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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.

 

With reviews of books that cover these topics

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D-Day

The Soldiers’ Story

 

Giles Milton

 

John Murray, 20th September 2018

 

Perhaps the most epic campaign of modern times has understandably been written about from every conceivable perspective. An author faces a challenge in differentiating his work; but I think Milton by and large achieves his goal. His narrative style is rich and accomplished, although there are times when, in my opinion, he over-writes.

 

There are some fascinating first person testimonies in this book, none better than in the first chapter, when a Commando diver who was captured on Op Tarbrush X (to remove mines from obstacles on the beaches ahead of the landing crafts’ arrival), was subsequently interrogated (in a gentlemanly fashion) by Rommel.

 

Milton does a brilliant job in weaving together the events from the perspective of at once the Allies, then the Germans, then the long-suffering Normans who had failed to heed Allied warnings to leave their coastal homes. It is particularly enlightening to be reminded of the conditions endured by the Germans – a life of some luxury for the officers, at least beforehand, and of high terror for the other ranks staring at the invasion fleet out of their pillbox slits. The drama is relentless.

 

A reader might think that, given what has gone before, Milton’s book would be a copy & paste from other accounts. But as well as unearthing some abstruse and occasionally unpublished autobiographies, he has clearly spent hours in the archives (notably Portsmouth, King’s College London, Caen, Ohio, New Orleans, and Boston Spa). These and Milton’s bibliography will give amateur historians much on which to feed.  

 

The underlying drama of the events is such one wonders why he needs to over-write. For example, in describing the approach of a glider (in the epochal Pegasus Bridge attack) for example, he writes thus:

the two pilots were preparing for a dangerous and most unpleasant manoeuvre. In order to avoid a slow descent that involved endless circling, they would tip the Horsa’s nose into a sickening dive. Once done, there was no turning back. The glider would hurtle to earth at a speed in excess of 100 mph and only their skill would prevent it from smashing into the ground. … There was a horrendous judder as Wallwork and Ainsworth fought hard to lift the nose back into a sweeping glide, instead of a dive…

(I believe the maximum design speed in the glide of the Horsa was 100 mph). The Pegasus Bridge attack is described as being “deep behind enemy lines” : not sure 5.5kms from the beach counts as “deep”!

 

Perhaps it is the perennial partial ignorance of the Army for matters of the air which causes the following:

Lt Col Washburn did not mince his words when detailing the dangers [of the Pegasus Bridge attack]. The pilots would face German flak, anti-aircraft fire and possibly dense sea fog. ‘Watch your airspeed’ he told them, a warning that carried a nasty sting in its tail. The planes were to be so heavily laden that their engines would fatally stall if they fell below 100 mph. Once stalled they could not be restarted…” In a word - bunkum. Aero-engines do not stall – the aircraft’s wings might.

 

At one stage this reader yearned for more first person accounts from glider pilots, tug pilots and ground attack chaps. But the sub-title is after all “The Soldiers’ Story”, (although glider pilots were soldiers) and perhaps this should therefore be excused. History is, as they say, written by the victor. This book also reminds one it is written by the survivors. There is no mention of the scores of gliders which were prematurely released by their tugs , whose occupants therefore fell to a watery grave in the Channel.

 

Milton is certainly safer on the ground than in the air. This pilot was a little taken aback by a passage later in the book when

The young Allied fighter pilots fought with cocksure audacity and on this particular day they showcased their brio with a mastery that bordered on arrogance – the Americans in their P47 Thunderbolts or P48 Lightnings and the British in their nimble, one-seater Typhoons…”. All those aircraft types are single seaters, and the Typhoon has rarely been called “nimble”!

 

But as a volume to introduce generations to come to the drama of those few days when, arguably, the future of Western civilisation rested on a knife-edge, Milton’s book could hardly be bettered.

 

 

NB as I have only seen a review copy, I cannot as yet comment on the quality of the maps or photos  (it looks like there will be plenty of both).

 

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Sword Beach looking towards Omaha, taken the weekend of this year's D Day commemorations