D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
May 31, 2009
Profile: Antony Beevor: It’s a full-blooded assault on D-Day
The historian with an eye for human detail is winning new acclaim for a study that brings out the true ferocity of the Normandy fighting
As a bored British Army officer, Antony Beevor never heard a shot fired in anger. Instead he waged his own private campaign to write of carnage on a scale almost too cruel to contemplate. Now a feted military historian, he has delivered another knockout reassessment of one of the second world war’s great set-piece battles.
Bearing ribbons of critical praise, his book D-Day: the Battle for Normandy has shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list with a narrative that swoops from the vicious close-quarter fighting in the hedgerows to the petrified French onlookers and onwards to the political leaders wrestling with monumental decisions.
D-Day presented Beevor with a daunting challenge: was there anything new to say? Not only had the Normandy campaign been well picked over, but his acclaimed books, Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, had reinforced perceptions that the allies’ “second front” was a sideshow of a larger epic.
The critical verdict is that the 62-year-old author has succeeded in confounding expectations on both counts. Sir Max Hastings, reviewing the book in The Sunday Times today, admits that the wealth of fresh voices and untold anecdotes unearthed by Beevor makes his own 1984 work on the battle “and those of many other historians, seem old hat”.
Beevor has also cast the nature of the conflict in a new light, showing in harrowing detail that its sheer ferocity was a lot nastier than most people realised – “comparable to that of the eastern front” at the time. There was ear-hunting by the Yanks, prisoners shot out of hand by the Brits and cold-blooded booby-trapping by the Germans.
Normandy veterans are reported to have been upset by Beevor’s claim in the BBC History magazine that the British bombing of Caen was “very close to a war crime”. In the same interview he attacked General Bernard Montgomery for his “puerile vanity” in believing he could seize the Norman city, advance to Falaise and break through to Paris.
In person, Beevor dispels any impression of emotional excess. A polite and amiable man who speaks quickly in a polished voice, and whose swept-back hair lends him a dashing air, Beevor does not wear his heart on his sleeve in public. “Without becoming involved himself, he pours emotion into the way ordinary people deal with horrific and extraordinary circumstances,” said an acquaintance.
However, he once admitted that what he found in the Soviet archives while researching Stalingrad caused him to “wake up at three or four in the morning with nightmares”.
He lives in London and Kent with his wife, the writer Artemis Cooper, who is the daughter of John Julius Norwich and a granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, the socialite and actress. She is half-sister to Allegra Huston, the daughter of Norwich and Enrica Huston, the estranged wife of John Huston, the American film director. The couple have two children and a herd of alpacas.
Beevor’s gift is to lay out the small details that bring events to life – and death. Eva Braun, he told us, wore a dark dress decorated with pink flowers for her suicide with Hitler. In Stalingrad’s cellars, lice could be seen leaving the dead body of a German for that of a comrade that still had warmth in it. This is the “rich low-grade material” he hunts tirelessly.
He cherished the nugget he found in a report by a Russian chief of intelligence who had been interrogating a German prisoner of war: “There, down at the bottom of the paper, was this little squiggle in pencil, saying: ‘Interview terminated. Subject died of wounds’.” The brief comment told its own eloquent story.
Stalingrad taught Beevor to distrust the memories of veterans 50 years on. He found the details escaped them and their recall had been filtered through the official histories they had read. To research D-Day, he turned to letters, interview transcripts and diaries, particularly those of French women. Official records, he concluded, can be full of “rubbish and official lies” – a diary is “more historically valid”.
In the Caen memorial museum, his eye was caught by a post-invasion interview with the wife of a local mayor. The woman said that American troops had destroyed everything and life was much better under the Germans – a partial truism that served as justification for collaboration with the Nazis.
The truth can be unpalatable, Beevor discovered, when he wrote that Russian soldiers, most of them drunk, had raped at least 2m German women during the long advance on Berlin. He called it “a pornography of horror”, noting that the screams rang through the darkened ruins of Berlin every night. However, Grigory Karasin, Russia’s ambassador to Britain, called Beevor’s work “an act of blasphemy” against the Russian people and those who had suffered under Nazism.
Berlin brought Beevor to the edge of a nervous breakdown. After the success of Stalingrad, expectations for its successor were sky high. Exhausted, haunted by the book’s gruesome material and under a tight deadline, he began to feel the pressure: “It was a mixture of panic, depression and horror. I was a complete shaking mess and I really felt that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book.”
That he did was perhaps a measure of the forces that had driven him since childhood. He was born in 1946 into a well-off family with a long literary pedigree. His mother, Carinthia “Kinta” Beevor, wrote A Tuscan Childhood and was a descendant of Lucie Duff-Gordon, author of a travelogue on Egypt.
As a child, Beevor had Perthes’ disease, which softens the hip bones and kept him on crutches until the age of seven, giving him “a screaming inferiority complex”. He was also bullied, prompting him to stage a “puerile revolt” at Winchester college: “Winchester is a very intellectual school and I became completely anti-intellectual. Almost out of bloody-mindedness, I failed my A-levels on purpose.”
However, at a young age he had developed an interest in military history. Invited by family friends in Brussels to inspect the site of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, he was able to point out mistakes in the diorama – the horses were the wrong colour and one of the uniforms had the wrong buttons. “I must have been insufferable,” he admitted later.
He joined the army and went to Sandhurst, persuading himself he was acting out of patriotism, only to acknowledge later that it was “a need to prove I was physically capable”. Officer training included lessons by John Keegan, one of our most respected military historians. Keegan’s 1976 book The Face of Battle, which recounted the common soldier’s experience at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, had electrified a moribund genre and inspired Beevor: “He showed you the true nature of war – it was never a chess game calmly between two masters, it was always bloody chaos.”
Lieutenant Beevor, a tank commander in the 11th Hussars, saw precious little action in West Berlin, where the cold war never warmed up, and even less at his posting in Wales. He wrote a novel which, although never published, served as psychological therapy in revealing the chip on his shoulder. At 24 he resigned from the army, determined to become a writer.
Within days he set off for Israel to research a novel and came under fire for the first time at a kibbutz near the Lebanese border. He wrote a piece for The Times but resisted journalism, believing it might cramp his writing style.
John Murray, which had published work by generations of Beevors since 1830, put out his undistinguished first novel in 1975. Three others, largely unnoticed, followed. He could not survive as a novelist and turned to military fare. He was writing Inside the British Army when he realised he was enjoying the process for the first time.
Beevor began to refine his technique in Crete: The Battle and the Resistance (1991) and three years later in Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949, written in collaboration with his wife. Readers, he concluded, were less interested in collective history, more in individuals.
Stalingrad was the book that would make his reputation in 1998, but it was someone else’s idea and he was reluctant to undertake it. He was more interested in describing how social change had affected the army and industry. Eleo Gordon, an editor at Penguin, said his proposal was a non-starter and suggested Stalingrad. “I started to make my excuses, then I got a great big kick under the table from my agent who realised it was a good idea.”
Stalingrad, expected to sell 6,000 copies, won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, the Wolfson history prize and the Hawthornden prize for literature. The combined sales of Stalingrad and Berlin have topped 2.5m. Honours have showered upon Beevor.
