Patrick Leigh Fermor, legendary travel writer and Special Operations Executive officer, never published during his own lifetime this, his full account of the kidnap of General Kreipe in Crete in 1944. His junior SOE colleague Billy Moss did, with Leigh Fermor’s help. Ill Met by Moonlight was published in 1950 and made into a famous movie with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor.
However as Roderick Bailey points out in his foreword to this book, Billy Moss did not speak Greek and the Kriepe kidnapping was his first clandestine operation. So his account lacked understanding and appreciation of the Greek partisans with whom he fought.
Leigh Fermor’s account is therefore something of an apologia to pay proper tribute to the people upon whom he depended for his life during his years undercover in Crete. He notes towards the end of his account that, “There has been more than a hint in these pages of [the kindness and generosity of the Cretan people] and of that aspect of Cretan life which suddenly gives the phrase ‘Brotherhood in arms’ such meaning”.
It is this, rather than a desire to convey a “boy’s-own” adventure, which seems at the heart of this account. It is an account that is marked by a remarkable joie de vivre in spite of the harsh circumstances he describes, and the constant threat of death under which he lived. As such it contrasts interestingly with Eric Newby’s similarly themed, but altogether more melancholic, account of his time being sheltered by an impoverished Italian rural population while on the run from the Germans: Love and War in the Appenines.
Leigh-Fermor conceived of the kidnapping of the German commander in Crete as a bloodless operation, to prevent German reprisals against Cretan civilians. Originally he aimed to kidnap the brutal General Muller, but this plan was thwarted with Muller’s transfer and replacement with General Kreipe.
Leigh-Fermor went ahead with the plan anyway as a morale boosting exercise for the Cretan resistance, and to keep them distracted from shedding German blood and hence provoking fierce reprisals.
He almost achieved his bloodless coup, though his Cretan comrades were at one point compelled to leave the poor driver who had been captured with the General in an unmarked grave. And some months after the operation the Germans conducted a series of brutal reprisals anyway, which may, or may not have been linked to the kidnapping.
Given this, and the undertaking of the operation late in the war when Germany’s fate was all but decided the strategic value of the operation is open to question. But the courage and fortitude that it entailed is not, as Leigh Fermor’s account amply demonstrates. Abducting a General gives a fine insight into a little-known corner of the Second World War, prosecuted, in the main, by ordinary people at terrible cost.