Saturday, June 08, 2019

Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars review – the Boss takes the scenic route

By Alex Petridis
6 June 2019
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The 19th Bruce Springsteen album has been heralded as a dramatic break from tradition. So dramatic, in fact, that in the interviews accompanying its release, Western Stars’ author has felt impelled to reassure fans that he’ll be back recording and touring with the E Street Band later this year. It’s hard to miss the hint of “normal service will be resumed as soon as possible” about that announcement, balm for Boss fans horrified by how far Western Stars takes their hero from either of his standard musical styles.
There’s not a hint of the E Street Band’s booming Sturm und Drang, nor the stripped-back earthiness of his previous solo albums here: they’re replaced by luscious orchestrations, heavy on the strings and French horn, cooing female backing vocals, guitars that shimmer and quiver with tremolo effects, mournful pedal steel. It’s not founded in country music so much as a distinctive musical hybrid that flowed out of Hollywood’s recording studios in the late 1960s and early 70s, which stirred Nashville with west coast folk-pop and ambitious, sophisticated arrangements: the grownup American pop of Glen Campbell’s collaborations with Jimmy Webb or Harry Nilsson’s covers of Everybody’s Talkin’ and I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.
This is clearly a departure, although there’s a sense in which it’s entirely in keeping with Springsteen’s approach. His sound is almost invariably based in burnished nostalgia. The E Street Band and The Ghost of Tom Joad alike are rooted in the music that flourished in the US when Springsteen was about 12 years old: the former an amplification of pre-Beatles American pop – both the echoing drama of Phil Spector and the blare and honk of Dion and the Belmonts – the latter a take on the early 60s folk revival, with particular reference to Bob Dylan in young, keeper-of-the-Woody-Guthrie-flame mode. Western Stars simply shifts its backwards gaze on a few years, to the stuff that would have dominated mainstream taste during Springsteen’s late teens, at a time when it might have been hipper to dig Jefferson Airplane – but what budding young artist could fail to have his head turned by such consummate examples of the songwriter’s craft?
Certainly, there’s a real and rather affecting love evident in the way Springsteen channels the sound on Western Stars. There are moments of transcendent loveliness – not least the shivering instrumental coda of Drive Fast – but he’s also unafraid of its occasional tendency towards schmaltz. Quite the opposite. Listening to There Goes My Miracle or Sundown, on which he slathers on the high-camp strings and transforms his voice into a croon, denuded of the usual Springsteen grit, you get the feeling he’s having a whale of a time: an artist always held up as the apotheosis of honest, blue-collar heartland rock revelling in artifice, in much the same way as he audibly delighted in telling audiences at his Broadway residency that the character of Bruce Springsteen was a Ziggy Stardust-ish construct who had never done anything. It helps that the songs are strong enough to withstand the treatment, seldom slipping into pastiche. The only real misfire is Sleepy Joe’s Café, which feels a little round-edged for its own good, not aided by an ingratiatingly perky accordion: the E Street Band could have turned it into something more driving and potent.
“It’s the same sad story, going round and round,” Springsteen sings on The Wayfarer and listening to the rest of the album’s lyrics, you take his point. If the sound of Western Stars sets it apart from Springsteen’s earlier solo albums, the words pull it closer. Like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, it offers a selection of bleak narratives and lingering pen-portraits, and, like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it seems a product of its era. The former album’s cast of conflicted cops and desperate criminals undercut the gung-ho triumphalism of Reagan’s America, while Tom Joad’s illegal immigrants and drug runners did the same for an era of record highs on the Dow Jones index. Western Stars, meanwhile, is populated by characters past their best – the title track’s fading actor, reduced to hawking Viagra on TV and retelling his stories for anyone who’ll buy him a drink; Drive Fast’s injured stuntman recalling his youthful recklessness, the failed songwriter of Somewhere North of Nashville and the guy glumly surveying the boarded-up site of an old tryst on Moonlight Motel – all of them ruminating on how things have changed, not just for the worse, but in ways none of them anticipated.
It adds up to an album that manages to be both unexpected and of a piece with its author’s back catalogue. Normal service may well be resumed in due course, but Western Stars is powerful enough to make you wish Bruce Springsteen would take more stylistic detours in the future.
 Western Stars is released on 14 June.

Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars review – His most radical and best album in years

By Joe Breen
June 7, 2019

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If there’s one thing we know about Bruce Springsteen, it is that he likes, nay needs, to keep control. So this is his take on what is his most radical and arguably his best album for some time: “This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements.”
It is hard to argue with that precis. As the bulk of his songs are character-driven, the “solo” reference may be to the classic Nebraska (1982), while the reference to orchestral backing could be traced further back to 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle and the ballad New York City Serenade. That string score was written by the then departing pianist David Sancious who, interestingly, returns for Western Stars.  
The “cinematic” arrangements leave no room for the E-Street Band and though Springsteen is set to record and tour a new album with them later this year, I’d have my doubts. Springsteen is 70 in September and last year in his acclaimed Broadway solo show, based on his riveting biography, he seemed to signal farewell to the songs that had soundtracked his career since the early 1970s. They were his past. It was time for something different. 
This required a new approach, if only to escape what had become predictable. By structuring the music around an orchestra, he has achieved a remarkable freshness. It is important to stress that the orchestral setting, executed with invention and subtlety, is integral to almost all 13 tracks. It is not mere ornamentation, though there are other key colours such as Marc Muller’s steel guitar and Sancious’s piano fills.
Springsteen has also said that the new songs were influenced by southern Californian pop of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And he is true to his word. Those old enough will recognise the influence of Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell while Springsteen’s nuanced vocals carry some of the drama and emotional heft of Roy Orbison or the Walker Brothers.   

Highways and desert spaces

A press release stated that the album contained a “range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”. Again all true to a point. All these characters are old, male and solitary, many of them refugees from a past nursing hurt and guilt. They live lonely peripatetic lives on the margins, drawn by the road seeking solace and meaning, what Tim Hardin once called “a reason to believe”.
Perhaps with his own fragile mental health in mind, the writer’s empathy with their vulnerability hits home. The 13 songs are also remarkably cohesive in tone with the exception of Tucson Train, a catchy if standard tune from another era and the Tex-Mex lite Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.
The rest promise to become, plus or minus, key stories in the Springsteen meta-narrative including the ostensibly friendly opener Hitch-Hikin’. Melancholy ballads dominate without ever becoming overbearing. The haunting title track (“I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on…”) follows the restless The Wanderer and leads to Drive Fast (The Stuntman).
This brooding ballad of another (literally) broken character begins a run of eight tracks of varying excellence: Chasin’ Wild Horses, Sundown, Somewhere North of Nashville, Stones and the misleadingly jaunty There Goes My Miracle are all about men who have taken the wrong option and lived to regret it, condemned to “drift from bar to bar here in lonely town” (Sundown).
The penultimate Hello Sunshine could be an enticing shuffling piece of country-pop but seems darker and more personal. Finally, Moonlight Hotel closes with a measured reflection on the passing of time and a cinematic image of loss and redemption. A fitting end.

Cardinal Pell & The Mafia

June 6, 2019

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, June 5, 2019. Pell was at the court for a two-day hearing to appeal his conviction on five counts of child sexual abuse. (CNS/Julian Smith, AAP Image via Reuters)

