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Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France

Review by LtCol Jack Harris, USMC (Ret.)

The invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 was possibly the greatest endeavor in the history of mankind and Peter Caddick-Adams’s new book is possibly the best book written on the subject.  Caddick-Adams’s fourth book follows in the pattern set by Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge and Monty and Rommel Parallel Lives of in depth, multi-year research, personal interviews with participants and extensive visits to the areas involved.

The area of the United Kingdom involved in the planning, training and rehearsal for the invasion of France covers quite a bit of time and territory.  Caddick-Adams describes the build-up and extensive preparation that went on in England for two years, leaving an enormous impact on the population and the land: entire villages, with histories going back a thousand years, and historic estates with well-preserved Tudor dwellings lie in ruins to this day; casualties of the extensive and lengthy live fire practices carried out over two years preparing for the invasion.  In fact, Caddick-Adams make the point that the preparation for the invasion, including rehearsals and practice landing, were thorough, intensive and unceasing.  Normandy was the most rehearsed operation in military history.

The landings themselves are covered in depth, beach by beach, from Utah on the west all the way over to Sword in the east, and in each case Caddick-Adams revises the historical record and corrects inaccuracies or myths that have arisen along the way, correcting the narrative, overturning incomplete or inaccurate reporting from previous books, and presenting the narratives of Allied, German and French civilians, often witnessing the same incident and, in some cases, actually seeing each other.    He also shows the holiday post cards submitted by British civilians for use in planning.  What is particularly useful is that Caddick-Adams has visited the beaches repeatedly and has attended D-Day celebrations for the past 40 years, including Ronald Raegan’s 1984 visit to Pointe du Hoc. With this experience, he laces each chapter with how the beaches look now and as they appeared during the campaign.

One example of clarifying the record thoroughly examines the role of the Ranger assault and corrects the impression made by Cornelius Ryan in The Longest Day that the Rangers did not face much opposition and accomplished very little.  In fact Rudder’s battalion faced considerable opposition, located the guns that had been moved and destroyed them, then fended off repeated German counter attacks.

This monumental book additionally provides in-depth coverage of the Engineer planning for obstacle removal and the construction of the Mulberry artificial harbors that sustained the allied effort in place of ports wrecked by the Germans.  There is breathtaking descriptions of the movement across the channel and the involvement of other navies beside that of the UK and US.  There are poignant vignettes from a Free French pilot who has to bomb the villages of his native land in order to liberate it and of a Royal Air Force liaison team that landed on Omaha Beach before it was cleared and suffered horrific casualties while fighting as infantry.  There is also the story of Royal Navy crewman who found their DUCKW mounted London Fire Department ladders impractical in the storming of Pointe de Huc and went ashore to fight alongside the Rangers.

Ultimately OPERATION OVERLORD proved Eisenhower’s dictum that the plan is nothing; planning is everything.  All the meticulous planning concerning the timetables for landing, obstacle clearing and anticipated progress were overturned as the weather and German resistance sank ships, obscured naval gunfire targets and sank amphibious tanks.  The comprehensive preparation did empower small groups of men on the beaches to organize themselves, combining with other survivors and moving forward in the finest examples of mission command.

Caddick-Adams further covers the personalities involved, from Churchill to Eisenhower and the other important commanders and their roles, emphasizing the important role personalities played among the senior commanders.  However, the most compelling narrative is of the individual participants who coped with enormous challenges to re-form the teams and carry out their mission, and the role of individual commanders, like Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, who were on the scene and made things work.

Sand & Steel is a very comprehensive book and well worth the time to gain greater understanding of the Normandy invasion. 

Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France, by Peter Caddick-Adams. Oxford University Press, 2019. 

Reviewed by: Jack Harris, Adjunct Professor, Joint Command, Control & Information Operations School, Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, VA.  He also serves on the Joint Staff J6.  Jack Harris retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2004.

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