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The Days After
In a lot of ways, the deck was stacked in favor of the Allies. They had the advantage in numbers in every category land, sea and air while the Germans were badly depleted by the war on the Eastern front. The Germans were also hamstrung by their unbelievably byzantine and incoherent command structure Untersturmführers and Obergruppenführers are thick on the ground in D-Day which had a delusional Hitler at its apex.
But the Germans had better weaponry, and the weather was on their side: shortly after the landings, the Channel was scoured by its worst storm in 40 years, which slowed the Allied buildup. The terrain was also on their side: the towering Norman hedgerows, part of a topographical oddity known as the bocage, were so tall and thick, they could and literally did stop Sherman tanks.
On top of it all, many of the German soldiers truly believed that the very existence of Germany and therefore civilization itself was at stake, and they fought with fanatic zeal. Unable to land a decisive blow, the two sides settled into a ghastly war of attrition that ate men and machines while giving back little in the way of actual territorial gains.
The image of close combat in the verdant, achingly fertile French countryside seems fantastical now, like something out of The Lord of the Rings, so accustomed are we to watching dusty urban combat on CNN. Surgeons disinfected wounds with Calvados. Unmilked cows wandered bellowing through the ruins of ancient châteaus. Artillery crews learned to fire airbursts into the thick tops of chestnut trees to kill those underneath with splinters.
Beevor is a skillful guide through the complex jockeying for position, sketching thumbnail portraits of the senior officers with novelistic abandon. (Of the senior British commander, the exasperating Sir Bernard Montgomery, he writes, "His self-regard was almost comical.") He is willing to be graphic, though never gratuitously so, in his descriptions of battle. Maybe the most horrific weapon on the battlefield was the white phosphorus the Allies carried. During the bitter fighting for Hill 112, an English soldier tried to slip through barbed wire under machine-gun fire. A round clipped a phosphorus grenade in his pouch and ignited it. Writhing and burning, he became entangled in the wire and hung there, begging for death, until one of his comrades finally shot him out of compassion. After scenes like this, even the chaotic, bacchanalian liberation of Paris comes as an anticlimax.
Beevor is not a writer much given to profound reflection. His big-picture take on D-day could be summed up as, It could have gone better, but it's amazing that they did it at all. Yet with its rigorous research and its wealth of human detail, D-Day is a vibrant work of history that honors the sacrifice of tens of thousands of men and women. Which is serious praise.
It's also the story of the destructive arrival of the modern age in Europe. The armies that rolled through Normandy obliterated an ancient land and way of life that would be rebuilt but never restored. At one point, Beevor describes the astonishment of an old Benedictine nun emerging from her convent during the evacuation of Caen: she had never seen a truck before. It took a world war to chivy out the last vestiges of the 19th century from where they still lived, peacefully sequestered in the bocage, and expunge them forever. The Germans and the Allies would eventually leave Normandy, when the fighting was over. But the new era they brought with them never would.