D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by Anthony Beevor

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(June 6, 1944, D-Day Landing)

Anthony Beevor is a prolific historian.  His works include; STALINGRAD, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM, ARDENNES 1944, THE FALL OF BERLIN, 1945, THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN, and CRETE, 1941.  His works have achieved critical acclaim by military historians and the general public and one of his earlier books, D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY written in 2009 is very timely today.   On June 6th the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion will be held on the northern French coast and after reading Beevor’s account of the allied crossing of the English Channel one has to marvel at the logistical achievement and the courage of allied soldiers as they would land on the Normandy beaches and face the brunt of the Nazi military machine.  Beevor, a former commissioned officer in the British Army’s account encompasses more than just the invasion of Normandy which is covered in half the narrative, but the author continues with the breakout from Normandy, the opposition to Hitler and the July 1944 attempt on his life, the closing of the Falaise Gap through the liberation of Paris.  There are many books on D-Day from Cornelius Ryan’s classic, THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  the works of John Keegan, Carlo D’Este, and Stephen Ambrose, and the latest book on the topic, Giles Milton’s SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY all of which Beevor’s effort compares quite nicely.

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(Allies unloading at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)

Beevor’s approach is quite simple; provide the reader with the experience of being a witness to the daily decision making by allied strategists, and to a lesser extent what the Germans were planning.  He takes the reader inside the thoughts of SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Generals Omar T. Bradley, George S. Patton, Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, among many others.  We are exposed to their opinions of each other as well as their approach to warfare.  There are many candid comments be it President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s low opinion of French General Charles de Gaulle, or the views of American generals concerning the lack of progress due to Montgomery’s poor leadership.  Beevor’s comments are very insightful particularly labeling Montgomery as suffering from an Adlerian inferiority complex and his description of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. is priceless.

Beevor begins his narrative with a careful analysis of the allied approach to launching D Day.  Weather evaluation became the key to success and when it was not cooperative it caused a one-day postponement.  Later, Eisenhower would be extremely thankful when 110-mile winds buffeted parts of the French coast on June 19, lasting to the 22nd which caused massive destruction and incalculable damage to the beaches which had been transitioned to a supply base and center for further action.  The resulting delay hampered the evacuation of casualties, hindered air operations, but the allies would recover and take the key port of Cherbourg by June 26th.

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The author is at his best when describing the preparation and resulting battlefield action.  His description of the preparation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne as they trained and were about to land behind German lines before the invasion commenced is fascinating.  Beevor focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat from facing German Panzer Tiger Tanks and 88 mm. artillery, actual paratroop jumps, the need to dig fox holes quickly, the “black humor” soldiers resorted to as a coping method, and the terrain they had to navigate, i.e.; the bocage or hedgerows that dominated the French landscape as allied troops broke out into the French countryside.  He concentrates on the obstacles that allied troops would face preparing for the landing as well as the fighting that resulted i.e., the weight of their packs and the amount of equipment that they carried.  For some over 100 pounds which made it difficult to wade in the Channel without drowning, jump out of airplanes, or marching to the next engagement with the Germans.

Beevor provides maps of the battlefield and statistics that make the reader in awe when thinking about what took place in June 1944.  Beevor’s intimate knowledge of daily occurrences reflects an inordinate amount of research from interviewing allied survivors of the war, immersing himself in the work of unit historians as battles took place, traveling to 12 countries and examining 30 archives, as well as consulting many primary and secondary materials.

Perhaps Beevor’s best chapters come early as he deals with what appear to be scenes from the film, “Saving Private Ryan” as he describes what occurred on Utah and Omaha Beaches.  Beevor provides numerous stories of bravery and fortitude as chaos reigned on Omaha Beach in particular; “a mass of junk, men, and materials,” as well as the damage inflicted by the proliferation of German land mines on the beaches.  His evaluations are extremely accurate as he states the British army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations, and the poor preparation of the Germans which allowed the allies to remain on the beaches.  Beevor also spends a great deal of time dissecting the attempts to take the city of Caen and the final success in doing so.  He accurately points out that the initial failure to take the city created a rift between American and British commanders as it seemed they both had their own agendas.   Beevor’s evaluation of battlefield tactics are exceptional as well as the commanders involved.  He describes numerous lost opportunities on both sides pointing to the German ambush of British Cromwell tanks on June 14 at Hill 213 outside the village of Villars-Bocage.  In the end the RAF would flatten the village after earlier being greeted as liberators.

