My Meeting with the Byron of Our Times
Like the poet, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a dashing man of action and letters and a hero to the Greeks for his wartime exploits in Crete
I met the handsome, charming and dashing Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) in May 2002. He belongs with authors as men of action — Melville, Conrad, Hemingway, Malraux and Orwell — who did not go to university and learned their lessons from violent experience. Leigh Fermor, whose reputation is based on three impressive achievements in travel, war and literature, has enjoyed after death a well-deserved revival of interest in his life and work. In 1933-34, in his late teens and after expulsion from school, he spent a year walking south-east across Europe, passing through nine countries from Holland to Turkey. In his leisurely 1,700-mile ramble, rough when solitary and poor, hedonistic as guest and lover, he moved effortlessly between peasants and patricians. Though his journey did not equal the agonising treks of Henry Morton Stanley through Equatorial Africa or of Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, it was a considerable feat of social and cultural exploration.
In April 1942 Leigh Fermor landed in Crete by parachute and set out, with resourcefulness and courage, on his second and most famous Byronic adventure. He spoke modern Greek and joined a handful of British Special Operations Commandos sent into the mountains of the Nazi-occupied island to organise the resistance and unleash a guerrilla uprising. His men attacked airfields and blew up a fuel base. He also watched helplessly as the Nazis took revenge by destroying whole villages and massacring thousands of civilians. While on Crete, he fired a rifle he thought was unloaded and killed a Greek comrade, setting off a blood feud that was not settled for many decades.
Leigh Fermor’s greatest wartime achievement was the daring capture of a German general, Heinrich Kreipe, on April 26, 1944. Dressed in German uniforms, Leigh Fermor and his men set up a roadblock. As the car slowed down around a sharp curve, they poured out of the darkness and restrained the general, who shouted, swore and punched until he was handcuffed and shoved onto the floor of the vehicle. They then smuggled their prisoner through the main town, Heraklion, west along the coast and into the mountains.
The general turned out to be a cultured captive, well versed in the classics, and had many lively talks with Leigh Fermor before he was taken to Egypt and then to a POW camp in Calgary, Canada. A moment of true understanding came when Kreipe, gazing at the white hills, quoted Horace’s Ode (1.9) — “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See, the snows of Mount Soracte glare against the sky) — and Leigh Fermor quoted the rest of the Latin poem from memory. In April 1972 they appeared congenially together in a Greek television programme. When asked if he’d been treated well, the general replied, “Ritterlich! Wie ein Ritter” (Chivalrously! Like a medieval knight).
Leigh Fermor’s bold exploit inspired a book, Ill Met By Moonlight (1950), by his comrade-in-arms William (Billy) Stanley Moss and a 1957 film of that name with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor. (The title comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Moss — handsome, six years younger than Paddy and a veteran of the North African campaign — was educated at Charterhouse and spoke French and Russian but not Greek or German. He does not provide any historical or military background, bases his memoir on the diary he kept at the time and writes in a plain, often clichéd style. The first rather uneventful half — mostly marching, hiding and planning, with a few close calls — expresses admiration for the Greek partisans and leads up to the daring capture of the much older General Kreipe (born in 1895).
Leigh Fermor carries “an ivory-handled revolver and a silver dagger” and cuts a dashing figure. They had hoped to capture General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, a cruel “tyrant much loathed by the islanders” who was later hanged as a war criminal, but he was unexpectedly replaced by Kreipe. The capture takes place between the German headquarters and the general’s residence in the Villa Ariadne, built by Sir Arthur Evans during his excavations of the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos. After driving through Heraklion in the Opel, with Leigh Fermor wearing the general’s hat, they bluff their way through 22 German checkpoints — though one map shows only four checkpoints. (The gullible sentries, some suspected of complicity, were arrested and probably sent straight to the Russian front.) The commandos evade all the German patrols searching for Kreipe and, with many difficulties, bring him through the slopes of Mount Ida and down to the British ship on the south coast.
