What kind of person does it take to kidnap a Nazi General?
That’s the question that Christopher McDougal asked when he wrote Natural Born Heroes. In an epic but little known story from World War II, Greek resistance fighters on the island of Crete were able to pull off this amazing feat in the capitol city right under the noses of the Gestapo. And in the process they dealt a major blow to German forces there.
The impetus and leadership came from British agents on the island. But who were these agents and how did they pull it off? And what are the implications for the rest of us? Could you or I do something like this?
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Elite Resistance Fighters?
After Nazi occupation in 1942, the major population centers of Crete were under tight German control. The only place the resistance could operate was in the wildest parts of the island. To survive, they lived in narrow caves, moved at night along perilous goat trails, and sustained themselves on snails and weeds that they found along their paths. It was a dangerous, difficult life.
To bolster the efforts of the Resistance, Great Britain sent in agents from a clandestine organization it dubbed “The Firm.” But far from the highly trained specialists in guerrilla warfare that you might expect, these agents were often the castoffs and misfits from the regular army.
McDougall traces the path of one of these, Paddy Lee Fermor. By age 17 he had been expelled three times from schools in England and failed the entrance exam to Sandhurst Military Academy. He took up the life of the wanderer, living as a hobo while making his way east across Europe for five years as the continent stumbled towards World War II.
Along the way, the fresh air and exercise must have been good for him because he began to soak in languages and literature at a tremendous rate.
When war came, he volunteered for the Irish Guards because he liked the look of their uniforms, but turned out to be a poor Soldier. His official assessment was “below average.”
Eventually he followed in the footsteps of other misfits, and joined The Firm. After a few weeks of training that barely seemed to win his attention, he soon found himself pushing off from a submarine and paddling toward a secret cove on the Cretan shoreline.
Adapting, Improvising, Overcoming
Over the next six months Paddy lived with the shepherds and outlaws to learn their skills – live off the land, climb the hills, follow the goat paths, and master the dialect. In short order he had learned enough to pass himself off as a native and to take an active lead in the resistance movement.
He led a number of successful smaller operations in the ensuing months, when he got the idea of attempting to kidnap the commander of the entire German force on Crete.
What follows is an exciting tale of improvisation, determination, and bravery. The story is interesting enough on its own merits. But McDougall makes it all the more captivating by weaving into his narrative the detailed and adventuresome studies he has done to answer some intriguing questions that present themselves along the way.
How can these Greek natives travel endless miles for countless days subsisting on weeds and snails, when modern athletes can’t seem to complete a 5K without a fist full of energy gels and log swigs of energy drinks?
What made it so seemingly effortless for aging Cretan shepherds to scale incredible inclines by bounding from boulder to boulder when younger, more “physically fit” westerners were having trouble keeping up?
And what was it that pulled the Cretan people together to resist in the face of overwhelming odds and a seemingly unbeatable German Army? McDougall looks into all of these questions and many more in this riveting book.
Natural Born Heroes – The Takeaway
At it’s heart, Natural Born Heroes helps us see that many capabilities we might consider to be heroic actually live within each of us, mostly lying dormant and unexplored.
Paddy appeared to be ill-suited to the normal world he was born into, but found his stride leading daring raids against the Nazi Army on the impossibly rugged island of Crete. The ability to do great things was within him the whole time. He just had to tap into it.
McDougall suggests that in a similar way, we all have within us the raw material to do something heroic. We’ve had it all along.
We have only to tap into it.
McDougall is also author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a captivating and revealing look at a tribe of Indians in Mexico who can run hundreds of miles without rest or injury, and what it means to the rest of us.