British writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor dies at 96

NICHOLAS PAPHITIS - Associated Press
File - In this Dec. 30, 2001 picture British travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, is seen at his house in Kardamyli, Greece.  Fermor known for his World War II exploits behind enemy lines in Crete, died in Britain on Friday. He was 96. Greece's Culture Ministry expressed deep sorrow at the writer's death, calling him one of Greece's most significant cultural ambassadors in the world. "Patrick Leigh Fermor, perhaps the greatest contemporary travel writer, loved Greece as his second country," a ministry statement said. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, file)
File - In this Dec. 30, 2001 picture British travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, is seen at his house in Kardamyli, Greece. Fermor known for his World War II exploits behind enemy lines in Crete, died in Britain on Friday. He was 96. Greece's Culture Ministry expressed deep sorrow at the writer's death, calling him one of Greece's most significant cultural ambassadors in the world. "Patrick Leigh Fermor, perhaps the greatest contemporary travel writer, loved Greece as his second country," a ministry statement said. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, file)

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

Leigh Fermor died in Britain where he had arrived on Thursday, a day before his death, his publisher, John Murray, said.

Leigh Fermor's war exploits and 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, Leigh Fermor combined a love of adventure with the erudition of an older age — and the eclectic inquisitiveness that spawned his mini glossary 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 — Leigh Fermor decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople, modern Istanbul.

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

As a British army major 11 years later, Leigh Fermor headed a team of British special operations officers and Greek resistance fighters that captured the German military commander of Crete, Gen. 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 Leigh Fermor won 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 Leigh Fermor'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 TV show in 1972, where Kreipe said he bore his abductors no ill-will "otherwise I would not have come here."

Leigh Fermor was born in 1915, of English and Irish descent. His father was the India-based geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, 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 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.

Leigh Fermor won the Heinemann Foundation Prize in 1950 with 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, whose ashes were buried by a Byzantine chapel on a mountainside near Kardamyli. Leigh Fermor 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 Leigh Fermor, died in 2003. The couple had no children.

A funeral is expected to be held next week in Dumbleton village, near Cheltenham in England, where he had a house and where his late wife is buried.