Review – Keegan, “Six Armies In Normandy”

John Keegan, “Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris” (1982) (read by Fred Williams) – Sometimes, you give some old school military history a try. I came up in prime D-Day remembrance years, and was an eight year old who loved history stories when the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion came around. My grandfather was there at Omaha Beach; the remembrance stuff, “Saving Private Ryan” and all, played an important role in getting him to talk about it, about the trauma and all. Being a weird little kid, I was always interested in the corners of the war I had heard of but which didn’t get talked about that much. I would alienate other kids at recess when they played WWII by yelling out that I was Free French or Russian or Chinese. As far as the culture around me was concerned, WWII was basically a drive from Normandy to liberating the camps to a pit stop at Hiroshima to coming home for that kiss in Times Square.

Well, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years by cocking my snoot at this mythic version of the war, and I expect to continue to do so. Quite beyond the fact that most Americans didn’t give a shit about the Holocaust and the Soviets freed the six death camps (not that their leadership were so wild about Jewish life and freedom), and that that Times Square kiss was sexual assault… It’s not news to most people reading this that the most consequential fighting of the war took place in the East between the Nazis and the Soviets (and in China, between its people and the Japanese imperialists). Put that in place, and everything looks different. 

But still… there was a reason Stalin came close to begging the western allies to open a real second front in Western Europe starting in ‘42. America and Britain were blessed by geography, as they so often were: the German heartland was a lot closer to Britain than to Russia. The invasion needed to happen. Churchill’s poor strategic sense and his interest in bleeding the Soviets coincided in his decision to delay and do stuff like invade Italy, the supposed “soft underbelly” of Europe that actually had a bunch of mountain ranges and armed Nazis. I’m not enough of an expert on the troop dispositions blah blah to know whether, if the Americans had put their foot down and insisted on an invasion of France in ‘43, it would have worked as well, but it kind of seems like without the Italian diversion they could have done it… maybe the Americans needed “the experience,” it’s not like you can retreat much from an amphibious invasion…

Anyway! Donnish Sandhurst-y military historian John Keegan considered all this in the introduction to this, his breakthrough book, before getting on to which division went where. That’s not entirely fair. Keegan talks a lot about the strategic situation and the social/cultural experiences of the men who fought in Normandy and how that informed their respective military traditions, which was pretty interesting. The six armies from the title are five Allied countries — the Americans, Canadians, and British, who each had beachheads, and the Poles and the Free French, who didn’t but had a lot of troops around — and of course the Germans. He picks each one as a viewpoint for each part of the book- the Americans for the airborne assault, the Canadians for the beachheads (not Omaha Beach, interestingly), the French for the taking of Paris, etc. The Germans had a way of being everywhere, naturally, but their viewpoint thing was how bad Hitler screwed the pooch in the defense, partially, Keegan argues, because he was rattled by being bombed by his officers that time. 

It’s pretty good, for what it is, but, perhaps inevitably, gets bogged down in narrations of maneuver and counter-maneuver, which is a lot less interesting when you can’t get maps or pictures (my fault for picking an audiobook, I guess). Some people really love that scale, bigger than a battle, smaller than a theatre, but I always like either the big picture or granular battle description. Keegan does get some good stuff there. I like descriptions of airborne operations. What a shitshow! Dropped into the dark over Normandy, a lot of them dying or breaking legs — drowned, which horrified me the most, sometimes — getting lost, having to round up the other troops, getting in weird random small-unit fights with the Germans… that was cool. 

Here’s what I found myself wondering most often. Where was the reconnaissance in all this? Seemingly nobody had any but the foggiest idea where anybody was! It was a pretty big and confusing area, all those identification farmhouses and bocage hedge-mazes, but still. They must have had scouts, but it really doesn’t seem they emphasized scouting that much? One of the big questions the smarter analysts of contemporary military analysts ask is- who is the infantry? In a contemporary war, who is willing to do the dirty and dangerous stuff, consistently and competently, that infantry still has to do to win a war? That wasn’t that hard of a question at this period, a high point in state power and organization. Maybe the question was “who are the scouts” – who do you have that can bring you good information? I don’t know. Maybe Keegan just didn’t write about the battle-level intel game because he wasn’t interested! But yeah, this was fine, but wearing, in that way fuss-and-feathers military history can be. ***’

Review – Keegan, “Six Armies In Normandy”

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