D-Day’s Divided Divisions

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor’s publishers describe him, somewhat hubristically, as “the undisputed master of military history”. Certainly his magnificent books on the Battle for Stalingrad and the Fall of Berlin make him a plausible contender for such a title. But in choosing to complete his trilogy with a study of the Normandy campaign of 1944, he faces a formidable challenge. In the first place, the battle of Normandy, action-packed though it was, cannot rank as a climactic drama so tragic and terrible as the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin. In the second, there must already be dozens if not hundreds of studies of that campaign, among them works by other such “masters of military history” as John Keegan, Max Hastings and Carlo d’Este. Admittedly, their books are now more than 20 years old and the archives have since yielded a wealth of new material. But has Beevor really anything new to tell us about what at first sight might appear rather an over-studied subject?

Certainly he does nothing to alter what is now a generally accepted narrative. There was the brilliant success of the landings – with the tragic exception of Omaha Beach – due to careful preparation and planning; then there was the failure to exploit that success, due largely to the unexpected toughness of the German opposition and the consequent gruelling battle of attrition; finally, the ultimate American break-out and the wholesale slaughter of the German armies in the Falaise Gap. Beevor again discusses the ambiguity of Montgomery’s strategy – the attack on Caen that was generally expected to lead to a breakthrough yet which, when it failed to do so, still attracted enough German strength to ease the American task in breaking through further west. And we are told about the problematic contribution of air power: its vital role in isolating the battlefield; its value in close support of the infantry; but the disastrous use of heavy bombers, whether in the unnecessary and counter-productive destruction of Caen or in the targeting of our troops on a scale that makes the occasional “blue-on-blue” casualties caused by “friendly fire” in subsequent campaigns look like flea-bites.

All these stories Beevor tells again, and tells them very well. But this time he tells them “from the bottom up”. Previous accounts – with the exception of John Keegan’s superb Six Armies in Normandy – have largely been written from the top down, concentrating on the problems of the High Command on both sides, with particular emphasis on the problems created by Hitler’s interventions on the one side and Montgomery’s prima donna behaviour on the other. Beevor sketches all this in with a very light hand. But he has used his research in newly available archives, not to produce a revisionist account of the campaign, but to describe what the fighting was like, both for the Allied and the German armies. His account is pointilliste, composed of detailed descriptions of the battle experience of the participants on both sides and at every level of command. This does not make for a racy narrative: sometimes Beevor’s determination to make his readers see the campaign through the eyes of those fighting it makes it hard to retain a view of “the big picture”. But after all, that is what war is like: an accumulation of terrible experiences, out of which historians have in retrospect to create a quite artificial order. It is his success in doing this that makes Beevor’s account a quite outstanding book, well worthy to stand beside its predecessors.

One of the major points that emerges from Beevor’s narrative is the difference, not only between but within the armies fighting the campaign. The core of the German armies consisted of the SS divisions, highly motivated, brilliantly led, toughened by years on the Eastern Front and fighting with a determination bred of ideology and despair. But many of the others were elderly reservists, bewildered children or units conscripted wholesale from the Eastern Front who often spoke no German at all. The American infantry was also often of low quality, with none of the regimental cohesion that kept the British going. But their armour was well equipped, well trained and led by officers who showed, when the occasion offered, an initiative powered by a ferocity that was notably lacking in their British allies. As for the British, they were very good at doing what they were ordered to do, but showed little inclination to do anything more. Their generals were mercifully “casualty-averse”. They had their own experiences of the First World War and they knew that once their divisions were used up there would be no reinforcements available to replace them.

So after the beautifully planned, adrenalin-charged successes of the initial landings, British units, in their attacks on German defenders who had recovered their nerve and established themselves in excellent positions, tended to be, in the euphemistic jargon of the time, “distinctly sticky”.

In addition to his talents as an historian, Beevor has the advantage of having been a professional soldier, and it shows in his capacity to understand and describe what happened in the small-scale actions that cumulatively determined the outcome of the campaign. He focuses in particular on the extraordinary inability of British armour, in spite of four years experience in the Western Desert, to co-operate effectively with their infantry, which, combined with the formidable qualitative superiority of German tanks, led to disaster after disaster. Veteran divisions from the Eighth Army, brought in to stiffen the highly trained but inexperienced units from Britain, simply went to pieces when confronted by the totally different conditions of the Normandy bocage. And no amount of training on the gentle Yorkshire dales could prepare green troops for the ghastly experiences that confronted them when they saw their mates have their heads blown off by shellfire or had to scrape their remains out of brewed-up tanks with mess-tins and spoons.

Finally, Beevor deals with an element ignored by most historians of the campaign: the luckless civilians who were caught up in it. The “liberation” of French villages and towns usually involved their total destruction. Caen was obliterated as totally – and as pointlessly – as Dresden would be a year later, its population being reduced from 60,000 to 17,000. Altogether 20,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, a little over half the number lost by the liberating armies. Beevor describes their suffering with all the detail and compassion that he devotes to that of the combatant armies. It is this compassion that marks him out as a truly outstanding historian of war.

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