As dawn breaks over Crete, a few rays reach inside a cave sheltering a rag-tag band of British soldiers and their Cretan comrades. Among them, a captive German captain looks out at the majestic landscape and begins quoting a bit of verse from Horace. One of his captors, British Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, sits up and completes the ode, a personal favorite. Does the scene sound familiar? The story-turned-legend of Fermor’s successful 1944 abduction of General Kreipe from Nazi-held Crete has been told before. Rick Stroud recently laid out the historical context—the Battle of Crete and ensuing German occupation—in Kidnap in Crete. Much earlier, Fermor’s fellow co-conspirator Billy Moss wrote his account in Ill Met by Moonlight, which was adapted into a film by Michael Powell, featuring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor and David Oxley as Moss.
There’s nothing like this first-hand account, told in Paddy’s familiar, confiding prose, as he entertains his readers as though they were comrades around a campfire on one of Crete’s god-haunted mountains. Fans of Fermor’s travel writing, especially his account of an epic hike across Europe in the trilogy that begins with A Time of Gifts, will find the same beloved, deeply intelligent voice applied to wartime Crete. Fermor's inexhaustible knowledge of the classics once again blends seamlessly with his present moment, endowing a bleak embattled landscape with its former glory. In fact, Fermor’s light-hearted wit can at times make his daring attempt to capture a German general in wartime feel akin to a Boy Scout’s gleeful plotting to capture a flag and carry it across an island he had come to know intimately.
Fermor writes particularly well about the valor of the Cretan soldiers and volunteers, those who sheltered the men and their infamous hostage along their perilous route through 22 German check points, several shepherd’s caves and various occupied villages to the beach where a boat waited to take them to Cairo. Most touching are the moments when Fermor and his captive connect, as in the now-famous scene, a shared intelligence and mutual respect transcending their war-time differences. "For five minutes," Fermor writes of the encounter, "the war had evaporated without a trace."