Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
23 Sept. 2019
Review by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University
D-Day and the Normandy Campaign
Ed. David Reisch
Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2018. Pp. 120. ISBN 978–0–8117–1993–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War II, D-Day Print Version

With this slim volume, editor David Reisch launches Stackpole Books' "accessible" new series of "Battle Briefings." In it, he rehearses the planning for and conduct of the Allies' heart-stopping amphibious invasion by sea and sky of Nazi-occupied Europe from the Normandy campaign through the fall of Paris. Enhancing the text are many (often grainy and familiar) photographs, two inadequate maps (lacking even scale and direction indicators), quotations of generals and grunts, and boxed inserts on, for example, "Career Highlights" of Omar Bradley and Medal of Honor citations.

Chapter 1, "The Road to D-Day," reviews events from the Blitz (Sept. 1940–May 1941) to 5 June 1944, when unfavorable conditions caused a day's delay in Allied invasion plans. Adolf Hitler himself had had to scrap his own intended amphibious invasion of Britain after the Luftwaffe failed to win control of the skies. But the Allies' conquest of "underbelly" Sicily provided useful practice (despite heavy casualties ) in using planes and ships to secure various beachheads (Operation Husky, July 1943) as part of the controversial British oblique "Mediterranean Approach."

Though its Blitzkrieg victories in 1940 left the Germans with a two-thousand-mile western shoreline to defend, they correctly calculated that the Allied landing would be in the region of their Atlantic Wall in France. This hugely expensive concrete and steel construction was built by the Führer's drafted and slave laborers and manned by ca. 800,000 troops. Neither Armaments Minister Albert Speer nor Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of the Wall's defense force, had any illusions that this static barrier—"just a bit of cheap bluff"—would be effective.

In southern England, from the Concentration Area (camp) to the Marshalling Area to the Embarkation Areas, Assault and Build-Up units, including about a million Americans, gathered, trained, and boarded ships in a process the troops said made them part of an "ambiguous farce" rather than amphibious force.

Chapter 2, "D-Day," begins with a full moon (ideal for airborne drops) on 5 June. The Normandy beaches were chosen to avoid and surprise the reinforced German defenses near the Pas de Calais. The widely feared and eccentric Gen. George S. Patton and his army were initially kept in Britain to gull the Germans into expecting his attack would come on the Calais shorefront. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower commanded the Allied Expeditionary Force in Operation Overlord, while three Britons (FM Bernard Montgomery, Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, and Adm. Bertram Ramsey) commanded, respectively, the land, sky, and sea contingents until 1 Sept. 1944, when "Ike" took control. Bad weather forced a one-day postponement, narrowing the three-day window of optimal low tides needed for the invasion. Never was meteorology a factor of greater moment. Supreme Commander Eisenhower had to make the fateful decision. Well aware that disaster was a real possibility, he carried with him a statement to be issued if the invasion failed.

The landings of twenty thousand paratroopers went awry as men dropped in scattered locations; two airborne divisions sustained 2,500 casualties, some by drowning in flooded fields. Many seaborne soldiers and tank crews debarking from some of the Allies' five thousand vessels died before ever reaching land or in the shallows. At H Hour, the landing ships began disgorging thousands of tons of heavy equipment and ca. 156,000 infantry, about 34,000 of them on Omaha Beach, where, from 6:30 a.m. onward, American forces faced the fiercest resistance and suffered severest casualties of the operation; many men drowned trying to wade as much as three hundred feet through neck-deep water to reach shore (44). Some units lost more than 50 percent of their men. Nonetheless, Allied losses amounted to less than 3 percent dead of the total force on D-Day. This for a daring operation against a fortified area—the only such assault in Europe in World War II.

Initial advances on land were closer to one mile than the five hoped for. The British and Canadian troops landed eight miles farther east (at Gold, Juno, and Sword) than the Americans at Utah and Omaha. The Canadians made the biggest first-day gains (76). Reisch devotes very little space to the Germans' (disbelieving and slow) reactions to the landing. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was back home in Germany for a birthday, confident that steady bad weather would keep the Americans from attacking the "impregnable" wall any time soon. The Allies' successful disinformation campaign convinced German agents, radio-interceptors, and spies that the real assault would occur at Pas de Calais, the nearest point on the mainland to English harbors. But Hitler's own delusional faith in his (incomplete) Fortress Europe defenses was as important as Allied disinformation.