Kreipe — “a thick-set man . . . with thin lips, bull neck, blue eyes, and a fixed expression” — had come for a rest in Crete after two tough years on the Russian front. Concerned more for his dignity than for his life, he worries about the lost symbols of his rank and valour: his general’s hat and the Knight’s Cross of his Iron Cross. Though fairly stoical and cooperative, he complains about his minor injuries, poor food and lack of sleep. He and Leigh Fermor also exchange Greek verses from Sophocles, but do not establish a close connection. Though the commandos leave evidence suggesting only the British, not the Greeks, had captured the general, the Germans razed the nearest village and eventually killed 2,000 civilians.
Leigh Fermor’s version of the incident, Abducting A General (John Murray, £20), published last year, is a short, blatantly padded book. The foreword provides useful historical background. Only half the 189-page work contains the main text. Seventy pages reprint his hastily written intelligence notes sent from Crete to headquarters in Cairo. The most interesting dispatches describe his accidental shooting of his close Cretan friend and his part in the executions, without trial, of Cretan traitors. (When I asked Sir Alec Kirkbride, the last surviving officer of T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian campaign if he had really killed a lot of lawless Arabs after the capture of Damascus in 1918, he casually replied, “Oh, not that many.”) The last 20 pages provide a detailed guide to the abduction route that few visitors to Crete, apart from fanatics, would willingly endure.
Leigh Fermor’s account has already appeared in his anthology Words of Mercury (2003) and been the basis of the two chapters on Crete in Artemis Cooper’s biography (2012). Based on memory rather than diaries and written in 1966, 22 years after the event, Abducting A General, like his earlier travel books, is filled with invented details. He gathered intelligence, carried out sabotage and prepared the Cretans to help the British recapture the island. His major difficulties were faulty radio transmitters, lack of transport, “rain, arrests, hide and seek with the Huns, lack of cash, flights at a moment’s notice, false alarms, wicked treks over the mountains, laden like a mule, fright among one’s collaborators, treachery, and friends getting shot”.
He is excited by the constant danger and, when disguised as a Cretan, by his close proximity to German soldiers. His book is more detailed than Moss’s about the history and geography of the island, more stylish and lyrical. He is devoted to his brave, loyal and sacrificial Cretan friends and comrades, whose language he speaks and whom he idealises: “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 the villages, only strengthened.” But he ignores the conflicts between the Greek Communists and the pro-British partisans, which led to a civil war after the liberation of Greece. His hyperbolic and Homeric tributes to the Cretans — “their capacity to cross several mountain ranges at the same lightning speed on an empty stomach after swallowing enough raki and wine to lame other mortals for a week” — are excessive.
The main dangers of the abduction were the possibilities of stopping the wrong car, encountering other German vehicles and provoking savage reprisals. The identification and immediate escape in April 1944 was helped by Kreipe’s coloured metal pennants on the front fenders of his car. When seized, Kreipe lashed out with his fists, was manacled and had his legs tied. The whole episode took only 70 seconds. His badly injured driver, who could not keep up with the escaping partisans, had to be killed.
Since Leigh Fermor could also speak German, he writes more fully and positively than Moss about his relations with Kreipe, who bears up stoically under humiliating circumstances. The youngest son of the large family of a Lutheran pastor in Hanover, Kreipe was 48 years old and unmarried. He had a broad pale face, grey hair and jutting chin. A professional soldier, he had served in the army since 1914 and had recently won a Knight’s Cross on the Russian front. His moods during this ordeal ranged from cheerfulness to depression, and he sometimes slept under a blanket with Leigh Fermor and Moss, huddled together against the piercing mountain cold. Leigh Fermor writes in comradely fashion: “The General’s behaviour was most friendly and helpful throughout and he put up with the hardships of mountain travel and living rough with fortitude. Moss and I had the impression that he had lost his nerve a bit after the first contact with us. He certainly made no attempt to escape.” If he had broken his word, he would have been shot by the Cretans. On May 14, 1944, after 18 anxious days in the mountains, they all boarded the ship to Cairo. Spared the disastrous German defeats in Russia and in Greece, Kreipe remained in British custody until 1947.
