By Mike Sansbury

of The Grove Bookshop

AS A student in the French city of Grenoble in the mid 1980s, I visited the musee de la resistance, a well-meaning but deeply confusing collection of photographs, documents and relics which convinced me that something momentous had happened in the area during the war but which failed to put across exactly what had taken place. I have Paddy Ashdown to thank for giving a clear, gripping account of the activities of the maquis as they strove to outwit the occupying German army. It is a complex tale of courage, fear and betrayal, and Ashdown tells it well.

Grenoble, in south-eastern France, sits in a kind of basin, surrounded by three great Alpine ranges, the Belledonne, Chartreuse and Vercors massifs. It was to the third of these that Resistance fighters retired to create as much diversion as possible in the period around D-Day, and their efforts were initially supported from London with ammunition drops and visits from top S.O.E. operatives. Ashdown highlights the contrast between the meetings of two sets of commanders; Churchill and de Gaulle clearly struggle to get on, fighting to suppress personal animosity and frustration while attempting to save the world from a distance, whereas in Grenoble the two sector commanders, Francois Huet and the splendidly named Roland Costa de Beauregard (men from very different backgrounds) meet in the mountains to plan their campaign to save the very ground beneath their feet. Here, too, differences must be set aside.

As a military man, Paddy Ashdown is excellent at describing army movements and tactics, but he also manages to put across the complex emotions of men who are trying to rid their homes of tyrannical occupation in the full knowledge that any action will inevitably be met with brutal reprisals. The Vercors region was beyond the zone occupied by the Nazis, but this just made things more difficult in a way; order was kept by the Vichy-led malice, Frenchmen guarding Frenchmen, which made score-settling and grudge-bearing much easier. Betraying one countryman to another must have seemed a far less heinous crime than delivering them into the hands of a foreign occupier.

In the aftermath of D-Day, Allied resources were diverted to Northern France, which meant that the men of the Vercors suddenly found their support ebbing away. Axis exasperation with the Vichy regime also meant that German and Italian troops now poured into the region from all directions, so that the four thousand or so local volunteers hiding in the mountains were suddenly faced with a huge army. The result was inevitable, but out of initial defeat came a regrouping, a strengthening of resolve, and eventual triumph.

The maquis of the Vercors were not an army; they were 4,500 individuals, each with a stake in defending their home, and Paddy Ashdown tells many individuals’ tales. His research is detailed and his enthusiasm undimmed by the obstacles faced in digging up the stories of the men involved. Several myths are debunked and the aftermath of the war is examined carefully, but the author is all too aware that, once the all too real dust had settled, life would never be the same for the combatants on this battlefield. Describing the return to Grenoble of maquisards who had spent months away training, he suggests that, seeing the unchanging pattern of traffic, the familiar smells, sights and sounds of city life, “it was as if they had suddenly re-entered the twentieth century from some more primitive age.” How much stranger life must have seemed once hostilities had ceased.