A Real Boy’s Own Adventure
In the Second World War an English officer, Major Paddy Leigh Fermor, parachuted into Crete to capture the German officer commanding the occupying forces, General Heinrich Kreipe. The mission was a success and the general was marched over the mountains to a waiting British boat and taken back to the Allied HQ in Cairo.
This was real “Boy Own Adventure” stuff and I had read about that daring raid when I was young. Now some friends and I were looking for an excuse to hike a long and interesting route and ideally one with a narrative. So we read again “Ill met by Moonlight” the book about the abduction written by the other British officer involved, Captain Billy Moss.
The year was 2005 and our general idea was to follow the route taken by the captors. I wanted to ask the advice of Paddy who was then aged 90 and living in a house he had designed and built in Greece. It was rather more difficult getting hold of him than I expected. After some fruitless attempts, I contacted his publisher John Murray who suggested I contact Artemis Cooper, Paddy’s biographer, and she kindly gave me his telephone number in Greece. I couldn’t wait to see if he would reply and so I called that night and sure enough, the great man answered straight away. I explained that we were going to follow his footsteps across Crete and he seemed rather pleased and kindly offered to send me his original wartime maps.
Just days later the maps arrived in a plain brown envelope with Greek stamps. His landing place was marked with a small parachute and a boat was drawn on the coast where they departed with General Kreipe. This was enough to spur me on and in no time, I had assembled a group of friends and we flew to Crete. Although we went in the spring the days were hot as we walked across the arid slopes following closely the path taken by Paddy in 1944.
One morning we were deep in the countryside, walking along a rough unmade road when we heard a commotion ahead of us. As we approached we could make out singing in Greek and soon we came to a site where several families had come together to celebrate a religious feast day. They pressed us to join them and soon we had glasses of wine or ouzo thrust upon us. The children were chasing dogs as some men were roasting goats, split in two, and hung up on wooden stakes beside a massive open fire. The meat was going to take another hour or more to cook so we thanked them for their hospitality and walked on.
Later that day we arrived at the Anogia, the largest village in Crete and the scene of a dreadful massacre in August 1944 when, in retaliation for the killing of a German officer, a decree was issued by the German high command that every male in the village, and any male caught within a kilometre of the village, would be killed. In a matter of days, 117 men of the village were murdered and every house in the village was blown up or set on fire. When we walked into the village we paid our respects at the war memorial, listing the names of the dead, and sat in the square to relax and have a drink. We were soon introduced to the mayor of the village who insisted on buying us beers and, in turn, we told him about our walk and how we were inspired by Paddy Leigh Fermor. The mayor became very interested and knew all about Filidem, which was his Greek nickname. It occurred to me that Paddy would love a live update about our progress and in no time I called up Paddy on my mobile phone and, after explaining where we were, I gave the phone to the mayor whose face lit up as he realised he was talking to the man himself.
So our days continued, walking in the heat and in the afternoon looking for a place to spend the night. One particular day the four of us came across a high wire fence, built to keep goats out. It ran as far as the eye could see in both directions and was about six foot high. Surprisingly our small party had split up and I soon found that the others had somehow crossed it to the far side. But I could find no way over it or around it and the more I ran around trying the hotter and crosser I became. Finally, I saw a small gap at a post and, pulling the wire away, I managed to squeeze through. By now I was hot, sweaty and very fed up. I had no idea where the others were. So I walked on and came to a grove of cherry trees. There was a rusty pickup truck and its two occupants were up makeshift ladders collecting cherries. They had some black umbrellas upside down, hanging from the branches by the handle. Into these, they were lobbing ripe cherries. They asked me to help myself and so I lay down in the shade of a tree and dropped cool cherries into my mouth until my temper and temperature cooled down. Those were the juiciest and tastiest cherries in the whole world and I have never forgotten their flavour.
“Ill met by Moonlight” is a quotation from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When the book was published in 1950, it was selected by W. Somerset Maugham as one of the best three books of that year writing,”more thrilling than any detective story I can remember, and written in a modest and most engaging manner”.