The crucial military and moral question, which Moss ignores and Leigh Fermor answers with qualified affirmation, is whether the abduction of General Kreipe was worth the brutal German reprisals: whole villages destroyed and the massive slaughter of men, women and children in August 1944. The survivors rejoiced; the dead remained silent. But Leigh Fermor’s heroic exploit, still famous all over Greece, boosted morale during the dark days of the German occupation and gave a glimmer of hope for the final victory.
Leigh Fermor’s third major achievement was the travel books about his youthful journey that appeared decades later: A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the unfinished and posthumously published The Broken Road (2013). A slow, procrastinating writer, blocked for much of his life by the weight of too much material, he resembled Penelope unwinding at night what she had woven by day. His wanderings abroad to write in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, which he described in A Time to Keep Silence (1953), were also an escape from writing.
Fermor often indulges in unseemly displays of erudition. His learned digressions and serpentine style, his mannered mandarin, even baroque prose, which Lawrence Durrell called truffled and dense with plumage, were influenced by the work of Charles Doughty, T.E. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. This florid style clashes with his descriptions of colourful gypsies and cave-dwelling bandits — dressed in sheepskin jackets, high boots and billowing breeches, with daggers tucked into their belts and bandoleers charged with cartridges — rioting, feasting and firing their carbines into the air or, during a vendetta, into their enemies.
Fascinated by his achievements, I corresponded with Paddy (as everyone called him) while writing my biography of Errol Flynn. He had written the screenplay of one of Flynn’s best movies, The Roots of Heaven (1958), and been on the scene during the disastrous filming in French Equatorial Africa. He thought Hollywood screenwriting was a lark that enabled him to hang around and drink with colourful characters in an exotic setting. Flynn, Trevor Howard and Paddy were all drinking heavily, and there was some conflict when Paddy fell in love with the French singer Juliette Gréco, the co-star and mistress of his boss, the producer Darryl Zanuck. In a vivid letter of May 5, 2000, Paddy described the horrendous conditions — heat, disease, swarming insects and dangerous animals — while making the movie in the tropics. He got on well with the flamboyant Flynn, a kindred spirit, and gave a perceptive account of his character:
Errol seemed distinctly more intelligent than the run of actors. Full of original tangents, a great narrative gift, and a great sense of humour. He often referred to his learned father, a marine biologist at Belfast University. He loved reminiscing, largely about Hollywood. I asked him what the leading and most beautiful stars of the day were like. “Well, pretty good,” he said. “They’ve all got my scalp, I’m afraid.” There were lots of memories of his early days there, and his adventures. He was very funny about a yacht he shared with David Niven, and the girls they would take on trips. “We looked on them to supply the food. One pretty girl came on board with nothing but a loaf and a contraceptive device.” He took his acting seriously, and was absolutely adequate in his not very exacting role. He was on very good terms with all the other actors. His physical condition wasn’t too bad, troubled by hangovers now and then.
When I wrote again while working on my life of John Huston, who directed The Roots of Heaven, Paddy vividly recalled the savage Darwinian scene. Bangui, now in the Central African Republic, was the roughest and most primitive place of all:
The forests near Bangui were inhabited by very intelligent pygmies. We were “shooting” in the forest when the clouds broke and a large deluge of rain came down. Our procession of vehicles headed back to the ultra-modern hotel, like an up-ended mouth-organ on the banks of the Shari river, which was full of crocodiles. I got there with Errol and his girl, and we were astonished to find the whole of the ground floor a foot deep in termites, over which small bright green frogs from the Shari were leaping about in parabolas, while Juliette’s mongoose ran riot among them, killing and swallowing as many as he could, two legs sticking out of his mouth. A strange sight.
