The Grace and Charm of the Shaggiest Mountaineers

Posted on September 07, 2017 by Cape Rebel

From Abducting A General
by Patrick Leigh Fermor

An hour after sunset, our two parties now rejoined, we were winding up a steep and scarcely discernible goat path. On a mule in the centre, muffled against the cold in Strati’s green gendarme’s greatcoat, with Manoli by his side, rode the General, or rather, Theophilos – the words ‘Kreipe’ or ‘Strategos’ had been forbidden even as far back as Kastamonitza.

Billy told me they had had a ‘German alarm’ during the day, and had moved their hideout. (Could it have been George and me?) They’d even managed to get some sleep. The General, they said, had been reasonable and co-operative; his most immediate worry, which he repeated to me during our first rest – for a smoke among the rocks – was the loss of his Knight’s Cross. I said it had probably come off in the struggle. Perhaps it had been picked up during the clean-up, in which case I would see that it was returned, and he thanked me. Apropos of the leaflets, which I translated, he said: ‘Well, you surely didn’t expect my colleague Braüer to remain inactive when he learnt of my … my rape?’ (Mein Raub)

No, but the Germans won’t catch us.’ (I touched a handy ilex trunk here.) ‘The Cretans are all on our side, you know.

Yes, I can see they are. And, of course, you’ve always got me.

Yes, General, we’ve always got you.

At another of these halts, he said, after a sigh, and almost to himself: ‘Post coitum triste.’ I was astonished at this comment, and told him that only a few minutes before, and far out of earshot, Billy and I had decided that this phrase exactly suited the brief mood of deflation that had followed the capture.

It’s all right for you, Major,’ the General said, ‘military glory, I suppose. But my whole career has come to bits. (Meine ganze Karriere ist kaput gegangen.) The war is over for me, as you said. To think that my promotion from General-major to General-leutenant has just come through!

His heavy face – he had a massive jutting chin, grey straight hair cropped at the sides but long enough to fall over his forehead, and blue eyes – looked morose and sad. ‘I wish I’d never come to this accursed island.’ He laughed mirthlessly. ‘It was supposed to be a nice change after the Russian front.’

We both laughed. It was all rather extraordinary. He was a thickset, massively built man, but not fat. He was wearing, unfortunately for the journey ahead, the same lightweight field grey as we were, with the loose ski trousers of mountain troops, and, thank heavens, thick mountain boots.

He was the thirteenth son of a Lutheran pastor in Hanover and a professional soldier to the backbone. He must have had, in surroundings where there was more scope for it, a solid and commanding presence.

In the small hours, we climbed off the track and curled up on the bracken floor of an old shepherd’s hut. The fire in the middle lit up a conical stone igloo, cobwebbed and sooty, and lined with tiers of cheeses like minor millstones, and dripping bags of whey. Except for an hour interrupted by comings and goings on the divan running around the priest’s living room, George and I had not slept since Skalani.

We all rose again in the dark, and continued our journey.

As dawn broke, we were hailed from an overhanging ledge. It was one of Mihali Xylouris’s lookouts, sitting with a gun across his knees. In a moment he was bounding down the hill; he threw his gun aside with a yell, and flung his arms around me, Billy, Manoli, and George, stopping just in time at the astounded General. It was one of my honorary god-brothers, Kosta Kephaloyannis, about nineteen, as lithe and wild-looking as a young panther – with bronze complexion, huge green eyes and flashing teeth,.


For the General, breaking bread with Mihali and his men and us must have seemed rather odd: the many signs of the cross before falling to, and then the glasses clashed together with the usual resistance toasts: ‘Victory!’, ‘Freedom!’, ‘Blessed Virgin stand close to us!’, ‘May she scour the rust from our guns!’ and ‘May we die without shame’.

Mihali and his band were scrupulously polite, but they found it hard to wrench their glance from our strange prize.

The shaggiest and most unlettered Cretan mountaineers often possess a charm and grace of manner amounting to a very high style, even if the supper is only goat’s milk and rock-hard, twice-baked shepherd’s bread. After the handful of petit-bourgeios collaborators in Herakleion, which must have been his only social experience of Greeks, this would have come as a surprise to the General.

It was thought wiser to do without a fire. Drinking a lot of raki to keep warm, we sang for a while: the old Cretan insurrection song ‘When will the skies clear?’, elaborate rhyming couplets, a rizitika – a foothill song – ‘My swift little swallow’, ‘An Eagle was Sitting’ in the minor mode, and ‘Philedem’ – a song with a Turkish tune that I was so fond of that it had become a nickname.

Through lack of covering, Billy, the General and I ended up, not for the last time, sleeping – all three – under the same blanket in the wireless cave, with Manoli and George on either side, nursing their Marlin guns and taking it in turns to sleep. Verminous as such places always were, it was a greater torment to my bedfellows than to me, coarsened as I was by nearly two years of onslaught.

We experienced a curious moment as dawn streamed into the mouth of the cave which framed the white crease of Mount Ida. We were all three lying, smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte’.

This was the opening line and a bit of one of the few odes of Horace I knew by heart. I was in luck.

Nec jam sustineant onus,’ I went on,
silvae laborantes geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto

I continued through the other stanzas, to the end of the ode. After a few seconds of silence, the General said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major.’ For a full five minutes, the war had evaporated without a trace.


A few hours’ climb brought us within hail of Kapetan Petrakoyeorgi’s outposts, high on the shoulders of Ida. Soon we were in the toils of a welcome even more triumphant and demonstrative than Mihali’s. Petrakoyeorgi – tall, booted, bandoliered, robust, warm-hearted, voluble and, with his sparkling eyes and twirling moustache and beard, full of charm – was one of the three original guerrilla captains of the Occupation. Taking to the hills at the invasion, they had all suffered many hardships.

The heavy and buffalo-moustached Petrakoyeorgi was brave and ruthless, a sort of Tamerlane. I always liked him in spite of his glaring faults, of which the most glaring was a headstrong instability of temperament which made him prone to rash acts: doings which in a moment could bring down, in smithereens, a year’s careful preparation by the rest of the resistance movement. I think the General was rather impressed by his grand air, and his hospitable and expansive manner: also, perhaps, by the large quantity of arms of the men who swarmed the rocks in large numbers, with many familiar and friendly faces among them – the gun-running trips and parachute drops were beginning to bear fruit.

Petrakoyeorgi gave us a new guide, and Antoni Z, who came from the Amari, on Ida’s southern flank, left in advance with two more, to send back as runners, to a rendezvous on the other side of the watershed.

We worked out a system of bonfires to indicate the route if he could find a cunning way between the German concentrations. All said that large numbers of Germans were gathering round the southern slopes. If no way existed for the moment, he would send us word to go to ground and stay put.