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Darkness at dawn

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor
The Forgotten Voices of D-Day, by Roderick Bailey, in association with the Imperial War Museum

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

20 May 2009

12:00 AM

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy Anthony Beevor

Viking, pp.590, 25

The Forgotten Voices of D-Day Roderick Bailey, in association with the Imperial War Museum

Ebury, pp.401, 19.99

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor
The Forgotten Voices of D-Day, by Roderick Bailey, in association with the Imperial War Museum

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had even prepared a provisional press release, ‘The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed, and I have withdrawn the troops.’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.

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