The Labyrinth and the Fountain

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    Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete, Patrick
    Leigh Fermor, John Murray, 2014, 200pp, £20 (hardback)

    In the Picture: The Facts behind the Fiction in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of
    Honour’, Donat Gallagher and Carlos Villar Flor, Rodopi, 2014, 360pp,
    £70 (hardback)

    In the spring of 1944, General Kreipe, the kidnapped divisional commander
    of 15,000 German troops in occupied Crete, situated in sight of Mount
    Ida (fabled as the birthplace of Zeus), began to recite Horace’s ode Ad
    Thaliarchum addressed to the snowy peak of Mount Soracte. His chief captor,
    Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, a member of the British Special Operations
    Executive, continued the poem from memory. ‘We had both drunk at
    the same fountains’ was Fermor’s lyrical way of recalling the episode. It’s
    a good story: civility will out in officers and gentlemen, even in the fraught
    circumstance of an armed conflict. ‘The war had evaporated without a
    trace,’ Fermor observes of the palliative ode. Yet such amnesia could only
    have been momentary for Fermor, who was awarded the DSO for planning
    and executing this audacious mission to kidnap the general, and for Kreipe,
    a highly decorated soldier, whose career, as he recognised, had come to an
    abrupt, ignominious halt.

    Fermor had set foot in Crete in 1941 (shipped there after the fall of Greece),
    just in time for the first German paratroopers to drop on the island. He was
    one of a number of English authors caught up in the disastrous defence of
    the island (Lawrence Durrell and his family were briefly refugees here;
    Roald Dahl a visitor before the RAF withdrew his fighter plane to Egypt).
    Evelyn Waugh, a friend of Fermor’s in later years, would nurse bitter memories
    of Crete, ‘this island of disillusion’. The debacle of the evacuation
    from Crete was depicted as ‘a bloody shambles’ in the second instalment of
    the Sword of Honour trilogy, Officers and Gentlemen (1955). Drawn from
    Waugh’s war diary, the part of the narrative set in Crete darkens the atmosphere
    of the trilogy, introducing a new sombreness to what had earlier been
    an ebullient comedy. On arrival in Crete, Guy Crouchback immediately
    catches ‘the accent of defeat’ in the voices of those who had endured waves
    of German attacks without air cover and frequently in bitter hand-to-hand
    combat throughout a torrid week.

    In Officers and Gentleman the collapse of fighting spirit in a proud army
    is viewed as emblematic of English decline. It is natural to assume that the
    powerful experience of disillusionment narrated by Crouchback, shattering
    a naive idealism about English martial heroism, was similar to Waugh’s
    rude awakening:
    “Guy led his section down the rough path to the harbour. The
    quay was littered with abandoned equipment and the wreckage
    of bombardment. … The ghosts of an army teemed everywhere.
    … A very short man was moving from group to group saying:
    ‘Me surrender? Not bloody likely. I’m for the hills. Who’s coming
    with me?’ like a preacher exhorting a doomed congregation
    to flee from the wrath to come.”

    The shame and dishonour that Waugh felt at what he would call ‘the capitulation
    in Crete’ was indelible. By all accounts, he had been unflappable
    under the screech of Stuka dive-bombers, reinforcing his disgust for soldiers
    who had shown less nerve, or bravado, under fire. The cowardice of
    several thinly fictionalised Commando officers in Officers and Gentlemen
    is unforgiving in its satire and can excite strong emotions in those who have
    revisited in print the recoverable facts of the case.

    Donat Gallagher and Carlos Villar Flor’s new study In the Picture is subtitled
    The Facts behind the Fiction in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of Honour’. It
    was Friedrich Nietzsche who famously announced that ‘There are no facts,
    only interpretations,’ and he would have struggled to understand Gallagher
    and Flor’s positivism about facts: ‘[In the Picture] will seek to assemble
    all available evidence from as full a range of sources as can be located . .
    . . What emerges will be allowed to speak for itself. In short, the [chapters
    written by Gallagher] have grown out of past disputes but radically transcend
    them.’ But facts conjured from one hand look different when they
    appear in the other, and they go on to say (somewhat misleadingly): ‘[In the
    Picture] intertwines fiction, memory and fact in such a way that the reader
    at some point may not be certain whether the quoted text is fictional or nonfictional,
    but this confusion, where it exists is deliberate.’ In other words,
    ‘facts’ (although fact is deliberately confused with fiction) are introduced
    into a disputatious arena and then left to speak for themselves (not for Gallagher
    or for Flor) but do so with such eloquence that they transcend all
    sides of the argument. In the Picture, then, is hung au-dessus de la mêlée.
    According to Gallagher and Flor, the facts of Waugh’s involvement in the
    Battle of Crete dispel a disreputable myth that has surrounded his military
    career. On the contrary, Waugh’s conduct on active service is repeatedly
    praised as exemplary. But to understand the shame that infects brave
    Crouchback’s experience of Crete in Officers and Gentlemen one must take
    account of the exceptional valour shown by New Zealand soldiers awarded
    VCs for their part in close-quarter fighting lasting more than a week, or the
    self-sacrifice of Alfred Sephton, RN, who was awarded a posthumous VC
    for not abandoning his post when mortally wounded. In the Picture notes
    that Waugh probably did not fire a shot at the enemy during the battle for
    Crete, after which three-quarters of his Commando Brigade ended up in
    PoW camps.

