Colleville-sur-Mer is a picturesque village in northern France, blessed with a lovely beach on the English Channel. Take the winding road down to the water just after sunrise on a nice summer day, and chances are good you will find riders exercising their horses along the surf. Go a few hours later, and the place will be filled with families camped out in the sun, enjoying the sand and water. I’ve seen it that way myself. But for me, a far different scene is never far from my mind. In the early dawn of June 6, 1944, it was a place of death and sacrifice. For the beach below Colleville was the center of a place known to me and my companions as Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of all the beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day.”
The author of these sentences is 98-year-old veteran Ray Lambert, one of the last survivors of that momentous military campaign, whose first-person account, Every Man a Hero: A Memoir of D-Day, the First Wave at Omaha Beach, and a World at War (Morrow, May), coauthored with Jim DeFelice, is among the most memorable of the many new books being published in connection with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Lambert was just 23 years old that day and had already been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He was in charge of a medical battalion that saved dozens of lives on Omaha Beach. But for years Lambert had kept his memories private, both out of a sense that he was only an ordinary man doing the job he was supposed to do, and from a feeling that he’d moved on with his life after World War II. Recently, Lambert realized that as one of the “last men left who was there,” he had an obligation to share his story with the world.
Lambert’s heartfelt memoir presents what veteran historian James Holland terms “the perspective of those at the coal-face of battle” in his major new history, Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Battle for France (Atlantic Monthly, June). He writes that such perspectives, along with those from the highest levels of command, have contributed to a distorted picture of what occurred, noting, reasonably enough, that most troops on the ground “knew very little about their enemy or what was going on around them.” Holland maintains that far less has been told about the “mechanics of war—the level that allows warring sides to operate and maintain their overall objectives—their strategy—and to fight at the tactical level in a way best suited to their war aims.” He remedies that with a comprehensive look at less sensational or dramatic aspects, such as the economics and logistics of war.
Holland writes, “Historians can argue all they like about the tactical merits or otherwise of the Allied war machine, but it is important to remember that by D-Day the Allies were fighting a totally industrialized and highly technological war so gargantuan that today it almost makes one’s head hurt trying to absorbs its scale and complexity.” Holland’s opus received a starred review from PW, which praised the author’s “meticulous research and clear-eyed view of the big picture.”
Over 20 years of research and interviews with D-Day survivors informs Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II (Dutton Caliber, out now). PW’s review described The First Wave as a “fast-paced tale” that successfully evokes “the chaos, courage, and carnage of combat, vividly portraying the bravery of the ‘greatest generation.’ ” Kershaw spent the week of April 30 through May 6 providing tours on the beaches in Normandy in conjunction with the World War II Museum in Quineville, France. (For more on Kershaw, see our q&a with him.)
Nigel Hamilton concludes his three-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt with War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey D-Day to Yalta, 1943–1945 (HMH, May), which takes readers inside the high-stakes, high-level discussions preceding the Normandy invasion. Among its highlights is Hamilton’s narrative of the 1943 Tehran meetings, during which Roosevelt overcame Winston Churchill’s reservations about the Allied war strategy; Hamilton’s revisionist account, based on previously unpublished documents and interviews, is squarely at odds with Churchill’s own version of events, as portrayed in his memoirs.
The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff (Dutton, out now) by Phillips Payson O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, offers another behind-the-scenes look at the Tehran meetings and many other high-level conferences.
Readers interested in the challenges of coordinating different Allied forces, including both ground and air forces, will be intrigued by Stephen Alan Bourque’s Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Naval Institute, out now), which the publisher has labeled “an important rethinking of the Normandy war narrative.” Bourque, professor emeritus of history at the U.S. Army’s General Staff College, focuses on the Allied air war against France in 1944, when General Eisenhower took control of all American, British, and Canadian air units. Instead of using them strategically to attack targets deep in Germany, Eisenhower deployed Allied bombers as long-range artillery, targeting “the destruction of bridges, rail centers, ports, military installations, and even French towns with the intent of preventing German reinforcements from interfering” with the D-Day landings. Bourque details the eye-opening toll of this approach, which killed more than 60,000 French civilians, a fact that he asserts must be considered in any historical account of the Normandy invasion.
In Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France (Oxford Univ., out now), military historian Peter Caddick-Adams, who has been giving tours of the Normandy beaches for over 20 years, complements Holland’s efforts to recount the logistics of the campaign. Caddick-Adams also offers an in-depth, rigorously researched look at Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s never-completed plans to make Europe impregnable to assaults such as the D-Day invasion. In addition, this lengthy study examines the role Allied intelligence played in misleading Hitler and his commanders.
Spy vs. Spy
Covert operations are at the center of Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France by Daniel C. Guiet and Timothy K. Smith (Penguin, June). Guiet’s father, Jean Claude Guiet, was an American agent assigned to occupied France during WWII. The senior Guiet was the only American on a British Special Operations Executive commando team that had been dropped behind enemy lines in an effort to keep Nazi tanks away from Normandy after D-Day.
More clandestine plotting is recounted in Giles Milton’s Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day (Holt, out now). Milton, best known for Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, depicts the crucial day “through the tales of survivors from all sides.” Milton’s diverse cast of characters include a teenage Allied conscript, “the crack German defender, the French resistance fighter... the military architects at Supreme Headquarters, a young schoolboy in the Wehrmacht’s bunkers, a French butcher’s daughter, a Panzer Commander’s wife, and the chauffeur to the General Staff.” Contrary to Holland and Caddick-Adams, Milton concludes that the so-called longest day was “less a masterpiece of strategic planning than a day on which thousands of scared young men found themselves staring death in the face.”
In Codeword Overlord: Axis Espionage and the D-Day Landings (History Press, Sept.), Nigel West, who has spent the past 14 years at the Counterintelligence Centre in Washington, D.C., provides what his publisher terms “the full, true story of Axis intelligence and how they affected the events of the D-Day landings.” West believes that prior depictions of the German army as incompetent and corrupt are mistaken; drawing upon recently declassified documents, he argues that despite the failure to thwart the Normandy invasion, the Axis had “a sophisticated, integrated intelligence system that was supremely conscious of the Allies’ counter-intelligence schemes.”
Other volumes examining D-Day through a spyglass include Sarah Rose’s D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II (Crown, out now); Bletchley Park historian David Kenyon’s Bletchley Park and D-Day (Yale Univ., out now); and ex–Royal Marine commando David Abrutat’s Vanguard: The True Stories of the Reconnaissance and Intelligence Missions Behind D-Day (Naval Institute, June).
The German View
In Countdown to D-Day: The German Perspective (Casemate, out now), Peter Margaritis recounts the German High Command’s daily activities as it attempted to thwart the Normandy invasion.
William A. Barry also looks at D-Day from the German point of view in his provocative Rommel Was Right: German Panzers in Normandy and the What-Ifs of D-Day (Stackpole, July). Barry, a Vietnam veteran and a national fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, tackles “one of the most tantalizing what-ifs for military historians and armchair generals—how the Germans positioned their armored forces to meet the Allied invasion of June 6, 1944.” Rommel had argued for placing the Panzers as close to the beaches as possible, but other German generals insisted that the central Panzer reserve forces be concealed near Paris. Hitler compromised, but Barry looks into what might have transpired if Rommel’s position had been fully implemented.
Jonathan Trigg offers a counter to Barry’s speculations in D-Day Through German Eyes: How the Wehrmacht Lost France (Amberley, out now). Trigg, who makes extensive use of firsthand reports from German war veterans, believes that military historical analysis of what happened should focus on divisional and regimental commanders, the men “upon whom the real business of trying to defeat the invasion fell.” He also takes a contrarian position concerning the performance of the German army, which despite being outnumbered and outgunned, somehow “held Normandy for ten whole weeks against the greatest seaborne invasion force ever assembled, and occasionally even came close to defeating it.”
French military historian Yves Buffetaut further explores the alignment of German divisions at the time of the invasion in The Waffen-SS in Normandy. July 1944: Operations Goodwood and Cobra (Casemate, June).
