WAR ON FILM: Ill Met by Moonlight

On 20 May 1941, German paratroopers invaded the Greek island of Crete. After an intense ten-day battle, Allied troops were driven back across the island, and many were evacuated from beaches along the southern coast. Some Cretans and British officers took to the mountains to organise resistance against the occupying forces.


The German occupation that followed was especially brutal. Dreadful reprisals followed every act of resistance. The German commander, General Müller, insisted on taking 50 Cretan lives for every German soldier killed; he became known as ‘The Butcher of Crete’.

There had been a close association between Britain and Crete since the early 20th century, when archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans had uncovered the sensational remains of a Minoan palace at Knossos. The headquarters of the British archaeological school in Crete was a large villa alongside the site, known as Villa Ariadne. Several archaeologists, who knew the island and its people well, went underground after the German occupation to aid the Cretan resistance.

Continuing in this tradition, scholar and travel-writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had got to know Greece in the 1930s, joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). During the German occupation, Fermor travelled to Crete three times to help organise the resistance against the hated German occupation. On the third occasion, in February 1944, he was parachuted in with a specific mission to kidnap German commander General Müller, to boost morale on Crete.

Just after Fermor’s arrival, Müller was replaced by General Heinrich Kreipe, transferred from the Russian Front. Thinking that capturing one general was as good as another, however, Fermor decided to go ahead with the operation. It is at this point that the narrative of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) picks up.

Powell and Pressburger were the most famous duo in British cinema in the 1940s. As joint writers and directors, they had made several hits, including One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942; see MHM 38), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943; see MHM 66), and The Red Shoes (1948). They usually invented their own stories for their films, but in this instance they bought the rights to the book of the same name by William Moss, who had helped to lead the mission.

Xan Fielding, a close friend of Fermor from the SOE in Cairo, was taken on as technical adviser. Michael Powell spent some time walking in Crete to get to know the island, but decided that, with the confused state of Greek politics, it was not suitable to film there.

Instead, the location work was done in the dramatic mountains of southern France, near the town of Draguignan, 50 miles inland from St Tropez. Much of the Powell and Pressburger magic had worn off by the mid-1950s, and Ill Met by Moonlight was their last collaboration through their production company Archers Films.


In the opening scenes of the film, Major Fermor (played with Byronic glamour by Dirk Bogarde) and his Cretan compatriot, Miki Akoumianakis (Rowland Bartrop), begin to plan the operation. The German commander’s residence was Villa Ariadne, the same building at Knossos that had been the centre of British archaeology in the 1930s.

Every day, Kreipe travelled to his headquarters at Arkhanes. In carrying out a recce of the route, Fermor and the Cretan were surprised when Kreipe passed in his car. They waved at him and he waved back. This gave them the idea of trying to kidnap him at a steep bend in the road as he drove home in the evening.

To support the operation, Captain William Moss (played by a heroic David Oxley) is landed by patrol boat in the south of the island. The landing is far from clandestine. Fermor and Sandy Rendel (Cyril Kusack), the British radio operator who lived in a cave in the mountains, meet Moss with a party of Cretans amid much slapping of backs and welcoming of old friends.

The Cretans then march the new arrivals and their supplies up narrow tracks to a mountain village, where a traditional party, known as a glendi, is held. Two sheep are slaughtered, there is Greek dancing, much ouzo is drunk, and the local Orthodox priest blesses the whole venture. It all feels very Greek. The point of the scene is not only to capture the atmosphere, but also to show total support for the resistance in the mountain villages of Crete.

Bogarde beautifully captures the persona of Major Fermor, who often behaves like a Cretan, sometimes dresses in the open shirt, headscarf, cloak, and breeches of a Cretan shepherd, and was known among the locals as ‘Philidem’. Moss sums it up on the morning after the party when he tells Fermor, ‘You’ve got this island pretty well buttoned-up’.

Fermor, Moss, and a small group of Cretan fighters lie in ambush for Kreipe at the pre-arranged spot. In reality, they waited for five nights before the opportunity came on 26 April 1944. One of the Cretans, a student by the name of Elias (John Cairney), had studied the sound of the General’s car and could identify it from the other vehicles that passed.

