Patrick Leigh Fermor: The English Writer Who Fought for Greece

Paratroopers in Create during the World War Second
Paratroopers in Crete, 1941. Patrick Leigh Fermor helped the Greek resistance and even kidnapped a Nazi general on Crete. Credit: Arthur Conry / CC-BY-SA-3 / Wikimedia Commons

The famous British writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor always followed the call of his heart, which often led to his beloved Greece.

He was a tireless traveler, a polyglot who was fluent in modern Greek, and a romantic adventurer who has blessed the world with many brilliant books. However, one of his main passions was beautiful Greece, for which he selflessly fought during the Second World War, where he lived and met his love.

His life itself was like a book of adventures. He pretended to be a shepherd and a German soldier on Crete, helped the Greek resistance, kidnapped a Nazi general and met him again many years later.

In short, this extraordinary person left a big mark on history, and the BBC once described him as a mixture of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.

Early Years of the Future War Hero

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born during the turbulent era of the First World War in 1915 in London. His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was an eminent geologist and the first president of the Indian National Academy of Sciences. Shortly after the birth of her son, Lee Fermor’s mother, Muriel Aeyleen, left the UK for her husband, leaving little Patrick in England.

At a young age, he attended the The King’s School in Canterbury but was notorious for his academic problems. The school even described Fermor as a “dangerous mixture of sophistication and ingenuity.” These qualities, which influenced Fermor’s personality from his youth, largely shaped his romantic and adventurous nature.

Beginning of Adventures

Already at the age of eighteen, Leigh Fermor had the idea to cross Europe on foot, from the Netherlands to Constantinople. He started this path in December 1933 shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany. Leigh Fermor took with him an ascetic but intellectual set, including several changes of clothes, some recommendation letters, a volume of English poetry, and another volume of the Odes of the Roman poet Horace.

On the way, he stopped for the night in barns, shepherds’ huts, hospitable monasteries, and was sometimes a guest of the provincial aristocrats of Central Europe. This impressive adventure found its reflection in two of his last books: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). In addition to travel content, these works are rich in historical, geographical, linguistic, and anthropological information.

Leigh Fermor arrived in Constantinople on January 1, 1935 and then went to Greece, a country that would become his second home. In Athens, he fell in love with a Romanian noblewoman, Balasha Cantacuzène. As befits romantic and creative natures, the couple settled in an old mill on the island of Poros. After some time on an idyllic island, they moved to Romania, where they lived until the outbreak of World War II.

World War II and Cretan Resistance

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Leigh Fermor returned to England and joined the Irish Guards. The writer called his love for Greece absolute, adding that the months spent away from this country seemed unbearable to him.

Following the will of his heart, in 1941, he wanted to help the Greeks who were fighting in Albania at the time. His wish came true due to the excellent knowledge of the Greek language. Leigh Fermor went to Albania as a liaison office and joined the Greek army that continued to wage successful battles against the Italians.

In the future, Lee Fermor fought bravely in mainland Greece, but he especially distinguished himself for his courage and resourcefulness on the island of Crete.

During the German occupation, he returned to this island three times. He was one of a small group of Special Operations Executive officers sent to organize resistance in Crete against the German occupation.

For more than two years, he lived on Cretan mountains, disguised as a shepherd and under the pseudonyms Michalis or Philedus. Together with Captain William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor led an Anglo-Greek group that captured and deported German General Heinrich Kreipe from Crete to the Middle East.

Kidnapping of a German General

It happened on the night of April 26, 1944. The commander of one of the Wehrmacht’s airborne divisions stationed on Crete, General Heinrich Kreipe, went by car from the headquarters in Archanes to Knossos. On his way stood two non-commissioned officers of the German field gendarmerie, who allegedly would examine the documents.

In fact, it was Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss who captured Kreipe and, with the help of Greek resistance, reached the southern coast of Crete. From there, Kreipe was taken by boat to Egypt, where he was interrogated and then transferred to a POW camp in Canada.

It is believed that the kidnapping operation was successful in large part due to the improvident procedures and rules that Kreipe established on the island. Namely, he was extremely opposed to the fact that German soldiers at checkpoints stopped his car for inspection. Thanks to this, the kidnappers managed to pass through numerous German roadblocks.

Leigh Fermor himself received the Distinguished Service Order for kidnapping Kreipe. The inhabitants of the island, in memory of this significant event, erected a monument near the village of Archanes.

Interestingly, the fates of Leigh Fermor and Kreipe crossed again many years later under completely different circumstances. In 1972, there was little to remember from that April night on Crete, and the former kidnapper and the kidnapped were already greeting each other as participants in a show on Greek television in Athens.

Leigh Fermor in Greece after the War

However, even after the end of the war, Leigh Fermor did not leave Greece. On the contrary, he firmly established himself there, putting down the roots of his new life.

Leigh Fermor’s friend, another famous British writer whose heart was also captivated by Greece, Lawrence Durrell, recalled spending time together in Cyprus. He wrote that Leigh Fermor visited his villa and, after dinner, began to sing songs of Crete, Athens, and Macedonia. Darrell noticed a crowd of people listening in reverent silence. According to them, they have never heard an Englishman singing Greek songs in such a special way.

Nafplio at Peloponnese Region
Travel and love for Greece led Leigh Fermor to the Peloponnese, where he built a house. Credit: Mtale/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.0

Travel and love for Greece led Leigh Fermor to the Peloponnese, which became his home for many decades. Captivated by the green scenery of this blessed place, washed by the rich sea waves, he settled here in the 1960s.

Together with his partner, photographer Joan Eyres Monsell, they took to the South Peloponnese, namely the rocky and remote peninsula of Mani, to build their dream home. Surrounded by cypresses and an olive grove, their house overlooked the blue sea and was considered one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean at that time.

Their residence was located near the small town of of Kardamyli and corresponded to the creative spirit of its owners. In the evenings, the view of the sunset was accompanied by the deep songs of hundreds of cicadas. In the evening, one could watch the sunset, which shrouded the slopes of the mountains in radiant orange and delicate pink colors, seeing off each passing day.

It became a place for numerous receptions with a rich library, solitary days, and painstaking work on books. After spending many happy years there, the Leigh Fermors donated their home in 1996 to the Benaki Museum. The one condition was that after their death, their house would be used to host creative peoples, including writers, artists, and researchers, who were looking for inspiration just as they had once been.

Last years of Leigh Fermor

Joan died in their beautiful home in 2003 at the age of 91. Leigh Fermor outlived her by eight years.

The writer himself remained active for many years. In his last months, he suffered from cancer and expressed a desire to leave this world in his homeland in England. He died on June 10, 2011 at the age of 96. Throughout his lifetime, he carried with him a love of knowledge, adventure, and his second home—Greece.

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