Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Book review - Abducting a General by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Abducting a General : the Kreipe Operation in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor

New York: New York Review Books, 2014                 ISBN 9781590179383

Those (very few) of you who are regular readers of my blog will know of my love of the works of Fermor, especially his walking trilogy. So, I'm slowly finding and working my way through his oevre. The book under review here is recently published, but written by Fermor in 1966. It is his account of the abduction of General Kreipe, of which the first account was written by Fermor's second-in-command Billy Moss under the title Ill met by moonlight. There was also a broader account written by one of Fermor's Cretan companions entitled The Cretan Runner. This last title was translated by Fermor and published in England in the mid 50s, about the same time as Moss' book, with a film version of Ill met by moonlight produced later on in that decade.

It's a mystery why Fermor never published an account, given that by the mid 1950s he was already a published author. The excellent Foreword to this book suggests that Fermor had promised Moss that he would not tread on his toes. Fermor actually wrote this account for a serialised history of World War Two edited by Barrie Pitt, but as was often the case when Fermor was commissioned to write a piece, he went overtime and over the word limit, and the account published was heavily edited.

This edition by New York Review Books is the first time Fermor's account has been published in full. At 94 pages, it is short (but longer than the 5,000 words he was originally asked for!), evocative of the moment, the man and the mission. Fermor had been in Crete for a long time before he embarked on this mission, and had actually successfully spirited another General off the island (The Italian commander, after Italy had surrendered).

Fermor's love for the Cretan people overflows this work - full of praise for their generosity and assistance, he glosses over their baser feelings and activities. To flesh out the book extracts from Fermor's official reports to HQ have been appended to this work - they show that in action Fermor was more ruthless than he makes out in his memoir here - he was not reluctant to execute traitors to the cause, or plan mass attacks on the German troops garrisoning the island.

Fermor's book does not add too much to the story as it is already known - a daring abduction followed by weeks of hiding out in the rugged Cretan countryside, aided by partisan bands, before finally being whisked away by the Navy. While Fermor describes the harshness of travelling through the country being followed by the Germans, in true British style he prefers to linger over the wine and food and the beauty of nature than be too concerned with possible death.

Humour pops up as well - much consternation at the rendezvous on the beach when it is realised that neither Fermor and Moss (both SOE operatives), know the Morse Code for the letters they are meant to flash to the waiting ship!

While the operation was a great success, it had little strategic value - Kreipe was not much of a catch (the original intended abductee General Muller, was a known War Criminal), and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Canada.

Fermor ended up back on Crete for a time and ended the War in London.

As well as the inclusion of Fermor's official reports, there is a section that describes Fermor's journey across Crete with the General, which would allow the avid reader to walk in his footsteps.

In the schema of Fermor's writings, this is a minor work, but a good read nevertheless.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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