The Ariadne Objective
Wes Davis examines an extraordinary World War II mission – the kidnapping of a German general – and the swashbuckling men of letters who carried it out.
A young man from England was hiking in the Balkans one December night in 1934 when he slipped and plunged into the freezing waters of the Black Sea. He didn't know the Bulgar word for help, so when he scrambled from the water he began shouting “good evening, good evening!” He spotted a distant light flickering from a cave and stumbled, shivering, to its mouth.Skip to next paragraph
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A group of Bulgar shepherds and Greek sailors welcomed him and led him near the fire to get dry. They fed him some lentils and fried mackerel, and soon a few bottles of raki began circulating. As the night wore on, a Greek sailor did a drunken dance around the cave and cried out “lordos veeron!” It took him a moment to realize that the sailor was toasting Greek and English solidarity by evoking Lord Byron, the poet who famously perished while assisting the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey.
The young man was Patty Leigh Fermor, and he also had a Byronic penchant for poetry and wandering. He'd begun walking across Europe in hobnailed boots one year before when he was just 18; he carried a Loeb edition of Horace and a tattered copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse. He slept in castles and cowsheds, befriending both peasants and aristocrats as he tramped across Europe. He eventually reached Constantinople, but he'd already fallen in love with Greece. When the Second World War began, his familiarity with Greece drew the attention of the British War Office. He also had a schoolboy's knowledge of ancient Greek, which made learning modern Greek considerably easier.
Soon he was deployed to German-occupied Crete to assist an operation led by John Pendlebury, a Cambridge-trained archaeologist who wore an eye patch, often dressed in traditional Cretan garb, and always carried a swordstick. One of his men later recalled Pendlebury as a rakish fellow who "could drink everyone under the table and then stride across three mountain ranges without turning a hair."
Pendlebury and Fermor are just two of the extraordinary characters in Wes Davis' The Ariadne Objective: The Underground War to Rescue Crete From the Nazis. The Cretan hill men who formed the core of the resistance took an immediate liking to Pendlebury and Fermor. It's most likely that Pendlebury was shot after being captured by German soldiers, but a romantic legend soon began to circulate that he was killed while dashing towards enemy guns armed only with his sword.
The bands of Cretan resistance fighters also included some outsized characters. One man shot his own finger off to punish it for rolling the losing number in a dice game. Others were fond of muttering fierce aphorisms like “the struggle needs blood, my lads,” or “with Christ and the Virgin's help, we'll eat them.” One British soldier described a Cretan guerrilla fighter like this: "he breathes blood and slaughter and garlic in the best Cretan style."