Former leader of the Liberal Democrats LORD ASHDOWN talks to Régine Godfrey about his literary quest to honour British and French wartime heroes and how Savoie has become his home from home
How did you become fluent in French?
I can’t say that I have good memories of French teaching at school; I failed my O-level miserably. My daughter Kate married a Frenchman, so naturally there has been plenty of opportunity to practise with my two grandchildren Matthias and Lois. I also improved my command of French through reading. One particular book I adored was Le Château de Ma Mère by Marcel Pagnol. I find his quotes so thought provoking: ‘Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.’ (‘Such is the life of men. A few moments of joy very quickly wiped away by unforgettable sorrow.’) French culture is wonderfully rich. I often listen to Hector Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été (Summer Nights). He adapted six poems from La Comédie de la Mort (The Comedy of Death) written by his friend Théophile Gautier: it is a delightful piece of soulful romanticism.
What prompted you to write a book about the Cockleshell Heroes raid (Operation Frankton) in Bordeaux?
I wanted to pay homage to [the Marines] and to ordinary French people who gave our men succour. It was also a way to return thanks to my old unit, the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS). As a young man I found myself in a train compartment refusing to engage in conversation with a white-haired man, only to discover after the end of the journey that he was ‘Blondie’ Hasler, leader of the Cockleshell Heroes raid. The 1942 mission he planned was desperately hazardous from the start; out of ten men only Hasler and Marine Bill Sparks survived. They were dropped by submarine in to open sea, paddled up the Gironde to blow up the German merchant fleet anchored in Bordeaux harbour, and escaped to freedom on an epic route across the Pyrénées.
What impressed you during your research for the book?
I was amazed at the casual heroism of French men and women who – at great risk to themselves and their families – sheltered, fed or guided the Marines. I was privileged to meet farmer’s wife Amélie Dubreuille who looked after Hasler and Sparks for 18 days, even though a German post was only 700 yards away. I am also indebted to the Service Historique de la Défense at the Château de Vincennes, which allowed me to access previously unseen documents and trace surviving witnesses. Another great moment was being introduced to François Boisnier, the ex-president of Frankton Souvenir, a Bordeaux-based organisation dedicated to keeping alive the memories of the Cockleshell Heroes.
Why do you often visit Savoie?
At least twice a year my wife and I meet our children and grandchildren at Crest-Voland. It’s a small Alpine village located on a sunny plateau in the Val d’Arly, not far from Megève and Albertville. There is not much skiing above 2,000 metres, although you are well compensated by stunning views of Mont Blanc. I still think of myself as being in good shape but this year my grandchildren have beaten me on its very fast lower slopes. For us it has become something of a home from home. In the summer I wake up at first light to the sound of cowbells outside my bedroom window: it’s my idea of heaven on earth.
You also spend time in Burgundy.
I usually spend five weeks in the late summer at Irancy, not far from Chablis, where I write my books. The village lies in the hollow of a valley with slopes covered in vines and cherry trees. Its red wine once possessed a considerable reputation but lost out to its more famous cousins in the Côte-d’Or. Happily there has been a reversal of fortune and the hard-working producers of Irancy were rewarded with an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 1999. What I like about this wine is the blending of pinot noir with a five-to-ten per cent addition of an unusual grape variety called césar. It results in a superb garnet colour and a lovely bouquet. I thoroughly recommend it with stews or pork.
Do you intend to retire to France?
I’m afraid I don’t understand the word ‘retirement’. [The French philosopher] Pascal wrote: ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.’ (‘The unending silence of these immeasurable spaces frightens me.’) My next project will be a book on the Vercors during 1944, which means that I’ll return to France even more. Formidable!
A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of WW2 is published by Aurum Press, priced £8.99.