We last met Rick Stroud gadding about the Western Desert following in the wake of a motley crew of scenery painters and conjurers who deceived a Panzerarmee.
This time he has shifted his gaze across the Med to the enticing and intriguing island of Crete.
This is the story of a band of SOE adventurers and Cretan patriots who kidnapped a German general and spirited him away to Egypt. It has been told before by some of the protagonists and been made into a movie based on one of their books – Ill Met By Moonlight. The film was a Powell and Pressburger effort starring Dirk Bogarde and David Oxley as the two British chaps and Marius Goring as the hapless General Kriepe. There are a lot of British character actors putting on dodgy Greek accents. I haven’t seen the film for a long time but I do remember a chief element had the general leaving bits and bobs as a trail along the escape route so his chums might follow up. All the stuff is returned to him at the end. This was a fiction added to the saga but there was enough drama in the real life story without the enhancements.
Rick Stroud is a confident writer who cracks on with hardly a moment to draw breath. He colours in the main characters with a deft hand and it is clear that he has really bought in to Cretan culture and history. He likes the people a lot. The Brits appear as a band of public school toffs with their love of the classics, the language of Homer and all that jazz. They are tough and resourceful blokes – the sort the disdainful Paul Weller got a good kicking from in Eton Rifles. But here it is the Germans who are no match for their untamed wit. Our chaps do an awful lot of drinking and smoking. You have to love them.
The book begins with an account of the German invasion of Crete in 1941. It sets the scene but it is the cut and thrust of banditry of the Cretan andartes and our SOE chums who really make the story. The Cretans have enjoyed a status as islanders apart, being Cretan first and Greek second. They like a good vendetta and are not afraid to slit a few throats. They seem far removed from the cartoon Cretan played by Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek and not so far removed from aspects of the modern classic by Louis De Bernieres which although set on the mainland enjoys parallels with this story. There are a few bit part Italians in this story for good measure. The point is, all these elements of other people’s works find a place in this story. It has an enormous dose of affection and respect for the Cretan people. I cannot fault this.
As the story develops Mr Stroud takes us beyond Crete to the Whitehall farce building in London as bureaucracy goes mad and intervenes in an already wobbly plan. There isn’t really a cliff-hanger element to the story but there is plenty to keep us occupied. The Germans, being ruthless, do a fair bit of shooting and looting as they seek revenge on a people they just cannot comprehend. The Huns never get to grips with history to get it in their Teutonic heads that the Cretans do not like being invaded and will not buckle down. If only some of them, like our SOE boys, had read the right books at school. The result for many is tragic. Mr Stroud does not avoid this but keeps the grim stuff in check. We do not need the gory details.
All in all this is a solid piece of work by Rick Stroud. I would put the writing style closer to his collaboration with the wonderful Victor Gregg than his last outing. The desert saga had a lot more substance by dint of having a much bigger plot.
I found a couple of glitches; Ju52s had a fixed undercarriage and German NCOs didn’t display their rank with chevrons. But things like this should never be enough to put you off if the vast part of the story is as appealing and bathed in Technicolor as this one.
I did enjoy this book and it does do the job of drawing us towards the long life and writing of the dashing Patrick Leigh Fermor who led the adventure with gusto despite failing health. This is all to the good. Andartes and spooks combine to make a footnote of WW2 into something so much more. The supporting characters are fantastic, including one from the town I’ve called home since 1987 – Major Dennis Ciclitira, who really should have a street or something named after him. He was bathing in the Thames Estuary until very late in life, illustrating a toughness few who know our bit of sea can argue with. God bless him.
Kidnapping the general did nothing to shorten the war and everything to ruin his reputation. The Germans eventually got the message and gave in to the inevitable. The island regained its freedom and then faced the misery of the Greek civil war that followed. I haven’t been to Crete, but friends who have – some regularly – love the place and the people.
Where Rick Stroud chooses to stop off next will be interesting. His appetite for the quirkier elements of the war offer a fertile ground of story telling and this can only be a good thing.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
KIDNAP IN CRETE
The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General
By Rick Stroud