Antony Beevor is the doyen of British popular history. The world's bestselling military historian, with an astonishing four-million sales to his name, he has done more than any other current writer to drag history out of its ivory towers and into the nation's living-rooms.
Beevor came to prominence with two bestselling tomes, Stalingrad and Berlin, both of which deal with the eastern front of the Second World War. Now, however, he has turned his attention to the western theatre to tackle the D-Day campaign and the Battle for Normandy.
There is a danger inherent in this westward shift. Beevor's earlier books succeeded not only because they were brilliantly written, but also because they brought something genuinely new to the party, expanding the reader's understanding of a largely under-known subject. Stalingrad and Berlin were the first books in English, for instance, to detail the grim tribulations of the ordinary Soviet soldier in the Second World War. There is surely a risk that, in turning to the familiar surroundings of Normandy's beaches and hedgerows, Beevor will lose a part of his appeal, sacrifice his unique selling point. Crucially, can he still meet his own high standards on such familiar terrain?
Happily, D-Day is vintage Beevor. Written with tremendous verve and flair, it segues seamlessly between the various locations of the narrative – Normandy, London, Berlin and Paris – and between the macro of grand strategy and the micro of soldiers' experiences, without ever losing its way or appearing disjointed. All the salient points of the story are elegantly and engagingly retold – from the rugged heroism at Pointe du Hoc, to the grim confrontation at Falaise and the joyous liberation of Paris.
There is also much new material to satisfy the purists. Some of this is achieved by a simple shift of focus. Beevor gives consideration, for instance, to the experience of the French civilian population, of whom as many as 20,000 would perish during the Normandy campaign alone. He also incorporates the Parisian aspect of Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life into his wider narrative.
Yet, much of what is new in the book is the fruit of solid, old-fashioned research. One notable source is a series of interviews – long-archived and largely forgotten – that were conducted by the US Army with soldiers fresh from the front line. As well as bringing a tremendous immediacy and vitality to the narrative, such accounts also show the brutal, unglossed reality of the conflict; the naked fear, for example, and the apparently routine killing of enemy prisoners. It is accounts such as these – vivid, contemporary descriptions of the fighting itself and its aftermath – that provide the backbone of the book.
Beevor has the rare ability to combine the historian's art with the novelist's flair. He uses memoirs, diary entries and extracts from the official military histories to great effect, providing the reader with a fascinating and varied tableau of voices; spanning all sides of the conflict and ranging from the most senior of commanders to the lowliest private.
Some might have doubted whether Beevor could repeat the success of his previous books; to recreate the thrill and fascination that the reader felt when first presented with the minutiae of the battle for Stalingrad or for Hitler's capital. But, despite switching the Russian steppes and the sandy soil of Brandenburg for the bocage and beaches of Normandy, he has lost none of his narrative and descriptive talents.
Neither has he lost his eye for the memorable, often disconcerting detail; the bloated, fetid corpses littering the Norman hedgerows, for instance, or the line of crumpled bodies across a field where a parachute unit was dropped too low. Some of the scenes that he describes seem to linger in the mind long after the book has been put down, such as the wounded German prisoner consumed by maggots, or the commanding officer, shot through the face, who continued giving orders to his men even though his wounds frothed with blood as he spoke.
Beevor is the consummate military historian. But therein, perhaps, lies this reviewer's only caveat, which is that, for all its laudable attention to detail, D-Day seems to be rather light on the profound wider significance of the Normandy campaign as a whole.
A short concluding paragraph on this issue does not do enough to convey the global importance of the operation. After all, it should not be forgotten that D-Day began the liberation of the western half of the European continent; a liberation without which the Red Army would surely have appeared on the banks of the Rhine – if not the Atlantic coast – with profound consequences for the post-war world.
Yet, it would be churlish to dwell on such petty grumblings, and they should not detract from the conclusion that D-Day is an excellent book and a very worthy successor to the earlier works that made their author's name.