Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing And Airborne Operations On D-Day, June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski
As a historian who has specialized in writing about D-Day (previous books included Omaha Beach and Beyond The Beachhead), it should be natural that Joseph Balkoski should eventually focus his attention on the neglected operations on Utah Beach that formed the most geographically distant of the five beaches attached on D-Day in Normandy. While the other four beaches were parallel to each other, Utah Beach was separated by some miles and was the only attack site on the Cotentin Penninsula. The large amount of territory taken on D-Day and the lower amount of casualties among the infantry has given rise to the myth among casual readers of WWII history that Utah Beach was a cakewalk compared to the other missions (in particular Omaha Beach), and this book does yeoman’s service in correcting that myth.
While this book is not necessarily easy to read because it is organized in a sometimes repetitive fashion where the author will make a comment and then quote a primary source from a participant that elaborates on what the author said, or where the author repeats something from a previous chapter when discussing what happened to a particular unit several hours (or days) after the last time that unit was discussed, it is a very well-researched book that ought to impress a serious military history reader whose interest includes WWII history. Fortunately, the book includes a lot of charts in various appendices for those who want even more information that shows the author’s keen research skills, but the maps and quotations within the book itself, along with the anecdotes about various people (too many people, in fact) are enough to demonstrate the care of this particular historian for his craft and for his interest in providing as much as possible of the words and perspectives of the soldiers themselves on the Allied side, particularly Americans.
It appears one particularly praiseworthy aspect of Balkoski’s work, aside from his interest in people and their quirks (Theodore Roosevelt Jr., for example, is frequently and lovingly talked about for his going onto D-Day with nothing more than a walking stick, a book of poems, and a pistol; he sounds like my kind of soldier, hobbling around and cheering everyone up and sending them in the right direction when a treacherous current lands the 4th division a mile or more south of their intended landing site), is his interest in writing historical wrongs and in talking about that which is obscure or forgotten. The author’s championing of the difficulty of the task of engineers trying to clear mines or of glider pilots who got paid less than paratroopers and were looked down on as having cushy jobs despite equally hazardous tasks, like flying a defenseless glider into small arms and artillery fire, is a noble act and one that deserves the highest praise. Such passionate regard for the lives of all Americans at Utah Beach, along with the desire to right the wrong that said that Utah Beach was a cakewalk because of its few infantry casualties (neglecting to remember the high amount of airborne, glider, engineering, and naval casualties that are not often taken into consideration), makes this book a particularly important work of “revisionist” history, albeit one based strongly on keen research and documentation rather than mere bias.
Though this is not an easy book to read, the fact that it includes Operation Tiger , an ill-fated practice for the Utah invasion that ended up with over 1,000 casualties due to attacks by German swiftboats, and the fact that it includes a lot of the neglected areas of history, makes this a valuable effort for those who want a more complete and more accurate view of World War II history and are unwilling to accept the blithe conclusions that others have made in ignorance about the challenges and difficulties of the Utah Beach invasion. If this book does one thing, it will give the reader a more accurate understanding of the immense dangers that even a relatively successful airborne and amphibious assault provide to soldiers. And that understanding of the dangers of even relatively “easy” campaigns ought to disabuse any reader of war being a walk in the park, as much as some of us enjoy walks in the park. For that reason alone this book deserves the careful attention required to read it, even if it does mean giving General Montgomery some credit for the Utah Beach invasion in the first place.