His books have been compared to Tolstoyan rivers, picking up fresh characters as others are washed up on the banks, all the time growing more irresistible as they rush towards the sea. Only novelists usually enjoy such a fan base. Yet he remains convinced that he has a good novel inside him. If his current form is any guide, it will be worth the wait.
May 23, 2009
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
The Times review by Allan Mallinson
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor Viking, 608pp
Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, Portsmouth; June 7, 1944: “The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
The communiqué was written just before D-Day by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force. Besides telling us much about the man who would become the 34th President of the United States — he drafted it without any “finessing” by his staff; indeed, they did not know that he was writing it — it tells us just what the stakes were in that first week of June 1944. Unlike any other military operation that century, the strategy of the war turned on a single day’s fighting. For if the “satisfactory foothold” were not gained by nightfall — by the 175,000 men who would land in two waves — it would not be gained at all.
D-Day was, therefore, a separate battle within the campaign for the liberation of France and a most desperate one. Eisenhower understood this, as did most British commanders: the British had been fighting long enough to know that the Germans would oppose the landings tenaciously and counter-attack vigorously. They knew the technical perils of an assault landing across the English Channel too. The terrible debacle of the Dieppe raid in 1942 had taught them. Antony Beevor quotes one American officer as saying that the British had a fear of failure as a consequence of Dunkirk, Dieppe and all the other bloody noses of four years’ fighting.
US commanders were perhaps not as apprehensive, although they understood well enough that the casualties would be heavy. There were some ambitious objectives set for the troops on the first day and, although as night fell Eisenhower was able to tear up his contingency message and release an upbeat one, the progress inland was nothing like as good as General Bernard Montgomery, the ground commander, had intended. For while the British and Canadian divisions had a slightly easier time of the fighting on the beaches than they had feared, in their surprise to be alive they were perhaps a little slow to exploit their luck. On the other hand, the Americans had a far worse time getting ashore than they had imagined, on Omaha beach especially. Contrary to general expectations, therefore, if for different reasons, the British and Americans would find it harder getting out of Normandy than getting in.
The best way to come to this book would be by way of Andrew Roberts’s Masters and Commanders, published last year, which tells the story of how the landings came about — how after the Americans entered the war in December 1941 President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, with their respective chiefs of staff, Generals Marshall and Brooke, determined the strategy for the “second front” in Europe (to relieve Stalin’s in the east). After reading Roberts, visit the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth to see a replica of the huge operational wall map that Eisenhower’s staff used in their forward headquarters at Southwick House, just outside the city. The original was commissioned from the toy firm Chad Valley to cover the entire coast from Norway to the Spanish border and arrived in sections so as not to give away the secret of where exactly the landings would take place.
The map gives a striking impression of just what a huge undertaking Operation Overlord was. There were gasps of disbelief when the troops received their briefings, confined behind barbed wire all over southern England. “The preparations were staggering,” Beevor quotes a New Zealand officer of the RAF: “The airborne assaults, the quantity and variety of shipping, the number of army divisions [ten], the tremendous weight of the air offensive. The scale and precision of it all made our past efforts look insignificant. When the briefing was over there was no conversation, no laughter. No one lingered and we filed out as though we were leaving church. Expressions remained solemn. The task ahead outweighed all our previous experiences and sent a shiver down the spine.”
The Germans knew it was coming but not precisely where or when. The Allies had put a huge effort into the deception plan — codename Fortitude — to convince the defenders that the main assault would come in the Pas de Calais and that landings in Normandy would therefore be a diversion. Everything from double-cross spies, false signals traffic to create the impression of an army waiting in Kent (commanded by Patton), to the “floor plan” of the RAF and USAAF bombing was co-ordinated by a central office in London to deceive the Germans, who had fortified the entire Channel coast, with Rommel, who had been brought back from North Africa after El Alamein, directing the operations.
Allied reconnaissance of the beaches was not simply a matter of aerial photography. The public was asked to send in prewar holiday snaps of beaches from Biarritz to the Baltic but these could not answer questions such as “will the shingle at (wherever) bear the weight of a tank?”. Omaha beach was particularly tricky to recce, Sapper Captain Scott-Bowden, and Sergeant Ogden-Smith of the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Section, swimming ashore each armed with only a commando knife and a Colt .45 automatic, carrying an 18in earth augur and a bandolier with containers for their samples. On return, Scott-Bowden reported to Norfolk House in St James’s Square, where Overlord was being planned. General Omar Bradley, who would command US troops in the assault, questioned him painstakingly on the beach-bearing capacity. As he was leaving Scott-Bowden said: “Sir, I hope you won’t mind my saying it, but this beach is a very formidable proposition indeed and there are bound to be tremendous casualties.” Bradley put a hand on his shoulder and said: “I know, my boy; I know.”
The landing sequences in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan show pretty well what it was that “Brad” knew.
It is these human touches, as well as the operational detail and the strategic-level machinations that Beevor excels at — Eisenhower living off black coffee, cigarettes and paperback westerns in the days leading up to June 6; the necessary egos of the generals; Churchill “bearing his cross of Lorraine” (de Gaulle) with a fine mix of flattery and brinksmanship; the King trumping his Prime Minister’s qualifications to watch the landings from a warship to persuade Churchill to stay ashore. Beevor deftly handles the brushes on the great Overlord canvas, though sometimes his assertions make for a doubting pause in the otherwise compulsive text.
And then there was the weather. The story of the great storm of June 5, the day originally planned for the landings, is well known but Beevor retells it well. With clear, sunny skies, and to the bafflement of many, Eisenhower was persuaded by his chief weather forecaster, Wing Commander Stagg, to postpone the operation. And then 24 hours later, with rain lashing against the windows of Southwick House, Stagg persuaded him that the weather would improve just enough for the landings to go ahead. And it all stemmed from a favourable report from a weather station at Blacksod Point in Co Mayo. For vouchsafing secret weather information the Irish might even be forgiven their neutrality, for never has history turned so much on the predictions of one man and his met charts.
But why were the Germans caught on the hop? In large measure because the RAF had such mastery of the skies that no German reconnaissance aircraft could fly over the Channel and because when the storm blew up the German Navy assumed that an invasion armada could not sail, and so did not send out patrols on the night of June 5-6. Nelson’s navy would never have made that mistake — and the Royal Navy in the Second World War was still imbued with his spirit. The Germans had an unwavering faith in the infallibility of systems and procedures: they believed, for example, that their Enigma machines produced an unbreakable code; so by June 1944 the Allies were reading almost all their signal traffic.
Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 account, The Longest Day, deals with just that — the fighting on June 6 itself and the immediate run-up. Beevor’s account is rather more than it says on the jacket — the battle for Normandy; it is the story, in large part, of the liberation of France. And he clearly makes good use of his earlier work Paris After the Liberation.
Inevitably after the nail-biting tension of the days leading up to invasion, and the drama of the landings themselves, the slog through the Normandy bocage seems at times . . . a slog. But in those weeks of the stalled offensive the frayed tempers are interesting to observe. Montgomery, frustrated that the RAF would not bend to his wishes, called Leigh-Mallory, the air commander, a “gutless bugger”. In the same breath he sacked one of his corps commanders, Bucknall, and Bobby Erskine, commander of the 7th Armoured Division, the famed Desert Rats, who appeared to have lost their fighting edge, believing that they had done more than their fair share in North Africa and that it was time for others to take the lead. And also “Loony” Hinde, commander of 22nd Armoured Brigade. Montgomery himself came close to being sacked by Eisenhower for “attitude”.
