A badly costed war

The Battle of Normandy 1944

Robin Neillands <em>Cassell, 425pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0304358371

A trip to the Imperial War Museum offers a good picture of the disparity between German and Allied arms during the Second World War. In the centre of the main hall, the hulks of the various fragile, flammable "Tommy-cooker" tanks in which the British went into battle are towered over by a V2 missile. After the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, the American Shermans that replaced them proved just as ill-matched against Nazi machines. If the museum's specimens are anything to go by, the Panzer was a smart, solid vehicle that you would be proud to drive, while the Sherman was an altogether shoddy piece of work with a puny gun and horribly botched welding around its armour plates. It looks as though it would have trouble getting you to the shops and back safely, let alone storming Hitler's Atlantic Wall. With its high turret bobbing above the hedges of Normandy's bocage country, the battlefield resembled nothing so much as a firing range for German bazooka teams. Add to this the German troops' superior machine-guns and fieldcraft, and the terrible weather that so often prevented the Allies from exploiting their air supremacy, and it is no wonder that the advance was painfully slow in the opening months.

However, certain American historians - not to mention screenwriters - have long offered an alternative explanation: that the British preferred to sit tight in their foxholes drinking endless cups of tea rather than do their share of the fighting. This myth receives a witty and efficient rebuttal in Robin Neillands's book. He writes with an urgency because, as he notes, "it cannot be too long before some American academic reveals how the US contingent played a decisive part in beating the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 while the 'cautious' and 'timid' British archers looked on in 'watchful admiration'".

The charges against the British concern Montgomery's failure to take Caen immediately after the landings. According to Stephen Ambrose, who rightly did so much to publicise the heroics of his own countrymen, Monty failed even to attack the city. Yet for three weeks after D-Day, the British and Canadians lost, on average, 1,000 men per day doing just that. There may not have been an all-out assault, but this would have meant even heavier casualties in a sector that was intended merely to hold up the German forces in the east and prevent them from engaging the larger US formations wheeling around from the west. The British and Canadians faced three Panzer divisions - including crack SS troops who fought to the death - while the troops opposing the US advance were less experienced and less well-equipped.

But US casualties outstripped those of America's allies. Some of these losses were accounted for at Omaha Beach, where a bloodbath resulted partly because American commanders declined the offer of British tanks modified for mine-clearing, flame-throwing and pillbox-busting. The author never disparages the American soldiers, acknowledging that the difference was indeed made by their relish for attacking whenever possible. Granted, sometimes the British were slow to advance. The victors of the North African campaign were notably reluctant to be killed after surviving three years of desert warfare. As one veteran put it, "We had done our bit and a bit besides . . . we thought it was time for some other bugger to have a go." While British caution was rarely cowardice, American courage was often recklessness. For example, "friendly fire" was such a problem that bombing raids were eventually ordered to take place no less than 6,000 metres - nearly four miles - ahead of Allied lines; a directive that precluded any swift follow-up on the ground.

By mid-1944, Britain had run out of reserves, whereas US commanders were backed by manpower that continued to swell until the end of the war and possessed the means to pursue a policy of attrition. But the German army was too good to be beaten by bravery alone. Even when the hedgerows were left behind and more open ground was reached, advances were secured largely by drawing a rectangle on a map and bombing every square inch of the area to cinders. Milton Shulman once wrote of how, after a particularly heavy bombardment, one disbelieving German officer, who knew the price of shells, complained to his superiors that "the Americans are waging war without regard to cost". The British policy of waging war "at arm's length" had been given new meaning by the UK's allies; but this will never be widely understood while Hollywood films continue to portray small bands of brave GIs facing "impossible" odds on a front that was defended by only a quarter of the German army.

Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic Books)

This article first appeared in the 03 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Terrorism: the price we pay for poverty