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‘You can’t expect the armies of a democracy to fight the same way as the armies of a totalitarian regime’

In D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, best-selling historian Antony Beevor (Stalingrad, The Fall of Berlin 1945) has delved into World War II’s most worked-over turf. As he burrowed into new sources, his keen eye for telling details also turned up some larger issues that have recently begun to surface—like the price the French paid for liberation. Other themes emerged from his parsing of the U.S. Army’s postbattle interviews: “These are absolute gold, far more important than interviewing living veterans, because they’re immediately contemporary to the events. Not that later memories are dishonest, just that they’re often filtered through what veterans have read and seen since.”

Why D-Day?
There’d been no general history of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy since the 1980s. Since then, a huge amount of material—diaries, letters, and so forth—was deposited in different countries. Diaries give you the eyewitness accounts you need to build up the level of detail that conveys what being there was like. There’s also been a tendency to separate D-Day and the battle for Normandy. That left a lot to be reassessed.

For instance?
The very nature of the fighting. One of the great, terrible paradoxes is how the armies of democratic nations tend to use bombs and shells to reduce their casualties, leading to far greater civilian casualties. So the issue of French casualties needed to be examined.

How did you approach it?
From its context. French-American relations were excellent in 1940. Huge numbers of Americans were living in France. The American ambassador was entrusted to negotiate the surrender of Paris.

Why did relations sour?
Roosevelt was very influenced by Admiral Leahy and French figures in Washington; they deeply distrusted DeGaulle, thinking he was an adventurer and potential dictator. Churchill welcomed DeGaulle in 1940 but then found him exasperating. He didn’t handle DeGaulle very well, and DeGaulle was ready to bite the hand that fed him, out of French pride. Yet if he hadn’t had that intense belief in France, he would never have achieved what he did.

For example?
The Americans, even more than the British, were unaware of the threat of civil war in France. So they failed to understand why DeGaulle’s priority was sorting that out and getting regular French troops to Paris, in case of a communist uprising. Whether an Allied military government, as Roosevelt mistakenly wanted, or a French provisional government should administer France was crucial. Churchill was more sympathetic; he realized the liberation of France should actually involve the French.

And the Resistance?
It is a part of the myth that France liberated herself, a necessary bandage to 1940’s deep wounds. But Patton’s remark, “Better than expected, less than advertised,” is slightly unfair.

He should have realized how much the Third Army in Brittany owed to the Resistance. He couldn’t have released so many of his divisions for the advance on the Seine if it hadn’t been for the Maquis: from the start, they interfered with German communications and provided good intelligence.

Why were so many French civilians casualties?
Allied generals like Bradley and Montgomery had not appreciated how inaccurate heavy bombers were. Only about 20 percent of bombs fell within five kilometers of the target. That’s pretty terrifying.

Why didn’t they adjust?
Bomber Harris, one of the most obstinate characters in the whole war, refused to acknowledge this—partly, as with the U.S. Army Air Corps, because of interservice rivalries. Both were very conscious of being junior services and were desperate to establish their strategic credentials. This tended to make them ignore deficiencies.

What was the result?
Omaha Beach went badly wrong. Both bombings of Caen were disastrous. The first smashed the city but killed hardly any Germans. In the second, as at Omaha, they wanted to avoid hitting their own front lines and held on an extra couple of seconds. So the bombs again missed the Germans and fell in the middle of the city. They were hammering French civilians.

What about interdiction bombing?
Obviously they needed to prevent German reinforcements. But nearly 15,000 civilians died in the preparation stage. Add 20,000 killed during the battle for Normandy. Slightly more French were killed on D-Day than Allied soldiers. The Allied casualties on D-Day were less than predicted, but during the battle for Normandy were far greater than anyone had imagined.

To what extent?
Division by division, average losses were over twice the average losses on the Russian front. Now, in battles like Kursk and Stalingrad, which went on, total casualties were much higher. But it’s important to put those bloodbaths into perspective.

Why were women targeted as collaborators?
They were the easiest, most accessible, most vulnerable targets. The men—certainly those covering up their lack of Resistance credentials—were keen to take vengeance, as if these were clearly collaborators. But in most cases—and in these women joined in—moral outrage was covering up tremendous jealousy: these women had been eating well during the occupation.

Was this universal?
Parts of the Resistance tried to stop, others took part. In the southwest, prostitutes who slept with Germans were regarded as carrying out their trade and not targeted; elsewhere, even in Paris, some prostitutes were literally kicked to death. Over 20,000 women had their heads shaved.

Why did the Allies underestimate German strength?
Somehow they never fully grasped that units like the Hitlerjugend were there. In June, the British and Canadians especially had a nasty shock. During Operation Epsom, they were facing the largest concentration of Waffen-SS since the Battle of Kursk. But the relative qualities of the fighting men also have to be considered.

German determination to resist certainly took the Allies by surprise. They felt the Germans should realize the war was as good as over, once the Normandy beachheads were established and Operation Bagration was rolling. But they didn’t understand the effect of Nazi propaganda: many German soldiers were convinced that if they didn’t hold on in Normandy, Germany would be completely destroyed. What with Casablanca, unconditional surrender, and the revenge the Soviet Union wanted, the feeling was backs-to-the-wall.

A fight to the death?
For a critical core, yes. Contrast this with the typical American soldier, whose attitude was, “Well, we’ve gotta get this done because the shortest road home is through Berlin.”

And the British?
They were truly war-weary: “Let’s get it done with and be alive when we finish.” They were very good in defense but not prepared to take risks in attack against a very professional German army that had dealt them many nasty reverses. So they had a greater fear of failure than the Americans, who by this time had a much steeper learning curve. But you can’t expect the armies of a democracy to fight the same way as the armies of a totalitarian regime.

Look at combat fatigue. The American army suffered 30,000 combat fatigue cases in Normandy—a huge number. The British suffered nearly as many. Both British and American psychiatrists were struck by how few German soldiers suffered from it, considering they had undergone far worse aerial and artillery bombardment. Their conclusion: this reflected years of Nazi indoctrination.

Did that make Germans better soldiers?
The Allied elite, like British and American paratroopers, were the match of any German formations and probably better. But the average Allied unit was the same as any average unit on the Russian front: tremendous disparities within the platoon between the small groups who do the bulk of the fighting, and the rest.

What most struck you?
The fighting’s intensity. An Alsatian with an SS panzer division describes how another Alsatian who tried to desert was beaten to death on the commander’s order as “an education in comradeship.” The SS fanaticism that the soldiers from democracies were up against doesn’t really hit home until you see the total ruthlessness of that system at this level. It makes you thank God we weren’t producing a Waffen-SS. But it also makes you painfully aware how much training and industrial production was required to overcome that fanaticism.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of World War II magazine.