ABDUCTING A GENERAL:
OPERATION AND SOE IN CRETE
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The original account of the daring kidnap by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1944 of General Kreipe, the commander of 22 Air Landing Division in Crete, was written by Billy Moss of the Coldstream Guards. Based on his field diary at the time, Ill Met by Moonlight was published in 1950 after initially encountering problems on security grounds with the censorship authorities. Selected by W Somerset Maugham as one of the best three books of that year, he enthused it was ‘more thrilling than any detective
story I can remember, and written in a modest and most engaging manner’.
As his Commanding Officer, Paddy Leigh Fermor (PLF) had been happy to stand aside for Billy’s literary debut – indeed he magnanimously agreed to act as his literary agent when Billy was posted to SOE in the Far East in the spring of 1945 - and it was only after his friend’s death in 1965 that he put pen to paper himself. As such, Abducting a General is an incremental version to Billy’s story, then made even more famous
by the 1957 Pressburger/Powell film of the same name. However, more’s the pity that its publication had to wait another 48 years for it is a passionate and scintillating first-hand account of an extraordinary exploit.
As the architect of the abduction, PLF put forward to ‘the powers in SOE’ the suggestion of kidnapping General Müller, the notorious German commander who had razed many of the villages of the Amari to the ground and killed over 400 Cretans in reprisal for guerrilla attacks in the autumn of 1943: to his ‘amazement’, the idea was accepted. A botched drop due to poor weather resulted in PLF parachuting on his own into
Crete and a full seven weeks passed before Moss and the rest of the team finally managed to infiltrate by sea. By then Müller had gone, replaced by Kreipe. Nevertheless, the operation went ahead.
From the very start, PLF makes it clear that without the involvement of the Cretans, there would have been no chance of any SOE presence on the island let alone the ability to mount this daring enterprise. Having spent 15 months in Crete prior to the operation, his narrative is littered with references to ‘friends’, ‘god-relations’ and ‘tribes’. He knew almost every family and member of the resistance by name, having totally immersed himself in the language, culture and history of the island. It is this emotional involvement, bordering on passionate,
that makes his testament so unique and vital. No wonder the Cretans took to him.
After the exhilaration of a successful ‘snatch’, the abduction party was beset by signal failures and harassed by German cordons. A calm head and clear quick thinking enabled PLF to fashion a day-by-day extraction plan while Billy minded
the General. Here again, it was his intimate knowledge of the countryside and his deep friendship with the villagers and shepherds that enabled him to prevail over adversity; not forgetting the stalwart support he received from his fellow ISLD and SOE officers and their signallers to whom he pays generous tribute.
Yet by his own admission, the ‘fiction’ that the kidnap was solely the action of British officers wore heavily on him. Well aware of the risk of reprisals, throughout his account there is uncertainty as to the linkage between punitive German countermoves and the abduction. On his return to the island in late 1944, the Cretans reassured him that the burning of villages and the destruction of Anogeia were unrelated - ‘these were consoling words; never a syllable of blame was uttered’. Yet he remained in doubt for the rest of his life.
Abduction of a General is written in the effusive and wonderfully descriptive style for which PLF later became famous. There is a splendid passage at the end of the tale when he contemplates the difficulty of leaving Crete for Cairo - ‘who would exchange all this, and nightingales and the sounds of goatfolds and herdsmen calling across gulfs of air, and the echo of shots across empty gorges, for tram bells, jacarandas, carrion cows and muezzins?’ A man of action tempered by a perspicacious and joyous humanity, possessed of an effervescent irrepressible joie de vie, PLF was surely one of the last romantics.
The second half of the book consists of edited intelligence reports sent by PLF to Cairo. Far from dry and typically not couched in a terse military style, they make for excellent reading. A final chapter submitted by Chris and Peter White provides a detailed guide to the abduction route for modern-day tourists.
Billy Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlight has been reprinted by Cassells Military Paperbacks (2014) and his enthralling second book about his further adventures with SOE in Greece and the Far East, A War of Shadows, is republished by Bene Factum (2014). Two other accounts of the Kreipe kidnap, both with outline histories of SOE in Crete, have also been recently published: The Ariadne Objective by Wes Hall, Bantam Press (2014) and Kidnap in Crete by Rick Stroud, Bloomsbury (2014).
- Alan Ogden
Abducting A General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete is published by John Murray.