Still Thinking About the 'Defining War'

He has made a successful career of writing readable histories of World War II, but Antony Beevor, whose book on D-Day has now come out in Hebrew, says it would be a mistake to evaluate today's conflicts through the WWII lens.

Operation Fortitude, the greatest deception operation in the history of warfare, got underway many months before the June 1944 invasion of Normandy. Through it, the Allies employed a series of technological and psychological measures to sow confusion in Nazi Germany with regard to when and where the operation to liberate occupied France and the rest of Western Europe would commence.

war - Getty Images - September 23 2011
Getty Images

The mission involved the enlistment of dummy planes, inflatable tanks, parachuted scarecrows, and even an actor who resembled British General Bernard Montgomery. Along with these, the Allies set up phantom formations, fake landing craft and fictitious headquarters that kept up constant sham wireless traffic. To complete the picture, there was also a network of dozens of bogus agents, who flooded German intelligence with false reports.

Two years after its publication in Britain, the best-selling book "D-Day: The Battle for Normandy," by the British historian Antony Beevor, has now appeared in Hebrew translation (translated by Rafi Keinan, published by Yavne Bonus Books ).

Beevor spent a long time - lonely months, he says - poring over documents, some of which had never been exposed before, from 30 archives in 12 countries. He also looked through diaries and letters written by officers and soldiers who fought at Normandy on all command levels, and studied the events also from the perspective of important historical political figures.

Beevor abhors attempts by politicians and the media to compare World War II to events in our own day. Speaking by telephone earlier this month from his home in London, he explained: "I think we are in a period - and I hope I'm not partly responsible - where World War II is still the defining war. People have a sense that they need to refer something today to something that people know about, but this drawing of historical parallels is very dangerous indeed, because it encourages politicians to follow the wrong strategies."

When he was president, George W. Bush compared the terror attacks of September 11 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which marked America's entry into World War II. But, said Beevor, "We should have dealt with 9/11 as a security problem rather than immediately trying to wage a state-on-state war" - as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This was a foolish mistake."

Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, too, "was completely wrong in trying to compare Saddam to Hitler. If anything, Saddam was closer to Stalin," Beevor continued. "I was horrified when at the start of the Iraq war, all major newspapers in this country got to asking me if the battle of Baghdad would be similar to the Battle of Stalingrad."

A similar case, in Beevor's opinion, is the comparison that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hitler: "It encourages the wrong response, strategically, to a problem which may not necessarily be a military problem but a security problem."

Beevor's book is rich in personal descriptions, and amusing and shocking anecdotes, which provide a glimpse behind the scenes of the war. For example, he recounts a conversation between an American soldier and a German prisoner of war: "There isn't much left of New York anymore, is there?" the German soldier asked. "What do you mean?" the American asked, puzzled. "Well," responded the German, with apparent complete faith in Nazi propaganda, "you know it's been bombed by the Luftwaffe."

Another story that demonstrates the culture clash produced by the war depicts an encounter between American soldiers and French civilians whom they had just liberated. The Americans "clearly considered us to be backward," reported a woman who lived near the town of Mortain, "one of them asked me in English if I had ever seen a cinema." When she replied that the cinema - and even the automobile - had been invented in France, "he was left stunned, and not entirely convinced."

The gaps between the forces involved in the fighting also gave rise to quite a few jokes in the ranks. One of the most popular mocked Germany's aerial inferiority: "If you can see silver aircraft, they are American, if you can see khaki planes, they are British, and if you can't see any planes, then they're German."

The Allies also made fun of the German accent. To ascertain whether figures encountered in the dark were German or Allied soldiers, the troops used the password "flash," to which the required reply was "thunder" - two words the Germans had difficulty pronouncing in a convincing manner.

As could be expected, rivalries and friction of a national character also arose among the Allies themselves. One such case involved a British ship that was lowering a landing craft full of GIs en route to the shore. Unfortunately for the Americans, the crane got stuck and left them dangling in the air, just below the opening for sewage from the ship's lavatories. "During this half-hour," an American officer present on the occasion recorded, "the bowels of the ship's company made the most of an opportunity which Englishmen have sought since 1776" - a reference to the British grudge against Americans dating back to the U.S. War of Independence. "We cursed, we cried, and we laughed, but it kept coming. When we started for shore, we were all covered with shit."

Harder to write history

"We are reaching a period where I think it's going to get very hard for historians in the future to write a history of a war," warned Beevor. He believes that already now, it is impossible to write a history of the war in Iraq, for example. The primary reason for this, he noted, has to do with the nature of modern media, the instant journalism that has to provide headlines 24 hours a day to news sites.

