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 Using unpublished sources and interviews, D'Este dismisses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
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
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
"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