Beevor is harder on the British than the Americans, perhaps because with all their experience of war to date they should have known better. And it is significant that the dustjacket shows US troops landing, not British: the Americans were preponderant on D-Day itself and became ever more so in the build-up that followed. Indeed, the book is in many ways the classic story of “young stag, old stag”. But, most important of all, from the author of Stalingrad and Berlin, the Downfall, is the re-evaluation of the “second front”, of late seen increasingly as a sideshow to the great events in the east: “The ferocity of the fighting in northwest France can never be in doubt. And despite the sneers of Soviet propagandists, the battle for Normandy was certainly comparable to that of the eastern front.”
Beevor tells it all with the soldier’s eye for what matters on the ground as much as with the historian’s for the broader understanding of events.
May 31, 2009
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
D-Day by Antony Beevor
Viking £25 pp608
Some years after the second world war, an early book on the Normandy campaign featured a photograph of a handsome young German officer surrendering to Canadian troops at Falaise. Its publication prompted a letter to the Canadian embassy in Bonn. The correspondent cited the picture, and said she would be glad of any information about the fate of the German depicted with his hands up. He was her son, and had never been heard of since.
Though that story is not Antony Beevor’s, one of many bleak revelations in his latest battlefield epic is that the killing of enemy prisoners was a commonplace of the 1944 struggle for Normandy. Amid fighting that at times cost casualties as heavy as those on the eastern front, more than a few allied units refused quarter to their enemies. The most fanatical Nazi formation on the battlefield, 12th SS Panzer division, killed Canadian prisoners in significant numbers in June. Thereafter, their opponents responded in kind. So, too, did many British and American units. Some soldiers were merely reluctant to run the gauntlet of fire to escort PoWs to the rear. Others resented the notion that enemy captives might escape the risk of death while they themselves could not. Others again vented special rage against snipers, in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention. Enemies who particularised the business of killing seemed more hateworthy than those who merely participated in indiscriminate mayhem.
The story of D-Day and the campaign for Normandy has been told many times. But Beevor is a master of the art of casting brilliant new illumination upon familiar themes. I find it galling that he has contrived to write a book that resurrects virtually no scrap of material that I used in a book of my own about the Normandy campaign 25 years ago. Instead, he has assembled a mass of unfamiliar sources, fresh voices and untold anecdotes to create a saga as impressive as his earlier narratives of Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin. He makes my version, and those of many other historians, seem old hat.
Describing D-Day itself, he focuses special attention upon events on Omaha beach, the most fiercely contested of the June 6 landing zones. American legend holds that the landing was a bloodbath. Yet in truth, some units got ashore and scaled the bluffs behind the sands with amazingly little difficulty. C Company of the 116th Infantry lost only 20 out of 194 men, and were soon overrunning German positions from the rear. By contrast, A Company of the same unit suffered a massacre, losing almost half its strength killed, and many more wounded.
More than 17,000 Americans were ashore by noon, flooding the coastline. Some were slaughtered, impaling themselves on the German defences, but enough trickled or blasted a path through the cracks to gain the high ground and win the day. The US Army lost well under 1,000 dead taking Omaha, a negligible “butcher’s bill” by eastern-front standards — and even compared with the frightful losses suffered by many allied units in the battles following D-Day.
Beevor’s account of June 6 is exemplary. Thereafter, he describes the struggle to break the German army in the west. This required the most painful attritional fighting British and American forces experienced, as costly for some units as the Somme or Ypres a world war earlier. Again and again, infantry and tanks were thrown forward against Hitler’s panzers and infantry units. Again and again, they achieved small gains only at shocking cost. The beauty of the Norman countryside mocked the dreadful human tragedy for which it provided a setting.
Montgomery had brought home from the Mediterranean three veteran formations to spearhead his assault. But the book is unsparing in its acknowledgment of the poor performances in Normandy of the 51st Highland, 7th Armoured and 50th Northumbrian divisions. Far from being “battle-hardened” — almost always a foolish cliché — many of their men were worn out and cautious, and their commanders had to be sacked. Beevor quotes a Canadian who was shocked in one action to see how “Scotties threw their weapons and equipment away and fled”.
Tank crews who had fought in north Africa were much dismayed by the close countryside of Normandy. A trooper of the Sherwood Rangers wrote: “We could see the buggers in the desert and they could see us. Here they can see us but I’ll be buggered if we can see them.” It is hard to overstate the impact on allied performance and morale of engaging German Tiger and Panther tanks with British and American tank guns whose shells usually bounced off.
Nobody knows better than Beevor how to translate the dry stuff of military history into human drama of the most vivid and moving kind. His book offers a thousand vignettes of drama, terror, cruelty, compassion, courage and cowardice. He is especially good in describing the sufferings of civilians on the battlefield, whose plight is often ignored.
As many French people died on D-Day as did allied soldiers — around 3,000, most from their liberators’ bombs and shells. In the course of the campaign, 20,000 civilians perished. Many survivors said afterwards that the German occupiers had behaved better than the British and American deliverers, who looted and destroyed mercilessly.
I quibble with Beevor’s respectful account of the contribution of maquisards, especially in Brittany. The legend of Resistance contributed much to the spiritual resurrection of France after 1945, but nowhere did the maquis significantly influence military outcomes. The Resistance staged noisy and vengeful demonstrations as the allied armies approached, but local populations paid extravagantly for a belated patriotic pantomime.
This is a detail, however. The book paints a magnificent portrait of the horrors, splendours and absurdities of the greatest campaign of the western war. A British infantryman cranking the telephone on the back of a Sherman tank under machine-gun fire was only marginally amused by the Coldstream Guards officer in the safety of its turret who answered wittily: “Sloane 4929.” In the desperate fighting for Hill 112, a soldier of the Somerset Light Infantry hung crucified on German wire, suffering agonies after a bullet detonated a phosphorus grenade in his pouch. He screamed “Shoot me! Shoot me!” until a compassionate officer did so. A corporal noted that only nine of 36 men in his platoon survived that action. One of these then shot himself in the foot, rather than fight on.
There is a wry description of General de Gaulle paying his first visit to liberated Bayeux. An overexcited local cried out “Vive le Marechal!”, confusing the lofty eminence with Marshal Pétain, who had ruled from Vichy since 1940. De Gaulle muttered to an aide with his usual drollery: “Another person who does not read the newsapers.”
The climax of the book is a superb account of the race for Paris by Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armoured Division, which provided one of the most moving melodramas of the war. As Leclerc’s columns advanced on Paris, they were so short of men that they cheerfully enlisted volunteers who offered themselves on the road. An Alsatian deserter from the SS joined up in time to share in the triumphal scenes on the Champs Elysées 10 days later, in French uniform. The joy of the French nation, granted a charade that allowed it to pretend that Frenchmen liberated their own capital on August 24-25, 1944, was irresistible.
This is as powerful and authoritative an account of the battle for Normandy as we are likely to get in this generation. It cannot be said that victory in the west sealed the fate of Hitler’s Germany — the Red Army achieved that. But Eisenhower’s forces in France between June and August 1944 fought the greatest battles of the Anglo-American war. Here is a worthy memorial to their sacrifice and final triumph.