Wearing the captured uniforms of two German field-police, Fermor and Moss flag down Kreipe’s car. They walk slowly over to the vehicle. Moss knocks out the driver. Fermor seizes Kreipe (Marius Goring), who, fuming, is handcuffed and bundled into the back of the car, where three Cretans sit on him.

Moss then drives the General’s car through the roadblocks at Villa Ariadne, where the German guards wave through their commanding officer’s car. With Fermor sitting in the General’s seat wearing his cap, they boldly drive on through Heraklion. Here, the streets are teeming with German soldiers. Showing great respect, the soldiers clear a path for the General to drive through.

In the event, Fermor feared that someone would look into the car and see that it was not Kreipe in the passenger seat. But no one did.

They drove through 22 separate roadblocks until they were out of Heraklion and heading up into the mountains. It was an immensely dangerous and daring operation. But it worked. It was several hours before the German top brass even realised that Kreipe was missing.

In early 1944, 23-year-old Lieutenant Derek van den Bogaerde, who had trained in the Army as a signaller, was transferred to RAF Medmenham, the country-house headquarters for the interpretation of aerial photographs and the centre of photo intelligence. Here, den Bogaerde learned the skills of a Photographic Interpreter (PI).

In June of that year, he was assigned to a Canadian Army unit in Normandy that travelled behind the advancing troops, carrying out in the field detailed tactical interpretation of aerial photographs. He advanced across northern Europe in this unit, entering Brussels the day after its liberation, and he took part in the planning of Operation Market Garden. He later wrote that he ‘loved’ the work of a PI, including ‘the working out of problems [and] the searching for clues’.

After the war, den Bogaerde could not decide what to do. He got a job as a teacher, but decided to try a bit of acting. He changed his name to Dirk Bogarde, and within a few years had become a cinema legend and one of the most famous movie stars of his generation.


Beyond Heraklion at the bottom of Mount Ida, Moss takes Kreipe off on a goat track by foot. Fermor dumps the car by the sea and leaves documents in it to show that British officers had carried out the kidnapping with no Cretan help. This was untrue, but he wanted to make the Germans think this was an exclusively British military operation and that, therefore, there was no excuse for reprisals against the locals. He even left a copy of an Agatha Christie novel in the car.

Fermor then meets up with the others in a hideout outside the village of Anoyeia. When he arrives, still wearing the German field-police uniform, the villagers shun him. Women turn away and some spit at him until they realise who he is, after which he is welcomed as a hero.

In reality, the small group of Kreipe, Fermor, Moss, and a party of Cretans spent three weeks in the mountains, hiding out in caves and grottoes and constantly moving on to escape German patrols that were soon spreading out across the island. Some 20,000 soldiers took part in the hunt for Kreipe.

Communication was always difficult and sometimes involved runners carrying messages for up to 100 miles to radio operators, who would then try to signal Cairo. There were times when the party felt jubilant at what they had done. At other times, it looked like there would be no way off the island and capture seemed certain.

The film perfectly captures the spirit of animated adventure over these weeks, underscored by the constant jeopardy of the fear of discovery. Overhead, a Fieseler Storch circles the mountains searching for their commanding officer.

Thousands of leaflets were dropped threatening Cretan villagers with appalling reprisals if they did not hand over the German General. In fact, the Germans did destroy four ‘rebel’ villages, although this had probably been planned as a reprisal before the abduction of Kreipe. No villagers were executed.

The journey across the mountains is supported with the stirring, patriotic music of Mikis Theodorakis. Despite the sense of jeopardy, there is still humour in the film. When Kreipe demands transport fitting his rank, he is offered a donkey – in fact a perfectly viable mode of travel over the mountain paths. At another point, the party hears stones falling from the road behind them and are convinced that a German patrol is giving them chase. It turns out to be a goat that has lost its herd.

Later, they search out one of the runners who had has crossed the mountains to bring them a message. When they find him, he is completely drunk and cannot speak, so they have to search him for the message he has brought. Kreipe is amazed at the shambolic nature of the operation and at one point tells Fermor and Moss that they are ‘amateurs’ and are bound to be captured before long.