Two titles concentrate on the roles specific demographic groups played in the Allied assault. In Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes (Amberley, out now in trade paper), journalist Linda Hervieux recounts the story of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit of African-American soldiers assigned to man a curtain of armed balloons meant to deter enemy aircraft. Their valor was not enough to overcome endemic American racism, however. Although one member of the 320th was nominated for the Medal of Honor, he never received it, because the nation’s highest decoration was not given to black soldiers at the time. Hervieux conducted dozens of interviews with surviving members of the 320th and their families in researching this aspect of D-Day.
Merion Press’s A Bloody Dawn: The Irish at D-Day (out now) by retired Lt. Col. Dan Harvey focuses on the thousands of Irish and members of the Irish diaspora who were among the Allied units that landed on the Normandy beaches.
Three other books present the events of June 1944 through the eyes of individuals who took very different paths to the beaches of Normandy. To War Without Arms: The D-Day Diary of an Army Chaplain (Sabrestorm, out now), edited by Simon Trew, a faculty member of the war studies department at the U.K.’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, contains the wartime journal of Rev. Alexander Reynolds. Reynolds was one of hundreds of military chaplains who went to war entirely unarmed. He helped bury around 200 British and German soldiers who died during the D-Day assault.
German Jew Werner T. Angress had a more tortuous path to that battlefield, as well as away from it. In Witness to the Storm: A Jewish Journey from Nazi Berlin to the 82nd Airborne, 1920–1945 (Indiana Univ., out now), Angress describes his childhood as an enthusiastically patriotic German-Jewish boy whose family eventually fled to Amsterdam to escape Nazi persecution. He ended up in the U.S. and, seven years after he left Germany, was one of the men who parachuted into German-occupied France with the 82nd Airborne Division. When he was captured behind enemy lines, Angress concealed his Jewish identity and became a prisoner of war. After he was freed by American forces, Angress served as a battlefield interrogator and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp. His heroism was honored with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and his postwar life, during which he taught history for over 25 years, began. Angress chose to retire to Berlin, where he taught schoolchildren what it was like to grow up Jewish under the Third Reich.
Leslie Young’s experiences are recounted in his son Nicholas Young’s Escaping with His Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond (Pen & Sword, Sept.). Young survived the Allied retreat to and evacuation from Dunkirk, France; volunteered for a new commando unit; and was taken prisoner in Tunisia, where he escaped and spent six months on the run. When Young finally made it home to England, he immediately signed up for the invasion of Normandy, where he was wounded.
Tactics and Technology
Readers interested in the prosaic details of what was involved in preparing for and carrying out the D-Day operations will find their needs met by The D-Day Training Pocket Manual 1944 (Casemate, out now). This volume contains excerpts from Allied manuals used in the preparation for D-Day, including instructions concerning amphibious landings and managing beachheads; pathfinder, paratrooper, and glider pilot training; and infantry and armored fighting in mixed woodland and pasture terrain.
The technical aspects of the engagement are detailed in D-Day Operations Manual: ‘Neptune,’ ‘Overlord’ and the Battle of Normandy by Jonathan Falconer and Stuart Watson (Haynes, May). Falconer and Watson describe the ways in which technology and innovation played crucial roles—including gliders that could carry tanks, the temporary portable harbors known as Mulberry harbors, and radio and radar aids used to correctly direct landing seacraft and aircraft—and how these devices were developed.
A New ‘Longest Day’
Cornelius Ryan’s classic book The Longest Day was the entry point for many interested in this chapter of the war. This month, Library of America published a deluxe reprint, coupled with Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. The new edition comes complete with bonus features—17 of Ryan’s wartime dispatches for the London Daily Telegraph, including his eyewitness account of D-Day as seen from an American bomber, and samples of the research questionnaires he sent to veterans. Ryan’s popular treatment, originally published in 1959, is put in perspective through an introduction by Rick Atkinson, author of the Liberation Trilogy about WWII.
Below, more on D-Day books.