D-Day and the Battle for Normandy by Anthony Beevor (2009)

10 June 2012

I read this book in early June 2012 ie the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I read it on a surfing holiday in Croyde, north Devon where, every morning, I squeezed into a wetsuit and walked into the freezing north Atlantic, some days under a slate-grey sky and in driving rain, images from the book vivid in my mind. I understood a little of what it felt like to plunge into the same cold grey water on a June day – though without the hundreds of pounds of equipment which drowned so many soldiers – or the annihilating fire of the German defenders which killed so many more.  The whole area where I was holidaying, from Sauton Sands in the south to Woolacombe and Morte Hoe in the north, was used by American soldiers to practice for D-Day.

I guess I should say that Antony Beevor’s book is a triumph but in fact it’s rather a blur of one brigade, division, regiment, Army after another. There are plenty of maps in the book but what you really need is a big wipeable map of the North of France pinned to the wall and plenty of marker pens to draw in the movements of the numerous different units. A few themes emerge:

* Monty appears to have been a disaster, error-prone in his military decisions, indecisive in not closing the Falaise Gap quickly enough, then impulsive in hatching the disastrous Market Garden operation, generally becoming perceived as unreliable and vain leading, eventually, to widespread American distrust of the British Army just as the war was ending and we needed to work more closely than ever together.

* Air power was alarmingly bad. Time after time the Typhoon fighter bombers are revealed as missing their targets. I think he says it was estimated that only 4% of their missiles hit anything. On a few occasions massive bombardment from the air and by the navy offshore ended up totally missing the target, or only partially disabling the enemy. Having read so much about the failure of artillery in the Great War I was surprised to see the same thing happening in WWII, and it uncomfortably reminded me of the massive aerial bombardments ‘we’ carried out on Iraq in 1990, on Serbia in the 90s, and Iraq again in 2003.

* I hadn’t appreciated how wrecked Normandy was by the fighting. Next time I’m in the region I’ll appreciate that every hedgerow, every farm and barn and village, was brutally, bitterly fought over. Beevor is at pains to point out that mortality rates were equal or even higher than those on the Eastern Front. I take the point and am suitably appalled.

What terrible suffering the fighting men of both sides experienced and what astonishing bravery and endurance they showed. What a crazy stupid waste.

Photo of troops landing on D-Day by Robert Capa

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