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Review of Decision in Normandy

By 1.JMA's Khan.

Carlo D'Este, Decision in Normandy, London: Pan Books 1984, pp. 557, Illustrations, Maps, Acknowledgments; Introduction; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index.

Appendices: Letter from Montgomery to Dempsey; Casualties (German and Allied); Extract from Eisenhower's letter to Field Marshal Montgomery

Carlo D'Este, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the American Army has written one of the most formidable accounts of Allied operations during WWII. Not suitable for a casual read, the book focuses on a strategic point of view and addresses the many controversies involving command decisions undertaken during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. The primary focus of the author's study is on (later) Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and his decisions regarding D-Day and the invasion of Europe. Comparing the planning and actions of Allied forces to their German adversaries, D'Este successfully builds a detailed picture of the battle for Normandy with a Commonwealth focus from the beach landings to the eventual German collapse at Falaise.

D'Este begins his book with a historical background starting with the Allied withdrawal from the continent at Dunkirk. He then goes over operations in Africa and Mediterranean before starting to analyze the roots of the invasion in France. In particular, bringing into focus the individuals who will emerge as the key commanders during the Normandy campaign. Throughout the book one will see a look into and an explanation of the politics between the senior generals of the Allied armies. Carlo D'Este explains how Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke advocated (then) General Montgomery's appointment to command, who then created a qualified general staff that would help him plan the invasion. Using unpublished sources and interviews, D'Este dismisses Montgomery's critics who claimed he had no intention of using aggressive action during the planning of D-Day. After going over the invasion plane, he thoroughly explains the strengths and weakness of the Allies and the Germans around the Coast of Normandy; providing small windows into the minds of German commanders who would face the Allied armies.

While describing the Allied command structure, the author also describes the deployment of German forces in the West on the eve of invasion and analyses the rather clumsy German chain of command. He compares this with the Allied invasion plan and Montgomery's planned intentions to take Caen immediately after the landings. As he covers the early phases of the invasion in terms of the British landings, D'Este covers the setbacks faced by British forces attempting to push up against Caen according to Montgomery's bold plan. These forces unexpectedly ran into some strong points and were delayed so that the German 21st Panzer division effectively blocked any attempts to advance on the city. Analyzing these developments, D'Este differs from some other historians as he blames circumstances for this setback that led to a drawn out bloody battle for Caen.

The book moves along through one atrocious battle to another, primarily from a British perspective, dissecting the engagements as they happened. D'Este uses Allied after action reports and German loss records obtained from secondary sources to show the tremendous amount of casualties inflicted on both sides. In this he addresses a notable controversy of the Normandy campaign: the lack of gains in the British and Canadian sector. While veteran British divisions were overcautious and lost initiative quite a few times, a static front was unavoidable. This was due to the fact that the British forces were opposed by the bulk of the German panzer divisions coupled with extremely competent infantry (in particular, the fanatical 12th SS). Being pitted against the elite of the German Army, these Allied formations took such heavy casualties that Montgomery had started to run out of reserves to replace the losses in men. Which in turn forced his moves to be cautious in nature, the British and Canadian armies could not afford further severe losses in men.

The resulting lack of gains have traditionally led to severe criticism being lashed on Montgomery. D'Este, through his analysis, says that it is unfair to blame Montgomery for the enemy's decision to tenaciously concentrate on holding the British and Canadian tide; that in fact Montgomery showed considerable military prowess in holding down German reserves time and again through his armored thrusts. In the face of the changing strategic situation, Montgomery's decision to contain the vast majority of high quality German troops while letting the Americans break out on the left flank is commendable. However, the author does not forgive Montgomery for dishonestly claiming later on that such a strategy was his plan from the very beginning.

