The Normandy Battlefield: D-day and the Bridgehead

By Paul Robinson 16 Sep 2014 0

As I have indicated in a recent review the D-day Landings and the Normandy Campaign are one of those subjects of military history that have (like the battles of Waterloo and Gettysburg) produced volumes of books, articles and, doubtless, reviews!  So do we really need another one?

The first impression of this book is ?coffee table book?.  And this would be an unfortunate impression to have gained.   The authors, Leo Marriott (an aviation and naval warfare specialist author) and Simon Forty (a well-known commissioning editor), have produced a really lovely overview of the Normandy Landings telling the story largely through masses of contemporary and modern photographs.

The appeal of this book is its production values and attention to detail but also the amazing modern (full colour) aerial photography of a number of the key locations along the Normandy beaches. .  A nice ?quirk? is the use of images of the Voie de la Liberte 1944 markers as the left hand page number markers (these totemic markers were placed in 1947 and follow the route of Patton?s Third Army from Utah beach to Metz and on to Bastogne).

The Introduction gives an amazingly detailed preview to the D-day Landings in a very short amount of text; starting with the invasion of France in 1940, the Japanese entry into the War, passing quickly through the history of the opening a second front by the Western allies; and onto more detail of the planning of the Normandy Invasion; ending with a brief paragraph about the Atlantic Wall.  This latter is the first point in the book where the authors integrate the short sections of free text into the abundance of photographs.  Not only are the latter well chosen to illustrate as many aspects of a particular element of the story as possible (so in this case we have photographs of beach obstacles, individual concrete emplacements, bunker complexes, tank turrets, Rommel and a JagdPanzer IV) but are thoroughly captioned with as much detail as necessary to properly fit the picture into the story but also tell the pictures story. So the JagdPanzer IV and Rommel captions will serve as examples: ?Heavily camouflaged Jagdpanzer IV of 116th Panzer Division rushes to the front.  Attrition by ?Jabos? Allied fighter bombers meant this journey was fraught with danger?.  So quite short but still tells a story.  Whereas the caption to the image of Rommel is much longer covering his concerns about the quality of German defences and his disagreements over the strategy to be used against any allied attack.

The book is thereafter divided into ten chapters each themed around a particular subject (e.g. Chapters One to Three Preparation, Seapower, Airpower) or around the action on the five main beaches (Chapters Five through Nine Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword) or the Airborne Landings (Chapter Five).  Each of those Chapters starts with a striking two page spread photograph and a famous quote.  For example the chapter on Omaha uses the words of George Taylor (CO of US 16th infantry Regiment of the ?Big Red One? Division); ?Two kinds of men are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die.  Now let?s get the hell out of here?.  There is a small amount of free text on the chapter?s general subject matter and masses of accompanying photographs (modern and contemporary), maps, diagrams and the occasional drawing.  Often these are grouped around a particular aspect; so for example pages 30 to 31 in Chapter One Preparations has various photos of the different types of specialist armour used by the Allies. 

Those chapters covering the Airborne and Beach operations also include very short brigade and divisional unit level orders of battle for the main allied divisions and/or Corps involved.  Again I thought these added a nice touch.  Also there are a number of maps showing some of the important military movements or the arrangement of a number of the key German defensive positions.

One of the other aspects of the book that needs pointing out further (having already been mentioned) is the aerial photography.  This, for me, is what makes this book stand out.  That is no surprise as taking such photographs is the speciality of one of the authors!  Most if not all of the modern aerial photographs are annotated to show the many monuments erected to either commemorate the losses to particular units or mark their achievements (in most cases it is clearly both).  Also key German strongpoints are picked out or key buildings that either played a significant role or were well known landmarks during a battle.  These modern photos are in a number of places in the book juxtaposed against aerial reconnaissance pictures from 1944.  It is interesting to note how little some of the locations have changed (preserved by their association with such momentous events) and how exposed some of the beaches were!  This is reinforced by a number of contemporary pictures taken from on top of or beside German emplacements looking towards the beach.   They mostly have very clear fields of fire at often very close range!  Obvious perhaps, but worth re-inforcing to the modern reader.

The final Chapter is the shortest but most poignant and its title speaks for itself really ? In Memoriam.  This Chapter is a small selection of modern photographs (again some striking ones from the air) showing the war graves of both Allied and German soldiers.  This is fitting way to end the book and allows one to reflect on the realities of war.

Having read a great deal about the Normandy Campaign over the years I was nervous that I would find this book a bit boring or for it to have nothing new in it for me.  However this expectation proved quite the contrary. The combination of photographs and the excellent captioning of these, the book?s overall layout, the maps and sheer thoughtfulness and care that has gone into the book make this a winner.  Add to that the aerial photography and this is book a pleasure to add to an already burgeoning World war Two and D-day centric personal library!  Highly recommended.

?The Normandy Battlefields? is available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $29.95/£19.99 (ISBN 9781612002316).

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