The D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, changed the course of the Second World War. The largest seaborne assault ever attempted, it landed 130,000 men on the shores of Hitler's Europe in just 24 hours and heralded the liberation of Western Europe.
Yet it could easily have been a catastrophe. The margin between defeat and victory was perilously thin, and had the Allies failed, it would not just have been a bloodbath but a tragedy for the peoples of Europe. No new invasion could have been attempted for at least another year, condemning them to endless months more of Nazi rule and SS terror. Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and other Western capitals would likely have been liberated by Stalin's Red Army instead of by Eisenhower's forces. The whole of Germany, instead of its largely impoverished eastern half, would have become part of the Soviet Empire. The Cold War's iron curtain would have followed the banks of the Rhine rather than those of the Elbe.
Yet, thanks to meticulous planning and execution, D-Day was a brilliant success. Within weeks, the Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle was walking down the Champs-Élysées in Paris amid wild jubilation. In September, Brussels witnessed similar scenes, and a month later Allied troops captured Aachen, the first German city to fall into their hands. \
No wonder that for decades historians have pored over D-Day, describing the battles, recounted the exploits of individual divisions, corps, regiments, battalions and platoons, analyzed the leadership of generals, debated Allied and German tactics and strategy, and endlessly refought the Normandy campaign with all the bountiful benefit of hindsight. The recent 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 saw a veritable tidal wave of books on the topic.
So it seems odd to write yet another book on the subject so soon. Antony Beevor, who made his name with a surprise bestseller on the battle of Stalingrad, is a military historian and former commissioned officer in the British army. Combined with his ability to write well and fluently, the magic of his Stalingrad book and its successor on the battle for Berlin was to weave strategic and tactical details with the experiences and memories of individual participants from generals to foot soldiers. This gave his narrative a refreshing human perspective that broke with the mould of most traditional military history. What made them especially successful, however, was that they provided the first really accessible popular accounts for a Western readership of the Eastern Front campaign.
Endlessly written about in the West, however, D-Day and the Normandy campaign are a different matter. Inevitably, there is a powerful sense of déjà vu about Beevor's tale, and despite all his best efforts, his book will mostly be enjoyed by those who like the minutiae of military campaigns. He is keen to remind us even before he begins of the difference in size between British and Canadian regiments on the one hand and U.S. and German regiments on the other. The almost 600 pages that follow tell us a great deal more of this kind.
Happily, however, his judgments are broad, and give no quarter. Above all, he is scathing about Montgomery's preposterous assertions that all in Normandy had gone to plan, his diplomatically disastrous bad-mouthing of his U.S. allies, and his alienation of the higher ranks of the Royal Air Force. In general, Beevor shows, the allies gravely underestimated the tenacity and discipline of Hitler's thoroughly indoctrinated troops. D-Day was a triumph. What followed was a dreadful battle of attrition. No one can be in doubt about the reason why after reading his account.
But the real merit of the book lies less in the detail than in two major points. For all his success in bringing home to Western readers the heroism of the Red Army, Beevor is refreshingly clear-eyed about the nature of the Soviet Union. For years after the war, Soviet propagandists sneered at D-Day and the Normandy campaign as a mere sideshow. It was on the Eastern Front, they insisted, that the real fighting took place and where Hitler was truly defeated. This is a refrain still echoed by some Western historians, as well.
Yet, as the author shows, the battle of Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the Eastern Front. During the three summer months of 1944, the Wehrmacht suffered nearly a quarter of a million casualties and lost another 200,000 men to Allied captivity, a rate of 2,300 men per division per month, which was higher than in the East. The Western allies sustained more than 200,000 casualties. The fighting was savage, and on both sides the killing of prisoners was much greater than generally recognized.
Yet of the casualties, the truly revealing story here is that of French civilians. Visits to the military cemeteries of Normandy, with their rows of crosses marking the final resting places of thousands of young men at the dawn of their manhood, are moving experiences. But they misleadingly tell only part of the story. For missing in these shrines are the graves of the thousands of civilians killed in the liberation of France.
Military historians too often forget that the battles they describe involve others than soldiers. Beevor reminds us that in Normandy almost 20,000 French civilians were killed during the campaign and a much larger number seriously wounded - and all this was on top of the 15,000 French citizens killed by the preparatory bombing. "It is a sobering thought," he writes, "that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing."
The flip side of the liberation was what he calls the "cruel martyrdom" of Normandy. Caen, its capital, was devastated by Allied bombing. Beevor thinks that this was stupid, counterproductive and close to a war crime. Perhaps so. But he also tells us that the Gestapo deliberately and systematically shot to death all its political prisoners in Caen on the day of the landings. Whatever their faults, such crimes against humanity were not on the Allied agenda.
All history, it has been said, is contemporary history, meaning that historians inevitably reflect the times in which they write. With Beevor's emphasis on the civilian as well as the military costs of liberation, and of the wreckage delivered to France's infrastructure, there are powerful echoes here of the war in Iraq. Perhaps, after all, another book on D-Day is not out of place.
David Stafford is the author of , among other books, Ten Days to D-Day (2004).