Book Review – Overlord

hastings.pngIn 1984, the British journalist and military historian Max Hastings published Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. This is a balanced, excellent account of the Allied invasion of France in 1944 (Operation Overlord), and the subsequent battle for Normandy in the months that followed.

The book’s principal strength is its unflinching analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the British, American and (to a lesser extent) Canadian armies which led this invasion force. Most “popular histories” of World War 2 are hagiograpic; that is, they romanticize things. The Americans are often portrayed as infinitely competent, the British plodding and over-cautious, and the Germans faceless ciphers.

Hastings is different.

He presents the Americans and British (particularly the Americans) as amateurish, and no match for the German army when it met it in anything like equal numbers. Instead, the British and Americans are solid, competent, plodding, but nowhere near the brilliant fighting force some popular historians (e.g. Stephen Ambrose) often portray them as. Indeed, it was its remorseless logistical advantage which allowed the Allied armies to grind the German army into submission:

… it was the Allies’ superiority of materiel that enabled them to prevail at last, assisted by competent generalship and a solid performance by most of their men on the battlefield (373).

This kind of analysis may startle some American readers, particularly those who have not read a bit more widely. Hastings continued:

The allies in Normandy faced the faced the finest fighting army of the war, one of the greatest that the world has ever seen. This is a simple truth that some soldiers and writers have been reluctant to acknowledge, partly for reasons of nationalistic pride, partly because it is a painful concession when the Wehrmacht and SS were fighting for one of the most obnoxious regimes of all time (370).

The primary difference between these armies, Hastings believed, was a fight for survival. The German army, for a variety of reasons, fought with something akin to fanaticism. The Americans fought as if they had a dirty job to do. The British were anxious to minimize casualties, as Montgomery led Britain’s last great army in the field.

Normandy was a campaign which perfectly exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of the democracies. The invasion was a product of dazzling organization and staff work, and marvelous technical ingenuity. Once the armies were ashore, there was no firework display of military brilliance. Instead, for the armies, there was a steady, sometimes clumsy learning process. Each operation profited from the mistakes of the last, used massed firepower to wear down the Germans, absorbed disappointments without trauma.

This last was a true reflection of the nature of the struggle: most German commanders, amidst the insuperable difficulties of grappling both with Hitler and the allies, declined towards a state bordering on hysteria. Among the Allied armies, however, there was sometimes gloom, but never real alarm or nervousness. These symptoms were more in evidence at SHAEF, where the role of impotent spectator taxed some men, even the highest, beyond endurance.

Montgomery and Bradley and their staffs and corps commanders merely fought, reconsidered, and fought again until their resources granted them victory (373-374).

Hastings provides an inspired, brief but comprehensive and lively account of the immediate lead-up to Overlord, and the battles which followed. His analysis is sound, logical, and insightful. I appreciated his attempts to go beyond hagiography and lay bare the fact of the matter. I believe the record bears out the conclusion that the Americans and British were competent, the Germans were clearly superior, and the Russians who pressed Germany from the east had become an extraordinarily formidable foe by 1944.

For some further reading, I’d suggest the following:

Book Review – The Glorious Cause

middlekauffRobert Middlekauff’s tome, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763 – 1789is a worthy overview of the Revolutionary-War era. It picks up in the heady days immediately after the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), when a cash-strapped Britain decided it needed some additional revenue to pay off debt accumulated during the late war. It ends with the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, and the ratification of the new Constitution shortly afterwards.

This book is part of the esteemed Oxford History of the United States series, and it lives up to its billing. Each volume is written by a distinguished, responsible historian at the height of his powers. Middlekauff takes the reader into the halls of Parliament and into the homes of colonists in New England, the middle colonies, and the South.

  • The political context is very well framed, and any American who still thinks of the Revolutionary War in cartoonish shades of black and white will be set right, if he reads this book. I appreciate the pains Middlekauff took to frame the political and cultural context on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the best part of the book.
  • The military aspect is rushed, but adequate. The reader won’t get any meaningful, comprehensive sense of how the war went. Middlekauff discussed Lexington and Concord, vaulted to Boston, skimmed the disastrous retreat from Long Island, across to New Jersey and thence to the fateful night in Trenton in perhaps 15 pages. From there, we get a smattering of discussion about the war in the South, and a lively (but brief) discussion of the siege at Yorktown. Anybody looking for a comprehensive overview of the military aspect of the Revolution will be disappointed. But, remember, this is a survey work. However, Middlekauff does offer some insightful analysis of the logistical problems (on both sides), and a lengthy discussion on “why they fought.”
  • The time-period leading up to the Constitutional Convention is merely sketched, and the reader finds himself in Philadelphia without quite realizing how he got there! Middlekauff’s discussion about how the Constitution was drafted, and the accompanying arguments and controversies, is very well done, and I appreciated it.

Overall, in about 690 pages of text, Middlekauff managed to take us from the French and Indian War to the Constitutional Convention – and he managed to be substantive, deep, insightful and engaging. That’s not an easy thing to do! I appreciated the book, and liked it a lot. This is the best one-volume survey of the era I’ve read. I doubt I’ll find anything to top it.

