Sand & Steel: A New History OF D-Day

Peter Caddick-Adams

Hutchinson, £35

To mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, publishers have been preparing their latest histories with the same precision and sense of urgency which the Allies brought to the planning of the most ambitious amphibious operation of the Second World War. By far the weightiest in the lists, in terms of bulk and authority, is Peter Caddick-Adams’ account, which runs to over 1,000 pages and which his publishers promise will be the definitive work on the battle for many years to come. (Or, say the cynics, at least until the centenary in 2044 when there will no doubt be fresh contenders for the heavyweight title.)

It’s a big claim to make in a crowded marketplace but what does Dr Caddick-Adams bring to the story of Operation Overlord that is missing from other rival publications? For a start, he is the expert’s expert, having put his fingerprints all over D-Day during a long career as an academic, soldier and battlefield guide. There is probably very little about the “longest day” of June 6 1944 that has escaped his attention and he has made good use of that knowledge and experience to produce a satisfying and original book.

Very sensibly, he has confined his narrative of the battle to the day itself, although equally reasonably he has neither ignored the rest of the Normandy campaign, which lasted a further eight weeks, nor has he forgotten its aftermath, which brought the war in Europe to an end just under a year later.

One other trait marks out this book. Although the author takes full account of the complexities of the D-Day operation, not least the painstaking logistical effort which turned the south of England into a massive armed camp – the actual landings involved an inventory of 700,000 items which included 137,000 Jeeps, trucks and half-tracks, 4,217 tanks and 3,500 artillery pieces – the main thrust of his narrative is taken up with the fighting at a tactical level, as experienced by those at the sharp end. In other words, the reader is given insights galore about what it was like to be a soldier on the beaches or the bocage country, with its narrow hedge-lined fields, physical features which gave most of the advantage to the defenders. In this respect he does not forget or overlook the hellish fear experienced by those same soldiers as they waited fretfully in their landing craft or aboard Horsa gliders before going into action. Some had been so sea-sick or air-sick during the crossing that getting their feet on firm ground was an instant antidote to the earlier nausea.

Although this book contains very little that can be described as genuinely revelatory, it is still a superb account which deserves praise for the way in which Caddick-Adams has marshalled a multitude of facts, and for his determination to quarry the lesser-known aspects, such as Operation Fortitude, which created fictional armies and produced misleading radio traffic to persuade the Germans that the Allies would attack France across the shorter Channel crossing through Calais or might even launch a bolder assault from Scotland towards Norway.

He is also prepared to challenge historical convention, not least the well-worn story about the weather conditions ahead of the invasion and the steps taken by the Allied meteorologists to get the forecast right. Right up to the last-minute uncertain weather 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. Against all received wisdom, Caddick-Adams argues that the German meteorologists were equally proficient but Allied weather mapping was superior, being drawn from more sources. From this he draws the conclusion that things might have turned out very differently if the Germans had been willing to coordinate forecasts from all three of their armed forces. On such small and seemingly insignificant details can battles be won or lost.

Inevitably in a book of this kind attention will focus on the main actions and once again Caddick-Adams does not disappoint. His publisher’s claim that he is the first historian to pay tribute to all the participating armies will surprise readers of John Keegan’s superlative Six Armies in Normandy, but he is uniformly excellent in his accounts of the fighting on the five main landing beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, the first two of which were contested by the US Army and where casualties were predicted to be high.

Combining unit histories with personal narratives, he brings the action stunningly to life with the result that the reader has little difficulty making sense of frequently chaotic scenes. It is all too easy to forget that some of the fighting in Normandy was as fierce as any experienced in the First World War, and that once the Allied armies were ashore they found themselves engaged in battles which rivalled any fought on the Western Front a quarter of a century earlier. Even though the invaders had the support of massive fire power from the sea and enjoyed air superiority, infantry soldiers still had to advance against heavily defended German positions, despite the fact it meant taking casualties.

In fact, against all the odds, these were not as high as had been anticipated during the planning stage. At the end of the first day fewer than 10,000 had been killed or were missing while 156,000 had come ashore unscathed. In the cold arithmetic of war that made D-Day a success, although Eisenhower had taken the precaution of penning a different kind of message explaining what had gone wrong, had failure been the outcome. Over the years, arguments have raged about the roles played by the leading participants, especially Eisenhower and Montgomery, who were often at each other’s throats before battle commenced and sometimes could not disguise their mutual dislike.

To his credit Caddick-Adams does not take sides, acknowledging instead that Eisenhower made all the correct calls and that the operation was “launched at the right time and in the right place” and, that, while Montgomery had a monstrous ego, he emerged as a “better trainer of Allied troops than he was a battle captain’”. That seems a fair assessment, but his unsung hero of D-Day is Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who organised the naval side of the operation, getting the armies safely across the Channel and then sustaining them in France once they had arrived. Quite rightly he calls this contribution of “Nelsonian proportions”, and it was even more remarkable considering that four years earlier Ramsay had conducted the operation in reverse during the evacuation from Dunkirk.

Thanks to the author’s patient studies in the archives and his lifelong fascination with D-Day, Sand & Steel is destined to become a standard work on this iconic battle, and it well deserves that accolade. Due to its bulk it will never become a handy battlefield guide, but that cannot be its purpose, and neither would Caddick-Adams expect it to be. Instead, this is a hugely impressive book which makes full use of a lifetime of learning and experience. It is also rich in unexpected detail. Who would not warm to his description of King George VI visiting incognito a US Navy landing craft in Portsmouth amidst heavy security ahead of the invasion? Asked for his rank by a stony-faced quartermaster, the King replied, “Admiral of the Fleet” Asked for his name he said “Windsor”. What about first name? To which the reply was “George”. As Caddick-Adams observes in deadpan fashion: “Which is why the visitor’s log of a US Navy LST recorded the visit of Admiral George Windsor on 24 May 1944.”

That kind of intimate detail comes not from luck but from dedicated investigation and helps explain why this is such an entertaining and engaging account, one which cries out to be read, albeit in the comfort of an armchair and with a decent bookrest to hand.