"The pressure from journalists to release papers is encouraging ministers or commanders to censor material at the point of creation. Unlike in the old days, where all the papers were boxed up and sent back at the end of the war - to archives - now they want to have access to all the information," he said.

The second factor that makes historical writing difficult in the contemporary era, Beevor pointed out, is precisely the fact that information is preserved in digital form, such as via emails and CDs: "People say, it's wonderful, we can have all the information that we didn't have before, but one has to think about the reaction to that: More information would be destroyed before it could be accessed. I think there is a danger of the elimination of government and military material at a very early stage. It's going to make it very hard to restore it in the future."

Alongside the black humor, Beevor's book also contains descriptions of horrible failures that cost thousands of lives. Such was the fate of paratroopers who were dropped from such a low altitude that their parachutes failed to open.

One witness compared the thud of their bodies hitting the ground to "watermelons falling off the back of a truck." Others drowned after parachuting, because of the heavy load they were carrying.

Beevor, who is celebrating his 65th birthday this year , was a soldier and an officer in the British army for five years, before he devoted himself to writing. He does not conceal his vehement opposition to the targeting of civilians during wars, in general, and during the Normandy invasion, in particular. In interviews he gave in the British press when the book came out, he used the term "war crime" to describe the British bombing on D-Day of the French city of Caen. He later retracted the statement.

During the interview with Haaretz, he said: "The battle of Caen was a terrible blunder. It was not deliberate, it was not a war crime, but it was a horrible, horrible mistake. The terrible paradox which emerged was that the armies of democracies likely killed more civilians because their commanders relied more on high explosives on bombs and artillery shells in an attempt to reduce their own casualties - and which are bound to kill more civilians. They came under tremendous pressure from politicians, parliamentary press and public opinion in their own countries, forcing them to reduce their own casualties."

'My dear Winston'

Britain's wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, comes across in Beevor's book as one of the few who were still troubled in advance by the danger that noncombatants would be hit. He wrote to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt a month before the invasion, arguing that the Luftwaffe "should be the main target." Attacking civilians, he said, "may leave a legacy of hate behind them." Later he failed in his attempt to declare a ceiling of 10,000 civilian casualties, beyond which the bombings would cease. Roosevelt rejected the plea outright: "However regrettable the attendant loss of civilian lives is, I am not prepared to impose from this distance any restrictions on military action by the responsible commanders that in their opinion might ... cause additional loss of life to our Allied forces of invasion."

The disagreements and tensions that arose between the various national leaders engage Beevor greatly. Churchill, for instance, is described as having an "obsessive desire to be close to the center of action," to the point where he would risk his life to do so. Thus, it took the intervention of the British monarch to dissuade Churchill from his plan to board a British battleship on D-Day. The letter George VI dispatched was phrased with great charm: "My dear Winston, I want to make one more appeal to you not to go to sea on D-Day. Please consider my own position. I am a younger man than you, I am a sailor, and as king, I am the head of all these services. There is nothing I would like better than to go to sea, but I have agreed to stay at home; is it fair that you should then do exactly what I should have liked to do myself?"

A harsher confrontation occurred between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French. In an argument over arrangements for governance in France after its liberation, Churchill accused de Gaulle of "treason at the height of battle," and suggested that he be flown back from London to Algiers "in chains if necessary." On another occasion he termed him "this wrong-headed, ambitious and detestable Anglophobe."

Alan Brooke, the British chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote in reference to the Supreme Allied Commander, and later president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that it is "clear that he knows nothing about strategy and is quite unsuited to the post of Supreme Commander as far as running the war is concerned." Eisenhower, for his part, said of General Montgomery, one of the architects of the invasion: "First of all he's a psychopath, don't forget that."

Montgomery, who died in 1976, was the only one of the book's protagonists whom the author got to meet in person: "I did meet Montgomery on one occasion. I wouldn't necessarily want to meet him again very much," Beevor said. In the book, he writes that Montgomery "suffered from a breathtaking conceit which almost certainly stemmed from some sort of inferiority complex ... His self-regard was almost comical."

When asked, in closing, which of the people he had written about he would like to meet, Beevor named the U.S. general, George S. Patton.

"Patton is a fascinating character. He was partly mad - in a military sense - [a] genius, a brilliant, if you like, leader in the attack," he said. In the book, Patton is described as a loose cannon, eccentric and notorious for his profanity. Before the invasion he addressed his troops: "Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."