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Antony Beevor: 'History has not emphasised enough the suffering of French civilians during the War'

Poor Doctor Stagg. How tightly the hand of history, for a short time, clasped his shoulder. In 1944, the Scot was Britain's leading civilian weather expert. Suddenly, he had been made a group captain in the RAF, so that he carried the necessary authority to dole out decisive advice on the timing of the invasion of Normandy.

The weather had to be right, and by Saturday 3 June, Stagg was "all but physically nauseated" at the lack of consensus among meteorological experts reporting to him with data. He decided for himself that the prediction had to be rough seas, high winds, low cloud, and on the advice of Stagg, Dwight D Eisenhower reluctantly ordered a postponement of D-Day.

The next morning, even though the convoys were being called back, in a blow to efficiency and morale, the sky was still clear. Stagg, who could not face the other officers over breakfast, "felt a certain shamefaced relief, when the cloud and rain began to increase from the west" later in the day. By midnight on 4 June, a storm was battering the windows, but Dr Stagg and his colleagues had discerned a possible slow-down in the coming depression.

By the early hours of 5 June, Stagg's forecast of a short break in the deluge had hardened into a firm conviction among the political and military leaders of the largest and most complex invasion the world had ever known: the invasion had to take place immediately, during the promised brief window of calm. And that, of course, is what happened.

It is delightful in its absurdity, this realisation that the plotting of D-Day depended so entirely on the unpredictable weather, just like any other British plan for the outdoors. And it is part of Antony Beevor's genius that he pulls you into his latest book, D-Day: The Battle For Normandy, by focusing on one otherwise ordinary man's moment of destiny. The 62 year-old has come to be celebrated as a military historian who imbues his narratives with a novelistic appeal to the general audience, but without compromising or sentimentalising his material. On the back of that reputation, he has sold four million books.

I first became aware that there was something special about Beevor when my stepson – then 12, and no book-worm – read the newly published hardback slab that was Beevor's 1998 book Stalingrad with voracious, obsessive concentration. He wasn't the only one. Stalingrad has been adorned with endless awards, and has now sold 1.8 million copies. Yet Beevor, puffing amiably on a Gitane in the study of his terraced home in Parson's Green, south-west London, still looks touched and delighted that one young reader was mesmerised.

Beevor himself did not have high hopes for Stalingrad's saleability. He knew that his meticulous trawl of newly released Russian ministry of defence archives had unearthed some "fantastic new material". But the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, in 1995, had been marked with a slew of new histories, and none of them had really sold. It was generally felt in the publishing world that the war, as a commercial proposition, was dead.

"No one had any expectations," says Beevor. "I remember the managing director of Penguin, Helen Fraser, saying at the meeting where they were discussing print runs: 'Well, I think this book can go past 10,000.' And all the marketing people sort of raised their eyes to the ceiling, thinking, 'Oh, my God, she's hasn't got a clue.'" The marketing people can't be blamed too much. At that time it was very good going if a military history book sold 6,000.

As pleased as he is with his astounding success since the publication of Stalingrad, one feels that Beevor would have been happy with the 6,000. He is keen to emphasise that the resurgence of interest in history is widespread and complex, and that his approach has simply chimed with the temper of the times. Beevor puts the phenomenon down to "globalisation, the internet, the end of the Cold War, the changes in society – a much less deferential society – and, of course, the individualism whereby the old collective loyalties of the past withered away."

Beevor believes that people's expectations of history have altered. "We're living in a post-military society, and a health and safety society, and as a result people are fascinated, living in a very secure culture, about what it was like to be caught up in these events, with no control over their own fate whatsoever. Of course, there's a self-questioning: 'What would I have done?' 'Would I have survived physically?' 'Would I have survived morally?' Or whatever it might be."

Whatever the demands of those changed expectations, Beevor writes for himself. He was first gripped by history at the age of nine or 10, and puts his interest down to having a "wonderful" teacher at Winchester. But at the age of 18 he opted to enrol at Sandhurst and join the 11th Hussars instead of joining the ranks of academia.

"When I was a child I had something called Perthes' Disease which meant I was on crutches, so I was bullied at school and all that sort of stuff. It was only after five years in the army, when I was having to do a very boring job in a very boring place, that I thought: 'Why not try writing a novel?' partly out of youthful arrogance and partly because there had been a long line of writers in my mother's family. Like most first novels, it was much more autobiographical that I realised – thank God it was never published – but it served the very useful purpose of unintended self-analysis and that was when I suddenly realised that I'd only joined the Army because of a physical inferiority complex."

