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Antony Beevor


The Battle for Normandy

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book covers the invasion of Europe by the Allies from the landings in Normandy to the liberation of Paris. As the subtitle indicates, most of the space is devoted to the fighting in Normandy. This was almost unimaginably savage, not least for the French civilians. 'It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.' Yet the 'cruel martyrdom of Normandy' spared the rest of France.

Terrible though this is, the losses among the combatants on both sides were even greater.

During the three summer months [of 1944], the Wehrmacht suffered nearly 240,000 casualties and lost another 200,000 men to Allied captivity. The 21st Army Group of British, Canadians and Poles sustained 83,045 casualties and the Americans 125,847. In addition, the Allied air forces lost 16,714 men killed and missing.
To read these figures is mind-numbing, but one of the great merits of Beevor's account is that he makes the statistics come alive by vivid and often appalling descriptions of individual deaths and injuries. These accounts are as horrifying as those that emerged from the 1914–18 war.

Atrocities were committed by both sides. The SS massacred prisoners nd the Allies in turn often shot SS prisoners, in particular, out of hand. But there were also remarkable instances of chivalry. On one occasion a German unit shot an American medic who was coming to rescue a casualty, even though he had a large flag with a red cross. Next day a German medic with a white flag approached the Americans,sweating profusely but not faltering. He brought a letter of apology and said he had volunteered to bring this. The Americans invited him to stay with them. He laughed and said he would be willing to do so but if he did his comrades would think he had been detained by force.

Both sides experienced numerous episodes of friendly fire. In one case, almost unbelievably, it happened twice on successive days. A heavy bombing raid on the German lines had been planned in preparation for a major offensive and a party composed of Allied officers, including Russians, and journalists, one of whom was Ernest Hemingway, had been invited to watch. On the first day bombs fell short and killed some Allied troops. The same thing happend on the second day, when the general in command of ground forces was killed. Nevertheless the attack went ahead.

There was military incompetence on both sides. In the German case much of this was due to Hitler, who demanded that his generals obey unwise or impossible orders. The failure of the bomb plot to assassinate him which occurred at this time was not seen as a misfortune by the Allies; they preferred to have him in office in view of his mishandling of the war. On the Allied side it is Montgomery who comes in for the strongest criticism. His relations with Eisenhower became progressively worse to the point of almost complete breakdown, and the passage of time and the coming of peace didn't improve matters

The usually tolerant Eisnhower refused to forgive Montgomery for the claims he made after the war. 'First of all he's a psychopath,' Eisnhower exploded in an interview in 1963. 'Don't forget that. He is such an egocentric that the man—everything he has done is perfect—has never made a mistake in his life.' It was tragic that Montgomery should thus have diverted attention away from his own undoubted qualities and from the sacrifices of his troops, who had held down the vast bulk of the German panzer formations and faced the greatest concentration of 88 mm anti-tank guns.
One reads of the events this book with a genuine sense of excitement and tension, even though we of course know what the outcome was to be. An Allied victory wasn't a foregone conclusion, either at the landings on the beaches or later. The Germans had advantages in weaponry in many respects, especially their tanks, 88 mm guns, and rapid-firing machine-guns; Montgomery refused to acknowledge this but Eisenhower did, and took steps to remedy it. The German troops were professional and mostly convinced of their own superiority, at least to begin with, whereas the Allies were mostly conscripts who had no desire to be there. But command of the air by British and American planes was a decisive factor in limiting the effectiveness of German armour.

Beevor does a pretty good job of explaining the tactics of the numerous battles, although the narrative sometimes becomes difficult to follow, at least in the kindle version, where the maps are so small and indistinct as to be virtually useless, even in the larger-screen Oasis model. I supplemented these with Michelin road maps (left over from a cycle tour in Normandy years ago), on which Omaha and Utah beaches are marked. (Incidentally, an odd feature of the kindle version is that the text is not right-justified, which gives it a slightly unprofessional appearance.)

There was inevitably an element of strain between the British and Americans, although this tended to diminish over time as the Americans came to understand better what the British soldiers had been going through in four years of fighting previously. But Canadian and Americans were struck by the apparent inability of British troops to go for any length of time without a tea break. Relations with the French, and especially de Gaulle, on the other hand, grew worse as the campaign went on, although the French were allowed to lead the liberation of Paris. (Incidentally, I hadn't realised previously that this was not a purely ceremonial affair; there was some serious although limited fighting with some casualties. But this was followed by a night of large-scale revelry and romance in the Bois de Boulogne and elsewhere 'thanks to the generosity of young Frenchwomen'.

As I write this review we have just celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the D-Day landings. So vivid are the descriptions of the battles that it is difficult to remember that hardly any of those who survived those events are still alive.


%T D-Day
%S The Battle for Normandy
%A Antony Beevor
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2009, 2014
%G ISBN 978-0-141-95926-9
%P 523pp
%K history
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2019
%O illustrations, notes, bibliography, glossary

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