Brooke S. Blades. The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives. South Yorkshire: PEN & SWORD MILITARY, 2019. 176 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5267-4396-1.
Reviewed by Bradley Podliska (Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Brooke S. Blades sets out am ambitious goal for The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives: “The intent is to reduce the immense scope of the invasion of France to a human scale that is both understandable and moving for the reader” (p. 7). In what Blades describes as “a material anchor for memory,” he puts forth a Herculean effort in selecting 273 photographs (p. 10). Whether the “material anchor” is accomplished requires readers to ask themselves two questions: 1) Can I find the same photographs online? 2) Do the photographs reduce the enormity of the Normandy invasion to a human scale?
In answering the first question, the US National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) D-Day records (https://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/d-day), which consist of 6,528 online D-Day images, offer a good starting place. Of the 273 photographs in The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy, Blades uses 217 NARA photographs: seven are credited to Record Group 26, one is credited to Record Group 77, ten are credited to Record Group 80, 179 are credited to Record Group 111, twelve are credited to Record Group 208, and eight are credited to Record Group 342. In total for these Record Groups, NARA has posted 201 images online, of which seven of Blades’s photographs are available. Blades’s photograph selection of two Robert Capa photographs and five Bundesarchiv Bild photographs are available online. The remaining 49 photographs are from Blades’s personal collection.
The end result is that a reader can only use the internet to find 14 of the 273 photographs in The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy. Notably for one of the 14 photographs, an image of men and equipment on page 19, NARA offers the photograph in color (see National Archives Identifier 12008269 at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12008269). All of Blades’s photographs are in black and white.
The second question is more difficult to answer—whether Blades is able to capture the human story of D-Day. In trying to capture this story, Blades organizes his book in a manner that is “not linear and temporal but rather focuses on specific topics” (p. 10). While not strictly tracing a linear time line, the book begins with training in the United Kingdom, details the battle on the Normandy beaches, and ends with the legacy of the fight for freedom. More specifically, in chapter 1, Blades writes of the training for D-Day and the personalities involved. In chapter 2, he describes the landings of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. For chapters 3 to 5, Blades moves west along Omaha Beach, detouring to tell the stories of famed photographer Sergeant Richard Taylor. In chapter 6, the narrative is on the less-defended yet equally intense assault of Utah Beach. In chapter 7, Blades writes about French civilians and German prisoners. In chapter 8, he moves back to American military operations, detailing the advance inland. For chapters 9 and 10, Blades recounts the result of the struggle—all of the wounded and dead. In chapter 11, Blades concludes the book with maps and photographs of the extent to which the battlefield has changed over the course of seventy-five years.
In organizing his book in this manner, Blades takes an irregular path of storytelling, sometimes weaving in to provide the nuance and emotion of the reality behind a two-dimensional photograph. For example, in chapter 7, Blades writes of the plight of African American soldiers, who trained, served, and fought at D-Day. These soldiers were mostly and wrongly confined to construction and transportation units and unfairly targeted at a high rate for military crimes (p. 115). But there were exceptions—Blades writes of an African American artillery unit that takes on an additional mission. Blades matches this narrative seamlessly with photographs of African American soldiers, likely from an artillery unit, on patrol and then photographs of African Americans manning Battery A of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (pp. 127-8). In chapter 10, Blades returns to this narrative, adding a photograph of a dead German soldier, killed by the African American patrol (p. 208).
As another example, in chapter 3, Blades writes that both photographers Robert Capa and Robert Sargent were associated with the devastating loss of Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) 85. Sargent photographed the damaged ship and Capa rode it back to the Samuel Chase. LCI 85 was hit by artillery as it unloaded its troops, and sadly, medics with Collecting Company A of the 1st Medical Battalion were aboard. This was a single point of failure, placing medics in one craft at an early point in the assault (p. 57). Blades poignantly writes of the sadness, “Capa boarded this vessel after leaving the beach and found the skipper crying at the carnage on his boat” (p. 64). He accompanies this narrative with a Sargent photograph of LCI 85, showing soldiers standing seemingly nonchalantly next to a deceased soldier. Blades, as he does throughout the book, offers his expertise on the photograph, noting in the upper right a map of Fox Green sector sitting underneath a pair of binoculars (p. 64).
Blades then sometimes weaves out, leaving the reader wondering why a narrative was added without an accompanying photograph. For example, in chapter 5, Blades provides company-level details of the heroism of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division at the Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, and Easy Green sectors. He names the heroes—Brigadier General Norman Cota, Lieutenant Robert Bedell, Lieutenant Stanley Schwartz, and Lieutenant Verne Morse—but does not offer photographs of them, missing a chance to humanize these warriors.
This oversight is especially pronounced in chapter 1. The author spends a considerable amount of time telling the stories of civilian-turned-soldier Edward Wright, Brigadier General James Gavin, and Captain Chester Hansen but does not offer photographs of them. Blades does offers photographs of Matthew Daley and Ernest Wise on pages on pages 15 and 16 respectively, but provides a dearth of words on their life story: “Two lieutenants in the 116th Infantry—Matthew Daley and Ernest Wise—were among these early arrivals, stationed at Bristowe” (p. 12). The reader then learns of Daley and Wise again in chapter 5, when Blades offers a glimpse into the emotion and drama of what Daley and Wise experienced on those beaches. At first, Blades weaves in, going into excruciating, exact detail about Daley’s wounding on Easy Green: “After using a morphine syrette he bandaged his wound [on his hand], then smeared sand to darken the bandage thinking the white color would make him a target” (p. 84). On the same page, Blades weaves out, as the reader is left with an antiseptic feeling of Wise’s death: “[he] reached the sea wall but was killed near Lieutenant Daley shortly afterwards” (p. 84).
In a world of Google-available images and in spite of not reaching its full potential, The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy offers a rare, poignant visual into the human struggle unfolding on the beaches and soil of a soon-to-be-liberated Europe.
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Bradley Podliska. Review of Blades, Brooke S., The Americans on D-Day and in Normandy: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives.
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