However, he had been tutored by the eminent historian John Keegan while at Sandhurst, and was greatly influenced by his teacher's most celebrated book, The Face of Battle. "For the first time military history was looked at through the eyes of the soldiers in the front line rather than this artificial chess board which many retired generals and writers on military history had adopted later, when they were imposing an order on a chaotic situation. John's book was so important. It led the way."

It wasn't until he had written a number of books himself, that Beevor cottoned on to what he really wanted to do with historical narrative. He was researching Paris: After the Liberation, which he wrote with his wife, the historian Artemis Cooper, and was struck by a simple paragraph he found in a French archive.

"It was a report about a German farmer's wife who'd fallen in love with a young French soldier who had been taken prisoner and put to work on the farm. She smuggled herself on to one of the trains bringing prisoners back to Paris after he had been liberated, and was picked up by the French police very soon afterwards, because she was trying so hard to find him. It was almost like a Marguerite Duras novel, and I wanted to know more. Did the young Frenchman love her too? Or not? Had he even given her his real name? Had he been married as well? Had he come home, perhaps, to find that his wife had given birth to a baby by a German soldier?

"So for me it wasn't just a question of the people who were killed in the war, all that suffering, it was the way that lives more generally were turned upside down. The effect was so great. That started pushing me towards the kind of writing whereby one had to integrate history from above with history from below, because it was the only way to communicate the direct consequences of the decisions of the great commanders – Hitler, Stalin, whoever they were – on the very fragile lives of the civilians and soldiers caught up in these terrible events."

This makes Beevor's ideas about history sound a little romantic, even though they are far from it. He portrays war as psychological chaos for everyone, with only the military actually trained to cope with that chaos in any way at all. The moments when all the planning fails to take something small into account really tell in Beevor's narratives, like when nobody foresaw that the parachutists preparing to leap into enemy-occupied Cotentin would be slithering around the planes in their own fear-induced vomit by the time their terrifying moment came. Mainly, however, Beevor simply strives to be accurate in his detail, and true to all the players in the drama, military or civilian. If there is one thing he hates, it's a historian with an agenda.

"The duty of a historian is simply to understand and then convey that understanding, no more than that. There's a tremendous difference, thank God, between the British narrative history tradition, dating all the way back to Gibbon, and the continental one, particularly the Germans. I was bitterly attacked by Joachim Fest [a biographer of Hitler] in Der Speigel over three pages, after Berlin: The Downfall was published there, in an article saying: 'Beevor has no leading thought.'

"I think it's outrageous if a historian has a 'leading thought' because it means they will select their material according to their thesis. One of the dangers in history at the moment, particularly military history, is that people have come from outside – cultural historians, post-modernists and so on – and have tried to move in on military history, imposing ideological or theoretical grids on a subject which they don't entirely understand.

"I'm often reassured in a bizarre – perhaps perverse – way, when I find in the archive stuff that contradicts what my assumptions have been. That's interesting and exciting. One simply doesn't know until one finds the material. I get slightly obsessive about working in archives because you don't know what you're going to find. In fact, you don't know what you're looking for until you find it."

What Beevor found, in researching his latest book, was that history had not put enough emphasis on the huge sacrifices of French civilians during the war. This has got him into a little trouble. Beevor is particularly critical of the bombing of Caen, and when pressed by an interviewer for BBC History Magazine, he said he believed the action was "close to a war crime", only to regret his phrasing when the comment was picked up by a Sunday newspaper.

Beevor maintains that criticism of the attack on Caen is nothing new. William Douglas-Home, the playwright and brother of Alec Douglas-Home, received a court-martial at the time for protesting about the bombings, was cashiered from the Army and served one year's hard labour. A mild duffing-up in a Sunday paper is not much in comparison, and is a tiny illustration of how even 65 years of time and distance does not entirely lift taboos on what can and can't be said about historical events.

"The bombing of Caen has always been known to be a controversial decision," says Beevor. "I was trying to say: 'It was a terrible blunder.' There is a grey area in which blunders are almost criminal because of the lack of imagination. If you want to capture a city on the first day you don't go and smash it to pieces. Particularly because it must have been evident that there weren't any German soldiers left in Caen as they were all sent to their forward defensive positions north of Caen. It basically only hit the civilians, rather than the Germans.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have used the phrase 'war crime' because people automatically get worked up. But the one thing that is terribly important is that history has not emphasised enough the suffering of the French civilians. I was shaken myself to find out the degree of French casualties overall during the whole war, but particularly during the Battle of Normandy, and that has not really entered into the traditional histories of the campaign."

