The D-Day landings and the subsequent Battle for Normandy are arguably the most iconic and most written about battles within the annals of modern military history. Indeed, as we near the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it would be easy to assume that after so much time has passed, generations of historians would by now have formulated between them an undisputed account of what exactly happened and who the main protagonists were during that famous campaign. However, having moved to Normandy in 2004, and since having led thousands of visitors through these legendary battlefields working my day job as a battlefield guide, I have discovered that so much of the most commonly accepted history – so often repeated in the movies, in documentaries and in the best-selling and seemingly most credible of books – is nothing more than a myth, now so far entrenched in the popular psyche that it is accepted as fact and therefore closed to further scrutiny.
Undoubtedly, much of this misinformation is generated as a consequence of the undeniable Americanisation of the history of the Second World War. Even in my native Great Britain, despite the fact that almost two thirds of the Allied forces landing on the D-Day beaches were members of the British 2nd Army, regardless that well over three quarters of the Allied naval armada and also the majority of the Allied air forces were British, and notwithstanding the fact that the commanders of all three branches of service (land, air and sea) were again British, the myth endures that D-Day was predominantly an American affair. Maybe it could be said that in the prevailing years since the war, Britain as a nation has been seduced so much by Hollywood and the ever-present American story to the extent that us Brits have seemingly forgotten our own history.
Characteristic British modesty and reserve, a trait which so often leads to self-effacement – a stark contrast to the innate bravado and patriotic egocentricity of the American national character – has undoubtedly led to a huge distortion of the history of D-Day. Indeed, it is not just the portrayal of D-Day that has been distorted but also the history of the subsequent campaign, where once again, the common perception is that the performance of the British and Canadian troops during the wider Normandy campaign was distinctly underwhelming and that, again it was the Americans doing all the fighting whilst the British and Canadians were blundering their way through an apparent stalemate, drinking tea and failing to make any inroads against the enemy’s defence. Comments such as those made by the lauded American writer Stephen Ambrose, who once claimed that the British refused to attack the enemy during the battle for Caen, or, in the instance of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize Winner Rick Atkinson, that the British performance was nothing but ‘slow’ and ‘feeble’ have done nothing but defame the efforts of the Commonwealth forces whilst at the same time embellish the achievements of the Americans – the accomplishments of whom are remarkable enough and certainly do not necessitate such self-aggrandisement which inevitably results in the derogation of their Allies.
It seems remarkable that when popular historians attempt to assess the performance of the Allies in Normandy that little mention is given to this history from a German perspective. We very rarely hear how, in the formative weeks of the Battle for Normandy, the Germans sent more than three quarters of their reserves, including six of their seven elite SS armoured divisions, to counter, not the Americans forces to the west of the Allied bridgehead, but to quell exclusively the threat of the Commonwealth forces fighting in proximity to the city of Caen. Very rarely do we hear that it was not the American forces the Germans most feared, and therefore deployed their best quality troops against, but it was in fact the British Commonwealth sector that they assessed as their most pressing priority – this alone offers proof that with just the most cursory inspection of the battle from the enemy’s appreciation and reaction to Allied operations, the aforementioned allegations of the British ‘not attacking’, or their exertions being ‘slow’ or ‘feeble’ can be promptly discredited as being truly absurd.
In my new book entitled ‘Command and Valour’ I seek to re-evaluate and redress the popular perception of the Battle for Normandy. The conclusions I offer may surprise many who believe they already hold a comprehensive knowledge of this most famous episode of military history. Indeed, I am certain that not everyone will agree with my re-examination and it may well provoke a little ‘flak’ from those who refuse to deviate from the established narrative. However, I feel strongly, that as opposed to so many previous accounts which have become prominent within the historiography of the Battle for Normandy, through which frequent sweeping and unsubstantiated allegations are so common, in using sources from contemporary accounts from battle-diaries, the often brutally honest official histories and the personal memoirs of commanders from all belligerent nations, I have at least attempted to corroborate the claims I make rather than just regurgitate the same old myths, so often repeated that they are now seemingly accepted as fact.
The foremost emphasis of ‘Command and Valour’ may be to put across my interpretation of the grand strategy implemented by the Allies during the Battle for Normandy, but in addition, for what I believe to be the first time within one single volume, I recount the actions which led to all 21 Victoria Crosses and Medals of Honor to be awarded during the Normandy Campaign. The reasons why I chose to include these were twofold. Firstly, I was amazed that it had never been done before, and secondly, I feel it imperative that the individual aspect of warfare, the human aspect if you like, is not excluded. By including the actions which led to these awards a human face is brought to the wider story, after all it was the men on the ground, rather than the generals who were so detached from the front line, who bore main witness to the real horrors of war. I hope that ‘Command and Valour’ will, in a small way, provide recognition to those whose experiences have been most neglected. Maybe this book may even go some way in forging a path for a much-needed reassessment of this incredibly famous, yet so frequently distorted history.
A big thank you to Stuart for kindly talking with us about his new book – Command and Valour – examining D-Day and the campaign in Normandy in 1944.
Stuart Robertson’s ‘Command and Valour – The Grand Strategy of D-Day & the Battle for Normandy and How 21 Heroic Deeds Helped Enable Victory’ (ISBN 1781220115 – Published by Sabrestorm) is now available to order from all major high street book shops and online retailers in the UK, and shall be published in the USA and Canada on 2 June 2019.
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Reviews of Command and Valour
‘Command and Valour’ has already received outstanding accolades from some of the very best historians specialising in the D-Day Landings and the subsequent Battle for Normandy…
Stuart Robertson’s deep knowledge of his subject oozes off every page. This is not just a gripping account of individual heroism it is also a book that contains plenty of fresh perspectives, fascinating insights and lots of very sound historical judgement. ‘Command and Valour’ is a fine book that puts right a lot of historical injustices.
James Holland – historian, author, broadcaster and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Stuart Robertson is a doyen of the Battlefield Guide Community, renowned for combining meticulous research, understanding and a rare ability to communicate. In ‘Command and Valour’, Robertson confronts issues which have previously generated much ill-informed discussion before presenting his own considered perspectives… ‘Command and Valour’ offers a powerful account which, no-matter your pre-conceptions, is a significant addition to our understanding of what happened in Normandy in June 1944. This book deserves to be read.
Major General Graham Hollands – Royal Artillery (retired).
‘Command and Valour’ is a lively and accessible narrative of the 1944 Normandy campaign… Robertson makes an articulate, powerful and timely plea for renewed scholarly engagement with the complexities of Allied campaign planning and execution… Highly recommended.
Dr Simon Trew – Department of War Studies, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
‘Command and Valour’ is not only a succinct depiction of the Normandy Campaign, but, more importantly, it masterfully dispels numerous myths which have become entrenched within the popular perception of the battle. A welcome breath of fresh air.
Mark Zuehlke – Best-selling author of the Canadian Battle Series.
Stuart Robertson’s wonderfully insightful `Command and Valour’ provides a balanced perspective of the Normandy campaign through meticulous research and detailing of the sequence of events. Cleverly interwoven with this are accounts of the actions by the men of all Allied nations who earned their country’s highest awards for bravery. This book will certainly get people thinking. It deserves the widest circulation.
Neil Barber – Author of ‘The Day the Devils Dropped in’ and ‘The Pegasus and Orne Bridges’.
Photo Credits: All images kindly provided by historian Stuart Robertson.