Snow On Mount Ida And The Tinkling of Goat-Bells

Posted on September 07, 2017 by Cape Rebel

From Abducting A General
by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Billy said: ‘Check point ahead.’ Two men were waving a red torch in the middle of the road, and there was a cry of ‘Halt!’ Billy slowed down slightly. When they saw the flags, the two men jumped aside, stood to attention, and saluted. I returned it, and Billy accelerated again, murmuring: ‘This is marvellous.’

Herr Major,’ came the voice from behind, ‘where are you taking me?’ ‘To Cairo.’ ‘No, but how?’ ‘To Herakleion.’ There was a pause; then, several keys higher, in complete incredulity: ‘TO HERAKLEION?’ ‘Yes. You must understand that we must keep you out of sight. We will make you as comfortable as we can later on.

By this time, houses were becoming denser beside the road, and pedestrians and animals more frequent, as was the glow of booths, taverns and cafés. Soon there was another red light, a narrowing of the road, and a cry of ‘Halt!’ Then another. We passed them in the same style as the first, and those that followed. At Fortetza, there was a forbidding wooden barrier as well. Again, the flags sent it sailing respectfully into the air. Soon we were inside the great Venetian city wall, and the main street swallowed us up. The Marlin guns, lowered now, were held ready behind the doors.

The General had sunk below the window level in a vice-like grip. George’s dagger was still threateningly aimed; and when German voices grew loud beside the car, hands were clamped over his mouth. We were held up by a number of manoeuvring and reversing trucks, and soon by a cheerful swarm of soldiers pouring out of the garrison cinema. (It was a Saturday night.) Billy calmly and methodically hooted his way through this mob – a swerving cyclist nearly fell off avoiding us. Creeping along, collecting many salutes as the soldiers cleared out of the way, we reached the turn by the Morosini fountain, and headed left for the Canea Gate. It was the only way out of the town.

If anything went wrong on the way through, the plan was to drive fast for the Canea Gate and, if the barrier there was down, charge it, break through, and then, if pursued, fire long bursts out of the back window and the sides, and hurl the Mills grenades with short fuses which weighted down all of our pockets. (We had plenty of spare magazines for our sub-machine guns and automatics.) Outside the Gate, we stood a chance of getting away. The powerful, brand-new Opel must have been the fastest car in the island, and Billy was a skilful and imaginative driver. With a long start, we could make for the mountains at full speed, get out well before the troops from Retimo, warned by telephone, could head us off from the west, send the car spinning down a precipice, and, after concealing the tracks, strike uphill. But, should there be determination en masse to stop us at the Canea Gate, we would slew round fast and into the lanes – I had a good idea where, thanks to those wanderings with Micky after dark – leave the General tied and blindfold (‘Remember, General, we have spared your life! No reprisals!), block the way with the car, and make a dash for it. There was a maze of alleyways, walls one could jump, drainpipes to climb, skylights, flat roofs leading from one to another, cellars and drains and culverts – as Manoli and I had discovered during our raid on the harbour, of which the Germans knew nothing. If cornered, we had plenty of grenades and spare ammunition and iron rations. Perhaps, by laying up, and with a bit of luck, there would have been a chance. The town was dotted with friends’ houses and, after all, except for a handful of spies and traitors, the whole city would be on our side.

There was a clear run down the narrow main street to the Canea Gate. But as we approached the great barbican, which the Germans had tightened into a bottleneck with cement anti-tank blocks, there were not only the normal sentries and guards, but a large number of other soldiers in the gateway as well. The soldier wielding the red torch failed to budge; it looked as though they were going to stop us. Tension in the car rose several degrees. Billy slowed down – we had planned for this eventuality – cocked his automatic, and put it in his lap; mine was already handy; behind, we heard the bolts on the three Marlin guns click back. When we were nearly on top of them, and one of the guard was approaching, I wound down the window and shouted: ‘General’s Wagen!