It is certainly true that the French have been marked or tainted by the war, particularly in the popular imagination of the US. In his book, Beevor says that a number of American soldiers, who had never been abroad before, had difficulty in understanding the difference between enemy territory and enemy-occupied territory, and deeply mistrusted the French. Beevor tells of a couple who were shot because they were found with a cache of German weapons in their home. No one had considered the possibility that French citizens might have a non-collaborative interest in acquiring weapons from Germans.

Yet similar problems existed at the top. President Roosevelt's distrust of de Gaulle, whom he saw from the beginning as "a potential dictator", exasperated even Churchill. Roosevelt's insistence that de Gaulle should be told nothing about the D-Day plans prompted him to comment: "... after all it is very difficult to cut the French out of the liberation of France."

But the French have been "cut out" to some extent, all the same. Beevor believes that the poor relationship that developed at that time between France and the US has endured, destructively, to this day. Part of this rupture, he believes, is because of the failure to project the suffering of France in the war into the history books and therefore into the popular imagination.

Beevor, whose Newsweek review of Saving Private Ryan was spiked because it was too critical, has an even-handed view of war in which soldiers – and civilians – cannot be generalised about, according to their nationality or anything else. That's one of the things that he is keen to get across in D-Day. "Monty [Field Marshal Montgomery] was so shocked by the report which basically showed that in any platoon a small group actually did the fighting, a few of them would do everything they could to get out of the fighting, and the rest of them would follow somewhere in between. But this wasn't just true of the British Army, American reports found it, and I found this in the Red Army as well.

"So this notion that soldiers are generally professional killers is simply not true. Some of them probably do get an excitement out of it, but that's certainly not the case for the majority. You've got to understand that an army is a very emotional organisation, it's not a sort of cold machine as many people imply or think. War is one of the most unpredictable states of human activity."

Beevor also believes that the moral simplicity of the Second World War has fostered a notion about who was right and who was wrong that actually hampers a deeper understanding of war's psychological complexity. "Here was a time when the fight was definitely right. The Western allies were wearing the white hats, and the Germans were wearing the black hats." In Beevor's histories, now that enough time has passed, and memory is no longer raw, the intention is to understand that even among the good guys, even among the best guys, there was grey. The untold suffering of the civilians of France, grateful to their liberators, and therefore wary of complaint, is part of the grey. Beevor does France, and history, a service by dragging it into the light.

'D-Day: The Battle for Normandy' by Antony Beevor (Viking). To order a copy at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

D-day: hour by hour

By Tim Walker

[00:15] Paratroopers and gliders drop behind enemy lines The first Allies to land in France were British glider troops, who swiftly captured two bridges, over the Caen Canal and Orne River. Soon, paratroopers were dropping across Normandy.

[02:00] Bombers take off from England US airforce bombers were launched to reinforce the ground troops. Between 02:00 and 05:29, 1,198 aircraft headed for the Normandy coastline; 163 for the city of Caen.

[03:09] German radar detects the Allied invasion fleet With nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft, six battleships, four monitors, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, 152 escort vessels and 277 minesweepers, the Allied armada was by far the biggest fleet ever put to sea.

[06:30] H-hour on Utah and Omaha beaches At 05:30, Allied ships began to bombard the coastline. An hour later, the first US troops landed at Utah and Omaha beaches. Many tanks sank in the choppy waters offshore, landing craft were blown off course, and bombers failed to destroy the German defences above Omaha; thus the first landing wave was pinned down by heavy fire.

[07:30] H-hour on Sword and Gold beaches British troops landed at Sword and Gold beaches. At 07:45, Canadian troops landed at Juno beach while, at Utah, American forces began to advance inland from the beachhead.

[11:00] American troops capture Vierville At 10:46, Colonel Benjamin B Talley radioed back to the USS Ancon from Omaha that "Things look better". Soon afterwards, his troops secured the nearby village of Vierville-sur-Mer.

[12:00] Churchill addresses the House of Commons As British commandos and Airborne troops were linking up at the Orme River Bridge, the Prime Minister informed the House, "Everything is running according to plan".

[14:00] Hitler responds to the invasion Hitler held his first meeting at Berchtesgaden, his Alpine retreat, to discuss the invasion, demanding it be crushed immediately.

[16:30] German Panzer tanks attack the British at Sword beach The [German] 21st Panzer division finally engaged the Allies near Sword. British troops (many of whom stopped on the sand to brew cups of tea while still under fire) were prevented from reaching Caen.

[19:00] Allied HQ established at Omaha General Huebner, commander of the US 1st Infantry Division, set up a command post at Omaha beach.

[00:00, 7 June] Fighting continues throughout Normandy By the end of D-Day, all five Allied beachheads were secure, with nine Allied divisions ashore.