Simon Forty, Leo Marriott, George Forty. The Normandy Battlefields: Bocage and Breakout: From the Beaches to the Falaise Gap. Havermate: Casemate Books, 2016. 192 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61200-419-8.
Reviewed by Toby Clark (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Printed in gold, the title The Normandy Battlefields Bocage and Breakout is contrasted against the stunning aerial photograph that adorns the front cover. Aside from helping this book to stand out amongst an already packed market, the image has didactic properties. Printed in full color, this shot features storm clouds against a blue sky, with undulating fields and woodland in various shades of green. The first of many, this aerial photo shows the typical terrain through which the British, American, Canadian, Polish, Free French, and Germans battled in the summer of 1944. In this way the front cover foregrounds the method by which the authors have chosen to tell the Normandy story: each aspect will be explained with the judicious use of excellent photographs.
This book has been written by Leo Marriott, Simon Forty, and George Forty and leads on from The Normandy Battlefields: D-Day and the Bridgehead, which in turn joins Leo Marriott and Simon Forty’s extensive output of books on Normandy. It is precisely this literary record that explains why the many facts in this book, including a reminder of the number of German tanks and anti-tank guns on the Verriѐres Ridge during Operation Spring, reflect the author’s immersion in this subject over many years.
In their introduction the authors quickly explain how Operation Overlord went ahead on June 6, 1944, and succeeded in securing a foothold in Europe. Once ashore the British, Canadians, and Americans stopped and consolidated, mopping up German resistance and building hospitals, airbases, camps, and storage dumps. Interestingly, the authors pause at this point and explore a selection of miscellaneous subjects: “Opposing Forces,” “Timeline June 7-August 28,” “Airpower by Leo Marriott,” “Mulberry A” and “Mulberry B,” “Artillery,” “Communications,” “Traffic Management,” “Tiger!,” and finally, “Collateral Damage.” I didn’t feel like these subjects belonged together and the interruption to the narrative so early in the story was a shame. That being said, these are important aspects of the Normandy Campaign and have featured in recent academic debate. The psychological superiority enjoyed by the Panzerwaffen over their allied opponents as dealt with in “Tiger!” and the civilian casualties explored in “Collateral Damage” have both been explored in The Normandy Campaign 1944: Sixty Years On edited by leading Normandy historian John Buckley. In fact The Normandy Battlefields engages with many more historiographical arguments so perhaps these individual matters could have been placed in the book at later points as their importance to the Normandy story becomes apparent.
Having secured their beachhead, the authors follow the American 1st Army as it turned westward into the Cotentin Peninsular. To their credit the authors show American VII Corps’ drive on Carteret, which cut the Cotentin off from the rest of France as well as the largely forgotten coastal defenses to the west of the Cotentin Peninsular. Capturing Cherbourg was the first victory of the Normandy Campaign and it is afforded pride of place in this first chapter. Of special interest are the photographs showing the German efforts to destroy the port installations, which were completed with a thoroughness which astounded the American engineers.
Following their success at Cherbourg, the American 1st Army headed southward towards St Lo. Unfortunately, the Americans became caught in the green tendrils of the Bocage and were trapped. By sticking rigidly to a US focus in this chapter and a British focus in the next, the authors do not show that while US 1st Army became stuck at St. Lo, so too did the British 2nd Army around Caen. It was this slow progress during June and July that deeply concerned the Allies. However, this book does concede that the slow and costly progress—as German strength was drawn to Normandy—was proof that victory was being achieved. Here might also have been a better place to include the essay on air power and the discussion of Tiger tanks because it was at this point in the campaign that these matters gained new importance as the British 2nd and American 1st Armies became stuck.
Following the breakout by General Bradley’s 1st US Army during Operation Cobra and the subsequent exploitation by General Patton’s 3rd US Army, it would be understandable for the authors to have focused on the gradual formation of the Falaise Pocket. Interestingly, the attention passes on to the campaign to clear Brittany, and I for one had not considered the importance of the ports on this coastline with their potential for unloading supplies from America and Britain.
As I mentioned at the outset, this book makes good use of photographs to explain the Normandy Campaign. Aside from the photograph and caption system which we are all familiar with, the authors have used another method to help portray battles and engagements. It is best described as a system and is exemplified in the author’s treatment of the battle at La Haye-du-Puits. First, a modern aerial photograph shows the location today and important details are highlighted with numbers that correspond to detailed captions. Second, the same numbers are placed onto an aerial photograph taken during the war. There may also be a map to orientate the reader as to the general area of fighting. In this way the reader is shown a modern aerial view of a village or bunker and is then guided through black-and-white photographs showing the fighting in 1944, with perhaps a photograph of the weapons or men involved. The system is completed with a photograph taken on the ground in recent years.
I anticipate using this book during my next visit to Normandy because the descriptions of battle, the excellent aerial and archive photos, and fascinating biographies suit the tourist. It also doesn’t matter about your previous knowledge of the Normandy Campaign; this book has you covered. For those with a long-held interest or academics with a focus on Normandy, this book will clarify the well-known arguments and rekindle interest without ruffling feathers. All the important components of the Normandy story are here and even some lesser-known areas, too.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Toby Clark. Review of Forty, Simon; Marriott, Leo; Forty, George, The Normandy Battlefields: Bocage and Breakout: From the Beaches to the Falaise Gap.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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