A while back, I was watching the SOFREP editor’s round table, when former CIA intelligence officer and Marine James Powell made mention of a high-risk op that took place in Greece, on the island of Crete, during WWII. I was reminded of this peculiar case, a textbook case of audacious thinking by a small team of men.
The year was 1943, just before Christmas. Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain W. Stanley Moss were located in a villa on Gezira Island in Cairo, Egypt, along with other SOE operatives and Countess Sophie Moss (Zofia Roza Maria Jadwiga Elzbieta Katarzyna Aniela Tarnowska), a Polish aristocrat who had escaped the German occupation of Poland. Among the parties, the bathhouse therapies, and the visits from King Faruk of Egypt that were part of the daily routine at the villa, an interesting plan was being designed: They were planning to abduct General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the military commander of the island of Crete.
General Muller, before taking overall command of the German forces on Crete, was commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division stationed on Crete in garrison duties. During this time, he earned the nickname “the Butcher of Crete” for his harsh treatment of the locals, which included mass executions, demolition of villages, torture, and general Nazi-shit nastiness. However, at the time the plan was ready, the command of Crete had passed to General Heinrich Kreipe. With him not being any more lenient in his command of the island, it was decided that the operation was still a go, with Kreipe as the new target.
The SOE team slotted for the undertaking consisted of Major Patrick Leigh Fermor as the commander, Captain W. Stanley Moss as second in command, and two Cretan SOE operatives, Georgios Tyrakis and Emmanouil Paterakis. They were also going to have the help of local resistance elements.
The four SOE operatives left Cairo by plane on February 4th, 1944, with the objective of parachuting onto the enemy-held island. Out of the four of them, only Fermor managed to make the jump, as the quickly worsening weather conditions closed the window for the other members of the team. After three more failed attempts, they made the approach by boat and eventually arrived on April 4th. The next days focused on final planning and preparations, with D-day planned for April 26th, when they would attempt to intercept the general on his way home.
At midnight of the 26th, dressed as German military policemen, Fermor and Moss signaled the general’s car to stop. Immediately, 11 Cretan resistance fighters jumped from the ditches along the road with weapons at hand. The general’s driver was given no chance to react and was hit with a club. It was all over in just 90 seconds. Kreipe was then handcuffed, the car taken over, and Moss began racing down the streets toward Heraklion. The team passed not one or two, but 22 German checkpoints along the way, bluffing their way through. The car was eventually abandoned. Fermor left behind a note attributing the deed to British commandos in the hope this would spare the locals from reprisals.
What followed was a three-week-long cat-and-mouse game, with the German forces searching frantically for their commander and the enemy. The team climbed up mount Ida, the place where Greek mythology says Zeus was born, in their attempt to get safely to the rendezvous point. There, they met up with local resistance fighters and SOE operatives who had long been operating on the island.
A couple of times, the team found itself mere meters away from its hunters. A healthy dose of good luck and the presence of the local resistance fighters, who knew the terrain like the backs of their hands, helped them escape capture. On May 14th, they finally reached a beach that was not guarded by the Germans. Even then, a last-minute glitch almost spelled their doom: The signal for the boat that was waiting for them was “Sugar Baker” in morse code, which Fermor and Moss only then realized they didn’t know how to spell in Morse. Lucky them, one of the SOE operatives that had previously been on the island, Dennis Ciclitira, had the answer, and after taking the flashlight out of their hand, he promptly, and in perfectly British fashion, declared them both “bloody fools” and signaled the boat.
Ultimately, Fermor and Moss made their way back to Cairo and their villa for their welcoming party. Fermor received a DSO for his part in the operation, while Moss got the Military Cross. Kraipe, on the other hand, was sent to London for interrogation, which did not provide much useful information. His interrogator, in fact, described him as dull and unimaginative. The value of the operation, however, was in the morale boost it generated, as a very small contingent of men kidnapped a German general from a German stronghold on Crete.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017.