Biography

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of eleven works of narrative history. His books have been translated into 25 languages.

His most recent publication is Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World, the tale of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the World War Two, the sectors of the city and the Berlin Airlift.

Milton’s previous work is D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story, which recounts the previously untold story of the young men who landed in the opening waves of D-Day – American, British, Canadian, French and other nationalities. The book includes rarely heard stories of the German defenders, as well as those of French civilians living on the Normandy coast.the Sunday Times bestselling Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is currently being developed into a major TV series. His 1999 bestseller, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (serialized on BBC Radio 4) is also being developed for television.

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Milton’s other works include Russian Roulette, Samurai William, White Gold, Big Chief Elizabeth, Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, Fascinating Footnotes from History and The Riddle and the Knight.

He is also the author of three novels, The Perfect CorpseAccording to Arnold and Edward Trencom’s Nose.

Milton’s works of narrative history rely on personal testimonies, diaries, journals and letters to tell the story of key moments in history, recounted through the eyes of those who were there. ‘Much of my working life is spent in the archives,’ says Milton, ‘delving through letters and personal papers. Days can pass without unearthing anything of interest but persistence often pays rich dividends. Amidst the flotsam and jetsam, there are always some glittering gems.’

The Times described Milton as being able ‘to take an event from history and make it come alive’, while The New York Times said that Milton’s ‘prodigious research yields an entertaining, richly informative look at the past.

Giles Milton lives in London and Burgundy.

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Books

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A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea

Events

Checkmate in Berlin with Giles Milton – In Person

Checkmate in Berlin with Giles Milton – In Person

Join The London History Festival for this fascinating interview with the best-selling author, Giles Milton. Tuesday 16 November, 6.30pm to 7.30pm.In his latest work, with his consummate storyteller’s flair, the bestselling author of D-Day and Fascinating Footnotes from History zooms in ...

Articles

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The Fight for Normandy’s Beaches

The Fight for Normandy’s Beaches

It had been raining for much of the day and the air was still damp when Wally Parr clambered into the glider that would take him to Normandy. It was 10.35pm on 5th June 1944 and Parr’s nerves were on edge – with good reason. He had been selected for an audacious airborne operation that was to ...
Operation Harling: Textbook Guerrilla Warfare

Operation Harling: Textbook Guerrilla Warfare

It was approaching midnight and the snow-capped peaks of the Roumeli Mountains in Greece could be seen gleaming in the moonlight. The American Liberator aircraft circled Mount Giona a couple of times before Eddie Myers gave the signal to jump.A few seconds later, he and his fellow saboteurs
Meet the Real Unsung Heroes of D-Day

Meet the Real Unsung Heroes of D-Day

They arrived in a blare of noise, a troop of D-Day commandos led by their flamboyant commander Simon Fraser, the 15th Lord Lovat. They had spent much of the morning fighting their way inland from Sword Beach. Now, they were nearing their goal: the rescue of John Howard and his beleaguered ...
By Balloon to the North Pole

By Balloon to the North Pole

At exactly 2.30 p.m. on 11 July 1897, a gigantic silk balloon could be seen rising into the Arctic sky above Spitsbergen. Inside the basket were three hardy adventurers, all Swedish, who were taking part in an extraordinary voyage. Salomon Andrée was the instigator of the mission. Charismatic ...
Hitler’s Final Hours

Hitler’s Final Hours

For the occupants of Hitler’s private bunker the news could scarcely have been bleaker. The Soviet army was advancing so rapidly that it was now within a few hundred yards of the bunker’s perimeter fence.The nearby Schlesischer railway station had already been captured. The Tiergarten was ...
When Stalin Robbed A Bank

When Stalin Robbed A Bank

The two heavily armed carriages rattled slowly into the central square of Tiflis (now known as Tbilisi), the state capital of Georgia. Seated resplendent in one of the carriages was the State Bank’s cashier. The other carriage was packed with police and soldiers. There were also numerous ...
The Very Strange Death of Alfred Loewenstein

The Very Strange Death of Alfred Loewenstein

In the early evening of 4 July 1928, a fabulously wealthy businessman named Alfred Loewenstein boarded his private plane at Croydon Airport. It was a routine flight that would take him across the English and French coastlines before landing at Brussels, where Loewenstein lived with his wife, ...
Heart of Darkness: The Slave Ship Zong