    On the sensitive issue of Waugh’s escape from Crete with Colonel Bob
    Laycock, In the Picture goes to great lengths to exonerate both from accusations
    that they jumped the queue for disembarkation, either by pulling
    rank or elbowing aside waiting soldiers who had fought on the island
    since the invasion began. Gallagher and Flor’s argument is intricate but it
    is founded on the belief that ‘fighting troops’ were justified in forcing a way
    through a disorganized ‘rabble’ onto the evacuation boats. Antony Beevor’s
    Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1991) painted a different picture of
    disciplined units, who had withstood battle fatigue, keeping their patience
    under desperate conditions: thousands of fighting troops involved in the
    rearguard action did not break ranks and flee. They were taken prisoner.
    In the Picture directs abuse at Beevor in particular and Waugh’s British
    biographers in general. But there is no decisive record of a clear order from
    a commanding officer instructing Laycock and Waugh to withdraw ahead
    of the Royal Marines or Australian battalions in Waugh’s private or his brigade
    diary, or among the military archives in London, Portsmouth and Wellington.
    General Weston did tell Laycock to act as CO in the surrender, but
    Gallagher argues that he ‘acted legally and honourably’ by refusing, and
    then shifting this unenviable duty onto an already traumatised subordinate.
    After several attempts, I have been unable to grasp Gallagher’s conceit that
    he provides Ariadne’s thread ‘of fact’ liberating us from this Cretan labyrinth.
    My obstacle remains the inescapable fact that Laycock left and the Australians
    and Royal Marines did not. The conjecture that Laycock ordered his
    evacuation only because the Australians and Marines (who had been waiting
    hours to disembark) were blocked by stragglers is unsatisfactory in the
    light of Gallagher’s own facts: if, as is repeatedly stated, the evacuees were
    not under attack on Sphakia beach, then could Laycock not have waited for
    them to arrive, or used his commandos to provide a cordon to usher them
    aboard? Beevor thinks that Waugh’s failure to explain this flight in his diaries
    (which Gallagher calls ‘elliptical’ on this point), or in his official memorandum
    (which Gallagher calls ‘misleading’) indicates a guilty conscience.

    In the Picture assembles information with spirited advocacy in chapters
    that will be thought-provoking to serious students of Sword of Honour. But
    they do not transcend every tribunal of enquiry, or the testimony of those
    who served with Waugh – those who said he was quick to take offence, that
    his dressing-down of NCOs and privates, as well as the periodic insubordination
    he showed towards superior officers, made him deeply unpopular.
    Gallagher does valuable work in marshalling evidence that Waugh could
    be a capable intelligence officer yet in his polemical chapter “Was Waugh
    ‘Utterly Unfitted to Be an Officer’?” the Captain Waugh who salutes us
    displays a ‘scrupulous’ professionalism (at odds with his published war
    diaries) along with the scars of undeserved rebuffs, an image that is con21
    tradicted by a chorus of Waugh scholars. Waugh, unquestionably plucky,
    was too volatile to be a company commander, even had this portly, middleaged
    man proved athletic enough to lead special forces into battle (his first
    medical had classified him as unfit). Such reflections will not trouble many
    admirers of the Sword of Honour trilogy.