I hear great news out of Australia, where Cardinal George Pell’s appeal on his child abuse conviction was heard by a court tribunal today. Daily Telegraph journalist Miranda Devine writes that the government’s case collapsed. Her column is behind a paywall, but here is an excerpt:
Cardinal George Pell and his supporters were relieved that his appeal of his child sexual assault conviction was live-streamed on Wednesday.
The intense seven-hour courtroom argument was the first time the public has heard first-hand the flimsiness of the evidence against him.
Three judges of the Victorian Appeals Court are reviewing the jury’s verdict in which Cardinal Pell was convicted of sexually assaulting two choir boys after Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in December 1996. One of the boys has since died and told his mother he never was molested.
So that leaves the conviction to be based on the word of one man against Cardinal Pell’s, with no corroborating evidence, no forensic evidence, no witnesses, and against a mountain of contrary evidence which showed that the allegations were highly improbable, if not impossible.
The jury verdict has troubled legal experts and lay people around the world ever since. The evidence seen so far leads to the conclusion that an innocent man was jailed to atone for the sins of others in a church plagued by sexual abuse scandals.
From what I’m told, the state’s case was routed, though we won’t know the verdict for months. Meanwhile, Cardinal Pell remains jailed in Melbourne.
In 2014, Pell was given by Pope Francis responsibility for cleaning up the infamously corrupt Vatican Bank. When that news broke, I thought, “They’ll find some way to take him out. They won’t let him do it.” When the child abuse charges were brought against Pell in 2017, I thought, “So that’s how they did it.” But I didn’t go further, because how would I prove that Pell was set up? It was just a hunch.
When I was in Australia last month, I found myself in a conversation one evening with someone about all this. (I had a lot of Pell conversations, as you might imagine.) I shared with my interlocutor my suspicion that Pell was set up to take him off the Vatican Bank case. The man across the table said, “That’s interesting. You may not know it, but the ‘Ndrangheta is quite well established in Australia, especially in Victoria. That’s where the cardinal was charged.”
The ‘Ndrangheta is the Calabrian mafia, and yes, they are well established in Australia.  They control organized crime on Australia’s East Coast, and are said to have infiltrated every part of the Australian establishment. With that in mind,here’s an interesting bit of news, from the Irish Times, Nov. 16, 2013:
Senior Calabrian Mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri, whose investigative zeal has forced him to live with police protection since 1989, has said the pope’s plans to reform Vatican structures, including the Vatican bank, the IOR, could prove a problem for the ’Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful Mafia.
He said that while Pope John Paul II called on the “military” mafiosi to “repent” in 1993, Pope Francis has gone further, perhaps hitting the ’Ndrangheta where it hurts.
“He has named his G8 [council of cardinals] to overhaul the entire structure of the Vatican, including a review of the Vatican’s economic affairs and in particular, the IOR,” Gratteri says.
“For those with real economic power it is obvious this could be a huge disadvantage . . . Given that in the past we’ve had collusion at the highest level between church and Mafia, this exposes the pope.”
Months after this report, Cardinal George Pell was named by Francis to reform the IOR. In 2014, Pell said his team found nearly two billion euros hidden away in various Vatican accounts, off the balance sheets.  In November 2015, with the Pope’s approval, Pell issued new guidelines for running all Vatican offices, to bring them up to international standards for financial transparency.
In April 2016, without consulting Pell, the Vatican Secretary of State suspends an external audit of Vatican finances. The National Catholic Register quotes an unnamed source as saying that officials are afraid of what the audit will find, and want to get rid of Pell.  A year later, Pell was charged in Melbourne with sexual abuse. And that was the end of the Pell threat to the Vatican Bank insiders.
This mafia thing, it could all be a coincidence, and in any case, there are other factors in play in the persecution of George Pell, who was widely hated by Australian anti-clericalists. But it’s curious all the same. George Pell was the No. 1 enemy of the ‘Ndrangheta in the Vatican, and he showed early on in his tenure, when he uncovered all the hidden euros, that he meant business. Now George Pell sits in solitary confinement in a prison cell in Melbourne, convicted on pathetically shabby charges. The old guard in the Vatican won. The world is as it always was.
UPDATE: I have been told by someone very much in a position to know that the current head of the Vatican Bank is from Calabria. For what it’s worth…

