The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Reviews

The War Between The Generals / Overlord: D-Day And The Battle For Normandy

  • The War Between The Generals, by David Irving. New York: Congdon and Weed (distributed by St. Martin’s Press), 1981,446PP, $9.95 Pb, ISBN 0-312-92921-8.
  • Overlord: D-Day And The Battle For Normandy, by Max Hastings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, 368pp, $17.95, ISBN 0-671-46029-3.

Reviewed by Charles Lutton

David Irving first gained the attention of serious students of history in 1963 with the publication of his first book, The Destruction of Dresden. Since then he has written nearly a dozen other books and translated three more from the German. In the process he has established himself (oh, Professor Gerhard Weinberg isn’t going to like this) as perhaps the world’s leading authority on Hitler and certainly one of the premier historians of the European Theater of the Second World War.

Having written a number of critically acclaimed studies dealing with aspects of the war on the German side, Irving decided to delve inside the Allied high command. As he points out in the prologue to The War Between the Generals, at the conclusion of the war, General Eisenhower tried to place a lid on information relating to the internal conflicts that had raged among the Western Allies. Though some leaks occurred after the war, it was only after wartime documents were declassified and the heirs of deceased leaders released diaries and other personal records that it became possible to gain a fuller understanding of the antagonisms that festered among the British and American commanders during the last year of the war — from the invasion of Normandy to VE-Day.

Two main strategic issues provided sources of contention. The first was whether or not the Normandy landing should take place at all. Churchill was opposed to it, arguing instead for a drive into the Balkans. The British also argued unsuccessfully against the American proposal for an invasion of southern France — ANVIL — which they viewed as a wasteful dispersal of forces.

Once the Allies were secured in Normandy, the strategic debate shifted to the question of broad-versus-narrow-front attack against Germany. Montgomery and Patton wanted to launch a single decisive thrust into the heart of the Reich, preferably toward the north, which would likely have resulted in Anglo-American occupation of Berlin. Eisenhower again prevailed, the Allies taking almost a year cautiously to advance across a broad front, costing them thousands of unnecessary casualties and leaving the Soviets in control of central Germany.

Many generals, both British and American, found fault with Eisenhower’s “broad front” strategy. On 17 November 1944, Montgomery wrote to Sir Alan Brooke: “The Directives he issues… have no relation to the practical necessities of the battle… He has never commanded anything before in his whole career; now, for the first time, he has elected to take direct command of very large-scale operations and he does not know how to do it.” At a Chiefs of Staff meeting a week later, Brooke remarked: “Eisenhower, though supposed to be running the land battle, is on the golf links at Rheims — entirely detached and taking practically no part in the running of the war.” Patton considered his commander in chief “nothing but a popinjay, a stuffed doll.”

As if Eisenhower’s misdirection of military operations was not enough, a New York newspaper leaked word of the infamous “Morgenthau Plan” — an outline for a draconian postwar occupation policy for Germany. In the summer of 1944, the U.S. War Department drew up a draft calling for a rather mild postwar occupation policy. Irving reveals that a certain Col. B. Bernstein of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) purloined a copy of the draft and, “bypassing regular army channels,” sent a copy to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who “was outraged by the leniency of the War Department approach.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson opposed Morgenthau’s Carthaginian occupation program but, as Stimson said, “the Semites” carried the day, with Roosevelt and Churchill approving the Morgenthau Plan on 15 September 1944. Once the Germans got wind of the Morgenthau Plan, it confirmed what the “Unconditional Surrender” announcement of 1943 had already suggested, namely, that defeat by either the Soviets or the Anglo-Americans would lead to the utter destruction of Germany and the German people. Irving points out that, following the disclosure of the Morgenthau Plan, “German resistance, already stiffening, became desperate. The death toll among Allied soldiers increased.”

