Ex­em­plary ac­count of front­line fight­ing

The Herald Magazine - - 68 - Re­view by Trevor Royle

IT takes guts and a cer­tain chutz­pah for a writer to take on D-Day and hope to say any­thing new or pre­vi­ously un­re­vealed. The field is al­ready crowded with ac­counts by some of our great­est mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans – Anthony Beevor, Max

Hast­ings and John Kee­gan to name but a few – and it would ap­pear un­likely that the archives will yield much star­tling new ev­i­dence. But Giles Mil­ton is no or­di­nary writer. Not only is he as­ton­ish­ingly pro­lific, with a host of nov­els, chil­dren’s books and works of non-fiction to his credit, he is also an eru­dite en­thu­si­ast and that pas­sion for his sub­ject in­forms ev­ery­thing he writes, in­clud­ing his lat­est book.

So, what has Mil­ton brought to the party? As it turns out, quite a lot. The sole sub­ject of this book is D-Day, the largest am­phibi­ous land­ing in his­tory which took place on June 6, 1944, and which in­volved 156,000 men, 7,000 ships and 20,000 ar­moured ve­hi­cles and on whose suc­cess de­pended the out­come of the Sec­ond World War. The equa­tion was quite simple: get those as­sets onto French soil and se­cure what had been won and the Ger­mans would be pushed onto the back foot, per­haps never to re­cover. Fail to gain a foothold and re­treat, and the war would con­tinue, if not for ever then at least un­til the Sovi­ets broke the Ger­mans on the East­ern Front or both sides sued for peace. It was as des­per­ate and clear-cut as that, and it pro­vides Mil­ton with his start­ing and fin­ish­ing point.

D-Day’s story has been told many times be­fore, most no­tably by Cor­nelius Ryan in his ground-break­ing book The Long­est Day, which is given due ac­knowl­edg­ment, but Mil­ton has taken the nar­ra­tive sev­eral stages fur­ther by giv­ing voice to pre­vi­ously un­heard or for­got­ten char­ac­ters who also played a part in the fight­ing. Th­ese are not the Ham­lets of the ac­tion but at­ten­dant lords “to swell a progress, start a scene or two” and in Mil­ton’s hands they are cen­tral to the story he wants to tell.

The cast in­cludes peo­ple like 19-year-old Elsie Camp­bell, who worked as a plot­ter at Al­lied head­quar­ters at Fort South­wick, near Portsmouth, and who re­mem­bered the dis­gust­ing co­coa laced with fat from corned beef cans to give added sus­te­nance and the cu­ri­ous half-light that forced fel­low work­ers to turn to sun-ray lamps to rid their skin of the pal­lor from work­ing un­der­ground. Or what about Ir­m­gard Meyer, whose hus­band Hu­bert served in the 12th SS Panzer Di­vi­sion and was sum­moned from Ger­many to be with him in Nor­mandy be­cause all leave had been can­celled? She had no dif­fi­culty obey­ing the or­der for the good rea­son that “nei­ther of us knew whether we would meet each other again”. Some of the gloss was taken off the adventure when she dis­cov­ered that ev­ery­one had to live in the same chateau and “we had con­stantly to make con­ver­sa­tion with other peo­ple in the evenings”.

Or what about the case of the dash­ing Guil­laume Mer­cader, a cham­pion cy­clist who used his local celebrity to sup­port his other role as a mem­ber of the French re­sis­tance. Hav­ing won the trust of the local Gestapo, he per­suaded them to use the out-of-bounds coastal road for his train­ing rides, all the while not­ing the po­si­tion of ev­ery pill­box, bunker and ma­chine-gun po­si­tion. Mil­ton makes good use of his story, even to the point of not­ing that “Mer­cader was the only spy in his­tory to gather in­tel­li­gence from the sad­dle of a La Perle rac­ing bi­cy­cle, dressed in light­weight shorts and a skintight jersey”. Other than for cy­cling en­thu­si­asts, this may be a case of too much in­for­ma­tion, but it is in­dica­tive of the sense of pur­pose which Mil­ton has brought to his task.

By tak­ing his ev­i­dence from those out­side the lead­er­ship cir­cles on both sides, the nar­ra­tive is given added sub­stance, but the wider pic­ture has not been ig­nored. Far from it: although this has not been con­ceived as a mil­i­tary his­tory, Mil­ton has put the story in con­text by care­fully lay­ing bare the events that shaped D-Day. Right up to the last minute, un­cer­tain weather in the English Chan­nel placed a ques­tion mark over the pre­cise tim­ing of the Al­lied in­va­sion. Gen­eral Bernard Mont­gomery, the land forces com­man­der, wanted to keep to the agreed date, June 5, but was rightly over­ruled by his Amer­i­can su­pe­rior Gen­eral Dwight D Eisen­hower, who in­sisted on a 24-hour post­pone­ment to await the out­come of the storm.

On the eve of the op­er­a­tion, Mont­gomery vis­ited of­fi­cers and men of D Com­pany, 2nd Ox­ford­shire and Buck­ing­hamshire Light In­fantry, 6th Air­borne Di­vi­sion who would be among the first Al­lied sol­diers to land in France, in their case in Horsa glid­ers. His words to Ma­jor John Howard, the of­fi­cer com­mand­ing, say much about Mont­gomery and his ap­proach to ca­su­al­ties in war­fare: “Bring back as many of the chaps as you can”. Hours later, Howard’s com­pany fired the first shots of the op­er­a­tion when they en­gaged Ger­man sen­tries guard­ing two bridges on the River Orne and Caen Canal shortly af­ter mid­night on June 6.

Although ca­su­al­ties would mount later in the day, both ob­jec­tives were se­cured with few losses. As it turned out, though, by the end of D-Day ca­su­al­ties were much lower than had been feared. De­spite en­coun­ter­ing fierce op­po­si­tion at Omaha Beach, the US First Army’s land­ing ground, all the Al­lied forces got safely ashore and the losses in per­son­nel at the end of that first day were fewer than 10,000 killed, wounded or miss­ing. At the same time more than 156,000 sol­diers were safely ashore, and it seemed that the Ger­mans had been taken com­pletely by sur­prise.

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