Normandy '44: James Holland on World War II's Pivotal Campaign
In this informed and illuminating essay James Holland, one of the country's bestselling authorities on the Second World War and author of Normandy '44, lays to rest many of the misconceptions about the D-Day landings and the brutal Normandy campaign that followed.
The D-Day story is probably the part of the Second World War that is most familiar to people here in the west. It has been the subject of numerous films, dramas, television documentaries and, of course, books. Yet it is this familiarity that has allowed distortions to infiltrate the narrative and for Hollywood and tourism to dictate the story rather than the broader, more nuanced reality of what happened seventy-five years ago.
For many, D-Day is about the American paratroopers of Band of Brothers, or the carnage of ‘Bloody Omaha’ that so memorably opened the first twenty minutes of the film, Saving Private Ryan. In Normandy itself, it is perhaps no surprise that the most popular tourist spots also relate to the American experience of D-Day. Yet, D-Day was just one day in a long 77-day campaign and involved substantially more British warships, landing craft, aircraft and even troops than American.
Even those with a fairly clear grasp of the story have been fed a somewhat incomplete picture. War is understood to be fought on three levels: the strategic, which refers to the overall aims; the tactical, which applies to the actual fighting, and the coal-face of war; and the operational - the level that enables a side to achieve its strategic goals in the tactical manner of its choosing. Perhaps more simply, the operational level is the nuts and bolts of war: factories, shipping, supplies and the support for those at the front line. However, for the past fifty years or so, this operational level has been given scant regard in the narrative of the Second World War and while superb research has been done to further enlighten what was going on at the command level and in demonstrating the personal experience of the fighting, there has been a huge gap with the operational level and which all too often has fallen back on assumed knowledge, much of which can often be found to be at best lacking nuance and at worst completely wrong.
Standing back and looking at the events of seventy-five years ago afresh has been a fascinating and revealing experience and one in which the Allies - and that includes the British and Canadians - emerge with reputations massively enhanced, while that of the Germans is dramatically diminished. The Allies were fighting ‘big war’ - a kind of warfare that was operationally heavy, dependent on a very long supply chain and an impressive maintenance of the front line. It was one in which ‘steel not flesh’ was the mantra: they were using industrialisation, global reach, mechanisation and modern science and technology to limit the number of those men at the sharp end of battle to an absolute minimum, and doing so very effectively. It was also a war fought through a balance between air, land and naval warfare that was never easy to co-ordinate and execute but which, for the most part, was achieved successfully. It might surprise many to know that in Normandy, only 14% of British and Canadian forces were infantry and just 7% were in tanks; but that 43% were service troops - those supporting the fighting element.
Organising air, land and naval forces as well as large numbers of guns, engineers, tanks and infantry into a single offensive operation, did, however, take time. It is one of the reasons why Allied forces have been accused of slow progress in Normandy. These, though, were the constraints of materiel wealth; criticism should be tempered by the knowledge that the Allies were none the less fighting a far more efficient and effective war than any other combatants.
The Germans, on the other hand, despite having some fine weapons and a number of motivated and disciplined men, were fighting a battle they were unable to support materially. They had no naval help to speak of and very little support from the Luftwaffe, while in contrast, Allied air forces made their lives hell. Their chain of command was muddled and often commanders were at loggerheads. Hitler’s interference was disastrous. Despite a narrative that has been consistently impressed by German tactical chutzpah, there was less to organise - their materiel poverty gave them freedom to manoeuvre comparatively swiftly. It was, however, borne from weakness, not strength.
Despite this, the Germans certainly had some fine units in Normandy. Nowhere in the war was there a greater density of panzer divisions - Germany’s best - and yet these were systematically ground down and destroyed by the greater firepower and battle organisation of the Allies - and specifically with regard to the panzer divisions, that of the British and Canadians. This new book, I hope, addresses many of these misconceptions and casts not just D-Day, but the entire campaign, in a wider and more balanced context.