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Good, but not as good as Major How's work on Hill 112
on 4 September 2011
Tim Saunder's `Hill 112: Battles of the Odon' covers the fighting between British and German troops, during the Second World War Battle of Normandy, for the strategically important feature: Hill 112. The book covers the end of Operation Epsom, Operation Jupiter in detail, before concluding with Operations Greenline and Express, the subsequent fighting and the eventual peaceful capture of the hill. The book is part historical analysis and part tour guide.
The opening chapter of this work feels like a complete rehash of Major How's `Hill 112: Cornerstone of the Normandy Campaign'. While there may not be infinite ways to describe military actions or an endless supply of personal testimony to draw upon, this chapter does feel like a reproduction of an earlier work down to the way the text is worded, photographs used, and quotes employed.
However, the book comes into its own from chapter two onwards. The main weight of the book focuses is on the two-day long Operation Jupiter. Detailed information is provided supported by maps showing the various battalion positions and their movements. The narrative moves in a logical fashion presenting the various phases of the battle and the back and forth fighting resulting in stalemate across the front both sides having exhausted themselves, but at the same time a British strategic success. Saunders does not show any bias, presenting information from both sides although the text does seem weighted towards the British. Plenty of personal testimony is on offer that enriches the text and provides first-hand accounts to the horror of war. During this Saunders provides his own critique of the assessment in the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division's divisional history against one of the battalions in action but also tosses in, an out of place and poorly formed opinion on Operation Goodwood. At one point Saunders states that the Wessex's commander decided to launch a renewed assault to take the hill towards the end of the operation, then attempts to balance the issue with the words of the armoured brigade commander who refused to launch his armour over the top of the hill without the reverse position being in the hands of the British infantry; Saunders then tells the reader they should form their own opinion on whether or not the commanding officer had issued the correct order for the infantry to attack. At the end of the day the reader should always form their own opinion on what has been read, but since Saunders is the historian (and an ex-military officer) he should make his opinion fully known and not produce a cop-out such as this.
The penultimate chapter deals in brief with the fighting that followed Jupiter. These operations take us to the peaceful chapter of the hill when it finally lost its strategic significance. The final chapter, along with the opening pages, provide useful battlefield touring information, where to purchase maps, how to get to Normandy from the UK, and what to expect once in Normandy.
Throughout the section on Operation Jupiter the same problem remains as noted at the beginning of this review: so many of the quotes used, feel like they have been seen before in their entirety. Surely there is other personal testimony to use or other ways of presenting it? Maps, while of excellent quality, appear to be period intelligence maps with thrust lines and other information added on top by the author/publisher, they are overloaded with information and no keys are provided; at points they can be as frustrating as much as they are helpful. Another niggling flaw in the work is the continued accusation by Saunders that the British hand held anti-tank weapon, the PIAT, was unreliable and useless, yet he provides numerous quotes of the exact opposite nature of British infantrymen using the weapon to drive off German armoured attacks and to knock out tanks. I have read numerous other accounts, and books, that put Saunders accusations into doubt as well. A major problem throughout the entire work is that no footnotes are provided, the source of quotes is not given, the source of information is not provided, nor is the source for even the photographs (bar a flimsy acknowledgement at the beginning of the book to "other sources"); for a historical work this is a serious critical omission, it loses credibility somewhat as readers or other historians cannot check for themselves the information provided nor find the sources used for their own reference. As with older works, this book first being published in 2001, the author was unable to engage or reap the benefits of works such as John Buckley's `British Armour in Normandy', thus some of the comments pointed towards the tanks of both sides feels a little off. Due to these points, I cannot rate the work as high as the other reviewers.
To summarise, there is a lot of detail here on Operation Jupiter however I feel that Major How's work on Hill 112 outshines Saunders'. However Saunders does provide more information on what happened after Jupiter, in this sense both works complement one another but I prefer the former over the latter as the guide to the fighting on the hill due to the writing style.