June 06, 2019

Getting D-Day right, and much after it wrong,
plus a dose of alternative history

War and Peace: FDR's Final Odyssey: D-Day to Yalta, 1943–1945 (FDR at War, #3)War and Peace: FDR's Final Odyssey: D-Day to Yalta, 1943–1945 by Nigel Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Basically, up to Yalta, this was a 4-star book. The chapters about Yalta are about 3.25 stars. The post-Yalta stuff is 2 stars. If that. I may have been generous.

This is an edited version of my Goodreads review.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, many people may not know that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was leery of Operation Overlord. And, even those who know that in general may not realize this went beyond being just leery.

In a generally great first two-thirds of this, the third volume of a trilogy about FDR as Commander in Chief, Nigel Hamilton shows just how much Churchill dug in his heels against the invasion.

Unfortunately, there are spotty problems even in the first two-thirds, which increase exponentially the closer and closer one gets to the end of this volume, sadly marring it.

In a generally chronological look at the book, and the military history behind that, we'll see Hamilton's excellence, then his excellence thrown away on hagiography to the point of outright error.

Hamilton rightly eviscerates Churchill’s attempted blocking of Overlord. He does this in context of Churchill’s senseless pinpricks in the eastern Mediterranean, while noting that more of the same plus Italy to the mythical Ljubljana Gap would have had almost as many casualties. He then puts this in context of Churchill at Gallipoli in WWI and Dieppe in WW11.

He also shows how Churchill rushed Shingle into place with no beach trials, no real preparation (while not acknowledging that with both more prep and more daring, it could have worked).

Also explains how Churchill’s insistence on Anzio helped delay Overlord by a month.

And he — and rightly so — does all this more thoroughly and vigorously than the typical WWII history or even WWII military history.

That said, while not over the top, his Churchill-bashing was a bit strained at times. Dieppe was not intended to be an invasion, and it was seen as being in part a learning experience. After all, no major contested amphibious operation had been attempted up to that time in the history of mechanized warfare. Before that, the British at both the Crimea and before that at New Orleans were not opposed at the time of landings.

Even within its parameters, it was arguably more a failure than a success tactically.

That then said, Hamilton also nowhere mentioned that Churchill pushed for Dieppe in part due to Uncle Joe pushing for a second front already then. Nor does he mention that some lessons were learned from Dieppe in time for Torch.

Beyond THAT, which Hamilton (I presume deliberately) doesn't tell the reader is that in the last few weeks before Dieppe was launched, German counterintelligence in France had rolled up British SOE agents and uncovered all the main points of the Dieppe plan.

But, there was plenty of bad outside of this.

First, he has NO look at FDR’s military options on Hungary after Nazi takeover and no asking why he didn’t. Briefly brings up Hungary again in the second half of the book, but still doesn't address these issues. Many military historians today believe that rail line bombing could have at least slowed the transport of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and that it was even feasible, even without Russian help, to take a shot at bombing Auschwitz itself. BIG failure for Hamilton to not discuss this issue.

Even people who give FDR a pass on pre-US entry into the war tightfistedness on Jewish refugees, but who are thoughtful historians, struggle with the Hungarian Jews issue.

But Hamilton doesn’t “struggle” at all.

Second, he repeats that FDR had polio even though this is being more and more questioned, with many forensic medical historians believing Guillain-Barré syndrome felled him instead.

That’s why the pre-Yalta stuff is 4.25 star, no more.

The Yalta chapters themselves aren’t horrendous. I’ve never thought we really “lost” a lot at Yalta. But, FDR could have tried to have been firmer. And, contra the UN, the spheres of influence that Churchill and Stalin had agreed to DID keep Greece non-communist.

The biggest black mark is that Hamilton is already trying to whitewash Stalin here. And it gets worse in the post-Yalta chapters, to which I now head.

First, 480ff claims, or seems to, that Hitler was behind Operation Sunrise. This is not true, nor is the claim that Hitler was behind Himmler’s late attempts to negotiate a separate piece. And, there simple IS NOT an “Operation Wool” that was a grand plan for this, despite his claim on 481. I have NO idea where this came from. I did a Google because I had NEVER heard of such a thing, and I’ve read Hastings, Kershaw and many other modern WWII historians.

But, the ultimate goal of Hamilton’s inaccurate slant here seems to be what it had been at Yalta — throw Churchill further under the bus, wrongly as well as rightly, and then türd-polish Stalin, mostly wrongly.

On 485, appears to blame Truman, of all things, for FDR not meeting with him privately to inform him more on serious issues, starting with the bomb. Hamilton knows FDR held one-on-ones with few people even when he was in good health. And, this totally tries to otherwise whitewash FDR. If his musings about resigning in just months were truly meant, then he should have truly sat down with Truman.

I directly quote:
Why, then, in the circumstances, did he not summon Harry Truman, his chosen vice president, to come and discuss, in private, the challenges the former senator would soon enough have to face. This was something no biographer or historian would ever be able to comprehend ...  
"Yet in the subsequent four weeks before he left the capital he met with Truman only once, for ninety minutes, and that was in the company again of Speaker Rayburn [and others]. ...  
Truman had NOT [emphasis added) complained. Highly intelligent, a quick study and a bon viveur when it came to whiskey and cards, Truman had not thought to request a private meeting.
Other than throwing Truman under the bus, this is a failure as an argument from silence. How do we KNOW Truman never requested a private meeting? There's no footnote here citing a Truman diary entry that says something like "Asked Pres. 3 days ago for private meeting. Still no response."

There was one just plain weird thing, from FDR’s last State of the Union.

Halifax wasn’t one-armed; he was missing his left hand, and the arm higher up was at least somewhat atrophied; also, calling him such out of the blue on 467 came off as irrelevant to the narrative and jarring.

Had other parts of the book not been so well, the last 60 pages were enough I might have two-starred it. The book is simply marred at the end. As though Nigel Hamilton had hit his own medical wall or something.

Or else he hit the print job rush wall, to have the book in print before the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I saw that a few years back, when the Civil War sesquicentennial was winding down. Ditto in spades on Joel Brinkley's Teddy Roosevelt book. It happens. But, while being a possible explainer, it's not an excuse. Not a valid one.

I had read the second volume in the trilogy and Goodreads shot me an alert when this came out. That second volume may have been moderately hagiographic (a commenter to my review said he thought it was highly so), but it didn't have outright errors like this.


View all my reviews

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If Churchill had somehow persuaded FDR to his strategy, what would have gone differently in WWII?

Well, the ETO would have lasted longer. Hitler probably would not have been defeated until late summer of 1945.

More importantly for the future, Russian troops would have been on the Rhine and Allied trust would have been lower. Stalin would have dared Churchill (if he could have delayed British elections and kept a coalition, if not Atlee) and Truman to try to claim occupation zones in Germany. Neither would have risked WW3, and probably would have settled for a Rhineland area after stiff negotiations. This affects the whole Cold War.

At the same time, Russia doesn't enter Asia until after Truman bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With bitterness in Europe, Truman might scramble troops to occupy all of Korea, which obviously changes the war there. Kim Il Sung probably then becomes a Ho Chi Minh, trying to inflict a Vietnam on America.

With all of that, no D-Day and no true Second Front also means no United Nations, which is far from perfect, but still better indeed than nothing.

That said, moving back from Hamilton's hagiography to the reality-based world, the always insightful and hard-hitting Robert Fisk notes that the UN, and the "international community" in general, has done little to uphold promises made to and about the Middle East at Cairo, Teheran and Yalta.

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