Book Review: The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance, D-Day and the Battle for the Vercors 1944 by Paddy Ashdown

paddy book 2It is not like me to read books about wars and battles, but after being so moved and angered by Paddy Ashdown’s excellent portrayal of the inaugural mission of the Special Boat Service, A Brilliant Little Operation, I knew that I had to buy his next book.

The Cruel Victory tells the story of the brave Resistance fighters who briefly controlled the Vercors plateau in south-east France in the Summer of 1944. The original plan was for the Vercors to be secured to help an Allied invasion from the south, but for various reasons, the support that the fighters on the ground needed was not forthcoming. If people had been smarter in their decision making, at least some of it could have been and lives could have been saved.

Paddy knows how to tell a story well. He draws you in, introducing you to all the key players from the mightiest generals to the people on the ground who had to deal with the consequences of their decisions. From the very first pages, you are there with these young men camped out and waiting to fight the Germans, who have little idea, little training and little knowledge of  the horrors to come.

Three things struck me. From petty bickering and politics to poor communication, people screw up the running of a war in exactly the same ways as they are prone to screwing up other things in life. That’s not a surprise, but you would hope that people would behave with a bit more decorum and empathy for and focus on the people on the ground when the decisions that they make really are matters of  immediate life and death.

The second thing was the failure to learn lessons. Time and again things happened that should have got them doing things differently but the warnings simply went unheeded. Future problems could have been avoided. Learn from your mistakes seems to be a very appropriate message for this party right now as we prepare for a very different sort of battle in May next year.

The third thing was the sense of responsibility the commander on the plateau felt for the communities in the area and situations which might put them at risk from horrible reprisals were avoided.

This book is a compelling and absorbing read, but it’s not an easy one. There are harrowing descriptions of atrocities. One particular incident, where a group of people hidden in a cave undergo hours of bombardment is particularly chilling. And it is particularly annoying that the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war was known about in 1944, but it took until 2014 for governments to take it seriously enough to have a summit about it

Paddy’s descriptions are great, from lark’s liquid notes to cypresses as “elegant as pheasant feathers” to a description of the surroundings taking shape in the sunrise, your senses are awakened. I’m a bit rubbish at understanding battle scenes, but the way he told the story made sense to me. To go with the literary prowess, Paddy’s understanding of the complexities of the international situation, with every nation’s at times competing or contradictory aims is as good and reliable on events 70 years ago as it is now.

If I was going to criticise, it would be on a couple of things. In the long list of key players at the beginning, a couple of women are described, unnecessarily, in terms of their relationship to men but this isn’t repeated in the entries for the men. There are references to women being of “relaxed virtue” and one of an extremely  effective female spy, Christine Granville, being “highly promiscuous”. The notes mention a book about her which I’d really like to read because her life sounds fascinating. I don’t want to over-egg this pudding, partly because the tone was not judgemental. In fact, if anything, it was the opposite, but you would generally not describe men in that way.

It’s always very important to me to read the acknowledgements in any book because you can often find some wee gems of information or observation in there. This book is no different. I particularly loved the bit about Olly Grender…

The book was a bit of an emotional assault course, a digest of the human cost of war and the courage of people who stand up for the sorts of values I believe in. I found myself drawn in to the point where I was reading it on my Kindle with the iPad beside me searching for pictures and maps of the places described. It made me actually want to go to the places and museums to pay tribute to those who took part in the Resistance effort on the Vercors. The book’s impeccable research, intelligent analysis and talented storytelling makes it easy to recommend.

You can buy the book online from Waterstone’s here, but why not just go down there (or to any other local bookshop) and spend an afternoon going through the bookshelves and looking at all the other books available. You know you want to…

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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7 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 21st Jun '14 - 2:29pm

    ” people screw up the running of a war in exactly the same ways as they are prone to screwing up other things in life. ….. you would hope that people would behave with a bit more decorum and empathy for and focus on the people on the ground when the decisions that they make really are matters of immediate life and death.”

    It would be nice if they even did this when there was the life or death of a political party at stake.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '14 - 4:12am

    Are Waterstone’s paying for this ad?

  • Martin Land 22nd Jun '14 - 9:27am

    It would be nice to have this book reviewed by someone who understood the issues fully, rather than sadly trying to impose some inappropriate modern feminist claptrap on remarks which are important in the context of the times.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Jun '14 - 11:46am

    Tony, did you read further down when I talked of the parallels of our own situation today.

    Richard, I was trying to avoid using Amazon which people also complain about.

    Martin, what would you have put in the review? Given that the book was written in 2013, not 1944, I felt my comments on the portrayal of women were perfectly valid. They weren’t even that critical, but worth pointing out.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '14 - 2:19pm

    Waterstones jars. It’s a class-bias thing. “your local bookstore” might have preserved the offputting “jollying along” vibes. But yes, I complain about Amazon too!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Jun '14 - 7:22pm

    That’s a fair point, Richard, and I have amended the text to reflect that.

  • David White 23rd Jun '14 - 2:30pm

    Thank you, dear Caron, for your review of Paddy Ashdown’s new book. Your approval concurred with other reviews that I’ve read. Because of his active service while in the Special Boat Service, ‘Cap’n Paddy’ is well-qualified to understand irregular warfare. Too expensive for me in hardback, I shall hope to be able to afford a paperback copy, later.

    There’s no doubt that arguments between Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle disadvantaged the courageous Vercors resistants. The materiel which was so desperately needed by the resistance fighters in the Vercors was denied them, on the basis that Mr Churchill insisted that all weapons, ammunition and supplies must go towards the Allies’ invasion of the south of France. That was a wicked decision based upon the PM’s loathing of the (self-appointed) leader of the Free French.

    Additinally, the Allies were almost always fearful of their real or imagined fears that the French resistance movement was dominated by Communists. My view would have been that my enemies enemy is my friend!

    To make matters worse for the brave maquisards, far too often, their leaders engaged the German troops in a formal military manner – forgetting that 20th century guerrilla leaders such as Paul von Lettow Vorbeck and TE Lawrence had already demonstrated how irregular warfare should be fought; successfully.

    Lord Ashdown’s new book and the memories of D-Day caused me to re-read Sir Max Hastings excellent book, ‘Das Reich’, the horrifying account of the murderous journey of the 2nd SS Panzer Division from the Montauban area to Normandy. Max Hastings mentions the Vercors revolt, but refers to it in no great depth.

    Harried all the way by heroic resistants (and SOE operatives) the SS indulged in revenge shootings and hangings (from lamp posts and balconies in Tulle). At Oradour sur Glane, where the Germans met no opposition, the SS troops slaughtered every man, woman and child they could find in the village – 642 civilians. The ruins of the original Oradour-s-G are preserved as National Monument which is close to the architecturally undistinguished replacement village. Many Brits holiday in that area: I suggest that a visit to Oradour-s-G should be on the agenda – but be ready for copious tears.

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