Tag Archives: Normandy landings

Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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D-Day in Photographs by Andrew Whitmarsh

D-Day – and indeed the subsequent  Battle of Normandy – has to be one of the most photographed military campaigns in history. Even before the age of mass media and digital photography, some of the images that came out of 6 June 1944 are iconic. But we could also be forgiven for wondering, if there are so many photographs of Normandy, why do we keep seeing the same photographs again and again in books? If I asked you to nominate five famous D-Day images, I reckon I could probably guess three of them. In fact, it’s quite shameful how some authors – and indeed publishers – seem willing to peddle the same images, and history, over and over again whilst presenting it as ‘new’ to the unsuspecting enthusiast. This is a quandry that Andrew Whitmarsh has gone a long way towards remedying.

It is intriguing why authors decide to use some photos over and over again as illustrations. There are literally millions of photographs in military museums, such as the Imperial War Museum. And the D-Day Museum‘s collections are no different. There aremany photographs, most from the collections of the D-Day Museum, many of which have never been seen before. But it’s not just a catalogue of photos – they are very well explained and interpreted, and cover not just D-Day itself, but also the build up to the liberation, and the subsequent fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944. There is also a very interesting section about the fantastic Overlord Embroidery. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestery, the Embroidery is an epic portrayal of Operation Overlord, and is housed in the D-Day Museum. Almost as interesting as the Embroidery itself, is a behind-the-scenes look at how it was conceived and created, and how it came to Portsmouth.

Published some years ago in hardback, the publishers have recently released a paperback version. As somebody who has possibly ready every book published about D-Day, it is refreshing to see some new images. I enjoyed reading this book very much.

D-Day in Photographs is published by The History Press

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Arnhem: Tour of Duty on Channel 5

This is quite an interesting one. Channel 5 have got together a group of young people from Croydon, South London and put them through the training process to take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Arnhem.

Now first of all, I’ve read some pretty sniffy comments about this, from people purporting to be military history experts. I might claim to have more of a personal stake in what this programme is about, as my late Grandfather was an Arnhem veteran. To me what happened at Arnhem in September 1944 is not just history or something I’m interested in, its part of my family, and by default, who I am. It would be so easy for me to knock it, but I can’t and I won’t. Because its something I would love to have done myself, and I think its a great way of teaching military history in a fun way. Fun learning = good learning. It sounds very well put-together, with ex-Paras working alongside youth workers.

Of course no TV programme is ever going to fully recreate the intensity, the danger and the courage of a Battle like Arnhem, how could it ever? But that doesn’t mean its not worth a try. As a result of this programme there will be a bunch of young people from Britain who will know more about Arnhem than they did before they started. And how, exactly, is that a bad thing? It’s their history too and they are entitled to learn about it. And not just from books, but from really getting out there and getting to grips with what made those men so special. I remember watching a similar programme about the D-Day Landings, which involved D-Day veterans, and that worked quite well.

Dismissing it as cheap reality TV is in itself a pretty cheap shot. I’ve got no time for snobby put-downs, they’re not big and they’re not clever. It reminds me of the supposed Great War enthusiast who moaned about the amount of school groups visiting the Western Front, complaining that it was turning into a theme park – is this guy for real?! Porbably the same kind of person who would moan about young people not having enough respect for history.

Lets watch the programme with an open mind and see how it works. I’m looking forward to it.

Arnhem: Tour of duty is on Channel 5 on Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 November at 8pm each day.

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The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 by James Dunning

One of the lingering misconceptions of the Second World War is that ‘Commando’ = ‘Royal Marines‘. True, the Royals might sport the green berets nowadays, be called Commando’s, and even serve in a Commando Brigade. Over the past 60 or so years they have very much made the name their own.

But the birth of the Commando is slightly more complicated than that. The first Commandos were in fact formed in 1940, during the invasion scare. And whats more, the first units were formed from Army personnel – volunteers who were bored and looking for action. Realising that the country was going to be on the defensive for some time, and had a paucity in regular troops, Winston Churchill ordered the raising of Commando special forces, based on the Boer Kommando he had encountered in South Africa years before.

No 4 Commando had an impressive list of battle honours during its short life. Lofoten Islands, Dieppe, D-Day and Walcheren are impressive honours for any unit. But upon reading this history by a veteran of No. 4, its impossible not to admire these fine men. They were clearly trained to a high pitch – sniper training, amphibious training, mountain training, general physical fitness, field craft – these really were some of the best men Britain had to offer.

After opening their account in the daring Lofoten raid in 1941, destroying a fish oil processing port in Northern Norway, No 4 then guarded the left flank of the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Although the raid was nothing short of a disaster, No 4 did extremely well, putting a gun position out of action, and Captain Pat Porteous won a Victoria Cross for repeatedly leading attacks while seriously wounded. I certainly dont agree that Dieppe gave valuable lessons – it shouldn’t have taken such a disaster to learn such elementary lessons. Then on D-Day No.4 Landed at Ouisterham, and hot-footed it across the Orne at Pegasus Bridge. They spent much of the Normandy campaign in the line in the Orne Bridgehead with the 6th Airborne Division, including in the Mosquito-riddled Bois de Bavent. After being withdrawn from Normandy, No.4’s final operation was the little-known but bitter fight to clear the Scheldt, where they carried out an amphibious landing at Walcheren Island. In early 1946 they were disbanded, after ending the war in Germany.

Some very famous men came from No 4 – none other than Lord Lovat, who went on to Command the Special Service Brigade that landed on D-Day and marched to reinforce the Paras at Pegasus Bridge, complete with personal Bagpiper Bill Millin. The spectacle is immortalised in the Overlord Embroidery. The unconventional nature of the Commando’s clearly attracted a lot of ‘individual’ officers and men, who were no doubt misfits to conventional military thinking. But unconventional was the norm in units such as the Commandos – in fact, they had their own organisation, with HQ commanding a number of troops (roughly equivalent to infantry platoons), with no Company level command in between. This meant that the command structure was flexible, and junior officers and NCO’s had to show initiative. In Normandy and Walcheren French Troops were also attached.

I found this a really interesting book to read. A few things really jumped out at me – it was interesting to read that No 4 Commando trained for a long time in the Purbecks region of the Dorset coast – at Worbarrow tout, Arish Mell gap and Chapmans pool. I walked over them all last summer, and its very rugged terrain to say the least. Also, I could not help but be impressed by the rigorous training that the Commando’s went through. Sadly, I have to compare it to the impression I have of the 1st Airborne Division‘s training before Arnhem, and it strikes me that they weren’t as well prepared as the Commandos. A salutory lesson – even in modern warfare, with remote-control fighting, first class training and fitness – healthy mind, healthy body and all that.

I’ve often wondered which unit, if any, could be called the ‘British Band of Brothers’. C Company of John Frost’s 2 Para have always been foremost in my mind, but the story of No.4 Commando is also a very fine one indeed.

The Fighting Fourth: No.4 Commando at War 1940-45 is published by The History Press

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