Heart of Darkness: The Slave Ship Zong

Captain Luke Collingwood was used to grim voyages across the Atlantic, but this one had been worse than most. Dysentery, diarrhoea and smallpox had already claimed the lives of seven of the crew aboard the slave ship Zong. The slave cargo had suffered a far higher mortality rate. More than ...
Rehearsal for D-Day: Exercise Tiger

Rehearsal for D-Day: Exercise Tiger

It was three minutes past two on the morning of 28 April 1944. A flotilla of American warships was approaching Slapton Sands on the Devon coast in south-west England, a crucial practice exercise in advance of the D-Day landings. Exercise Tiger was a 300-vessel, 30,000-men dress rehearsal for ...
A Corpse on Everest: George Mallory

A Corpse on Everest: George Mallory

The corpse was frozen and bleached by the sun. It lay face down in the snow, fully extended and pointing uphill. The upper body was welded to the scree with ice. The arms, still muscular, were outstretched above the head. Mountaineer George Mallory had last been sighted on 8 June 1924, when he ...
Charles Joughin: Drunk on the Titanic

Charles Joughin: Drunk on the Titanic

It was 14 April 1912. Charles Joughin had finally fallen asleep after a hard day’s work in the ship’s kitchens. Suddenly, he was woken by a tremendous jolt. He felt the vessel shudder violently beneath him. Then, after a momentary pause, it continued moving forward.Joughin was puzzled ...
Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

Agatha Christie's Greatest MysteryAt shortly after 9.30 p.m. on Friday 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie got up from her armchair and climbed the stairs of her Berkshire home. She kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind, aged seven, good- night and made her way back downstairs again. Then she ...

Author Interview(s)

