PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

by Antony Beevor
Viking, HK$255

On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded Normandy; by the end of August they had liberated Paris and the demise of the Third Reich was in sight. But - as Antony Beevor's enthralling D-Day: The Battle for Normandy shows - it was not an easy victory.

While the Allies enjoyed overwhelming air superiority, the German troops were better armed, especially with tanks and anti-tank weapons that made short work of their adversaries. A storm that lashed the English Channel in the middle of June played havoc with resupply. Dense hedgerows held up the advance until spikes could be welded to the front of tanks so they could bulldoze their way through.

And the squabbling Allied generals - the egotistical Patton, the haughty Leclerc and the insufferable Montgomery - spent far too much time politicking when they should have been focused on defeating the enemy.

The opposing side was faced with increasingly irrational orders from Hitler, who became even more maniacal after the failed attempt on his life that July. The French resistance harassed the lines of communication, while a second invasion force landed in southern France in mid-August. And German soldiers, who had been sold the myth of the invincible Atlantic Wall, became increasingly demoralised as it became apparent that their coastal fortifications were pregnable.

Beevor, who has received praise for previous books on the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin, looks at the story of D-Day from every perspective - from the strategy of high command to soldiers intent on surviving day by day. He starts with the understandably put-upon Dr James Stagg, the British meteorologist whose job it was to predict the best conditions to launch the invasion.

The main characters are painted realistically, from Eisenhower chain smoking furiously in the hours before the invasion to General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander in Paris, surrendering rather than making a last-ditch stand as Hitler had ordered.

On the whole, this is an even-handed account, although Beevor does demonstrate a slight tendency for controversy. He places a particularly strong emphasis on the destruction of Caen by Allied bombing and makes a case, based on casualty figures rather than the length of the conflict, for the fighting being tougher in Normandy than on the eastern front. But his overall conclusion is that while Normandy was 'cruelly martyred', it saved the rest of France from a similar fate.

Beevor ends by noting that had the invasion of Normandy failed, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Russians would have continued westwards once they crossed the Rhine, stopping only when they reached the Atlantic. All of which casts Stagg's scientific, and thankfully correct, guess in a positive light.