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GO NAVY BEAT ARMY

'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Revisionist History I like-The Canadian Army at D-Day


Outrage or revisionist history is always a tricky thing. Most of the time it annoys me like turkey bacon, but sometimes it is interesting and insightful. Stopping the Panzers is one such book that actually succeeds at piquing my interest and having something useful to say which changes how I consider the D-Day operation. The author, Marc Milner is a Canadian naval and military historian who is (Surprise) more than a little annoyed that the Canadian contribution to D-Day has been underreported and valued by Anglo-American centric historians.

Which is fair enough, after all, American readers want to read about American GIs. DUH. But to be fair, more recent scholarship regarding the British and allied contributions to the Northwest Europe campaign of 1944-1945 has been welcomed. Some of them have even be reviewed by yours truly.

So, what does Mr. Milner have to say and how well does he do it? Let’s review, because this is actually a very good book. In summation here is Mr. Milner’s thesis:
  • The Canadian Division that came ashore on D-Day was specifically intended to blunt the anticipated German counterattack on the Normandy beachheads. 
  • That Division fought a magnificent defensive battle, stopping the effort of 3 Panzer Division to attack the seam between the British beaches and potentially isolate and contain the British beachhead north of Caen. 
  • That Division’s battlefield success was more or less deliberately understated due to Anglo-American bias and poor historical work by the official Canadian history of World War II. 
That pretty much sums it up. How well did he do?

Overall, pretty darn well. Geography, as always, drives military planning and the Allies did their homework. The terrain of Normandy was difficult of maneuver warfare and the only logical place for a multi-division counterattack was right in the sector assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division. 

Moreover, because of bitter experience from Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio, the Allies correctly assumed the Germans would launch a violent counterattack when the Allied beachheads were the most vulnerable, which Milner shows was a topic of much debate in the Wehrmacht high command.

To blunt the expected counterattack, and it turns out the D-Day planners called the basic German plan down to the geographic axis of advance pretty darn well, the Canadians were put ashore with an oversized infantry/artillery division to dig in, absorb the attack, and prepare the way for an eventual counterattack.

As Milner narrates, the Canadians did this very well and at great cost. They fought a nearly classic set piece battle, using artillery, anti-tank guns and hard infantry fighting to stop the 21st, 12th SS, and Panzer Lehr Panzer divisions. Along the way, the Canadians suffered the atrocity of having dozens of their troops shot after being taken prisoner by the 12th SS, leading to even harder fighting as a “take no prisoners” mood settled into both sides.

Milner makes a very convincing case that the Canadians were unfairly portrayed as offensive noobs after stopping the Panzers, noting they had no better luck attacking over the open terrain NW of Caen than the Germans did. His story stops about June 10 or 11, so he remains focused on the crucial first week or so of the invasion and not the slog near Caen for the next month.

Overall, Milner makes his case very well. He also includes a lot of background on the initial planning for D-Day and how the Canadian role evolved over time, driven by military circumstances, and that bane of military men everywhere-coalition and domestic politics.

D-Day seems to get nearly as many books written about it as Gettysburg, and finding new or unique topics is challenging. Milner definitely does this, and tells a neglected tale that should be told.

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