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D-Day: Those Who Were There 
by Juliet Gardiner.
Collins and Brown, 192 pp., £16.99, April 1994, 1 85585 204 7
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D-Day 1944: Voices from Normandy 
by Robin Neillands and Roderick De Normann.
Orion, 320 pp., £5.99, April 1994, 1 85797 448 4
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Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 
by Paddy Griffiths.
Yale, 286 pp., £20, May 1994, 0 300 05910 8
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The D-Day Encyclopedia 
edited by David Chandler and James Lawton Collins.
Helicon, 665 pp., £35, January 1994, 0 09 178265 1
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D-Day 1944 
edited by Theodore Wilson.
Kansas, 420 pp., £34.95, May 1994, 0 7006 0674 2
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Decision in Normandy 
by Carlo D’Este.
HarperCollins, 554 pp., £10.99, April 1994, 0 06 092495 0
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For Tolstoy and Hemingway, as for Homer, writing about war was the natural thing. They did not exactly worship the demands of ‘hateful Ares’, as Homer calls him; but they knew that war as hell was the proper field of the heroic, and thus of narrative itself. The story of what happens in a football match today is our equivalent of yesterday’s battle; and it can be established later, as game, in the same heroic sequence. Who is taking care of the left flank? What is General Grouchy up to, and how soon can the Prussians be in action? At the height of his description of the Battle of Borodino Tolstoy breaks off to imagine a spirit of the pities, who cries to the combatants: ‘Just a moment!’ and ‘Consider what it is you do!’ But having satisfied, as it were, the requirements of amazement and revulsion, Tolstoy the narrator, and the soldiers he writes about, go right back to the business in hand. That is the world’s business after all, as it is the tale of what happens in the world.

Whether by chance or coincidence, for it is hardly likely to have been by intention, the writers of all the new books commemorating D-Day, 6 June 1944, adopt a wholly different narrative strategy. And it has to be said that from a military and a literary point of view it is not really a success. No eagle’s-eye view of war, and no sure grasp of events. Contemporary technology in a different if related field seems to have unconsciously imposed itself on the ‘how it was’ of the printed page. Our habit now is to let the people tell the microphone. The hand-held recorder has taken over from the creator of written words, just as it has from the commentator on the radio. Napoleon and Wellington, and the writers who came after them and tried to personify them, would not now have a monopoly of all versions of events. Much more important would be the battlefield recording, from a hundred different and isolated sources, of what individuals were feeling and suffering, and what they thought they were trying to do. Technology has made the common man the literary arbiter of what happened. Tolstoy has his common soldiers, as they go into action, think, ‘Here it comes – awful but fun’ – but Tolstoy is inventing this himself, afterwards. Who can say if they felt it at the time? Technology helps to deglamorise war as game, as narration and strategy, even to some extent as history too. The voice record does not think much about what people are going to be writing afterwards. And today we have come to accept the superior authenticity of the voice on the spot, but the overall picture you get is a blur of close-ups.

Juliet Gardiner had written very well on social conditions in wartime Britain, and on the changes brought about in the country by the huge scale of the American occupation. I remember American cities, lavishly equipped for the GIs’ comfort and leisure, appearing in the countryside overnight and changing Piccadilly Circus into Rainbow Corner. To get a free beer in one of these places, or a plate of bacon and eggs, was the wish of all ranks in the British Army, who were lacking any of these amenities. A common American joke was ‘the English are beginning to act as if the country belonged to them.’ Miles and miles of the best East Anglian farmland was devastated to provide a concrete home for the B17s and 24s which, unlike the RAF Lancaster (which none the less carried more bombs), could not be allowed to rest their massive wheels on grass.

These tremendous preparations went on all through 1942 and 43 and Juliet Gardiner describes them admirably, although they are of course only a prologue to the moment when the hand-held microphone takes over, as it were retrospectively; for the many recollections of the day which fill the remainder of the book read like today’s news flashes. Reminiscence becomes immediacy, and this provides poignant glimpses but an overall monotony: the same voice or piece of film seems to keep coming back again and again. The story of the build-up to the invasion, with all its social effects and implications, is more absorbing for a reader than is the collage which tries to cover the first day of the battle.

As at Gettysburg, the first day was terrible but quite inconclusive. It is the days and weeks that followed, and the strategic problems they created, which make the narrative of war. The British, Canadians and Americans were ashore on D-Day, but only just. The sea was rough and the weather very bad, which made air-strikes a problem. On the other hand, the German High Command had thought it most unlikely that an invasion could come at that moment, and the two senior generals – Rommel and Von Rundstedt – were away consulting with Hitler at Berchtesgarden. The whole thing might have been a deception, with the main thrust to come later in the Pas de Calais. None the less the shore artillery, barbed wire, pill-boxes and underwater obstacles fairly bristled along the whole bay of the Seine. History rather likes the legend that we successfully misled the Germans, but there is a good deal of evidence that we did nothing of the kind. Certainly the first soldiers who attempted to get ashore cannot have thought so.

Paddy Griffiths’s scholarly and well-argued study of the British Army’s battle tactics is mostly about those enlightened tacticians of 1916-18 – more enlightened, at any rate, than the generals who thought only in terms of suicidal frontal attacks – whose methods continued to be pondered in the inter-war years. Montgomery was the man most deeply imbued with them. The idea was above all to save the troops: to adopt any strategy of mechanical assistance, no matter how fussy and unmilitary it might seem, to stop the poor bloody infantry being herded into a killing ground.

The answer in the case of the anti-invasion defences was specialised armoured vehicles which could swim or crawl ashore, some equipped with clumsy great flails that would beat the shoreline and explode the mines; some loaded like haystacks with bundles of fascines, or huge unrolling carpets of matting, which would block gaps and lay a tolerable pathway for further traffic. Together with ‘Crocodiles’ – Churchill tanks equipped with flamethrowers – and other tanks mounting giant mortars for pulverising concrete defences, these ‘funnies’, as they were called, were the brainchildren of Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, a highly enlightened professional soldier whose photograph is reproduced in Juliet Gardiner’s book. Bespectacled, beak-nosed, with a fine long, crafty face and solid chin, he looks like Hannibal’s or Caesar’s favourite staff officer and henchman; and it was very largely thanks to his efforts that the losses on the British-invaded beaches were comparatively light. Not so where the Americans went ashore. Omaha Beach, with casualties in the first wave of 70 or 80 per cent, was worse than the first day of the Somme.

The story has grown up that the Americans were too proud, or too contemptuous of Limey caution and pusillanimity, to accept the use of the ‘funnies’ when these were generously offered to them. Like most such legends, this turns out to be true only in part: the on-the-spot explanation was more simple and practical. The funnies were based on the Churchill tank, of which the Americans, who drove Shermans, had no experience, and for which they would have no guns or spares. As the authors of D-Day 1944: Voices from Normandy point out, General Omar Bradley’s decision not to use the specialist weapons was eminently reasonable in the circumstances, though it remains ironic that the nation which prided itself on its mechanical know-how preferred to go into this encounter virtually with bare fists.

Although the lay-out and method of these books are based on present-day ways of processing warfare, there were in fact very few photographers ashore the first day, and obviously no television crews. War for the benefit of the media had not yet been invented. On the other hand, we are spared today the sort of cosily facetious cartoons and jokes (‘This is my nephew who will shortly be travelling to the Continent’) which appeared in Punch and the other papers on the eve of the invasion. The celebrated photographer Robert Capa was there, however, at least in the third wave or so, and before he scrambled back on the landing-craft he ‘felt a shock and was suddenly covered in feathers’. He wondered if somebody had been killing chickens.

Then I saw that the superstructure had been shot away, and that the feathers were the stuffing from the kapok jackets of the men that had been blown up. The skipper was crying. His assistant had been blown all over him and he was a mess ... the decks of the USS Chase were already full of the returning wounded and the dead ... The mess boys who had served our coffee in white jackets and with white gloves at three in the morning were covered with blood and were sewing the dead in white sacks.

Such telling details are the stock-in-trade of those who have written about battle since the pioneers of its descriptive technique, Stendhal and Tolstoy. And yet ordinary soldiers in battle do in fact have an involuntary eye for just such detail. I remember noting with interest that there was a great deal of what seemed to be ordinary household dust on a mortar barrel which was just about to be fired. And a soldier in the Peninsular War had an experience almost identical with Capa’s when he fired his musket at a Frenchman who had a dead goose tied to his haversack.

Stendhal’s hero Fabrice can never decide afterwards whether he was or was not at the Battle of Waterloo. He remembered panting round a corner and seeing a field in front of him ‘jonchée de cadavres’. He remembered a general’s orderly sidling up to him as he sat idle on his horse, and suddenly seizing his leg and overturning him off the animal, because the general’s horse had been shot under him and he required another mount. That was about what the battle came to. Fabrice was lucky. He lived to ask himself whether he had been in the battle or not. Those who survived D-Day did not have to ask themselves that question. They knew very well they had been there, in spite of the chaos of impressions, and the realisation that many must have had that the real slog was just beginning, and would grind horribly onwards for days and weeks. No wonder many ashore that evening preferred to use the meths in their Tommy cookers – tiny primitive devices for heating water and making tea – to give themselves a quick alcoholic fix instead. Battles in Hannibal’s and in Wellington’s time, however grisly, were at least one-day jobs. The old query of heroic warfare – ‘Went the day well?’ – would have been out of place on D-Day, and in most of this century’s wars.

