D-Day: The Soldier’s Story

Giles Milton

John Murray, £25

Review by Trevor Royle

It takes guts and a certain chutzpah for a writer to take on D-Day and hope to say anything new or previously unrevealed. The field is already crowded with accounts written by some of our greatest military historians – Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings and John Keegan to name but a handful – and it would appear unlikely that the archives will yield much in the way of startling new evidence. But Giles Milton is no ordinary writer. Not only is he astonishingly prolific, with a host of novels, children’s books and works of general non-fiction to his credit but he is also an erudite enthusiast and that passion for his subject informs everything he writes including his latest book.

So, what has Milton brought to the party? As it turns out, quite a lot. The sole subject of this book is D-Day, the largest amphibious landing in history which took place on June 6 1944 and which involved 156,000 men, 7,000 ships and 20,000 armoured vehicles and on whose success depended the outcome of the Second World War. The equation was quite simple: get those assets onto French soil and secure what had been won and the Germans would be pushed onto the back foot, perhaps never to recover. Fail to gain a foothold and retreat, and the war would continue, if not for ever then at least until the Soviets broke the Germans on the eastern front or both sides sued for peace. It was as desperate and clear-cut as that, and it provides Milton with his starting and finishing point.

D-Day’s story has been told many times before, most notably by Cornelius Ryan in his ground-breaking book The Longest Day which is given due acknowledgment, but Milton has taken the narrative several stages further by giving voice to previously unheard or forgotten characters who also played a part in the fighting. These are not the Hamlets of the action but attendant lords “to swell a progress, start a scene or two” and in Milton’s hands they are central to the story he wants to tell.

The cast includes people like 19-year-old Elsie Campbell who worked as a plotter at allied headquarters at Fort Southwick near Portsmouth and who remembered the disgusting cocoa laced with fat from corned beef cans to give added sustenance and the curious half-light which forced fellow workers to turn to sun-ray lamps to rid their skin of the pallor from working underground. Or what about Irmgard Meyer whose husband Hubert served in the 12th SS Panzer Division and was summoned from Germany to be with him in Normandy because all leave had been cancelled. She had no difficulty obeying the order for the good reason that “neither of us knew whether we would meet each other again.” Some of the gloss was taken off the adventure when she discovered that everyone had to live in the same chateau and “we had constantly to make conversation with other people in the evenings.”

Or what about the case of the dashing Guillaume Mercader, a champion cyclist who used his local celebrity to support his other role as a member of the French resistance movement. Having won the trust of the local Gestapo he persuaded them to use the out of bounds coastal road for his training rides, all the while noting the position of every pillbox, bunker and machine-gun position. Milton makes good use of his story even to the point of noting that “Mercader was the only spy in history to gather intelligence from the saddle of a La Perle racing bicycle, dressed in lightweight shorts and a skintight jersey.” Other than for cycling enthusiasts this may be a case of too much information, but it is indicative of the sense of purpose which Milton has brought to his task.

By taking his evidence from those outside the leadership circles on both sides the narrative is given added substance, but the wider picture has not been ignored. Far from it: although this has not been conceived as a military history Milton has put the story in context by carefully laying bare the events which shaped D-Day. Right up to the last-minute, uncertain weather conditions in the English Channel placed a question-mark over the precise timing of the Allied invasion. General Bernard Montgomery, the land forces commander, wanted to keep to the agreed date, June 5, but was rightly over-ruled by his American superior General Dwight D. Eisenhower who insisted on a 24-hour postponement to await the outcome of the storm.

On the eve of the operation Montgomery visited officers and men of D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 6th Airborne Division who would be amongst the first Allied soldiers to land in France, in their case in Horsa gliders. His words to Major John Howard, the officer commanding, say much about Montgomery and his approach to casualties in warfare: “Bring back as many of the chaps as you can.” Hours later, Howard’s company fired the first shots of the operation when they engaged German sentries guarding two bridges on the River Orne and Caen Canal shortly after midnight on June 6.

Although casualties would mount later in the day both objectives were secured with few losses. As it turned out, though, by the end of D-Day casualties were much lower than had been feared. Despite encountering fierce opposition at Omaha Beach, the US First Army’s landing ground, all the Allied forces got safely ashore and the losses in personnel at the end of that first day were less than 10,000 killed, wounded or missing. At the same time over 156,000 soldiers were safely ashore, and it seemed that the German defenders had been taken completely by surprise.

That the operation had been such a success was due entirely to the men who did the fighting and it is not stretching a point to say that Milton’s sympathies are with those at the sharp end. His is not a romanticised view of combat and he understands only too well that it is an inglorious, frequently bloody and painful business. Here is Anton Wuensch, a 23-year-old corporal from Silesia who is blown up while commanding a mortar team in the vicinity of the tactically important village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, As he looks down at his useless legs “wide-eyed in panic” the jetting blood feels like larva and he is only saved by a doctor who wrenches his shattered legs through 180 degrees back into their natural position. Naturally Wuensch screams in agony, only to be told, “Oh for God’s sake it can’t hurt all that much.”

A similar sense of dread almost crucifies American paratrooper John Fitzgerald of the 101st Airborne Division who finds himself isolated north of Neuville where he has the misfortune of coming under accurate fire from a German 88 mm flak gun, a weapon which the Allies came to demonise for its killing capabilities. To begin with, Fitzgerald experiences the familiar mixture of terror and excitement which accompanies a first taste of coming under fire but then there is a curious after-shock: “I could not hold a razor steady enough to shave for the next few days.” Tellingly, he adds the thought that “there were more soldiers converted to Christianity by this 88 than by Peter and Paul combined”.

That kind of personal detail adds necessary weight to the descriptions of the fighting which must underpin an account of this kind – D-Day was after all a bloody battle which cost thousands of lives on all sides - and it is to the author’s credit that he has not flinched from detailing the human price of front-line fighting. This is an exemplary account enlivened and enriched by the author’s discreet and under-stated sense of common humanity.