From Abducting A General
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
‘Well, Herr Major, how are the plans for our departure progressing?’ By now the General had become as solicitous for the success of our departure as we ourselves were.
‘Wunderbar, Herr General! We’re leaving!’
It was true, the order of release, or the promise of it, had come through. The German drive through the Asi Gonia mountains had driven Dennis to earth and put his set momentarily off the air. But messages from Cairo were now beamed to all stations and when the great news came through, Dick himself, hearing ofour local troubles, and making a dash clean across the nome of Retimo, reached our cheerless grotto long after dark. The boat would put in at a beach near Rodakino at 22h00 hours on the night of 14 and 15 May – ‘10 o’clock tomorrow night!’ It was in exactly a day from now. We would only just be able to manage it.
The thing was to get the main party to the coast under cover of darkness. I sent Billy off with George and the others, and Yanni Katsias and his two wild boys, by a short route that would bring them, by daybreak, to a place where they could wait for us. The General, Manoli and I would go by a much longer and safer route, where the mountains were so steep and deserted that, with a cloud of scouts out as a precaution, we could move by day without much danger. Unfortunately it was too steep and uneven for a mule, so theGeneral would have to go on foot. But the sky was clear, and there would be a bright moon and starlight. Yanni would warn the Rodakino bands that we were heading for their mountains, and ask some of them to come and meet us.
Sustained perhaps by the thought of an end to his ordeal, the General tackled this via crucis with scarcely a groan. Helped by Manoli and me when he stumbled, and then by the guerrillas that shimmered like ghosts out of the vacancy, he moved across the landscape in a sort of trance. But, tormenting as our journey was, the dazzle of the moon and, when it set, of a blaze of stars that was nearly as bright, undermined this commotion of rock and then, by a planetary device in collusion with the optical tricks ofwhich, at some moments, Crete seemed to be composed – involving manipulated reflection and focus, levitation, geometrical shifts and a dissolving of solids balanced by a solidification of shadow – filled thehollow, then porous and finally transparent island under foot with lunar and stellar properties and, while joisting it several leagues in the air, simultaneously, with moves as quiet as an opening gambit followed by those advances of knights and bishops, fast and stealthy as grandmother’s steps, which lead to penultimate castling and a sudden luminous checkmate, regrouped all the mountain tops of Crete within touching distance. The valleys and foothills had dropped away from this floe of triangles. They drifted in the windless cold starlight with the pallor, varying with their distance, of ice or ivory.
The sun rose behind Mount Ida and, by the time it was up, about twenty guerrillas were padding along beside us. They were all from the Rodakiniot band of the Kapitans Yanna, Kotsiphis and Khombitis. Like a number of their men, these were old friends from my time in their region, but I hadn’t seen most of them for a year and a half.
A few hours later we were gazing down at the point where the Germans, fortunately about two miles from our intended point of exit, lived in a strongly defended barbed wire perimeter. (Our march, until the reunion with Billy’s party in the middle of the morning, had taken thirteen hours. It was considered a great feat.) Billy and the others had arrived at our tryst – a jut of the mountains commanding the entire coast – just before dawn. There was a great feeling of excitement in the air. The main body of the enemy were a mile further west. We watched the outpost directly beneath us, as they moved about their pen at normal garrison tasks. Suddenly they all seemed to be bounding across an open space, in an extending line which began to shrink at the other end. I asked Minoli for the binoculars. He looked through them, laughed, and handed them to me. Billy adjusted his, and when we saw that they were only playing leapfrog, songs burst simultaneously from our lips. The General looked down for a long time and handed back the glasses with one of his deep sighs. I don’t think he was thinking of rescue. It was too late now, and, with all those black-clad guerrillas lying smoking and talking quietly among the rocks, with their guns beside them, too remote a contingency. I think the sigh, and the resigned smile and the shrug that followed, meant that those minute figures below were the last of the German Army he would see until thewar was over. He said, not sarcastically: ‘You must be feeling pleased.’
But I wasn’t, not altogether. Billy and I both felt that all would go well this time. The Rodakino captains had done us proud. Long before the ship was due, there would be eighty or a hundred well-armed men in themountains, to close out the passes inland and to swoop down the mountainside, should there be trouble at the last moment. They could hold those Thermopylean narrows, between the sea and the mountains, against a whole regiment.
But Crete is always difficult to leave. It was especially so now.
And the Cretans? There has been more than a hint in this account of their kindness and generosity, and ofthat aspect of Cretan life which gives the phrase ‘Brothers in Arms’ such meaning.
Yet it was another side of the Cretans, for which there has been no room at all in this narrative, which one knew one would miss most: the flair for friendship, company, talk, fun and music; originality and inventiveness in conversation, and an explosive vitality that seemed to recharge itself from the high voltage of the air. It was to the air, too, that they gave the credit for their capacity to cross several mountain ranges, at the same lightning speed, on an empty stomach, as well as after swallowing enough raki and wine to lay low other mortals for a week. Their glance and their speech were equally unguarded. There was something both patrician and bohemian in their attitude to life, and their sense of the comic drew a thread of humour through everything – not frivolously, but rather out of stoicism, if things were going badly – and to wipe away anything maudlin or rhetorical from matters that were too serious to be blurred by either. Recalcitrant to official dragooning, they would let themselves be cut to bits for theabstract ideas around which their lives turned.
In a way, of course, they were ready for all that was happening. They were brought up on powder and shot, and on traditions of fighting against occupation. They knew all about the cost of a wedding feast. Even if the whole place went up in smoke, they knew they would win in the end. If not this time, then thenext.
When eating and drinking in sheep-folds and in caves, it was to take anything stagey out of their utterances that they adopted a mock-heroic, and almost ribald, tone when they clashed glasses together and said, ‘Let us die without shame’. But they meant it, and they did.
In the end, excitement at the thought of getting the General off the island, and of being free at last from the risks of disaster or failure (and, less creditably, from the bruta figura) had us all in its grip. Anyway, this time the whole party, except for Grigori and Antoni Zoidakis, were coming too. It was them I had been thinking about, and would miss most.
They had been utterly beyond praise and, of all the participants (before and after the capture) who had passed us on from hand to hand, like an explosive and incendiary baton in two relay races, across a dozen mountain ranges, lasting for twenty-two and then seventeen days, their help had been instantaneous, enthusiastic and total, with never a flicker of hesitation or doubt.