ABDUCTING A GENERAL
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB, 206 pages
reviewed by Rory McCluckie
In 1933, aged only 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor began walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople. Clad in an old greatcoat and a pair of hobnail boots, he had left his native England on the deck of a Dutch steamer and set off on foot with a few letters of introduction, some notebooks, and a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, It was an extraordinary thing to undertake but we’ve long known that Leigh Fermor was an extraordinary man; a skilled linguist, a vivid, ebullient writer, and a lover of literature, people, and the world in all its variable wonder—of life, essentially—he has become celebrated for enjoying an existence so improbably charmed that his travel books often read like stirring, romantic fictions.
When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Leigh Fermor—then living in Romania—returned home and was accepted as a candidate for a commission in the Irish Guards, a posting he quickly came to regard as dull. It was with some relief, then, when the Intelligence Corps took note of his lingustic capabilities and offered him courses in military intelligence and interrogation before dispatching him, in 1940, to the Mediterannean as a member of the British Military Mission.
At this point, Greece had been invaded by Italy and it was the Mission’s primary responsibility to help the occupied country in any way they could. In April 1941, this difficult task was rendered almost impossible when a German blitzkrieg tore through the Balkans, forcing most of Britain’s troops from the European mainland. Some, Leigh Fermor among them, managed to flee to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and were soon treated to a fresh barrage by the Nazis who, sensing an advantage, sought to capitalize. While the islanders’ resistance was noble, the outcome was inevitable; luckily for the author, the Royal Navy evacuated him to Egypt before the Axis powers could impart a less merciful fate, and it was in Cairo that Leigh Fermor proposed a plan to return to Crete in order to kidnap a German general.
This book is Leigh Fermor’s account of this outrageous operation. Published here in its entirety for the first time, it was written in 1966-67 after being commissioned by Barrie Pitt, the editor of the mass-market, weekly anthology, Purnell’s History of the Second World War. Requesting a piece of around 5,000 words by November, Pitt was instead sent 30,000 in installments, the last of which arrived a year late. Facing little choice, and with probably little care at that point, the editor hired a journalist to drastically cut the document and published the trimmed down entity in the compendium. That we can now read Leigh Fermor’s original manuscript in full is a valuable and interesting gift to readers, both of the man and history. But there’s one area in which this unedited account is especially fascinating, and that is the insight it affords us into Leight Fermor’s struggle with the consequences of his scheme.
Specifically, the consequences for the Cretan population, which are both the central pillar and the haunting spectre of Abducting A General. Whether the author is explicitly addressing it or not, the sense that Leigh Fermor was deeply troubled by what happened because of his actions is never far from the adventurous rhythms of the prose’s surface. Unsurprisingly, we don’t need to look far for an example; on only the second page of the account, with scarcely enough time having passed to have set pace or tone, we find the following, earnest testament to the character of the island’s people:
We became,as it were, part of the family. Our cave-sojourns were often brief. They were a cruel danger to the villagers 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.
This is the first of a steady stream of munificence towards the Cretans that pours through the book. Leigh Fermor was clearly a man who loved Greece and its people and the idea that he might have contributed towards any of them being on the receiving end of German retaliation must have pained him deeply. Nevertheless, this is what seems to have happened some months after the SOE’s successful abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe. An eyewitness account of the reaction was provided by Lieutenant Colonel Tom Dunbabin:
The inhabitants of the raided villages were caught in their beds and a given number of hostages was taken in each village. These were selected either because of their relationship to some known person on the wanted list or because they were sturdy fellows who would make good guerrillas. They were shot two by two and their bodies thrown into a building which was then blown up.
Later, Leigh Fermor specifically takes up the possibility that these horrors were visited upon innocent villagers because of the kidnapping:
Apart from the shattering nature of the event it was, as one can imagine, deeply upsetting that, in spite of all our insistence in keeping clear of villages and avoiding incriminating the inhabitants, this tragedy should be associated, rightly or wrongly, with the operation.
