The Hussar Stunt: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Abducting a General


by Eric Byrd

Fitzroy Maclean, over Yugoslavia, in Eastern Approaches:

“With a jerk my parachute opened and I found myself dangling, as it were at the end of a string, high above a silent mountain valley, greenish-grey and misty in the light of the moon. It looked, I thought, invitingly cool and refreshing after the sand and glare of North Africa. Somewhere above me the aircraft, having completed its mission, was headed for home. The noise of its engines grew gradually fainter in the distance. A long way below me and some distance away I could see a number of fires burning. I hoped they were the right ones, for the Germans also lit fires at night at different points in the Balkans in the hope of diverting supplies and parachutists from their proper destinations. As I swung lower, I could hear a faint noise of shouting coming from the direction of the fires. I could still not see the ground immediately beneath me. We must, I reflected, have been dropped from a considerable height to take so long coming down. Then, without further warning, there was a jolt and I was lying in a field of wet grass. There was no one in sight.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor, over Crete, in Abducting a General:

“The sierras of occupied Crete, familiar from nearly two years of clandestine sojourn and hundreds of exacting marches, looked quite different through the aperture in the converted bomber's floor and the gaps in the clouds below: a chaos of snow-covered, aloof and enormous spikes glittering as white as a glacier in the February moonlight. Then, suddenly, on a tiny plateau among the peaks, were the three signal fires twinkling. A few moments later they began expanding fast: freed at last from the noise inside the Liberator the parachute sailed gently down towards the heart of the triangle. Small figures were running in the firelight and in another few moments, snow muffled the impact of landing. There was a scrum of whiskery embracing, a score of Cretan voices, one English one. A perfect landing!”

10367600_10153284499608835_4948960693594993795_nMaclean's passage is an old favorite, but Fermor takes the palm of parachutist eloquence with the beginning of Abducting a General, his account of the 1944 ambush, abduction, and spiriting to Egypt of the commander of Crete's German garrison. (During the war Maclean also abducted a general – seized at gunpoint and hustled into a waiting car the Iranian General Fazlollah Zahedi, thought to be planning a pro-German coup from Isfahan; a decade on, Zahedi, backed by MI6 and the CIA, would overthrow and replace Prime Minister Mosaddegh.) Fermor wrote Abducting a General in 1965; it appeared that year, heavily cut, and was only this October published in full, by John Murray.

The volume has three parts, progressively arcane: there is Fermor's memoir of the operation – ninety pages – followed by the editor's selection of Fermor's wartime reports to SOE Cairo, jaunty and humorous little pieces penned in various hideouts, over a span of two years; and last, a guide to Crete compiled by two current climbers, for the cultists who might wish to hike the getaway route up and over Mount Ida, or call on every cave, sheepfold, and olive grove in which Fermor's band sought shelter.

Abducting a General speaks to the English military penchant for deceptive ruses and theatrical cunning. General Kreipe called his abduction a “stunt” – perfect description of an operation that required as much acting and flair for costume as it did courage and physical hardiness. To stop the General's car, Fermor and his second in command, W. Stanley Moss, had to dress as Feldpolizei. There was some anxiety because only one pair of the regulation high boots could be obtained, and Moss had to step into the headlights wearing puttees, not worn in the German army since the Great War. Neither Kreipe nor his driver noticed. After the driver was hit over the head and hustled away by guerillas – they would slit his throat – and Kreipe securely held under knives in back, Fermor donned the General's cap and posed in the passenger seat, through twenty-two checkpoints, letting the cap's bill, the car's pennants, Moss' cool driving through Hun-thronged Heraklion, and the shadows do their work. At the twenty-second checkpoint, Fermor had to improvise an indignant growl – Generals Wagen! – for a sentry who appeared ready to check papers, and the sentry, cowed, convinced, raised the last striped gate before the friendly mountains.

To prevent reprisals against Cretan civilians, Fermor and Moss had to convince the pursuing Germans of an all-English operation. They sowed their tracks with characteristic props. The General's car was abandoned near a bay in which British subs occasionally surfaced. In the car they left a letter claiming responsibility for the act, signed with their names, and “wax seals from our rings after the names, for fun, and because such emblems were unlikely to be worn by partisans.” The interior of the car was carefully strewn with “fag-ends of Player's cigarettes,” a Raiding Forces beret (“Who Dares, Wins”), and an Agatha Christie paperback. “We kicked up the pathway, running down it to plant a round Player's tin, and, further on, a Cadbury's milk chocolate wrapper. (If only we'd had a sailor's cap…)”

The style of Fermor's account has a wonderful verisimilitude: alert, sharply focused, allusive but swift about it, with an immediately sensory, as opposed to an intellectual, lyricism, it gives just the impression of a fine mind negotiating a landscape of threats. In the only passage that rates as one of the complex verbal vistas for which he is famous, Fermor notes that it could hardly have occurred to him in the season of the exploit, in the danger and fatigue of the moment, and he puts most of the passage between parentheses:

“We stumbled on, bent almost double against the blast; no breath or energy was left even for objurgation: still less for anyone to say that not far off was the Ideon cave which had sheltered the childhood of Zeus. (From the summit, on a clear spring or summer day, the whole island, from the westernmost peaks of the White Mountains to the eastern massif of Sitea, lies extended like a chart. To the south the Libyan sea rises like a curtain which is bare except for the Paxmadia islands and Gavdos with its satellite islet, where the wind called the Euroclydon nearly wrecked St Paul; to the north-west hover the Taygetus mountains of the Peloponnese, to the north-east Santorini and the outer Cyclades; due east, a sprinkling of the Dodecanese, the faraway peaks of Rhodes, and bold travellers have climbed the Taurus range in Asia Minor.)”

The Kriepe abduction is an important part of the Paddy mythos and it is good to now have his full account. Fermor's map of Crete and self-caricature in Cretan dress: