Behind the Scenes of D-Day
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings on five beaches on the coast of Normandy, France. This was the largest seaborne landing in history. Several books have been published this year to commemorate the event. The best by far is Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Sailor, Kill or Die by Giles Milton. The entire book focuses on the 24-hour period beginning with parachute drops behind enemy lines on the night of June 5 and continuing through the fighting to establish a beachhead ending on the night of June 6.
The genius of Milton’s account is that he tells the tale of all the participants from the perspective of individuals who were involved in the fighting. This includes the strategic planners; U.S., Canadian, and British attacking forces; French resistance fighters; German defenders; and French civilians caught in the crossfire. Battles are generally defined in numeric terms—size and makeup of forces, casualties and ground gained. Milton’s approach humanizes an epic battle of sweeping proportions into the visceral emotions of those involved. You cannot read this book without sensing those same emotions—fear, anger, hatred, rage, determination, heroism and an overwhelming incredulity at the wanton waste and destruction of war. Anyone who reads this book will have a keen sense of what it was like to be there on that day and will be left with several questions to ponder: How could they do this? What would I have done?
The date is Jan. 1, 1942. The United States has declared war on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and their top military planners are in Washington vehemently arguing over the best way to attack Germany and Italy. U.S. planners wanted to take a direct route to Berlin through France in 1943, but Britain demurred. They pushed for a landing in North Africa to defeat the Axis Afrika Corps. Finally, Roosevelt concurred with Churchill and a joint invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) was planned.
The Torch landings on Nov. 8-16,1942, and subsequent battles, demonstrated the wisdom of the British position. The Americans were grossly unprepared for war. An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 by Rick Atkinson makes it clear that an invasion of Northern France in 1943 would have been an abject failure. The success of the D-Day landings and the drive to Berlin in 1944 was a direct result of the seasoning the American forces underwent in the North African campaign.
Atkinson’s book is less an account of the Torch operations than it is a litany of ineptitude.
This book makes it clear that the Americans were largely unprepared for war. Three times I wanted to put this book down and stop reading—not because it’s not good—but because the incompetence of the U.S. and British leadership sickened me. But the darn, Pulitzer-winning book is so well written I had to keep reading.
Did you know that German U boats operated and sunk many ships in the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of WWII before America upgraded its anti-submarine defenses? Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary bring this to light in So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II. They tell this tale from the perspective of U-boat captain Erich Würdemann, who sunk the freighter Heredia with 62 people on board including the Downs family who miraculously survived. It isn’t surprising that this aspect of WWII is unknown. The War Department kept this hidden from the American public under the guise of keeping up morale. This is an easy read, and you’ll enjoy every page.