsano) and Mitzo Tzatzas of Episkopi, both of them steady, quiet mountain men who had been our guides for the last two days. The third, Stratis Saviolakis, was a uniformed policeman—invaluable in itself—from Anapoli in Sphakia. (All proved admirable.) About the fourth, Yanni, enrolled at the last moment as a guide for the Anoyeia area, little was known, but he seemed all right. We slept at last, hoping to act next day. Everything was ready.
* * *
But next day the General returned to Knossos early in the afternoon, so it was off for another twenty-four hours. Anticlimax and slight deflation. Much worse, Stratis, returning from his soidisant policeman’s rounds, told us that a few of the guerrillas, suffering understandable claustrophobia in their wine-press, had begun to stray into the open now and then; their presence had become widely known. There was nowhere else to hide them; so, alas, I would have to let them go; the risk was too great. I had meant to brief them on the impending action, and their dispositions and roles, at the last moment. Now, slinking to the wine-press after dark, I told them that plans had been changed, thanked them for all their help and willingness, and gave them all our surplus Marlin guns. Bourdzalis and I exchanged hugs and then set off at once. He was a fine old man.
I was sorry to see them go; this sudden drop in manpower reduced our scope; we were more dependent on good luck. But our chances of going astray through over-elaboration were lessened too; our party had gained in lightness and flexibility.
Micky told me he had run across Antoni Zoidakis in Herakleion. This was splendid news. Antoni, who was from the Amari, the other side of Mount Ida, had been involved in our work for years, hiding and helping to evacuate stragglers and assisting us in a hundred ways. I sent word begging him to join us, and in the small hours here was that familiar figure sitting on my bed in his old policeman’s jacket, his lean, shrewd and cheerful face lit up by an oil dip as we talked and smoked till dawn.
Pavlo and his sister were getting anxious about our presence in their house; not without reason. We all removed to the shelter of a clump of young plane trees in a deep dried-up river bed a little way off, where we had to lie without moving all day. German sweeps of the region were rumoured. Worse still, Pavlo brought me a letter from the local EAM leader (Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo, or National Liberation Front), mysteriously addressed to me by name—‘Mihali’, that is. It held a strong hint that he new what we were there for (perhaps it was a guess based on the closeness of the German HQ), followed by a threat of betraying us ‘to the authorities’, to remove the danger of our presence from the area. I sent back a quieting and ambiguous answer, hoping the guerrillas’ departure would lend colour to the words; hoping, above all, that action that night would get us out of the area.
The odds against us were mounting up. Anxiety, though it left the old hands untouched, hung in the air. I was worried about Yanni the guide. It needed much outward cheerfulness and optimism to keep spirits from flagging. We passed the time talking and reading out loud. The afternoon wore on, and when Elias and Strati, who were watching the road, sent word that the General had not left the villa all day, things began to look black. The sun set after an interminable day of immobility; but now, at least, we could stand up and move about. I drew an outline of the car in the dust with a stick and we rehearsed the ambush by starlight until we all had our roles and our timing pat; then we lay about singing quietly till we fell asleep.
Anna, ever more anxious than before, brought us all a basket of food at daybreak, and more disquieting rumours. We had a growing feeling of isolation. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasm or a hideous dream. The dream became more hideous still when Yanni the guide was smitten by a seizure, brought on, perhaps, by the tension of waiting: frothing lips, meaningless articulation, moaning and strange contortions followed by semi-catalepsy, prone among the myrtle bushes. We had to leave him there, as rain drove us to a still remoter cache, and we never saw him again. Dodging singly in Indian file from cover to cover, we followed Pavlo uphill where we all huddled together in a damp and shallow cave, passing a bottle of tzikoudia from hand to hand. We were just in time; the sudden drizzle filled the landscape with snail gatherers. It was a bleak scene and the operation seemed to be receding further and further into improbability.
Yet, when word came from the road that the General had left for his HQ at the usual time, we suddenly realised that tonight was the night. Total calm descended on us all. It was as though everything, now, were out of our hands. Le vin est tiré, il faut le boire: we all knew what we had to do.
As soon as twilight blurred the scene, Billy and I changed into our German uniform, the others slung guns and we followed Pavlo and Strati downhill and across the vineyards, making loud German noises whenever we passed a shadowy homing vine-tender. It was dark when we reached Point A. We took up our positions in the ditches a yard or two north of the join in the roads. Billy and I settled on the east side, furthest away, then Manoli, Grigori and Antoni Papaleonidas; George, Antoni Zoidakis and Niko, in that order, on the west side. Further on, high on the bank, Mitzo was posted by the buzzer. Strati joined him. Once in place, we exchanged friendly whistles. Calm silence reigned. Out of sight, at the other end of the wire, we knew, Micky was waiting; and, at his vantage point at Archanes, Elias would be leaning nonchalantly on his bike. It was 8 p.m.
During the hour and a half of our vigil a few German cars and trucks drove past at intervals, and a motor bicycle and side car, very close to us, all coming from the south and heading for Herakleion, nothing from the minor Archanes side road. Nice and quiet; but time seemed to pass with exasperating slowness. It was getting late; had there been a mistake somewhere? . . . Anxiety began to set in. On the tick of 9.30, Mitzo’s torch flashed clearly three times. ‘General’s car,’ the signal meant. ‘Unescorted. Action.’ Manoli gave me a squeeze on the elbow.
* * *