by John Buckley
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 370.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0300134495
Professor Buckley (Military History, Wolverhampton), has written a careful examination of the role played by the British Army in defeating Germany 1944-45.
Buckley opens with a review of earlier events. Between April and May of 1940 the British suffered two catastrophic defeats in Norway and France. The next two years strained the resources of the nation. The Army had to rebuild and reequipped in order to stop an Invasion by Germany. Then there were the campaigns to in the Western Desert, East Africa, Greece, Tunisia, and Italy. This brings Buckley to preparations for D-Day.
The principal focus of this book is the preparation and execution of the campaign in northwestern Europe, from Normandy to VE-Day. As Buckley explains, this required an Army be landed on the Continent, capable of successfully fighting the Germans as part of an Allied Force. This would become the 21st Army Group, commanded by Bernard Montgomery. Of course, unlike the BEF of World War I or the earlier campaigns in Africa, in this operation the British would be the junior partner to the Americans.
Buckley does an excellent job of discussing Britain’s most critical resource, manpower. While British Infantry has been taken to task for being meek and pedantic, the rule for the Chiefs of Staff was no repeat of the Somme Battle of 1916. Britain had been at war since 1939, manpower was scarce yet critical for keeping the Army in the field. Unlike the Great War the Army did not have the pick of the available manpower. The requirements of modern warfare combined with a need for a large Air Force and Navy gave the British Army limited access to technicians and skilled labor. The British Army developed a new organization and doctrine that emphasized massive artillery support combined with massive engineering support as the road to victory. The invasion force would be supported by naval gunfire and massive air support.
Montgomery wanted to invade Germany with a series narrow pinpoint attacks. Needless to say the Allied supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower favored a broad front strategy. In examining these debates, Buckley breaks some new ground. He agrees that Monty's time table for the seizing of Caen was overly optimistic, but argues that so was the comparable American Plan.
Original documents and reports show that units generally performed well in the field. Technical matters further complicated the situation. A notable issue was the quality of the Sherman Tank . The vehicle was prone to explosions. Investigation showed that these explosions were in part caused by faulty ammunition storage; when the hull was penetrated by German AP rounds, shell fragments and spalling touched off stowed ammunition. Measures were taken to prevent this. The British also replaced the original Sherman gun with the 17-pounder, and used it also on tank destroyers and in the infantry. New sabot penetrator rounds further helped in dealing with the German armor. Logistics and planning rather than battlefield brilliance gradually wore the German field army out. By the time of the Falaise pocket the Germans in the West were a spent force, though they would recover as the Allies had to slow their advance due to logistical problems and the onset of winter.
The units that served in Normandy in June and July of 1944 saw heavy fighting and became battle hardened veterans, and they helped carry the war into the heart of Germany over the next ten months. From the defeats of 1940, the British Army had turned to an efficient and capable fighting force.
Over the past thirty years this reviewer has met some veterans of the British Army in northwestern Europe. Men who served with XXX Corps in the Guards Armored Division during Operation Market Garden and saw hard fighting all up the road to Arnhem and on into Germany, and the 79th Armored Division, from Normandy to the Rhine, and this work is an account worthy of their skill and courage.
In Monty’s Men Dr. Buckley gives us a fine book about the army Britain sent back to the Continent in 1944 and 1945, and a necessary read for anyone interested in the Second World War in Europe.
Independent scholar Dan David is the author of The 1914 Campaign: August-October, 1914 and numerous reviews and articles. Formerly the manager of famed military book shop Sky Books International, he is a member of the Board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, and chairman of the NYMAS Book Awards Committee.