Magazine article The Spectator

'Abducting a General', by Patrick Leigh Fermor - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Abducting a General', by Patrick Leigh Fermor - Review

Article excerpt

Abducting a General Patrick Leigh Fermor

John Murray, pp.200, £20, ISBN: 9781444796582

Kidnap in Crete Rick Stroud

Bloomsbury, pp.255, £16.99,, ISBN: 9781408851753

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. …

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