The True Story Of The Travel Writer Who Kidnapped A Nazi General

In 1944, as World War II raged across Europe, two young British officers were hiding in the mountains of Crete, the Greek island then under Nazi occupation. They had come to help organize the Greek resistance — an army of shepherds and subsistence farmers outmanned and outgunned by their enemies. One of these officers was W. Stanley "Billy" Moss. The other was one of the most fascinating personalities of his time, the writer and traveler Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor (pictured above). Leigh Fermor had no military experience. He was selected for the role because of his fluent Greek, which he picked up as a 19-year-old, walking from Holland to Constantinople in lieu of university.

Like most of the events in Leigh Fermor's life, his and Moss' plan was like something from an adventure novel. They had decided to kidnap the German commanding general of Crete and transport him to a British base in Egypt. Leigh Fermor, who also spoke fluent German, would impersonate the general when necessary (via Ekathimineri).

An absurd and daring plan

W. Stanley Moss and Patrick Leigh Fermor explained the plan to their Greek allies. The two British officers would dress in stolen German uniforms and flag down the car of Wehrmacht General Heinrich Kreipe. When the car stopped, the partisans, hidden on the roadside, would rush the Germans. Leigh Fermor would put on Kreipe's hat and tunic, Kreipe would be stashed in the car out of sight, and Moss would drive them to a carefully selected cave in the mountains. Leigh Fermor would pretend to be the general if anyone stopped them (via BBC).

Unbelievably, the plan worked. Both Moss and Leigh Fermor would both write books about the month they spent with their German "guest," hiding from the inevitable German manhunt. The general seems to have been good company. In his book "Abducting a General," Leigh Fermor recalled Kreipe looking out on the snowy peaks of Crete and murmuring the first line, in Latin, of the Roman poet Horace's ode to Thaliarchus. It was one of Leigh Fermor's favorite poems, and he interrupted the general to finish the line for him. It was a gesture of chivalry and respect that few POWs in that war would ever experience.

A life of glamor and peril

Like all good stories, the kidnapping of General Kreipe sounds fake, and it soon passed into the popular imagination with the publishing of Billy Moss' memoir, "Ill Met by Moonlight." "Ill Met by Moonlight" would eventually become a major movie, with Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh Fermor, although Leigh Fermor himself disliked it (per The Guardian).

Long after the war ended, Leigh Fermor would appear on Greek television with the shepherds who assisted in the adventure, as well as the former General Kreipe himself. The men had evidently buried the hatchet, and welcomed their former hostage warmly (a clip is available on YouTube).

Leigh Fermor translated  the memoirs of one of his Greek comrades, the shepherd George Psychoundakis, into English as "The Cretan Runner" (via The Guardian). Preferring Greece to Britain, the polyglot adventurer would build a house on the Maniot peninsula, where he entertained friends like Lawrence Durrell and various glamorous women. He would survive wars, countless dangerous journeys, and a 100-a-day smoking habit to die in 2011, aged 96.