Military history is full of myths – ‘we were heroes’, ‘we did right’, ‘our enemies were no good’ – and there are lots of myths about the Second World War, which make us, feel ‘better’ about the past. Unfortunately these myths teach us few lessons because they are based on reassuring lies.
Max Hastings “Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944” first published in 1984 dispels a few of the myths about D-day and the 6 weeks that followed. Its well written, a bit long winded with lots of personal anecdotes but universally well reviewed. He makes the following points that dispel myths:
1. The allied air force and particularly the Brits were very unco-operative. UK Bomber Command had an obsession with its own German city bombing program that had little basis in reality and which it would not change.
2. Allied hardware was inferior in quality – particularly guns and tanks – but superior in quantity. The allied tanks were technically poor in attacking German tanks and very vulnerable to attack.
3. Man to man the allied army was inferior and in particular its officer class was underwhelming. Sometimes this was due to lack of combat experience but a lot of the allied training of troops was poorly designed, out of date and badly delivered by officers with little skill and low experience.
4. Montgomery was unpopular with his peers, a very odd personality and possibly a general overrated by history – although he was ‘popular’ with those troops who did not personally know him or have to work with him.
5. The successful generals were American as were the fighters but the ‘publicity-whore’ Patton is probably overrated.
6. The Canadian contribution was underwhelming.
7. If the insane Hitler had not intervened in day-to-day military decision the allied campaign would have been a lot more difficult. In any event the German’s were undermanned and very short of supplies/replacements.
8. The French contribution was negligible and the reactions of French civilians often not positive.
9. The allies did commit atrocities.
10. A deal of the allied engineering, supply and logistics went wrong.
11. Armies have lots of useless, lazy, unintelligent people – and also bright, motivated people.
12. Armies are deeply conservative organizations that take a long time to admit their mistakes and failures and improve their performance. Sometimes it takes decades for strategy to adapt to new realities, Field commanders are often neither creative nor adaptive.
13. The UK economy had deteriorated so that it could supply less in 1944 than in 1941.
14. The extreme Nazi elements in the German army fought very well and would not face up to the logical certainty of defeat.
15. The allied military victory was primarily based on greater volumes of men and machines - and air superiority – but the overall military strategy had weaknesses that were not adapted on the run (in particular Caen which was badly handled).
Its not a new book and I think that subsequent scholarship has taken his deas further to modify the traditional ‘patriotic’ views about D-day and what followed. The alternative historians include Keegan who is held in high regard by the establishment, Ambrose, a left winger with no track record in military history, Beevor (an over rated military historian and former novelist still attached to his Hussar background) whose writing style leads me to bin his books, and a few others.
Hastings’s weaknesses are his long windedness, his reluctance to draw logical and harsh conclusions and his gap in vision in not giving enough weight to political interference, particularly from Churchill, that made things less than better. Eisenhower also doesn’t get much attention – positive or negative. A description of de Gaulle’s troublesome contributions and egocentric approach is avoided.
Hastings’s background is journalism not academia but I think that’s a strength not a weakness in this particular case because it gave him greater intellectual freedom to attack the orthodox and self-serving views of the military history establishment. The book was a radical breakthrough at the time but subsequent establishment historians have done little more that deliver further detail to support his overall approach. In particular further research (Wieviorka) confirms that over 1/3rd of allied ‘injuries’ were exclusively psychological and that there were thousands of additional self-inflicted wounds to avoid combat.
Its not overly long, has good maps and is very well written in a clear and simple style (although long winded on the reminiscences). One of its strengths (and also at the same time an unintended weakness) is that it was the first military history to give weight to personal reminiscences of ordinary soldiers to balance the previous traditional histories that had relied heavily on just the biographies of generals and politicians and official documents.
Its available in electronic form.
Some reviews: http://www.nytimes.com/1984/05/18/books ... ml?mcubz=1, The UK media has been lazy in digitizing their old copy from 1984 but The Economist and The Telegraph strongly endorsed the book at the time. The views of The Guardian, to the extent that they are intelligible, are not relevant – it has ‘moral objections’ to war and killing – no matter how evil the enemy – and this clouds its view of military history and all wars and means they refuse to employ journalists with relevant practical or academic skills and experience in this area.
Overall it gives particular examples of the general reasons why wars rarely go as well as expected or hoped. Alas Australia lacks a frank and skilled military historian like Hasting and the field is unfortunately full of unqualified ‘media performers’ who deliver only good news about our past but make lots of money and celebrity in doing so.
Egypt has no strong tradition in scholarly history in controversial areas and no Egyptian academic would go near its recent military history let alone be given access to the archive. Therefore the publication of Egypt’s military history is left to al Ahram journalists and their not unconnected career aspirations.
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