The party is constantly supported by groups of Andartes, or local guerrilla fighters. These men, well armed and trained, were intended to provide support in case the Germans surrounded the kidnap party and they had to shoot their way out. Many of the Andartes would become members of the communist-led ELAS movement (also known as the Greek People’s Liberation Army) in the civil war that later engulfed Greece.


In the film, as in reality, when they reach the cove at which they have arranged the rendezvous with the Navy, the party finds a company of German soldiers stationed there. But the film invents a nice little plot twist: Kreipe tries to bribe a young boy, Nico (one of the parts actually played by a Greek, Dmitri Andreas), who has joined the party as a runner. He offers him a gold German sovereign and tells him to take this to the officer in charge of the soldiers and he will be given a pair of proper boots. (The shortage of boots was a major preoccupation of the whole resistance movement.) Kreipe knows that the officer will recognise the sovereign and realise that the German General is nearby. Fermor then speaks with Nico and sends him off. Watching from above, they see Nico head straight into the German encampment. Kreipe is convinced he has turned the boy and mocks Fermor, telling him that Cretans can never be trusted. In fact, Nico tells the Germans that the General is miles away and they march off in the wrong direction into an ambush by the Andartes. This proves to Fermor that the Cretans are entirely trustworthy.

The party descend to the beach to meet the motor launch that comes in for them every night from 9pm. They have a code to flash on a torch – ‘SB’. But it turns out that, as irregulars, neither Fermor nor Moss know Morse code. They cannot communicate with the Navy. Kreipe is once again aghast at their amateurishness.

Image: W Stanley Moss/CC BY 3.0.

At the last minute, a regular British soldier appears and flashes out the signal and the motor launch comes in and takes the party away. Following the Cretan custom, everyone who departs the island leaves their boots behind, as these are so much in demand. The young Nico gets his boots after all.

It is revealed on the boat that Kreipe had been leaving small objects behind, hoping to create a trail for those searching for him. But Moss had picked them all up and now returns them. Kreipe admits that he has not been kidnapped by amateurs and that these men are real professionals.

Kreipe arrived in Cairo a few days later, the most senior German general kidnapped during the war. Fermor, when he got to Cairo, went down with a life-threatening bout of rheumatic fever. When presented with a DSO for leading the operation, it had to be pinned on his pyjama jacket in hospital.

Ill Met by Moonlight is a classic and stands out from many British war films of the 1950s because of its realism. The British SOE men and the Cretan guerrillas look absolutely right for their parts. It is dramatic and full of suspense while filled with much humour.

Although some scenes were filmed at Pinewood Studios, the film has a wonderful sense of location as the kidnappers cross the mountains and visit hilltop villages. It all feels very Cretan, even though it was actually filmed in the south of France.

The mission to capture Kreipe almost on his own doorstep was both audacious and courageous, but very hit-and-miss. It has been called a typical example of British ‘freelance’ warfare. Powell and Pressburger capture the ironies of all this while celebrating a genuinely daring and unique mission. .

A Unique Moment

According to Patrick Leigh Fermor, at dawn one day during the journey across the mountains, General Kreipe was looking at the mist rising from Mount Ida and began to recite, in Latin, the opening lines of Horace’s ninth ode. Fermor picked up on the General, and recited the remaining stanzas of the Ode. ‘Ach so, Herr Major,’ said Kreipe when Fermor had finished. Both men were amazed to realise they shared a classical education and a love of ancient Latin poetry.

Fermor later wrote that it was as though the war had ceased to exist for a moment, as ‘We had both drunk from the same fountains before.’ It brought captor and captive together with a strange bond. The scene was not reproduced in the film, as Powell and Pressburger probably thought it would make the men sound too academic for a popular cinema audience.

Fermor and Kreipe met again in the early 1970s, on a Greek television show, and got on famously together. The General said Fermor had treated him chivalrously as a captive. They remained friends until Kreipe’s death.
A Rank Production of an Archers Film. Writers/producers/ directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring: Dirk Bogarde, David Oxley, Marius Goring, and Cyril Cusack. An ITV Studios Home Entertainment DVD.
Images: ITV Studios Home Entertainment.