OVERLORD by Max Hastings
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From Russell Weigley's solid Eisenhower's Lieutenants (1980) to John Keegan's tour-de-force Six Armies in Normandy (1982) to Carlo D'Este's microscopic Decision in Normandy (1983), recent writings have shot down the "chauvinist legends" Hastings decries. His contribution is no less noteworthy: "It seems fruitless to consider whether an Allied plan or maneuver was sound in abstract terms. The critical question, surely, was whether it was capable of being carried out by the available Allied forces, given their limitations and the extraordinary skill of their enemies." Hastings (Bomber Command) has interviewed both Allied and German Veterans. Col. Heinz Guderian: "There was no alternative but to keep one's nerve." Brigadier Bill Williams: "The Germans liked soldiering. We didn't." He is mindful of the issues--Montgomery's failed "plan," American vs. British performance, could the Germans have prevailed?--and thorough and sensitive in his judgments. Montgomery's error was never to admit error, never to acknowledge failure--thus forfeiting trust; but he had, correspondingly, "the iron will to persevere." By resisting political pressure for results, he averted "a British bloodbath." And could he "have been sacked. . .without inflicting an intolerable blow to British national confidence?" Detailed treatment of the near-catastrophic American assault on Omaha beach scores V Corps commander Gerew for hubris (in eschewing "tactical subtleties, the use of British specialized armour, and any attempt to seize the five vital beach exits by maneuver"), pronounces the day saved only by "the men on the sand." Similar detailing of the British failure to secure Caen finds the expectation unrealistic, troop performance sluggish or muddled. Overall: "The Allied armies discovered the limits of what metal alone could achieve"; "It ill became either army. . .to harp upon the shortcomings of the other." (But--in answer to Clifford Irving and Anthony Cave Brown--the Germans couldn't have won.) Additional points, from D-Day to Cherbourg to the Falaise gap: the crucial advantage of surprise (and German indecision) lost by vehicle pile-up on the beaches, the inability to move up tanks and gain momentum; "the superiority of almost all [German] weapons in quality, if not in quantity"; the tenacity and resilience of less-than-elite German troops; the shooting of prisoners by the Allies as well as the Germans ("among scores of Allied witnesses interviewed. . .almost every one had direct knowledge. . ."); the difference between the American COBRA breakout and the British GOODWOOD failure--against an unbroken German front, tanks (without men) were unavailing. The book has, finally, two moving, chilling effects. It presents the infantry soldier, "locked in battle," in the image of Passchendaele. And it suggests that, were Soviet troops ever to sweep across Europe, "the level of sacrifice and endurance displayed by the Allies" in Normandy wouldn't suffice to defeat them. But it's the intricate mesh of theme and experience--Brigadier Williams wondering, early on, "To what extent would these chaps make a good showing despite Hitler?"--that gives Hastings' work exceptional force.
Pub Date: June 6th, 1984
ISBN: 0671554352
Page count: 398pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1984


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