I had to stifle a giggle as Paddy Ashdown strode on to the stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival and said:
What are you lot doing here at ten in the morning?
There was a certain irony at this coming from the man who notoriously held meetings at the crack of dawn when he was party leader.
The morning after his "why the world will never be the same again" talk, he was back to tell us about his new book, "A brilliant little operation", about the founding raid of the Special Boat Service, the special forces unit where he would later serve. He described his seventh book as a labour of love as he told us how research had taken him to France and Germany and how he'd uncovered a deeper, darker story beyond the raid itself. He admitted to nerves at this, his first presentation and spoke of "the beautiful moment" when he'd finally finished writing and revision.
This December sees the 70th anniversary of the inaugural SBS raid, to blow up German boats in Bordeaux harbour, disrupting the supply chain. This was carried out by twelve men who undertook a gruelling journey by canoe. Sadly, only two of them survived until the end and their efforts may not have been necessary. At the same time, unbeknownst to the SBS, the secret services had their own unit, stationed in a cafe just 100 metres from the harbour, who were primed to do the same thing the next night. Some of those captured by the Germans had been close to safe houses that they didn't know about.
The book was partly motivated by atonement. In 1965 the young Ashdown was rude to a stranger on a train who had asked him if he was in the SBS. He later discovered that his travelling companion had been Blondie Hasler, one of his all time heroes and the commander of this operation.
Paddy described the context, the low point of the war, where Britain had only two advantages, its navy and the "rampant pugnacity" of Winston Churchill. Hasler's raid was planned to disrupt the German supply route from the far east to Bordeaux. Paddy read from the last letters written by the young men as their pictures appeared on the screen behind. As he described the tragedy of the events that unfolded and the bravery of the men and those they came across who'd helped them, his talent for storytelling was clear. You could imagine the sights and sounds and smells and dangers and emotions. He introduced us to the characters involved, from both SBS and the secret services and told of meeting some of them while researching the book.
Given that only two out of twelve survived, he was asked if the raid had not been a failure. He replied that it was a devastating blow to the Germans who had to then divert resources to protect harbours and who had been convinced of their own invincibility until then. It was also a huge stimulus to the Resistance. The special forces and secret service now co-operate as a matter of course now.
I really don't do books about war, but after briefly meeting the characters in such an absorbing presentation, I felt it would be rude not to buy this one and I can't wait for it to arrive.
A Brilliant Little Operation can be pre-ordered here on Amazon.