The great travel writer recalls a daring mission during World War II.
In 1944, working as a British intelligence officer in Crete, Fermor (1915-2011) conceived a plan to kidnap a German general and spirit him away to Egypt for trial as a war criminal. The escapade, he was convinced, would demoralize the Nazi occupiers and raise the spirits of Crete’s resistance fighters. Fermor set his sights on Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, “The Butcher of Crete,” but when Müller was transferred, he chose Heinrich Kreipe, a career soldier who, the author later discovered, was so disliked that the kidnapping was celebrated with champagne in the officers’ mess. The adventure was first chronicled by Fermor’s comrade Billy Moss, whose account, published in 1950, later was made into a movie. More than 15 years later, Fermor decided to write his own version, drawing on war reports he sent to the Special Operations Executive headquarters. Excerpts (comprising about a third of the reports) append the text, as does a guide to the abduction route for military history fans who want to put on sturdy walking boots and follow the rough terrain. By 1966, Fermor was a much-published and praised writer, and his talents certainly are evident in this colorfully rendered tale. The actual kidnapping took little more than a minute, during which the perpetrators stopped the general’s vehicle, pulled the officer out roughly, bound and manacled him, knocked out his driver, and erupted in a “delirious excess of cheers, hugs, slaps on the back.” Transporting their quarry across the island to the sea was more arduous and perilous, involving trekking across snow-covered mountains, hiding in caves, and eluding the enemy. Military historian Roderick Bailey (Target: Italy: The Secret War against Mussolini, 2014, etc.), who provides the foreword, reports coolly that the kidnapping was unnecessary: German morale was already low, and the war had turned in the Allies’ favor.
Though the kidnapping may have been unnecessary, Fermor loved adventure, and he recounts this one with heady enthusiasm.