Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2015: British author on WWII's most audacious act

It seems like an Alistair Maclean novel - an enemy general is kidnapped from near his headquarters, spirited through nearly two dozen checkpoints, kept hidden from search for nearly two weeks and is successfully taken out of the territory. But it really happened in World War II, and two junior, amateur British officers - who had conceived the plan in a Cairo nightclub - carried off the German commander of the Greek island of Crete with support of the partisans.

Jaipur: It seems like an Alistair Maclean novel - an enemy general is kidnapped from near his headquarters, spirited through nearly two dozen checkpoints, kept hidden from search for nearly two weeks and is successfully taken out of the territory. But it really happened in World War II, and two junior, amateur British officers - who had conceived the plan in a Cairo nightclub - carried off the German commander of the Greek island of Crete with support of the partisans.

It was an audacious plan which has never been seen before in warfare - generals have been captured but this was the first time one had been kidnapped, said British author Rick Stroud who brings the incident to life in all its nearly unbelievable details in "Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General".

Speaking about the incident at a session of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015, Stroud said the two men behind it were 29-year-old Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, known for walking across Europe from Holland to Turkey in 1933-34 (writing about his experiences four decades later) and 21-year-old Captain William Stanley Moss, both working in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who devised the plan towards the end of 1943.

Leigh Fermor parachuted into Crete in February 1944 but the others - Moss and two Cretan SOE operatives - couldn't due to the cloud cover and only arrived on the island two months later - in April 1944 - being dropped off by the navy.

"They had brought half a tonne of equipment including weapons, medicines and drugs - and suicide pills," said Stroud.

Though the German commander they wanted to capture - Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, known as the "Butcher of Crete" for his brutal policies, had been replaced in February by Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, who had been transferred from the Eastern Front to a "cushy job" in occupied Crete, the duo voted to go ahead, said Stroud.

"Little did Gen. Kriepe know that when he took up his new charge that he was walking in a trap and all his movements were being closely scrutinised," he said.

Leigh Fermor during his time on the island had been busy carrying out reconnaissance - while dressed as a Cretan shepherd, said Stroud, adding he weighed a plan to snatch the German general from his residence but dismissed as the place was too guarded and it was finally decided to snatch him when he was travelling.

The plan was carried out on the night of April 26, 1944 as Gen. Kreipe was returning home after playing bridge with his subordinate officers - exactly at the point which he had gauged as vulnerable for an attack.

"He was delighted to see two German military policemen at that point. They stopped the car and as he was reaching for his papers, one of them (Leigh Fermor) yanked open the door, and pointed a pistol at him while the other (Moss) coshed the driver unconscious. Gen. Kriepe violently resisted capture and punched Leigh-Fermor in the face," said Stroud.

Moss then drove the car while Leigh Fermor held the general unconscious and they successfully passed through 22 checkpoints with the latter calling out the "general's car" in German as they neared, he added.

They abandoned the car with a message - intended to save Cretans from reprisals - that the kidnapping had been carried out by British officers and that "they were sad to abandon such a magnificent car", said Stroud.

The team successfully evaded their pursuers till they were taken off by a boat on May 14 - not without drama, when Moss could not make the correct Morse code identification signal by torchlight. Gen. Kriepe was taken to Britain and interrogated but nothing worthwhile was obtained from him while the Germans carried out reprisals and razed a village.

"Though a strategic and tactical failure, the operation did have immense psychological impact as the news spread around the world - even in German occupied territory as was a terrific morale-booster," said Stroud.

Though both Leigh Fermor and Moss have written personal accounts, Stroud says his is the most comprehensive as it includes the Cretan accounts.

"In fact, when Moss's 'Ill Met my Moonlight' was published, Kriepe - who had a bad relation with him - successfully sued him for defamation and prevented its German publication as well as release of the film based on it," he said.

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