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reflections on five books

by Michael Withington

  • John Keegan:  “Six Armies in Normandy - From D_Day to the Liberation of Paris

  • Alistair Horne: “The Lonely Leader - Monty 1944-1945”

  • Carlo D’Este: “A Genius for War - A Life of General George S. Patton”

  • Robin Neillands: “The Desert Rats - 7th Armoured Division 1940-1945”

  • B.H. Liddell Hart: “The Other Side of the Hill”

Al Reason’s review of Len Deighton’s “Blitzkrieg!” in last autumn’s Despatches inspired me to review a few books on a related theme which I read earlier this year.  I actually read Deighton’s book at the same time, and I agree with almost everything Al says about it, especially the comment about some of Deighton’s stylistic irritants.  However, Deighton does give a very compelling explanation of exactly what blitzkrieg was (as distinct from what it is often used to describe) and why it was to a large extent the only form of attack open to the Germans in 1939, given that Hitler’s political agenda was some years ahead of his generals’ rearmament and reorganisation plans.


American troops pile from a Coast Guard landing barge wade through the surf on the French coast

I started wargaming with WWII miniatures (i.e. tanks), especially Western Europe in 1944 (anyone remember the old Airfix wargaming rules?).  Every battle became a game of cat and mouse as a diminishing number of Shermans tried to outflank and dislodge a handful of Panthers or Tigers.  The terrain was always fields and hedges and a few buildings; the Allies were always confined to the roads since trying to cross a field was usually terminal.  Cursing as my fifth Sherman exploded in flames (I usually played the Allies), I wondered whether the Allied tanks really were as crappy as they seemed to be.  How on earth did they ever get the Germans out of the bocage?  Could the Germans have won the campaign?  In the end I only ever won these games by rewriting history Panzer General-style and giving the Allies stuff like M36s or an unreasonable number of Fireflies (the rules didn’t include air power).  I moved on to other things, including  the North African campaign, which was a bit more evenly-matched, but I always retained an interest in that pivotal campaign, when the Allies took the enormous risk of hurling their huge but largely untested forces against Festung Europa.  What was it really was like?


American assault troops at Omaha Beach

In about the middle of last year I went to visit my sister in Paris, and took the opportunity to do a three day  “Re-invasion” Tour of the Normandy beaches.   Seeing the beaches, one is struck by just how vast an area it was for the Germans to defend, especially given that Field-Marshal Rommel had (correctly, as it turned out) argued that the battle could only be won if the Allies were counter- attacked on the beaches before they could gain a toehold and thrown back into the sea.  But it was also a very exposed area for the Allies to try and establish themselves on. The very beaches they chose for their ease of access were also potentially easier to defend, with wide fields of fire and little cover.  They weren’t to know until they landed whether they faced a Static Division of unmotivated Russians, an improvised battle group of the kind the Germans so excelled at, or a fully fledged SS unit.  And the countryside beyond the beaches was dense and difficult going for armoured units, reducing the advantages of the Allies’ overwhelming numbers.  The beautifully tended war cemeteries around the beaches tell the story; that they are nothing like as vast as the cemeteries planted around the Somme is a tribute to good luck and (mostly) good planning on the part of the Allies and the blundering of the German high command.

As part of the tour I delved into as many books as I could find on and around the subject, and the ones listed at the head of this article are the ones I found the most interesting (I knew I’d get to the point eventually).


German soldiers man their defensive positions

Keegan’s book is the easily the best, both as a piece of historical writing and as an insight into men at war.  Rather than give an exhaustive account of the whole campaign, he focuses on key parts of it, each seen through the eyes of one of the 6 principal protagonists of the title (German, British, American, Canadian, Polish and Free French).  So, the aerial assault is told from the point of view of the US 101st Airborne Division - the Screaming Eagles (dropped into the enemy in darkness with no heavy equipment and occasionally unrealistic objectives); the landing itself from that of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division (attempting to avoid the 65% casualties they had suffered at Dieppe the year before); the expensive and controversial attacks on Caen through the eyes of the British 11th Armoured Division (Britain’s inadequate armour and poor armoured tactics frustrate the Allies’ advance), and so on.  In each section, Keegan provides a potted history of the relevant army and how it came to be at Normandy.  In reading the account of the Mortain counterattack one feels considerable sympathy even for the German troops.  Although they were clearly the most experienced and able soldiers in the campaign - Hitler had stationed some of his best units in France, including the crack Panzer Lehr Division and several well equipped SS Panzer and Panzergrenadier Divisions - they were outnumbered, chronically short of fuel and supplies and hamstrung by both incessant air attacks and Hitler’s increasingly irrational strategic decisions.


