By James Holland
Published by Bantam Press
On 6 June 2019 it was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the first stage of the epic battle for Normandy, a truly monumental event that defined the beginning of the end for the German occupation of France and initiated the final collapse of the Third Reich in Europe.
Many myths have been forged over time. Events have captured the imagination and grown in the telling. The battle for Normandy is sometimes reduced to little more than D-Day itself. Popular films and TV documentaries have contributed to a romanticised, one-sided perspective.
The truth is that the Normandy Campaign was a vast enterprise, of engineering, logistics, strategy, and planning, but it was also, once under way, driven by events that could not be foreseen. Crucial shifts in decision-making in the field and technical innovations to deal with unplanned-for problems were part of the story.
Most importantly, the Normandy Campaign was driven by individual men and women, and the total cost in lives was very high. Battles, in the end, are won and lost by sinew, nerve, and blood. The multiple stories of individual endeavour are as important as higher-level strategy and tactics.
Myths forged, heroes created; yet the truth is these were just ordinary people. The men and women involved in this 76 days that changed the course of the Second World War were, for the most part, citizen soldiers caught up in extraordinary times. They experienced carnage and terror, and, in the midst of it, some of them did exceptional things. Viewing the struggle through their eyes permits a broader, fuller, more rounded understanding.
Franz Gockel, defending the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach, had never seen action before and was terrified out of his wits. He was manning an MG42 machine-gun, firing at a rate of 1,400 rounds a minute, unleashing a storm of fire onto the pitifully vulnerable American infantry rolling out of landing craft in front of him.
Struggling ashore in front of Gockel was Walter Halloran, a newsman trying to keep his camera dry in deep water, with people screaming and dying all around him.
James Holland uses individual experience to structure his narrative. Each event is viewed from the different perspectives of rival participants caught up in the same action. By taking this approach, he offers a fresh perspective on an old story.
The Normandy Campaign was not just about the fighting on the ground. The elements required for a successful campaign were complex. The sheer material might of the Allied juggernaut cannot be underestimated. Some 26,600 tanks and 85,000 aircraft were built in the US in 1943 alone. At the same time, the British war industry built 49,000 tanks and armoured vehicles, 28,000 aircraft , and almost 19,000 guns – more than Germany had built in the entire war up until that time.
Allied air power was crushing. In the nine-week build-up to Overlord, 197,000 tons of bombs were dropped on French targets alone; in contrast,
just 18,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by the Luftwaffe on London during the entire seven-month Blitz.
Allied air power was overwhelming, yet innovation was still necessary, as German strategy shift ed to deal with the aerial threat as the campaign progressed.
At the beginning of the planning stage to Overlord, the Ninth Air Force and the Second Tactical Air Force were brought to England to prepare for the build-up to invasion. Overall command lay with General Lewis Brereton. The man put in charge of the Ninth’s IX Fighter Command was Brigadier General ‘Pete’ Quesada.
It was Quesada who was pivotal in equipping Sherman tanks with high frequency SCR610 radios, staff ed by pilots, making possible immediate direct ground–air liaison – one of the keys to success in the later stages of the fighting in the bocage, that merciless hedgerow country that had been completely overlooked in the initial planning stages.
Flexibility of command and the ability to find solutions to unanticipated problems and implement them effectively proved to be a game-changer.
GERMAN MILITARY CRISIS
In contrast, the German war-machine was in crisis. On 15 January 1944, Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel was in command of Heeresgruppe B, defending northern France and the Low Countries.
Rommel’s premise was that any Allied attack should be destroyed on the beach in the very first days of the invasion. The defences of the Atlantic Wall were designed to hold them long enough for him to bring up his Panzer divisions for a decisive counter-attack.
Rommel appreciated the implications of Allied air superiority: he was well aware that the Panzer divisions needed to be close-by, for, if deployed too far back, they would be destroyed by air attack before getting to the coast.
General Geyr von Schweppenburg, the Eastern Front veteran in command of the Panzer divisions, disagreed and wanted to keep all his tanks well back inland. Rommel, frustrated at his lack of control, took his case to Hitler, got authority over Geyr, and issued instructions for the Panzers to be moved to the coast.
Geyr protested, and got support from other senior commanders. On 8 May, therefore, Hitler presented OB West with a fatal compromise, giving command of just three divisions to Rommel and leaving the remaining four to Geyr.
No divisions could move, however, without Hitler’s say-so, effectively denying anyone, even Rommel, an effective means of counter-attack. Any possibility of rapid response or flexibility of command was gone.
A lot of criticism has been made of Montgomery’s handling of the Normandy Campaign, his micromanagement, his reluctance to take risks, his assumption of a battle of attrition, his commitment to slowly wearing down his opponent, his lack of aggression.
Much of this may be true – and he may have been over-controlling, pig-headed, vain, and a bore, but the fact is that he won battles, and not enough credit is given to him and the whole British-Canadian front in dealing with the brunt of German resistance in Normandy.
Most of the hardened German Waffen-SS formations were deployed in the British sector, and it was this that the Germans considered the Allies’ main front. Monty’s plan, as he always stated, was to be like the anvil holding the German attack, gradually bleeding them out by applying constant pressure. This was the meaning of Epsom, Goodwood, and Bluecoat – costly battles that took the weight off the Americans, in the hope that a break-out could be achieved in their sector.
The campaign in Normandy did not, in fact, start on 6 June. The French Resistance’s role in the build-up to invasion has often been marginalised. Countless nameless individuals lost their lives in the resistance to the occupation.
Since 1942, the whole of France had been occupied by the Germans or administered by the Vichy government, with its 50,000 gendarmes, 25,000 Gardes Mobiles de Réserve, and some 30,000 paramilitary fascist militia.
Opposing them, a vast underground network of resistance groups had formed, loosely coordinated but united by a common goal. By 1944, France was effectively in a state of civil war.
The Allies took advantage of this as far as they dared. Allied leaders were worried about Communist influence in the Resistance, but, on the other hand, they urged that a common command structure should be formed so that attacks would be more coordinated and effective.
This command structure was formed in London by the Comité d’Action under the title of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI). This helped tie-in the numerous resistance groups spread across the country. Although any leader of a resistance group was still effectively on his own, London could provide crucial support with drops of arms and ammunition.
The Resistance played a key role when the invasion came. It was effective in blocking vital German supply-routes and delaying whole German Panzer divisions from getting to the front.
The consequences could be devastating. Retribution was swift and brutal, with the innocent oft en becoming victims of Nazi reprisals. Oradoursur-Glane village was destroyed – but it was not the nest of resistance the Germans assumed.
There have been countless books written about the Normandy Campaign. Many are of great value. Yet I have never read a book on Normandy as gripping as this.
The sheer scale and size of the campaign must not be underestimated, but by focusing on the macro the human story behind specific events can easily get lost. James Holland manages to avoid this problem.
The personal perspective is so vivid that, reading this book, I could not help but feel wholly immersed, and remained so through all its 700 pages, while at the same time gaining a deeper understanding of the campaign than before.
Truly, this is a must-read for those interested in the Normandy Campaign and the Second World War.
Review by Cameron Ross
This article was published in the September 2019 of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.