Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
20 November 2013
Review by Bruce Zellers, Greenhills School and Oakland University
Normandy Crucible: The Decisive Battle That Shaped World War II in Europe
By John Prados
New York: NAL Caliber, 2012. Pp. xiii, 320. ISBN 978–0–451–23383–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

Military historian John Prados's concise, engaging, and thoughtful book is a worthy addition to the literature on the Normandy invasion; it provides a narrative skillfully built on a firm foundation of primary and secondary sources. Prados adopts a "big picture" perspective, with a focus on "the dilemmas of strategic plans and maneuvers" rather than the experiences of individual soldiers (xi). He evaluates just how the strengths and limitations of each side shaped "one of the most important" battles of the war, one that "set the stage for the battles for the German frontier and the final assault into the Nazi heartland" (xii).

The Allies possessed enormous advantages at Normandy, but also faced significant difficulties. Normandy Crucible opens with the latter: Allied forces were crowded into much smaller beachheads than the operation's planners had envisioned; progress on the ground was slow, especially in the British sector. The Germans resisted tenaciously, the terrain inhibited movement, and the weather was often bad. This situation had occurred despite the Allies' overwhelming superiority in men and machines. On 31 August 1944, their forces numbered over 2 million men (258)—more than five times what German commanders could deploy (262). In the air war, they possessed 10,000 aircraft as against their opponents' 1,600 (113–14). The Germans "dreaded" and "feared" Allied fighter bombers—"Jabos" (Jäger Bombers, i.e., "hunter bombers") (29, 113, 177), which attacked roads, railways, and frontline positions; some 2,000 Allied heavy bombers pulverized German positions before the landings (95, 99, 122, 209). The Germans were awed by the "sumptuous scale of support" enjoyed by enemy soldiers, even when their weapons were inferior (80, 82–83); the Allies could lose 400 tanks in a single battle—"a tremendous calamity"—and replace them all in a few days (102). The Arsenal of Democracy conferred real advantages indeed.

Besides superior manpower and materiel, the Allies had better intelligence. Prados sees his book as a "synthesis of intelligence history and combat narrative"; he intends to reveal the "impact of intelligence" on the campaign (xi). Allied codebreaking (ULTRA) gets the lion's share of attention today, but Prados explains that "well developed" aerial reconnaissance and ground patrols were "the Allies' most useful information source" (70–71). Allied intelligence, and ULTRA in particular, were "not omniscient …. [D]uring the entire European campaign the instances in which ULTRA directly produced strategic intelligence can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand; fortunately, a couple of those occurred in Normandy" (63–64). The Germans made interception and interpretation difficult: each service employed its own coding and encryption (62), and they worked to stay a step ahead of their opponents by shifting codes. As a consequence, "many German communications were impervious to interception" (62–65). Still, the Germans, especially the Luftwaffe, sometimes served up the order of battle for units as large as army corps (101, 132, 181). In short, Prados offers a useful corrective to some of the myths about ULTRA and strengthens the claims of agency, chance, and even skill in the outcome in Normandy.

Perhaps the most debilitating problem for the Allies was the "war between the generals" (58, 80, 167). Prados argues that "the interplay of interest and fear atop the allied command is at the root of what happened in Normandy" (50). Montgomery was a bombastic egotist who picked fights all around (58–59). Patton and Bradley had their squabbles(91), and everyone criticized Eisenhower from time to time.

The central issue was that "Great Britain … no longer possessed the power it had in 1914 or even 1941" (51). One indicator of this was the wasting away of the British Army. Winston Churchill in his History of the Second World War refers to Britain's "manpower stringency"; he noted early in 1945 that "we are attempting more than our resources will permit" (713–14, 734–35). As Prados points out, by August 1944, America's 12th Army Group counted 1,200,000 soldiers, while Britain's 21st Army Group contained about 800,000, nearly a third of them Canadian, Polish, and Dutch, among others. While many US divisions were in the pipeline to Europe, virtually no British or imperial combat units remained uncommitted. The British had to husband their resources, even as they struggled to retain great power status. This led to bitter arguments over tactics, strategies, and contributions to the campaign in Normandy. Some American officers believed that the British were eager both to command and to allow Americans to fight the big battles. Disagreements in the high command contributed to the slow closing of the Falaise Pocket (by Polish and Canadian troops under Montgomery) and disputes over post-Normandy strategy. Prados emphasizes Eisenhower's diplomatic skills and praises his and Bradley's strategic acumen in launching the Normandy breakout and encircling the Germans at Falaise (164, 167, 196).[1] In the emerging new world order, Great Britain would reside on the second tier, not the first.