The words ‘General’s Wagen!’ passed peremptorily from mouth to mouth; and the torch was lowered just in time. Billy stepped on the accelerator, the soldiers fell back and saluted, and the sentries jumped to present arms. All of this was acknowledged with a gruff goodnight, and we drove through. We sailed through the other check points (the other inmates of the car counted twenty-two from start to finish) with great smoothness. At last the check points and the long ragged straggle of suburb were all behind us, and we were roaring up the road to Retimo, with the headlights striking nothing but rocks and olive groves. Mount Ida soared on our left; and sea, just discernible, shone peacefully below.

A mood of riotous jubilation broke out in the car. Once more we were talking, laughing, gesticulating, and finally singing at the tops of our voices; and offering each other cigarettes, including the General. They made him as comfortable as they could. I handed back his hat, and asked him if he would give his parole not to attempt to escape. To my relief, he gave it. I then formally introduced Billy. He had no German and the General no English, so civilities were exchanged in French, not very expert on either side. I then presented Manoli, George and Strati by their Christian names, and for a moment the four figures behind all seemed to be formally bowing to each other.

A bit later the General leant forward and said, ‘Sagen Sie einmal, Herr Major, was für ein Zweck hat dieses Husarenstück?’ (Tell me, Major, what is the object of this hussar-stunt?). A very awkward question. (We were passing the solitary khan of Yeni Gave, near our first destination, only twenty miles from Herakleion, but thanks to the bad road, it was already past 11 pm.) I told the General I would explain it all tomorrow.

We now had no local guide since Yanni’s eclipse, but Strati had served in the area as a young policeman, and Manoli and I knew it a bit. We drew up at the bottom of a goat-track which, after a few hours’ climb, would end at Anoyeia. We all got out, and Manoli unlocked the handcuffs. The General was perturbed when he saw that I was going on with George. (‘You are going to leave me alone with these … people?’) I told him the Hauptmann would be in command and that he was under Manoli’s special care. This sounded ambiguous, but there was something in Manoli’s bearing that inspired trust. The party were to lie up outside Anoyeia, and wait for us; Manoli and Strati knew who to contact for food and runners, and for messages to our nearest wireless stations. I saluted, and the General did the same – I was keen on setting this single note of punctilio in our rather bohemian unit. Billy and the General set off uphill, Strati leading and Manoli in the rear, with his gun in the crook of his arm.

There was a certain amount of laughter from the slope when, at last, after several stalls, the car wobbled off down the road, in bottom – I just managed to get the thing along the two miles which led to the beginning of the track that ran down, past the hamlet of Heliana, to the submarine bay and the tiny island of Peristeri. We left the car conspicuously well out in the road. The floor had been purposely covered with fag-ends of Player’s cigarettes; these clues were reinforced by a usurped Raiding Forces beret (‘Who Dares, Wins’), and an Agatha Christie paperback. We kicked up the pathway, running down it to plant a round Player’s tin, and, further on, a Cadbury’s milk chocolate wrapper. (If only we had had a sailor’s cap.) The letter to the German authorities [stressing that this was the work of the English, not the Cretans, in order to avoid reprisals on the local population] was prominently pinned to the front seat. Then – we couldn’t resist it – we each broke off one of the flags which had served us so well. I gave mine to George, who waved them both, saying: ‘Captured standards!’ and shoved them in his sakouli, his colourful, woven rucksack, with the steel rods sticking out.

There was no path. It was only five or six miles to Anoyeia for a crow, but three times as far for us: all ravines, cliffs, boulders, undergrowth, and thorns. Luckily there was a new moon. The only people we saw all night were two boys with pine torches, hunting for eels in a brook. Hailed from afar, they put us on the right track. Every hour or so, we lay down for a smoke. The night was full of crickets, and frogs, and nightingales. The snow on Mount Ida glimmered in the sky, and neither of us could quite believe, in this peaceful and empty region, that the night’s doings had really happened.

The approach of dawn was announced by the tinkling goat-bells of a score of folds waking up in the surrounding foothills, and just above us we could see the white houses of Anoyeia spreading like a fortress along a tall blade of rock.