Friday, May 9, 2014

The BIG picture

When you read war histories you find they often fall into a couple of different perspectives: the leaders and their strategies, and the soldiers and the action.  And while it might be tempting to dismiss books that focus more on strategy as academic, scholarly, and even boring, it's also a valuable perspective to better understand the course of history and why events unfolded as they did.

Most WWII history buffs are familiar with Operation Overlord.  It was the largest seaborne invasion and included over 6,000 ships and landed over a million men on the beaches of Normandy beginning June 6, 1944 – it was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.  But Overlord was part of a larger operation called Neptune which encompassed the entire plan to take the battle to Continental Europe, including the Mediterranean.

Even before Pearl Harbor, the US was involved in the war in Europe by providing armaments to Britain and Russia.  And once the US was committed to joining the war, Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that defeating Hitler needed to be the priority.  But Churchill had little faith in the untested and green US troops – and with good reason it turned out.  So even though Roosevelt, Marshall, and Eisenhower urged for a mainland cross-Channel assault, Churchill consistently redirected the attention toward the Mediterranean.  Initial fighting was in North Africa and eventually moved up into Italy, where it stalled.  Part of this British reluctance was a desire to keep Germany from controlling the Mediterranean and the important Suez Canal in Egypt (the shortest route to the British colonies in the Pacific).  But another influence was the British disaster at Dunkirk, where they barely got off the continent alive and able to fight another day.  The issue from the American perspective was that it wasn't facing the problem head-on and seemed to be dragging out the conflict.  Also, and perhaps more significantly, it didn't provide enough relief for the Russian troops fighting on the Eastern Front – a problem Stalin never hesitated to complain about.

This is just one of the interesting understandings I gained while reading Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings by Craig L. Symonds.  It's an excellent history of the bigger picture of what was going on, and deals mostly with the higher political and military figures.  It's also very much a view from the Allied perspective – there isn't much about the enemy here.  And while I found it very interesting in it's own way, I'll admit it's kind of dry information and I almost set it aside.  But everything changed when Symonds got to the actual invasion and I found myself unable to put the book down.  Suddenly the men on the ground and in the boats became alive and the action was intense.  There are plenty of individual stories and accounts woven into the narrative, but it still retains an orderly 'big picture' feel to it instead of the chaos that usually comes through in other books on the topic.  And while the paratroopers dropped behind the lines were given scant attention, Symonds tells in excellent detail the saving contribution of the destroyers, which maneuvered inshore in dangerously shallow depths and within range of the big German guns to provide the kind of coverage the air bombing had failed to achieve on that heavily overcast morning.

I've already written about a couple of books about the D-Day invasion of Normandy (The Bedford Boys and The Boys of Pointe du Hoc) that emphasize the fighting men and I'll follow up with a couple more that are considered "classics."  But if you're looking for a book which not only explains the lead-up to D-Day but also gets into the troubles of pulling together such an enormous armada as well as the challenges of getting so many men onto a thin beach with a long shallow approach full of mines, you'll probably enjoy this one and appreciate Symonds' excellent writing.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

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