22 Good history and a good read

by Malcolm Redfellow

After that extended wrestle with Neal Stephenson, Malcolm needed (as this blog is entitled) his troubles to be assuaged. As well, he wished to revert to his alternation of fiction and non-fiction.

He reached down an old favourite, John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy. This dates from 1982. There has been a plethora of other books tracing the story that is Operation Overlord. Others have far greater depth. None are better written.

Since Malcolm was looking, at that juncture, for something like an easy-read, Keegan’s Prologue, In the Invasion Area is as good as any. It seems like a bucolic pastoral: the schoolboy Keegan, evacuated with his LCC-school inspector family to the English West Country.

I had a good war … the good war not of a near-warrior at the safe end of one of the sunnier theatres of operations, but of a small boy whisked from London at the first wail of the sirens to a green and remote corner of the west of England and kept there until the echo of the last shot fired was drowned in the sighs of the world’s relief in August 1945.

There is, though, an undertow of imminent change. Everything here will be changed, changed utterly, by the wartime experience. Keegan muses on what he was witnessing:

I was seeing the last days, know it though I could not, of a thousand years of heavy-horse farming. In summer the horses came to the fields behind our house and we rode beside their drivers on machines seemingly no different from the cast-offs discovered in our exploration of the neighbouring out-houses …

And yet I remember no wartime winter. The German Sixth Army froze in its filty, iron-hard foxholes at Stalingrad; I pined for snow on a bright Christmas Even and thought myself cheated when the morrow brought not a flake. The PQ convoys skirted the edge of the pack on the north Russia run, shrinking by every mile of sea room they could find from the basilisk eye of the Luftwaffe; I scouted the hedge-bottoms for a ditchful of bearing ice and came home with wet socks. The Hunger Winter of 1944 sent Dutch families to scratch for overlooked potatoes in the twice-dug earth of north Holland; I cracked hazelnuts in the November sun on Sunday afternoon walks with my father and returned to hot treacle flapjack by the kitchen fire. Perhaps there were other corners of war-enwrapped Europe where children lived as well-fed, warm and carefree as us. But I wonder if any retain, as I do, a memory of six years so consistently illuminated by sunlight, so deeply suffused by happiness, so utterly unmenaced by danger? Today conscience attacks the memory with accusations of involuntary guilt at what I was spared. But at the time it was simply as if the war was not.

The agents of change were the arriving Americans:

Towards the end of 1943 our backwater, which British soldiers had garrisoned so sparsely for four years, overflowed almost overnight with GIs. How different they looked from our own jumble-sale champions, beautifully clothed in smooth khaki, as fine in cut and quality as a British officer’s — and American private, we confided to each other at school, was paid as much as a British captain, major, colonel — and armed with glistening, modern, automatic weapons, Thompson sub-machine guns, Winchester carbines, Garand self-loading rifles. More striking still were the number, size and elegance of the vehicles in which hhey paraded around the countryside in stately convoy… There were towering GMC six-by-sixes, compact and powerful Dodge four-by-fours and pilot fishing the rest or buzzing nimbly about the lanes on independent errands like the beach buggies of an era still thirty years ahead, tiny and entrancing jeeps, comparisoned with whiplash aerials and sketchy canvas hoods which drummed with the rhythm of a cowboy’s saddlebags rising and falling to the canter of his horse across the prairie.

These were the advance guard, the

engineers, builders and truck drivers, who had been creating settlements for the fighting troops still to come. They were now among us. And with them they brought a new wave of equipment, half-track scout-cars, amphibious trucks and gigantic transporters, laden with tanks and bulldozers — a machine previously unknown in Britain — which held to the main roads and, when in convoy, were usually seen heading southwards, towards the ports of Hampshire and Dorset, on the Channel coast opposite France.

Those engineers, builders and truck drivers left their mark which persists to this day. Across the south-west of England we tread otherwise inexplicable stretches of well-built concrete thoroughfare — down to an isolated ice-cream stand on a holiday cove.

And so to D-day:

One evening some weeks later the sky over our house began to fill with the sound of aircraft, which swelled until it overflowed the darkness from edge to edge. Its first tremors had taken my parents into the gaarden, and as the roar grew I followed and stood between them to gaze awestruck at the constellation of red, green and yellow lights which rode across the heavens and streamed southwards towards the sea. It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed wave without intermission … The element of noise in which they swam became solid, blocking our ears, entering our lungs and beating the ground beneath our feet with the relentless surge of an ocean swell…

Next day we knew. The Americans had gone. The camps they had built had emptied overnight. The roads were deserted. No doubt, had we been keeping check, we would have noticed a gradual efflux of their numbers. But it had been disguided until the last moment and the outrush had then been sudden. The BBC news bulletin told us why. ‘Early this morning units of the Allied armies began landing on the coast of France’.

Fortunately Keegan does not maintain this purple prose through his narrative; but all this before Malcolm had reached beyond the middle of page 15, before we reach even Chapter 1: Journey  to the Second Front. This chapter is structured by pen-portraits of eight key plyers: Stilwell, Wedemeyer (of the US Army War Plans Division), Eisenhower, Molotov, Marshall, Brooke, Montgomery and Rommel. And the hero therein is Ike:

… a great man and a great soldier; the greatness of Eisenhower as a soldier has indeed yet to be portrayed fully.

Since 1982 that gap has been filled (with embroiderings) by Stephen Ambrose.

The conceit of “six armies” is an arresting one. It means that Keenan can take

  • the aerial assault of the “Screaming Eagles” for his first “army”,
  • the Canadians at Juno Beach for the second,
  • Operation Epsom (the hard-fought battles to the west of Caen) as the “Scottish Corridor”,
  • the thwarted break-out as the “yeomen of England” — Montgomery is not enhanced by Keegan’s treatment.
  • the attempted counter-offensive as “the honour of the German Army”
  • the Battle of the Falaise Pocket as “a Polish Battlefield”,
  • and the advance towards and into Paris as the “Free French”.

There are obvious dislocations in the narrative, but — as a read — this works.

One could quibble that Keegan is journalist rather than historian: references and attributions are deplorably lacking. Yet this was the read that Malcolm needed at a particular moment.

His copy of Six Armies in Normandy is an original. Even the dust-cover is complete. It is more than somewhat “foxed”. Production standards and proof-reading are, quite frankly, below the expected norm. Yet this is a book to which Malcolm has, and will return.