Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book review – Normandy 1944

The Allied invasion of France in June 1944 ranks as one of the most important military operations of all time. Codenamed ‘Overlord’ its goal was to successfully land troops in France, defeat the German forces and liberate the entire country. Planning for the operation had taken months and the success of the Allied troops would mark the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

Even though ‘Overlord’ was one of the most important operations of WWII there is a serious lack of objective analysis on all the aspects of the fighting in Normandy. In practically all the history books there are serious mistakes and misconceptions regarding the forces that took part in the fighting, the losses of both sides, the state of the German defenses, their response to the Allied landings, the performance of weapons and tanks, the role of logistics etc.
The main problem is that historians have relied on each other’s books instead of searching the archives for the answers.

The book ‘Normandy 1944: German Military Organization, Combat Power and Organizational Effectiveness’ by Niklas Zetterling fills this void by using reports from the German archives in order to answer some important questions. Zetterling was also the coauthor of the ground breaking ‘Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis’, so if you’ve read that book you know that the analysis will be top notch.

The book is separated into three parts. The first part has a series of chapters devoted to the most important aspects of the Normandy campaign. The second part lists all the German units and gives an overview of their strength, their equipment situation and the role they played in the fighting. There is also a short appendix with information on some ‘special’ topics such as the movement of German units to Normandy, ‘tooth to tail ratios’, flak units and some very interesting criticism of recent books!

The chapters in the first part cover:
1). Overview of sources available to the historian.

2). The terminology used in German reports (ration strength, combat strength, combat values, numbering of units, difference between losses in tanks and total losses etc). Many mistakes by well meaning historians are due to lack of understanding regarding the meaning of those terms.

For example it can be stated in a book that a German division was crippled because only 300 men were left to fight. Since a standard infantry division usually had 10.000 men it seems obvious that the unit was destroyed (9.700 casualties…). However the number in the report could refer only to front strength ‘Kampfstarke’ or only to infantry men, in which case it doesn’t mean that the unit of 10.000 had been reduced to 300, only that the infantry element had been reduced.

3). Organization of German units and comparison with Anglo-American structure. US and UK had a large part of their combat troops in non divisional units, which makes it a mistake to directly compare German and US-UK strengths in a battle just by looking at the number of divisions on each side.

4). Number of soldiers employed in Normandy and comparison with the Allies. There is a table listing all the German units and their strength at the beginning of June. Overall about 640.000 troops fought in Normandy or supported those operations.
5). Effects of Allied airpower. As has been shown in ‘Air Power at the Battlefront’ the effects of Allied fighter bombers have been exaggerated. However the bombing campaign against the French rail network caused serious problems for the Germans.

6). Overview of the types and basic characteristics of the German armored vehicles (Panzer IV, Panther, Tiger, Stug III, Marder, etc)

7). German losses in Normandy. There is a table listing each unit that fought in Normandy and the casualties they suffered. There is also analysis on the German AFV losses.
8). German combat efficiency analysis, taking into account the strength and loss rations for German and Allied units (statistical method of T.N. Dupuy).

9). Movement of units to Normandy. The German units were deficient in motor transport and dependant on the civilian rail network that was the target of Allied airpower. This limited their mobility and meant that they could not move to Normandy quickly. According to the author these objective factors explain the timing and speed of the German units sent to Normandy rather than the Allied disinformation operation and the convoluted command structure of the German military in France.
10). Author’s conclusion. Based on all the information presented in the previous chapters it is the author’s belief that the campaign in Normandy has been misrepresented for too long and further research is needed.

Some excerpts: ‘The image of the German forces in the West as combat ready units eagerly anticipating an Allied invasion but hampered by ambiguous, divided and hesitant command does not stand up to closer scrutiny………………….Insufficient  mobility was caused by shortages of vehicles, spare parts and fuel…..Another important factor was the fact that many of the German armor formations in the West were units depleted after sustained combat in the Eastern front…..Allied airpower seems to have been misrepresented quite often……Given the Allied numerical preponderance and air superiority , it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the German ground units on average were more efficient in combat than their adversaries.
The second part lists the units that were stationed in the West, their strength and equipment situation and the role they played in the fighting. There is information for all kinds of units, from obscure artillery battalions, paratroopers, the mobile Flak corps up to infantry and Panzer divisions.

In the appendices there is further analysis of some important aspects of the campaign plus some criticism of other authors.
In appendix 8 the author points out serious mistakes in ‘The GI offensive in Europe’ by Peter R. Mansoor, ‘Draftee Division’ by John Sloan Brown and ‘German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare’ by Omer Bartov.

In appendix 10 Christopher A. Lawrence (director of the Dupuy Institute) critiques the book ‘Draftee Division’ by John Sloan Brown

This book is highly recommended. My opinion is that you can’t be a serious WWII reader and not have it in your collection!


  1. "The main problem is that historians have relied on each other’s books instead of searching the archives for the answers."

    David Irving seems to say this a lot. But is Irving any more reliable than his critics?

    1. If someone uses archival resources then in theory anyone can check the reliability of his work.

      Of course then there are other issues such as whether the sources used are adequate, complete, unbiased etc.
      A serious historian should try to get information from the archives and not second hand sources.