Over the last year or so I have read a few books on the Campaign in France – Carlo D’Este’s excellent books on Normandy and his biography of Eisenhower. I thought that this would be an expansion of his work which does give a picture of the high command on the Allied side. Apparently I should have looked up the author first. Oh well, three dollars is hardly a big expense.
Some of the questions I had about the book were just answered when I looked Irving. After getting the book I did remember his involvement in the Hitler Diary hoax, although little else about it. Apparently Irving has wobbled from ‘revisionist’ over the edge in recent years. This explains a few odd things from the book.
One item I remember was a paragraph claiming that the SS ‘Malmedy Massacre’ was really a fair fight and the SS afterward lined the dead up neatly afterwards. So it only looked like they had machine-gunned prisoners. Of course, the SS list of atrocities with prisoners does not begin or end with Malmedy. In possibly related matter, I noticed several references to US troops shooting or not taking prisoners tossed into the text. Since the subject of the book is the tussling between generals, not the behavior of our troops, I did not appreciate it.
There are a number of other ‘aside’ claims like this in the book. US troops raping and robbing the French (for some reason no Commonwealth troops are mentioned) – and oddly the troops are usually identified as black. When you have several million young men running around, some will be bad apples. Was it more than expected? I have no idea, and neither will you if you read this book, since it is treated like a smear and not investigated in any way.
There are a running subtext of titillating hints of the Generals scoring with women. True or false, since the Generals all seemed to agree on screwing them, it is hardly a subject for this particular book.
Well, let’s get to the particulars – the book is basically built around the disagreements between the US and UK over war policy. Since the book only covers the Overlord operation, most of the wrangling over grand strategy has already happened. What is left were the ‘strategy’ of Normandy and Cobra and the ‘broad front’ versus ‘narrow front’ wrangle in the fall near the borders.
Irving takes most of his text from the diaries of some participants, and from the memoirs of others. This leads to strange situations when the memoirisst revise history to make themselves look better. Irving swallows Monty’s later assertion that the intent all along was to hold on the left and attract reserves to the UK front, thus making the US breakout easier. This is nonsense – the Allies really did not expect a fast breakout and wanted the clear areas around Caen for local airbases. Monty’s failure to achieve this due partly to bad luck and partly to clumsy tactics did have the effect mentioned, but it was not the intent.
This leads Irving to the odd conclusion that Ike had no idea what his own strategy was, as he quotes numerous instances of him pushing Monty to advance. Ike might not have been the greatest general ever, but he knew his own plans better than that.
Carlo D’Este does a good job demolishing this straw man in “Decision in Normandy”.
The second ‘war’ in the book suffers from a similar error. Irving uncritically accepts Montgomery’s assertions against Eisenhower’s and the other US Generals. Of course, he already thinks Ike is an idiot from the first error, so there’s no reason to actually look at the reasons for the view that Monty’s ‘narrow front’ offensive would not work.
The first is political. Even in September, the halting of the US forces to supply Monty to take Antwerp did not go over well. Since the US forces were much larger than the UK at this time, letting them go for the glory was problematic.
The second was practical. The UK forces were not able to do the job alone due to the dwindling manpower. The ground was unsuited for major combat operations, as Monty found out in Market Garden when he failed to get to the Rhine. A drive to Berlin off this same road seems out of the question. Also the forces then assembling for the Bulge battle would have been able to confront the spearheads – a definite disadvantage to a narrow thrust is that the enemy only has one force to counter instead of many.
With Monty’s failure to open up Antwerp, the supply lines were impossible for any such operation regardless. The additional distance would break the overstrained supply system. After all. the other armies still need most of the supplies they would if advancing — they still have to eat.
The final obstacle was the absurdity of Montgomery in particular leading a crazed rush for Berlin or anywhere else. No matter where you come down on him – over-cautious or careful – it has to be impossible to see him leading a hell-for-leather rush anywhere.
Irving ignores all of this – those that oppose Monty are stupid or selfish. So even here, he fails, because even if Monty was right, the historian should prove that he was, not just assert it.
All in all, a pretty bad book. I won’t be hanging onto this one, which says a lot.