Friday, June 07, 2019

Trump’s Great D-Day Speech

By Matthew Continetti
June 6, 2019
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President Trump gave one of the best speeches of his presidency while many Americans were brushing their teeth. His remarks at the seventy-fifth commemoration of D-Day at the Normandy American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, were gracious, moving, poetic, and delivered in a time zone six hours ahead of the East Coast.
Which is too bad. The address deserves a wide audience not only for its content but also because it fits into the larger themes of this presidency. Speaking from what he described as "Freedom's Altar," Donald Trump once again made the case for reviving America's national spirit, sovereignty, and strength.
Trump told the story of D-Day and of some exemplary GIs before an audience that included more than 60 veterans of the landings themselves. Adding to the poignancy of the scene was the knowledge that the Greatest Generation is slowly fading into posterity. "When you were young, these men enlisted their lives in a Great Crusade—one of the greatest of all times," the president said. "Their mission is the story of an epic battle and the ferocious, eternal struggle between good and evil."
The phrase "Great Crusade" harks back to General Eisenhower's statement to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and to FDR's D-Day prayer. The language of good and evil, and the invocation of God, echoes earlier Trump speeches as well as those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In his prepared speeches, Trump has been unafraid to speak in plainly moral terms, and to call on the best traditions of American rhetoric.
What makes Trump's language unique is his emphasis on nations. Trump catalogued the Allies who fought the Nazis at Normandy. He noted the "nobility and fortitude" of the British people and "the full grandeur of British pride." He acknowledged the "sense of honor and loyalty" of the Canadians. He recognized "the fighting Poles, the tough Norwegians, and the intrepid Aussies." He saluted "the gallant French commandos, soon to be met by thousands of their brave countrymen ready to write a new chapter in the long history of French valor."
Trump's most stirring words, of course, were dedicated to the American people. "They came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities, and the forges of mighty industrial towns." The Americans who fought in World War II, and who charged Omaha beach, "ran through the fires of hell moved by a force no weapon could destroy: the fierce patriotism of a free, proud, and sovereign people. They battled not for control and domination, but for liberty, democracy, and self-rule."
As he did in his 2017 address to the people of Poland, Trump connects heroism and valor to nationhood and religious feeling. "The exceptional might came from a truly exceptional spirit," he said at Normandy. "The abundance of courage came from an abundance of faith. The great deeds of an Army came from the great depths of their love."
In the Warsaw speech, he said, "Through four decades of communist rule, Poland and the other captive nations of Europe endured a brutal campaign to demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity—indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity. Yet, through it all, you never lost that spirit."
It is sometimes jarring to hear the proprietor of Mar-a-Lago direct our attention to the spiritual realm. Here, too, Trump's rhetoric maintains its ties to some of America's greatest orators. In his "Time for Choosing" speech of October 1964, Ronald Reagan quoted Winston Churchill, who said, "The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we're spirits—not animals." Churchill, Reagan continued, also said, "There's something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty." The men who fought for freedom at Normandy know what he meant.
Beginning with his Inaugural Address, but developed more fully in his speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, in his Warsaw appearance, and in his 2017 remarks at the U.N. General Assembly, Donald Trump has offered a consistent perspective on foreign affairs. The world is composed of nations that, at the end of the day, are accountable only to themselves and to their people. The strength of a nation manifests itself in economics and military might, but ultimately depends on patriotic feeling, communal sensibility, and religious belief.
Each nation has the right to exercise sovereignty. It will try to advance its interests, but also must understand that other nations will do the same. When nations enter into trade relationships or alliances, they ought not to take advantage of one another. And they ought not to infringe on sovereign rights.
"We must reject threats to sovereignty," Trump told the UNGA, "from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow. And just as the founders of this body intended, we must work together and confront together those who threaten us with chaos, turmoil, and terror."
What makes the United States unique is our culture of popular sovereignty and individual liberty. "We know what these men did," Trump said of the WWII vets arrayed around him. "We knew how brave they were. They came here and saved freedom, and then, they went home and showed us all what freedom is all about."
The argument of Donald Trump's presidency is that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago this November, both America's adversaries and (controversially) America's allies exploited the international system for self-gain, and America's political class did nothing about it or, worse, benefited from it.
Trump, the argument runs, is here to revive America's national sensibility through appeals to common purpose, political community, and historical memory. He wants to build a growing economy that can finance a resourced military. He's redirected strategy toward great-power confrontation with China. He is also here to renegotiate settlements with our allies on better terms for the United States, and to enforce national borders, even if it means disrupting settled patterns of doing business and inflaming diplomatic tensions.
He has not yet been entirely successful. Not only because of his many opponents. It is also because Trump's public persona, honed in the world of reality television, often distracts from or undermines the goal of reviving American nationhood. It cannot be an accident that President Trump's strongest moments have been when he conformed to the traditional expectations and duties of his office.
He did at Normandy. There he made an excellent speech whose sentiments and principles ought to be, and will be, remembered. Its animating ideas are expressed in the words of his peroration. "As we stand together upon this sacred Earth," he said, "we pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united. We will forever be together. Our people will forever be bold. Our hearts will forever be loyal. And our children, and their children, will forever and always be free."

