Understanding Normandy

Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book.” George C. Scott utters those words in a scene from the 1970 film Patton. With that gloating comment, the general reveals to the audience how he defeated the infamous Wehrmacht field marshal. He read his book.

I would venture the same goes for almost anything in life including learning about D-Day and the battles waged in Normandy or enhancing a visit to the Omaha or Utah beaches, or any other of the nearby World War II battlefields. Read the book. While I have not counted, there are hundreds if not thousands of books on the topic, perhaps more than for any other World War II battle. Whittling the list down to a manageable number is a daunting task, but below are ten books I suggest followed by comments from John C. McManus, noted historian, author, and professor of military history who has visited Normandy and guided tours of the battlefields for decades.

The list includes, as I believe it should, a wide array of perspectives from the broad sweep of history to the very intimate eyewitness accounts and a work of fiction. The list does not however include a proper travel guide—something you might not need if you absorb even a fraction of the contents of the ten named books. Besides, most well-traveled souls have their own preferences, whether Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Eyewitness, or one from Rick Steeves.

(Note: unless noted otherwise the comments that follow are my own.)

  1. World War II: Map by Map
     
    (DK and the Smithsonian Institution, 2019)

If there is such a thing as the war in a nutshell, then DK and Smithsonian’s sumptuously illustrated, oversize book is one, although it is a very large nutshell, indeed. The book covers far more than D-Day through maps, photographs, and narrative, and all are mesmerizing and exquisitely chosen and displayed. The battles, whether on land, sea, or in the air, nearly leap off the page. Beginning with the rise of the Axis powers and continuing through the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the book also offers insights into the events through timelines and narrative overviews addressing social, economic, and political developments.

2. Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France by James Holland
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019)

For in-depth insight into the war in Normandy and France through the breakout, Holland’s book is an invaluable asset. Part reference book, part historical narrative, part firsthand accounts. With an extensive set of maps, photographs of key personalities, timelines, not only of the 24 hours of D-Day, but the 77 days of planning and execution from January 1944 through the end of August the same year. Holland escorts the reader alongside the first wave of soldiers and then on through the French countryside, fighting amidst the hedgerows and across northern France, chasing the retreating and all-but vanquished German army, nearly bereft of its once formidable Luftwaffe. While chock-full of interesting details, space here allows just one example: Holland argues much has been made of the how the defenses over Omaha beach had survived Allied bombing, but the state of the German army would soon be exposed—the enemy were young men with little training, “ utterly terrified,” and acting on survival instincts, destined to succumb to a much stronger foe.

Normandy and D-Day

3.D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose
(Simon and Schuster, 1994)

I cannot imagine a list of WWII books without at least one from Stephen E. Ambrose. This book is touted as the definitive history of the war’s most pivotal battle, and one that Ambrose wrote drawing on nearly 1,500 interviews of veterans from the US, Great Britain, Canada, France, and Germany. Ambrose recounts the events of the 24 hours of June 6, 1944, beginning at the beginning, “At 0016 hours, June 6, 1944, the Horsa glider crash-landed alongside the Caen Canal, some fifty meters from the swing bridge crossing the canal.”

The facts are there, “Operation Overlord … was staggering in its scope. In one night and day, 175,000 fighting men and their equipment, including 50,000 vehicles of all types, ranging from motorcycles to tanks and armored bulldozers, were transported across sixty to a hundred miles of open water and landed on a hostile shore against intense opposition. But, as anyone who reads Ambrose knows, there is much more than numbers, there are the people and strategy and the images as the events unfolded.

4. Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
(
Stackpole Books, 2006)

For this article, John C. McManus recommended almost any book by Joseph Balkoski. McManus’s review of Omaha Beach for the Wall Street Journal notes:

Balkoski is sometimes referred to as the finest living D-Day historian. For my money, the title fits. Anyone who wants to know anything about Omaha Beach, where the fighting was heaviest and bloodiest, must begin with this foundational book by a true maestro of original history. The research is unparalleled and comprehensive enough to satisfy even the most skeptical scholar, yet the story is absorbing. The carnage of Omaha Beach comes to life with vivid contemporary descriptions from participants and witnesses, while the whole tale is deftly steered along by Balkoski’s steady narration and his sense of the battle’s larger significance. “History can provide at least a little solace that there was some meaning to it all,” he writes movingly. “D-Day was the decisive chapter of a twentieth century Iliad.” Indeed it was–and Balkoski is its Homer.

5. The Dead and Those About to Die by John C. McManus
(Dutton Caliber, 2015)

John C. McManus acknowledges the contribution of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan for bringing the horrific saga of what transpired at the water’s edge on Normandy into everyone’s consciousness. But then, in the chapter H-Hour, he makes us look at the scene again. This time not through the eyes of the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division, but the 1st—the Big Red One. Reading that chapter is as if you were on the beach of Saving Private Ryan, but hitting the pause button every few seconds and zooming in to crouch beside Joe Zukowski, Frank DeBellis, and Howard Pearre, among so many others, crawl, try to walk laden with far too much equipment, likely bleeding from machine-gun fire that pierced knees and arms and chests, and ultimately fall.

McManus says that D-Day is “much better known than understood.” He is right and goes on to explain the what, why, and how. He pounds home the tendency of Americans with their array of warships, bombers, fighters, their amphibious tanks, and their Higgins boats to overestimate the effectiveness of that power and technology. That bias led to a dangerous underestimation of the firepower the Germans salvaged and rained down on the beach. It led to the underestimation of the German tactics of mining the beaches and draws leading from them.

Were it not for the infinite courageous actions across Omaha, many more men would have been lost. There were heroes at all ranks that day, but through it all, McManus attributes the 1st Infantry’s success to training and leadership but also to the unit’s culture of “personal accountability at the basic human level. . . . the soldiers of the Big Red One were willing to sacrifice themselves and risk death, not just for their cause, not just for the pride of their unit, but in the end, for one another.”

Generals and Privates

6. Brothers, Rivals, Victors by Jonathan W. Jordan
(Dutton Caliber, 2011)

Like others who loved the book, I found Brothers Rivals Victors compelling reading and a page turner. I had thought, given the book’s 500 plus pages to become lost in the details, but had quite the contrary experience. I read every word of the text and dozens of the footnotes. Perhaps my best takeaway is the discovery of the men behind the myth, that at one time these men were the best of friends, then rivals–sometimes fiercely and disparaging of the others, but by the end of their lives, reconciled in each other’s qualities.

As described in an online overview, “Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Omar Bradley shared bonds going back decades. All three were West Pointers who pursued their army careers with a remarkable zeal, even as their paths diverged. Bradley was a standout infantry instructor, while Eisenhower displayed an unusual ability for organization and diplomacy. Patton, who had chased Pancho Villa in Mexico and led troops in the First World War, seemed destined for high command and outranked his two friends for years. But with the arrival of World War II, it was Eisenhower who attained the role of Supreme Commander, with Patton and Bradley as his subordinates.

“Jonathan W. Jordan . . . explores this friendship that waxed and waned over three decades and two world wars, a union complicated by rank, ambition, jealousy, backbiting and the enormous stresses of command. In a story that unfolds across the deserts of North Africa to the beaches of Sicily, from D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge and beyond, readers are offered revealing new portraits of these iconic generals.”

7. Normandiefront: D-Day to St. Lo Through German Eyes by Vince Milano and Bruce Connor (The History Press, 2012)

For a view of the war from a different perspective, that of German soldiers in their gun emplacements high over the beaches of Normandy, turn to Normandiefront. Rare firsthand accounts and the skilled narration of the authors illustrate that “not all German soldiers were highly motivated Nazis. For most … their motivation to fight to the end was born of their wish to return home to their loved ones,” as the foreword by Martin-Robert Galle says. The book’s focus is on the German army’s 352nd Infantry Division that Rommel dispatched to the coast and its fixed but well-entrenched defenses to bolster and nearly double the number of soldiers the Allies would face. The 352nd, who unlike the other German units, did not break ranks. They exacted a high price and, as the authors reflect, had the Germans perhaps deployed equivalent forces and capabilities across the invasion landscape, the end-result might have been altogether different.

8. The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II by Alex Kershaw
(Dutton Caliber, 2020)

A statement by to Sergeant John Ellery, 16th Infantry Regiment, US 1st Infantry Division graces a wall at the American Cemetery in Normandy. In the quote, Ellery says, “When you talk about combat leadership under fire on the beach at Normandy, I don’t see how credit can go to anyone other than the company-grade officers and senior NCOs who led the way.” Fittingly, Kershaw opens his recent book with that quote. Those company grade officers and senior NCOs, like Dalton, Gautier, Hollis, Howard, Kerchner, Lillyman, Lovat, Millin, Otway, Rudder, Schroeder, Spalding, and Wallwork, will never be as familiar as Eisenhower, Patton, or Bradley, but Kershaw finally gives them their due.

