Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Whilst the tale of Overlord has been done to death, there is always scope for an informed view of a tactical element of the D Day campaign. Tootal has proved his spurs in battle, and had gained his authorship credentials with Danger Close (a Helmand account, published by John Murray, 2010). Although he has since sold his soul to the bankers, Tootal remains better known for being an ex CO of 3 Para, and therefore has the inside track on the behaviour and exploits of those in red /maroon berets.
The preface and prologue give you the meat. This book centres around a sustained feat of arms by a limited number of soldiers on D-Day and the bloodsucking days that followed. The reader is soon left astonished that the men were tasked with so many, so demanding, objectives. To take the four-casement battery at Merville, overlooking the British invasion beaches, seems a task daunting enough for any band of men. But then to ask them to take several other objectives, unsupported other than by naval shells lobbed from a distance, is breath-taking.
Tootal’s strength is at reporting the nuances of command structure and tactical decision-making. He takes a proud delight in narrating the gruelling selection procedure and subsequent training regime endured by the men who were to form 9 Para. The reader soon comes to share Tootal’s admiration for leaders such as Lt Col James Hill. Another, Lt Col Martin Lindsay, plays a fascinating part in the resignation of Neville Chamberlain – highlighting the latter’s incompetent handling of the Norwegian campaign. Lt Col Terence Otway then gained his command of 9 Para in the most base fashion, and becomes the leader of the action on the ground. Most lay readers will be left in no doubt of his eccentricity, not to say fallibility, but will surely cut the man some slack after the days and nights of shouldering an almost intolerable burden of responsibility. The casualty rate in the Merville action was 50%, and then 9 Para progressed to Bréville and Ranville, where the odds deteriorated.
It is difficult in a book of this kind to avoid becoming side-tracked in explaining the overall shape of the post D-Day events. Here Tootal’s description of the fate of many British units as they arrive on the beaches is a distraction to the core narrative. However he does make the useful point that one of the reasons for the Germans’ lack of preparedness on D-Day itself was that their Atlantic meteorological data was meagre by comparison with that of the Allies, and so they had no idea that a small weather window had opened sufficiently to permit (an admittedly brave) Eisenhower to press the go button. Similarly it is ironic that many of the German field commanders were not at their post on the eve of D Day as they were on their way to Brittany for a war game that was to evaluate Allied landings in Normandy (when the High Command’s default assumption remained an invasion in the Pas de Calais).
Tootal’s writing style is no-nonsense military, and he cannot resist a side-swipe in his trenchant summary of the failure to take Caen (for several weeks): “The slim chance of capturing it on the first day by pushing hard inland had been blunted by 21st Panzer and squandered by a marked tendency of conventional British infantry to pause and dig in once the main defence points of the Atlantic Wall had been taken.” Towards the end of the book the Black Watch makes an appearance on scene, and one is left in no doubt of their inadequacies relative to the by now battle-weary Paras on their flank.
There are times when the author is so carried away with the feats of his forebears that he leaves some issues hanging in the air – for example, why did 9 Para lack effective radio communications? Was their equipment lost in the drop, faulty, or using incorrect frequencies? The Merville escapade had to be carried out to a strict timetable, and the results successfully transmitted to the Navy, otherwise the Paras risked being shelled by the Navy who were to launch a barrage unless they received notice of a successful outcome to the Para mission. Nail-biting stuff.
Failings? Tootal assumes that the reader has the same facility as he with the size of army units. The lay civvie will not be quite as acutely aware of the significance if reinforcements are company size as battalion size. Perhaps there should be a glossary – you know and I know what is a LZ, but some readers may not.
Editing is lax. RAF Broadwell (a key stepping off point for the troop carrying aircraft) is in Oxfordshire not where he states in Gloucestershire. There are some repetitions of prose. Some text features in both footnotes and the main body of text.
But the biggest irritation, at least for an airman, is the deterioration in quality of writing when the subject turns to anything to do with aircraft. There was an understandable lack of affection (to put it politely) between the Airborne Forces and the RAF who delivered them to their target (or not). Tootal’s lapsing into Boy’s Own prose is perhaps acceptable – but sustained inaccuracy is not.
Some examples: the PR Spitfires carried out sustained sorties over Merville and the coast in the run up to D-Day. After their mission, “As their props feathered and wound down at RAF Benson….”. Not in any Spitfire checklist I have seen are their props feathered at shut-down. Describing the glider action: ”Both pilots heaved back hard on the sticks and the mighty flaps dropped through the quarter, half and then full flap position. As the control panels bit into the slipstream, the air speed fell off and the glider came out of the dive at a ninety-degree angle a few hundred feet above the ground. Kerr kicked the wooden rudder pedals with his Army boots to pull the Horsa into line on to the target landing area. Now he and his ‘oppo’ struggled to maintain flying speed to avoid the aircraft stalling as it hurtled in to land at seventy miles an hour. In order to pull it up short, Kerr landed with the brakes applied…”. Where does one start with that list of errors in such overblown prose?!
The Dakota, the workforce of the RAF’s troop carrying capability in 1944, is also known as a C-47, except in this volume, where it is repeatedly called a DC- 47. Prior to the drop, one Dakota is described thus “With his flaps adjusted, his fuel mix set from fully rich to fully fine, he altered his trim….”. Almost every airborne episode is clunky, and strewn with such little errors.
But, aviation aside, this remains an informed and action-packed account of the deeds of a remarkable bunch of British soldiers. It is a worthy tribute to their deeds. There is no doubt that Tootal’s own experience adds lustre to the shape of the book. One can almost smell the cordite in the accounts of the numerous infantry engagements . There is plenty of fascinating detail – from the war artist spewing in the back of the (D!)C 47 as he nears the Normandy coast, to the terror of being bombed by one’s own side, to the unremitting treatment of the locals by the German occupiers. Now if only he understood the world of the air…..!
Photos of survivors available here
Manner of Men
9 Para’s Heroic D-Day Mission
Stuart Tootal John Murray, 9 May 2013
The Wiltshire countryside where the men of 9 Para trained for their, as yet unknown, mission