No George Washington, no America

By George F. Will
June 5, 2019
General Washington rallying his troops at Princeton (William Ranney)
“By the rude bridge that arched
the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round
the world.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Concord Hymn
After the morning bloodshed on Lexington green, on the first day of what would become a 3,059-day war, there occurred the second of what would be eventually more than 1,300 mostly small military clashes. Rick Atkinson writes: “A peculiar quiet descended over what the poet James Russell Lowell would call ‘that era-parting bridge,’ across which the old world passed into the new.” Here again is Atkinson’s felicity for turning history into literature.
Many who have read his Liberation Trilogy on U.S. forces in World War II’s European theater (“An Army at Dawn,” “The Day of Battle,” “The Guns at Last Light”) will already have immersed themselves in his just-published “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” the first of what will be his Revolution Trilogy. It is a history of the combat in which the fate of a continent, and an idea, was determined by astonishingly small numbers of combatants, and one astonishing man.
As London came to terms with the fact that Boston is farther from Charleston than London is from Venice, it slowly dawned on Britain’s government that it was fighting not just a nascent army but also a nation aborning. And that it had the daunting, and ultimately defeating, logistical challenge of maintaining an army across an ocean in the age of sail. When its North American commander asked London for 950 horses, more than 400 died en route and others, weakened by the voyage, died on shore.
America’s shores — most Americans lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater — were home to people made restive, then violently belligerent by a vibrant print culture: “Philadelphia . . . boasted almost as many booksellers — 77 — as England’s top 10 provincial towns combined.” The war would be won largely by the deft retreating of George Washington, who, as Atkinson demonstrates, several times came “within a chin whisker of losing the war.”
Approximately 250,000 Americans served for some period in some military capacity, and more than 1 in 10 died, a higher proportion of the nation’s population than perished in any conflict other than the Civil War. They died from battle, disease or vile British prisons. Few battles produced mass carnage. (One in 8 of the British officers who would die in the eight years of war died in four hours at Bunker Hill.) Inaccurate muskets (Atkinson says, “The shot heard round the world likely missed”) often were less lethal than the primitive medicine inflicted on the victims of muskets, cannons and bayonets. Only the fortunate wounded got “their ears stuffed with lamb’s wool to mask the sound of the sawing.” Amputations above the knee took 30 seconds; about half the amputees survived the ordeal or subsequent sepsis.
Washington rarely had more than 20,000 soldiers and often had fewer: On one December day during his late-autumn 1776 retreat from New York City across New Jersey, he lost about half his “threadbare and dying” army to expiring enlistments, and he crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania with fewer than 3,000. Later that month, however, he recrossed the river with 2,400 and in less than two hours at Trenton (where Lt. James Monroe was wounded) and, eight days later, in an hour at Princeton, saved the idea of a continental nation based on republican ideals.
One lesson of “The British Are Coming” is the history-shaping power of individuals exercising their agency together: the volition of those who shouldered muskets in opposition to an empire. Another lesson is that the democratic, sentimental idea that cobblers and seamstresses are as much history-makers as generals and politicians is false. A few individuals matter much more than most. Atkinson is clear: No George Washington, no United States.
Washington, writes Atkinson, learned that “only battle could reveal those with the necessary dark heart for killing, years of killing; that only those with the requisite stamina, aptitude, and luck would be able to see it through, and finally — the hardest of war’s hard truths — that for a new nation to live, young men must die, often alone, usually in pain, and sometimes to no obvious purpose.” The more that Americans are reminded by Atkinson and other supreme practitioners of the historians’ craft that their nation was not made by flimsy people, the less likely it is to be flimsy.
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Thursday, June 06, 2019

D-Day 75th anniversary: historian Antony Beevor on its legacy

By Antony Beevor
1 June 2019

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U.S. soldiers landing on Utah Beach

On Wednesday, heads of state will assemble in Portsmouth to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the launch of the most ambitious military operation the world has ever seen. Before the invasion, Joseph Stalin had been bitterly scornful of the time it had taken the allies to prepare their cross-Channel attack. But now, as recent objections to President Trump’s state visit reveal, rather different interallied tensions have created a fault line down the Atlantic.

The heroic myths of D-Day have been powerful, fostered first by the popular press and entrenched later in films. The best-known movie, Saving Private Ryan, is a uniquely American version of D-Day, depicting the terrifying reality of Omaha beach. It does illustrate the clash between collective need and the instinct of theindividual to survive, but the Hollywood clichés mount to a predictably hackneyed climax, with a mixed band of American rangers using improvised weapons against an SS panzer counterattack.