Antony Beevor’s D-Day is a brilliant account of the Normandy invasion, which illuminates and appals in equal measure
By Patrick Bishop
Last Updated: 5:11PM BST 28 May 2009
D-Day: the Battle for Normandy
by Antony Beevor
608pp, Viking, £25
For the Allies, June 6 1944 was one of the best days of the Second World War. It was fraught with setbacks, cock-ups, moments of high risk and drama, but at its close, the architects of Operation Overlord were entitled to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The plan had worked. The vital foothold on the Continent had been gained, and with far fewer losses than had been expected. It seemed that the beginning of the end had arrived. The bitter truth of Normandy, though, was that the landing was the easy part. The initial momentum faded swiftly. The liberators found themselves drawn into a ferocious war of attrition with enemy forces who confronted them with almost insane determination.
It is difficult now when visiting the beaches and fields and villages of Calvados and the Cotentin Peninsula to appreciate just how vicious and destructive the fighting was. But, the battle for Normandy was as hellish as anything seen in Russia. Allied soldiers died at a faster rate than their Red Army counterparts on the Eastern Front. The German average losses were more than double what they could expect fighting the Soviets. Caught in the maelstrom were the people whom the invasion was launched to liberate. Twenty thousand French civilians were killed during the battle, on top of the 15,000 who died during the preparatory bombing.
The human effort involved was colossal. Everyone who took part in or witnessed the invasion was awed by the sheer scale of the enterprise, from the size of the fleet (the largest ever assembled) to the bombers that flowed over southern England throughout the night before the landings. To do justice to such a huge story requires comparable energy and skill to that shown by the operation’s planners. In this book, Antony Beevor has succeeded brilliantly. D-Day can sit proudly alongside his other masterworks on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. It provides a view of the battlefield from all sides: the soldiers killing each other in the hedgerows, the commanders directing them, the terrified French civilians watching their progress, and the political leaders in London, Berlin and Washington wrestling with gigantic decisions. The result is an engrossing narrative that illuminates and appals in equal measure.
One of the themes that stands out from the swirling picture is the extent to which the conduct of the battle for Normandy mirrored the struggle between the combatants’ systems of belief. On one side stood democracy with its dependency on co-operation. On the other, a rigid authoritarianism which, while often effective in tactical situations, became disastrous when it informed strategy. With his wild delusions and tendency to regard dissent as treason, Hitler was the main problem. The Allied high command received the news of the failed July bomb plot, which planned to assassinate Hitler, with mixed feelings. The chiefs of staff had expressed the view the month before that “from the strictly military point of view it was an advantage that Hitler should remain in charge of German strategy”.
At a lower level, Nazi doctrine had polluted German thinking so successfully that most of the soldiers, not only the fanatics of the SS units, believed that they were fighting a battle for national survival which, if lost, would mean the annihilation of the Fatherland. To many, Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters were traitors. It was a cast of mind that the planners had not foreseen. “British and American alike had gravely underestimated the tenacity and discipline of the Wehrmacht troops,” says Beevor when discussing the reasons why the battle for Normandy did not go as planned.
The strength of German resistance was one of the main reasons for the Allies’ slow progress after D-Day, but there were others rooted in the invaders’ values. They were fighting in the name of democracy: decision-making was affected by the need to accommodate conflicting opinions. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, presided over a collection of subordinates with very different military styles and personalities, some of whom had little regard for his qualities as a soldier. He had to contend with some titanic egos, notably that of Montgomery, who is not portrayed well in this book. He was addicted to glory, claiming credit for successes that had nothing to do with him and disowning his own failures. Even Ike’s tolerant nature snapped when he looked back on Monty’s constant insubordination and grandstanding. In an interview in 1963 he described him as a “psychopath”.
The most vain man, though, was surely de Gaulle whose magnificent self-regard eclipsed even that of George Patton. One story Beevor tells suggests the condition was catching. Before the landing, the Free French in London refused to believe British warnings that their codes were easily deciphered. One day they were visited by the chief British cryptographer, Leo Marks, who asked their cipher officers to encode any message they wanted and then broke it instantly “under their astonished noses”.
Democratic values also shaped the Allied approach to soldiering. The British, Americans, Canadians and Poles were essentially “citizens in uniform”. The armies were made up of men who had seen too much and those who had seen too little. Many of the older soldiers had fought through North Africa and Italy and felt they had done enough. They were augmented by troops who had never before experienced battle. The Allied troops were men who wanted to live throwing themselves against men who did not mind dying.
To my mind, that makes their fortitude and courage all the more impressive, especially as they were fighting with equipment that in almost every department – with the exception of the air where the British and American air forces had complete mastery – was inferior to that of the Germans. One Tiger tank was reckoned to be able to knock out three Shermans.
As Beevor makes vividly clear, there were few traces of the romance of war in the Normandy campaign. It was fought with exceptional fierceness, often at close quarters, generating an almost constant fear and dread which drove many out of their minds. Both sides killed prisoners. But, if the Allies sometimes acted badly, the Germans, both regular troops and SS, behaved routinely with an appalling brutality that had by then become almost instinctive, killing indiscriminately in a trail of reprisal murders as they retreated from a war which only the lunatics still believed could be won.
All this was 65 years ago. The scars of Normandy have healed surprisingly quickly. Beevor’s book superbly brings the events of that summer to life again and reminds us of why we should never allow ourselves to forget them.
DVDs of ‘The True Glory’, one of the great war documentaries, will be free with ‘The Daily Telegraph’ next Saturday. On June 7 the ‘Sunday Telegraph’ will have a free DVD of the naval classic ‘In Which We Serve’.
Patrick Bishop’s ‘Ground Truth: 3 Para’s Return to Afghanistan’ has just been published by HarperCollins.
By Andrew Roberts
Last Updated: 11:11AM BST 21 May 2009
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
By Antony Beevor
VIKING, £25, 574 pp
'The French frying pan is starting to resemble the Russian fire,’ wrote the Pravda correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg about the battle for Normandy at the end of June 1944. It was true: although Anglo-American losses ran at 2,000 men per division per month after D-Day, higher than the Russian losses of 1,500 per month on the Eastern front at the time, the Germans – who lost 2,300 per month – were comprehensively defeated in the campaign.
Yet as Antony Beevor never fails to point out in this most humanitarian work of military history, French civilian losses were huge too; in the first 24 hours of Operation Overlord alone, more than 3,000 French civilians were killed – more than double the number of American GIs who died on Omaha Beach. Caught in the crossfire between the biggest amphibious assault in history and fierce German resistance, even bombarded by their own Free French Navy, the people of Normandy paid heavily for their liberation.
Beevor’s previous books on the siege of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin led us to expect something special from D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, and he does not disappoint. Very distinguished books have already been written about Overlord by Max Hastings, John Keegan and Carlo D’Este, and this one certainly deserves its place beside those. Beevor has a particularly keen eye for the aperçu or quotation that brings an experience – very often a gory one – to life. Airborne troops forced to crawl through hogs’ entrails as part of their toughening-up procedure, for example, or a sergeant’s report of the deaths of 18 paratroopers dropped too low for their chutes to open, as sounding 'like watermelons falling off the back of a truck’.
