Book review: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History

D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History.  Simon Trew.  Somerset, UK: Haynes Publishing, 2012.  320 pp.

The Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on 6 June 1944, continues to fascinate almost seventy-years after that historic day.  In that span of time, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books and articles have been written on some topic concerning D-Day and the ensuing campaign.  The author of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History, Dr. Simon Trew, is deputy head of the Department of War Studies at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and is the author or editor of several other books on military history, particularly on the Normandy campaign.   His new work is a welcome and must-have addition for anyone with even a modicum of interest about those tense few months in Normandy, when the Allies cracked Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and brought the war closer to Germany.

Narrowing the field down from an astounding 20,000 images Trew was able to find during his research, is a riveting collection of 385 rarely seen photographs of the Normandy campaign.  Combing various archives in Great Britain, Germany, the United States, and Canada, the quality of these photographs are outstanding, a testament both to the care and handling they have received in their 68 years, as well as the skill and professionalism of the photographers that first took them.  Instead of focusing on the more famous photo-journalists that landed in Normandy with Allied soldiers, such as Robert Capa, Trew gives us the photos taken by the official military photographers.  These American, British, Canadian, and German still photographers were often right in the thick of the action.  The photos themselves are all in high-quality black & white.  Many of the images are what you would expect of a book about Normandy: the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and paratroopers, as well as their weapons and vehicles, are all highlighted.  We are also treated to rarely seen photos of personalities made famous by the war, including the well-known:  Patton and Bradley; Churchill with Montgomery; as well as lesser known persons, such as Juan Pujol (the spy known as Agent GARBO), Lieutenant General J. C. H. Lee, and various nurses, medics, armor crews, and military policemen. But the truly striking photos are those showing the dead (of either side), and the stress and fear captured on the faces of the subjects, whether a terrified German prisoner, a wounded American GI, or a combat fatigued British Tommy.  Others show the sad plight of French civilians, caught up in the middle of a great battle on their own soil.  There are great heart-warming moments as well, such as the ecstasy on the faces of those French civilians that came with liberation, or the calming reassurance shown by a British officer to his very young and frightened German prisoner that he would not be harmed.

The photographs are well-organized and user-friendly.  The book is broken up into nine total chapters, while no less than 35 photographs make up each chapter, and each individual photo having a number that corresponds to a thumbnail of the image at the end of each.  A well-described caption accompanies the thumbnail, as well as the archive the photo was culled from, and the photographs number and the date it was taken (if known).  As a former photo editor and military photographer, the writer of this review knows how infuriating it can be to wade through hundreds of photographs, having one catch your eye, only to find that it has no caption information whatsoever.   Trew resolves this nicely by having done as much research as possible on the images that had little to no caption information.  When scant information was available, Trew drew upon his vast knowledge of the Normandy campaign to either write his perspective on what the photograph showed, or discussed how the image fit into the larger picture of the battle itself.  These are not your typical newspaper photo captions, but well-detailed and informative ones, which adds tremendous insight on each and every photo.

However, the introduction and “question-and-answer” portion of the first 22-pages, in which the author answers the questions he believes the intended audience of the book would ask most, seems strangely like a bit of an afterthought.  The text font also seems to change from very large to not-so-large, which also contributes to the first part of the book being a bit incongruous to the photos.  There may have been a better way to disseminate all the relative information concerning the photographers from the various belligerents, the types of cameras they used while in Normandy, and all the other miscellaneous research that is highlighted.  Trew’s research is top-notch, and a full-length companion history on official military photographers with a sampling of some of these photos would be an extremely welcome project.  But here, the Q&A session  makes the book seem a bit schizophrenic, and one wonders if  the author shouldn’t have stuck with showcasing the incredible photographs, which may have allowed for more to be included.

Some readers will no doubt also notice and lament the number of actual photos taken on D-Day itself.  I would counter that very few military photographers went in with the first or successive waves onto the beaches, or jumped with the paratroopers into the bocage.  In any case, most of the Allies (and their German counterparts) were a bit too involved in combat to be worried about picture taking.  As the landings were deemed successful and the Allies gained a toehold in France, many more army photographers were able to be brought over from Britain to move around and record history as the campaign in Normandy stretched on into August 1944.

