D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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We took the family to France this summer, culminating in a week in Normandy. We visited Pointe d’Hoc, Omaha Beach, Arromanches, Juno, and Pegasus Bridge, even having a drink at the little bar opposite Pegasus that claims the honor of being the first house in France to be liberated. (It is still owned by the widow of the innkeeper who busted open his basement to serve prewar champagne to the British glider pilots and soldiers who took the bridge in the early hours of June 6, 1944.)

Since the visit, I’ve been plunged into Normandy reading, starting with Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II, followed by Max Hasting’s Overlord and then John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy.

I wonder if there is any other battle in world history that has generated so much consistently excellent writing? Waterloo maybe?

These three books are all impressive, each in their way. Their ways however are very different.

I think most of us are familiar with the broad elements of the D-Day story: the massive buildup in England, the successful deception of the Germans, the airborne attacks on the flanks of the Calvados coast, the five-beach landing plan (two American, two British, one Canadian), and the deadly fight borne by the 1st and 29th US Infantry Divisions at Omaha.

175,000 men took part in the D-Day operation. About 156,000 landed on the beaches, the rest served in the naval and air forces. About 2,500 allied soldiers lost their lives; another 7,500 or so were wounded. The Germans took between 4,000 and 9,000 casualties, nobody knows for sure.

As dramatic as D-Day was, on any measure of scale, it does not rank among the ten biggest battles of World War II. (All of the top ten were fought on the eastern front.) Yet it has to be regarded as among the very most decisive battles of the war Ñ and certainly one of the most stupendous accomplishment of American arms in particular. The cemetery atop Omaha is one of the most moving landscapes on earth. (Though personally I cannot say I much care for the sculpture at its center.)

Reading the three books together, it becomes obvious why Stephen Ambrose won distinction as America’s favorite historian of World War II. He is an unequalled collector and narrator of war stories. He describes the terror and heroism of combat in a brutally intimate way. The detail that most stays with me: as night falls atop Omaha, a senior officer joins a group of men gathered in a foxhole. He tosses a German boot at them. In the boot is a severed leg. “Bet some poor bastard misses that,” says the officer

Ambrose interviewed hundreds of veterans of D-Day, up to and including Dwight Eisenhower, whose papers he edited. He must have been a very engaging audience, to judge by the quality of the stories he elicited.

Another favorite: An American soldier wanders into a Norman farmyard. Communicating through sign language, he persuades the farmer to cook him a fresh omelet. In return, he gave the farmer a knapsack full of chocolate bars. The farmer handed a bar to his 6-year-old son, explaining, “He’s never tasted chocolate till now.”

It’s characteristic of Ambrose that he would note Omar Bradley’s surprise that the wreckage on the beach included a broken tennis racket. Who on earth would have brought such a thing with him to an invasion?

I could fill this screen with other amazing and terrible stories gathered by Ambrose. Many of them have now made their way to film via the HBO series Band of Brothers, which takes its title from another Ambrose book.

Ambrose’s reputation was darkened in his final hours by serious and credible allegations of pervasive plagiarism in many of his works. Yet plagiarism is not the worst of Ambrose’s flaws as an historian.

The graver flaw is a tendency to hero worship.

Ambrose devoted the final phase of his career to a glorification of the American fighting man.

And indeed: all glory is due to the citizen-soldiers of World War II, and especially to those who hit that fearsome beach at Omaha. Yet it is no dishonor to brave men to seek to understand what actually happened, to seek the truth, and to separate the task of the historian from that of the builder of monuments.

Here is Ambrose, in his much-quoted prologue to D-Day:

It was an open question, toward the end of spring of 1944, as to whether a democracy could produce young soldiers capable of fighting effectively against the best that Nazi Germany could produce. Hitler was certain the answer was no. [Hitler believed] that on anything approaching equality of numbers, the Wehrmacht would prevail. Totalitarian fanaticism and discipline would always conquer democratic liberalism and softness. Of that Hitler was sure.

If Hitler had seen Den Brotheridge and Bob Mathias in action at the beginning of D-Day, he might have had second thoughts. It is Brotheridge and Mathias and their buddies, the young men born into the false prosperity of the 1920s and brought up in the bitter realities of the Depression of the 1930s, that this book is about. The literature they read as youngsters was antiwar, cynical, portraying patriots as suckers, slackers as heroes. None of them wanted to be part of another war. They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other young men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought or abandoned, they fought. They were soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day, and to them we owe our freedom.