The chapter on the Omaha Beach landings is almost the literary version of the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan, with the same horror and pace. In the 30 minutes before H-hour, the US 8th Air Force dropped 13,000 tons of bombs there, but because they did not want to hit the oncoming armada and flew in across the beaches rather than along them, the bombs missed, and German machine-gunners wreaked terror and chaos as the invaders disembarked. 'Men were tumbling like corn cobs off a conveyor belt,’ one sergeant from Wisconsin recalled.
With 11 of the 13 amphibious trucks carrying howitzers sinking, some men landing miles from the designated sites, and German mortar shell explosions turning beach pebbles into grapeshot, the beach soon resembled an abattoir. It is testament to their sheer doggedness that the Americans landed no fewer than 18,772 men there that day. Beevor draws attention to the role of tanks and destroyers in finally blasting a way through the beach defences; the naval guns grew so hot from firing that they had to be continuously hosed down with water.
Beevor is unsparing in his comments about the military commanders: Montgomery is portrayed as having 'a breathtaking conceit which almost certainly stemmed from some kind of inferiority complex’; Hitler showed a blind faith in the defensive Atlantic Wall that was perplexing in a man who had so ingeniously outmanoeuvred the Maginot Line so easily four years earlier, and Beevor wryly jokes how 'Only Charles de Gaulle could have written a history of the French Army and manage to make no mention of the battle of Waterloo.’ (The night before the landings, de Gaulle called Churchill 'a gangster’ and Churchill called de Gaulle 'a traitor’.) Eisenhower, smoking four packets of Camel cigarettes a day and watching with tears in his eyes as the 101st Airborne Division took off from Greenham Common, emerges well from this book, though more for his diplomacy than his strategy.
The German high command is rightly also coruscated by Beevor, particularly for the absurd system whereby there was no central command in France at the time of D-Day, with responsibilities being shared between Rundstedt and Rommel, who profoundly disagreed about how to deal with the invasion. The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands were kept separate from the Wehrmacht, with even the flak corps staying under Goering’s control. The nation that had invented the concept of the powerful central general staff failed to put its own precepts into operation, partly out of Hitler’s political preference for divide-and-rule.
Only about half of the book is about D-Day itself, for it continues with the breakout from Normandy, the bomb plot against Hitler, the closing of the Falaise Gap, and goes all the way to the liberation of Paris. Beevor maintains the tension throughout, while pointing out how, by mid-1944, the quality of some German units in France was pretty low.
What were nicknamed 'ear and stomach battalions’, because they were made up of men who had lost their hearing in battle and the old and pot-bellied, were augmented by the very young and by many non-Germans. Astonishingly, one-fifth of the Wehrmacht forces in France in 1944 were made up of Poles and Russians who had changed sides earlier in the war, and who often lost little time in killing their German officers and surrendering. This would not have been the case had the Allies attacked a relatively unbloodied, full-strength Wehrmacht in 1942 or 1943.
What must it have been like to parachute into occupied Normandy in the early hours before dawn on June 6, 1944? 'The first Skytrains appeared,’ recalled one observer, 'silhouetted like groups of scudding bats.’ With flak hitting the planes 'like large hailstones on a tin roof’, the paratroopers waded across floors made slippery
by vomit and lined up to fling themselves down thousands of feet, sometimes through cloud and fog, carrying up to 100 pounds of weaponry, ammunition and supplies. Below was the certainty of murderous opposition – those whose chutes got caught in trees were often burned alive by flame-throwers – on a battlefield lit only by the moon and tracer-fire. What men they were.
Fair stood the wind for France
The story of the Normandy landings has been told before, but rarely with such panache
Saturday 30 May 2009
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
By Antony Beevor
VIKING, £25, 574 pp
In the early hours of 6 June 1944, the allies launched the greatest amphibious assault of the second world war. Assisted by bombers and airborne troops, Operation Neptune, the first phase of Overlord, was the precursor to a campaign intended to drive the Germans out of France and the Low Countries. The attack took place during a brief break in unseasonally bad weather. Antony Beevor begins his account of this now almost mythic narrative five days earlier, by describing the head of the allied weather forecasting team, James Stagg, receiving a broadside from General Harold Bull, assistant chief of staff to the supreme commander, Dwight D Eisenhower. Stagg's meteorologists could not agree whether the weather for the invasion, originally planned for 5 June and various dates in May, would be suitable:
"For heaven's sake, Stagg," Bull exploded. "Get it sorted out by tomorrow morning before you come to the supreme commander's conference. General Eisenhower is a very worried man."
One of the many strengths of Beevor's book is his presentation of the nervous but philosophic personality of Eisenhower in the face of the "appalling responsibility" of deciding at what point he should trust the views of these meteorologists and give the order to go (in the event, a "very great risk" was taken with the weather, as Churchill said later in parliament). But although many other characters are equally well portrayed, from Churchill himself to US generals Bradley - with his specs and "hayseed expression" - and Patton, famous for his profanity, to Montgomery with his terseness and conceit, and De Gaulle with his arrogance and his long arms, it is the personal narratives of ordinary servicemen that drive this book.
This is the same approach Beevor took in his justly acclaimed Stalingrad, Berlin: The Downfall and other books. Once again a gripping narrative is the result. But with D-Day he was faced with a great problem, in that many more writers have tackled the subject previously. What has he found new that Chester Wilmot, John Keegan (under whom Beevor studied), Max Hastings and Carlo D'Este didn't?
Though it is hard to match Hastings's Overlord in particular, the fact is that Beevor has indeed added to the account. Accruing greater detail, he has made use of overlooked and new material from more than 30 archives in half a dozen countries. His skill with German archives (a former Hussars officer, he served in the British Army of the Rhine) is especially evident. He addresses controversies in military history - were the British in Normandy tired out from fighting elsewhere? How badly were the Canadians led? Was Montgomery a hero or a hindrance? - and other questions with balance and judgment. The main reasons for allied success are pinpointed as the speed of advance by US motorised divisions and Hitler's refusal to allow a flexible defence.
The pleasure of this book lies in the vividness of an episodic narrative, backed up by judicious use of quotation. Moving from the weather drama to surveillance of the assault beaches, to individual accounts of each beach, to the breakout for Paris, the action never lets up. Beevor follows personalities from one location to another. One moment we are with Captain Scott-Bowden swimming ashore from a midget submarine to Omaha Beach to take a soil sample, armed only with a commando knife, a Colt .45 and an auger, the next we are seeing him make his report to an intimidating room full of generals back in Whitehall: "Sir, I hope you don't mind me saying but this beach is a very formidable proposition indeed and there are bound to be tremendous casualties." So it would prove, with the ramps of landing craft dropping and German machine guns opening fire so that "men were tumbling just like corn cobs off a conveyor belt".
Many of the assault troops knew this was to be their fate, not least because their officers kept telling them so. Beevor is very good on how heavily the burden of premonition weighed on men. A large number took their minds off what lay ahead with frenetic betting, first with dubious-looking invasion money (une fausse monnaie as De Gaulle sneeringly called it), then with saved dollars and pound notes. Other eve of battle rituals included shaving heads, with some Americans deciding "to leave a strip of hair down the middle in Mohican style". This contributed to the German idea that US troops were recruited from Sing-Sing.
