Having, in Spain some years ago, read Antony Beevor’s brilliant account of the battle for Stalingrad, I had no misgivings packing his latest proffering, this time on the Normandy landings by Allied forces in June 1944, for a return journey to the Iberian Peninsula. For the British, taking the beaches of Omaha, Sword, Gold, Juno and Utah, it was Dunkirk reversed; for the Americans it was the beginning of a serious penetration of Europe that would help shape the political landscape of the continent for decades to come. For the myriad of others from different nations determined to crush the Nazi menace, it was do and die. The remains of many who fell there stay put so far from home. For significant numbers, being buried in French dry land was their first and final contact with it, having earlier being cut down before they could emerge from the sea where they had just disembarked from their landing crafts.
The film Saving Private Ryan leaves an impression of a horrendous casualty rate. However, while Operation Overlord, as the beachhead landings were designated by Allied command, met fierce resistance, the casualties on D-Day were fewer than expected. Yet there was almost a full year left in the war before the Nazi capacity to resist could be leeched. That period would deliver the real casualties when the fanaticism of the Waffen SS, fuelled by a conviction that many more than merely Arthur Harris at Bomber Command were determined to see Germany annihilated, felt compelled to kill unrelentingly before they marched off into a Nazi Valhalla in defence of the ‘Fatherland.’
In his account Beevor, by way of vignette, contrasts the attitude of SS and ordinary troops of the Wermacht. In hospital seeking to recover from their wounds the troops were friendly to British medical officers, accepting all the treatment they were offered. An SS soldier arrived on the ward. A blood transfusion was needed to prevent his death. On discovering that the life saving blood being put into his body was from an English donor he disabled the transfusion equipment, shouting ‘I die for Hitler.’ Which is just what he did, as Beevor so tersely put it.
Such unalloyed devotion to one of the great military idiots of all time is frightening. Beevor draws attention to the military-strategic ineptitude of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi supremo read maps and then shaped battlefields as if the two could somehow be correlated. First battle contact with the enemy and battle plans are not renowned for having a compatible relationship. The early German success in the war was built on flexibility, yet from Stalingrad Hitler had been intent on holding ground where his troops would be pinned down, freeing up the enemy to strategically outmanoeuvre the German military command. So incompetent was Hitler considered by the Allies that they came to the conclusion that it was better he was not toppled as German leader. With his unsteady hands at the helm the choppy sea of catastrophe at all times beckoned the Nazi fleet. No shock value is registered by knowing that by the middle of 1944 many German Army officers including Rommel were of the view that Hitler had to go.
In one passage Beevor captures the gullibility of front line troops who mortgaged their critical faculties and absorbed nonsense from their leaders.
Every time an assurance of the propaganda ministry proved false, another one quickly took its place. The Atlantic Wall was impregnable. The Allies would not dare to invade. The Luftwaffe and U boats would smash the invasion fleet. A massive counter attack would hurl the Allies back into the sea. The secret vengeance weapons would bring Britain to her knees, begging for peace. New jet fighters would sweep the Allied aircraft from the sky. The more desperate the situation became, the more shameless the lie.
Yet for SS troops in particular ‘belief became nothing short of an addiction.’ Unthinking soldiery melded with the mindset of the true believer deliver better than any tank factory the most valuable weapon a dictator can have in his armoury.
In the popular mind there is a propensity to view the Eastern Front as the source of the war’s most vicious fighting. Yet divisions on both sides in Normandy lost more men on a daily basis than ever died on Soviet soil over a comparable time period. Nor were the citizens of France spared the violence from the skies which rained down on their heads and homes from the forces supposedly sent to liberate them. Churchill, worried about French civilian casualties failed to persuade the Americans that a bombing strategy would be counterproductive. With the French under their military commander Leclerc playing a crucial role in the drive toward Paris, the opposition to aerial bombardment of their own citizens that might have been expected from the French military, failed to materialise. ‘The idea of bombarding their own country was deeply disturbing but they did not shrink from the task.’ The French on the ground would die for the greater glory of France whether they willed it or not.
Charles De Gaulle, hyper sensitive to criticism of France, read history though such a glory prism. Author of a history of the French Army which failed to mention Waterloo, he stood accused of having singularly batted for French glory to the detriment of all else to a point where Churchill raged he should be arrested for treason in battle.
Elsewhere in the book Beevor makes little attempt to conceal his disdain for the capabilities of the British commander Montgomery. He is depicted in terms which are anything but flattering. Said to have been an inveterate spoofer more eager to capture kudos than German strongholds, Montgomery emerges as a shallow character, over cautious, crippled by vanity and incapable of delegating.
The prevalence of war crimes is a sub-theme that makes its presence felt throughout D-Day. While certainly not part of the central narrative, the author leaves little room for doubt that the Germans were not alone in wearing the shameful badge of war criminality. Frequently, captured German troops were gratuitously forced to surrender their lease on life. Combined with the Allied carpet bombing of German cities such as Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden - the latter in particular having no strategic value by February 1945 when it fell prey to a fire storm of horrendous proportions – the one sided nature of war crime tribunals makes itself abundantly clear. That German generals Jodl and Keitel could be hanged at Nuremberg while Bomber Harris was eulogised in the public eye brings to mind the African proverb that ‘until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.’
Beevor in this work tends not to glorify. He shrouds war in the gory not the glory.
D-Day: the Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor. Penguin Viking. Price £23. ISBN 978-0670-88703-3
This review originally appeared in Fortnight October 2009