Paddy Leigh Fermor was someone very special, a clever and debonair man, an idiosyncratic writer, someone whose whole personality and career could only be British. Once I went out to dinner in London, and there he was. Another guest has grown up in Communist Bulgaria but had managed to defect. Paddy immediately sang one Bulgarian nursery song after another in the proper language. As a young man, he’d walked through pre-war Hungary and Romania, and I expect he could have sung songs in those languages too. Those walks provided the material for books that evoke Central Europe as it then was, now far away and long ago, before politics destroyed the picturesque.
Real heroes are modest, and Paddy proved it. You could never have guessed that this sociable fellow apparently eager to be friends with everyone had a war record that made him a living legend. Twenty-five in 1940, he was commissioned into the Brigade of Guards and then transferred to special services. He took part in the British fighting and withdrawal from Greece and Crete, but then set about organizing the Cretan resistance to the German occupation. Passing as a Cretan, speaking the language, he turned out to be a natural guerrilla. The great and unforgettable exploit was the kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commanding officer in Crete. In pure James Bond style, he and Stanley Moss, another Guards officer, disguised themselves as German soldiers, stopped the General’s car, dealt with the driver, put a gun to the General’s head and drove the car through some 20 roadblocks where sentries were deceived by appearances into merely saluting. They then frog-marched the General across the island to a waiting British submarine. At one point, a German search party failed to find them hiding in a cave. At another point as dawn was coming up on Mount Ida, General Kreipe quoted the opening lines of Horace’s ode praising this very snow-capped sight, whereupon Paddy recited the remaining verses.
“Ach so, Herr Major,” was the compliment with which the general ended this exchange, as unexpected as it is chivalrous. Stanley Moss wrote up the whole exploit in a memoir, Ill Met by Moonlight. I could never get Paddy to say much about it, except that he thought the film of the book was not much good. Could there be men like that again? In these thin days I doubt it, which makes me wish I could turn out the guards and give him a proper salute as he passes. R.I.P.