A British account would be completely different. After the humiliating defeats earlier in the war, culminating in the Dunkirk evacuation, the British suffered from “D-Day jitters” and “a much greater fear of failure” than the Americans, as one of their staff officers observed. I think it is revealing that more renowned British-made films, most recently Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, have focused on the epic 1940 evacuation of allied forces from the beaches of France rather than D-Day. In stark contrast to the American love of success, the British have revealed a far greater fascination for their own military disasters, whether in poetry, novels or on screen.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the victory of D-Day appears inevitable because of allied air and naval superiority. Yet nothing in history is preordained. At the time, the dividing line between triumph and utter disaster was too close to call. Late in the evening of Sunday June 4, General Eisenhower and the most senior allied commanders gathered in his temporary headquarters at Southwick House above Portsmouth. The crucial decision facing them was whether to accept the meteorologists’ prediction that June 6 would offer the break they needed in the stormy weather or to delay. Eisenhower gave the decision to go. If he had chosen the only other option, of a two-week postponement, the vast invasion fleet would have encountered the worst storm in the Channel in 40 years. I strongly dislike speculative “what ifs”, but one must at least acknowledge the possibility that the postwar map of Europe might have looked rather different if the allied invasion fleet had been scattered by that storm. All preparations would have had to start again from scratch.

Winston Churchill was in a nervous frenzy for other reasons too. He had never favoured the plan to invade Germany across northwest Europe. This had been forced upon him by Stalin and President Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference the previous November. Now he had to conceal his reluctance and support the cross-channel invasion. Ever since the 18th century, Britain, as a small island nation, had always preferred a “peripheral strategy”. This meant using the Royal Navy to wear down a numerically superior opponent, especially in the Mediterranean, before tackling its armies on the European mainland with coalition warfare. The Americans, on the other hand, believed in a “continental strategy” — a massive clash of land forces to destroy the enemy head-on.

Churchill’s dream was to advance into central Europe from northeast Italy to pre-empt a Soviet occupation, yet the mountainous terrain around the Ljubljana Gap would have made that impossible. The allies’ exceptionally slow and bitter advance up the spine of Italy should have warned him how effectively the Germans could fight in retreat. Roosevelt had compromised over the Mediterranean in 1943, allowing Churchill the invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland, but the Americans were now in charge. The time had come to engage the Wehrmacht in northwest Europe.

All those who took part in D-Day, whether soldier, sailor or airman, would never forget the sight. It was by far the largest invasion fleet ever known, with 7,700 ships and 12,000 aircraft. The view from the air was breathtaking. Many pilots said later that the sea was packed so full of ships that it almost looked as if you could walk to France.

The landings in Normandy represented a moment of great emotion. For the British, after the long years of defeat and struggle, they were finally returning in strength to the Continent. The whole idea of liberating Europe from Nazi oppression naturally produced strong feelings everywhere — among those who took part, among those at home, and of course among the people of the occupied countries longing for freedom.

Consciously or subconsciously, this aspect underlines the coincidence that the 75th anniversary is taking place just as Britain is poised to leave the European Union. Both Brexiteers and remainers search for evidence in the Second World War to justify their own instincts — whether Britain standing alone after Dunkirk for Europhobes, or a need for alliances to defend freedom and democracy in the case of Europhiles. A similar split is of course sharply apparent in America between Trump supporters, who deride the institutions of international co-operation, and his opponents, who are appalled by such an attitude.

We still tend to see D-Day and the fighting in Normandy as a desperate struggle between the Americans and British on one side and the Germans on the other. It was, however, the most multinational clash of the war. A whole Canadian division landed on Juno beach, soon to grow to a corps. French commandos attacked Ouistreham and French paratroopers dropped into Brittany. There were warships and transports from nine nations, while squadrons of aircraft overhead were manned by Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Rhodesians, Poles, French, Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians. The crews of one Coastal Command squadron, guarding against U-Boat attempts to attack the invasion fleet from the Bay of Biscay, contained no fewer than nine nationalities, including a Swiss and two South Americans. A little later in the battle the ground forces in Normandy were joined by two armoured divisions, one French and one Polish. Both would take part in the fighting to close the Falaise pocket in August. Dutch, Belgian and Czech formations would also join what Eisenhower called “the Great Crusade”.

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Allied Chiefs Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, General Dwight D Eisenhower, and Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery, watch tank maneuvers on February 25, 1944 in preparation for the D-Day landings.(Getty Images)

The presence of Donald Trump at the commemorations of what Churchill termed “the Grand Alliance” thus represents a striking paradox. Trump appears oblivious to any such contradiction, which perplexes many, especially the French, for whose main television channel I am doing the commentary of events in Normandy this week. Nobody has done more than Trump to undermine international co-operation and transnational institutions, whether the United Nations, Nato or the European Union. He sees them as a conspiracy of “globalism” — and this at a time when the weakness of western democracies has encouraged the aggressiveness of China and Putin’s Russia.

