The death of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor at the age of 96, commemorated in many obituaries as the end of a celebrated travel writer, in fact rings down the final curtain on an extraordinary group of British irregular warriors whose contribution to the defeat of Hitler, significant in military terms, still managed to recall an age when nobility and even chivalry were a part of warfare. All these men were “travel writers” in their way, in that they were explorers, archaeologists, amateur linguists, anthropologists, and just plain adventurers. Men, as Saki put it so well in The Unbearable Bassington, “who wolves have sniffed at.” But they put their amateur skills to work after the near-collapse of Britain’s conventional forces in 1940 had left most of the European mainland under Nazi control, and after Winston Churchill had sent out a call to “set Europe ablaze” by means of guerrilla warfare.
Suddenly it was found that there were many bright and brave young men, not very well suited to the officers’ mess, who nevertheless had military skills and who had, moreover, back-country knowledge of many tough neighborhoods in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.
Leigh Fermor had lived in Greece before the war, had taken a part in the revolution of 1935, and had seen the German invasion sweep all before it. He spoke the language and loved the culture and could be fairly inconspicuously infiltrated onto the island of Crete. In 1944, with the help of some British special forces and a team of Cretan partisans, he managed to kidnap the commander of the German occupation, Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, and carry him over a long stretch of arduous terrain before loading him into a fast motorboat that sped him to Egypt and British captivity. The humiliation of the German authorities could not have been more complete. Perhaps resenting this, Gen. Kreipe was at first obnoxious and self-pitying, until the moment came when he was being taken over the crest of Mount Ida and a “brilliant dawn” suddenly broke. According to Leigh Fermor’s memoirs:
We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. [“See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.”] It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off. … The general’s blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain top to mine and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.
Have no fear, this did not result in some sickly reconciliation. Several of Kreipe’s colleagues were executed at the end of the war for the atrocious reprisals they took against Cretan civilians. One of Leigh Fermor’s colleagues, another distinguished classicist named Montague Woodhouse, once told me that Greek villagers urged him to strike the hardest possible blows against the Nazis, so as to make the inevitable reprisals worthwhile. He lived up to this by demolishing the Gorgopotamos viaduct in 1942, * wrecking Nazi communications. But the brutality of the combat doesn’t negate that moment of civilized gallantry at Mount Ida, where the idea of culture over barbarism also scored a brief triumph. (Woodhouse went on to become a Conservative politician and active Cold Warrior, but while fighting Hitler he was quite happy to work with Communist and nationalist fighters, and he wrote in his memoirs that “the only bearable war is a war of national liberation.”)
What a cast of literally classic characters this league of gentleman comprised. Bernard Knox went with poet John Cornford to fight for the Spanish Republic, was later parachuted into France and Italy to arrange the covert demolition and sabotage of Vichy and Mussolini, and, after the war, set up the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard. * Nicholas Hammond, who had walked rifle in hand over the mountains of Epirus and Macedonia, later suggested from his study of the terrain that those seeking the burial treasure of Philip of Macedon might consider digging at Vergina. (He was right.) Some of the brotherhood was very much to the left: Basil Davidson helped organize Tito’s red partisans in Bosnia, and after the war he went to work with the African rebels who fought against fascist Portugal’s dirty empire. Frank Thompson, brother of the British Marxist historian Edward Thompson, was liaison officer to the resistance in Bulgaria before being betrayed and executed. Others were more ambivalent: Sir Fitzroy Maclean was a Tory aristocrat but helped persuade Churchill that Tito’s forces in Yugoslavia were harder fighters than the monarchists when it came to killing Nazis. On the more traditional side of British derring-do, Billy McLean and Julian Amery emerged from the guerrilla resistance in Albania with a lively hatred of Communism and later took part in several quixotic attempts to “roll back” the Iron Curtain. Col. David Smiley saw irregular action in almost every theater, and in the 1960s and 1970s he organized the almost unique defeat of a Communist insurgency in Oman.
Now the bugle has sounded for the last and perhaps the most Byronic of this astonishing generation. When I met him some years ago, Leigh Fermor (a slight and elegant figure who didn’t look as if he could squash a roach; he was perfectly played by Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight, the movie of the Kreipe operation) was still able to drink anybody senseless, still capable of hiking the wildest parts of Greece, and still producing the most limpidly written accounts of his solitary, scholarly expeditions. (He had also just finished, for a bet, translating P.G. Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into classical Greek.) That other great classicist and rebel soldier T.E. Lawrence, pressed into the service of an imperial war, betrayed the Arabs he had been helping and ended his life as a twisted and cynical recluse. In the middle of a war that was total, Patrick Leigh Fermor fought a clean fight and kept faith with those whose cause he had adopted. To his last breath, he remained curious and open-minded to an almost innocent degree and was a conveyor of optimism and humor to his younger admirers. For as long as he is read and remembered, the ideal of the hero will be a real one.
Christopher Hitchens’ Kindle Single, The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.
Corrections, June 13, 2011: This article originally misspelled Gorgopotamos. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also incorrectly placed the Center for Hellenic Studies at Yale rather than Harvard. (Return to the corrected sentence.)