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

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

I am really close to embracing the absurd idea that World War II never happened.  In particular, I can almost find myself believing that the D-Day Normandy invasion of France on June 6, 1944 never happened.  No, I am not losing my sanity, nor am I listening to weird conspiracy theories of crackpots.

Here is my thought:  I cannot fathom how the men at Normandy faced the obstacles, encountered the dangers, endured the noise and destruction, and braved the event.  I get frightened by severe storms or near car wrecks on the highway.  How did these men, many who were barely past boyhood, do what they did?  My awe extends beyond the work of just the Americans, and I even marvel at the enemies on that day.

This past June 6 marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.  In light of that, a number of books began appearing highlighting the events and retelling the story of Operation Overlord.  I first learned of Sand & Steel from a friend and historian Tony Williams, who wrote a fine account of some of the books on this crucial day during World War II. His article can be found HERE.

Along with this book, James Holland’s Normandy 1944 and Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave hit the shelves shortly before the 75 year commemoration.  There are some older books that are great treasures as well for studying this event.  The first great account was Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, which was followed up with an all-star cast epic movie.  Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day: June 6, 1944, John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy, Max Hasting’s Overlord, and Antony Beevor’s D-Day are among the books I have acquired over the years on this event.

It is hard to imagine a book, however, that is more detailed and rigorous in its content that Sand & Steel.  With nearly 900 pages of narrative, Caddick-Adams goes from event to event, from landing to landing, and describes the multitude of encounters, failures, disasters, and acts of heroism.  I was astounded and often simply swamped by the details.  How could any one man put so much of this story together.  In his acknowledgments, the author talks about his many years of research and many days spent walking the actual battlegrounds.  He also accessed interviews and personal accounts and got into the story in time to talk with some of the actual participants.  He was also at Pointe du Hoc in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan gave one of his greatest speeches ever.

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Several points to be made about this book:

The first 400 pages of this book deal with the planning stages for the invasion.  I was horrified by the fact that so many soldiers were killed during training exercises going on all across Britain during 1943 and early 1944.  Many men who “died fighting the Nazis” actually died during mishaps and problems relating to the training drills.  But, if these training drills had not taken place,  the results would have been worse.  Those poor guys are just as much fallen heroes as those who actually made it to the beaches.

The Germans were working furiously to create defensive mechanisms, collectively known as the Atlantic Wall, to repel the invasion.  They were hindered in many ways, ranging from lack of supplies to efforts to sabotage their works.  The beaches of northern France were turned into death zones by the mines, barbed wire, metal obstacles, and other devices.  Topping the high ground were bunkers, machine gun nests, pill boxes, and other concrete fortifications stocked with all manner of weapons.

The role of air power was decisive for the Allies, but the number of times where bombs fell in the wrong places or did not succeed in destroying enemies locations is incredible.  Again, adding to my disbelief, the sheer amount of tonnage dropped on Europe and particularly northern France seems impossible.  (How did people endure the noise of World War II?)

As Caddick-Adams began describing the various encounters during the landing, I found myself wondering how the Allies could possibly have been winning that day.  One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the author’s short accounts of the men themselves.  Thankfully, a number of personal accounts and interviews have been gathered that tell the story from the perspective of the participants.  Repeatedly, the stories are filled with the horrors of seeing people killed and maimed who were standing just inches away.  Some men did heroic acts while disembarking and hitting the beaches, while others cringing and panicking did whatever they could to find safety.  I stand in awe of all.

Caddick-Adams does a good job of reassessing some of the previous accounts and stories and myths about D-Day.  Cornelius Ryan’s book is outstanding, but in a story this big, he missed the mark quite a few times.  Even with 900 pages, Caddick, Adams is still only skimming the surface of this story.

This book is not for the person who wants to just read a good account of D-Day.  Maybe someone watches The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan and they want to learn more.  They should go for some of the other, shorter accounts.  But for the student of World War II, already well briefed on what happened, this book is a great resource, very readable, and filled with much that is unforgettable.

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