As time goes on and the archives open more of their files to the scrutiny of researchers, we will be revising our view of the German occupation of France and conditions there following “liberation.” John Eisenhower, the General’s son, reported: “I saw absolutely no evidence of German abuse of the population … The attitude of the French was sobering indeed. Instead of bursting with enthusiasm they seemed not only indifferent but sullen. There was considerable cause for wondering whether these people wished to be “'liberated.'” General Eisenhower’s British aide conceded that “The people looked well-fed and the children healthy and well-dressed.” And Sir Alan Brooke, the British Army Chief of Staff, observed: “The French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us arrive as a victorious army to liberate France. They had been quite content as they were and we were bringing war and desolation to their country.” Referring to the French town of Carentan, Montgomery wrote to Brooke: “I see SHAEF communique said yesterday that the town had been liberated. Actually, it has been completely flattened and there is hardly a house intact; all the civilians have fled. It is a queer sort of liberation.” Irving explains that “French folk saw only the Allied battleships and bombers and tanks pounding their towns into ruins. In a reflexive act of self-preservation, many of them seized arms to aid Rommel’s army against the death-dealing newcomers.”

In sharp contrast with the picture long held up to us of American GIs being welcomed by a grateful French populace, Irving is one of several historians who are casting new light on these events. It seems that far from acting like Boy Scouts out on a mission of mercy, American soldiers terrorized many of the people they were supposed to be liberating from the clutches of the nasty Nazis. As Irving informs his readers: “An ordeal began for the French who stayed behind in Normandy to welcome their liberators. They were liable to be vandalized, robbed, raped, murdered. Indeed, the behavior of GIs throughout liberated Europe was causing apprehension in Washington. The Joint Chiefs reviewed a report from Rome too that conditions now were worse than when the Germans had been there.” Following a visit to Caen, B.H. Liddell Hart, the famous British military strategist and historian, pointed out that “Most Frenchmen speak of the correctness of the German Army’s behavior. They seem particularly impressed that German soldiers were shot for incivility to women and compare this with the American troops' bad behavior toward women.” According to an official U.S. Army report, “Unfortunately most of these undisciplined acts were caused by colored troops.”

German resistance continued on into the Fall and “the discipline of even some of the finest U.S. units was cracking,” including the famous 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. On 5 November 1944, Eisenhower’s driver and girl friend, Kay Summersby, recorded: “General Betts reports that disciplinary conditions in the army are becoming bad. Many cases of rape, murder, and pillage are causing complaints by the French Dutch, etc.” A month later, General Leroy Lutes remarked: “The French now grumble that the Americans are a more drunken and disorderly lot than the Germans and hope to see the day when they are liberated from the Americans.” Lutes discovered that the Allied propaganda which portrayed the Germans as brutes was untrue: “I am informed the Germans did not loot either residences, stores, or museums. In fact the people claimed that they were meticulously treated by the Army of Occupation.” By the end of the war, over 450 GIs were sentenced to death by courts-martial, nearly all for having committed nonmilitary offenses like rape and murder.

The indefatigable Irving has also turned up more information about General Charles DeGaulle. He discloses that to help pave the way for his intended return, anti-Gaullist resistants and independents in France were betrayed to the Gestapo — while in French North Africa, in the wake of the Allied landings there in 1942, Gaullists jailed and executed Frenchmen who had assisted the Anglo-American forces. Later, on the eve of D-Day, DeGaulle insisted that a sentence be removed from Eisenhower’s invasion broadcast to the French people. The sentence read: “When France is liberated from her oppressors, you yourselves will choose your representatives, and the government under which you wish to live.” Irving goes on to describe conditions following D-Day, characterizing the “liberation” of France a “witch-hunt” which “turned into a winter of long-knives. In Belgium, too, the Resistance, founded and nourished by the Allies, had turned into a Frankenstein creature which they had trouble in controlling.”

The “Malmedy Massacre” is revealed by Irving to be a hoax invented by wartime sensation-mongers. During the Battle of the Bulge, a unit of the 1st Panzer Division killed over 80 GIs during a fire fight. The American dead were laid out in rows in the snow, but the Germans were forced to withdraw from Malmedy before the dead soldiers were buried. Allied propagandists blew this event up into a major atrocity story, claiming that the Americans had been taken prisoner and then lined up and shot. Several Germans were tried after the war for their participation in this “war crlme.”

Turning to the other side, Irving does authenticate several instances of German POWs being executed in cold blood by Allied troops. Irving cites Patton, who wrote in his diary on 4 January 1945: “The Eleventh Armored is very green and took unnecessary losses to no effect. There were also some unfortunate incidents in the shooting of prisoners. I hope we can conceal this.”

