The kidnapping of the German chief of staff

When Britain declared war in 1939, Fermor immediately went home to join up, leaving Balasha in Romania. He enlisted in the Irish Guards, but because of his fluent command of Greek was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, serving as liaison officer to the Greek army fighting the Italians in Albania. After Greece fell, Fermor was sent to Crete, where he took part in the battle against the German airborne invasion. He remained on the island after the German victory. Disguised as a Cretan shepherd, with a handlebar moustache and a dagger in his belt, the tall, slim, Fermor cut a swashbuckling figure as he roamed the mountains helping to organize the resistance. It was there that his «devotion to the Greek mountains and their population took root,» he recalled in «Words of Mercury.» «We lived in goat-folds and abandoned conical cheese-makers’ huts and above all, in the myriad caverns that mercilessly riddle the island’s stiff spine. Some were too shallow to keep out the snow, others could house a Cyclops and all his flocks. Here, at ibex- and eagle-height, we settled with our small retinues. Enemy searches kept us on the move and it was in a hundred of these eyries that we got to know an older Crete and an older Greece than anyone dreams of in the plains. Under the dripping stalactites we sprawled and sat cross-legged, our eyes red with smoke, on the branches that padded the cave’s floor and spooned our suppers out of a communal tin plate: beans, lentils, cooked snails and herbs, accompanied by that twice-baked herdsmen’s bread that must be soaked in water or goat’s milk before it is eaten. Toasting goat’s cheese sizzled on the points of long daggers and oil dewed our whiskers. These sessions were often cheered by flasks of raki, occasionally distilled from mulberries, sent by the guardian village below. On lucky nights, calabashes of powerful amber-colored wine loosened all our tongues. Over the shoulders of each figure was a bristly white cloak stiff as bark, with the sleeves hanging loose like penguins’ wings; the hoods raised against the wind gave the bearded and moustachioed faces a look of Cistercians turned bandit. Someone would be smashing shells with his pistol-butt and offering peeled walnuts in a horny palm; another sliced tobacco on the stock of a rifle; for hours we forgot the war with talk and singing and stories; laughter echoed along the minotaurish warrens.» In 1944 Fermor took part in a bold and perilous mission which later became the subject of a best-selling book, «Ill Met by Moonlight» by W. Stanley Moss, a fellow intelligence officer. In the movie of the same name, Dirk Bogarde played Fermor. The plan was to kidnap the German army’s chief of staff, General Heinrich Kreipe. The original target was General Muller, notorious for his brutal treatment of both partisans and civilians. But Muller was unexpectedly transferred off the island and replaced by Kreipe, a professional soldier arriving straight from service on the Russian front. The kidnappers smuggled the general off the island and delivered him by submarine to British army headquarters in Egypt. Fermor reported little in the way of reprisals, but another observer, Dr Michael E. Paradise, whose father and two brothers were members of the British intelligence group on Crete, disagrees. Though just in his teens, Michael himself was often used as a courier. In the April 10, 1997 edition of The Greek American (a now-defunct, New York-based newspaper), he described the ferocious destruction of villages and slaughter of the locals by the Germans after the kidnap. Most Cretans, though, have not held a grudge against Fermor and his gung-ho confederates.