Acclaimed British historian Anthony Beevor was in Toronto recently to talk about his new book, D-Day. Books editor Martin Levin spoke with him.
Martin Levin: Why another book on such a heavily covered subject, when authors such as Max Hastings and John Keegan have written so well on it?
Anthony Beevor: I tried to rely largely on contemporary material and less on the faulty memories of veterans who'd been interviewed so often. Also, my books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin focused on the Eastern Front and I wanted to do a comparison with the Normandy campaign.
ML: Why do we have such a continuing fascination with the Second World War?
AB: In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the war's end, Britain was swamped with Second World War books. They didn't sell, partly because the 1980s was a less deferential time, with the Cold War and old loyalties ending and globalization beginning, so dealing with the war was put off. I think it will take historians another 50 years to figure it out. Also, our expectations of history writing changed. The reason that Stalingrad took off was because it emphasized the influence of history on the individual.
ML: Could you give me an example of how you use individual stories in D-Day?
AB: Yes, it's history from below; you see the direct consequences of actions. A particularly affecting example from 1945: A German farmer's wife had fallen in love with a French PoW sent to work the farm while her husband was on the Eastern Front. After the war, she took a train to Paris to see him and was immediately arrested by French police.
ML: Something I learned from D-Day that I had not known was the devastating effect of the liberation on French civilians.
AB: No previous book on D-Day had really looked at the suffering of French civilians. Almost 20,000 were killed during the liberation of Normandy and many more injured. And this doesn't count the 15,000 killed during the advance bombing before June 6. Commanders were conned by the air force about the accuracy of bombing, which often ended by hitting our own soldiers. During Operation Cobra, U.S. planes bombed their own troops twice in two days.
ML: You describe Canadian soldiers as fighting extremely well and extremely bravely.
AB: Though Montgomery thought highly of Canadian army commander Guy Simonds, Canadian division commanders were not very good,. But the soldiers themselves certainly were and they pushed forward with speed when time was of the essence.
ML: Speaking of Montgomery, he does not come off very well in your book. Nor does de Gaulle.
AB: Both men were extraordinarily arrogant. De Gaulle showed a staggering lack of gratitude toward the Allies and refused to go to Britain for D-Day. Here's evidence of Monty's ego: Interrupted by a schoolboy's noise during a boring speech, Monty insisted on starting the whole thing over again.
ML: You also compare the performance of Allied and German soldiers, often to the detriment of the former.
AB: British soldiers were good at defence, not so much on the attack. Many were untested rookies and the majority never fired their guns. The elite German squads were not only battle-hardened but spurred on by Nazi ideology. But Allied elite units were their equals.
ML: Anyone who's seen Saving Private Ryan knows that the landing crafts often didn't get close enough to the beaches and that soldiers were either gunned down in the water or drowned. And that after one analyst, Capt. Scott-Bowden, had called the landing at Omaha Beach "a very formidable proposition indeed." What happened?
AB: Often, the landing crafts jammed on sandbars and the coxswains believed they'd already arrived. Nor had the Allies quite foreseen the navigational skill that would be required. As for drowning, basic gear weighed 60 pounds, plus 100 rounds of ammunition. At Omaha Beach, U.S. soldiers were so laden they had "leaden limbs."
ML: Given the emergence of Planet Google, do you think your form of highly researched, long-form narrative history is endangered?
AB: Yes. In the Iraq war, for instance, so much of the information is digitized and can easily be wiped out. That will make it very hard to write accurate histories. Also, there's a much greater opportunity for suppression of information before it can even be archived.