The following chapters discuss the massive British armored thrust in the form of Operation Goodwood, and the subsequent American breakout at Avranches. While much attention is devoted to the former operation and Montgomery's lack of strict orders for aggressive attack, the author briefly goes over the American breakout and the dramatic changes it caused on the front. D'Este explains how Hitler's (well known in this case) bungling caused the German army to entrap itself as the Americans circled around them. In the mean time, forces of the Commonwealth pounded them from the north to create a pocket of German resistance. This eventually became the famous and deeply controversial pocket of Falaise.

After the war, many historians and key figures blamed Montgomery for the late closing of the German pocket that led to a considerable number of men escaping to fight another day. Through his research, D'Este puts that notion to rest. He traces the situation day by day in a chapter solely devoted to analysis of the decisions taken during this stretch of the campaign. The book convincingly asserts that Montgomery should not be blamed for the late closing of the gap. D'Este proves that Montgomery's orders on the matter show a desire to entrap the fleeing Germans as effectively as possible. For this the latter had even made arrangements for two thrusts to be executed, one towards the Americans south of the pocket and the other towards the Seine River in case the Germans could not be contained. The author cites documents and letters from the commander of the American forces, General Bradley that clearly show that it was he who fell short in closing the gap.

In his concluding chapters D'Este continues to analyze and cross-check decisions that were taken throughout the battle for Normandy, repeatedly pointing out earlier accounts of the campaign that contain inaccuracies and distortions; these range from official historical works, memoirs, various unit histories to eyewitness testimonies. In refuting or clarifying these controversies (most of which tend to lie around Montgomery) D'Este blames the latter for aggravating the problems by not presenting an accurate picture in his memoirs or later interviews. The Field Marshal's eventual claim of everything acting out as he had planned made him appear to be covering up for mistakes. Whereas, for most part the primary problem the Allies faced was a doggedly determined enemy who excelled in the art of defensive warfare. Thus, as one goes along through the book, the intelligent, but obviously flawed character of Montgomery is revealed.

When the book was published in 1983, much of these assertions were fresh and shed dramatic new light on the campaign. At the introduction of the book Carlo D'Este states:

"A great deal has been written about D-Day, and it is not the intention of this work in any way to duplicate the excellent accounts written since the war ended more than thirty-eight years ago…"
"However the battle for Normandy has produced some of the bitterest controversies of the entire war…"
"…It is hoped that this account will serve to shed entirely new light on one of the last great land battles ever fought."


Word for word, this is exactly what the book does. One would not regard the work as a holistic perspective or a comprehensive work on D-Day and beyond, and does it claim to be either. The book is a address to the accusations and myth revolving around the performance of the forces of the Commonwealth and their commander, (then) General Bernard Montgomery. The book analyses the plan for D-Day as a brainchild of Montgomery and then scrutinizes his role in the implementation of the plan from a mostly British perspective. The author uses a great number of unpublished archives, letters and new interviews with subordinates who put their views forward after Montgomery's death. As an American author, D'Este is quite notable for not indulging in 'Monty bashing' and treating the Field Marshal's conduct with rational analysis and study.
Decision in Normandy will give the casual reader insight into the planning and fighting of the battle for Normandy, but will fail to create a comprehensive picture of struggle between all nationalities involved. There are few first hand accounts of combat, but abundant narratives from officers recalling battle decisions, orders and their effects. The view being offered to the reader is strategic, with an explanation of tactical implications. There are shortcomings in this idea as the maps provided are few and would require a serious student to be able to gloss over them to see and understand the evolution of the battle from town to town in their heads. One should also not look for a wide-ranging outlook of all armies involved, the perspective is mostly British - only being shifted when the other parties involved bore direct consequences to the latter.

For what it sets out to accomplish, the book is truly an excellent work. It builds arguments, substantiates them, provides factual history and analyses the result. As a reader one must keep in mind that what is discussed is only a portion of perspective, albeit a rather large one, of the complicated operation the battle for Normandy was. For someone familiar with the armies involved and the happenings of that bloody summer in 1944, Decision in Normandy is a pleasure to read and must be followed up with works from authors such as Max Hastings and John Keegan.

Copyright 2004, Usman Khan
for 1JMA

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