The Germans themselves are fairly treated throughout, with a proper view of the difference between those who retained a moral sense and those in whom it had long disappeared. There is a wonderful vignette of an old, one-legged, one-eyed Prussian general called Erich Marcks refusing whipped cream at dinner: "I do not wish to see this again as long as our country is starving." Equally, there are many depictions of the brutality of retreating SS troops.
A former novelist (it is now often forgotten that before concentrating on his historical work in the 1990s, this author published four works of fiction), Beevor is very good on what might in a novel or film be called the kitbag scene, in which equipment is assembled, in this case in preparation for jumping from the C-47 aircraft that would deliver paratroopers to the assault zone: "Dog tags were taped together to prevent them making a noise. Cigarettes and lighters, together with other essentials, such as a washing and shaving kit, water-purifying tablets, 24 sheets of toilet paper and a French phrase book, went into the musette bag slung around the neck, along with an escape kit consisting of a map printed on silk, hacksaw blade, compass and money."
This was only a tiny part of the burden that airborne troops carried. Once weapons and other equipment were taken into account, they often needed help to get up the steps of the planes, "almost like knights in armour trying to mount their horses".
Such a telling phrase is typical, whether it relates to grand strategy (on the eve of invasion "Churchill sent a signal to Stalin with the feeling that the blood debt which the western allies owed the Soviet people was being paid at last") or to domestic feeling on the home front once the assault was under way: "People in their nightclothes went out into their gardens to stare up at the seemingly endless air armada silhouetted against the scudding clouds. 'This is it' was their instinctive thought."
Landing in thickly hedged country known as bocage, often separated from their units, paratroopers resorted in vain to artificial duck calls or cheap children's "clickers" (familiar from the film The Longest Day). Many planes were flying too low, and those paratroopers who had landed successfully witnessed the sickening sound of bodies hitting the ground around them, which they compared to "watermelons falling off the back of a truck".
As well as the grotesque, there were moments of comedy, such as when an allied soldier asked a French farmer "Ou es Alamon?" "He shrugged and pointed north, then south, east and west." Against these humorous moments must be set strange ones, such as watching heavy shells fired from offshore battleships create a vacuum in their wake, causing the water to "rise up and follow the shells in and then drop back into the sea". And, of course, there are many pictures of horror, including a description of cleaning human remains from the inside of a tank with a mess tin and spoon.
The last third of the book is concerned mainly with the rush to Paris, which was not in the original plan for the campaign. It is almost impossible for a reader not to get caught up in the excitement. The historian must always make a choice between the work of depiction and the work of analysis. Even though Beevor is well capable of the latter, we should be glad he has chosen the former. By doing so he has overleaped the barrier of hindsight, getting us as near as possible to experiencing what it was like to be there, that fateful summer, 65 years ago.
Giles Foden's Turbulence is published next week by Faber. Antony Beevor is at the Hay festival today.
D-Day: the battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor
Anatomy of the longest day
By Alex Danchev
Friday, 29 May 2009
AJP Taylor used to say that writing history is like WC Fields juggling. It looks easy until you try to do it. Battle history is like that. Battle is not all blood-letting; it is confusing, exhausting, boring, brutalising. History sometimes seems to follow suit.
But not Antony Beevor's history. After Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin (2002), Beevor's grand tour of the great siege offensives of the Second World War returns us to the Western front. Devotees will know what to expect. His treatment of these epic engagements is a kind of anatomy, or better still, perhaps, an epidemiology.
Beevor does battle history consummately, but he does something more than battle history. His account of the battle for Normandy combines clarity and density. The narrative has a characteristic texture. It is not so much the face of battle as the very pores.
The texture comes from the testimony he noses out, truffle-like, from the archives. When it comes to truffle-hunting, Beevor is well-nigh unbeatable. Where there is an archive, there is Antony Beevor. For D-Day, he makes especially effective use of material from the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans, the Second World War Experience Centre in Leeds, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Mémorial de Caen in Normandy itself.
The text abounds in memorable observations, with democratic disregard for rank and station. A British padre remarks on the astonishing resilience of the French, "for whom 'liberation' usually means loss of everything". An American paratrooper remembers the dull thud of bodies hitting the ground, "like watermelons falling off the back of a truck", after a drop so low that a whole stick of parachutists never opened their chutes. A French intellectual berates his wireless, "this insolent little sphinx emitting baroque messages on which the fate of France depended".
This first-hand testimony offers something more than morsels. It bears witness to the nature of war. An American soldier from the 4th Infantry Division remembers their initial advance inland after the gruelling beach landings: "French people, of course, lived there. Us being there was as big a surprise as anything in the world to these people... One man started to run, and we hollered for him to halt. He didn't halt, and one of our men shot him and left him there. I remember one house a couple of us went into and hollered, trying to tell them to come out. We didn't know any French. Nobody came out. We took a rifle butt and knocked the door in. I threw a grenade in the door, stepped back and waited until it exploded. There was a man, three or four women and two or three kids in that room. The only damage that was done was the old man had a cut on his cheek. It was just a piece of luck that they didn't all get killed."
Moving on, they encounter some Germans dug in on a small hill. With tank fire support, they manage to take the hill: "It was pretty rough. And those guys [the Germans] were baffled and they were crazy. There were quite a few of them still in their foxholes. Then I saw quite a few of them short right in the foxholes. We didn't take prisoners and there was nothing to do but kill them, and we did, and I'd never shot one like that."
The "barbarisation of war" is usually held to be a phenomenon of the Eastern front. The war in the West is supposed to be different. Our chaps, after all, did not go in for that sort of thing, whatever the Hun may have got up to. Beevor does not entirely dispose of that distinction, but he seems deliberately to blur it.
He characterises the battle for Normandy as a battle of attrition – a telling counter to the swashbuckling and bagpiping of legend – and gives a scrupulous accounting of its casual savagery. He goes as far as to assert that "the battle for Normandy was certainly comparable to that of the eastern front".
This comes as a surprise, not least from the chronicler of Stalingrad and Berlin. It seems to be based on the intensity and ferocity of the fighting, and in the first instance on calculations of average losses per division per month during the relevant period (June-August 1944, a comparatively short period), when the figure for the Germans in Normandy was around 2,300 and on the eastern front just under 1,000; for the Allies around 2,000; and for the Soviets, apparently, well under 1,500.
Along with the savagery goes the drollery. One French officer had a jeep with a sign saying "Mort aux Cons!" ("Death to Idiots!"). His superior asked, "Why do you want to kill everyone?" Beevor is finely attuned to the military cultures and sub-cultures he describes. He is particularly good on combat effectiveness, battle weariness, collaboration sentimentale, psychological breakdown, coping mechanisms, concepts of honour and military civility: the grandeur and servitude of arms.
One of his central themes is food. Civilian and military alike are obsessed with it. "When Arletty, the great actress and star of Les enfants du Paradis, died in 1992, she received admiring obituaries. These tended to pass over her controversial love affair conducted largely in the Hôtel Ritz with a Luftwaffe officer (who subsequently became a West German diplomat and was eaten by a crocodile when swimming in the River Congo). But then the letters to some newspapers revealed a lingering bitterness nearly fifty years later. It was not the fact of her sleeping with the enemy that had angered them, but the way she had eaten well in the Ritz while the rest of France was hungry."
