Un­happy land­ings

Go­ing once more onto the beach with pri­vate per­spec­tives on D-Day.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - by GREG DIXON

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)

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