Giles Milton
What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?I’m careful not to get too trapped in any one period! My particular interest is in individuals – often quite ordinary people - who find themselves cast into an extraordinary situation. I use their story to open a window onto an entire period, using a narrative approach to reveal an often-unknown chapter of history. An example is my book White Gold, which follows the story of a young Cornish cabin boy named Thomas Pellow. Captured by Barbary pirates in 1716 and sold into Moroccan slavery, his story sheds fascinating light on the complex issue of white slavery, one that is little known and even less discussed.Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?I like to construct my narratives, wherever possible, from primary source material – diaries, letters, unpublished typescripts and oral interviews. This often necessitates many months of research in order to locate people with such material in their possession. To give an example…  for my book Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, I tried to locate the families of the six mavericks in Churchill’s secret Ministry - those who planned all the most audacious guerrilla operations of the Second World War. My hope was that these families would have their own personal archives. And they did! One of them, the daughter-in-law of weapons designer Cecil Clarke, had an entire bedroom filled with diaries and letters – including letters from Winston Churchill.The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?Largely, but I think people are increasingly interested in hearing it told from different points of view. Many readers have told me how fascinated they were to read about the Normandy landings from the German perspective in my book about D-Day.Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?I really admire what I’d describe as the first generation of narrative historians: Peter Hopkirk, Peter Fleming, Steven Runciman and David Howarth. I just re-read Hopkirk’s The Great Game: it’s a highly complex story told with clarity, deep insight and a dash of humour.If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?It would be Sir Walter Ralegh – one of the great figures of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period who, in so many way, seems close to our own world: a self-made social climber, flamboyant, a show-off, a self-promoter, who was nonetheless a genius at unrolling the frontiers of the Golden Age of exploration. Ralegh was also a sublime writer: his Discoverie of Guiana is a work of genius, as well as being a beautifully written work of propaganda. The early colonisers of America (notably the Jamestown settlers) owe a debt of gratitude to Ralegh’s early colonisation efforts in the 1580s. Without his trailblazing efforts, America  - for good or for ill – might never have been colonized by the Anglo-Saxon world.If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?Two subjects that are very rarely even mentioned at school. The first is the East India Company, which played such a vital role in 17th and 18th century global history. It was also the world’s first global corporation, an operation with extraordinary rapacity and displaying often eye-stretching willingness to resort to violence. It was the subject of two of my books, Nathaniel's Nutmeg and Samurai William, which examined the Company’s role in opening up the world.I would also like to see the white slave trade taught in schools. While this was nowhere near on the scale of the black slave trade – indeed the two should not be compared – it nevertheless saw the enslavement of up to one million Europeans between 1600 and 1800. Most of these Europeans were sold into slavery in North Africa, having been captured at sea or snatched from the coastal villages of Britain and mainland Europe. I wrote about it at length in my book White Gold. It’s worth remembering that many hundreds of British nationals were seized and sold into slavery in the very year that Rule Britannia (‘Britons never shall be slaves’) was composed.If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?The same advice as I still give to myself, every day of the year. Write, write, write, even if it’s no good. It’s easier to rewrite a poorly written draft than to fill a blank page.Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?My latest book, published June 2021, is Checkmate in Berlin. Its subtitle gives a few more clues: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World. It’s the story of the dramatic breakdown in relations between the western powers and their erstwhile Soviet partners, followed by the rebuilding of Western Europe under the protection of NATO.It’s told through the prism of the four sector commandants: American, British, Soviet and French, whose personal rivalry perfectly mirrors the geopolitical rivalry at the end of the Second World War. The two biggest characters are the American cowboy commandant of Berlin, Col. Frank ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Howley and his So
AoH Book Club – Giles Milton on Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922
The destruction of Smyrna in 1922, for which we’ve just seen the centenary, was an event that not only shamed the Turkish forces that carried it out, but also the allied navies that looked on as tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children were killed, and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes. Giles Milton has written a compelling account of  the humanitarian disaster, one of the most tragic of the 20th century, and one that remains unknown.Giles, Paradise Lost is a riveting account of the events in September 1922 when the now Turkish city of Izmir, then Smyrna, was partially destroyed when Turkish forces entered the city. It is described on the front cover as ‘Islam’s city of tolerance’. What was Smyrna like prior to the events of September 1922?In the early 20th century, Smyrna was an extraordinarily cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, and tolerant city – so much so, that the American expatriate community named their district of the city ‘Paradise’ (hence the title of my book). They knew of nowhere in America that displayed such an open-minded spirit.Smyrna was also unique in being the only major city in the Middle East with a majority Christian population.It was divided into quarters, with specific populations living in each quarter. The city was dominated by the Greeks, who numbered 320,000 and had a virtual monopoly on the lucrative trade in figs, sultanas, and apricots. Greeks also owned many of the city’s major businesses.The second largest population was the Turks, who numbered 140,000; they were mostly artisans and craftsmen who lived in the city’s poorest quarter. Despite their humble status, Smyrna’s governor was always Turkish, as befitted one of the principal cities in Ottoman Turkey.Smyrna was also home to a vibrant and wealthy Armenian community, and a smaller Jewish population. There were also European merchants, often insurance brokers and bankers, whose prosperous businesses were centred on Frank Street, the city’s principal artery.The American quarter, Paradise, was smaller but nevertheless important, for it was home to influential educational and humanitarian institutions. Americans also owned the highly profitable Standard Oil Company.Lastly, there were the Levantines, the wealthiest and most fascinating community in Smyrna. They were descendants of European merchants who had married into the Greek and Armenian communities. Rich, powerful and polyglot, they spoke five or six languages and owned the city’s most successful international businesses. The grandest Levantine dynasties lived in palatial villas in the suburb of Bournabat, where they would host splendid cocktail parties in their private botanical gardens.Why did you want to write the story of this huge event in 20th century European history?Smyrna in the early years of the twentieth century was like a mirror of our contemporary cities - a melting pot of nationalities and religions. I was interested to learn how a city that functioned so smoothly could be so dramatically torn apart. It begged an important question: could our own contemporary cities suffer a similar fate?The destruction of Smyrna is also crucial to our understanding of the 20th century world, yet it remains almost a wholly unknown chapter of history. Who knows about the Greek invasion of Turkey in 1919?  