The book begins as Eisenhower decides to launch the invasion with a simple, “OK. We’ll go,” and continues through the breakout into northern France and the early signs of the defeat of Hitler in late August and September 1944. As the action unfolds readers step into Lillyman’s shoes, then Howard’s, then Lovat’s, and so on, until they have experienced, as only a spellbinding storyteller can show, what it was like to be in the first wave on D-Day, whether from the air or sea or land.

Narrative Nonfiction or a Novel

9. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follet
(Penguin Books, 1978)

For sheer suspense and reading pleasure Ken Follet’s novel of a notorious German spy’s attempt to discover and thwart the plans for the invasion of Normandy is at the top of my list. Follet knows his reader knows the “Needle” can’t prevail, but the author still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through the last sentence on the last page.

Other

10. The Normandy Battlefield: D-Day and the Bridgehead by Leo Marriott and Simon Forty
(Casemate, 2014)

This book is as close as I’ll come to including a travel guide. As a coffee table book measuring approximately 9 inches by 12 inches, it is unlikely to be something the traveler would carry with them on tour (unless of course in electronic format). Still the lushly illustrated book, full-color current day photos, clear descriptions of the Normandy coast, the invasion plans, the German defenses, and the beaches as well as the “then and now” photographs are well worth having as a resource or a souvenir on returning from a tour.

There are many other lists of the best books about D-Day. You may find British historian and author James Holland’s list of particular interest. (https://bookmarks.reviews/james-holland-the-five-best-books-about-d-day/)

Lifelong Learning

D-Day continues to intrigue audiences, whether history aficionados, sons and daughters of those who were on the beaches of Normandy or helped put our soldiers there, or anyone who wants to know more about the pivotal event that continues to wield influence over our lives and values. Reading the stories of the invasion contributes to our learning. As does, a visit to the battlefields.

John C. McManus has accompanied a number of tour groups across the beaches of Normandy, lecturing and helping to bring the events alive. He offered these comments for touring:

When to Go: I honestly think the best time to visit sites is not necessarily during high profile marker anniversaries. Granted, the crowds and ceremonies can be exciting and unforgettable. But if your goal is to explore a place in depth and learn all you can, then this is much easier at off times, when you won’t deal with as much traffic or crowding.

Before You Go: Read all the relevant material you can and decide what interests you most. Make a list of questions and how you would like them answered. There is so much to see in Normandy, whether on the beaches and battlefields or in the museums, it is best to prioritize what you want to see. Get in the best possible physical condition.

When You Are There: Nothing beats seeing the ground and immersing yourself in a place and its culture. The sights and smells really hit home to you. I think this is especially true for anyone with a personal tie to someone who fought in whatever battle you are exploring. Last year I had the opportunity to walk the beach at Dieppe with the son of a Canadian soldier who fought there. We saw the spot where his unit landed. I could not help but be affected by how incredibly meaningful this visit was for the son.

After You Go: If anything, once you visit a battlefield, you get a sense of how much you don’t know, so this tends to spark lifelong learning. The same is very much true for me. There is always so much more to explore!


Rona Simmons’s first published works were novels, primarily works of historical fiction. Then, in 2017 she co-authored and published Images from World War II, celebrating the art of a local WWII veteran and artist Jack Smith.

The gratifying response and the experience of compiling Jack’s paintings into a lasting tribute rekindled Rona’s interest in World War II. She combined this passion with her love of telling stories to produce The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines (Kent State University Press, April 2020), featuring profiles of World War II veterans. The daughter of a World War II fighter pilot, herself, she is proud to honor veterans and their stories and to help preserve this corner of history through her work.

Rona is a frequent speaker on topics ranging from blogging, writing, editing, marketing, and publishing to choosing a second career. When not planning to write, writing, or talking about writing, Rona writes about military history and related topics on her blog “Gone for a Soldier,” women in the creative arts on “Women at Word” and local authors and bookstores on “From Acworth to Zebulon.” Her stories, articles, and interviews have been published in regional and national literary journals and online magazines.

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