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.
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."
Many of the island's young men were deployed in Albania during the war, so the resistance fighters were often old men bearing antique, rusted rifles that had been buried in secret caches for decades. Not to be outdone, the Cretan women sometimes appeared brandishing kitchen knives and broomsticks. There were even rumors of a German soldier found crucified to a door. British troops and Cretans had to be very careful; any attacks on the Germans would unleash reprisals in which whole villages were burned and many civilians killed.
Fermor and the British agents who helped mobilize Cretan resistance often seemed to regard the operations on the island as an elaborate and thoroughly enjoyable game. They dyed their hair and eyebrows black to pass as local shepherds, and they shouted out vaguely German-sounding commands when marching through villages to fool any Cretans who might betray them to the Germans. Two soldiers who washed ashore dangerously close to a German outpost laughed hysterically for a few minutes before sneaking away into the hills.
They also spent the war consuming an altogether astonishing amount of wine, whiskey, and raki. In a typical message to British headquarters in Cairo, Fermor requested only the most essential supplies: whiskey, cigarettes, cigars, and books.
Many of the heroes in Davis' book are so literary that they merit a seemingly oxymoronic designation: swashbuckling men of letters. Just days before kidnapping the German general who held command over all of Crete, Fermor passed the time reading Robert Louis Stevenson and Shakespeare. Billy Moss, another key player in the kidnapping operation, read Mallarmé. Their love of words also led them to write profusely about their experiences – a tremendous advantage for Davis. Drawing on letters, diaries, and long reports to headquarters, he reconstructs their escapades and espionage with incredible, novelistic detail. The story unfolds with the rich characterization and perfectly calibrated suspense of a great novel. It can be hard at points to remember the book is actually a work of nonfiction.
The mythic setting of the action and the classical education of many of the protagonists lend the story a certain grandeur and resonance. When Fermor and Moss succeed in kidnapping the German general, they flee into the high mountains, sleeping in a cave on Mount Ida where, according to myth, Zeus was raised. The general is intercepted on the way to his home near Knossos, the villa Ariadne, named for the Cretan princess who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur. And when Fermor has had a bit to drink, which is nearly always, he feels that "each village must have existed in Minoan times," and muses on Aristotle and Polyphemus, the Cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey.
As Fermor and Moss were fleeing with the captive general and a band of Cretan rebels and shepherds, they followed hidden mountain paths used by sheep rustlers. When the sun rose on Mt. Ida one morning, Fermor heard the general muttering softly to himself. It took him a moment to realize that he was speaking Latin, not German. "Do you see how mount Soracte stands out white under deep snow?" He was reciting one of the odes of Horace. When he stopped speaking, Fermor finished the verse and recited the rest of the ode in Latin. "Leave off asking what tomorrow will bring and count the days that fortune gives you as profit."
For a brief moment, both men seemed to feel as if the war had ceased. As Fermor recalled, "we had both drunk at the same fountains long before."
Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.