Ten Days to D-Day: Citizens and Soldiers on the Eve of the Invasion
The iconography --- or, to be more accurate, the cinematography --- of the Normandy invasion is so compelling that it threatens to drown out all other discussion of the battle. The Airborne divisions, huddled aboard flimsy cargo planes, waiting to jump into the heart of darkness. German troopers in coastline bunkers, marveling at the line of ships, spreading across the horizon. Soaking-wet infantrymen going once more into the breach at the Omaha landing. The Rangers assaulting the guns of Pointe du Hoc. These are the images we remember, and treasure, but they are not the be-all and end-all of Normandy, nor could they be.
TEN DAYS TO D-DAY is about the preparation and the waiting. "We defy augury," Hamlet tells us. "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." The readiness, not the eventual conflict itself, is the theme of the book; the anxiety and the curiosity that enveloped the two sides, both waiting for the hammer-blow to fall, not knowing where or when, hostage to the weather and to fortune.
David Stafford's book starts in medias res --- literally, in the middle of a daring parachute jump behind enemy lines. It is concerned with two groups of people --- one group familiar to the reader, the other group not. The familiar group is the generals and politicians and other assorted leaders who were making the preparations for what would come on June 6th, 1944. This is the group responsible for the high politics: determining where the Allied blow would fall on the German side, and ensuring strategic surprise, French cooperation and combat readiness on the Allied side. (This involves interesting trivia, like the details of Hitler's medical care and the kerfuffle regarding whether Churchill would be allowed to hit the beaches with the troops personally.) This is the group that you expect to read about --- Eisenhower, Rommel, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Roosevelt --- and Stafford does a stellar job of explicating their thoughts, feelings and strategies, right down to Eisenhower managing stress by putting invisible golf balls on his office carpet.
The second group whose actions are highlighted in TEN DAYS TO D-DAY is much more diverse, having really only one thing in common. All of them were inveterate diarists, which means something. We are now, as of this writing, sixty years from June 1944, and the members of the D-Day generation are seeing their numbers dwindle into infinity. Interviews and oral histories are becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain. Stafford's choice --- going back into the library to retrieve diaries and letters --- is a sad one, but increasingly necessary.
Stafford's diarists cover a wide swathe of the D-Day events, including some people who were completely uninvolved. The idea apparently is to choose the most interesting diary entries for the time frame, and that necessarily involves people who had little or nothing to do with the invasion. There is the young woman serving in a "Wren" unit in Southern England, the heroic actuary languishing in a Nazi prison cell in Norway, and the Jewish hairdresser hiding from the Gestapo in a Paris garret.
None of these diarists really affect the invasion in any meaningful way, but they have their place in the story --- the invasion is being fought on their behalf, if nothing else. This does make for some jarring transitions, with the narrative skipping around from rural French cottages serving as Resistance centers to high-level strategic meetings in Eisenhower's trailer --- but anyone who has read a Tom Clancy novel will be familiar with the structure.
Even in choosing the period before D-Day, TEN DAYS TO D-DAY traverses well-trodden ground; there isn't much new information here (except for the explanation of how the Daily Telegraph crossword editor put "Overlord," "Omaha" and "Mulberry" into his puzzles). Stafford's achievement here is putting his team of diarists into the action, introducing them to the reader, and breathing new life into their words and deeds.