Friday 11 June 2010

Six Armies in Normandy

I've just finished reading Six Armies in Normandy by John Keegan. I picked up this copy as a bargain (£1.00) in a charity store while on Holiday at Easter. It's an old edition and thoroughly battered and well thumbed, but a cracking good read non-the-less. I have several other book on the Normandy campaign to read and this book seemed to me a good place to start.

The book starts from the Authors perspective. John Keegan was a young boy during the war years and his father worked for the school board as an inspector. When all the children were evacuated the family moved with them and Johns father continued his job in the relative peace of the English countryside. John was sheltered by this move (and by his parents desire to protect their son) from really feeling there was a war on at all. But one evening in June 1944 he became witness to the opening moves of the greatest invasion in history.

"... the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the garden, and as the roar grew I followed and stood between them awestruck at the constellation of red, green and yellow lights which rode across the heavens and streamed southwards towards the sea. It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed wave without intermission...."

The idea of a seaborne invasion of Fortress Europe was considered at an early stage in the US's involvement in the war. Initial proposals were for attempted landings as early as 1942/3 but were resisted primarily by Churchill and his generals who feared a result similar to the Dieppe Disaster in 1942. Important lessons were learned from this debacle and future invasion plans paid much more attention to all-arms cooperation. By Jun 6th 1944 a range of specialist forces and equipment (landing craft, gliders, paratroopers, naval artillery support and close air support) gave the allies a chance for victory that was not simply available to invasion planners in 1942 or 1943.

One of the great successes of the D-Day landings for instance, was the use of airborne troops to take and hold important objectives vital to the creation of an invasion foothold. Dropped behind the Atlantic Wall - and the vast fields of mines that Rommel had laid down - these troops would be surrounded, out gunned and outnumbered from the moment they landed. But the confusion they sowed amongst the German defenders , and the quality of the soldiers themselves, meant that most of their objectives were met. This despite the fact that many paratroopers were dropped too low, too fast and often outside their allotted landing zone.

Although, inevitably, the focus of this book is on D-Day itself it also looks beyond D+1 through to actions like Goodwood, Epsom and Cobra and the breakout. The story of the whole Normandy campaign is laid out and at the end comes an assessment of its success. In terms of military defeats inflicted upon Germany the Normandy campaign must rank as one of the greatest.

Like many works on D-Day and the Normandy Campaign it consists of hundreds of individual stories that are held together within the overall narrative of the campaign. As such it is not, and never could be, a completely accurate picture of this important battle. Where this book does succeed however is in capturing the flavor of the action. The reader is never bogged down in statistics and the individual stories of heroism and sacrifice remind us that ultimately the battle for Normandy was won by small groups of soldiers, one field at a time and one village at a time.

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