Edinburgh Book Festival: A Fresh Perspective on the Second World War

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Paddy Ashdown introduced by Peter Gutteridge
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Paddy Ashdown is well known to Edinburgh Book Festival audiences, so Peter Gutteridge was able to give him the briefest of introductions before retiring from the stage. This prompted Paddy Ashdown to recount the story of when he was accosted by a man in the street who asked loudly, "Hey, didn't you used to be Paddy Ashdown?" This much amused the assembled audience following his very short introduction.

Ashdown introduced his newest book "The Cruel Victory" as one that covered part of the war that has been overlooked by English-speaking historians. He felt that many have failed to recognise the intense shame and frustration of the French people after the defeat by Nazi Germany and the occupation of Paris together with the northern part of the country leaving the Vichy Government in the south.

Ashdown spoke of the French pride in the victories of Napoleon and the claim by the Armee des Alpes from that era which considered itself never to have been defeated. In stark contrast the German occupation was very hard to accept.

So Ashdown's book has concentrated on the exploits of the French Resistance in their fight against the forces of occupation and in particular to the ferocious battle on the mountain plateau of Vercors in 1944. Ashdown described the plateau as being larger than the Isle of Wight and a most beautiful place, but it was the setting for a most ferocious battle.

The Resistance had been provided with some weapons by the Allies, but sadly the French did not realise that many of their weapons would be useless against the armour of the German combat vehicles. Their bravery could never make up for the total mismatch of weapons and armoured vehicles. When the day came for the showdown between the Resistance and the German forces the weather was bad, so the promised Allied resupply and air-drop was not carried out, however, the Luftwaffe took advantage of a short break in the weather to carry out a devastating bombing raid on the Vercors plateau which took a very heavy toll on the Resistance fighters.

By the time the Allies were in a position to make the resupply drop the German land forces were streaming on to the plateau and had inflicted a heavy defeat on the men of the French Resistance. With their armoured vehicles and tanks they were in a really strong position and exploited this to the full. The French Resistance fought very bravely, but they were no match for the German forces and suffered very heavy losses.

Clearly an enormous amount of research has been carried out by Paddy Ashdown and this shone through in the way he recounted the story behind his book. As a politician Paddy Ashdown is used to public speaking, but he gave a most polished and relaxed performance. He made a deep impression on his audience, some of whom were heard to comment that this event was the best they had attended. I would agree - it was a memorable performance.