Ashdown on the French resistance

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Paddy Ashdown may or may not be the best prime minister Britain never had, but what cannot be disputed is his talent as a historian and author.

And it is a major coup for Borders Book Festival organisers that Ashdown has agreed to headline this year’s opening night of the festival to talk on his new book about the French resistance during the Second World War.

The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance and the Battle for the Vercors 1944, will be published in June, the week before the festival opens.

It is Ashdown’s second military history book and will be published 70 years to the day – on June 5 – that the BBC in London broadcast 187 coded messages to resistance groups across France urging them to rise up against the Nazis.

Ashdown’s book traces the story of the greatest battle of the war involving the resistance and their sacrifice in southern France, which helped the Allies win on the beaches of Normandy.

It is the hidden story of D-Day that no-one has ever before told, for while there are over 30 books, pamphlets and papers on the stand made by resistance fighters on the mountainous Vercors plateau near Grenoble, Ashdown’s book is the first to place the battle in the wider strategic context of D-Day.

But while the battle on the Vercors was the largest resistance action of the war, in the severity of the Nazi response, it was also the most brutal crushing of resistance forces in Western Europe.

Former Lib Dem leader Ashdown is well placed to fill the role of military historian, having himself served for over a decade with the Royal Marines and as an intelligence officer for the British security services.

He has long been fascinated by the story of the Vercors. “When I was in the special forces we had a saying – ‘big thumbs on little maps, that’s the way to kill the chaps’, and I’ve always been struck by politicians that sit a thousand miles away and take decisions on the green benches of the House of Commons who haven’t a clue what it’s like to do these jobs.

“And I think the Vercors is the story that illustrates this par excellence,” Ashdown told us in an exclusive interview with The Southern this week.

As far as his latest book is concerned, Ashdown, who speaks French, says so much has now been written about D-Day that the level of research has almost reached the level of detail where we know what individual soldiers said to each other.

“I would in no way ever wish to underestimate the sacrifice made by Allied troops on D-Day and afterwards, but if it had not been for the sacrifice of the mostly young, untrained, lightly armed and poorly led men, and sometimes women, at places like the Vercors, then the outcome of D-Day would have been very different.

“Modern soldiers usually fight thousands of miles away from home, but these Frenchmen and women were fighting within sight of their very homes, the streets where they grew up and where they went to school.”

Ashdown says he is looking forward to his first visit to the book festival, although it will not be his first time in the Borders.

“I’ve been to the Borders on numerous occasions due to my friendships with colleagues like Mike Moore [Lib Dem MP] and David Steel.

“So I’m really looking forward to my first visit to the Borders Book Festival.”

Ashdown’s appearance is just one of several by national political heavyweights. Former prime minister, Gordon Brown, will be in Melrose on Festival Saturday to speak on Scottishness, Britishness and the unique nature of the union in what will be a landmark moment in the independence debate.

Jon Snow will be in conversation with Rory Bremner, talking about his own personal experiences as a news journalist, having presented Channel 4 news since 1989. This will also take place on the Friday.

And book festival regular, James Naughtie will be talking about his critically acclaimed debut novel, set in the political world of the 1970s – The Madness of July – on Festival Sunday at 12.30pm.