On June 6, D-Day, we were at a used book sale at the Claude Moore Farm in McLean, Virginia. My wife spotted and picked up a copy of Martin Gilbert’s 2004 book, D-Day, an apparent first edition, with a perfect dust jacket, in excellent condition, on sale for $2. Thinking the coincidence too great to pass by, she picked it up, only to discover that the book had also been inscribed by Gilbert on a visit to Washington in April 2004.
In part because I enjoy reading Gilbert’s books, and in part because it is a short book (under 200 pages), I kept it on my desk waiting for an opportunity to read it. The opportunity came yesterday, between various Fathers Day activities.
D-Day of course is the name given to the June 6, 1944 landing on the beaches of Normandy of Allied forces beginning the pushback against Nazi Germany. The battle of Stalingrad had taken place, stopping the Nazi’s Drang nach Osten, the allies were moving northward through Italy and Rome had just been retaken. Victory appeared both inevitable, and still a long way in the future.
Gilbert discusses both the planning for the invasion, and the invasion itself. Much, to me, was familiar, but some things I either never knew nor had forgotten. One new item was the discussion of the reluctance of Churchill to approve the invasion. It was first discussed as early as 1942, but at that time the Allies were unprepared, and it was clear that a successful invasion depended on American and British industrial production (and especially American), on massive numbers of American troops, and on intelligence information that did not yet exist. Churchill, so anxious for American involvement as necessary for victory, was very concerned about an unsuccessful invasion, and very concerned about the inevitable loss of life.
Gilbert discusses the well known diversionary tactics of the Allies, to lead the Germans off the track of where the actual invasion would take place. He talks about the importance of the code-breaking activities at Bletchley, so that German plans could be read before they were put into effect, and so it was easy to determine what the Germans knew about the allied plans, and what they did not.
He talks about the massive resources that needed to be devoted to the Normandy undertaking, and how it would clearly divert attention from the Pacific, from North Africa and other theatres, and how Stalin was against anything that would weaken the opposition on the Nazi eastern front.
He talks about the invasion itself, at the various beaches were American, British and Commonwealth troops landed. But also about the commando groups behind the lines, and about the importance of air support, about the large number of civilian deaths with each phase of the operation, and of the dangerous clearance of land mines, and sea lanes, and the building of artificial harbors, and of sea and amphibious craft that could do any number of things under a variety of conditions.
He also makes you wonder a bit (at least I did) as to whether the invasion was necessary. With the weakening of Nazi forces, could more have been made of air strikes (on factories, bridges, railway lines, etc.), with less loss of life? I don’t know the answer to that one, and perhaps it is a question that cannot, and should not, be asked.