The tension between the rip-roaring adventure and its fallout lends Abducting A General its particular fascination. Leigh Fermor writes with a swashbuckling swagger that is learned, vigorous and full of color. Numerous times, he recounts the daily complexion of the operation with a touch revealing both his eye for detail and his ear for drama, each of which remained alert in relativley hospitable and not so hospitable environments. Passing through “nearly airless stalactitic dungeones littered with the horned skeletons of beasts,” for example, is how he begins a particularly evocative passage that is just as well-drawn as the memories of the team’s hideouts throughout the island—dwellings that often reverberated with the sound of singing and swam in the aroma of the varying means of sustenance, including “a paschal lamb roasting whole and a demijohn of wine,” not to mention the litres of raki that never seemed too far from reach.
This devil-may-care feel is the adrenaline-soaked surface that conceals the anxiety at the book’s heart. Once the seriousness of the abduction’s possible consequences has been mentioned, it’s impossible to follow the narrative without some discomfort. What was Leigh Fermor’s operation really worth? Indeed, when the author admits, in the account’s opening that “I had only a vague idea” how bloodshed and reprisals would be avoided and that, “to my amazement, the idea was accepted,” these lines fall into the reader’s memory and sit there, growing heavier as the tale progresses, until they become leaden with an insouciance that feels awfully close to incriminating carelessness.
That this tension is the dominant characteristic of the book says a lot, especially when considered in comparison to the eponymous abductee. General Kreipe himself comes out of the ordeal remarkabaly well; so much so that the book’s very title comes to sound like a slight disservice to the man. Abducting a general? The use of the indefinite article suggests that any of the high-ranking Germans on Crete would have been a suitable target and, in one sense, that may be true. But there can have been few, if any, individuals capable of reacting with quite the equanimity and good humour this particular individual displayed, and to imagine the book without him is to imagine a very different book indeed.
With the singular General in tow, the journey across the island is scattered with episodes between Kreipe and his kidnappers that reveal common humanity. During this operation, for example, Leigh Fermor famously recalls hearing the General recite the opening line from an ode of Horace—one the Englishman just happened to know by heart. With dawn “streaming in the cave’s mouth,” and the small group “lying smoking in silence,” Leigh Fermor did what the romantic potential of the scene required, and recited the rest of the poem to the captive. “For five minutes,” the author touchingly observes, “the war had evaporated without trace.”
Going beyond the well known anecdotes, this unusually composed abductee provides a number of instances of levity and humor that bring a short, welcome relief to the galloping pace of the prose and, no doubt, provided some much needed respite to his abductors. One such moment comes when Leigh Fermor’s party is joined by Micky and Elias, two men who bring news of how the kidnapping has been received throughout the island and, in particular, at the villa at which Kreipe had been stationed:
Micky, after the General had been introduced to the missing two of his captors, told him, through me, that all the guards of the villa were under arrest and his ADC was in prison, on suspicion of complicity. The General’s blue eyes opened wide with disbelief, then he laughed delightedly. He couldn’t bear him, the General told us. The man was a complete dunce.
These lovely moments lend a delightful softening to a narrative that rushes around and tumbles over the beautiful, and often harsh, Cretan landscape. As if further proof were needed of the singular characters at the book’s heart, one of the eight pages of photographs included in Abducting a General displays a moving shot of Leigh Fermor and Kreipe reunited in Athens in 1972. “We had both drunk at the same fountains long before,” runs the caption; “and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Despite a number of such heartwarming occasions, however, and although the tale is told in language that revels in life and the excitement of the task at hand, Leigh Fermor’s account of the Kreipe operation is memorable chiefly for its palpable unease. The purpose of such a venture, beyond humiliating the German garrison on the island, was hard to see then and has grown no clearer with time. As Roderick Bailey observes in the book’s foreword, other than for propaganda purposes, “it remains difficult to attach much value to the operation,” and no strategic or tactical advantage could be gleaned from its success. The possibility that this was a pyhrric victory for the SOE seems likely to have haunted a man who loved Greece and, particularly, the people of Crete; Abducting a General only serves to reinforce this sense of anguish.
Rory McCluckie is a freelance writer and editor from Manchester, England. A graduate of the University of Leeds, he currently resides in Montreal.