If D-Day is not quite the equal of Stalingrad, it may be that the otherworldliness of that experience is difficult to conjure. Normandy is more ordinary. Even its savagery is ordinary. (Hence perhaps the crocodile: an occasional tendency to over-egg the footnotes.) And one ingredient is missing. Stalingrad is expertly thickened with the work of Vassily Grossman and his great novel, Life and Fate.
D-Day summons the ghost of the photographer Robert Capa, but the effect is not the same. Stalingrad has poetic depth. D-Day has narrative drive. It is compelling history, finely done. In the end, however, it stops in its tracks, as if the author himself is exhausted. Paris is liberated; the caravansarai moves on. No poetry after Normandy.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is 'On Art and War and Terror'
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
There is one thing really wrong with Antony Beevor's book: its title. Only about a quarter of its pages are concerned with the amphibious and airborne landings of 6 June 1944, while the rest tell the story of the battle of Normandy as a whole, culminating in the liberation of Paris. This massive narrative sweep is very much in the tradition of Beevor's bestsellers Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall.
It is clear from the outset that he succeeds, to a quite remarkable degree, in catching that sense of scale that marked out one of the decisive campaigns of history. He avoids writing along national lines: American, British, Canadian, German and Polish combatants tell their own stories. The agonising conundrums facing the French are sensitively described.
They emerge as victims of both Allied bombardment and German brutality; as heroic fighters in (but sometimes last-minute converts to) the Resistance; in the shape of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division, brave soldiers anxious to show that Frenchmen could fight but also, in the vengeful mobs that attacked captured Germans, revealing the dark underbelly of a country that had been invaded too often.
Beevor's judgments are overwhelmingly sound. He recognises that Allied and German combat motivation was fundamentally different.
While there were still some Germans who would die for Hitler (even to the extent of rejecting transfusions of nonGerman blood), the British and American armies were essentially what Shakespeare might have called "warriors for the working day", citizens in uniform, generally prepared to do their patriotic chore but not always imbued with the killer instinct of some of their opponents.
He wisely rejects the theory that German pre-invasion deployment was conditioned largely by the desire of those engaged in the plot against Hitler to have reliable troops ready to move on Paris. And he recognises that it was not just the Germans who sometimes killed opponents out of hand: in particular, he explains the mainsprings of the ill-feeling between the Canadians and 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Jugend.
He strikes a sensible balance over Anglo-American relations (bedevilled as they were by some of the more idiosyncratic personalities involved), quoting the wise verdict of Churchill's adviser General "Pug" Ismay that "they have won their spurs & and that maybe we have been a bit too 'staff collegey' in our conduct of the war".
Given the breadth of his canvas, we should not be surprised that Beevor's command of fine detail sometimes lets him down. The talented American air commander "Pete" Quesada did not become a lieutenant-general till after the war; the British 50th Division was Northumbrian, not Northumberland; there is actually a fierce dispute over the circumstances surrounding the death of German tank ace Michael Wittmann, and it seems odd to discuss the Canadian defence of St Lambert sur Dives without mentioning Major David Currie, who won his VC inspiring it. And, although Admiral Somerville's 1940 attack on Mers el Kebir was profoundly painful, it did not sink "the French fleet". Most of the squadron based there eventually made its way back to Toulon.
These are minor irritations, and will not stop this book from becoming the standard popular work on a campaign which, as Beevor rightly affirms, helped shape the post-war world.
Roderick Bailey's Forgotten Voices of D-Day is the most recent of Ebury's admirable series which uses unpublished material from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. In this case the contents are precisely what the packaging suggests, with a wonderful selection of first-hand accounts of D-Day by British servicemen. Among other things, they remind us that there were indeed British landing craft crews on Omaha beach. "It's lived with me ever since," recalls a naval officer.
"I can still see those fresh-faced boys getting out of the boat ... I know I had to do my job, they had to do their job, but I was in some way responsible for putting them there and it does haunt me from time to time. It does haunt me. I still see their faces."
Synopsis by Foyles.co.uk
"It is the young men born into the false prosperity of the 1920s and brought up in the bitter realities of the Depression of the 1930s that this book is about. The literature they read as youngsters was anti-war and cynical, portraying patriots as suckers, slackers and heroes. None of them wanted to be part of another war. They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not handgrenades; shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other young men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought" (from the Prologue). On the basis of 1400 oral histories from the men who were there, this account reveals how the intricate plan for the invasion of France in June 1944 had to be abandoned before the first shot was fired. The true story of D-Day, as Stephen Ambrose relates it, is about the citizen soldiers - junior officers and enlisted men - taking the initiative to act on their own to break through Hitler's Atlantic Wall when they realized that nothing was as they had been told it would be.
Darkness at dawn
Wednesday, 20th May 2009
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
Viking, 590pp, £25
The Forgotten Voices of D-Day
Bailey, in association with the Imperial War Museum
Ebury, 401pp, £19.99
Sixty-five years ago the largest seaborne assault force in history was put ashore on the beaches of Normandy. Memory of the day is now confined to a diminishing number of great-grandfathers, but the sheer scale of the landing, its drama, and its pivotal importance in the war guarantee its enduring grip on people’s imaginations. Two generations have grown up with their own versions of what happened.
The first learned about it, either directly from participants or through a cascade of memoirs from ageing commanders who portrayed it as the highpoint of a triumphal progression from El Alamein to the Rhine. The second, growing up in the cold war, had it presented as an American-led coalition’s assault on tyranny, a dress rehearsal for Nato against the Soviet Union. Once ideology threatens to swamp the past, it is useful to be brought back to reality.
The first corrective offered by these two new histories of the operation is their reminder of the colossal risk it entailed. ‘It may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war’ confessed Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke on the eve of the invasion. The supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had even prepared a provisional press release, ‘The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed, and I have withdrawn the troops.’
What is striking, almost shocking, today was the high casualty rate they were ready to accept in order to earn success. Even in a rehearsal, Exercise Tiger, that took place a month earlier at Slapton Sands in Devon, close to one thousand died. Planners anticipated that 20,000 would be killed or wounded in a single day, more than a quarter of all those going ashore. ‘Don’t worry if you do not survive the assault’, one officer breezily assured his men, ‘we have plenty of back-up troops who will just go in over you.’ Even before the firing started, hundreds died as paratroopers drowned in flooded fields and crews of water-going tanks capsized in the rough seas.
Yet no less remarkable was the meticulous organisation that made it possible to land 70,000 soldiers under fire within a few hours. To one German NCO, the closely marshalled fleet of 7,000 vessels looked like ‘a gigantic town on the sea’, and the 11,000 aircraft that darkened the dawn left witnesses awed. Behind it lay intricate preparation and supply lines reaching back to Scotland, Nova Scotia and Virginia. It is a flaw in both these books that they do not give General Frederick Morgan, the chief planner, his due.
What chiefly stays in the mind, however, is the dreadful moment of stepping out into the bullets. Here, Roderick Bailey’s account, based on scores of oral histories taken from British troops, is incomparable. The voices speak with utter immediacy of fear, determination, bewilderment, indifference, and unmistakable courage. Among the mayhem, however, the least martial comments stand out, like the caustic reaction of Bill Millin, piper to Lord Lovat, when asked to play the pipes under a hail of mortars and machine-gun fire, as commandos went ashore on Sword beach:
The whole thing was ridiculous, so I thought I might as well be ridiculous too. I said, ‘What tune would you like, sir?’ and he said ‘Well, play The Road to the Isles.’ I said, ‘Would you like me to march up and down?’ and he said, ‘That’ll be lovely.’ So the whole thing was ridiculous in that the bodies lying in the water were going back and forward with the tide, and I started off piping.