Most poignant for me (having just seen the city for the first time) is the description of the liberation of Paris, as  Lieutenant-General von Choltitz, the German C-in-C of Paris and under orders from Hitler to leave Paris a “field of ruins”,  is on the  telephone to Spiedel, the chief of staff, holds the receiver out so that his superior can hear the sounds of the people celebrating the arrival of the Free French outside, and asks whether there are any further orders.  Both men know there is nothing to be gained from carrying out their Fuhrer’s order.  Luckily for us (and for the French tourist industry) these particular Germans knew when the battle was lost.


Horne’s biography of Montgomery deals, as the title suggests, principally with the period of the Normandy campaign, the highlight of Monty’s career.  Written with the assistance of Monty’s son, the book gives Britain’s most illustrious general since Wellington a more sympathetic treatment than he has received in recent years - he is, for instance, invariably played as a high-voiced twit with a speech impediment in any war movie in which he appears.  He certainly does not seem to have been a likeable man, unless one was part of his select group of personal staff (this, after all, the man who was “too busy” to go to his own mother’s funeral), however Horne suggests his legendary “difficultness” may have been due to a large extent to the traumatising effect which the death of his wife in 1937 had on him.


Striking panorama of a Normandy invasion beach


Whatever Monty’s personal shortcomings, Horne makes a strong case for his exceptional talent for organisation and planning.  He excelled at welding units together and generating esprit de corps.  While Monty did not (or would not) get on with his colleagues - Horne makes the point that Overlord could never have been carried out if it had not been for Eisenhower’s masterful handling of his prickly, multi-national generals - he was a true professional at the art of generalship.


Monty’s virtues as a tactician are less clearcut.  Horne does not disturb the view that Monty was the master of the set-piece battle (e.g. Alamein) and was not able or willing to grasp at opportunities as they arose.  Thus, he seems to have missed the chance to close the Falaise gap once the German defence collapsed (Monty blamed the Poles and his own armoured divisions for lacking the necessary.


US M10 tank destroyers unloading

Apart from the disaster that was Operation Market-Garden, Monty’s most contentious operation was the meat grinding series of assaults on Caen, and especially Operation “Goodwood”.  It is clear that, despite the meticulous planning that went into getting the troops ashore with minimal casualties, the Allied commanders (including Montgomery) had not planned for  either the difficulty of the Normandy terrain or the German ability to regroup and resist.  Horne analyses the question of whether these attacks were, as Monty later claimed, purely intended to draw the German armour onto the British  eastern flank so that the Americans on the west flank would be able to break out  to the south  (as they eventually did).  Before the Operation, Monty had built it up as a major thrust - he was under increasing pressure from Churchill to break the deadlock, and the war-weary British army could not sustain the level of losses being sustained amid the bocage - but once it had ground to a halt he appeared to back-pedal on what the objectives had been. The jury is still open; Horne leans to the view that Monty was a victim of his own arrogance on overstating what those objectives were.


There is no doubt that arrogance was also the hallmark of General George S. Patton.  In what is perhaps an even more sympathetic look at an unsympathetic subject than Horne’s, D’Este explains, quite convincingly, where that arrogance came from and, perhaps less convincingly, why it was not misplaced.  Wisely,  since it largely established the (in)famous caricature, he takes the movie  “Patton” as a starting point, and, using Patton’s letters to his  long-suffering wife and his unedited personal  diaries (the source of much of the dialogue in the film, including the opening speech)  he constructs  a picture of a far more complex individual.