I also got in touch when writing my life of Somerset Maugham. Paddy was an Old Boy of Maugham’s alma mater, The King’s School, Canterbury, and as a student had read Of Human Bondage. He was also a close friend of Maugham’s admirer and confidante Ann, the wife of Ian Fleming. After the war he had visited Maugham’s luxurious Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. Since Paddy lived in Kardamyli, a remote village in the southern Peloponnese and my daughter was a Foreign Service officer in Athens, it was a perfect time to see him. So we rented a flat for three weeks, overlooking the sea and a few kilometres from Paddy’s village.
I rang him up from a local shop and he immediately invited me to come round for a talk. Since his house was hidden away and hard to find, he walked up to the main road and hailed me as I approached. Tall and straight, white-haired and sun-tanned, he was at 87 still a virile and impressive figure. He had designed his low, rambling, whitewashed, red-tiled home himself, and called it “a loose-limbed monastery and farmhouse with massive walls and cool rooms”. It had a shaded patio facing the Mediterranean, a flourishing garden, and a huge library filled with books in ancient and modern languages. He had created the setting he wanted and the life he wished to lead, travelled widely and wrote well, charmed everyone and seemed content.
Paddy wanted to correct Ann Fleming’s version of his embarrassing visit to Maugham, which she had exaggerated — with shattered drinking glasses and blood on the floor — to amuse Evelyn Waugh. Maugham had asked Ann to bring Paddy with her for dinner, and then (always generous to good-looking young authors) had invited him to stay on as his guest and write at the villa. Unnerved by Maugham’s severe expression and icy manner, Paddy drank far too much. Falling victim to the perverse tendency to talk about the very thing he was strictly forbidden to mention — Maugham’s debilitating speech defect — Paddy quoted the absurd belief that everyone in the College of Heralds had a stammer. That was bad enough. But noting that the day was the Feast of the Assumption, he mentioned Correggio’s painting of that subject in the Louvre and repeated a stammering friend’s bon mot: “That is a m-most un-un-w-warrantable as-assumption.”
Deeply offended, Maugham became even icier. Rising from the table and taking his leave, he rescinded his invitation by saying: “G-G-Goodbye. Y-Y-You will have left b-b-before I am up in the m-m-morning.” The wretched Paddy, who had not intended to wound his host, contrived to make matters even worse. Instead of waiting for the valet to pack his bag, he hastily threw his things together and caught a precious monogrammed sheet trimmed with Belgian lace in the zipper of his suitcase. He rushed down the stairs with the rest of the sheet trailing behind, frantically tore part of it off and escaped from the villa with shreds of fabric hanging out of his bag.
After our talk, Paddy signed some travel books I’d brought along. Specially buying another one, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), in the village shop, he inscribed it, surrounding his words with a cloud and a sketch of birds flying around the title page. When he mentioned bees and my daughter used the unusual word for “buzz” — zouzounizo — which he hadn’t heard for years, he praised her fluency in Greek. After drinks in his house Paddy invited all of us to dinner at a simple restaurant, set on a promontory overlooking the glistening sea, which he’d bought for Lela, his former and now ancient cook. I noticed that the cook’s son Giorgos — who greeted us warmly in excellent English and recommended the best dishes — was tall, blond, blue-eyed and very un-Greek looking.
Paddy, who didn’t see well at night, asked me to drive him home in his battered old Peugeot, which had stiff gears, negligible brakes and holes in the rusted metal of the floor. As we went down a steep hill towards the sea, which had no barrier, I suddenly realised that the brakes didn’t work and had to swerve violently to avoid submersion. Paddy, who’d had many close calls, was jovial and unconcerned about the dangerous episode. My instinctive feeling that Giorgos was Paddy’s son was confirmed when my daughter returned to Athens and impressed her Greek friends, who knew the truth, by mentioning that she’d dined with a national hero.
Paddy was the Byron of our time. Both men had an idealised vision of Greece, were scholars and men of action, could endure harsh conditions, fought for Greek freedom, were recklessly courageous, liked to dress up and displayed a panache that impressed their Greek comrades. Paddy also reminded me of a Bedouin chief’s tribute to another famous warrior, T.E. Lawrence: “Tell them in England what I say. Of manhood, the man, in freedom free; a mind without equal; I can see no flaw in him.”