All of these books do a good job in sorting out and demonstrating the complexities and problems of Operation Overlord. But Carlo d’Este’s history of the whole Normandy campaign, first published in 1983, is in a different class altogether, as are the essays edited by Theodore Wilson. The most comprehensive is of course the big encyclopedia, which in addition to all the alphabetical facts contains a choice store of those super-facts to which browsers in good reference works become wholly addicted. We learn, for example, that Theodor Bechtolsheim, who commanded the Eighth German destroyer flotilla, the strongest German naval unit in the west on D-Day, was born in 1902 in Castle Mainsondheim in Franconia, his real name being Theodor Freiherr Baron von Mauchenheim. He led a gallant sortie on the night of 8 June against the British Tenth destroyer flotilla, losing two of his ships and damaging HMS Tartar. Frank D. Peregory, a US Army technical sergeant, won the Congressional Medal of Honour on D-Day for a one-man attack from which he brought back more than thirty prisoners. He was killed at St Lô six days later, before hearing he had got the award. A murky photo from the Imperial War Museum shows a British Bren gun and gunner, who has a notebook in his hand. A caption tells us that his name was A.J. Bull, and that he was writing a poem.

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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994

John Bayley refers (LRB, 26 May) to the American ‘occupation’ of Britain in the last war and goes on to deplore the fact that ‘miles and miles of the best East Anglian farmland were devastated to provide a concrete home for the B17s and 24s which, unlike the RAF Lancasters (which none the less carried more bombs), could not be allowed to rest their massive wheels on grass.’ What an awful picture. Poor little England, occupied by Americans presumably as the Channel Islands were by Germans, and buried in American concrete for the benefit of their monstrous bombers, in comparison with the good little green British Lancasters, which nestled in the grass like plover.

Well, I was a Lancaster navigator during the war and I can assure Bayley that these aircraft and the green grass were not the best of friends. On one of the very few occasions on which my Lancaster did touch the grass, the result was nearly fatal. We were coming in to land at Syerston in Nottinghamshire (concrete runways and dispersals). We made an error of judgment and omitted one step in the cockpit drill, with the result that we overran the extent of the concrete, went off the end of the runway and charged towards a steep drop into the Trent. The landing wheels, however, dug into the mud up to the axles and brought the Lancaster to an abrupt stop with not very much weight on the tail wheel.

There were a lot of American runways in East Anglia but there were a lot of British ones too, and the British bomber runways were to be found all the way from Cambridge to Darlington as well.

Noble Frankland
Eynsham, Oxfordshire

There have been a number of accounts of the problems faced by Allied meteorologists in forecasting the weather during the build-up to the invasion of France, and for the actual D-Day landings themselves. It is unfortunate that we do not have the same level of knowledge about events on the other side of the Channel. Lawrence Hogben (LRB, 26 May) reiterates the account given by H.C. Butcher in My Three Years with Eisenhower that the forecasts made by the German meteorologists indicated that the weather would be quite unsuitable for a seaborne assault during early June, and that on 4 June Rommel was advised by Major Lettau, his chief meteorologist, that there could be no invasion during the next fortnight. It is alleged that as a result of this advice he decided to return home for a spell of leave. However, the accounts given by Lettau himself, and by the head of the Zentrale Wetterdienst Gruppe, Werner Schwerdtfeger, suggest that whatever failings there may have been on the German side, they were not meteorological. Indeed, Schwerdtfeger’s own account claims that the Channel coast forecasts for 6 June that were issued by ZWG were, in fact, correct. Unfortunately no relevant official ZWG documents survived the war so it is impossible to settle this point, but an appropriate level of doubt concerning Butcher’s account should be noted.

After the war Schwerdtfeger and Lettau both moved to Madison in the United States, where they became professors at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Schwerdtfeger died in January 1985. My last contact with Professor Lettau was in December of that year, at which time he was still living in Madison.

J.M.C. Burton
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994

Heinz Lettau, Rommel’s chief meteorologist (Letters, 23 June), did not move directly to Madison. I admired, and still admire, his meteorological research and I visited him in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1954. He was at that time a keen player of badminton. He recalled that, after his capture by US forces, he and his fellow prisoners of war habitually drank Aqua Velva aftershave, the only alcohol they could put their hands on. Professor Lettau is still alive and in retirement in Madison.

