Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France by James Holland
It is not surprising that preeminent historian Holland matches the depth and breadth of this epic battle with a behemoth of a book, over 700 pages that is as detailed as the blueprint of a battleship. Even among the most acclaimed World War II authors, this fellow of the Royal Historical Society is so entrenched in his subject that he has his own collection at Britain’s Imperial War Museum.
It is therefore not surprising that this tome reads a bit British. That is one of its strengths, particularly if you are an American and used to consuming information that views World War II from an American perspective. Holland not only relies on archival material, but also has colored his story with memoirs from all sides, including common soldiers and generals. While so many D-Day books detail the immense planning, so too does Holland, perhaps exhaustively. But his book is distinguished by recounting all the “on the fly” decisions that had to be made, especially when the invasion and ensuring battles were not going according to plan. Yet another distinction is the brilliant use of maps that many World War II books regard as just supplemental information. Holland uses maps to make an important point: there were, literally, “many ways to go.” The brilliance of the Allied victory was, to a large extent, in its choice of the pathways its ships and soldiers chose to take.
There is a plethora of gory detail that is both hard to read and hard to stop reading. It is, after all, about man’s ugliest pursuit—war. His recounting of detail after detail, plan after plan, can’t help but make you think that the planners knew there would be unprecedented misery and carnage, yet they—both sides—planned it so well. That, Holland makes clear, is the defining characteristic of war.
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War by Sarah Rose
This nonfiction work reads like a novel—gripping, informative, and almost unbelievable. It details the secretive work of a few civilians—women in skirts—whose war efforts gave the Allies as much power over the Germans as hundreds of big guns and thousands of armed invaders backed by an air and sea assault.
The successful taking of the Normandy coast would not have been possible had it not been for prior, behind-the-scenes intelligence. Before this most famous of all World War II battles, Britain formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE), recruiting thirty-nine women to be spies behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France. They eventually became saboteurs, contributing to the Nazis’ defeat.
Rose’s story focuses on three of them who destroyed trains, blew up powerlines, and did the groundwork for liberating France before the Allied Invasion. What is largely unknown today is that the Allies were never certain they’d defeat the Germans. All this suspense and unease of the uncertainty creepily oozes off almost every page, as if we didn’t know the outcome. It’s no easy thing to portray, and Rose pulls it off with the precision of a modern-day thriller.
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (The Revolution Trilogy, Book 1) by Rick Atkinson
From one of the most prolific and acclaimed military historians, this is the first of a three-book series on America’s War of Independence. Atkinson’s acclaimed “Liberation Trilogy” about the Allies’ sweep of Europe in World War II has a list of literary awards as long as any musket, including Pulitzer Prizes, the George Polk Award, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.
This new work is truly “Atkinsonian,” in that he weaves his painstaking research into a gripping narrative that begs the reader to step back in time and put oneself in the life of ordinary people caught up in situations they could not control but needed to manage. This one pitted the King’s Army against his own royal subjects who were separated by an ocean. Englishmen fought the descendants of the English but were a world apart in their allegiances and passions.
The personalization of the characters is largely drawn from correspondences, which gives us a better sense of the bitter conflict that was fought both on a battlefield and in the minds of those who lived through the turbulent period. Across the pond, the British would speak lightly of it—an “uprising in the colonies”— as if it was merely a manifestation of the mischievous nature of rebellious America. It was the Old World vs. the New World. The differences of each side are well defined and an underlying theme of the work—not the usual way history has positioned this conflict.
Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery by Tom Cotton
Author Tom Cotton commands a garrison of knowledge about the military and a soldier’s duty to his country and the team with which he serves. Now a Republican senator from Arkansas, Cotton is a former U.S. Army captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and earned the prestigious Bronze Star for his service.
Imagine a man with this experience walking through Arlington National Cemetery, reverently passing the final resting place of “his fallen comrades in arms.” The book pays tribute to generations of fallen soldiers. His meticulous history is a page-turner, beautifully written about what he calls “the saddest acre in America.” Among the many tales of bravery, he recounts the military service of those he knew personally and other heroes whose funeral he attended including vets from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Sacred Duty then is about buried history of a personal nature that we’d otherwise never be exposed to.
The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen
Veterans of the Korean War have often been called the forgotten vets. This lapse in memory pales by comparison to one of the littlest-known wars in American history, the Spanish-American War. To some, it is an unimportant war that few could relate details about. Risen, an award-winning historian, gives the war new meaning. His take that it changed American foreign policy is well documented in this work and an obvious subtheme. The Spanish-American War was America’s first foreign war and it would not be the last; the coming 20th century would spawn its share, and they were bigger and bloodier than all of America’s previous wars.
It might be a mere coincidence of timing, but this book beckons us back to a time that “America First” was the spirit of the times, a zeitgeist that unexpectedly returned with the election of Donald Trump. Before his administration, American zestfully went to war all over the world. We gleefully sang war songs with lyrics like “over there, over there…” and “the white cliffs of Dover….” Young men stood in line to enlist and ship out to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. War, to Americans, transitioned from a danger to their families and livestock to something you had to pack for and write letters to home about.
Risen’s book illuminates how this short war of only six months in 1898 changed our thinking for a century to come. The war was indelibly associated with Teddy Roosevelt, who would become one of the most colorful and charismatic presidents in American history. His troops were monikered not as common cavalry but “Rough Riders,” and their famous charge up San Juan Hill still inspires us. War was suddenly glamorous. On top of that, it ushered in a new era of America’s global dominance and influence that continues to this day.
Taliban Safari: One Day in the Surkhagan Valley by Paul Darling
Many books have focused on a single day in warfare. Most prominent among them are books about D-day (June 6, 1944), when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, and the “the day of infamy” (December 7, 1941), when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This one by Paul Darling, which also relates to just one day, is special and different.
Ironically, what makes this work special is not just its focus on one day, but the realization that it is a typical day. And it is different in that the hot day in June 2009 is a miniscule piece—a measure grossly understated—of America’s longest war, which began on October 7, 2001, and is still being fought today. And what is the mission? That, some say, is still in question, but there was a clear duality of the mission of Darling and his company: number one, staying alive, and the other, determining who the enemy was. It was not always evident who or where the Taliban could be found. There were also other enemies, the ever-multiplying unknown: Afghan “allies” who were the Taliban in disguise, and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the least suspecting places. Sometimes the enemy was just the bureaucracy of the military chain of command. Sometimes it was the strange culture, or the cheapness of life, or the heavy combat gear, or the heat. And most of the time it was the inevitability of having to make judgments that, if wrong, were certain death, if not for yourself, then for someone by your side—often a close buddy who was as valuable to your psyche as he was to your safety.
As one reads Darling’s account, it eventually seeps in that this woeful experience has repeated itself thousands of times . . . for thousands of American combatants. The math is that there were literally over a million “per capita” days like he describes in his book and there seems no end in sight.
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