on 2 April 2008
This is a celebrated and controversial work of military history, and the book that made Carlo D'este's name as a historian. The study is of the battle in Normandy - the planning, the strategy and tactics, the battles themselves. The person who becomes the focus of attention in the book is Monty, being the commander responsible for the planning and in charge of the forces on the ground for the Normandy landings.
Why is this book controversial? I think it is less the book than Monty himself that is the controversy - any book about him is therefore controversial by association. Writing in the 1960's, opinion was very polarised about Monty (and probably not that different today). Typically you had his defenders in Britain, and many of his detractors in the US. The author made himself quite a few enemies by writing this book, by challenging comfortably held assumptions.
The author is sympathetic and understanding of the problems involved in planning the invasion, and of the character of the armies taking part in the fighting. Perhaps the army that has taken the most criticism over the Normandy battles has been the British - it was sluggish and unimaginative. The author digs deeper to understand why it behaved this way. A good example is that of the 7th armoured div, also known as the famous Desert Rats. Their performance during Normandy was little short of incompetent, and this was supposed to be the most veteran of the British units. Equally disappointing was the equally veteran 51st Highland div. Why? The author offers a number of possibilities, some of which do lead to some very interesting thoughts. Some of it was bad generalship - Britain had very few competent divisional or corps commanders (you do have to feel especially sorry for the Dominion soldiers). Some of it was ingrained culture - mobile warfare was something much of the British army just couldn't get its head around - although on the plus side, they knew what they were doing when it came to a tenacious defence. Some of the attacks mounted by the British army were close to farcical, with neither the officers nor the soldiers. Some came down to poor preparation - the veteran Desert Rats did not train with the Normandy bocage in mind. But most interestingly, the author suggests that perhaps the British soldier - veterans of Italy, Sicily, two years of desert war and even Dunkirk in some cases - maybe, just maybe these soldiers who had looked death in the face on many occasions were simply not prepared to stick their neck out any more.
The author shows that the Americans were dealt with more competently, though the breakout from Normandy by way of Operation Cobra was not some brilliant American masterstroke. It was well conducted and it is certainly doubtful that the British forces would have been able to manage a similar feat. The plan Monty had devised was certainly flexible enough to allow the breakout to appear wherever it proved useful. Much of the controversy surrounding the plan for Normandy was over the insistence of the Americans that Monty demonstrate the goals that the commanders should be looking to achieve along the way. Monty was against this personally, but produced one for them anyway. In the event Normandy proved harder fighting than expected, making the advance difficult. This is where the criticism of Monty has come in.
And it's Monty's plan that the author ultimately vindicates. Paris was taken ahead of schedule. American and British troops were stuck in the Bocage less because of a loss of competence or bad planning, but more to do with the strategy used by the Germans. Rather than gradually withdraw their forces over time, and preserve their formations as would be sensible, the Germans were ordered not to retreat. This meant that their units were bled dry, and then finally and suddenly disintegrated in the Falaise Gap. Despite the pressure on Monty from above (often deflected by Eisenhower), he kept his cool. He didn't replace the incompetent British commanders as the disruption would cause more harm than good - and besides, there wasn't anyone better to replace them. He didn't put pressure on Bradley when the Americans struggled to break out, telling him to take his time. Monty's undoing, as ever, was in his personality - vain, conceited, arrogant, difficult. A couple of ill-advised comments and he destroys his reputation overnight, and he did this time and time again in the war.
But the author shows Monty was indeed one of the few British generals who actually knew what he was doing in the war, knew the enemy, knew his own forces, and knew how to win. The British Army was ill-equipped in many senses of the word for the fighting in WW2, and it's probably fair to say that Monty has suffered similar accusations by association. Ny neatly sidestepping the hysteria surrounding Monty and concentrating on his plans, what he did and said, you come away with an impression of Monty quite different from the public one - thorough , cautious flawed, sure; but also very patient and pragmatic.
on 15 May 2001
Mr. D'Este's book is the best overall account of the Normandy campaign of the 8 to 10 I have read so far. The near exhaustive research of primary materials comes through without encumbering his very readable account (it includes extensive source footnotes). This is not just another presentation of the events but an in-depth analysis of the debates on strategy and operations that took place within the Allied high command. His critical view of certain commanders, notably Montgomery, is fair and well supported. Mr. D'Este has produced a book that should certainly be a reference to all historians in terms of his style and adherence to strict, documented and referenced historical analysis.
on 25 April 2002
At long last a book on the Normandy campaign that presents a well researched thesis without the pro and anti Montgomery hysteria that accompanies many books on the subject. D'Este portrays a logical and balanced view, he criticises when justified and praises when warranted.It is without a doubt the best book I have read on the Normandy campaign.
on 11 November 2001
Having read most of Carlo D'Este's books, I have become an avid reader and collector of his books. His style and attention to the details makes his books fascinating, fast moving and exciting.
Normandy is one of his best and having read many books about the lead up to and battles in Normandy, as well as a regular visitor to many of the sites, I find it is a wonderful reference book as well as a very good read.