    Recollection of the Battle of Crete was apt to make Waugh go red in the
    face with irate denunciations of British military failings, recklessly uttered
    in public during the tense, conformist atmosphere of war. According to
    Christopher Sykes, Waugh ranted aloud that the British had capitulated in
    Crete due to a lack of courage. There is no doubt that considerable courage
    was shown by Allied soldiers during the harrowing days of relentless German
    attacks (the Royal Marines put up stubborn resistance; Anzac troops
    launched several heroic counter-attacks). In his memoir, Churchill contended
    that Germany won only a pyrrhic victory in Crete because the campaign
    delayed resources for Operation Barbarossa against Russia. History
    affords some comfort to the war’s ultimate winners. Although Beevor is not
    persuaded that ‘pyrrhic’ best qualifies the German victory in Crete, he discerns
    (to the annoyance of Gallagher and Flor) ‘a streak of self-loathing’ in
    Waugh’s ‘cataclysmic view’ of the British surrender on 1 June 1941. After
    all, it was Officers and Gentlemen that introduced the reproachful refrain of
    sauve qui peut to contemplation of this painful loss.

    While Waugh seethed back in Blighty, Fermor returned to Crete in the summer
    of 1942, a member of the Special Operations Executive, to orchestrate
    resistance and undercover sabotage activities. Copies of his intelligence
    reports to HQ among his archive in the National Library of Scotland begin
    as the tide turns in favour of the Allies. His dispatches offered crucial
    information on the strength, composition and morale of German forces.
    He was a resilient and resourceful spy. These reports augment the legend
    of ‘Paddy’, the dashing adventurer, raconteur and bon vivant. He was an
    irrepressibly gregarious man; equally at home swigging raki with Cretan
    peasants or holding court in a London club.

    Fermor was a skilled self-mythologizer and his colourful adventures, re22
    called with advantages, have irritated some readers; yet by any standards,
    his exploits were remarkable. The abduction of General Kreipe was forgettably
    filmed in 1957 as Ill Met by Moonlight adapted from Billy Moss’s
    day-by-day account of the escapade, published in 1950 under the same
    title. Captain Moss set down the first draft in the war diary he kept against
    orders (had he been captured with this diary, it would have provided a
    launching pad for Gestapo interrogators). Moss, a Coldstream Guardsman
    co-opted into the SOE, was awarded the Military Cross as the co-star of
    this abduction. Ill Met by Moonlight is focused from Moss’s perspective,
    even so the languid charm of Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of Fermor in the
    film version, bolstered with a Cretan moustache, cannot do justice to the
    chiselled physicality of this SOE hard nut. Sir Patrick Fermor was charismatic
    and indefatigable right up to his death in 2011.

    A book, a feature film and TV documentary might be deemed sufficient outings
    for this story, but the posthumous publication of Fermor’s telling, Abducting
    a General, is arguably the best of all. It was drafted in 1966 not
    long after Moss’s death, raising questions familiar to readers of Fermor’s
    galloping and gorgeous travel book A Time of Gifts. Doubters have accused it
    of being a sort of fantasia on the demonstrable facts of the teenage Fermor’s
    European gap year. Similarly, how much of the reality of the General’s abduction
    of spring 1944 has been airbrushed or embellished after the passage
    of over twenty years? Moss based his account on his diary in order to give a
    documentary air to his narrative; yet the twenty-two year-old had recorded
    these events in a florid prose that savours of adolescent reading.

    Fermor is a more mature, if no less literary, storyteller than Moss. Throughout
    Abducting a General there are several self-conscious, if rather clunky,
    allusions to Shakespeare (‘Between the acting of a dreadful thing’) and the
    canon. The most striking example is the night Fermor beds down in the style
    of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan in ‘a measureless natural cavern that warrened
    and forked deep into the rocks, and then dropped, storey after storey, to lightless
    and nearly airless stalactitic dungeons.’ Beware! Beware! As the symbolism
    of a Latin ode painting mountain snow illustrates, Fermor saw the Cretan
    landscape through the aura of classical myth. Horace himself famously ex23
    pressed a distrust of purple prose, but Fermor’s rhapsodic descriptions of the
    island’s natural beauty, heavy with adjectives and adverbs, are sensuously
    Lawrentian. They perform breathtaking vistas of the mind:
    “Mount Ida, far far away now in the east, gleamed remotely under
    the rising moon while ahead of us the watersheds that divide
    the nomes of Retimo and Canea rumbled across the middle distance
    like the warning notes of the huge thunderstorms of the
    White Mountains which ran wild into the sky beyond them: a
    flashing pandemonium of pallor and shadow which rages away
    westwards in spikes and landslides and rotting cliffs that overhang
    gorges flashing and zigzagging like forked lightning across
    the planetary chaos.”

