Many books have written about the D-Day Invasion of 6 June 1944. Most of them concentrate on the landings and the air drops behind the lines. Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings by Craig Symonds is not one of those books. If you’re looking for another account of what happened on the Normandy beaches and the countryside beyond on D-Day, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book about how D-Day came to be and what it took to get those troops on the beaches and keep them there then this is the book for you.
“This book is a study of how the British and Americans managed to overcome divergent strategic views, Russian impatience, German U-boats, insufficient shipping, training disasters, and a thousand other obstacles to bring the Allied armies to Normandy and keep them there.”
While the story of Overlord is an often told and interesting story, you can’t really grasp the challenge of it without studying Neptune. You have to get an understanding of how the Allies went from America joining the war to amassing over six thousand vessels and one million men to begin the liberation of Western Europe in just two and a half years. There were so many challenges to overcome. Many of them were logistical. Where were all of the ships and men coming from? How would they get there? Where would they stage from? Once they get there how do you house and feed them all. Some of them were operational. When would they land? Where would they be landed? Who would lead them? How and where would they be trained? Yet others were diplomatic. The Americans and the British had differing views on how and when. They also had inherently different solutions to the problems at hand. They also had to placate the Russians, who desperately needed a second front to be opened up. Of course, the enemy also had their cards to play. Symonds ties all of these threads together to tell the story of how the Allies got from America’s declaration of war at the end of 1941 to the beaches of Normandy in Summer 1944. You might have to be southern to understand this, but I liked Symonds’ use of the Tar Baby from the Br’er Rabbit tales as an analogy for the North African and Italian campaigns. I hope it’s one that people will read and think about instead of immediately taking offense to it (as some of Joel Chandler Harris’ work is prone to do).
“In the end, what saved the day was the ability of the men both afloat and ashore to adapt and adjust.”
Symonds covers the strategy, the equipment, how it was done, why it was done, and describes the confusion and struggle of Omaha Beach – all of which are important parts of the story – but what I like so much about Neptune is that he concentrates on the personalities involved. He develops the personalities of the major figures such as Roosevelt, Churchill, King, Marshall, Brooke, Eisenhower, Ramsay, and other Admirals and Generals and shows how Neptune developed out of the interaction of those personalities. Neptune is just as much a story about how the Allies developed and maintained a working relationship in spite of differing strategies, national personalities, and experience levels as it is a book about Operation Neptune. Neptune, much less Overlord wouldn’t have been possible without the Allies working as a team.
Symonds doesn’t just concentrate on the leadership however, he also credits the men on the pointed end of the spear with the success of the D-Day invasion. He tells the story of Neptune from the Executive level to the Command and Staff level all the way down to the perspective of the landing craft sailor. He tells the story of how when the intricately detailed plan fell apart it was the sailors’ and soldiers’ training, instinct, and ability to improvise that carried the day. One of the things you come away from reading Neptune with is an understanding that although material, planning, and strategy are important – the human factor is the most important factor. No matter how good your equipment is, no matter how detailed your planning is, no matter what your strategy is, if you don’t have the skill and drive to implement it and you aren’t flexible enough to adapt when the plan falls apart you aren’t going to win.
“In the end, it was less the detailed invasion plan, labored over for so many months, that provided the margin of success than it was the desperate ferocity of the men themselves. If the plan had failed, the men had triumphed; if they had not quite established a foothold, they had at least secured a foothold.”
Neptune is an excellent history of the invasion of Western Europe. It is well researched, using secondary and primary sources which he documents well throughout the book. It is detailed without being dull; it’s a compelling book that the casual history reader would appreciate just as much as a World War II anorak. The maps and charts are good (see, two Kindle books in a row – it CAN be done!). If you are going to study the liberation of Western Europe from the Third Reich, this is a must read book.