Though the final Allied victory was almost a year away, the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 are often seen as the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe. The largest seaborne invasion in human history saw over 150,000 American, Canadian, and British troops, backed up by French resistance fighters, take the beaches by land or by sea, setting the stage for the liberation of Paris and then of Western Europe. 2019 marks 75 years since D-Day, and as the events of that longest day pass from living memory, it’s more important than ever that the stories of those who were there remain with us.
There are some major new works out in time for the anniversary, each of which puts the lives and times of those who lived through the war in a unique perspective.
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The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy, Volume 3), by Rick Atkinson
In the final volume of Rick Atkinson’s sprawling trilogy documenting Allied efforts to liberate Europe from the Nazis, D-Day is just the beginning—though his account of the campaign is riveting. Having already covered the Allied push through North Africa and Italy in earlier volumes, the author here turns his attention to the battle for Western Europe. This final stage of the war saw the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris, the disastrous Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and the final move into Germany itself—each of those representing powerful and traumatic moments in history. Atkinson utilizes extensive research and never-before-available source materials to tell the story of the final months World War II.
Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day, by Giles Milton
There are those books that offer a wide-ranging, high-level view of World War II, and then there are those that zero in on a particular, often peculiar, aspect of the conflict. In this book, Giles Milton focuses his eye on one 24 hour period: June 6, 1944, one of the war’s most momentous days—the launch of the D-Day invasion that saw the beginning of the end of the war in Western Europe. What’s more, he allows the people who lived through the longest day to guide the telling of the events: a teenaged Allied conscript, a German gunner, a French resistance fighter, a Panzer Commander’s wife. For Milton, the ultimate significance of D-Day can be glimpsed in the raw and unvarnished stories of individuals who stared death in the face on that date.
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, by Sarah Rose
In much of our written history, accounts of the roles played by women during World War II emphasize “Rosie the Riveter” tales, limiting themselves to situations women face in life and work on the homefront. Those stories are valuable, but not nearly the whole truth. Some more recent works have brought back to light remarkable, hidden corners of the past, including this book about the women recruited as spies by Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive. With so many men on the front lines, the 39 women who signed up to become saboteurs in France were essential to the war effort. Sarah Rose focuses on three of them: streetwise Andrée Borrel, who served as a courier and blew up power lines in defiance of the Gestapo before her luck ran out; suburban housewife Odette Sansom, who became the war’s most decorated spy of any gender; and Lise de Baissac, a member of the upper crust who managed to stay just one step ahead of the Nazis while helping to reconnoiter D-Day landing sites. This is a fascinating history of spycraft, narrow escapes, and of a side of the war worth rediscovering.
The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945, by Richard J. Evans
The third and final volume of Richard J. Evans’ sweeping trilogy covering the history of Hitler’s Germany, Third Reich at War sees the regime at its most powerful, dangerous and, ultimately, doomed. While other books here take an Allied perspective, Evans history turns a mirror on Germany during the war, exploring great battles, military strategies, and political maneuvering of the German leadership, as well as the home lives of ordinary Germans. This was also the era during which the Holocaust became a central horror, and Evans doesn’t shy away from it. Together with the other volumes in the trilogy, Evans has produced a definitive account of rise and fall of the most infamous regime of the 20th century.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor
Though many brilliant works cover D-Day’s impact on the ultimate outcome of WWII, the exhaustively researched work by military historian Antony Beevor represented, at the time of its publication in 2009, the first comprehensive look at the campaign, beginning to end, to be published in over twenty years. Relying on the archives of six countries as well as contemporaneous accounts and interviews conducted just following the action, Beevor describes the experiences of Allied and German soldiers, as well as of the French people caught in the fighting. It’s a monumental history of the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris.