Normandy '44: D-Day and the Retaking of Europe

Image of Normandy '44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France
Release Date: 
June 4, 2019
Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by: 

“a highly readable account of the Allied effort to not only get ashore on the continent of Europe, but stay ashore and liberate Europe.”

June 6, 1944, is one of the most critical days of World War II, and certainly one of the milestones of the 20th century. However, as James Holland points out in this thought provoking and occasionally controversial book, it was only the first day of a costly and grueling 77-day campaign to defeat the German Army in Normandy and pave the way for the Allied liberation of Europe.

Holland has a brisk style that effortlessly combines narrative history with combat memoirs from both sides, creatively balancing the general’s and sergeant’s points of view of the daily grind of close quarters combat. Gratefully, this book is well stocked with excellent maps and well-chosen images to supplement the narrative and assist the reader in following the numerous operations of both armies.

In his sharp account Holland fearlessly wades into many of the myths and controversies surrounding the Normandy campaign, exercising a strong inclination to challenge many of the common historical views. Two of his major discussions concern the fighting prowess of both sides and their weaponry and the overall quality and capabilities of the high command for both sides.

In the first analysis, he digs into the long-held view that the German Wehrmacht out-classed the Allies in tactical skills and the quality of their weapons, especially German’s vaunted Panzers. While he concedes that on a tactical level the Germans were often more aggressive and quicker to counterattack than the Allies, by 1944 the quality of many front-line units had dropped significantly.

Five years of war and the meat-grinder of the Russian front had hallowed out much of the German Army and by June 6, many of their infantry units had little mobility and were suited only for static defense. Even their better equipped mobile Panzer units suffered from an influx of inexperienced recruits and limited training opportunities due to crippling fuel shortages.

As well, even though German tanks may have been superior in individual engagements, they were simply overrun by vast numbers of Allied tanks that by 1944 had been equipped with guns nearly as lethal as the Germans.

Most critical, as Holland shows throughout the book, the Allies’ unchallenged air dominance in the skies over France overwhelmed the German qualitative edge by making daylight movement nearly impossible, cutting supply lines, and serving as flying artillery to blunt German attacks and clear a path for Allied offensives, particularly Operation Cobra that shattered the German front and led to the Allied sweep across France. The Normandy campaign truly saw the maturation of Allied tactical airpower to support ground troops and Holland captures this critical factor to Allied success brilliantly.

Both of these situations lead to the most notable conclusion Holland makes, that by 1944 the Allies had surpassed the Germans in the operational level of war, the ability to translate battle planning and execution across a wide front into a strategic purpose, in this case, the destruction of the German Army in France.

To reach this level of competence in the operational art, the Allies also had a significant advantage in both their command structure and the quality of the Allied leaders. The political conniving and strategic indecision of the Nazi hierarchy played a huge role in this disparity as Hitler’s megalomania and micromanagement significantly reduced the speed and flexibility of German strategic reaction once the Allied invasion began. But even the German generals get little sympathy as he maintains most of them were biased by their time fighting the Russians and had no inkling of the dominance of the Western Allies’ air and naval power.

On the opposite spectrum, the Allied high command was remarkably unified and General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, had complete operational control of all the units in the European Theater, where he was able to muster the combined weight of Allied forces toward a common goal under his subordinate commanders, managing almost effortlessly the complex mix of nationalities, personalities, and egos to achieve victory in a fairly short amount of time.

Even Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a favorite target of American historians, gets a more complete and sympathetic look. While acknowledging that Montgomery’s ego, lack of tact and interpersonal skills, and broad disdain for the fighting skills of Americans and their generals made him no friends among his contemporaries or historians, he was exactly the right general to lead British forces in the campaign.

Very aware that he was leading essentially Britain’s last field army and could therefore not sustain huge casualties, Montgomery nonetheless was able to conduct a campaign of firepower and logistics, two of the Allies strong suits, to wear down the mobile German forces and leave them vulnerable to the final American breakout and pursuit.

Once the Americans started their highly mobile advance under General Patton, probably America’s finest armor commander, the British and Canadian forces under Montgomery continued to play an essential role in keeping the Germans engaged as the noose that became the Falaise Pocket closed around the bulk of the German forces in France, ending the campaign in Normandy and beginning the Allies race to the German frontier.

By taking the long view of D-Day as the beginning of a campaign and not just an isolated day in the war, Holland has composed a highly readable account of the Allied effort to not only get ashore on the continent of Europe, but stay ashore and liberate Europe. Well written and illustrated, with some outstanding maps, this book really does a marvelous job of showing the significance of D-day in the Great Crusade to liberate Europe and defeat Nazi Germany.