Sophie remembered that whenever an agent left for the field, “there would be a big party and a car would call and those who were going to be parachuted into enemy territory left just like that, without a goodbye, without anything. We never allowed ourselves to be anxious. We believed that to be anxious was to accept the possibility of something dreadful happening to them.”
A few weeks after the bathroom conference, a German Junkers Ju 52 flew over the bright-blue Mediterranean towards Crete. On board was Major General Heinrich Kreipe, the newly appointed second in command of the island. The plane landed, Kreipe climbed from the aircraft and a soft breeze wafted the smell of thyme across the field. He was unaware that he had entered a trap that would soon spring shut, ruining his career, destroying his reputation and nearly costing him his life.
Meanwhile in Cairo, the New Year was seen in at Tara with high-octane revelry. The house was the hottest social spot in the city; its guests included diplomats, war correspondents and royalty.
Moss wrote in his diary about “the night we had the bullfight?.?.?. the night we broke 19 windows”. The bullfight in the ballroom ended with a blazing sofa being hurled through a window and a Polish officer was encouraged to shoot out the lights. For their Christmas lunch, Leigh Fermor cooked turkey stuffed with Benzedrine tablets. Sophie remembered that, in Poland, they had made liqueurs by adding soft fruit to vodka. She tried to recreate this with prunes and raw alcohol. After 48 hours, someone tried the cocktail and collapsed. Sophie complained that he should have waited for three weeks before drinking it.
Early in January, Paddy Leigh Fermor got clearance to carry out his plan to kidnap a Nazi general; Billy was to be his second in command and they were joined by two Cretan guerrillas, Manolis Paterakis, Leigh Fermor’s right-hand man, and George Tyrakis. The equipment list read like something out of an adventure comic and included pistols, bombs, coshes, commando daggers, knuckle-dusters, knock-out drops and suicide pills.
Moss remembered sitting around a small red lacquer table at the Tara farewell party, faces lit by four tall candles, drinking and singing, as they waited to leave on the first leg of the adventure. Just before sunrise, Billy McLean appeared, a shy, nearly naked figure. He presented them with the complete works of Shakespeare and The Oxford Book of English Verse, which he thought had brought him luck in Albania; he hoped that the books would work the same magic for his friends.
When they flew over the rendezvous, Leigh Fermor jumped first, and was greeted by a party of guerrillas and an SOE agent, Sandy Rendel. Suddenly the weather closed in and clouds hid the ground, making it impossible to drop the others – they arrived by motor launch nearly two months later.
They were met on the beach by what Moss thought was a group of pantomime pirates. One, filthy, unshaven and dressed in rags, shook his hand, saying: “Hello Billy. You don’t know me. Paddy will be along in a minute.” It was Rendel. Leigh Fermor wore clothes that included a bolero, a maroon cummerbund that held an ivory-handled pistol and a dagger. He told Moss: “I like the locals to think of me as a sort o’ duke.”
The next fortnight was spent in planning and wild living. Moss found that “wine takes the place of one’s morning cup of tea and one often drinks a liberal quantity before brushing one’s teeth”.
Gentleman warrior: Patrick Leigh Fermor on the roof of Tara in Cairo
The original target had been Lieutenant General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller – “the Butcher of Crete” – but he had been transferred and his place taken by Kreipe. With the help of the Cretan underground intelligence, the kidnappers devised a plan to capture the general on his way home from his headquarters.
On the night of April 26 1944, Leigh Fermor and Moss, disguised as military policemen, flagged down the general’s car. As it stopped, the doors were torn open, 11 guerrillas leapt out of ditches along the sides of the road, and 90 seconds later, Kreipe was on his way towards Heraklion, handcuffed on the floor in the back of the Opel. Moss drove fast, bluffing the car through 22 German roadblocks, after which it was abandoned with a note saying that the abduction was a British commando initiative and that no Cretans were involved. Leigh Fermor hoped that this would stop any reprisals. Sometime that night, the guerrillas killed Kreipe’s driver.
It took nearly three weeks to get Kreipe to the rendezvous beach on the south coast. The kidnappers climbed Mount Ida, trudging above the snow line, over the summit and across some of the most rugged terrain in Europe. The general was dressed in the uniform he had put on for a quiet day at the office. Thousands of German soldiers surrounded the mountain, cutting off escape routes and access to the beaches. For several days, radio contact was lost with Cairo. When it was re-established, Leigh Fermor sent a signal that ended with the words “situation ugly”.
Sometimes the kidnap team passed within yards of enemy patrols, while in the distance they heard the thud of explosives as German engineers blew up villages. Throughout the journey, the kidnappers were led and protected by the guerrillas, who had risked their lives and those of their families to help the group escape. Kreipe was astonished at the loyalty and friendship shown towards the British. One guerrilla explained that “it is because the British are fighting for our freedom, while you Germans have deprived us of it in a barbarous way”.
Leigh Fermor and Moss developed a love-hate relationship with their captive. At one point, Kreipe looked at the snow-covered mountains and quoted from Horace; “Vides ut alta?.?.?.” Leigh Fermor knew the ode and completed it, thinking that, for an instant, the war had ceased to exist and finding a strange bond with the general. Kreipe spent a lot of time complaining that he was not well, causing Moss to lose his temper and shout at him to be quiet. He later wrote in his diary: “I could have killed him.”
On May 14, they reached the only rendezvous beach not occupied by German patrols. Near midnight, they heard the noise of a motor launch, but when they tried to flash the recognition signal “Sugar Baker”, Leigh Fermor and Moss realised that they did not know the Morse for Baker. They were saved by Dennis Ciclitira, another SOE agent who had been ordered to return to Cairo. He appeared, grabbed the torch and, shouting “bloody fools”, flashed the code.
By midnight, Kreipe and his kidnappers were at sea, heading for Egypt and eating lobster sandwiches. The general told his captors: “It’s all very well, but this hussar stunt of yours has ruined my career.”
Back in Cairo, Leigh Fermor and Moss went straight to Tara, where they were given a hero’s welcome. News of the kidnap flashed around the world and quickly became a sensation. Newspapers carried pictures of the gneral, his arm in a sling, chatting to a group of senior British officers. Leigh Fermor was decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and Moss won a Military Cross. Kreipe was taken to London and interrogated. The interviewing officer described him as “rather unimportant and unimaginative”. He spent the rest of the war in Canada and was released in 1947.
In 1945, Moss married Sophie and, in 1950, published his account of the kidnap. Kreipe sued him for defamation of character, and won an injunction stopping the book’s publication in Germany. For the rest of his life, Leigh Fermor agonised over two things: the death of Kreipe’s driver and whether the “hussar stunt” had brought reprisals on to the heads of his friends, the heroic people of Crete.
‘Kidnap in Crete’ by Rick Stroud (Bloomsbury) is published on Thursday, and available from Telegraph Books at £15.29 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk