Published: 17 April 2010Last Updated: 07 April 2012
Richard Hargreaves has been a journalist for a dozen years, covering the 2003 campaign in Iraq as an official war correspondent aboard HMS Ark Royal. He now writes the newspaper of the Royal Navy, Navy News. He has spent the past 16 years researching the German Armed Forces in both world wars after brashly – and rashly – throwing down a library book in disgust and declaring “I could do better!” His first book, The Germans in Normandy, was published in 2006, while his history of the Polish campaign, Blitzkrieg Unleashed, is due to appear in mid-2008.
He’s currently working on his third book about the siege of Breslau.
The interview took place in October 2007.
AHF: How did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?
R. Hargreaves: My grandfather was a WW1 history nut – his home was full of inter-war books, filled with images. He’d also regularly take me to museums, air shows. He never actually served himself as he was in a reserved occupation, so I guess it was his way of compensating.
WW1 is my real passion, but I seem to have become sidetracked. How? Two reasons, I think. One was the fact that the local library only stocked books from the Allied viewpoint for both wars and I always wanted to know what was happening ‘on the other side of the hill’ as Liddell Hart called it. Secondly, I’ve always been struck by the paradox of the Third Reich: how could a nation so technical brilliant, so successful on the battlefield, allow itself to be led by a group of, for want of a better word, gangsters who committed the most unimaginable crimes in the name of Christianity/right/freedom.
AHF: How do you select topics for books?
R. Hargreaves: Fifteen years ago I set out to write something called Storm and Struggle: The German Armed Forces in the Third Reich – a history of all three branches of the Wehrmacht. I finally abandoned the project around 2001-2002, realising that no publisher would touch it because it was too big. At the last estimate it was four-five volumes, each with 20-25 chapters! Instead, I decided to break it down into lots of smaller, specific battles, so that years of research were not in vain.
Normandy stemmed from growing interest in D-Day ahead of the 60th anniversary, There had been no general history since Paul Carell almost 50 years earlier and I was convinced the material was out there to put it right. Unfortunately I was somewhat late delivering the finished product (by a good two years…)
The Polish campaign book also stems from a postponed project about the first year of the war and German victories in Poland, Norway and France, ending with Sealion and the Battle of Britain. As I began researching the Poland chapter I realised there was a wealth of untapped material out there which could be utilised. In fact, there’s almost too much material when you start looking into it.
Poland’s now done bar finishing two chapters and I’ve become partially sidetracked by book three on the Caucasus campaign – interesting because it’s always overshadowed by Stalingrad and yet there are some great feats there, e.g. climbing Elbrus.
AHF: How did you get contact to publishers when starting out?
R. Hargreaves: Very simply. I picked a military publisher, sent them a draft chapter and synopsis and they said ‘yes’ almost immediately. If the ‘product’ is good enough and you pick the right publisher, they’ll snap it up. Unless you’re writing something particularly specialised for a very niche market, there should be no need for paying for your book to be published.
That said, I’m full of praise for someone like Jason Mark and his Leaping Horseman set-up. I doubt whether a major publishing firm would have produced books to such a length, to such a high quality, with so many images – so there are occasions when ‘going it alone’ is worthwhile.
Be warned when dealing with publishers: all they pay for is the manuscript. Maps, images, index all come out of your own pocket (mine did at least pay for the jacket cover). Also they can pretty much do what they like. The Germans in Normandy is not my title; I prefer much more lyrical ones. The original title, We Buried Our Best On Foreign Soil, was with hindsight a tad esoteric, but I still like it! I’ve deliberately picked Blitzkrieg Unleashed for Poland because it’s short and snappy, but it may yet change.
AHF: Can you live off the proceeds?
R. Hargreaves: No, unless you hit the big time. Keep the day job! A week at the Bundesarchiv will cost about £500 ($1,000) for hotel, flight, food, etc. I’ve used archives in Britain, France, Germany, the NY Public Library, made 300 trips to the National Archives/IWM in the UK, possess a good 2,000 books (Abebooks have done very well out of me…) and have photocopies of notes, documents, journal articles piled up to the ceiling. I hate to put a value on it, but if I’ve made 5-10% of it back through sales, I’ll be amazed.
AHF: How do you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards to worktime on the book?
R. Hargreaves: The work/life balance is fairly easily maintained. I don’t have a life! I work five days a week as a journalist, and come home then sit down for four or five hours doing writing/research/translating. Such dedication (or obsession) has taken its toll on relationships although its not the only factor! Weekends, it’s pretty much 10am-10pm book, book, book (with food breaks).
That said, I’m not a particularly disciplined writer. Some authors sit down religiously between 9am and 5pm, bash out X hundred words and then come back the next day. I work in short bursts of feverish activity; some days I might only write a paragraph. And I have a habit getting distracted; I’ll spend hours checking a specific detail just to add a bit of colour, or perhaps a first name. If that fails to get an answer, I’ll post on AHF or Feldgrau!
Usually, a chapter takes one month-six weeks to write. One on the final months of peace in 1939 which I finished earlier this year took around nine months. It wasn’t a lot of fun…
AHF: Have you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?
R. Hargreaves: No. I last studied history officially aged 16. I did 10 months of German aged 14 then dropped it (doh!), so most of my German is self-taught.
My day job is as a journalist, so all day long I turn nonsense into sense (or so the theory goes), so writing comes very naturally as I’ve been doing it since 1994.
My style of writing is very much popular history; I’m not a serious historian, and would never claim to be. I dig around in the archives, I try to ensure that my work is as accurate as possible. But can I tell you that Panzer X had a Z mm main gun, or had such and such camouflage in Normandy, or do I understand theories of logistics, flanking manoeuvres, battlefield tactics? No. I’m a firm believer that history should be read. There’s a place for serious history – and I rely on it as the foundation for my books – but I’m much more interested in narrative history, in the experience of war. I know people like Antony Beevor sometimes get a bashing on these forums as ‘populist’, but if more people know about Stalingrad or Berlin through his books – and let’s face it, he does his research and brings new material to the table – then all well and good. I would never claim to put the reader in the place of the landser in the bocage or before Warsaw, but if I can give them an insight into what it was like, then I’ve succeeded to a small degree.
AHF: Which archives have you used and how do you find working in them?
R. Hargreaves: Bundesarchiv in Freiburg – brilliant, easy to use, staff very helpful. Surprisingly relaxed. The only downside is that they can be rather slow to deliver documents to you. Excellent, long opening hours (8-6 Mon-Fri)
Imperial War Museum – very helpful, best source of German-language material in the UK (I’m amazed how few people tap into the EDS collection of German documents; it’s not as comprehensive as the BA-MA), the opening hours are very short (10-5 Mon-Sat) and photocopying is ridiculously expensive. Their photographic archive is very comprehensive, but not cheap. It’s good to chat with the staff, a couple of whom (notably Peter Hart) are authors, and there’s a good chance you’ll bump into fellow authors at times.
British Newspaper Library in London – has an almost complete set of Völkischer Beobachter and also Das Reich. Very easy to use.
National Archive (PRO) in Kew – a fabulous collection of material, very fast delivery. Photocopying is expensive. Their online catalogue is a nightmare to negotiate, though. The bound volumes are much easier…
AHF: What in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?
R. Hargreaves: Do as much research before you go. You can spend days simply searching through the guides trying to pick out what you want, then order it, then wait for it, then finally type it up.
AHF: Have you tried to contact German veterans and interview them – if so, how did this work out?
R. Hargreaves: Sadly not. For two reasons. The cost and time of tracking them down would probably be prohibitive, but chiefly my spoken German simply isn’t up to the task. I’m also somewhat wary of memories as they distort over time. If I can, I like to rely on diaries, letters and after-action reports if they’re available.
AHF: How do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books.
R. Hargreaves: Not as a competitor. E-Books really are a non-starter. You have to print them out, so what’s the point?
Could I have written these books without the web? Possibly, but unlikely. It’s the ability to bounce ideas, to double check things, to be pointed in the direction of books, research, whatever. Communities like Feldgrau and AHF make me realise how little I know and how many experts there are out there.
But the biggest find of all for me was Abebooks. I’d trawl bookshops for years trying to find specific books, always in vain. Now it takes 10 seconds to get an answer.
AHF: What is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?
R. Hargreaves: Plan. Make notes, thorough notes. I have a diary which covers every single day from January 1 1930-May 8 1945 (it stretches for about ten volumes!). In it specific details, incidents are listed by the date, followed by a reference of where to look, e.g.
October 5 1939
Victory parade in Warsaw [See BA-MA N19/7; RH20-8/11; RH24-10/554 ]
It means, in theory, that nothing should get overlooked. Particularly important dates, September 1 1939, June 22 1941, May 10 1940, June 6 1944, are broken down by the minute. It takes a lot of sorting out, but it’s worth it. Do not start writing until you’ve finished the research. It’s very hard to squeeze material into a finished chapter (not impossible, but it breaks the flow often).
I know it’s stating the obvious, but back up your files regularly. I back up my book files once a week, just in case…
Be prepared for writer’s block. It does exist. There are times when you think you’ll never crack something, that a chapter will never end, that you don’t know how to begin. It will come.
Set aside (1) lots of money (2) lots of time. It will always cost more and take longer than you expect. You think you’ve finished? Wrong! However, there also comes a point when you have to let it go and simply finish. I’m averaging between three and four years per book I think.
AHF: What has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?
R. Hargreaves: Realising just how much there is. You have to tell yourself, much as you like to be thorough, that you cannot do it all. Be selective. Use the interesting stuff. Don’t translate ten diaries which say the same thing. Translate one.
AHF: Who decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what’s listed and what’s not?
R. Hargreaves: The last index was compiled by a professional indexer. For the next book, I’ll probably do it myself to save money (it costs about £450, which you have to pay for yourself…)
AHF: Why Axis and not Allied point of view?
R. Hargreaves: Anyone can do the Allied point of view; it’s comparatively easy (i.e. no foreign language!) In fact, I’ve always been alarmed by how one-sided Allied histories/accounts of the war are. There are, so the saying goes, two sides to every story. Plus my real interest is French/German/Russian history, especially German. The big problem with researching the Wehrmacht (apart from coping with Fraktur, importing books from Germany at great cost and having to go to Freiburg (lovely city) to do the research) is that because you study the Third Reich people think you stomp around your house all day long in Stahlhelm and jackboots, watching Triumph of the Will and looking admiringly at portraits of the Fuhrer. I abhor Nazism and all it stood for, but you have to visit some very dark places (literally and metaphorically) if you want to research this properly…
AHF: How did you feel about the (excellent) reception from the public and reviews of your first book?
R. Hargreaves: Delighted. My biggest fear was having the book pulled apart by a reviewer for its errors. It’s not 100 per cent accurate; there are typos and factual errors which slipped through, but otherwise reaction has been very positive. The only disappointment is that almost all the reviews have been online. That’s great for sales, but being an old fashioned type, I like the printed word, and seeing a review in a national newspaper would have been wonderful (and unlikely, unless you’re a “name”).
AHF: What made you select Normandy 1944 and Poland 1939 as the topics for your first two books? How would you describe the differences and similiarities in writing about those two campaigns?
R. Hargreaves: Normandy was chosen out of greed (well, in part anyway!) I realised no-one since Carell had touched it from the German viewpoint and decided to cash in on the 60th anniversary. Unfortunately I was more than two years late delivering the finished product… so no cashing in.
Poland happened by accident; it was supposed to be a chapter in a book about the first year of German victories – Poland, Norway, France. The more I looked into the Polish campaign, the more I realised that there was a wealth of untapped material never used, so I decided to turn it into a complete book.
Poland has been much more difficult to write. The Normandy campaign lasted three months. There are days when very little happened and the fighting is generally confined to the opposite ends of the line – Caen and St Lo/Cotentin. With Poland, everything effectively happens in two-three weeks, and the battlefront is scattered all over the place: Danzig, Bzura, Warsaw, Lemberg. Source material is also a bit of a mixed bag; Warsaw and Lemberg have scores of documents/books/articles, but actions such as Kock or the fighting for Gdynia have very little, so it will mean the finished book will be stronger in some areas than others.
Other than that, I hope it’s better written. I’ve learned not to simply quote huge chunks of first-person accounts but to weave them into the narrative more. I’ve also put more effort into gathering images, and the maps should be better as they were very much a last minute thing with the Normandy book.
AHF: How soon will you be able to start working on the East Prussia/Pommerania project you talked about?
R. Hargreaves: I am afraid that is at least a decade away.
AHF: When researching for the upcoming book on Poland 1939, what kind of contacts have you had with Polish archives and veterans? What are your experiences with dealing with those as a non-Polish speaker?
R. Hargreaves: Sadly I’ve had no contact with any Polish veterans. I don’t speak Polish, or even read it. The only Polish sources used are those translated into German or English. It will make the book one-sided, admittedly, but hopefully readers will see it’s most definitely not a homage to the Third Reich. In fact, in places it’s a bitter indictment of the landser and his actions in Poland.
I would have loved to include more of the Polish side, either from books (there are scores of them in Poland on the 1939 campaign) but time and above all money ruled it out. Hopefully, one day, a Polish speaker will fill in the other side of the story.
AHF: In hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?
R. Hargreaves: Yes. Spend more time on the maps and pictures. Maps really are integral to a military history book. There were not enough of them in my Normandy book. I’m hoping to put that right for Poland. Pictures were limited by funds – there were only so many I could afford unfortunately.
AHF: What would be your ‘ideal’ book to research and write?
R. Hargreaves: One where all the translation’s done for me! I actually enjoy the research. It’s the translating that’s a pig (slow and boring). As for books I’d love to write, I’d love to tackle WW1 – Tannenberg, the Marne, and the last 100 days – as it’s my first love but I’ve been sidetracked by WW2.
AHF: What will your next project be (after work on Polish campaign)?
R. Hargreaves: Either the siege of Breslau (most likely) or something provisionally titled “Tomorrow, the world” about the advance on Alamein/Caucasus/Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942.
[Update: I’m now set on the siege of Breslau.]
R. Hargreaves: A couple of final points. Researching and writing can be a tremendous buzz. Working at the IWM one gloomy Saturday in January in 1995 I was flicking through a crusty old file of papers when suddenly I saw Rommel’s signature. To think that you’re touching something connected with a man who pretty much everyone has heard of makes you realise that it’s not a piece of paper, it’s real history, it affected people and perhaps the world. And sometimes I’ll read a chapter, or a paragraph, when I’m proofreading and think in a rather self-satisfied manner: ‘This is bloody good.’ (And other times I’ll just groan and think: did I really write that?)
And finally… don’t expect many reviews. I think I’ve had two non-web reviews of the Normandy book. I never expected a full page in the Daily Telegraph, but the odd nib here and there would have been nice. On the plus side, the Internet is the new word of mouth, and I’ve had sales as a result of the reviews on AHF/Feldgrau/Amazon, so thank you to those who had faith and I hope you weren’t disappointed.