Beyond the Beach
The Allied War Against France
Stephen Alan Bourque
History of Military Aviation Series
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018
Hardcover. xv+355 pages. ISBN 978-1612518732. $34.95
Reviewed by Robert T. Jones
US Army Command & General Staff College
Fort Gordon, Georgia
The events leading up to Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of France in the summer of 1944 are a well-known historical narrative of the Second World War. What is less well-known, however, are the effects of allied pre-invasion activities on French civilians and their national infrastructure. Specifically, allied air attacks on targets in France constituted “one of the largest offensives ever conducted against a friendly state in the twentieth century” . Such is the subject of historian Stephen Bourque’s book Beyond the Beach : The Allied War Against France. This work is a survey that addresses how and why nearly 60,000 civilians lost their lives in the effort to liberate France from German occupation. Bourque draws upon a wide range of sources including US and UK archives, official histories and after-action reports, French departmental and municipal libraries, and numerous secondary sources.(1) The author cautions that a lack of documentation in some French localities may present an uneven portrayal of the bombing’s effects on ordinary people [xiii].
Two themes resonate throughout the book: the bombing operations that set conditions for the physical invasion and the French civilian casualties resulting from these bombings. The air campaign against French targets is not considered in isolation, but as an integral part of Operation Overlord’s operational concept . Secondly, civilian casualties were not limited to the immediate area of the invasion, but were spread across France . Bourque effectively weaves three different perspectives to tell this story. Each perspective constitutes a different narrative, a different vision, and a different mythology of a central story . The most prominent historical narrative is that of the senior leaders that directed the bombings to achieve the desired military objectives. The second narrative is that of the respective allied air forces that actually conducted the raids against targets in France. The story of the Combined Bomber Offensive is a familiar one that tends to focus its narrative on long-rangeattacks by heavy bombers against targets in the German homeland.(2) The author points out that during an eight-month period in 1944, the allies dropped more than a million tons of bombs on enemy targets, of which more than 45 percent were on French soil . The third and most poignant narrative is that of the ordinary French men, women, and children caught up in the effects of the allied air offensive. These individuals were subjected to the trauma of heavy bombings by virtue of living near an invasion objective or a strategic target located anywhere in France. According to Bourque, the sufferings of these individuals were largely ignored after the war even within French society. However, he points out that in the last twenty years French historians and descendants of the wartime generation are reevaluating this aspect of the war .
The author organizes the main body of the work into topical chapters addressing various categories of targets such as airfields / ports, industries, rail centers, bridges, and towns. His basic approach is to highlight selected attacks with an emphasis on the results achieved and the aftermath and lingering effects on civilians. By way of method, Bourque provides a wealth of detail on specific attacks by including numbers and types of aircraft, tonnage of bombs dropped, altitudes, weather, and damage assessments from military after-action reports and official histories. From the French perspective, he includes detail on numbers killed and wounded, numbers of structures damaged and destroyed, and actual damage to the intended target, derived from appropriate sources. Bombing attacks on the port city of Nantes are a good example of the author’s approach. During two attacks in September 1943, the city suffered 1,463 dead, 2,500 injured, and 700 homes destroyed . This example illustrates the degree of damages and suffering inflicted on ordinary civilians, often without warning. Bourque argues that the human costs of such attacks often outweighed the military benefit. He cites a report from the French Committee of National Liberation that stated “in some cases the losses and damage that the aerial bombardments have brought for the population seem out of proportion to the military results obtained” . The author presents a balanced analysis by presenting the allied perspective as well. He notes that the issue of civilian casualties was a consideration for air planning staffs, especially as the war progressed and French losses mounted . The problem of French civilian casualties was even addressed in high-level correspondence between Churchill and Eisenhower. Churchill’s concerns about alienating the French people were in the end overridden by the Supreme Allied Commander. Although Eisenhower was sympathetic to their plight, the air campaign against targets in France was seen as essential to the success of the Normandy invasion and subsequent liberation of Europe.
Stephen Bourque’s impressive research and scholarship shed light on a relatively unknown aspect of the World War II narrative in general and of the Normandy landings in particular. This book goes a long way towards addressing a rarely mentioned aspect of World War II air operations – that of collateral damage and the deaths of thousands of allied civilians. As good as the book is, it certainly opens the door for future scholarship in this area. Beyond the Beach is a thought-provoking work that will undoubtedly cause many to reassess their understanding of the common narrative of the liberation of Europe.
(1) French departments are equivalent to US and UK counties.
(2) The Combined Bomber Offensive was a strategic concept involving the US Army’s Eighth Air Force and the RAF’s Bomber Command attacking Germany by day and night respectively.
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