World history is pitted with world wars. Last century was conceited enough to call its pair the First and Second. One of the turning-points of that Second was the Anglo-American landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944, of which the 60th anniversary falls next year.
David Stafford, a leading 20th-century historian (once a professor at Toronto), has got in early with a fine book on what the run-up to the landing felt like, both to the much-publicised high command and to far more junior combatants and civilians. He notes that the opposing generals, Eisenhower and Rommel, were both appointed on the same day, 15 January. He treats in some detail the ghastly quarrel between de Gaulle, on one side, and Churchill and Roosevelt on the other, that threatened to emasculate French resistance help to the landing, which turned out to be critical.
He keeps cross-cutting his visits to the staff stratosphere with accounts from a Wren cipher clerk working in a South Downs tunnel near Portsmouth, a Franco-Jewish communist in hiding in Paris, an imprisoned Norwegian newspaper editor, a private in the United States 82nd airborne division, a student at Caen, a private at Nantes, and a subaltern in the Regina Rifles. The private at Nantes had parents who lived in Auschwitz town, which gives an opening for indicating the horrors of the Holocaust, then raging at its worst. They cannot have failed to be aware of the camps — Birkenau, the women’s camp near Auschwitz, was bigger than Hyde Park — but seem to have taken them as part of the landscape, never commenting on them: silence under dictatorship is often the course of prudence.
Stafford writes appreciatively of the small town in western Canada from which his Regina Rifles subaltern, Glenn Dicken, came; one instance of the breadth of his grasp on social as well as military history. Through his numerous, brief case histories, his readers can take in what a vast co-operative effort the struggle against Nazism was.
One of his special subjects is the Special Operations Executive, and he includes a pair of SOE agents, Sydney Hudson and Sonia d’Artois of the ‘Headmaster’ circuit, who were working clandestinely round Le Mans. Hudson’s war autobiography, Undercover Operator, came out from Pen & Sword at Barnsley a few weeks ago, and covers the same ground in fuller detail. Stafford has talked to both of them, as he has talked to several of his sources; though many others are now dead. He gets across well the sense of growing tension on the English side of the Channel, culminating in the discovery of army camps empty because the men in them had gone away to fight, and the sense of uncertainty on the German side, where everyone knew the blow was coming, but nobody could find out when or where. Rommel took leave home, to spend his wife’s birthday, 6 June, with her in Germany.
Weather was decisive. The air ministry’s senior weather man, a 29-year-old civilian called Staggs, was made a group captain per saltum, so that he should have some gold braid on his cap, and pitched in with air chief marshals, generals and admirals to advise. He advised a day’s delay; Eisenhower granted it. Next day ‘Neptune’, the assault phase of ‘Overlord’, the main invasion, went ahead. We get some vivid glimpses of American parachutists’ troubles round Sainte Mère Eglise. Glenn Dicken led the first wave ashore at Courseulles, but was killed by a mortar bomb a few hours later. Peter Moen, the Norwegian editor, was quietly murdered by the Gestapo. De Gaulle, with an ill grace, let the French join in liberating their own country.
This first edition is spoiled by a run of floaters, readily remediable. To misdate the Crécy campaign by six years may only be a misprint. To have his Paris communist make his first sortie into the open on two different days, a few pages apart, may only be carelessness. But to mix up (twice) Gold, Juno and Sword beaches is, in a historian of operation ‘Neptune’, less readily forgivable; nor can there have been full moons both on 6 and on 20 June. A few minutes’ revision and the paperback will be ready in time to scoop the anniversary pool.