Book Review – The Armoured Campaign in Normandy, June-August 1944

Stephen Napier, The Armoured Campaign in Normandy, June-August 1944. Stroud:  Spellmount, 2015. Notes. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. Cloth.  387 pp.

Reviewed by Phil McCarty, PhD Candidate, University of Wolverhampton

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As published authors will know, sometimes your publisher’s marketing department can be a hindrance rather than a help. The prominent illustration of a PzKpfw VI – or Tiger 1 – on the dust jacket of this book was perhaps to be expected, but will generate differing emotions in readers. To the vociferous lobby who advocate the superiority of German doctrine, equipment and combat power, this tank typifies such a notion against inferior Allied equivalents, offset only by pure mass. Others may retreat wearily in the face of this overly complex, mechanically unreliable, logistical nightmare being presented yet again as the epitome of the armoured battle in Normandy – and the cause of another outbreak of ‘Tiger Fever’. The latter was sufficiently real to annoy both General Sir Bernard Montgomery and his Chief of Staff, Major-General Francis ‘Freddie’ de Guingand, to issue stern warnings against it, either among veterans of Tunisia, where it had started, or troops new to battle.

Thankfully, Stephen Napier’s book is not another addition to the Allied bad/German good literature as its considered analysis examines fault on both sides and is more nuanced than the simplistic comparison typical of inferior works. However, readers should be aware that this work is predominantly focused, save for one chapter on Operation Luttich (the German counterattack at Mortain) on Allied armour doctrine and performance. There are fourteen chapters; the first two describe the state of allied tank design in 1944, and how crews fought in them; the last is a summary of conclusions. The intervening chapters are operational studies; the ‘Bridgehead Battles’, PERCH, EPSOM, GOODWOOD and BLUECOAT for the British; TRACTABLE and TOTALIZE for the Canadians; the “Battle of the Hedgerows” and Cobra for the Americans; and the attempts to close the Falaise Gap.

From the very outset, it is apparent that the author has taken his core research seriously and has approached the source material with a mind to re-evaluate it. This has led to some interesting details emerging; for example, cross-referencing of war diaries and documents such as the Royal Armoured Corps liaison notes has revealed that, in some cases, Allied tank losses were even higher than reported at the time, and the lower figures have been repeated in other popular accounts. One particular example is that of the Canadian attack at Buron on 7 June (p. 119).

The author airs typical criticisms of British operational planning, repeating the often aired charge that Montgomery engaged in the post-action revision of his initial expectations to make the lesser successes achieved appear in keeping with his original aims. In particular, he goes so far as to suggest that Montgomery’s communication with Brooke after Operation Goodwood reads as if it were drafted in advance of combat and speculated that its positive tone might even represent a draft issued in error (p. 227). Furthermore, he often reflects that Montgomery was often poor in transmitting his strategic intent both to General Dwight Eisenhower and to his subordinates, especially General Sir Miles Dempsey, which led to heightened expectations among both superiors and subordinates of breakthrough battles. This was especially so in the cases of GOODWOOD and BLUECOAT. When both fell short of the mark and blame circulated, Napier suggests, the groundwork for later recriminations between the senior commanders in memoirs and interviews was set. Without a doubt, the failure of BLUECOAT and with it the delay to the British and American link-up after Operation COBRA damaged the relationship between Montgomery and Eisenhower.

There is a criticism of American planning – such as the (correct) pre-invasion assessment that bocage was unsuitable for the type of armoured operations intended, yet inevitably directing forces through it without having trained them how to do so before D-Day. Napier also asserts that tank/infantry co-operation in the US Army was not very developed initially (one infantry officer resorted to firing his pistol at the turret of the command tank supporting him in order to gain its attention – p. 191) but pulls the punch by concluding although no consistent doctrine was applied across the US Army group, the general “two-stage” approach of break in by engineers followed by armour either carrying infantry or with them close by worked. Local failures, he suggests, were due to inexperience among the troops. This is not an allowance the author makes as generously in the British and Canadian sectors.

In discussing Operation TOTALIZE, the first major operation of the recently formed First Canadian Army in August – Napier calls it “unblooded” notwithstanding the heavy fighting already undertaken by 2nd Canadian Corps since D-Day – the planning by Major-General Guy Simonds is variously described as ‘conservative’ and ‘flawed.’ Fourth Canadian Armoured Brigade’s plan is even labelled ‘lamentable’ (p. 357) although this latter charge is a more difficult one to refute. Time to prepare was inadequate; planning was to some extent rushed due to pressure to act. Some innovative, but untested, techniques were used in the night attack – such as radio direction of ground troops. The author suggests that Simonds’ lack of foresight to continue operations beyond the initial phase caused a loss of momentum, thus repeating – and compounding – Dempsey’s errors in GOODWOOD (p. 358). He does, however, concede that Simonds may have been influenced by intelligence reports of stiffer opposition than was the case; the subsequent halting of TOTALIZE allowed the Germans to consolidate.