John Philip
Trinity College, Cambridge

Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994

J.M.C. Burton (Letters, 23 June) is quite right to find excuses for the German D-Day meteorologists because Zentralwetterdienstgruppe data for the period, whose existence Burton denies and which I have examined, demonstrate that their short-range forecasts of the weather elements were reasonably accurate. But for operational success, more than this was needed – the implications of a forecast for action purposes had to be clear. German meteorological weaknesses lay not in the forecast but in, among other things, faulty operational interpretation by naval and military executives who lacked suitable criteria on which to base their orders and actions. For example, the German Navy set the outside wind limit for the Allied landing-craft at Force 4, whereas in fact Admiral Ramsay accepted a Force 5 with an occasional 6. This error was important, because the Germans were reading their wind Force 5 forecast for 6 June as meaning ‘invasion not possible’ while we, with a fairly similar forecast, were saying ‘marginally possible’. So we surprised them. If like Eisenhower they had put a couple of real sailors in their forecasting team they might have done better, but being badly briefed, and unmilitary and unnaval, they can, I think, be excused. The main lacunae were naval and military, not meteorological.

Their confident long-range forecasts were, however, less excusable. Before June 1944 the Allies had found that our own five-day efforts were operationally unacceptable. But the German High Command still actually believed such long-range views as Lettau’s, mentioned by Burton, which anticipated no invasion in the weeks ahead. Scientifically unsound and operationally naive, this gave no fewer than five of the High Command an excuse to absent themselves in body and spirit from Normandy. To make such a long-range operational forecast was unwise and to believe it was military folly.

Is the following quotation relevant? ‘When riding en route to the Inauguration ceremonies Jack Kennedy asked Ike about D-Day. To his surprise Ike didn’t credit his success to the epic’s grand design. Instead Ike said the Allies probably prevailed because they had superior meteorologists.’ We meteorologists thought it was because of superior soldiers and sailors, but who are we to query what Ike said?

Lawrence Hogben
Soyans, France

Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994

I am intrigued by Lawrence Hogben’s statement that he has examined the forecasts issued by the German Zentralevetterdienstgruppe (ZWG) for the period of the D-Day landings (Letters, 18 August). The late Werner Schwerdtfeger, at that time head of ZWG, has stated quite categorically that no ZWG documentation survived the end of the war. According to Schwerdtfeger, ZWG headquarters moved from Potsdam to Neubiberg in Upper Bavaria during February and March 1945, and later to the vicinity of Berchtesgaden, where it was disbanded. All ZWG records were left under the care of another eminent meteorologist, Hermann Flohn, at Neubiberg, where they were captured by advancing US forces. Flohn was taken prisoner but was unable to persuade the local American commander of the value of the records under his charge. Schwerdtfeger gave a poignant account of how he later found out that these valuable documents were being used as wrapping paper. I would be grateful to Mr Hogben if he could say where the ZWG documents he studied are located since I, and doubtless others, would very much like to see them.

That being said, I feel his account is rather less than fair to the German meteorologists. Schwerdtfeger recorded from a diary note that the forecast issued at noon on 4 June 1944 for 5-6 June ‘specified prevailing winds of Beaufort Force 5, varying between 4 and 6, equivalent to 15-23 knots’. This was similar to advice provided by the Allied forecasters at 0415 on 4 June, which was modified at 1745 that day. The Supreme Commander’s briefing at 2100 indicated winds of Force 3-4 for Monday evening (5 June) along the French coast. In fact, actual winds over the Channel and Normandy beaches were recorded as Westerly Force 4-5 at the start of Monday 5 June, decreasing 3-4 overnight but increasing 4-5 again by the evening of 6 June, D-Day itself.

Schwerdtfeger also gave an account of the forecast he was pressurised into making the following December, prior to the launching of the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes. He was ordered to provide a forecast of five continuous days with weather below operational limits for the Allied air forces. Such a sequence had never been recorded there at that time of year but, and quite unexpectedly to Schwerdtfeger himself, his forecast succeeded in satisfying its unrealistic specification. The result of this admitted fluke was instant promotion.

J.M.C. Burton
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994

My letter of 7 July took on faith J.M.C. Burton’s account (Letters, 7 July) of Heinz Lettau as Rommel’s chief meteorologist responsible for D-Day forecasts; but faith has been shaken. My friend Dr Paul Frenzen tells me that, according to Lettau’s son, Heinz’s quite different charge in the spring of 1944 was forecasting low-level winds affecting V-1 bombs aimed at London.

John Philip
Trinity College, Cambridge

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