Allied liberation of Western Europe
The Battle for Normandy
by Antony Beevor
Hardcover: 608 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95
Reviewed by Bill James
This is the latest offering from Antony Beevor, following his enormously successful books on the battles of Stalingrad and Berlin, and his excellent but less well-known accounts of the Spanish Civil War and the struggle for Crete.
On June 6, 1944, a huge armada under the overall control of America’s General Eisenhower crossed the English Channel and landed two armies, one American and one British/ Canadian, on the beaches of Normandy at the edge of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The landings were preceded and accompanied by paratroop drops, and a huge and almost unchallenged bombing, strafing and rocketing air offensive.
Allied forces carved out bridgeheads at the cost of thousands of lives lost as troops disembarked from landing-craft under machine-gun and artillery fire.
In the following weeks they struggled to make headway in the constricted and easily defended bocage country – small fields surrounded by high, thick banks and hedges.
Eventually they cleared Normandy, as well as Brittany to the west, then broke out and pushed east.
By the end of August, De Gaulle and Leclerc’s Free French forces had spearheaded the liberation of Paris.
Beevor achieves brilliantly what all popular military history sets out to do, which is to intertwine first-hand accounts of combat by individuals and small units, with a bird’s eye view of strategy from the top.
The former includes the experiences not only of soldiers on both sides, but also of civilians and Resistance fighters.
The latter covers tensions between Allied military leaders, particularly the American Generals Bradley and Patton’s loathing of British General Bernard Montgomery.
British military leaders had to contend with Churchill’s flights of martial fantasy, which the rock-solid and scandalously little-known Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, managed to keep in check.
German generals were up against the hysterical, inflexible and incompetent Hitler.
Beevor shows that opposition to the Fuehrer from his generals had to do with their doubts about his military strategy, not their opposition to the repulsive Nazi regime, which most of them overlooked or supported.
Here are a few random thoughts which occurred to me while reading Beevor’s account.
First, it is an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that, from a purely military point of view, the brilliant performance of the German army in WWI and WWII against all odds is one of the most striking features of 20th-century history.
Beevor describes the challenge of dealing with the thousands and thousands of Allied soldiers who collapsed psychologically under the strain of the Normandy fighting.
The phenomenon was all but unknown amongst German combatants.
Second, the struggle against Nazism was just the prelude to the long drawn-out Cold War against its equally repressive and murderous totalitarian twin, communism.
Beevor draws attention to the prescient Churchill’s awareness of this issue, and his consequent concern over Roosevelt’s naïveté toward Stalin.
He also reminds the reader of one of the West’s most shameful actions in its otherwise honourable participation in one of the most justifiable of wars.
This was the forced repatriation to certain death of soldiers from the Soviet empire who had culpably, but understandably, joined the German army. Some were captured (often after gladly surrendering) during the Normandy campaign.
The end of the Cold War is evoked by a photograph of paratroops about to take off from England’s Greenham Common airbase to destroy the Nazi dictatorship.
During the 1980s, Greenham Common housed American bombers, and became notorious as the site of demonstrations by hordes of mindless trendy-lefties seeking to obstruct Reagan’s ultimately successful strategy to bring down the Soviet dictatorship.
Third, the Normandy fighting included the tragic deaths of tens of thousands of civilians; the deaths of large numbers of Allied troops, both through accidents during the landings, and subsequently as a result of “friendly fire”; and, particularly during the early desperate stages, the frequent killing of German prisoners.
All were undoubtedly evils, but were looked upon then, and have been regarded ever since, as part of the regrettable price of defeating the infinitely greater evil of Nazism.
These days, however, such inevitable concomitants of war are treated in two radically different ways by our left-dominated media.
If they are reported in connection with a Western military campaign, then they ipso facto render the operation unjustifiable, and deserving of the most extravagantly moralistic vilification. If they are carried out by a communist regime or “liberation” movement, or by Islamist forces, then they are ignored or rationalised.
Fourth and finally, I find that the reading of military history produces an ambivalent response.
On the one hand, the subject is fascinating, illuminating and important.
On the other hand, for the overwhelming majority of us who have never participated in armed conflict, it carries a faint tang of pornography.
In comfort and safety, we vicariously identify with an intense and extraordinary experience which we have never known at first-hand, and about which we can only fantasise.
As Dr Johnson said, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.”
Perhaps military history, like alcohol, is a potentially addictive drug which needs to be partaken of with care and moderation – particularly when it is as robust and powerful as Beevor’s.