Aug 21st 2009

Slaughtering for Freedom: The Normandy Campaign

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

The British writer and Catholic convert, Malcolm Muggeridge can be found writing that the liberated do, in time, come to hate their liberators. In the case of freeing France from Nazi rule, the problems were particularly acute: do we let the Americans into Paris first as the Germans flee in 1944, as opposed to the less-liked British? In the final analysis, some of the French may have preferred neither. They had been humiliated by occupation, collaboration, self-deceptions. They were also butchered in numbers by the exercise, with 3,000 dying on D-Day itself. The gruesome reality realised in the recent work by Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, demonstrating how those who free are not averse to bloodletting.

The conventional record is known to most who care to flick over the pages of the greatest amphibious landing in history, an operation so colossal it made Andro Linklater, who reviewed Beevor's book in the Spectator (20 May) irate that its chief planner, General Frederick Morgan, had been omitted. It was an astonishing undertaking, even by the standards of today. Its participants risked catastrophe and massacre. Advanced briefings were prepared in the event that the bloodied beaches would not be captured. High mortality rates were predicted.

Beevor's eye for the battle scene for all details military is superb. He captures the temperament well, those brutalities and cruelties of battle, the idiotic waste of life that accompanies misunderstandings. (There is no pre-requisite for liberators to know local languages.) Hostages were killed with impunity on both sides -legal conventions protecting both soldier and civilian were honoured in the breach.

The Normandy campaign was often characterised by saturation bombing and annihilation before the Allied troops moved in. This tended to have a rather foreseeable result: civilians would perish before soldiers. Beevor notes a comment from a survivor from those vicious bombings: "Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match." He offers a formidable and ghastly total of French non-combatant dead: 70,000 at the hands of the Allied bombardment for the war.

The Germans come out rather well in this story. They are justifiably seen as brave, efficient, astonishingly committed. This did have the effect of terrifying and puzzling their enemy. Major-General Raymond Barton was convinced that the Allies had to commit to the campaign without reservation, facing such an unflagging foe. "We outnumber them ten to one in infantry, 50 to one in artillery and an infinite number in the air." Beevor takes issue with the military experts - Sir Basil Liddell Hart was never convinced that the soldiers of a democracy would pull their weight when it came to the game of slaughter. Mindless German soldiers in the service of a ruthless totalitarian power maybe - for those committed to village cricket and the Westminster system, no.

The French themselves come out rather less flatteringly, wedged between liberators and occupiers. Beevor does not hide from revealing the insipid credentials of some who proved too cowardly to fight. Post-liberation euphoria rapidly turned to vengeance. 14,000 alleged collaborators were slain, almost a third of them women. Ritual humiliations also accompanied these 'horizontal' collaborators of the bed and power chambers.

What Beevor reveals is not in itself new. But he strikes the note of freshness that has left other writers who have trawled through that same period impressed. "He makes my version, and those of many other historians," wrote Max Hastings (Times, May 31) in a half-injured tone, "seem old hat."

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