Makes you feel warm all over, doesn’t it?

And of course we concur with every sentiment, even that unfootnoted and not quite accurate characterization of the popular fiction of the prewar era. (Did Gone with the Wind really portray slackers as heroes?)

But there is just one problem: If Hitler believed the thought Ambrose attributes to him, that the Wehrmacht would prevail in any roughly equal contest with the US Army, well … Hitler was right.

Or so argues Max Hastings. It is curious that the most skeptical and scholarly of the three books on D-Day is the one written by a journalist rather than a professional historian.

Not that Hastings’ Overlord lacks anecdotal detail. The story that haunts me most from all three books is one that Hastings tells: of the British officer who leapt too soon from his landing craft. He landed, not on the beach, but in eight feet of water – and his own landing craft passed over his head trapping him on the seat bottom where he drowned. What terrible despair that man must have felt in his last seconds to die in such a way.

Hastings has more to offer than war stories however.

More than either Ambrose or Keegan, Hastings conjures up the violence and horror of the entire Normandy campaign.

In the demands they made upon the foot soldier, [the battles in Normandy] came closer than any other in the west in the Second World War to matching the horror of the eastern front or of Flanders 30 years earliers. Many British and American infantry units suffered over 100 per cent casualties in the course of the summer, and most German units did so.

100% casualties? What does that mean? Hastings explained:

One American infantryman calculated that by May 1945, 53 lieutenants had passed through his company; few of them left it through transfer or promotion.

The commanding officer of a British battalion, the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, fought his way from Normandy in June 1944 to Hamburg in 1945. An average of 5 per men per rifle company – and a total of six officers in the entire battalion - were all that remained of his original force.

Nor do we remember even D-Day accurately, Hastings argues.

The landings came much closer to failure than most of us choose to remember. General Omar Bradley seriously considered ordering a withdrawal from Omaha Beach in mid-morning of June 6 – a withdrawal that would have exposed the Allied right on Utah and the Allied left on Gold, Juno, and Sword to separate destruction by German counter-attack.

Omaha proved a desperate fight not only because of the intrinsic strength of the German defenses, but because of serious errors by the Allied command: the naval bombardment missed key German positions and close-air support was utterly lacking. Hastings points out that, except for artillery, Allied equipment was consistently inferior to its German counterpart: Despite the huge Allied investment in technology, the Germans produced better rifles, better grenades, better machineguns, better antitank weapons, better tanks, and better aircraft.

Most serious of all: the Germans consistently outmaneuvered and outfought the Allies in Normandy, especially the British. Hastings approvingly quotes one of the great experts on the Normandy battle, Col. Trevor Dupy:

On a man for man basis, the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, theywere outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost. (p. 184.)

Hastings gives credit to the Germans for better officers, better NCOs, and finally for being better soldiers.

He makes the interesting point that the United States made a very costly choice when it decided to build up elite units like the 82nd and 101st Airborne. The best quality manpower in the US military was directed to the paratroops, the Marines, the Air Force, the armored divisions, and so on. That left the least dedicated, least capable soldiers to fill the ordinary infantry, creating two problems: the ordinary infantry underperformed – while the most highly effective men were steered into formations that tended to carry much lighter weapons. Ambrose’s now famous Easy Company was thus left to spearhead the way across Europe with rifles and mortars.

Of course the Allies did win, and Hastings has many interesting things to say about that. He describes in very interesting detail the debate between Rommel and von Runstedt as to where to meet the Allied invasion: von Runstedt wanted to preserve a mobile striking reserve, while Rommel argued that Allied aipower would prevent the reserve from moving. The invasion would have to be defeated by dug-in forces on the beaches, or it would not be defeated at all.

And so it proved.

Of course the Allies did win. Hastings makes a great case, however, that Normandy was not a blitzkrieg-in-reverse. Rather, the Allies won in the same way they won in World War One, or (for that matter) that the North won the American Civil War: by sheer grinding attrition that exhausted the resources of their enemy.

By the end of the Normandy campaign, the Germans had only 100 tanks remaining to them in the West as against the Allies 2000; 570 aircraft against the Allied 14,000. Every American loss of men or machinery was replaced, usually within 48 hours. American supply problems were temporary and logistical; the Germans were inherent and constantly worsening.

