It is said that “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” – and it was certainly true when, as a young teacher on my first assignment, devoid of geography knowledge, I was given a textbook by my headmaster and told that – as long as I stayed one chapter ahead of the pack – I’d be fine teaching my pupils ‘O’ Level standard geography.
I’m a relative novice in military history – I have a smattering of First World War gen and not much more – but, as Fate would degree it – President Macron and the coronavirus permitting, of course – this coming autumn I’m in line to undertake a WW2 touring expedition with some chums in which we shall ‘follow’ a series of engagements during the Allies’ post D-Day Normandy campaign of 1944.
As pre-trip preparation a few weeks ago I began reading historian Anthony Beevor’s 527-page D-Day – The Battle for Normandy (Penguin paperback, 2014 edition).
With both it – and indeed the campaign – I have had two problems.
Firstly, hitherto I had little detailed knowledge about WW2 beyond that which I’d read in articles or seen in documentaries. And secondly, what I know about the geography of France could be written on the back of a postage stamp with a felt tip pen.
Today I just wished to register that Antony Beevor has produced a splendid and highly readable detailed review of the Normandy campaign.
I cannot say it is a masterpiece because I haven’t read a comparable tome but this one certainly “does the business “ for me.
What I decided to do was forget entirely about the geography – even the place names – because, frankly, to do otherwise would have required me to have a room-sized atlas of France open beside me and waste oodles of my precious time trying to find where the hell the action I was reading about had been taking place.
Instead I have been to all intents and purposes “skim-reading” Beevor’s book – thereby avoiding the tribulations of trying to keep up with the names of which forty-letter German panzer brigades were coming north to help with defence and/or even which US army group was “digging in” to receive them when they arrived – and “going with the flow”.
The resulting impression I have gained has been revelatory. The sheer scale of the D-Day landings and the effort required to mount the invasion of Normandy is mind-boggling.
The viciousness of the fighting in bocage country, right through to the US “breakout” from the west and the horrendous battles involved in closing the Falaise gap, is also a source of wonder and indeed revulsion.
Beevor gets right down to the staggering statistics of “battle fatigue” (both genuine and faked), the self-inflicted wounds of soldiers both veteran and raw who couldn’t face the strain any longer and a factor that I hadn’t thought of before – that of the Allied soldiers of all nationalities who just didn’t want to fight anymore (and/or risk being killed) this close to what seemed like the end of the War.
I’m totally hooked, even though I have very little idea of where the fighting I’m currently reading about was taking place!