In the next several weeks I will be looking at several books about World War II – possibly the most studied war in American history (with the possible exception of the Civil War, but only because it is older). The first book I read explores the Normandy Campaign – probably the most studied campaign in World War II. So, you would wonder why someone would want to delve into this subject again. But, Antony Beevor chose to explore this subject (I am glad he did) in his latest book entitled D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.
Beevor covers the usual in books about D-Day and the Normandy Campaign – the actual landings, the ensuing fighting to take control of the region, and the break out to Paris. Beevor describes the actions and reactions of the Americans, British, Canadians, and Germans during the battles – from the generals to the privates. However, Beevor also writes extensively about the French military forces (under that annoying and super-nationalist De Gaulle) and the French Resistance – how the former hindered operations and how the latter helped. Yes, the French Second Armored Division helped with the drive to Paris, but their General, Philippe Leclerc, did not always follow orders. Beevor succinctly points out that De Gaulle and other French leaders were more interested in their own interests rather than the interests of the Allies as a whole.
I like Beevor’s take on the different generals involved in the fighting. He equally praises and criticizes all of the generals. Obviously, he criticizes Hitler and his obstinacy in not releasing the panzer divisions to attack and crush the Allied beachheads. But, he also questions Eisenhower and his bland performance. He heavily criticizes (rightly so) British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – several times his mistakes caused innumerable casualties for the British and Canadian troops. For example, Montgomery’s tardiness in sacking mediocre commanders caused many men to be killed or wounded unnecessarily. Beevor proves that Montgomery was not fit to command such a large body of troops – Army Group commander – because Montgomery’s pettiness put his interests in front of the greater goal.
Beevor honors the common soldier as they struggled to survive each day. He compliments the Germans for doing so well at containing the Allies for as long as they did with the few resources they were given. According to Beevor, citing statistics and studies, the average German soldier was a better fighter than the average Allied soldier – the Germans believed more of the propaganda their leaders fed them and thus were more motivated to fight harder. Beevor also praises the Allied soldiers for their ingenuity in dealing with the hedgerow fighting in Normandy – for example devising the hedgehog apparatus for the front of Sherman tanks to plow through the thick hedgerows.
Although Beevor praises the foot soldiers from both sides, he does not hold back on criticizing them as well. The blatant and nonchalant killing of prisoners was rampant on both sides – especially if the Waffen SS were involved as captors or prisoners. As the fighting became more heated, it was not uncommon for prisoners to not make it to the rear alive. Beevor also criticizes Allied soldiers, especially Americans, for their insatiable appetite for plunder – not just from the Germans, but from French civilians as well. He mentions that tankers were the worst because they could easily store their loot in their tanks.
The book is 523 pages, but do not be discouraged by its size. Beevor writes with an easy-to-follow prose. He includes several pages of black and white photographs of the major leaders and action shots from both sides.
I would highly recommend this excellent history of the Allied victory in the Normandy Campaign in World War II.
Other than fatal illness, I wonder if there is any experience in life less accessible to those who haven’t “been there” than war. All we can do is try to get as realistic a view as we can.