And finally there was the personality of Hitler himself, who insisted on making all crucial decisions himself, and usually made them wrong. Hastings observes Hitler’s gift for reinforcing failure. He funnelled his irreplaceable resources into the Normandy meatgrinder – until he had nothing left. Hastings ends his book by marveling that the Germans could organize any further resistance at all after the liberation of France. That surprise inspired him to write another book, Armageddon, about the battle for Germany itself – a book I’ll turn to in a future bookshelf. For now, let’s take up John Keegan instead.

Keegan is a very fine writer, whose The Face of Battle may well rank as the single most indispensable volume of military history I have ever read. Six Armies in Normandy continues that same intimate approach to the study of men in war. Less romantic than Ambrose, less uncomfortably realistic than Hastings, Keegan also generously devotes attention to soldiers whose stories often get crowded out. His six armies include not only the British, American, and German, but also the Canadian, the French, and the Polish.

The Canadians’ Juno Beach makes a stark contrast to menacing Omaha: a thin strand, a few yards of very gently sloping tall grass, and then … roads leading easily into the interior of Normandy. No wonder then that the Canadians advanced further inland on D-Day than any other force.

For the Canadians, Juno and the plunge inland offered revenge for the disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 1942. Dieppe is often described as a valuable “lesson.” But did they really need to sacrifice almost 3,400 killed, wounded, and captured to establish that it was unwise to launch a frontal assault on a fortified town bracketed by towering cliffs?

We stopped in Dieppe on our Normandy tour. At lunch in a restaurant overlooking the inner harbor, my father-in-law talked with some anguish about the ill-fated raid. A party of French businessmen at the next table overheard our conversation and courteously asked my father-in-law whether he had been at Dieppe. No, he said, he’d been in the Canadian navy in World War II. But some of his family’s friends had been involved in the catastrophe. They solemnly said: “Everybody here remembers them. Thank you.”

Alas, outside Normandy the Canadians are not always remembered. John Keegan was invited to the Oval Office in 1994 to advise President Clinton on what he should say in his remarks on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He offered three suggestions, number three being, “Don’t forget the Canadians.” Clinton followed the advice.

Keegan likewise remembers the Polish units that took part in one of the most important actions of the Normandy campaign: the battle to close the Falaise Gap, through which the wreckage of the German army in France fled – minus almost their equipment – back toward the Rhine. The points of the pincers were spearheaded from the north by Canadians, from the south by Poles. The battle for the Falaise Gap coincideded with the crushing of the Warsaw Uprising. The Polish soldiers in Normandy, outfitted with American weapons, fought with almost berserk courage, as if somehow their sacrifice in the west might somehow save their burning capital in the east. (I was able to visit the Warsaw Uprising museum at the end of summer – one of the most heart-rending of all World War II memorials. If you have the opportunity: Go.)

Keegan gives a generous place in his story to the French detachments who fought in Normandy – and who bluffed their way into the lead in the liberation of Paris. Here we meet too one of Keegan’s heroes: Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander who defied Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris in the same way that Hitler’s forces were destroying Warsaw. Choltitz’s wife and three children were kept as hostages in Germany to ensure his obedience.

The story goes – this is not in Keegan – that it was the collaborationist mayor of Paris, Pierre Charles Tattinger, who persuaded Choltitz to disobey orders. Tattinger observed the Germans placing explosives through the city. On August 17, 1944, he visited Choltitz at his headquarters in the Hotel Meurice to plead for Paris. In the middle of their conversation, Choltitz was seized by a fit of athsma. Tattinger led him onto a balcony and pointed to the Tuileries, to the dome of Les Invalides, to the Eiffel Tower, and burst into the most eloquent speech of his life:

“Often it is given a general to destroy, rarely to preserve. Imagine that one day it may be given you to stand on this balcony again, as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments to our joys, to our sufferings, and be able to say, ‘One day I could have destroyed this, and I preserved it as a gift to humanity.’ General, is not that worth all a conqueror’s glory?”

Choltitz was no lambkin. He had led the terror attack on Rotterdam in 1940 and fought savagely on the eastern front in 1942 and 1943. But he was no monster either. He made no promises to Tattinger. But he saved Paris. He lied to his superior officers and told them that the demolition had begun – and then deflected a last-ditch German air raid on Paris by warning that the bombs would land on his own men, killing more Germans than French. After the fall of the city, Choltitz was arraigned on charges of treason. He had enough friends in the military to delay his trial – and the threatened murder of his family – until the war had ended.

I don’t know whether Choltitz ever made the return visit to which Tattinger invited him.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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