Armored Campaign in Normandy June-August 1944 by Stephen Napier
Much ink has been spilled over the past 70 years on the Normandy Campaign of 1944 and about the tanks used in that campaign. Author Stephen Napier decided to put his own mark on the discussion with his new book ” The Armored Campaign in Normandy.” At over 400 pages of text, this is an impressive work, well documented and footnoted.
Napier’s central thesis is that the performance of British Armored forces in Normandy was rather lackluster and often failed in the face of resistance from German forces, even when significantly outnumbering their opponents. He lays the blame for this on a variety of factors, including General Montgomery, British divisional and regimental commanders, British tank doctrine and technical deficiencies of British tanks. His analysis of the German commanders is even more harsh, noting the convoluted chain of command of the German forces in Normandy which was almost guaranteed to create indecision, confusion and defeat.
Napier approaches the subject by breaking down each of the major operations of the Normandy Campaign as a separate chapter, each chapter divided up by the combatants. This approach means that the majority of the book focuses on the British Army and their Canadian and Polish allies. The German and American armored forces are included, although they receive far fewer pages. The book starts out with an examination of the use of armor on D-Day, focusing on the swimming “DD tanks” used on the beaches of Normandy by British and US forces. He ultimately concludes that these DD tanks were not particularly effective and that Allied forces would have been just as well relying on tanks landed by LCT ships (although he notes that the US was much harsher in their judging of the DD tanks than the British.)
The next chapter is on the only one not focused on a particular battle, but rather describes the tanks and tactics used by the combatants of the Normandy Campaign. Napier describes the armor and firepower deficiencies of the M4 Sherman and British Cromwell compared to some of their heavier German tank adversaries. He also describes some of the daily realities that tankers faced in the Normandy Campaign, their lives spent maintaining and living inside a cramped metal box on treads.
The rest of the book is broken down into ten more chapters, each looking at a major operation. Since most of these operations, such as Epson, Goodwood, Totalize, or Tractable, were initiated by UK forces, the focus of much of the book is on British armored units. Napier’s descriptions of these battles is lively and he presents a good deal of detail. Intermixed with his descriptions of the battles are quotes taken from participants of the action, both Allied and German. These quotes add considerably to the book, helping to keep the readers interest and provide some color. One nice touch is that Napier usually follows up these quotes with relevant information from the historical record. This is quite useful in regards to the quotes from some of the German tank commanders who often make claim to killing a certain number of tanks. Napier sometimes follows these quotes with unit loss figures from Allied sources, often showing that the German tankers exaggerated their kill counts by a factor of 2 or 3.
In popular accounts of the Normandy Campaign, much is often made about the technical disparities between Allied armor and the dreaded German Tiger and Panther tanks. Napier addresses this issue, but keeps it within its proper context. He notes that while this was factor, it was certainly not the only factor in explaining the sometimes poor performance of British Armor versus their German adversary. If anything, the reader comes away with the impression that by 1944, the tank had lost the aura of invincibility that it had in the 1939-1941 era and that any attack by armor against a position well defended by tanks and anti-tank guns was bound to suffer heavy casualties. This is illustrated not just by the attacks carried out by British units, but also by the counterattacks attempted by the German Panzer forces. Despite whatever technical advantages the Panzer forces might have had, when used on the offensive in the Normandy Campaign, they almost always failed to achieve their goals. This is well illustrated in the chapter on the ill-fated German Mortain counter-attack.
The book comes with a center section of black and white photographs. While interesting, these pages would have been better used to include a more detailed series of maps. The few maps included in the book are frankly a bit inadequate considering the number of battles described in the text. That said, the book itself is well made and the paper quality good. Personally, we feel that a picture of a British tank would have been more appropriate than the Tiger tank which adorns the front duct jacket, but we realize that nothing sells a tank book quite like the image of a Tiger tank. That said, we highly recommend this book for those looking for an account of armor in the Normandy Campaign.
Special thanks to Casemate publishing for providing a review copy.