Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and William Stanley Moss disguised as military policemen in Crete during the Second World War
Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General
17 October 2014
The 1944 abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe was first the subject of a book back in 1950. Ill Met by Moonlight was written by W Stanley Moss, better known as Billy, the younger of two British officers behind the kidnapping. In 1957 it was made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde as Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British Special Operations Executive officer who led the operation and later achieved worldwide fame as a travel writer.
Now we have two new versions of the same story. Rick Stroud has produced a historical account, Kidnap in Crete, while Leigh Fermor’s estate has finally published his own 30,000-word memoir of the episode, Abducting a General, which was written in the late 1960s but only appeared then in substantially abbreviated form (cut to 5,000 words, the editor’s requested length for the essay).
Crete, a large Greek island with a wild, mountainous interior, was reinforced by British and imperial forces in 1940 when the local Cretan regiment was sent to fight Mussolini’s troops on the Albanian front. The British-led contingent was 30,000-strong, supplemented by Cretan guerrillas, known as andartes. After the Germans invaded in May 1941, some 16,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated and the remainder were either killed or taken prisoner.
Stroud describes the brief, heroic role of John Pendlebury, a British archeologist who had lived in Crete throughout the 1930s, volunteered as an intelligence officer at the outbreak of war, and began organising the Cretan resistance. He was badly wounded during the Battle of Crete and captured by German paratroopers, who shot him as a spy. “The legend of this brave man lived on throughout the war and even the mention of his name came to torment the Germans,” writes Stroud.
Crete was turned into a German fortress in anticipation of an Allied attempt to recapture it. Throughout much of the war, that appeared to be a possibility, and Leigh Fermor, Moss and others were engaged in planning for it. In 1944, by which time it was obvious that no Allied invasion would take place, Leigh Fermor executed a colleague’s earlier plan to kidnap the island’s commanding general. General Kreipe was snatched one night as he was being driven out from his residence, the Villa Ariadne in the village of Knossos. He was driven at gunpoint through Heraklion, a town bristling with Germans, where sentries deferentially waved his car through.
Thereafter he was taken on an arduous trek up into the mountains and hidden there until such time as it was safe to bring him back down to the coast and escort him via submarine to Egypt. Although his driver had his throat cut because he was unable to keep up, Kreipe gave his parole as a prisoner to Leigh Fermor – a fellow knight, as he later described him – and the pair famously swapped lines from an Horatian ode, a bonding moment recalled in Moss’s book.
The main purpose of the operation was to humiliate the Germans and boost the morale of the Cretan andartes. When passing through villages they shouted out loud exclamations in German, causing the villagers to retreat indoors so that the heavily armed guerrillas “clanked through unobserved”. As Leigh Fermor wittily puts it: “Fortunately, we met no real Huns, which would have embarrassed everybody.” His account, unsurprisingly, is notable for its superior literary quality when set against Moss’s more Boy’s Own version.
The short memoir is supplemented by Leigh Fermor’s nine war reports to his SOE handlers between June 1942 and December 1944, which are uncommonly well written, and by a cheery guide to the abduction route by Chris and Peter White, complete with GPS co-ordinates for those hardy enough to recreate the journey.
Stroud’s book, which offers a full history of the Cretan resistance, makes the point that the reprisals in August that followed the kidnapping in May were more likely the result of a separate guerrilla operation led by Billy Moss at Damastas Bridge, also in August, in which several German vehicles were ambushed. About 50 German soldiers were killed, a few were taken prisoner and had their throats cut by the andartes, and several Cretan labourers also perished in one of the vehicles. German reprisals claimed 300 lives and saw several villages razed to the ground.
One man who opposed the plan to kidnap the general was Bickham Sweet-Escott, a staff officer in Cairo. He thought that “the price would be heavy in Cretan lives”, and while it “might have been worthwhile in the black winter of 1941 when things were going badly”, the “results of carrying it out in 1944, when everyone knew that victory was only a matter of months, would, I thought, hardly justify the cost”.
The Kreipe abduction yielded no intelligence and its impact on Nazi morale was negligible. For all that the role of the andartes in the operation reinforced Cretan pride, something that Leigh Fermor is keen to celebrate, there was a large bump of truth in Kreipe’s statement to the young SOE officer immediately after his capture. He called it “a hussar-stunt”. Stroud adds that it was “dangerous, exhilarating and with elements of an undergraduate prank about it” but that “many saw it as worth it”. As a pure adventure story, however, it is hard to beat.