D-Day reading

By Rob Morgan

In June, my thoughts, and my reading, often turn to the Normandy Campaign, after so many holidays there in past years, and the fact that of all battlefield regions of Western Europe, this is the one where every village, every square, every corner, can provide a photograph, a memory, or a surprise. Before our trips, which usually happen at the end of May, for the Bank Holiday, I’d pore over the Michelin Normandy Campaign Map No.102. Out of print now, but still to be found over the net. Like most wargamers, I’ve read the standard accounts, Cornelius Ryan, Max Hastings, James Holland, John Keegan and the others, but one I often choose is Paul Carell’s “Invasion They’re Coming!”, a 300+ page book which is written from the German perspective and deals with the landings, attempts to counter the Allied forces and the unfolding defeat. Carell, real name Schmidt, was a former SS Officer and wrote a number of one-sided books about the campaigns of the Reich. This one, however, is more readable and realist, and by far the best of his several WWII accounts, and the only one I’d recommend.

His book deals well, I think, with the confusion suffered by German commanders at every level from Marcks at 84 Corps downwards, on the night of the invasion and in the days to come. Effectively, this book is a series of individual German accounts of small-scale actions and encounters from the capture of Strongpoint W5 on Utah Beach to the final death throes of Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army in the Falaise pocket. I find it a fascinating read, since many of the German commanders at all levels, involved in the 80-day battle, knew for certain that once the landings took place and the beaches and hinterland secured, with no air strength to speak of, the German forces, immobile infantry, as well as Panzers were facing almost certain defeat. The awesome presence of the Allied Jabos over the battlefield and the rear, seems to loom over every German action undertaken in daylight.

Carell divides his book into eight chronological chapters, but it’s the subheadings which provide the best guide to the sections of the book of value to the wargamer. Like “One Tiger against a Whole Brigade,” an event during the Battle for Tilly, and “Parachutists only need knives,” for example. A certain element of Carell’s book is certainly creative fiction, but as far as the WWII Northwest Europe theatre wargamer’s concerned it’s none the worse for that. Some of the withdrawals and rearguard actions of the Normandy Campaign are arguably better outlined in this book than in some of the standard titles. I found the account of the withdrawal toward Cherbourg soundly written, and though now well documented in terms of new Osprey titles, both Cherbourg’s capture which led to Dollman’s, the VIIth Army commander’s, suicide, and Operation Luttich, the last offensive under Von Kluge from Mortain towards Avranches, make for good reading in this volume, related as they are in brief encounters. One feature of German military activity which is of use to the wargamer is their incredible skill at organising ad hoc battle groups, and using them!

The author, incidentally, describes his book, first published in 1962, as being attributable to the help and contribution of a few hundred voluntary collaborators from ‘ordinary rankers’ to ‘Army Commanders’ — certainly true. The final chapter “The Big Trap” which deals with an interminable series of devastating encounters, sometimes merely one afv and a handful of infantry, desperately heading eastwards, is a singular description of what he finally terms “The Stalingrad of Normandy.” This is a very readable book, though you’ll find no mention of the repeated incredible and brutal activities of German troops as they were forced step by step out of Normandy; and the fall of Paris, technically after the Normandy Campaign, is barely described.

Carell’s book does include several maps, but these are of limited use. Better by far to follow his description of the actions with John Man’s “Penguin Atlas of D-Day and the Normandy Campaign.”

As an illustration for this note, here’s a photograph of a Wehrmacht Wespe 105mm SP Gun  c.1944. This is an afv of the 9th Panzer Division, a division which arrived late in Normandy, just in time to be decimated at Falaise; it’s to be found the brilliant French Armoured Museum at Saumur.

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