First Published by the Economist May 28 2009
For Original Article: D-Day and the Normandy Landings…
MOST of the young soldiers pictured above are now dead. The battles they fought in Normandy, France, are fading into history and acquiring the patina of Verdun, Gettysburg and Waterloo. This new historical distance gives Antony Beevor, who made his name with his 1998 bestseller, “Stalingrad”, the freedom to explore without inhibition the most controversial questions posed by the campaign that opened with the storming of the French beaches on June 6th 1944. It is a freedom he exploits to the full in his new book, “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy”.
The first issue Mr Beevor tackles is the courage of the German troops. Many wondered what the Germans would think when they caught sight of the allied armada, the largest fleet that had ever put to sea. Nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft were escorted by six battleships, four monitors, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers and 152 escort vessels, while 277 minesweepers cleared channels ahead of them.
The Germans did not flinch. Their doggedness earned them the “bitter admiration” of the allied forces as they fought their bloody way through Normandy to liberate Paris. Major-General Raymond Barton, the commander of the American fourth division, urged his unit commanders to tell their men: “We have got to fight for our country just as hard as the Germans are fighting for theirs.” Only the guts of their soldiers, Barton said, kept the Germans in the war. “We outnumber them ten to one in infantry, 50 to one in artillery and an infinite number in the air.”
Nonetheless, Mr Beevor believes that military analysts like Sir Basil Liddell Hart are unduly harsh when they criticise a “reluctance to make sacrifices” on the allied side. The “essentially civilian soldiers” of a democracy, he argues, could not be expected to show the same level of commitment as indoctrinated German soldiers convinced that they were fighting to defend their country from annihilation.
Mr Beevor moves on to even more delicate ground when he explores the disregard of the allies for the property and lives of French civilians. In the Normandy campaign the Americans and British sought to minimise their casualties by bombing places to smithereens before their soldiers went in. Asked how it felt under the bombardment, one elderly survivor in the town of Caen replied: “Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match.” As a consequence of this tactic, 70,000 French civilians were killed by allied action in the war, more than the number of British killed by German bombing.
The record of the French resistance is also examined critically. George Patton, the bellicose American general nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts” by his adoring soldiers, described its performance as “better than expected and less than advertised”. But Mr Beevor shows that the contribution of the resistance was considerable, especially in Brittany where its members loaded ammunition, cleared snipers, secured bridges, provided intelligence and harassed Germans at every turn.
By contrast, French mobs in liberated towns behaved appallingly badly. In the épuration sauvage, or unofficial purges, at least 14,000 alleged collaborators were killed. In Brittany, one-third of them were women. French people as well as allied troops were sickened by the treatment meted out to those accused of collaboration horizontale. After undergoing the humiliation of having their heads shaved they were paraded through the streets, occasionally to the sound of drums, as if France was re-enacting the Reign of Terror in the French revolution. Some were daubed with tar, others stripped half naked, many painted with swastikas.
Quite simply, Mr Beevor concludes, these young women were the easiest scapegoats, particularly for men who wished to hide their own lack of resistance credentials. The explosive growth in numbers in the French resistance was, of course, incredible. Village boys who had flirted and danced their way through the German occupation suddenly appeared with a brassard and a submachinegun.
Against this backdrop, the triumphalism of some of the top brass on the allied side during the campaign now sounds callous. Take, for instance, the boast of General Sir Bernard (later Lord) Montgomery: “The victory has been definite, complete and decisive. ‘The Lord mighty in battle’ has given us the victory.”