And Private Roebuck’s exasperation on finding a picture of Hitler in a gun emplacement his company had just captured is redolent of the self-restraint of an earlier era: ‘I smashed it to the ground with the butt of my rifle in anger. To think that that chap had caused all this trouble for us.’
Moving though it is, this mosaic of voices tempts one to the sort of triumphalist conclusion common after the war that victory was the fruit of superior grit and character. It conceals shortcomings in training, fragile morale, hesitant command and the failure of the attackers, with the shining exception of the Canadians, to reach any of the final objectives set for the assault. At this point Antony Beevor’s vast panorama of the entire campaign seen from both camps becomes invaluable. Although his account of the landing itself is obscured by asides on the political background, he is critically aware of the small disparities among both Allied and German forces that built into victory or defeat. And, writing of the next phase of the battle, in countryside divided up by the bocage, impenetrable hedges that transformed fighting into something like house-to-house combat, his narrative takes on a taut intensity as compelling as that of his justly applauded Stalingrad. Here a country lane becomes a shooting gallery, snipers take aim from church-spires, corpses are booby-trapped, and, by the time the fighting moves on, the bodies in the hedgerows are so swollen the burial teams have to knee them in the back to release the gas before they can be taken away.
In these surroundings, German infantry proved clearly superior to their enemy, especially at platoon level, where an NCO would take responsibility for organising defence and co-ordinating artillery and tank counter-attacks rather than wait for an officer. They took a particularly heavy toll among newly arrived American troops who, as one of their officers admitted, ‘were too young to be killers and too soft to endure the harships of battle.’
Nevertheless, it was during that summer when the British and Canadians under Montgomery failed to break through the screen of panzer divisions guarding Caen on the east flank of the Cherbourg peninsula, and Patton’s Third Army took advantage of the weakened defences in the west to sweep down into Brittany, that Allied leadership manifestly passed to the Americans. Although scathing about Montgomery’s showboating character, Beevor also makes clear that caution was forced on him. More than four years of war had taught the British to nurse their forces, while Patton’s gung-ho aggression epitomised the increasing strength, confidence and readiness to innovate of the United States.
Taken together, these two histories provide a depth of insight into the great events of June 1944 that cannot be recommended too highly. Bailey lets individual soldiers speak, making up for Beevor’s snobbish trait of naming generals and senior officers, but generally leaving quotes from other ranks anonymous. Nevertheless, for the third generation after D-Day, jaundiced no doubt by the invasion of Iraq, it is the latter’s perspective that is the more valuable.
From a British point of view, it demonstrates the ingenuity and endurance that made success possible, but also how an over-stretched army inevitably loses its edge, a reality as true now as then. From an American standpoint, the evidence of their unpreparedness explodes any assumption that they could have led an invasion in 1943. Capacity to lead had to be proved in the field, and that they did superbly in Normandy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, from the viewpoint of humanity, Beevor never loses sight of the effect of war on civilians. It is a chilling yardstick of its destruction that the toll of 70,000 French civilians killed in the campaign exceeds the total of any of the actual combatants.
November 8, 2009
By Nigel Hamilton, Globe Correspondent
D-DAY: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor
Viking, 608 pp., illustrated, $32.95
At a moment when the president of the United States must consider strategy as well as tactics in Afghanistan, it is sad to see how many military writers are incapable of doing just that.
Antony Beevor has made a signal reputation for himself as a historian of the “sharp end’’ of battles such as Stalingrad and Berlin. Beevor thus opens his new book dramatically on June 5, 1944, as the Allies prepare to take advantage of a brief lull in unseasonably poor weather in order to launch a massive, 60-mile-wide invasion of France, targeted on the coast of Normandy: D-Day. And what better time to reconsider this decisive battle than this Sunday before Veterans Day.
Since Beevor’s mission is to describe war not at the top but at the bottom, he takes us from bombing crews to bobbing infantry in landing craft and towed gliders, then through the ensuing, decisive 24 hours that would either spell the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe or result in the worst Allied defeat since Pearl Harbor.
Intelligently told and nicely documented (though sadly, without a single new interview), the initial D-Day section ends around page 200, when on June 14, 1944 General Charles de Gaulle visits the liberated town of Bayeux.
Had Beevor ended his book at that point, he would have spared himself - and us - much futile narration, for it is after the capture of Bayeux that his own problems really begin, as the Allied beachhead becomes a bridgehead, and the Allies race to cut off the entire Cherbourg peninsula.
In static battles, such as sieges, Beevor’s relentless determination to depict what war was like for front-line attackers and the besieged pays great dividends - indeed Beevor has become the World War II siege-expert de nos jours. He positively relishes the details of weapons, violence, and human discomfort. In fact he has almost single-handedly transferred the public fascination with trench warfare in World War I to the great battles of attrition in World War II. But once the D-Day invasion becomes a battle for France, Beevor’s siege mentality cannot do justice to what was, in fact, one of the great battles of history - a contest not simply between vast armies (the Allies sending some two million men into battle) but between two great generals: General Bernard Montgomery, the Allied land forces commander, and his opposite number, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (and later Rommel’s successor generals, once the commander was strafed and put out of action by Allied warplanes).
Just as Rommel transformed the Atlantic Wall as German commander in chief, so Montgomery had, in January 1944, thrown out existing plans for D-Day, which centered on an immediate Allied drive from Caen to Paris. Doomed to be defeated, those plans would have been too puny and too easily cauterized by the German panzer divisions assembled in the Pas de Calais area. Instead, Montgomery planned a far bigger assault on D-Day, followed by continuous British and Canadian attacks that would force Rommel to defend the apparent Allied route to Paris. Then, behind the jabbing Anglo-Canadian shield, a growing torrent of American forces would secure Cherbourg and fight its way south to the Loire, creating a vast springboard from which the Allies could break the German stranglehold on France, and drive toward Berlin.
Unfortunately, this Allied plan is never mentioned in Beevor’s book, though it was presented to Churchill and the supreme commander of the Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and rehearsed in detail by all senior Allied commanders at Montgomery’s headquarters on April 7, and again on May 15, 1944. As a result, the reader is left completely in the dark about the strategy for the battle from the Allied perspective. Indeed, following D-Day, the Battle of Normandy is merely pictured as one long series of attacks, minor skirmishes, and endless bombing sorties.
By page 400, most general readers will be lost in the fog of names, ranks, regiments, villages, and hilltops, the account having turned into a hop-scotching circus in the bocage of Normandy that becomes a battle of attrition aimed primarily at the reader.
By the time Paris is liberated near the end of the book - six days less than the three months that Montgomery had forecast for the battle and three months earlier than Churchill had dreamed of before D-Day - one is left with a sad feeling that an unfortunate mistake has been made. Beevor should not have been posted to the Western Front by his publisher. “Back to the Russian front!’’ I felt like telling him. The siege of Leningrad, for instance. Now there’s a story suited to his talents!
Nigel Hamilton is a senior fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, UMass Boston, and winner of the Templer Medal for Military History.
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