Irving goes beyond a review of the strategic debates that went on among the Allied generals and a re-examination of significant events. He also reveals the private opinions various leading characters had about each other and discloses often interesting tidbits about their personal lives. (One shrill Irving critic, Professor John Lukacs, has taken especial umbrage over some of Irving’s revelations, accusing the British historian, in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, of trying “to rehabilitate Hitler… He not only tells his readers that Hitler was an able man… but tries to convince them that he was a man morally superior to his opponents.” Apparently it is fully permissible to write — and speculate — about the private lives of Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, et al., but not “cricket” to do the same when writing about the victors of World War II, who were, never forget, engaged in a great “Crusade in Europe.")

One of the most colorful American generals of the war was George S. Patton; Irving spices his narrative with anecdotes about him, as well as others. Patton came to take a jaundiced view of some of the people for whose “liberation” from Axis tyranny Americans were being killed. After spending some months fighting in the Mediterranean Theater, Patton “told his staff that he could not understand how the Arabs could share their hovels with animals. Arriving in Sicily, he added that he could not understand how the animals could live with Sicilians in their yards.” By the end of the war Patton was expressing serious doubts about the results of the conflict. In a letter to his wife, he confessed: “Berlin gave me the blues. We have destroyed what could have been a good race and we [are] about to replace them with Mongolian savages.” And in another letter, Patton admitted: “The stuff in the papers about fraternization is all wet… All that sort of writing is done by Jews to get revenge. Actually, the Germans are the only decent people left in Europe… I prefer the Germans. So do our cousins [the British].” After touring refugee camps he came to see Jews as “lower than animals.”

Patton and Montgomery considered the Soviets to be a serious menace. Both felt it best to carry the war into Russia in 1945, while the Anglo-American ground and air forces were mobilized and on the Continent, rather than wait for some crisis to emerge in the future. Patton was confident that he could be in Moscow within months.

Napoleon once observed that “History is a lie agreed upon.” David Irving has made a career out of exposing agreed upon lies. By forcing his readers — among them members of the academic community — to revise their views of epochal events, Irving has contributed to the re-evaluation of our past that is so necessary for the building of a better future.

This past Spring marked the 40th anniversary of D-Day — the invasion of Normandy by the Western Allies. President Reagan made the nightly news on 6 June, when he visited Omaha Beach, retracing some of the steps taken by American troops on that same date in 1944. Local papers interviewed aging veterans, who tried to recall what it was like to wade ashore in the face of machine gun and artillery fire. To the average citizen of the United States — and Great Britain — D-Day remains one of the greatest military successes in history.

Many years ago the distinguished British military strategist and historian, B.H. Liddell Hart, pointed out that “there has been too much glorification of the [Normandy] campaign and too little objective investigation.” Were he alive today, Sir Basil would likely view with approval the account of D-Day written by Max Hastings. A British historian who previously authored a noteworthy treatment of the British bombing campaign during World War II [note 1] and co-authored what is widely regarded as the best of the recent spate of books on the Falklands War, Hastings has based his conclusions about the invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” in large part on recently declassified military records made available in London and Washington D.C., as well as interviews with both Allied and German survivors of the Normandy battles. Unlike some of the other titles on this topic that appeared this year, Hastings' volume is no mere reworking of the scores of previously published books. His findings clearly contradict those earlier works which portrayed D-Day and the subsequent battles as triumphs of Anglo-American military prowess and heroism. Among his major discoveries are:

