A former army officer, Antony Beevor, last night won the first Samuel Johnson Prize for a non-fiction book. The author of The Battle of Stalingrad was awarded the £30,000 prize at a ceremony at the Banqueting House in central London.
Cherie Booth QC, one of the judges, described the book as a "fantastic read", although the Prime Minster's wife admitted to: "Never willingly having read a book about a battle".
James Naughtie, the BBC presenter who chaired the judging panel, described The Battle of Stalingrad as "stunning history". "It is meticulous and original. Above all it speaks directly to its readers with force and a luminous humanity". Beevor's success surprised the tipsters, who had marked journalist John Diamond's account of his battle with cancer, C: Because cowards get cancer too, as the favourite for the prize, the most valuable award for non-fiction, from the five strong shortlist.
The Battle of Stalingrad, currently second in the British bestseller list, has been described as an "epic account" of the terrible siege in 1942-43, which was a turning point in the Second World War. In the book, Beevor concentrates not on the strategy and tactics of Hitler and Stalin, but on the personal experiences of the soldiers and civilians caught in one of the first and most terrible of modern urban battles.
Beevor, 52, who worked for two years with an interpreter trawling through Russian archives, said last night that he had never expected to win the prize. He went on: "It was not even my idea. It was my publisher and initially I was appalled at the amount of work involved. I knew there was no point in doing it unless I could come up with something original, but I was lucky, I found things in the archive which led me to other archives."Reuse content