Bloodless operations against an enemy during wartime are some of the most extreme and difficult acts that a nation can carry out. And the reasons are often simple. Such undertakings often border between fantasy and the impossible. It must involve surprise in every sense of the word, absolute secrecy, and nine times out of ten, the use of a few individuals, often numbering less than the fingers on a hand, to carry them out.
As early Winter 1944 passed in Cairo, Egypt such a plan was proposed by British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) agents Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss. S.O.E. was a cross between special operations and an intelligence agency which supplied operatives throughout combat theaters to aid resistance groups in fighting the enemy.
An organization known for daring, hearing Fermor and Moss’s presentation must surely have raised a few eyebrows, because what they intended to do bordered on suicidal. It would take place on the island of Crete, under German control since May of 1941, after a massive but costly airborne landing defeated British and Commonwealth forces.
From the beginning, several endeavors were undertaken to help the people of Crete resist, but these often met with reprisals. To be sure, this operation was to be one more effort in helping the people of Crete resist the German occupation, but with one difference: the goal was that there would be no reprisals against civilians for success, as every bit of it would point to the British. It would be needed, because what they were planning on was practically unheard of up to that point, and succeeding would almost certainly cause the Germans to lust for revenge.
They were going to kidnap a German General.
Not just any General, but the commander of the island itself, one General Freidrich-Wilhelm Muller, an officer with a reputation for brutality against Crete’s populace. If successful, not only would they gain valuable intelligence from his interrogation, but it would also provide a tremendous boost to the morale of the population at large, and the resistance movement on the island. As well, it could alarm other German generals wherever they may be throughout other occupied countries, making them look twice over their shoulders, giving them a feeling of vulnerability no matter how many guards they had.
If they were able to plot the general’s movements, Fermor felt confident the plan could succeed. And perhaps there was no better man to lead the effort than he. An adventurer who walked the length of Europe at 18, he was well versed in several cultures, had seen combat before the war in Macedonia against a revolt, and spoke Greek like a native. After the war began, he was stationed in Albania and fought in Crete and Greece. Upon joining the S.O.E., he returned three times to live among the population of Crete, as part of a selective few given the task of supporting the resistance movement. To see it through, he lived disguised as a shepard in the mountains for over two years while these efforts were underway. So his offering to lead the operation brought considerable clout.
S.O.E. approved the plan, and Fermor finalized the details. His intention was to parachute into Crete in the dark with Moss and two Cretan S.O.E agents, Georgios Tyrakis and Emmanouil Paterakis. They would link up with the resistance and find the right moment and place to snatch Muller. This would take time, and the agents expected to be on Crete for weeks, thus making secrecy paramount.
Could there be double-crossers in the resistance? This they did not know. Fermor suspected not. But no matter anyway, as they knew the risks, and remained dedicated to its end.
At an airfield outside Cairo, on the evening of February 4, the team boarded their plane and lifted off for Crete. The flight was droning and monotonous until they reached Crete, where heavy clouds obscured the drop zone. Fermor went ahead and jumped, but the others remained aboard waiting for a break. It never came. Low on fuel, the plane had to head back to Cairo, leaving Fermor alone to link up with the resistance, which he did. Knowing his comrades would try again soon, he knew he had to get to work, but not before a surprise was laid on him like a king size blanket…
Muller was gone.
In his place, another General, named Heinrich Kreipe, had been assigned. Fermor decided with the operation underway, Kreipe would be just as good as any other. He disguised himself as a shepard once more and joined another S.O.E. agent already on the island, Sandy Rendel, to begin collecting intelligence on the General’s movements. All the while, they listened on a radio for coded messages about when the next attempt to insert the team would happen.
For the next two months, three more attempts by air failed for one reason or another, before the air method was shelved and an insertion by boat happened to bring the group together at last. On April 4, Moss and the other two stepped off onto a dark beach and joined up with Fermor and Rendel to begin the final stages of the plan.
Moving to the village of Knossos, where Kreipe resided, they started observing the habits and routes he took. Ironically, their base of operations was in a residence right across from the General’s. It belonged to another Cretan S.O.E. agent, Michalis ‘Micky’ Akoumianakis.
Fermor first reconnoitered the area around the German headquarters to possibly enter it and perform the snatch, but determined it would be too difficult to pull off. Therefore, it was decided to stop the General’s car by setting up a checkpoint before he returned to his residence.
On the night of April 26, Fermor and Mallory changed into clothing disguising themselves as corporals in the German Army’s military police and set up on an isolated part of road for the moment. Right on time, the General’s vehicle appeared and the men flagged it to a stop. Approaching the driver’s side, Moss brought a cosh down against the chauffeurs head, knocking him out, as Fermor pulled a pistol on the General. The startled man said nothing as the driver was pulled from the car and Fermor took the wheel, with Moss climbing in next to Kreipe. The car turned around and headed off toward the capitol of Heraklion.
For the next hour and a half, they passed through 22 checkpoints with no difficulty before Fermor decided to abandon the car and split up. He left documents behind stating that this was an all-British operation and that the Cretan people were not involved.
Moss, along with the General, joined up with the rest of the team and began moving across the mountains for the next 2 1/2, weeks as German patrols scoured the land for any trace of the captors. Sleeping in caves and always on the edge of discovery, the team managed to stay one step ahead until they rejoined with Fermor, still in the mountains.
Transiting over Mount Ida, the mythological birthplace of Zeus, Kreipe quoted a poem when he first saw the snow covered peak, to which Fermor replied with the rest. He later stated both, “Had drunk at the same fountains of learning.” After an exhausting trek, the group descended near the town of Rodakino on the southern side of the island. On the night of May 14, the same boat that had originally brought the rest of the team in broached the sand a final time, and the men, with their prize, boarded and sped into the darkness back toward Egypt, where they arrived safely and began the interrogation of Kreipe.
Unknown to them, once word got out that the General had been kidnapped, the mood back at a German officer’s mess hall became almost jovial. A staff officer was reported to have said, “Well gentleman, I think this calls for champagne all round.” It seems Kreipe was disliked by many under his command, particularly when he objected to being stopped at checkpoints who complied with his orders about making sure of documentation. This explained the ease at which Fermor and Moss were able to get through the capitol, as no one dared draw the General’s ire. More importantly, the documents Fermor left convinced the Germans not to carry out reprisals.
Soon, Kreipe was turned over to become a POW while their captors departed for other missions for S.O.E. After the war, Moss decided to write a book about the operation, titled ‘Ill Met By Moonlight,’ seeing it published in 1950. Using a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ the book was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1957. Kreipe met his captors once again on a TV show in the early 70s. He held no hard feelings and said he was always well-treated. It might also have been a blessing in disguise, for, once the war ended, Greece executed two of his fellow Generals.