Trew does state that pictures taken by photographs of the US Navy or Waffen-SS are not included in the book, and this is a shame.  Whether there is just a lack of them (which seems to be the case, at least with SS photographs), it would have been a windfall had any been found or included, as most readers could probably recognize just how rare indeed these are.  Also, there is a complete lack of color photographs, with the only color image being that of the book’s cover.  Trew mentions that this was mostly due to cost (and as the writer of this review can attest, color photos are typically much more expensive to reproduce and retain one-time copyrights of).  This would lead one to conclude that the publisher, Haynes Publishing, was a bit stingy regarding paying for photographic rights.  It certainly reflects poorly on Haynes for not taking the project seriously enough to willingly pay out some more money for a few of these striking images to be included among the well-thought out chapters.  The price of the book ($49.95 USD) is a bit steep for the general public, but it is admittedly not cheap to  include photographs in any book, let alone nearly 400 of them.  Copies on can be had for about 20 dollars less.  However, if one is a student of the battle of Normandy or of World War II history in general, and enjoys strikingly rare photographs from the war, then this book will appeal to the amateur, armchair, or professional historian.

3 comments on “Book review: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: A Photographic History

  1. Although I’m not a military history enthusiast, I really did enjoy looking through the pictures in this book. Great job Simon and great job on the book review Guy!

  2. Simon Trew says:

    Thanks Guy for the review – I appreciate it. You make several interesting points. In a way, the introduction was a bit of an ‘extra’ – owing to my own poor self-discipline, I found myself having to write it in only a few days at the very end of the process, and maybe as a result it is not all it could be. But I did think that the book needed something along these lines, and that using the 20 or so pages that it occupies for more photos within the main chapters instead would not have added as much as the intro, which is aimed at telling readers a bit about the men who took the pictures. Still, I think there absolutely is room for a dedicated study of the official photography carried out by the warring nations between 1939 and 1945 – apart from a few sources that I mention on pp.22-3, there is almost nothing written on this subject, and even those things that are listed there are a bit hit or miss. Maybe one day I might try to get around to producing such a thing! If not, I certainly hope somebody else writes that book.

    As for the lack of D-Day pictures, this was for various reasons. First, the book is supposed to be about the entire campaign, and although I guess you could argue that without D-Day success, there would have been no pictures to take subsequently, at the end of the day it still amounts in time terms to a very small proportion of the overall campaign. Also, the number of official pictures surviving from D-Day is fairly small (I’ve never counted them, but it can’t be more than a few hundred), and most have been reproduced numerous times in previously published works. Admittedly, I might have included a few more, but it would have been at the expense of omitting others that I thought were more interesting, and in the end I decided to keep the proportion fairly small. Alternatively, the book title might have placed less emphasis on D-Day (though in fairness the full title makes it fairly obvious that the terms of reference extend to late August 44) – but this is something that the publisher wanted centre stage, since when people search on the internet for Normandy 1944 books, they very often do so using ‘D-Day’ as the search term. Indeed, for many people ‘D-Day’ has become something of a shorthand for the entire Normandy campaign – which is presumably why Antony Beevor’s own book about the campaign has a similar title!

    The colour pictures point is also well taken. Here, the economics of book production were very much the main factor. As it is, the book retails at a fairly high price point (in the UK, £30 is quite a lot of money to pay for a book), and had even a few colour pictures been added then this would have made the book unaffordable to many people who might otherwise been inclined to buy it. So athough I would have liked the freedom to include a few colour images, in the end we decided against it.

    Anyway, thanks very much for your kind words, & good luck with the blog, which I will be following with much interest.


    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thank you for the kind words Simon, and for visiting the blog. As I said in the review, I know from my past experience as a magazine photo editor how expensive color photos are, both to reproduce and to acquire one-time rights too. A one-page color image could blow my entire budget, and without fail the art director would want two-page color spreads, which would leave other articles looking quite bare of any accompanying photos. I was really impressed with the photos used in your book.

      Again, I think the book is great, and despite my little diatribe about how I thought it should be either a photo book or a history of the official military photographers, I do think the information is helpful
      and very interesting. At least you have your next book lined up if you
      choose to pursue that. No rest for the weary!

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