Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944 by Max Hastings

FEBRUARY 9, 2008

7.5/10. Finished a few weeks ago this is another (rather earlier) example of Hastings’ skill in writing penetrating and engaging military history, as well as his willingness to be critical of existing ‘sacred cows’. Among other things Hastings:

  • Argues that the famous Mulberrys were probably a waste of time and resources.
  • Shows how the Air Force extreme unhelpfulness (largely driven by their own ambitions and obsession with civilian bombing) was a serious handicap to the whole campaign.
  • Supplies a sharp corrective regarding Patton’s reputation, pointing out that up against reasonable German opposition Patton did little better than anyone else.
  • Shows clearly how it was Hitler, almost more than anyone else, who contributed to the disastrous collapse of German forces in August-October 1944 by his insistence that no retreat of any kind be considered.
  • Provides many examples of the poor quality of equipment, leadership, and men, especially among the American forces and how these deficiencies hindered the Allied campaign. In particular, Allied tanks were almost never a match for their German counterparts and on any occasion that Allied and German troops met on anything near equal footing the Germans won.1 In addition he details several clear cases of simple cowardice or unwillingness to fight among the Allied troops and/or extremely poor leadership stretching from the lowest levels to the highest. This is not to criticize – who can say what they would do in such circumstances – and in many reflects the fact that while the Germans were a nation that had for many years been ‘obsessed’ with soldiering the Allied troops were ‘civilians in uniform’, but it does supply a useful corrective to those rose-tinted visions supplied by films such as The Longest Day or the newsreel footage showing Allied soldiers racing past cheering French civilians.

Finally, and as an aside, while good, the book also displays the limitations of the traditional book format as a method for presenting this sort of material (i.e. military history with its strong connections between the temporal and spatial aspects of events). At least for me, the attempt to render particular troop movements, or the direction of battles, in prose never really succeeds and one finds oneself constantly flicking back to the (rather limited) maps in an attempt to connect the descriptions of events, the failures and successes of particular thrusts, with their location, both geographically and within the overall direction of the campaign. Thus, it seems to me that it is that this kind of subject is the sort thing most suited to being integrated with the kind of approach proposed by the Microfacts / Weaving History project currently in the early stages of its development at the Open Knowledge Foundation. Here one would be able to marry maps with descriptions, photos with actions, time with space to provide a much clearer insight into what was going on.

On a man for man basis, the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES . [emphasis in original] This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.

It is undoubtedly true that the Germans were much more efficient than the Americans in making use of available manpower. An American army corps staff contained 55 per cent more officers and 44 per cent fewer other ranks than its German equivalent. …

Events on the Normandy battlefield demonstrated that most British or American troops continued a given operation for as long as reasonable me could. Then - when they had fought for many hours, suffered many casualties, or were running low on fuel or ammunition - they disengaged. The story of German operations, however, is landmarked with repeated examples of what could be achieved by soldiers prepared to attempt more than reasonable men could.”

  1. From p. 84 ff. “The American Colonel Trevor Dupuy has conducted a detailed statistical study of German actions in the Second World War. Some of his explanations as to why Hitler’s armies performed so much more impressively than their enemies seem fanciful. But no critic has challenged his essential finding that on almost every battlefield of the war, including Normandy, the German soldier performed more impressively than his opponents: ↩︎