If there is any immortality to be won in war, then the men who fought across Normandy in the summer of 1944 will be celebrated for as long as those who struggled at Waterloo or the Somme. The scale of the battle was vast; the prize was the freedom of Western Europe. On those points, there is little argument. But as soon as writers at tempt to describe exactly what happened in the fields and hedgerows of northeastern France, a kind of battle fog descends on the
entire subject. This is evident in the new wave of books appearing this spring as part of the 50th anniversary of the campaign. From soldiers’ memoirs to weighty studies by established historians, these accounts serve up a daunting mass of information. And while agreeing on much, the books frequently collide on matters of emphasis and interpretation. Were the Germans better fighters than the Allies?
Was it the Canadians’ fault that half the German army escaped encirclement at Falaise? The debate will probably rage on for decades.
D-Day, The Climactic Battle of World War II (Distican, 666 pages, $38.50) by American historian Stephen Ambrose is the most ambitious of the
new books—the one that bridges the immense gap between the aims of generals and the experience of the ordinary soldier. Ambrose’s epic has a definite pro-American bias, since he tends to lionize the U.S. commander of the Allied invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (the subject of no less than five biographies by Ambrose) and praise the abilities of the American fighting man. At the same time, he claims that British officers and soldiers too frequently broke off their attacks and made tea. But, unlike some historians, Ambrose at least gives credit to the Canadians for being there, generously acknowledging that certain Canadian
A new crop of D-Day books offers some vivid conflicts
units were practically the only ones to reach their D-Day objectives.
Ambrose’s writing is workmanlike, at times clumsy, but he has embroidered his account of the preparations for the landings with some fascinating detail. He relates how the Allied planners, hoping to augment their aerial photographs of the French coast, asked British people who had holidayed in France to send postcards detailing the layout of cities, towns and beaches: 30,000 arrived in the first post, followed by an eventual 10 million.
In the end, the meticulous planning paid off. Yet one of the principal impressions left by Ambrose’s book is how much went tragically wrong in the midst of the D-Day success. Hundreds of troopcarrying gliders crashed in fields whose hedge-lined perimeters had not been properly taken into account. Landing craft dropped off heavily laden men in deep water, where they promptly drowned. And in perhaps the biggest failure of the day, bombers and naval guns were unable to take out the German defences on the cliffs above Omaha beach. The Germans poured down a murderous fire on the American attackers. The landing looked like a
disaster, until individual noncommissioned officers and enlisted men took the initiative and fought their way off the corpse-piled beach. Ambrose makes their heroic struggle the main focus of D-Day. Based on interviews with scores of veterans, his rivetting account lends weight to his contention—many Allied historians disagree with him—that Allied soldiers could fight every bit as well as their German opponents.
Battle Diary: From D-Day and Normandy to the Zuider Zee and VE (Dundurn, 192 pages, $22.99, $16.99 paperback) is the memoir of one of the 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops who, by the close of that first day, had established a beachhead. Charles Martin, a former sergeant major in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, offers up an unapologetically personal book. His story (told with writer Roy Whitsed) unfolds as if the entire campaign in Normandy and Holland took place between Martin’s regiment and a few hundred Germans on the other side. Yet, this is exactly how war appears to the infantrymen—a perspective that lends Martin’s book a freshness and excitement missing from more scholarly accounts. Battle Diary answers the question that most people would like to ask a veteran: what was it really like? He evokes the charged, strangely emotionless moments of high danger, as well as touching eloquently on the quieter interludes, when the men of the Queen’s Own indulged their constructive, and self-protective, instincts by building the most elaborate and comfortable slit-trenches they could.
Often Martin’s versions of major battles are quite different from the antiseptic views of the historians. The latter describe the struggle for Quesnay Wood in terms of a major advance by Canadian armored vehicles on dug-in German positions. Martin writes of none of this. What he remembers is crawling with his patrol to the very edge of the German-held woods and—with almost no ammunition left—sheltering under the firing gun of a German tank. “Being up close to a tank is not so
bad,” Martin comments dryly. “They can’t see what’s under them.”
The D-Day Atlas: The Definitive Account of the Allied Invasion of Normandy (Facts on File, 143 pages,
$19.95) by British writer John Man puts forward the controversial and slighting view that Martin and his countrymen were not nearly so aggressive as Battle Diary suggests. In explaining the agonizing slowness of the Allies in cutting off the German retreat at Falaise, Man puts part of the blame on the Canadians who, he maintains, “were notoriously sluggish in their attacks.” Oddly, Man makes his claim just after describing a Canadian armored advance that quickly sliced eight kilometres into German lines—and which Man himself describes as “brilliantly original.” Yet, despite its points of controversy, D-Day Atlas, with its colorful maps, fine
photographs and clear, energetic text, creates a stimulating overview of the Normandy battlefields.
Invasion Without Tears: The Story of Canada’s Top-Scoring Spitfire Wing in Europe During the Second World War (Random House, 240 pages, $28) by veteran RCAF officer Monty Berger and writer Brian Jeffrey Street offers a more personal, behind-the-lines account of the campaign in northeastern Europe. Berger served as senior intelligence officer with a highly decorated Spitfire wing. His main job was to brief and debrief pilots. As a result, he never knew combat firsthand, and so his book generally lacks the powerful immediacy of Martin’s. As well, it relies too often on mere lists of the Spitfire pilots’ accomplishments (so many planes or trains shot up on such and such a day) and sounds as if it were written more to prod the memories of veterans than to appeal to the general public. Yet it also contains passages of great interest, including a description, based on an interview with a pilot, of a battle between Canadian Spitfires and one of Hitler’s new jet fighters.
Bloody Victory: Canadians and the D-Day Campaign, 1944
(Lester, 240 pages, $19.95), by Canadian historians J. L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton, takes advantage of the avalanche of photographs that flowed from the Second World War. This story of the
Normandy campaign (reprinted in trade paperback, with updates, from a 1984 edition) offers images of Canadian infantry carrying bicycles ashore on D-Day (most were soon abandoned), Canadian Sherman tanks roaring to the attack and Canadian graves, hundreds of them, in a French cemetery. As in their previous books on the two world wars, Granatstein and Morton provide a text that manages to be gracefully objective, informative and appreciative—in an entirely unsentimental way—of the Canadian soldiers who fought for freedom in France. As they write in their preface: “Fifty years later, remembering is the least of the obligations we owe them.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.