- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

By Antony Beevor
Viking, $32.95, 526 pages, illus.

The first impression on seeing “D-Day, the Battle for Normandy,” on the bookshelf might be a question, “Why yet another book on D-Day?” The answer comes through in the detailed research and exhaustive treatment of individual stories as the Allies lodged ashore and then advanced on that fateful day and after, all the way to Paris. The author contrives to bring the reader into the presence of not only those who were at the very top of the planning and responsibility for Overlord but also into the lives, often very short, of the soldiers and sailors who actually hit the beaches, the airmen who supported them and even the German defenders. They are stories that never seem to pale in the retelling, especially when delivered in the style and with the thoroughness of Antony Beevor.

One of the features of Mr. Beevor’s work that is most unusual is the wide range of his coverage. He not only describes the priorities, uncertainties and misgivings of Churchill, Montgomery and Eisenhower but also those of the German general staff and tactical commanders and the generals, colonels, sergeants and private soldiers of the Allied assault. Also, unlike other works covering the same operation he ensures that we understand the movements of not only the Americans coming ashore at Omaha and Utah Beaches and the ill-fated parachute and glider assaults but the Brits, Canadians, Poles and others who went ashore at Gold and Juno Beaches at the same time. Nor does he neglect the efforts of the French Resistance and the terrible blows that fell upon ordinary and innocent Norman farmers and citizenry.

Chivalry was not a factor and many an American, Canadian, Brit or Frenchman died in less than heroic circumstances, and ancient cathedrals and cities were left in ruins. Such was the result of the initial lodgement of the allies on Norman soil.

Due in some measure to Hitler’s reluctance to realize that the Normandy landings were indeed the long-awaited invasion of Fortress Europe, and his refusal to unleash his Panzer divisions, the allies advanced, albeit with significant casualties. Little noted in other works, but not ignored by Mr. Beevor was the control of the sea and thus, fire support from the sea, by Allied naval forces and total control of the air by allied air forces. Not only did Thunderbolts and others provide close support to American troops but Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lightnings kept the Luftwaffe from interfering with allied ground advances. On the other hand, Allied high-level heavy bombers very often spilled their loads far off target, sometimes slaughtering hundreds of friendly troops. Those who live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area will be interested to know that Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, U.S. Army, for whom Fort McNair is named, was one of those killed by, “Friendly bombers.”

Perhaps because they had been so long at war, in North Africa, Italy and elsewhere, the British, Canadians and their allies did not make the same spectacular advances later accumulated by the Americans. On the other hand, the Germans in the British and Canadian sector seemed to be more tenacious and the losses there actually exceeded those of the Americans; however, Mr. Beevor intimated that leadership, particularly the leadership, or lack thereof, on the part of Gen. Montgomery might have had a lot to do with it, too. Add Charles DeGaulle to the mix and one might wonder how the Allies ever got to Paris. In fact, Paris was not Eisenhower’s preferred objective once a major breakthrough occurred. His aim was to get to the Rhine and beyond; but Montgomery wanted to turn toward the Pas de Calais on the English Channel while DeGaulle insisted on liberating Paris. In the end, with a Resistance-led uprising in Paris and a French division heading toward the city despite other orders, DeGaulle won his way. That there was ultimate success sheds new luster on the skills of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower who somehow led the allies to ultimate victory despite the continual clash of egos, interests and competing priorities.

While the German forces were more homogenous in their makeup they too had their share of non-nationals, mostly Russians who chose to enlist with Germany after being captured on the Eastern Front. Then, although they ostensibly had unified command, Hitler felt that he knew more about strategy and tactics than his generals and had little trust in the loyalty of most of them, especially after the famous July 1944 bomb plot. Many times, the Fuhrer gave direct orders from his Wolfsschanze in East Prussia without knowing fully the situation on the ground. Worse, and the Germans didn’t know this, the Allies were reading German signals with their Ultra system of communications intercept. Meanwhile, except for the SS Troops who seemed to border on the fanatic, the vignettes unearthed by Beevor give the reader an insight into the roots and longings of the individual German trooper, not much different from the individual American or Brit: proud of his country and fighting hard for it.

For anyone with any interest at all in World War II in Europe, especially the time from the landings through the liberation of Paris, “D-Day” is the book for you. The one downside is that Antony Beevor, an Englishman, writes too much as an Englishman, using too many expressions little known or appreciated in the United States. For example, “Vannoy,” and, “They leaguered for the night…” the former some sort of ship’s public address system and the latter some sort of bivouac one would guess from the context. Perhaps some good editing can fix such things. Editing might also help with the maps, too. They are good as far as they go but fold-outs would make following the flow of forces easier than having constantly to flip pages, especially in that the reader will want to keep up with the unfamiliar French place names.Those few shortcomings notwithstanding, “D-Day” is a good and interesting read and a worthy addition to anyone’s WW II library.

Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation and resides in Alexandria.

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