About the mass exchange of populations in 1923? These were events that transformed the lives of millions of people – almost always for the worse.Yet more tantalising was the invidious role played the great powers, notably Britain and America, who were to display a callous disregard for the lives of the refugees trapped on the quayside of Smyrna, even though they had done so much to inflame the situation.Why were Greece and Turkey at war?In the aftermath of the Great War, Greece’s Prime Minster was a brilliant individual named Eleftherios Venizelos. His central thesis – his Megali Idea –was to reclaim all the ancient Greek lands of Asia Minor, lands that currently fell within the frontiers of the crumbling Ottoman empire. Deploying charm and guile, he persuaded the Great Powers to allow him to occupy Smyrna, with its majority Greek population, in 1919.When the Turks fought back, Venizelos was obliged to push his troops into the hinterland around Smyrna. But they still came under attack, requiring him to push them even further east. Over the next three years, the Greek army drove ever deeper into Anatolia as it sought to create a safe buffer zone around Smyrna.The Greek army was victorious for as long as the Great Powers provided it with weapons. But when Venizelos lost power, and the detested King Constantine returned to the Greek throne, the flow of arms ceased. The Turkish nationalists seized their opportunity, crushing the Greek army and advancing towards Smyrna.There was a western military presence at the port, in the form of 21 British, American and French ships. Why did they not intervene? The destruction of Smyrna could have been prevented by the Allied warships in the bay of Smyrna. The Great Powers could also have prevented the massacre that followed. But the commanders of those Western warships were under strict orders not to intervene in the unfolding crisis.Why? Because politicians in London and Washington knew that the Turkish Nationalists had won the war against the Greeks and they were already eyeing up the rich trade deals they were hoping to conclude with Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk). They didn’t want to be seen to be helping tens of thousands of defeated Greeks and Armenians trapped on the quayside.There is some dispute over who was responsible for the burning of Smyrna, and debate has raged in the 100 years since – where does that responsibility lie in your view? The great fire of Smyrna remains a controversial subject. Even today, Greeks and Turks violently disagree on who set fire to the city.I had an open mind when researching the book. I was particularly interest in the eyewitness accounts of the Levantines and Americans because these communities were rarely partisan. They simply recorded the facts.I unearthed scores of their testimonies – recorded in diaries, letters and memoirs – which left me in no doubt that Turkish soldiers willingly and deliberately set fire to the city. One of the most powerful accounts was by Miss Minnie Mills, head of the American Collegiate Institute. She watched Turkish soldiers dousing Armenian houses in petrol and then setting fire to them.It is notable that the fire started on a day when the wind had changed direction. This meant that the Greek, Armenian and European districts of the city were in grave danger of being engulfed in flames, whereas the Turkish quarter was likely to remain untouched. This was indeed what happened.The book was published in Turkey, which in itself is remarkable given your criticism of Turkish forces. What was the reaction there? My Turkish publisher was an enlightened individual. He told me he thought it was important for the book to be published in Turkish, even though he did not agree with my conclusions. He even got me an invitation to the Istanbul book fair.The book has received a great deal of criticism in the Turkish press and on the Turkish internet. I was warned not to read some of the more offensive and threatening comments.One man, Asa Jennings, carried out an incredible act of heroism. How did he manage to save 350,000 people? There are occasions when history throws up the most unlikely heroes. Asa Jennings is one such individual. An American missionary in Smyrna, Jennings worked for the local branch of the YMCA. Shy, and slight of stature, he had achieved little of note in his adult life. He might easily have fled Smyrna when Turkish troops began destroying the city, for American nationals were being evacuated to the US warships anchored in the bay. But Jennings was appalled by the brutal scenes taking place on the quay of Smyrna and decided to act – in spectacular fashion.Acting with uncustomary bravado, he pretended to be a high-ranking American official in command of the (non-existent) Western rescue mission. In this guise, he contacted the Greek government in Athens and ordered them to give him immediate command of the 25 Greek vessels standing idle off the coast of Smyrna. To his astonishment, the Greek ministers agreed.Over the days that followed, Jennings oversaw the rescue of hundreds of thousands of refugees. They were plucked from the quayside of Smyrna and taken to safety on nearby Mytilene island. It was to prove one of the greatest rescue missions of the early 20th century.If you were to write a new edition, is there anything you’d change?Yes. A couple of years after publication, I stumbled across a highly detailed account of the Smyrna inferno written by Miss Minnie Mills, whose shorter testimony had already proved invaluable. Eight pages long, this unique account covers events from 5th to 13th September.I found it in the archives of the American College of Greece where it had lain – forgotten - for more than eight decades. It begins: ‘I saw a Turk officer in uniform coming out of a house, taking with him tin containers full of petrol…’ Miss Mills was in no doubt that the Turkish army deliberately torched the city.We are at the 100 year anniversary. Given the mass population shifts in the wake of the disaster, do feelings remain raw in Greece and Turkey?The destruction of Smyrna remains an extremely sensitive subject in both Greece and Turkey. I was recently asked to participate in a Greek TV documentary about the events of 1922. Our TV crew was one of many Greek teams attempting to make a programme focussed on the anniversary.All of these teams – with the exception of ours – were refused permission to film in Turkey. Erdogan’s government is committed to ensuring that the anniversary commemorations will be as subdued as possible.Giles Milton is an acclaimed and bestselling historian and author of Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, the Destruction of Islam's City of Tolerance, which is highly recommended. You can hear a chat with Giles on Smyrna on the Aspects of History Podcast.