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Biden the Boastful

From the Scrapbook.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The incomparable Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor died last June at 96 after an astonishing life, remembered both for his amazingly erudite travel writing and feats of almost super-human heroism as a leader of the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Crete. It was in the latter connection that The Scrapbook thought of Leigh Fermor last week, for reasons we will get to in a bit. 

But first, let us consult the obituary that appeared last June in the Telegraph, as it provides an admirably concise account of Leigh Fermor’s most famous contribution to the war effort. Having acquired fluency in Greek and great familiarity with the terrain in the years before the war, he was infiltrated onto the island after it fell to the Nazis in 1941, to lead the guerrilla activities of the Cretan partisans. As the Telegraph recounted:

His occasional bouts of leave were spent in Cairo, at Tara, the rowdy household presided over by a Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska. It was on a steamy bathroom window in the house that Leigh Fermor and another of Tara’s residents, Bill Stanley Moss, conceived a remarkable operation that they subsequently executed with great dash on Crete in April 1944.

Dressed as German police corporals, the pair stopped the car belonging to General Karl Kreipe, the island’s commander, while he was returning one evening to his villa near Knossos. The chauffeur disposed of, Leigh Fermor donned the general’s hat and, with Moss driving the car, they bluffed their way through the centre of Heraklion and a further 22 [German] checkpoints. Kreipe, meanwhile, was hidden under the back seat and sat on by three hefty andartes, or Cretan partisans.

For three weeks the group evaded German search parties, finally marching the general over the top of Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. It was here that occurred one of the most celebrated incidents in the Leigh Fermor legend.

Gazing up at the snowy peak, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum—Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high). Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end. The two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war, as Leigh Fermor put it, and things between them were very different from then on.

Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat to Cairo. The exploit was later filmed (in the Alps) as Ill Met by Moonlight (1956), with Dirk Bogarde implausibly cast as Leigh Fermor, who was awarded the [Distinguished Service Order] for his part in the mission.

Christopher Hitchens added an important nuance to this story in his own remembrance of Leigh Fermor. That moment between Leigh Fermor and General Kreipe, Hitchens noted, 

did not result in some sickly reconciliation. Several of Kreipe’s colleagues were executed at the end of the war for the atrocious reprisals they took against Cretan civilians. One of Leigh Fermor’s colleagues, another distinguished classicist named Montague Woodhouse, once told me that Greek villagers urged him to strike the hardest possible blows against the Nazis, so as to make the inevitable reprisals worthwhile.

The Scrapbook thought of Leigh Fermor’s exploits last week when it read of Joe Biden’s over-the-top remarks at a Democratic fundraiser in New Jersey. Congratulating his boss for the raid on Osama bin Laden, Biden said, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48 percent probability that he was there. .  .  . Do any one of you have a doubt that if that raid failed that this guy would be a one-term president?”

Perhaps you can see why we thought of Leigh Fermor, of his tracing a design on steamy glass, driving through 22 Nazi checkpoints disguised as a kidnapped German commander, and subsequently evading capture behind enemy lines—with a bit of Horace thrown in as lagniappe. We offer the story because it is picturesque, not because it is unique in the annals of audacity. Five hundred years is a long time. Taking away nothing from the bin Laden raid, which stands as the finest achievement of the current administration and was a famous demonstration of American military and intelligence prowess, we’re certain every reader, like us, can think of feats which outrank it on a scale measured across the centuries.

On the other hand, when it comes to exploits of vainglory and boastfulness, Joe Biden may still rank high on the list 500 years from now.

Johnny, We Know Ye All Too Well

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