Monday, March 17, 2014

Ill Met By Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss

Source of book: I own this.

I’ve always had a love for true stories about wartime experiences, particularly those written by the soldiers themselves. My two favorites were written by aviators: Night Fighter by C. F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright (sadly out of print), and another book by a member of the Flying Tigers, which I have been unable to find. (I am pretty sure it wasn’t Robert Scott’s book, God is My Co-Pilot. Whoever wrote it crashed twice. I remember that much. Any war buffs remember who that was?) I might mention as a personal connection that my wife’s grandfather served as a doctor in China at that time, and actually met most of the Flying Tigers. A few years before he passed, I also got to see the certificate he received from Chiang Kai-Shek. Cool stuff.

W. Stanley Moss’ book, Ill Met By Moonlight will now join my short list of favorite books in this genre.

Moss was a key figure in one of the craziest and gutsiest special operations in World War II. The  captured the island of Crete, but were never able to completely subdue the population or rid the island of British soldiers. Moss and another officer, working with Cretan partisans managed to land on the island, kidnap the German general, and flee across the island for a few weeks before being picked up by a British boat. After reading this book, I am even more amazed that this operation was ever proposed, much less carried out successfully. In fact, if it hadn’t happened, it probably would have been too crazy for fiction.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the bulk of the book was written during the operation itself. Moss had a lot of down time, as they hid out during the day, and he chose to write down the events as he went. Later, this diary was set down in written form, with just a few notes by Moss to clarify or update what he wrote. These are set in italics, so one can see what is original and what isn’t. A final epilogue was added by Patrick “Paddy” Fermor, the other British officer, to give a few additional details about the planning, and fill in what happened to the participants afterward. 

Moss and Fermor

The writing style is neither overwrought nor boring. Moss tells the story in a compelling and straightforward manner. This is probably what separates the successful memoirs from the unsuccessful. The quality of the story itself might be the same, but the telling makes the difference. (Contrast the terrible writing of Hiram Bingham, the prototype for Indiana Jones.)

Since this book is best experienced first hand, I will limit myself to a few observations. First, I love that Moss and Paddy bring books with them on a military operation. What’s a few more pounds, right? Even better, they bring Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Donne, and...Alice in Wonderland. Nice touch.

Second, it is interesting the changes that occur over time. Everyone, and I do mean everyone smokes in this book. Cigarettes are the universal currency and the universal language. Not that cigarettes were the only stimulant. Moss notes the use of benzedrine to cope with the weird schedule and lack of sleep. Ah yes, benzedrine. That close relative of methamphetamine…

And, of course, there are copious amounts of raki, the anise flavored distilled spirit, and wines of various sorts. The Germans were unpopular, and the locals made sure Moss and the others were well fed and lubricated.

One little incident recounted near the end is telling. As they approached the inlet where they were to signal to the incoming boat, they ran across this immaculate garden. Now, this part of the island was officially “off limits.” The Germans forbid anyone from going there, and evicted the local population. The group helped themselves to a few vegetables for dinner, but were surprised by the old man who tends the garden. He didn’t say anything about their theft. When they asked him how he managed to keep the garden tended despite the Germans, he snorted and said he’d be damned if a few Huns were going to keep him away from it.

Unfortunately, a few of the people who helped in the raid were eventually executed by the Germans, who had a bad habit of slaughtering occupied people, women and children included. I know that this wasn’t exactly limited to the Germans, but it is one of the horrors of war that the author brings home in his later additions where he mentions what happened later to the people who played a role in this story.

I highly recommend reading this book, which, fortunately, is still in print. The one word of warning I would give is that it is difficult to put down once you start it. There is a serious risk of staying up too late to finish it.

Interesting cultural notes:

The title comes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Oberon: Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.

However, when I first googled the title, the majority of the hits were for The Elder Scrolls. Go figure.

Both Moss and Fermor went on to become bestselling authors, and not just for their war memoirs. Fermor’s travel writing was widely respected, while Moss wrote novels and short stories that gained a significant following.

Moss used “W. Stanley Moss” as his official name as an author. However, he went by “Billy,” from his first name, William, as a soldier. I couldn’t find any information on why, but I think that would be an interesting story too.


  1. I read about this feat in a review of Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It was definitely audacious. Leigh Fermor was himself a talented writer. He was a man's man, and the women really liked him too.

    1. Fermor's pre-war travel sounded particularly fun. I may have to see if my local library has any of his books.