Antony Beevor: The rest is history

Antony Beevor: The rest is history

From his study window, Antony Beevor has a view of a quiet Fulham cul-de-sac, the only distraction the distant rumble of a Tube train. It's a world away from the chaos and killing of the Second World War which he specialises in chronicling.

He has just finished work on D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (Viking, May), which exposes the bloodiness, incompetence and brutality of the Normandy campaign.

It is his third major work on the Second World War, following the earlier bestsellers Stalingrad and Berlin. Through Nielsen BookScan alone, and not counting considerable export sales, he has sold almost a million books with a value of £12m.

After leaving the Army, where he was an officer in the 11th Hussars, Beevor's first book, in 1982, was on the Spanish Civil War— "which I had always been fascinated by". By the end of that, Beevor had become interested in the Second World War, the main act after the curtain-raiser.

His first book on the wider conflict was written with his wife, Artemis, on Paris before and after the liberation. She is the granddaughter of Duff Cooper, the wartime minister of propaganda and ambassador to Paris, and had access to his private diaries.

His editor at Penguin, Eleo Gordon, then suggested his next book should be on Stalingrad. Beevor wanted to do a book on "the changing British establishment, about the way the ground was moving under their feet", but his agent, Andrew Nurnberg, who was also at the meeting, kicked him under the table and Beevor hastily agreed that Gordon's suggestion was "brilliant". The rest, of course, is history. Helen Fraser at Penguin stuck her neck out and thought the book might sell just over 10,000—in fact it went on to do 40 times that.

The D-Day book forms the third part of what Beevor is anxious to describe as "a triangle, not a trilogy" with Berlin and Stalingrad. Penguin had wanted a book on the siege of Leningrad, but Stalingrad had been so harrowing—it literally put Beevor off his food—that he couldn't face any more cannibalism and starvation. A second reason was that the Russian archives, which had opened up under Yeltsin, were now, under Putin, closing again.

The latest book has taken over three years to research and, like its predecessors, diligent work in the archives has paid dividends. For example, the Americans sent young historians to Normandy during the campaign to interview soldiers, as they came out of the line, for the official histories. Beevor has gone back to the original tapes, which were never quoted from directly, and found fascinating, contemporaneous, accounts. Here, among much else, the shooting of German prisoners appears.

"I was surprised, if one takes the American paratroopers for example, at how openly all of them had spoken. It's all there on the tapes [the execution of prisoners— they regarded it as perfectly normal. It seems as if in many cases they were as good as told 'don't take any prisoners because they'll only hold us back'." Not that this was purely an American practice; all sides, German, British and Canadian indulged in it.

Many other themes emerge in the book. One is the extent to which Montgomery, the senior British general, was loathed and distrusted, especially by his own side. He developed a reputation for muddled decision-making, grandstanding and chronic exaggeration.

He took inadequate account of how woeful the British tanks were, at one point losing 150 in a single day. "If they [British generals] had made it clear to Churchill he would have moved heaven and earth to increase the production of the Firefly [tank], which had a much more effective gun. There was a major mistake. The lesson was there in North Africa, they were well aware of this problem, but Montgomery, when he started hearing objections from the armoured troops on what they were up against, he then wanted to just stamp on it, saying 'this is just defeatist talk, nobody must say anything about it'."

But the overriding theme of the book is that "Normandy was probably more intensive fighting than on the eastern front." The concentration of forces was greater than in Russia, particularly in the British sector, who were opposed on a narrow front by two SS Panzer corps. The Germans, with superior equipment, tactics and often motivation, inflicted far greater losses man-for-man than the Allies. At times Allied units cracked under the pressure.

Sledgehammer to crack a nut

Air power and artillery, where the Allies had the upper hand, was frequently used as a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with 20,000 French civilians killed by "friendly fire" during the campaign, plus another 15,000 before the first soldier even came ashore. During the whole war 70,000 were killed by the Allies, more than the total number of British civilians killed by German bombing.

Eventually, the Americans broke out of the bridgehead and swept south and east, forcing the Germans back. Their high command was then shaken by the July bomb plot which almost killed Hitler, an event partially triggered, Beevor has established, by their Normandy reverses. The book ends on a high point, as the Americans and Free French liberate the French capital, where the Parisiennes shower the soldiers with all kinds of favours.

With the luxury of hindsight, the success of D-Day seems assured but Beevor describes it as "a miracle". The Allies gambled on a break in the weather, avoiding a huge storm two weeks later that would have wrought havoc and lengthened the campaign by months. And that would have allowed the Red Army to reach as far as the Rhine in 1945, changing entirely the history of post-war Europe.