Going once more onto the beach with private perspectives on D-Day.
The New Zealand poet Denis Glover took his gramophone to war. Indeed, on the wild, grey morning of June 6, 1944 – D-Day – as the then Royal Navy lieutenant commanded a landing craft through a choppy English Channel, the mad bugger used that gramophone to play “the robust music of an English hunting song” to the seasick British commandos he was about to drop on a beach in Normandy.
Music hath charms to provoke the savage breast, perhaps? In any case, this extraordinary scene – unexpected, funny, and arriving on page 276 – is just the sort of detail occupying nearly every paragraph of Giles Milton’s unexpectedly cracking, sometimes funny, often tragic and entirely redolent new book, D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story.
Of course, you’ll be wondering: why in the world do we need yet another history of what’s always billed as “the greatest invasion in history”? I’m entirely inclined to agree.
Having waded through, say, Max Hastings’ Overlord (I have) or Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (I haven’t) – and those two authors are the virtuosi of boots-on-the-ground World War II narrative history – you will probably be thinking you’ve read the last well-crafted word on the matter. And perhaps you have.
Yet Milton, whose past popular histories have included White Gold and Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, revitalises this muchtold war story.
Much of this is because he has mostly chosen to eschew the big picture – apart from crisp scene-setting openers for each chapter – and tell this monumental story through the eyes of a few hundred of the hundreds of thousands involved in the first day of Operation Overlord.
Some of it is, unsurprisingly, grim stuff. On Omaha beach, a young, untried American GI is “showered with wood, metal and body parts”. Meanwhile, an untried German conscript on the bluffs above him fires his machine gun, killing at will other teenagers with no place to hide: “It was so easy to kill; it took so little energy. My mind rationalised it: this is war.”
And war is hell. However, Milton finds humanity and even humour in the detail. We meet a commando who trash talks German general Erwin Rommel. There is the paratrooper who hands his chocolate ration to two petrified French kids, the first liberated in occupied France. There is the German officer who, after a boozy night trying to seduce his French girlfriend, finds himself in the hands of British airborne soldiers.
“He had been deprived of his wine, his woman and his car, along with his dignity,” writes Milton. “He started shouting in perfect English ‘that he had lost his honour and demanded to be shot’. This wish was politely declined … [but] when [the British] went to search the Mercedes, they found it was a staff officer’s car unlike any other, filled with wine glasses, dinner plates and cosmetics, as well as a neatly wrapped parcel of French lingerie.”
Some may find the brisk skipping from soldier to soldier and scene to scene, not to mention the lack of detailed analysis of the wider action, makes this once over lightly. I think it’s best to see Milton’s D-Day as more war movie than war history. This is guts and glory as unashamed entertainment, take it or leave it.
Some of it is grim stuff. A young GI is showered with wood, metal and body parts.”
Idiosyncratic: Giles Milton sifts through the shrapnel of “the greatest invasion in history”. Below, Denis Glover.
D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story, by Giles Milton(John Murray, $37.99)