More reading

I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the Revolutionary War-era. I’m not a professional historian, but I believe I’m more well-read than most on this topic. Here are few good books on various aspects of the Revolutionary War-era to supplement Middlekauff’s work:

Book Review – Washington’s Crossing


“Washington’s Crossing” by David H. Fischer is a truly wonderful book about the Revolutionary War. It focuses on the 1776 campaign across New York and into New Jersey, a truly disasterous time for the American cause. General Washington suffered one awful defeat after another, as he was constantly out-generaled and outwitted by General William Howe and the Royal Navy. As the rebel cause lay in ruins, and Washington faced the disintegration of his army near Trenton, NJ as Christmas 1776 approached, he decided that he needed to act.

This book is an in-depth look at the events surrounding the great, pivotal battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the men and armies on both sides. Truly an excellent and moving book. A perfect book to buy on this July 4th!

Book Review – William Tyndale: A Biography

tttWilliam Tyndale was the man raised up by God to give us a real translation of the Bible in English from the original Greek and Hebrew text for the first time in history. Before Tyndale, there was no real English Bible. Others, such as John Wycliffe, produced translations from the Latin. Tyndale was different; he gave us the entire New Testament in English directly from the Greek text. He finished a good portion of the Old Testament (Genesis – 2 Chronicles, and Jonah) before he was betrayed by a vile and treacherous fiend and martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.

Daniel Daniell wrote and explained:

Very many of the treasures which have enriched the lives and language of English speakers since the 1530s were made by Tyndale: a long list of common phrases like ‘the salt of the earth’ or ‘let there be light’ or ‘the spirit is willing’; the haunting phrasing in parables like the Prodigal Son, ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again: and was lost, and is found’; the gospel stories of Christmas (‘ there were shepherds abiding in the field’) through to the events of the Passion in Jerusalem and the Resurrection: in the Old Testament, the telling of Creation and of Adam and Eve, right through the history told there to the Exile in Babylon. All these things came as something new to the men and women of Tyndale’s time in the 1520s and 1530s. That was because Tyndale translated them, for the first time, from their original texts in Greek and Hebrew, into English; and then printed them in pocket volumes for everyone to own.

Apart from manuscript translations into English from the Latin, made at the time of Chaucer, and linked with the Lollards, the Bible had been only in that Latin translation made a thousand years before, and few could understand it. Tyndale, before he left England for his life’s work, said to a learned man, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’ He succeeded (KL 77-79).

John Foxe, in his classic Book of Martyrs, tells us how Tyndale met his end:

Brought forth to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire, at the town of Vilvorde, A.D. 1536; crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, “Lord! open the king of England’s eyes.”

William Tyndale’s influence on the English language cannot be measured. The old King James Version of the Bible owes everything to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament, and his 1530 Pentateuch. In fact, if you manage to procure a copy of his 1534 New Testament with modern spelling, I think you’ll find that is a far superior version. It has a biting edge, a directness, a poetic lilt and melodious cadence that the KJV cannot match. 90% of the KJV is Tyndale.

One representative example, pulled at random, will make the point. At the beginning of Peter’s famous sermon on the day of Pentecost, he rose to his feet along with the other apostles, and addressed the large crowd of curious and incedulous Jewish pilgrims gathered in the temple courtyard. The KJV has, “Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words,” (Acts 2:14). This is an accurate translation, but it is flat. Boring. Lifeless. You can’t imagine somebody actually talking like this. You get a mental image of a philosophy professor droning on in front of a whiteboard; “Now class, hearken unto my words . . .” Tyndale, writing approximately 75 years earlier, rendered this as, “Ye men of Jewery and all that inhabit Jerusalem: be this known unto you and with your ears hear my words.” This is more direct, more forceful, more realistic. You can almost imagine Peter pausing for deliberate emphasis, pointing to his own head and saying “Use your ears and listen to what I’m about to tell you!”

William Tyndale was a genius. Anybody who speaks or writes English owes him a monumental debt. Any Christian who holds an English translation of the Bible in his hands should praise God for such a man as William Tyndale. Every New Testament Greek student should use Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament (along with modern, conservative versions) to check his own translations. You will be surprised how good he was. Some English Bible translations are technically accurate, but read like inter-office memos and have as much pizazz as a flat Coke. Not Tyndale. As one biographer put it;

By translating the Bible into English, this brilliant linguist ignited the flame that would banish the spiritual darkness in England. Tyndale’s translation of the Scriptures unveiled the divine light of biblical truth that would shine across the English-speaking world, ushering in the dawning of a new day (Steven J. Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale [Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015; Kindle ed.], KL 61).

Daniell explained:

William Tyndale was a most remarkable scholar and linguist, whose eight languages included skill in Greek and Hebrew far above the ordinary for an Englishman of the time— indeed, Hebrew was virtually unknown in England. His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters, and to do so in a way that, again unusually for the time, is still, even today, direct and living: newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare. At the centre of it all for him was his root in the deepest heart of New Testament theology, a faith of the sort that can, and did, move mountains (KL 85-91).

This biography by David Daniell is the story of that man, and his single-minded, relentless quest to translate the Bible into English so the common man could have his very own copy of the Scriptures – and actually read and understand them! This work is long and very thorough. The author has a fondness for ridiculously complicated, run-on sentences and sometimes does not explain things clearly. However, these modest shortcomings do not detract from the value of this marvelus work. This is the definitive scholarly biography on William Tyndale, and anybody who wants to know the story of the English Bible simply must read it.

Below is an interview with another Tyndale biographer, Steven J. Lawson. Watch it, and see if your interest isn’t kindled to know more about this remarkable man and hero of the faith. For New Testament Greek students, see if your blood, sweat and toil over classifications of the infinitive have better context now!