The chapters on Operation Luttich, and on the attempts to close the Falaise Gap are well written, the latter being a particularly good narrative of the Canadian and Polish efforts to sustain the pursuit. On Luttich, the author makes justifiable criticism of von Kluge’s nervousness to engage but allows that Hitler’s instructions to attack – far removed from the actual position on the ground – hung over the conduct of the battle. Combined with inadequate intelligence and reconnaissance of the Americans, the psychological impact of the arrival of an entire US armoured division (even if it were not fully engaged) and the clearing weather allowing the return of Allied close air support meant the failure of the attack had a certain inevitability. However, he does credit the dogged defence by the Americans in breaking a major thrust down into smaller, unit battles where the Allies prevailed.

On the closing of the Falaise gap, it is noted that very few units were the actual spearhead in the final attempts to cut off the German retreat to the east;  it is suggested that time and opportunities so to do were lost as inexperienced local commanders consolidated on high ground despite chances  to cause a German collapse. The more aggressive drive could, Napier contends, have closed the gap a full week earlier – and the Germans knew it. The error rests, he says, with Montgomery and Bradley. Despite contemporary memorialisation, Napier adds that French involvement was less than it could have been, with French 2nd Armoured Division being ‘distracted’ by planning for the imminent drive on Paris; he also contends that the Polish had been ‘foolhardy and reckless’ in their approach after TOTALIZE but do ultimately deserve the credit, along with the Canadians’ South Alberta Regiment, of almost cutting off the German retreat.

Throughout, the author’s doggedness in returning to the core documents comes through, making extensive use of British, Canadian and American archives; the Germans are represented more indirectly, in evaluations by the Allies and in secondary published sources.    This diligence has allowed him to deal head on with some pervading myths.  His examination of the American reluctance to use Hobart’s ‘funnies’ and a more thorough evaluation of utilisation and performance of Duplex Drive tanks is exemplary. In the latter case, his view is more sanguine than is popularly so, blaming crews for overloading with ammunition and equipment and reducing freeboard; with the Americans he even suggests that British omitted to inform them of a key design flaw in the structure of the flotation screen which contributed to the loss of so many American DDs on 6 June. Overall, he concludes, DD tanks underperformed. He also has little patience with the old saw that the reluctance to rouse Hitler from sleep alone cost the Germans the opportunity to respond; he concludes that pre-existing tensions in the German command system, even locally, were more to blame. The author has also gone through the Operational Research Section documents, which until comparatively recently, were relatively unexploited and widely accepted for accuracy. Napier has found that there were some errors in data collation and has arrived at different conclusions for Allied tank losses, demonstrating some skill in quantitative analysis.

British doctrine was in flux, always changing thinking on tank-infantry co-operation and at points – such as at GOODWOOD – coming up short.  British tanks – and to some extent the American Shermans – were not equal in armour protection and firepower to their German counterparts, often losing the advantage of numbers to an inability to make a ‘first shot’ kill. Conversely, the argument is made that the Germans had the doctrine but were unable to exploit it due to air supremacy, dwindling ability to resupply losses of vehicles and Montgomery’s ‘keep hitting’ strategy. In many cases, the Germans exploited British imperatives to force a breakthrough by dug-in anti-tank defence and interlocking fire, rendering ‘good tank country’ anything but. Napier also assesses that the actual – as opposed to the psychological – impact of rocket-firing aircraft was less than has been claimed, but this is not a revelation in and of itself.

There is no denying that this is a thorough work of research, and it has critically reviewed existing sources. The combat narratives are also well drawn and clear. This reviewer cannot dispel the sensation, however, that, despite the strengths of this book, it does not – in the broadest sense – fundamentally differ in its conclusions from other recent scholarship on the battle of Normandy. This said for a volume placed squarely in the popular market, this book makes better research in the field accessible to a wider readership and dispels several pervasive myths a generalist may still think valid.  For the specialist, the case is less strong, but it still merits a space on the bookshelf.

Citation: Phil McCarty, ‘Review of Stephen Napier, The Armoured Campaign in Normandy, June-August 1944’, The Second World War Military Operation Research Group, 31 May 2016.

A copy of this review can be downloaded here.

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