For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, while for China the humiliations of the Opium Wars and the “unequal treaties” played to their own sense of national resurrection: both have exploited the politics of resentment.

The French themselves had a sense of resentment at the time of the liberation in 1944, partly because few countries love their liberators. But we have failed to acknowledge the real suffering of French civilians during the invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower and the planners of the invasion knew that the greatest vulnerability for the allied armies would come just after they had come ashore, because the Germans would reinforce their troops with panzer divisions as rapidly as possible. They had therefore produced Operation Transportation, a plan to seal off the invasion area by bombing the bridges along the Loire to the south and the Seine to the east, but also by smashing French towns and villages leading to the beaches. The Americans had a sardonic name for this tactic to block key routes with the rubble of houses: they called it “putting the city in the street”.

Churchill was appalled at the likely casualties. He tried to set a limit of 10,000 dead, but this was overruled by Roosevelt at Eisenhower’s insistence. In the end some 15,000 died and up to 100,000 were badly injured and maimed in the preparatory bombing alone. Another 20,000 died during the fighting in Normandy from June 6 to mid-August.

The city of Caen was smashed by heavy bombers first on June 6 and again on July 7. British soldiers watching the spectacle in July, felt the ground beneath their feet “tremble like jelly”. They assumed that the great Norman town had been evacuated, but they were wrong. The squadrons of Lancaster bombers were supposed to have hit the German positions on the northern edge of the city, but by delaying an extra few seconds to be sure of avoiding their own forces, they crushed the historic centre. When asked afterwards what the bombing had felt like, a civilian survivor thought for a moment and said: “Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match.”

In some places, especially Caen, the bombing of the city was not just avoidable, it was even counterproductive, because it slowed the allied advance without harming the Germans. In others the destruction caused when “sealing off the invasion area” certainly slowed German reinforcements and supplies. But the whole question brings out an important paradox. The armies of democracies often end up killing more civilians simply because their commanders are under such pressure from the press and parliament at home to reduce their own soldiers’ casualties that they resort to an excessive use of bombing and shelling. The French Communist Party made great capital out of this in the difficult postwar years, but now most French historians recognise that the suffering of Normandy constituted an involuntary sacrifice that saved the rest of the country.

Rommel first used the phrase “the longest day” to emphasise the fact that the Germans’ only chance of defeating the invasion existed in the first 24 hours. He realised that once the allies were properly established ashore, then the Germans were bound to lose in the end. The enormous air support and naval artillery from the ships anchored offshore would smash any large counterattack. But Rommel’s plan to deploy panzer divisions close to the coast was opposed by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, General Guderian and General Geyr von Schweppenburg. They wanted to hold them back in the forests north of Paris ready to charge north to the Pas de Calais or northwest to Normandy’s beaches. In the event, it was Hitler who insisted on controlling them from the Berghof above Berchtesgaden, Germany, and his staff feared to wake him on the crucial morning of the invasion.

The German infantry divisions in the 7th Army defending Normandy were all understrength, underarmed, undertrained and lacking in transport. They were simply not strong enough to withstand the allied bombardments and attacks. As a result, the panzer divisions, to the horror of their commanders, could not be used in a great counterattack. They had to be split up to act as “corset-stiffeners” among weak infantry divisions. This rapidly turned the invasion into a battle of attrition.

Montgomery’s plan to seize Caen and the land beyond to provide airfields for the RAF never stood a chance. He had refused to listen to the warning of Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan, the original planner of Operation Overlord, that the Germans were bound to concentrate their panzer forces against the British on the eastern flank near Caen. This was because if the allies managed to break through towards Falaise and Paris, then the bulk of Rommel’s forces to the west and on the Atlantic coast would be cut off. By June 10, just four days after D-Day, the allies and the Germans both found themselves stymied.

Instead of the real carnage occurring on D-Day, as had been expected, it came later, and further inland, with British infantry casualties running at 80% higher than estimated. This was a huge concern for the War Office and Montgomery. Churchill began to wonder whether there would be a British Army left by the time they reached Berlin, and how that would weaken their position at the peace conference. During the Battle for Normandy, the fighting could be just as bloody as in Russia. German casualties per division per month were running at more than twice the rate of the overall average on the eastern front.