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The key to success was American organization as within a week after D Day, Omaha Beach “resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday.”  The Omaha Beach command was made up of 20,000 soldiers, the bulk of which were from the 5th and 6th Engineer Brigades.  But there were many problems that arose as the battles proceeded.  What to do with German POWS, shoot them or send them back to England?  How to transport casualties at the same time transporting POWS on the same LSTs.  What approach should be taken to thwart Hitler’s savior, the V-1 rockets as they began to reign on London and the English shore line?  How should commanders deal with combat exhaustion, more commonly known today as shock or PTSD?  What allowances should be made because of troop shortages and the lack of training of replacements?

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(SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley)

Beevor is very concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the war.  The death of French civilians due to allied bombing is well covered as is the French resentment against the British who they blamed for most of the Allied bombing errors.  As Beevor points out the French villagers paid a hefty price for their liberation.  Speaking of bombing errors, Beevor recounts more incidents than I was aware of pertaining to allied friendly fire.  Be it American, British, Canadian, Polish or French soldiers they all paid a hefty price for pilot or intelligence errors throughout Beevor’s narrative.

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(Over 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed)

The German high command receives a thrashing from Beevor as he points out that they did not have a central command in France at the time of D Day.  They relied on a ridiculous system of sharing command between General Field Marshall Edwin Rommel and General Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.  Hitler’s over reliance on his “Atlantic Wall” is covered in detail and his micro managing that only impeded the German war effort.  The frustration would boil over after Rundstedt is relieved of his command and a group of officers realize they are losing the war resulting in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of the Fuhrer.  Amazingly 20% of German forces in France in 1944 were made up of non-Germans, mostly Poles and Russians.

Beevor should be commended for showing his readers the heroism of the Soviet Army.  What the Russian people and soldiers experienced on the eastern front was horrendous, but Beevor is correct in arguing that Soviet propaganda put out by Stalin that Normandy was a side show to events in the east was wrong.  The battle for Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the eastern front.  The Germans would suffer over 250,000 casualties during the 90 days of summer in 1944 and lost another 200,000 as POWS captured at a rate higher than on the eastern front.

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The last third of the book is spent on the rush to liberate Paris, which was not part of the original D Day plan.  Bevor takes the reader through a series of operations and what stands out is German doggedness, particularly the Waffen-SS’s refusal to make life for allied soldiers any easier and the vengeance they meted out to French civilians, Resistance fighters, and Jews.  Another aspect that dominates is Montgomery’s constant attempts to assuage his own ego by launching and/or suggesting certain operations which would be counterproductive.  Another final component deals with internal French issues be it how collaborators were treated, De Gaulle’s battle with the Communists and the role of the Resistance.  Beevor joins Max Hastings as producing one of the most thorough accounts of D-Day and it should be read by anyone seeking the experience of what occurred, the personalities involved, and its effect on civilians caught in the cauldron of total war.

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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS by Stefan Zweig

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(Mary Queen of Scots)

The other day I went to see the film, Mary Queen of Scots  and as I do with most historical films, I wondered how historically accurate it was.  I vaguely recalled the biography of the Scottish Queen written over forty years ago by Antonia Fraser and it seemed there was a great deal of artistic license employed.  Since the most recent biography of Mary was written by John Guy it seemed like the best choice to read, however the film was based on that monograph. I decided to read an older classic account of the Queen written by Stefan Zweig in 1935 which has withstood the test of time.

Zweig, a prolific short story writer has written several biographies of major historical and literary figures that made him one of the most popular European writers in the 1920s and 30s.  Zweig delivers  a solid biography that encompasses her life begun during the time of Henry VIII who tried to pressure Mary’s father, James V to reject Catholicism and accept Protestantism.  James V would die six days after Mary’s birth (though Zweig seems to say they died on the same day), resulting in the ascension of Mary to the Scottish throne at birth.

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(Lord Henry Darnley)

What is clear about Scottish history is that it was very difficult for any monarch to rule Scotland effectively due to the marauding and jealous clans, led by lords who had difficulty projecting fealty to any monarch.  These lords were arrogant and greedy and were part of a somewhat narcissistic nobility.  Any wealth the monarchy might posses apart from sheep herds were gifts and grants from the French king or the Pope.  Historically Scotland was a pawn in the battle between France and England, and when war would break out, the English would land at Normandy, and the French would foment problems with their Scottish allies in the rear.

Zweig writes in a pleasant literary style that most historians can not match.  He writes with a scent of sarcasm whether discussing dynastic politics or diplomacy, and his monograph reads like a novel.  A prime example are the negotiations between Henry VIII and the Scots to marry his son Edward to the six-year-old Mary.  However, even after the negotiations are successful, she is spirited away by the French King Henry II to marry his son Francis.

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(Elizabeth I)

The basic problem is that Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne once Henry VIII died and his heirs Edward and Mary died.  The Scottish Mary was the great grand daughter of Henry VII of England, and Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was deemed a bastard.  Henry II would paint the English coat of arms on Francis and Mary’s blazon in 1559 thus fostering the enmity and creating a rival for Elizabeth I.  For the remainder of her life, Mary was seen by Elizabeth as a threat to her throne and eventually it would not end well for Mary.

Zweig will lay out the history of Mary’s short marriage to the sickly Francis and describe in detail her unwanted departure from France and return to Scotland.   Zweig effectively relates Mary’s emotional state as she departs France.  Zweig integrates Mary’s state of mind throughout the book and incorporates Mary’s own writings and words into the narrative.  When Mary departs for Scotland on August 14, 1561, she is traveling to a country that is totally strange and foreign to her.  She faces several obstacles before she arrives that will dog her for her entire reign.  She is to rule over a poverty-stricken country, she must deal with a corrupt nobility that seems to make war at the slightest provocation, she must confront a clergy that is equally divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, and must deal with foreign neighbors who are waiting to benefit from the fratricidal disputes that seem to occur regularly.

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(Lord Bothwell)

Zweig lays out the barriers that Mary must face when she assumes the throne.  She is poor as her mother; Mary of Guise left no inheritance.  Further, she must deal with wars of religion where the towns support Protestantism, and the countryside Catholicism.  In addition, she must deal with fanatical priests and foreign powers, and lastly nobles who convert to Calvinism as a means of seizing Church wealth.  Mary learned fast and decided that perpetual warfare was the way to preserve her Stuart heritage.  The question that dominants is how does one rule when more than half of your kingdom believes in a different religion.

Several important figures emerge that influence the course of Mary’s reign.  Her half-brother James Stuart, the bastard son of James V was her Prime Minister, and a Protestant.  A patient practitioner of the Machiavellian arts, he would have made the perfect king of Scotland.  James was wealthy in his own right and was always willing to accept subsidies to carry out the desires of Elizabeth I.  Another major figure was John Knox, the fanatical Calvinist preacher who refused to accept Mary as the legitimate ruler of Scotland.  His merciless antagonism and demagogic speeches designed to spread his dictatorial religious beliefs was a threat to Mary her entire reign.  When they finally meet for the first time, Zweig presents a wonderful description of their debate that demeaned Mary, who stood up to Knox but realized the difficulty that he presented.

Throughout Zweig allows the reader to experience Renaissance culture through the poets and their poetry of the period.  Mary who grew up during the French Renaissance was a cultured individual who did not fit in Scotland.  Zweig shifts his narrative to the social and cultural mores and norms whenever the situation warrants, and it is a pleasant change from the constant lack of decency and back stabbing that dominates Mary’s reign.

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Any biography of Mary must concentrate on her relationship with Elizabeth I.  Zweig
does an exceptional job and his narrative is based on facts presented or debated with a scholar’s enthusiasm.  There is a psychological dimension to the relationship between the two Queens and Zweig does his best to explore it and reach his own psychohistorical conclusions.  He possesses a deep admiration for Mary and her refusal to give into a destiny that she should have been able to predict.  Reading this monograph at a time of the “me-too” movement one must not take out any sexist frustrations one might feel in regard to Zweig’s comments, i.e.; “In spite of their superlative traits these two women remained women throughout and were unable to overcome the weaknesses inherent in their sex.”  The narrative concerning the monarchial cousins centered on their differences that led to the ruin of Mary and victory for Elizabeth.

