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Whilst the tale of Overlord has been done to death, there is always scope for an informed view of a tactical element of the D Day campaign. Tootal has proved his spurs in battle, and had gained his authorship credentials with Danger Close (a Helmand account, published by John Murray, 2010). Although he has since sold his soul to the bankers, Tootal remains better known for being an ex CO of 3 Para, and therefore has the inside track on the behaviour and exploits of those in red /maroon berets.
The preface and prologue give you the meat. This book centres around a sustained feat of arms by a limited number of soldiers on D-Day and the bloodsucking days that followed. The reader is soon left astonished that the men were tasked with so many, so demanding, objectives. To take the four-casement battery at Merville, overlooking the British invasion beaches, seems a task daunting enough for any band of men. But then to ask them to take several other objectives, unsupported other than by naval shells lobbed from a distance, is breath-taking.
Tootal’s strength is at reporting the nuances of command structure and tactical decision-making. He takes a proud delight in narrating the gruelling selection procedure and subsequent training regime endured by the men who were to form 9 Para. The reader soon comes to share Tootal’s admiration for leaders such as Lt Col James Hill. Another, Lt Col Martin Lindsay, plays a fascinating part in the resignation of Neville Chamberlain – highlighting the latter’s incompetent handling of the Norwegian campaign. Lt Col Terence Otway then gained his command of 9 Para in the most base fashion, and becomes the leader of the action on the ground. Most lay readers will be left in no doubt of his eccentricity, not to say fallibility, but will surely cut the man some slack after the days and nights of shouldering an almost intolerable burden of responsibility. The casualty rate in the Merville action was 50%, and then 9 Para progressed to Bréville and Ranville, where the odds deteriorated.
It is difficult in a book of this kind to avoid becoming side-tracked in explaining the overall shape of the post D-Day events. Here Tootal’s description of the fate of many British units as they arrive on the beaches is a distraction to the core narrative. However he does make the useful point that one of the reasons for the Germans’ lack of preparedness on D-Day itself was that their Atlantic meteorological data was meagre by comparison with that of the Allies, and so they had no idea that a small weather window had opened sufficiently to permit (an admittedly brave) Eisenhower to press the go button. Similarly it is ironic that many of the German field commanders were not at their post on the eve of D Day as they were on their way to Brittany for a war game that was to evaluate Allied landings in Normandy (when the High Command’s default assumption remained an invasion in the Pas de Calais).
Tootal’s writing style is no-nonsense military, and he cannot resist a side-swipe in his trenchant summary of the failure to take Caen (for several weeks): “The slim chance of capturing it on the first day by pushing hard inland had been blunted by 21st Panzer and squandered by a marked tendency of conventional British infantry to pause and dig in once the main defence points of the Atlantic Wall had been taken.” Towards the end of the book the Black Watch makes an appearance on scene, and one is left in no doubt of their inadequacies relative to the by now battle-weary Paras on their flank.
There are times when the author is so carried away with the feats of his forebears that he leaves some issues hanging in the air – for example, why did 9 Para lack effective radio communications? Was their equipment lost in the drop, faulty, or using incorrect frequencies? The Merville escapade had to be carried out to a strict timetable, and the results successfully transmitted to the Navy, otherwise the Paras risked being shelled by the Navy who were to launch a barrage unless they received notice of a successful outcome to the Para mission. Nail-biting stuff.
9 Para’s Heroic D-Day Mission
John Murray, 9 May 2013
ISBN: 978 1 84854 6776
The Wiltshire countryside where the men of 9 Para trained for their, as yet unknown, mission