Sunday, March 21, 2010

10.13 D-Day by Anthony Beevor

D-Day (2008) by Anthony Beevor

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."

- Andrew Roberts in The Telegraph

This was the first book that I have read on my new e-book reader. It was a fairly enjoyable experience although I am not sure I would recommend it for a book with a lot of maps in it like this one. The map pages don't reproduce too well and when you are reading about battles it is always necessary to be flipping back to recheck the drawing.

Like his other military history books Beevor writes very accessibly giving both the broader overview and the human perspective. A battle like Normandy was a massive undertaking with a huge number of armies, corps, generals, etc. Keeping track of everything is a challenge but he is up to the task.

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