    Attic heroes people these Olympian scenes. The Cretan partisans who
    guided, fed and safeguarded the two young British officers play their parts
    in this odyssey with an appropriately Homeric display of hospitality and
    bloodletting. We are told that Manoli Paterakis was ‘Completely unselfish,
    he was in the mountains purely from patriotism, and his mixture of sense,
    conviviality, stoicism, irony and humour, linked with his other qualities,
    made him more valuable than ten ordinary mortals.’ That’s to say that this
    Herculean figure, in whom no drop of stoicism dilutes conviviality, exhibits
    a pure patriotism (but isn’t a partisan free from self-interest an oxymoron?).
    Yet even when Fermor’s paean is translated into the stature of mortals,
    Manoli emerges as a brave and steadfast comrade, extremely handy in a
    scrap. There is no denying that shared dangers forged durable bonds of
    loyalty, but what mixture of sense, conviviality, stoicism, irony and humour
    was at work when, in the absence of the British officers, the throat of General
    Kreipe’s driver was cut, a brutal action glossed in Abducting a General
    as a mercy killing (‘He didn’t know a thing’).

    If at times the uncritical gusto of Abducting a General, rich in romantic
    idealism, is damaging, the warm candour of Fermor’s narrative voice is
    engaging. He is always good company: the passion for human and botanical
    life, the wide-eyed appetite for experience, is infectious. Yet however
    24 agreeable the authorial persona is in comparison to Waugh’s prickly contrarian
    manner, Fermor is an inferior writer. One cannot imagine Waugh
    ever writing as slackly as this: ‘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.’ Mountain guides don’t waste breath on tourist guides
    prattling while the slopes swarm with Germans.

    That said, Abducting a General is mostly recounted in a brisk serviceable
    prose. It is entertaining and, in patches, exciting to read. The tension
    is deftly sustained from the plotting of the ambush of the General’s car,
    to the serendipitous success of the abduction, completed minutes before
    truckloads of German troops passed them on the road. The drama of bluffing
    a way past heavily armed checkpoints gives place to an arduous trek
    through wind, rain and snow across a mountain range rising to 8000 feet;
    then sheltering in remote caves and ditches before the coast is clear, or
    clear enough, for British Commandos to whisk them away by sea. Fermor’s
    pang at leaving his beloved Crete is poignant given how inextricably his
    life has become bound to the fate of the islanders. Although he observed
    German leaflets snowing onto rooftops, threatening dire consequences if
    the General’s whereabouts were not revealed, Fermor says he never feared
    betrayal. His faith was justified.
    According to Abducting a General, Fermor and Kreipe’s relations were
    cordial; warm hugs cemented their reunion on Greek television in 1972,
    although cosy tales of swapping Latin odes amid trench humour appear a
    shade rose-tinted. Hunted and exhausted, their exchanges must have been
    severely strained as they evaded German search patrols for nearly three
    weeks, and it is hard to believe every Cretan villager was overjoyed to see
    the German General on his doorstep. The General’s pliability surely has
    as much to do with the murder of his driver as a sound classical education
    and good manners. Fermor notes intermittent moods of moroseness and
    despair in captive and captor alike. Kreipe was injured in two heavy falls;
    Fermor suffered from neuralgia, which doctors suspected might be psychosomatic,
    brought on by the prolonged strain of surviving behind enemy
    lines. It turned out to be rheumatic fever. If the nouns ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’
    season Fermor’s Cretan dish, Abducting a General is a classic of British
    military sangfroid. It is all too easy to underestimate the risk and hardship
    experienced by Fermor’s quietly courageous, ill-equipped irregulars.
    Abducting a General is a handsome book, adorned with photographs of
    Fermor and his guerrillas (bristling with sub-machine guns, looking every
    inch the part), and it contains helpful maps and even a walking guide to the
    escape route. There is a good introduction by SOE historian Dr. Roderick
    Bailey and seventy pages of Fermor’s wartime reports. Bailey mentions reprisals
    that the Germans visited on the inhabitants of the Amari valley who
    were charged with aiding the General’s evacuation. Thousands of Cretan
    civilians were driven from their razed villages and hundreds were shot.
    Fermor is understandably defensive about the connection between his actions
    and these war crimes. He highlights instead the boost that General
    Kreipe’s kidnapping gave to the Anglo-Cretan resistance movement, and
    the blow it gave German morale. With historical hindsight these claims
    sound overstated: anecdote has it that Kreipe’s absence was toasted with
    champagne in the German officers’ mess in Heraklion. Bailey concludes
    starkly that Fermor’s mission ‘had no strategic or tactical value.’