An account of the soldiers who were the first to land at D-Day, paying a terrible price for their valor.
Kershaw (Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris, 2015, etc.) returns to the scene of his book The Bedford Boys: the Normandy beaches that saw the Allied invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was an operation fraught with peril. As the author writes, Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, soberly observed that “we are putting the whole works on one number,” and failure was a very real possibility. The first wave of invaders took extraordinarily heavy casualties at many points; one British major, wounded in action, was fortunate to be taken away on a stretcher, for “out of 125 men in his company, he had lost eighty-three.” Kershaw’s pages are as densely populated as Cornelius Ryan’s but with some characters who haven’t played much of a role in the historical record—e.g., a cigar-chomping leader of American airborne pathfinders who fought his way desperately across the French countryside and survived the terrible odds only to wind up falling into a weird trap laid by a Nazi double agent at the end of the war. Kershaw sometimes falls into breezy human interest–ese, long on description and adjective—“a sprightly, dark-haired Londoner with a wisp of a mustache, armed with a pistol and a Sten gun”; “Dressed in a dark leather coat, Rommel was soon racing back to Normandy in a black Horch”—and his work lacks the attention to strategy and tactics, but also the heaviness, of an Antony Beevor narrative. Still, Kershaw is good at giving a you-are-there account, and it’s an eventful story indeed, told from both sides of the fight and featuring characters not often heard from: a member of the French Resistance here, a Polish conscript into the Wehrmacht there.
World War II buffs will find this an engaging, unchallenging read.