D-Day, AKA Operation Overlord
The 1200-plane, 5000 vessel, 160,000-troop operation to penetrate German-occupied western-Europe in 1944 is better known as Operation Overlord. Though comprised of a series of separate invasions including the deception plan Operation Bodyguard (an operation intended to distract the axis powers from the Normandy Landings), Operation Overlord’s most famous facet of attack were the D-Day landings, codenamed Operation Neptune.
The amphibious landings and the aerial and naval attacks that followed are subject of much historical interest since this became a pivotal point that swung WWII in the allies’ favour. For this reason alone, the literature on the subject is overwhelming in quantity – this article boils the confusing quantity down to my pick of the 10 best D-Day History books.
D DAY Through German Eyes - The Hidden Story of June 6th 1944
I thought it best to start off this article with a book that takes a look at D-Day, but not as most will recognise it. Instead of covering the action from the allied perspective, which is the case with virtually all of the popular literature on the subject, D-Day Through German Eyes switches our perspective in order to allow us to see the action from behind the defences of Normandy, as well as through the slits in the machine-gun fortresses and further inland where German forces were awaiting the eventual brunt of the allies’ attack.
This book manages to skilfully mould together a variety of German eyewitness accounts taken from the day of the invasion, focusing largely on how the German forces were overcome by what is still one of the most impressive invasions by sea ever to take place during wartime. This is a fantastic text for students, historians, or hobbyists looking to widen their perspective on the D-Day landings. It contains accounts that allow you to imagine the situation in the coastal fortresses as well as the beaches themselves and sand dunes and fields further inland.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
Britain’s most popular historian tackles the annals of history once again, this time with a focused approach to the D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy. With much to live up to after his previous successful works, Berlin and Stalingrad, Beevor’s foray into the more well-known western front had the potential to lose the previously unique appeal of writing about relatively little-known perspectives of the Eastern Front. In his focus on the western front, and indeed on the most important campaign of WWII, Beevor nevertheless manages to produce a skilfully written synopsis and exploration of the campaign that started the victory ball rolling for the allies.
In the text, Beevor focuses on and indeed switches quite effortlessly between various centres of the western front, from London to Paris through to Berlin and, of course, Normandy. Informing the text is a combination of Beevor’s deep historical knowledge and well-placed interviews that range from those led by the US forces to the troops on the front line. There are fresh perspectives on the action to be found too, including that of the Parisian population living through the campaign.
Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944
Though D-Day books are relatively common due to the importance of the subject matter, Max Hastings pulls off a decidedly fresh approach to the subject in Overlord. Within the book’s pages lie the usual, immensely detailed accounts of the events from January to August 1944, though with particular focus on June, July, and August. Hastings’ emphasis on the months June-August is rather interesting, too, since rather than providing a more generalised account of D-Day, he goes into detail in particular about the events following the initial D-Day push, of the allied struggle to gain the upper hand as they moved further inland.
The devastating sense of loss and tragedy is conveyed well here, too, largely due to Hastings’ description of the allied disadvantage as they moved in land. Military historians and/or students will find particularly useful Hastings’ evaluation of the weapons used by both sides, too. This account serves to highlight the German weapons and troops as being superior in quality, while the allied push inward was inevitably successful due to sheer numbers and incredible will power, succeeding in spite of the relatively inferior training that the US troops underwent.
Pegasus Bridge: D-day: The Daring British Airborne Raid
Allowing us a much-needed respite from the abundance of generalised or even ground-based histories of the D-Day landings and Battle for Normandy, Ambrose’s Pegasus Bridge instead provides a fascinating account of British air force troops storming the German defences. Little-known by many, Pegasus Bridge was the very first flicker of attack on D-Day intended to initiate what was to be the battle that eventually gave the allies the overall advantage.
This isn’t an all-out RAF assault as one would expect however, but rather a well-told account of the glider and parachute-based assault on Pegasus Bridge. The book speaks in unmatched detail about how Major John Howard and his men in the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire planned and prepared for the assault, as well as accounting for every detail of the assault itself. This is a substantially enjoyable, though somewhat short body of work detailing what may have been the essential springboard of the most important military operation of the 20th century.
The Germans in Normandy
Though there are many accounts of D-Day from perspective of both the allies and the Germans, few could prepare the reader for the kind of insight seen in Hargreaves’ The Germans In Normandy. The lack of abundance in personal accounts of the war may be a deal-breaker for some, but there are plenty of diary entries placed throughout the book that act as haunting windows looking directly upon the action as it unfolded from the German perspective.