According to D’Este,  most of the misapprehensions about Patton stem from  the involvement of Patton’s erstwhile junior and friend, Omar Bradley, who, as advisor to the makers of the film, reinterpreted history to make himself appear as the humble “soldier’s general” to Patton’s erratic prima donna.  The truth is that (you guessed it folks) “Georgie” was a complex, insecure and even sensitive person whose public persona was largely contrived.  D’Este reveals that Patton genuinely believed he was reincarnated from a long line of soldiers from the time of Alexander, and that he was confident he was destined for great things, yet all through his life he was assailed by self doubt, especially during the long inter-war years spent in dusty cavalry outposts.  


What distinguished Patton from most of his colleagues was that, like Montgomery (who, contrary to legend, he did not hate, although he found him as difficult as everyone else did) was a true professional general.   His famous showmanship, obsession with discipline and  ruthlessness were all traits he believed were essential in a general;  what is less well known is that, like Monty, he was also a careful planner - when the Germans launched the Ardennes counterattack in late 1944 (Patton’s finest hour) he had not one but three plans to contain the enemy.  D’Este explains the infamous slapping incident by arguing that Patton was probably as battle-fatigued as the soldier he hit, a result of leading from the front, another principle Patton firmly believed in.


Allied guns weave a tapestry of flame in the night skies off the Cherbourg peninsula

The proof of Patton’s methods was in the American breakout from Saint-Lo in July 1944.  After a frustrating stint as the head of a fictional army group intended to deceive the Germans into believing the main Allied attack would be at Calais, he was finally allowed off the leash, and led the 3rd Army in a pursuit across France in the best Blitzkrieg style which broke records in terms of miles advanced per day and outpaced his own supply lines; indeed, by the time he reached the edges of Germany he was resorting to stealing fuel from other units to keep going.  It was what he had been waiting for since his first taste of action in the closing months of World War One, and there is no doubt that there was no other Allied General who could have accomplished it; unlike Montgomery, Patton did know how to seize an opportunity.  But there is a strong argument (not canvassed by D’Este) that Monty’s British, Canadian and Polish troops had done the real work in the previous 2 months in gutting the SS Panzer Divisions defending Caen; given the limitations of Allied tanks and the lack of experience of most of the US troops, it is unlikely that Patton could have done any better against the German main forces than Monty did.  The reality may be that Montgomery realised that the unavoidable price of destroying the Germans was always going to be the loss of large numbers of men and equipment and decided that the seasoned men of his British Canadian and Polish units were simply the best ones to bear it.


As a primary exponent of armoured warfare, and one of those responsible for the development of US armoured doctrine prior to World War Two, Patton has to bear some of the blame for the inadequacy of US tank design, especially by 1944 when the Allies were a full generation behind the Germans - a point on which D’Este does not tackle his subject.  The fact that at the time of the Normandy campaign the Western Allies could not field a tank which even approached the best German designs even became something of a political scandal at the time.


Knocked out Panther at the roadside in the Normandy Bocage


US armoured doctrine did at least emphasise manoeuvre, even if the Shermans were supposed to avoid combat with other tanks and rely on “tank destroyers” (basically modified Shermans with slightly bigger guns and thinner armour) to destroy them - a kind of separation of roles that must have seemed largely academic to the tank crews whose vehicles were brewed up by German long-barrelled 75 and 88mm guns fired from beyond the effective ranges of their World War One era 75mm tank guns.   British policy was that tanks (supplied mostly by the Americans) were cheap and could be replaced easily, and accordingly they relied on overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers.  But the Normandy bocage made manoeuvring impossible, and the poor armament and thin armour of the Sherman and Cromwell led to massive losses as columns of armour were funnelled into the sights of the German Panthers and anti-tank guns.  The Allies were forced to rely increasingly on their excellent artillery and on massive air bombardment (which frequently hit the Allied troops as well - the Canadians in particular were hit by US bombers so often that they began shooting them down).  Looking at the photographs of what was left of Caen after the Allied bombers had finished with it, one wonders if the French ever asked themselves if liberation was worth the cost in terms of flattened cities.  It didn’t work - the Germans had moved out before the bombs started falling.  Fortunately, the old part of the city of Caen has been rebuilt and now looks much like it did before the RAF visited it.


