On 23 April 1944, a group of British operatives in Crete captured the German General, Heinrich Kreipe, from under the noses of 100,000 German troops, search planes prowling the mountains, and patrol boats checking the shore. Without a shot being fired, the General—a survivor of the Great War who was awarded an Iron Cross—had disappeared.
This is the amazing story behind the kidnapping. The operatives weren’t soldiers but poets, professors and archaeologists. The group was an idea of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who realized that his troops were outgunned and outnumbered and the time had come for another kind of fighter: “lone phantoms with the inventiveness and self-reliance to test ‘the unwritten rules of war’”.
The characters—British and Cretans—portrayed are colourful. The British team on the island included John Pendlebury, a one-eyed archaeologist who became the bête noire of the Germans; Patrick Leigh Fermor, a playboy poet and writer; and Xan Fielding, a penniless young artist. They were taught how to survive in the wilderness and navigate the island, going up impossibly steep slopes and through impenetrable forests, by the Cretan men. Men like George Psychoundakis, who was a messenger on the island, which meant moving quickly and silently through its inhospitable terrain, often in almost complete darkness.
This book has three threads: the story of the kidnapping; Chris McDougall going back to retrace the steps of the men; and the physical training the men went through, something that every Cretan, men and women, was familiar with. Instead of working out, focusing on a group of muscles at a time (as we do at the gym), “natural movement” focuses on the fascia profunda, the network of fibres that envelopes our bones and muscles. This is what gives us the energy of “elastic recoil” that allows us to spring, jump or throw. The movement, also known as the “art of the hero”, has surfaced in modern cities as parkour, a way of navigating obstacles by, for example, vaulting, jumping, climbing and running. And it is the reason Cretans can spring up sheer climbs with the ease of a mountain goat.
To go back to the events of the Second World War: Crete was important to Hitler because he saw it as a transit point for troops heading out to the Soviet Union. But he didn’t bargain with the fierce independence of the Cretans. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, the other general on the island, had a well-earned reputation as The Butcher—he hunted, tortured and killed the islanders and burned whole villages. Instead of defeating the Cretans, the slaughter only strengthened the resolve of those who survived. This meant that the British operatives could count on help throughout the island for what really was a madcap scheme.
The story of how they did it is a tale of inventiveness and intelligence. The men hijacked General Kreipe’s car, and instead of taking him somewhere desolate, which would have been the obvious move, they drove into the centre of town, which was thronging with people and soldiers. I won’t go into the details here—McDougall reveals the story bit by bit, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those of you who will read the book.
McDougall weaves into this book Greek myths, military history, and diet: specifically, the paleo diet that focuses on meat rather than carbohydrates. I tend to be sceptical about diets that focus on one thing to the exclusion of others, so I was not entirely convinced. But I did learn a lot about history and how our bodies function. However, what I really found fascinating was the fact that a group of misfits, whom no army would take seriously, pulled off a coup that seemed utterly impossible.