  • The Allies made slow progress and the fighting was hard and bloody. [note 2] Few American infantry units arrived at the battlefront “with a grasp of basic tactics — a failure for which many men paid with their lives.”
  • With the exception of artillery, German military equipment often far exceeded the quality of U.S. and British models. This was especially true in the case of tanks and anti-tank weapons. There were almost countless instances of a few Germans, supported by a handful of Panther and Tiger tanks, repulsing large numbers of Allied troops, inflicting heavy losses.
  • The lack of Anglo-American military success came against a Wehrmacht that had already sustained frightful losses on the Eastern Front and in the Mediterranean. “The Russians made a decisive contribution to the Western war by destroying the best of the German army, killing some two million men … It remains astounding that after three years of devastating losses in the east and the relentless bombing of Hitler’s industries, Germany could still produce and equip an army in the west capable of causing the gravest difficulties to the best that Britain and America could throw into the war.”
  • The Allied declaration of “Unconditional Surrender” was a key factor motivating German soldiers to fight on to the bitter end: “… they believed that defeat in Normandy, and beyond that defeat in Europe, would inaugurate a new dark age for Germany, a ghastly destiny for the German people.”
  • Despite the traditional portrayal of the French civilian population welcoming the Allied troops with open arms, the reality was in fact often the opposite. As a former British trooper informed the author, most of the French were sullen and acted as if they did not care very much if they were “liberated” at all. Hastings explains: “It was not remarkable that so many French families were shocked and appalled by the cost of liberation to their own homes, which if anything were looted more thoroughly by the Allied than “the German armies.”
  • The legend that the Germans alone were guilty of shooting captured enemy soldiers is also challenged: “Much has been made of the shooting of prisoners — most notoriously, Canadian prisoners — by 12th SS Panzer and other German units in Normandy. Yet it must be said that propaganda has distorted the balance of guilt. Among scores of Allied witnesses interviewed for this narrative, almost every one had direct knowledge or even experience of the shooting of German prisoners during the campaign… Many British and American units shot SS prisoners routinely, which explained, as much as the fanatical resistance that the SS so often offered, why so few appeared in POW cages.”
  • In his conclusion, the author reminds the reader that “it has been the central theme of this book that the inescapable reality of the battle for Normandy was that whenever Allied troops met Germans on anything like equal terms, the Germans nearly always prevailed.” This was because “The Allies in Normandy faced the finest fighting army of the war, one of the greatest the world has ever seen. This is a simple truth that some soldiers and writers have been reluctant to acknowledge.”

Then why did the Germans lose the campaign? The main reason is that they were simply overwhelmed by the Allies' vast superiority in men and equipment. After all, Germany and her feeble allies fought against the combined resources of the United States, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the overseas possessions of France and the Netherlands. Germany’s undoubted qualitative superiority had its limits. Secondly, decisions made by the German high command were often faulty. They were hampered by the poor state of German military intelligence in the West, as well as by some of the directives of Adolf Hitler — who by 1944 was far from being the same man who had overseen the astonishing German military triumphs of 1939-1942. [note 3]

Hastings has written an absorbing account of the decisive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. He overturns a host of long-held views, leaving the reader with a more balanced understanding of that conflict.

*Hitler apparently suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, a condition aggravated by the mismedication prescribed by his chief physician, Professor Theo Morell. On Hitler’s health and its implications for his decision making, see: Werner Maser, Hitler: Legend. Myth, and Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); Percy Ernst Schramm, Hitler: The Man and the Military Leader (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), and David Irving, The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor (New York: Macmillan, 1983).


1. See this reviewer’s appraisal of Hastings' book Bomber Command, contained in the essay “Death From on High,” Journal of Historical Review Vol. 1, No. 3 (Fall 1980), pp. 247-54.

2. Consider that it took the Germans approximately six weeks to conquer Holland, Belgium, France, and drive the British off the European continent in the period May-June 1940, despite the fact that their opponents enjoyed numerical superiority in both men and war material, and even qualitative superiority in some types of tanks. Four years later, the Germans were badly outnumbered, while the Allies held command of the air and had almost unlimited supplies and uninterrupted supply lines. Yet it took the Allies over eleven months from the time they landed at Normandy to subdue Germany, and this snail-like advance took place against a Wehrmacht that was forced to concentrate its best remaining forces against the invading Soviets in the East.

3. Hitler apparently suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, a condition aggravated by the mismedication prescribed by his chief physician, Professor Theo Morell. On Hitler’s health and its implications for his decision making, see:Werner Maser, Hitler: Legend, Myth, and Reality (New York: Harper &Row, 1973); Percy Ernst Schramm, Hitler: The Man and the Military Leader (Chicago:Quadrangle Books, 1971), and David Irving, The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor (New York: Macmillan, 1983).

Bibliographic information
Author: Lutton, Charles
Title: The War Between the Generals / Overlord (reviews)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Winter 1984
Issue: Volume 5 number 2, 3, 4
Location: Page 397
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.