It 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 and spend an afternoon going through the bookshelves and looking at all the other books available. You know you want to…