Logistics posed a second major difficulty. Each Allied combat division required 600–700 tons of supplies each day; on the move, late in the campaign, US forces alone consumed 400,000 gallons of fuel each day (78, 260). Supplies often fell short. Exacerbating the problem was the destruction of one of the artificial harbors by a channel storm and delays in capturing vital ports, like Cherbourg. In addition, the road and rail infrastructure was inadequate, especially after Allied bombing (77), and there was a severe shortage of trucks. Artillery ammunition was periodically in short supply, and the limited stream of troops intended to replace combat losses left many units under strength (79).

Paradoxically, despite the abundant output of the vaunted Arsenal of Democracy, there were often critical deficiencies at the operational level. This phenomenon was neither new nor unique to Normandy. Logistical limitations in 1942–43 had delayed the ultimate launching of the invasion.[2] Prados writes that the supply situation "played havoc" with operations on into winter 1944–45, because the "realities of supply demanded choices" and imposed limitations (79, 261).

Of course, compared to the Germans, the allies had a walk in a park on a lovely spring day. The Germans faced grave difficulties in the sixth year of the world war their Führer had led them into. The onslaught of massive Soviet armies in the East and devastation inflicted by relentless Allied air strikes at home left the Reich's resources stretched thin. In addition, German generals disagreed fundamentally about how to deal with the weight of allied resources and cope with the "cyclone" (Rommel's word) of allied air power (16) that made any movement slow and expensive (90). Lacking precise intelligence and reports from commanders on the ground, they struggled futilely to assert control in Normandy, all the while reacting to Hitler's interference with operations, indecision (32), "childish behavior," and "fantasies" (42, 111) of powerful counterattacks against the Allies.

Through all this, Wehrmacht commanders had to maintain their armies with only 10 percent of the supplies they needed (95), while absorbing nearly twice the losses sustained by Allies (269). Like other historians of the war, Prados finds it "remarkable that the German army fought on in Normandy, seemingly oblivious" to its circumstances (108). Not only did the Germans hold on, they sent many individual replacements to their forces, "reconstituted units with astonishing rapidity" (109), and accelerated the formation of new divisions and armored brigades (110, 216). The Reich's industry continued to churn out 1,600 tanks and assault vehicles each month—despite Allied bombing (263). German commanders organized a systematic and effective retreat from Normandy (228, 237), losing, Prados shows, less equipment and fewer men captured than is often thought (249). Moreover, German armies could be more rapidly and efficiently restored as they neared the Fatherland (x). Despite the "victory disease" the Allies contracted in late summer/early fall 1944, the war was many months and many hard battles from its conclusion (257).

First-time students of the Normandy invasion will find in Prados's book an instructive and accessible introduction to the campaign. The book does, however, have its shortcomings. Its prose features some (often archaic) colloquialisms[3] and a fussy over-attention to unit designations (773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, 1077th Engineer Port Construction and Repair Group, and the like). Still, the book will stimulate interest in other relevant topics that the author barely touches on: for example, the impact of the Normandy fighting on the liberated French residents of the region,[4] the learning curve faced by Allied generals, many of them new to combat,[5] and, of course, the elephant in the room—the Russian front, where most of Germany's troops were deployed in June 1944 instead of along the Atlantic Wall.[6] Thus, Normandy Crucible is valuable both for its own narrative of events and as a gateway to further reading.

[1] For much more on these issues, see D.K.R. Crosswell's magisterial Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith (Lexington: U Kentucky Pr, 2010); Smith, as Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, was at the center of these arguments.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Germans get "plastered" by Allied warplanes (30), Americans "duke it out" with opponents (92), a limited action is "small potatoes" (162), and, as combat began, "the fat was in the fire" (151, 205).

[4] See Olivier Wieviorka, Normandy: The Landings to the Liberation of Paris, tr. M.B. DeBevoise (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 2008).

[5] See Stephen R. Taaffe, Marshall and His Generals: U.S. Army Commanders in World War II (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2011).

[6] See, e.g., Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945 (NY: Knopf, 2011).

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