Neillands’ history of the British 7th Armoured Division, derived from interviews with surviving veterans and from the Division’s own records, is in effect the story of the rise and fall of a unit which achieved great fame in the desert and came badly unstuck at Normandy.  The Division’s desert experiences are stirring stuff - swanning about in fast moving Crusader tanks with pennants flying was obviously jolly good fun (even if most of the pre-Alamein battles were won by the Afrika Korps).  The trouble was, British tank armament was so woeful that a Panzer IV was considered a heavy tank (!), and the disparity only got worse as the war progressed.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower visits troops of the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day

By Normandy, the Division was tired and noticeably “gun-shy”, to the extent that Montgomery eventually felt compelled to sack its commander, General Erskine, for lacking sufficient determination.  One can sympathise with the Desert Rats for being less than gung ho in the circumstances; the description of the destruction of a large portion of 4th County of London Yeomanry by a small force of Tiger Is led by Captain Michael Wittman at Villers-Bocage in June 1944 demonstrates why discretion must have usually been the better part of valour.  One is struck, when reading the first hand  accounts, by their candour; British tanks appeared to brew up with alarming alacrity - Cromwells are frankly described as “atrocious tanks” and  the British tanks’ armour plate as “no match” for the German tank guns - and the prevailing attitude seems to have been to keep one’s head down.


Trying to get a German perspective on the campaign is quite difficult.  Keegan’s book provides some insight, but more dedicated works are thin on the ground, notwithstanding the continuing popularity of German weapons and equipment.  I looked for biographies of the German generals, but could not find any in print.  The best I could come up with was Liddell Hart’s collection of interviews with German generals, which was first published shortly after the war’s end.


Liddell Hart was, of course, one of the prophets of modern armoured warfare, and these  interviews were partly an excuse to ask the Germans to what extent they were influenced by his own theories - he can perhaps be forgiven for not being able to resist the occasional “Ha - I told you so!”.  He also got to ask them what was going on on their side at the command level.  This is important to any understanding of the Normandy campaign, since the blame for the German defeat (inasmuch as they were ever had a chance of winning it) must be laid at the top, starting with Hitler himself.


Obviously (since he killed himself in 1944) Liddell Hart could not talk to Rommel.  He did interview Field-Marshal von Runstedt, who makes some telling admissions.  He reveals that the German chain of command was confused and that he and Rommel did not see eye-to-eye.  He also admits that the Germans had no idea that the invasion would come at Normandy, but not so much because of the Allied disinformation campaign, but because he was aware that the Atlantic Wall was really only a figment of Hitler’s imagination in all but a few places and thought the Allies would land in Western France, far closer to Germany.  He does not say so, but one suspects the old fellow might have wondered why the Allies took so long.



Liddell Hart asked Heinz Guderian, the architect of the reorganisation of the Panzer Divisions in 1943, about the decision to hold the Panzers back from the coast, Guderian pointed out that, although Rommel was right in believing the Allies had to be defeated on the beaches, putting the Panzer Divisions on the coast would have committed them to a specific invasion point; Rommel had correctly guessed the point would be Normandy, but if he had been wrong, there would have been no reserve to meet the actual invasion.  The reality is probably that, had Rommel had a free hand, the Allies would probably have landed in the teeth of Panzer Lehr and at least two other SS Panzer Divisions, but if he had changed his mind about the likely invasion point the key German units would have either been bypassed or would have had to redeploy under the same debilitating air assault that crippled them in the long drive to Normandy.  And von Runstedt points out that any counterattack on the beachhead would have had to face the firepower of the Allied battleships providing close support.


It is clear that none of the generals Liddell Hart interviewed held any hope of winning the battle after the initial few days had passed.  With Hitler adamant that there would be no retreat, it was inevitable that they would be encircled and destroyed, as they were at Falaise, ending the Normandy campaign.  The photographs in the French war museums I visited of the destruction of the German Army at Falaise are a disturbing sight even now - the effect of air power on a defenceless target (mostly horses and armoured vehicles trapped on narrow French roads).


And the conclusions?  For what it’s worth, yes the Allied tanks were crap; they won by expending vast amounts of tanks, artillery shells, rockets and bombs on literally blasting the Germans out of  Normandy, and  no, I don’t think the Germans could have won it after the first day.  And Normandy is a great place to visit, whatever the reason.


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