Stuck in the trenches

New history of D-Day and the battle for France does well with the combat, but not the strategies

American soldiers head for the beach on D-Day in Normandy in this photo from ”The War’’ by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. American soldiers head for the beach on D-Day in Normandy in this photo from ”The War’’ by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
By Nigel Hamilton
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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At a moment when the president of the United States must consider strategy as well as tactics in Afghanistan, it is sad to see how many military writers are incapable of doing just that.

Antony Beevor has made a signal reputation for himself as a historian of the “sharp end’’ of battles such as Stalingrad and Berlin. Beevor thus opens his new book dramatically on June 5, 1944, as the Allies prepare to take advantage of a brief lull in unseasonably poor weather in order to launch a massive, 60-mile-wide invasion of France, targeted on the coast of Normandy: D-Day. And what better time to reconsider this decisive battle than this Sunday before Veterans Day.

Since Beevor’s mission is to describe war not at the top but at the bottom, he takes us from bombing crews to bobbing infantry in landing craft and towed gliders, then through the ensuing, decisive 24 hours that would either spell the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe or result in the worst Allied defeat since Pearl Harbor.

Intelligently told and nicely documented (though sadly, without a single new interview), the initial D-Day section ends around page 200, when on June 14, 1944 General Charles de Gaulle visits the liberated town of Bayeux.

Had Beevor ended his book at that point, he would have spared himself - and us - much futile narration, for it is after the capture of Bayeux that his own problems really begin, as the Allied beachhead becomes a bridgehead, and the Allies race to cut off the entire Cherbourg peninsula.

In static battles, such as sieges, Beevor’s relentless determination to depict what war was like for front-line attackers and the besieged pays great dividends - indeed Beevor has become the World War II siege-expert de nos jours. He positively relishes the details of weapons, violence, and human discomfort. In fact he has almost single-handedly transferred the public fascination with trench warfare in World War I to the great battles of attrition in World War II. But once the D-Day invasion becomes a battle for France, Beevor’s siege mentality cannot do justice to what was, in fact, one of the great battles of history - a contest not simply between vast armies (the Allies sending some two million men into battle) but between two great generals: General Bernard Montgomery, the Allied land forces commander, and his opposite number, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (and later Rommel’s successor generals, once the commander was strafed and put out of action by Allied warplanes).

Just as Rommel transformed the Atlantic Wall as German commander in chief, so Montgomery had, in January 1944, thrown out existing plans for D-Day, which centered on an immediate Allied drive from Caen to Paris. Doomed to be defeated, those plans would have been too puny and too easily cauterized by the German panzer divisions assembled in the Pas de Calais area. Instead, Montgomery planned a far bigger assault on D-Day, followed by continuous British and Canadian attacks that would force Rommel to defend the apparent Allied route to Paris. Then, behind the jabbing Anglo-Canadian shield, a growing torrent of American forces would secure Cherbourg and fight its way south to the Loire, creating a vast springboard from which the Allies could break the German stranglehold on France, and drive toward Berlin.

Unfortunately, this Allied plan is never mentioned in Beevor’s book, though it was presented to Churchill and the supreme commander of the Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and rehearsed in detail by all senior Allied commanders at Montgomery’s headquarters on April 7, and again on May 15, 1944. As a result, the reader is left completely in the dark about the strategy for the battle from the Allied perspective. Indeed, following D-Day, the Battle of Normandy is merely pictured as one long series of attacks, minor skirmishes, and endless bombing sorties.

By page 400, most general readers will be lost in the fog of names, ranks, regiments, villages, and hilltops, the account having turned into a hop-scotching circus in the bocage of Normandy that becomes a battle of attrition aimed primarily at the reader.

By the time Paris is liberated near the end of the book - six days less than the three months that Montgomery had forecast for the battle and three months earlier than Churchill had dreamed of before D-Day - one is left with a sad feeling that an unfortunate mistake has been made. Beevor should not have been posted to the Western Front by his publisher. “Back to the Russian front!’’ I felt like telling him. The siege of Leningrad, for instance. Now there’s a story suited to his talents!

Nigel Hamilton is a senior fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies, UMass Boston, and winner of the Templer Medal for Military History.

D-DAY: The Battle for Normandy By Antony Beevor

Viking, 608 pp., illustrated, $32.95

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