More notably, however, there are simple thoughts contained in the book based around what, after reading, are the most obvious of facts. For example, Hargreaves reminds us just how reliant the German war effort was upon horse-based transport, and how much this mattered when compared to the superior mechanisation of the allied forces. A sense of hopelessness is conveyed brilliantly, too, when Hargreaves writes of the weakness of the German defense, which is just one of many excellent points made in this stunning account of D-Day from the German perspective.
D-Day: By Those Who Were There
I cannot recommend Peter Liddle’s D-Day By Those Who Were There strongly enough, especially if your goal is to learn about the generally harrowing and horrific circumstances in which most men during the D-Day landings found themselves. Liddle draws upon a wide array of established sources when writing his book. These include letters, diaries, photographs and interviews to and from those who were actually there, with the availability of this magnificent source material owed to the impressive international archive.
This is also a very well-balanced book when it comes to the choice of sources upon which its narrative relies. You can expect to encounter accounts from American, Canadian, and British soldiers, which are balanced by newly-discovered accounts and also German perspectives of D-Day. This book makes a refreshing change to the often one-sided, one-dimensional third-person narrative provided by historians. The arrangement and abundance of sources from those who were there are simply a must-read.
The Longest Day: The D-Day 70th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Author Cornelius Ryan somehow manages to cover in immense detail and with a clear understanding of the wider implications of the offense, the events during, preceding, and following the D-Day landings. He does so in under 300 pages, which is remarkable in itself, but The Longest Day is still considered by many to be one of the greatest works of military history to date. The style of the book is different to standard works from many historians, employing a novelist’s approach to the writing, peppered with internal thoughts as well as various literary devices often absent from the more textbook-like renditions of the D-Day Landings.
Ryan’s experience as a war correspondent during WWII clearly informs his deep knowledge of the conflict from the ground, and this book represents a triumph of storytelling that forms an important part of the body of work covering the D-Day landings.
By Tank into Normandy (Cassell Military Paperbacks)
There is no better source for an historical account of a pivotal battle than that written by someone who was actually there. Better yet, a good historical source is written by someone who had a direct impact upon the events in question, and this is precisely what WWII Tank Commander Stuart Hills brings to the table in By Tank Into Normandy. Hill’s story is extremely gripping, pulling the reader in with an authoritative tone one would expect from someone who held his position.
The story contained within is a fascinating one. It tells of Hill has his 20-year-old self, freshly joined and recently out of officer cadet training, ready (or not as the case certainly was) to engage in one of the most important battles of recent history. Tales from the ground of tanks breaking down and the drudgery of making progress on uneven ground. This is a great account as it involves a very personal approach to the action, whilst providing historians with vital technical details and information about aspects not often covered in general histories, such as tank formation and colonial life before the war.
D-Day Manual: Insights into how science, technology and engineering made the Normandy invasion possible (Operations Manual)
Most histories tell of accounts from soldiers, of diary entries from terrified troops in the trenches, and of interviews carried out before, during, and sometimes long after the war. However, Haynes’ D-Day Manual is a completely new take on the action, putting for the usual Haynes-style inventory-like approach to the subject matter. Here we have an instruction manual of sorts but one that covers the technological aspects of the many weapons, items, and ideas that formed part of the planning and execution of the D-Day landings.
This unique approach to the history of the D-Day landings will appeal most to the technically minded individual who wishes to learn more about the magnificent machines and contraptions that played a vital part in the war effort. Expect to read technical information about tanks, aeroplanes, seaborne vessels, and of course the many weapons used by soldiers during the war. This is a great text for accurately tracing the impact of certain weapons and machines before, during, and also after the war, and how their invention, development, and use affected the outcome of the landings.
Hill 112: The Battle of the Odon (Battleground Europe - Normandy)
Though much of the D-Day literature focuses heavily on the Normandy landings, one must also remember that the initial allied push didn’t result in an immediate, decisive victory as was once hoped. This has never been demonstrated more brilliantly than in Saunders’ Hill 112, which covers events that took place a month after the actual D-Day landings, a time where the allied forces were still struggling to secure the Normandy Peninsula. The capture of Caen was of tactical importance to the allies, but this could not have been achieved without capturing Hill 112.
This is a fantastic tale telling of the immense difficulty the allies ran into when attempting to capture Hill 112. The initially-weakened German forces returned to strength here, meaning the allied had to face-off against four SS divisions, requiring naval and aerial bombardment for the allies to be successful. Illustrations as well as detailed maps accompany this wonderful text, which details one of the lesser-known aspects following the initial D-Day landings.