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Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, war hero and travel writer

The books by Sir Patrick inspired generations of travel writers. The books by Sir Patrick inspired generations of travel writers. (Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press/File 2001)
By Nicholas Paphitis
Associated Press / June 11, 2011

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ATHENS — Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, a British travel writer who tramped across Europe in his teens and captured a German general in Nazi-occupied Crete during World War II, died in Britain yesterday. He was 96.

Sir Patrick died in Britain where he had arrived Thursday, said his publisher, John Murray.

Sir Patrick’s war exploits and his books about Greek travel made him highly popular in Greece, where he lived most of the year in a house he had designed in the 1960s near the southern village of Kardamyli.

A Greek Culture Ministry statement described him as “perhaps the greatest contemporary travel writer, [who] loved Greece as his second country.’’ It also called him one of Greece’s most significant cultural ambassadors in the world.

Known as Paddy to friends, admirers, and name-droppers alike, Sir Patrick combined a love of adventure with the erudition of an older age and the eclectic inquisitiveness that spawned his miniglossary of beggar slang from remote Greek villages.

His elegant prose, with baroque digressions into the arcana of history and folklore, furnished more than half a dozen books and earned a bag of literary awards.

At the age of 18 — after a disastrous career at a succession of schools, excluding a progressive establishment that promoted naked country dancing in a barn — Sir Patrick decided to walk from the Netherlands to Constantinople, modern Istanbul.

It was 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power.

As a British Army major 11 years later, Sir Patrick headed a team of British special operations officers and Greek resistance fighters who captured the German military commander of Crete, General Karl Kreipe. Eluding a furious manhunt, the small band spirited the disgruntled Kreipe over the island’s snow-topped mountains to a southern cove, from which he was shipped to Alexandria.

The action, for which Sir Patrick was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, reportedly prompted the infamous Nazi order to execute captured allied commandos. With a price on his head, he returned to Crete to coordinate covert operations.

The escapade was recorded by Sir Patrick’s fellow officer William Stanley Moss in his book “Ill Met by Moonlight,’’ later turned into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. The protagonists were reunited for a Greek television show in 1972, where Kreipe said he bore his abductors no ill-will, “otherwise I would not have come here.’’

Sir Patrick was born in 1915, of English and Irish descent. His father was Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a geologist working in India who, in his son’s words, “discovered an Indian mineral which was named after him and a worm with eight hairs on its back; and — brittle trove! — a formation of snowflake.’’

As a schoolboy, the author did not prosper, and he told how he was finally kicked out for holding hands with a green grocer’s daughter of “sonnet-begetting beauty.’’

His two-year perambulations through the twilight of old Europe — equipped with the Oxford Book of English Verse, a volume of Horace, and an old army greatcoat — provided the material for “A Time of Gifts’’ (1977) and, nine years later, “Between the Woods and the Water.’’ The final part of the planned trilogy never materialized, despite the author’s reported acquisition, at the dawn of the 21st century, of his first typewriter.

Sir Patrick was awarded the Heinemann Foundation Prize in 1950 for his first book, “The Traveler’s Tree,’’ about the West Indies. Later came “Mani’’ and “Roumeli,’’ with photographs by his wife, Joan, both about Greece, where he lived for more than half a century in a house above the sea near Kardamyli.

His writings are studded with gems of obscure knowledge, a fine sense of place and character, and surreal anecdotes.

In Missolonghi, he tracked down a pair of slippers that had belonged to Lord Byron. He rode with a Greek cavalry unit during a rebellion in the 1930s before peeling off to visit a camp of Sarakatsan nomads. He swam the Hellespont, capped Latin verses unexpectedly quoted by his captive general, and had an affair with a Romanian princess.

He abhorred the blare of radios in the Greek countryside (“these rabid wirelesses should be hunted out and muzzled, or shot down like mad dogs’’) and disliked the early Frankish castles “that encircle the Grecian mountaintops like so many crowns of thorns.’’

His books inspired generations of travel writers, including his friend Bruce Chatwin. Sir Patrick also matched the ideal of a certain model of Englishman: a charming, polyglot scholar (albeit self-taught), and gentleman who had a good war, consorted with the aristocracy, and lived in foreign parts, worshipped by the locals. For years, fans descended on Kardamyli hoping to catch a glimpse of the writer or his stone-built home, while a blog devoted to Patrick Leigh Fermor acclaims him as the Greatest Living Englishman.

He was knighted in 2004, accepting the honor he had declined in 1991. In 2007, Greece awarded him the Order of the Phoenix.

His wife, Joan, died in 2003. The couple had no children.