Zweig correctly points out that the Treaty of Edinburgh was at the center of their inability to reach a rapprochement despite the flowery letters between the two.  Mary would not sign the treaty recognizing Elizabeth’s reign until Elizabeth had accorded the succession to Mary – but to Elizabeth that would be signing her death warrant.  Zweig points out the strengths and weaknesses of the cousins as well as their similarities and differences.  Mary possessed a madly heroic self-confidence that led to her doom.  Elizabeth suffered from a lack of decision making, but she would still be victorious.  Mary was the champion of the old Catholic faith and was a character out of the Middle Ages believing in chivalry which was dying out.  Elizabeth was the more modern monarch who was defending the reformation.  The approach to their individual kingdoms also sets them apart.  Mary’s kingdom belonged to her on a personal level and she was interested in territorial expansion of her realm, only if it would benefit her personally.  For Elizabeth everything she did was to expand her kingdom and add to the glory of England, not her personal possessions.  The resulting engagement in wars, colonial expansion, and spreading England’s influence around the world was the result.

Perhaps Zweig’s most fascinating chapters deal with marriage diplomacy between the two Queens.  The narrative is priceless as negotiations between the two go back and forth and characters like Lord Henry Darnley and Robert Dudley become pawns between the two women.  Zweig’s presentation is almost like a comedic sketch resulting in the secret marriage of Darnley to Mary that has grave repercussions as Elizabeth and James Stuart are shunned to the side and the result is war that at first Mary is victorious, but in the end creates tensions that could only result in her defeat.

Zweig constantly offers a lens into the human condition throughout the narrative.  He delves into the psychological imperative that drives Mary and provides a wonderful soliloquy encompassing her infatuation for Lord Bothwell and the repercussions of the murder plot to kill her husband and her almost immediate marriage to her husband’s murderer.  Zweig’s analysis is deep and carefully thought out and certain historical scenes are presented as if  from a Shakespearean play as there are constant comparisons to the Bard’s characters.  The result is that Mary’s psyche has deteriorated to the point that she is unable to face what she has done and how dark were her deeds.  A major component of the book is the decline in Mary’s psychological well being as her behavior is detrimental to her political position and her own happiness resulting in her self-inflicted downfall.

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(The execution of Mary Queen of Scots)

This decline is readily apparent as Zweig describes the negotiations between the cousins once she leaves Scotland and is “detained” in England in 1567.  Elizabeth wanted Mary to renounce her rights to the English throne and retire quietly.  Further, she wanted Mary to be cleared of involvement in the regicidal plot involving Bothwell and the death of her husband, Lord Darnley.  Zweig reproduces a great deal of documentation of the Westminster Conference which investigated the murder.  As in several cases dealing with Mary the results were not clear, but no matter the result Mary once again let her pride stand in the way of her safety as she lamented her situation and refused to give into Elizabeth’s demands.  The situation could easily have been resolved had Elizabeth, who at times had difficulty making major decisions just had Mary found guilty and executed in 1568 and not let the situation drag on for years with the same results.

As an aside, if one compares the film, Mary Queen of Scots to Zweig’s or other historical monographs it becomes clear there are several inaccuracies.  First, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face as takes place toward the end of the film.  Second, the brutal murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s confidante does not take place in front of the Queen as is shown in the film as he was dragged into another stateroom for the deed to transpire.  Third, it is debatable to assert that Darnley and Rizzio were lovers as is reflected in the film.  Fourth,  Mary did not have a Scottish accent as reflected in the film as she was raised in France, and lastly Lord Darnley probably raped Mary the first time they had sex.  The film overall is well done with a diverse cast, which of course did not exist in the 16th century, but the gist of historical accuracy does come across and one must remember a film is made to make money – not bring true history  to the screen.

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(Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I as portrayed in the film)

Zweig has written a somewhat entertaining and literary biography of Mary Queen of Scots.  In reading the book one must realize the time period in which it was written and Zweig’s background as a writer.  It may not meet the criteria that today’s historians might call for, i.e.; a full bibliography and endnotes, but it is a legitimate work of history and I would recommend it for those who seek clarification, those  who have seen the film, or those who are just curious about one of the most enigmatic figures in history.

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(Mary Queen of Scots as portrayed in the film)