Saturday, 9 January 2010

D-Day

This was the Antony Beevor one. And, after waiting for over a month for the library to pass it on to me, I was disappointed. I think the person on the waiting list after me will also be disappointed. It was a good book, don't get me wrong. But it was not as good as I'd heard it was supposed to be, and it certainly wasn't worth the excitement over the fact that it had finally got up to me.

I will give Antony Beevor his due. It was well written. It was, for the most part, quite readable. It did highlight certain aspects of the campaign that I was unaware of, most notably the high civilian casualties (apparently the Allies killed more French around the Normandy campaign (build up and during) than people were killed in the Blitz). There was also a highlighting of the problems of friendly fire, particularly in terms of air support bombing the wrong people. And I think I mentioned before that Beevor reckoned that unit casualties were higher in Normandy on both sides than they were on the Eastern Front.

However, there were a number of bad points too. The emphasis on friendly fire incidents got to the point where it was both tedious and you started to get the impression he thought the Allied soldiers and Air Forces went to Normandy with the sole intention of incompetently shooting each other, and it took away from the descriptions of the actual fighting. There was a huge focus on the inferiority of the British and American tanks, which also got tedious. Every time there was a mention of a Tiger (the German one), there was the reminder that 'this tank often accounted for three or four Shermans without getting destroyed. It had better armour and a longer range gun, so it could start shooting before the Shermans were within range'. As you can imagine, after the third or fourth time, it was rather irritating. The format of the book was also confusing. Chapter titles seemed to bear little to no relevance to what filled the chapter--they might relate to the first half, but then the author would move on to something else and not bother to change chapter. It got rather confusing to try and follow what was going on, particularly as there was some skipping about in terms of time and place. Beevor's attitude towards Montgommery seems to shift depending on what section of the narrative he's in--at times he seems to suggest that he's had an unfair bad press, at others that he completely deserved it. As the overall commander, Eisenhower gets surprisingly little mention. The use of different notation for Allied and German divisions (one was infantry, one was referred to as infantarrie, I'll let you work out which was which...) did solve a problem which I've sometimes had in working out which was which. However, that did not prevent the descriptions of Allied divisions sometimes becoming difficult to follow. This may have been because the generals kept getting moved about; in reality I suspect that it was a little bit more to do with the fact that despite the repeated emphasis on the failings of our tanks, there was no attempt to make sure that this part was repeated at least vaguely as a reminder of who was who. Perhaps a cast list would've been helpful?

Another point to keep in mind is that this book is not, despite it's title, mostly about D-Day. There is virtually no mention made of the intricate planning that took place before hand, and the actual events of D-Day make up a tiny fraction of the book. One thing I will say: I thought that Max Hastings was being overly harsh towards Typhoon pilots in his book Overlord; Beevor does confirm these statistics, but makes the point that they were quite effective against unarmoured supply vehicles and that tank crews would often leap out of their tanks and hide when Typhoons attacked. He agrees with what I would say, in that over-exaggerated claims don't mean that the attacks were ineffective. You're always going to get exaggerated claims because, let's face it, if you're in a hostile area flying low to the ground are you really going to turn round and check to make absolutely certain that you did destroy that tank?

I suspect I sound overly critical of this book. Perhaps I am being so, but I get annoyed at books that are overrated, particularly when the inside jacket claims they're basically the best, most comprehensive coverage of the battles in Normandy you're gonna find. It wasn't. I don't suppose that in a one volume book you're likely to get all that close to comprehensive, because there was a lot of fighting. There was massive over-emphasis upon the shooting of prisoners, and whether one side or the other engaged in it more (I got the impression that if you became a POW, particularly if you were taken by the Allies, you were more likely to get shot than to survive, which I'm pretty certain was not the case). There was, it began to seem, before every battle a discussion of how many men were casualties because they got bombed by their own side. I'm not saying it's not worth knowing that there were friendly fire casualties; I am saying that surely the actual fighting deserves more emphasis than friendly fire. There were more statistics relating to friendly fire incidents than there were relating to how many were killed fighting the Germans, or at least it felt that way. There was a lot about the miseries of being a civilian, and you were subjected to the same rant about this every time a village was liberated. The poor French were torn between welcoming their liberators and viewing with horror the devastation caused to their country. Fine. But that's not necessary to be put in every time a village is liberated. We're not that stupid.

I'm starting to rant a bit now, I apologise. This book was not completely awful. There were some interesting segments. Unfortunately, it suffered from poor organisation and over-emphasis on certain aspects which, while worth a mention, are not the main part of the story. There was also little about the German perspective, though there was a 'chapter' on the bomb plot to kill Hitler. Fine, but a good portion of the chapter was not about that, and while there's a good amount on what it was like to be an Allied soldier (if you were in a tank at least), there was little of this on the German side. It did show the improvements made during the campaign, which was a little lacking from Max Hastings book. However, on the whole, Overlord is a much better book than D-Day. Neither, however, actually talk all that much about D-Day itself and focus more upon the campaign in Normandy. I have yet to find a book that's just about D-Day, though I have one by Stephen Ambrose to read, which I suspect might be.

If you see this book on the shelf in the library, it is fairly good. It might be worth reading, just for the odd insight here and there. However, I wouldn't recommend you go out and buy it. It's not that good.

1 comment:

military-history-books said...

Good review, but I thought the book was better than suggested.