DESPATCHES FROM NORMANDY
reflections on five books
reflections on five books
by Michael Withington
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.
started wargaming with WWII miniatures (i.e. tanks), especially
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
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).
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
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.
biography of Montgomery
deals, as the title suggests, principally with the
period of the
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.
from the disaster that was Operation Market-Garden, Monty’s most
contentious operation was the meat grinding series of assaults on
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.
proof of Patton’s methods was in the American breakout from
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
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
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 was tired and noticeably “gun-shy”, to
the extent that
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.
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
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).
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.