The Americans refused Montgomery's offer of Percy Hobart's "Funnies"—modified armored vehicles like the "Crab" with its mine flails (chains, here), and other devices ("bobbins, roly-polys, fascines")[1] engineered to negate obstacles like ditches and explosive devices. (The Churchill Crocodile escapes notice.) Ingeniously customized tanks saved countless lives and facilitated advances on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches,[2] while the Americans lost three thousand men killed and wounded at the hands of two thousand German soldiers during paralyzing delays on Omaha beach. Caught in crossfires from the German pill-boxes, all five French beaches turned into Allied killing grounds.[3]

Reisch dwells on a few colorful characters who landed and fought on D-Day, such as fifty-six-year-old Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and the thirty-two-year-old, unarmed (!) Brigadier Lord Lovat, who commanded the 1st Special Service Brigade and waded ashore—first of his unit—wearing a kilt while accompanied by his "personal bagpiper" (76). We learn, too, that Alec Guinness "skippered a landing craft" and Yogi Berra manned a machine gun from his ship (79). Some 150,000 troops established a beachhead on what Rommel had imagined would be "the longest day."[4] Only thirty reporters accompanied the "boys" and their reports were censored; German radio provided better information to Reich and Occupied radio-listeners.

Chapter 3, "The Normandy Campaign," presents a breathless summary of campaigns fought between 6 June and 25 August, when Paris was liberated from "les Boches." The Allies' inspired Mulberries (artificial harbors) facilitated the landing of sixteen thousand tons of supplies and equipment a day, earning the admiration of the grumpy and deceptive Albert Speer himself. After climbing the coastal cliffs, American troops faced new problems in Normandy's "Bocage country"—"meadows, pastures, and woods separated by mazes of hedgerows and sunken roads" (86). These hedgerows as well as the Wehrmacht's mines, snipers, artillery, booby traps, and tunnels, not to mention rainy weather in unfamiliar terrain, stymied Allied advances. Not till mid-July, after Gen. Omar Bradley's Operation Cobra masterstroke, did the Allies break out of the Cotentin (Cherbourg) peninsula. The strategy benefited from "rhinos," the Culin hedgerow cutters (96) that enabled a concentration of forces. Aerial "reinforcement" sometimes resulted in "misdrops"—army-speak for US bombs that killed over a hundred American troops, including Gen. Lesley McNair. Some German positions (e.g., at St. Nazaire) held out right up to the end of the war; some French ports were so fully destroyed that, when captured, they did the Allies no good (100).

Hitler, micromanaging as usual, soon replaced von Rundstedt with FM Günther von Kluge as "Commander in Chief West." The inevitable German counterattack was unsuccessful. The Wehrmacht lacked materiel and replacements and suffered from declining morale after losing its higher-ground positions. A frustrated von Kluge committed suicide, as did FM Walter Model. Rommel too killed himself, although for other reasons, after Hitler made him an offer he could not refuse. Model had managed to conserve his forces only by a disciplined retreat. Hitler condemned any such strategy and labeled generals who espoused it "traitors." The Germans who survived the Battle of the Falaise Pocket allowed the Third Reich to fight on for eight more months, at ruinous cost to many civilians. Ten weeks of fighting from the beaches to Paris killed or wounded over 200,000 Allied troops but half again as many German soldiers. Though most of France was quickly liberated, and routes from Paris to Germany were clear, any hopes of victory over a determined foe by Christmas were in vain.

Its author's clear prose and the book's copious photographs carry readers along, but its extreme concision makes it necessarily superficial. Its publication attests to the insatiable market for D-Day books, at least in Britain, the United States, and Canada. Many other titles, some highly specialized, others climbing the same bluffs yet again,[5] have already appeared during or near the seventy-fifth anniversary of an endeavor for which the label "epic" seems miserably inadequate.

[1] See Wikipedia, s.v. "Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers."

[2] See, further, the Imperial War Museum website.

[3] Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) recreate the terror of this long moment.

[4] Cornelius Ryan was there as a correspondent; his exemplary account of D-Day, The Longest Day (1959), appears in the book's brief "Suggested Readings." Reisch often provides the "order of battle," but curiously, without explaining what it is or how it illuminates his narrative.

[5] E.g., Sarah Rose, D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II (NY: Crown, 2019); Giles Milton, Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day (NY: Holt, 2018); and Alex Kershaw, The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II (NY: Dutton Caliber, 2019).

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