Soviet propagandists, particularly Ilya Ehrenburg, claimed that the allies in Normandy faced only the dross of the German army. In fact, the British and the Canadians were up against the greatest concentration of SS panzer divisions since the Battle of Kursk.

Winston Churchill with General Eisenhower while strolling along the platform during a halt of the special train in which the party travelled before D-Day on May 15, 1944 
Winston Churchill with General Eisenhower while strolling along the platform during a halt of the special train in which the party travelled before D-Day on May 15, 1944.(Birmingham Post and Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Fighting in Normandy proved far harder than the allies had imagined. They expected the German troops to be demoralised and shaken by the bombing, shelling and air attacks, but bad visibility during that abnormally rainy June greatly reduced the advantage of allied air supremacy. They had also underestimated how the terrain would favour the defender. In the rolling cornfields around Caen, the Germans were able to fortify the solid stone Norman farmhouses and outbuildings. Although soldiers in armoured units talked in hushed tones of the enemy’s Tiger and Panther tanks, the Germans’ most effective defence lay in their 88mm guns used as anti-tank weapons. And in the bocage, the claustrophobic Norman landscape of small fields and thick hedgerows, the Germans were able to inflict heavy casualties on vastly superior forces by digging themselves in well and by their clever use of camouflage.

Another form of casualty came with the very high number of those who suffered from battle shock, aka combat fatigue. The number of psychological casualties on the allied side was very high indeed — some 30,000 cases in the US 1st Army alone. Significantly, both American and British army psychiatrists were struck by the fact that comparatively few German prisoners appeared to be suffering from combat fatigue, in spite of the intense shelling and bombing. This, they concluded, was probably due to Nazi indoctrination over the previous 11 years. A captured German army doctor called Dammann also considered that “German propaganda urging the men to save their Fatherland has helped to keep down the number of cases of neuropsychiatric casualties”.

The German army simply did not recognise combat fatigue as a condition. Their officers would have shaken their heads in amazement at the softness of allied discipline. Their new soldiers arrived at the point of a boot. And if they shot themselves through the hand or foot, they were executed. An obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande Division wrote home on July 15 to say that “Krammer, a capable and brave lad, stupidly shot himself through the hand. Now he is to be shot.”

German units had a rather different problem. A visceral hatred provoked by the deaths of friends in battle, or relatives or girlfriends killed by the allied bombing campaign, produced the phenomenon of so-called verruckte Helmuts or “crazy Helmuts”. Almost every company seemed to have had at least one of these characters who felt they had lost any reason for living, but just wanted to kill in order to gain revenge.

Not all German soldiers were fanatics or members of the Waffen SS. Within ordinary infantry divisions, attitudes could be very different. Eberhard Beck in the 277th Infantry Division wrote that “for us the war had been lost for some time. What counted was to survive.” This was certainly the opinion of many of the older soldiers. “They were more mature,” he explained, “concerned, fatherly and humane. They did not want any heroics.” Beck and his comrades often discussed the right sort of Heimatschuss (literally “home shot”) that would be just serious enough to have them sent back to a hospital in Germany. “My thoughts,” Beck wrote, “were wound, casualty clearing station, hospital, home, the end of the war. I wanted only to get out of this misery.”

The whole question of bravery in battle is a subject of immense importance. There are very few men who are fearless, and some of them may well have had a sort of death wish. The bravest people, of course, are those who overcome their fear. Research carried out in the British Army in Italy shortly before the Normandy invasion indicated that in a platoon of some 30 men, a small handful did most of the fighting, another small group did everything they could to avoid fighting, or even disappear, while the majority in the middle would either follow the fighters if things went well, or in moments of panic would follow the shirkers and run for it.

Montgomery was so appalled by this report that he had it suppressed and the career of Major Lionel Wigram, who conducted it, suffered badly as a result. The basic truth of his conclusions was reconfirmed in other studies in other armies, especially the work of Brigadier General SLA Marshall in the US army. Most soldiers even avoided firing their weapons in battle. Intriguingly, I found in the Russian archives that Red Army officers believed the same was true of their forces. In fact, one highly decorated Soviet officer told the writer Vasily Grossman that weapons should be inspected immediately after a clash with the enemy and any soldier found not to have fired his gun should be executed on the spot as a deserter.

The Germans recognised quickly that the British were very brave in defence but overcautious in attack, which often led to even greater casualties in the long run. There were numerous reasons for this. British military myths had always focused on heroic defence — the squares at Waterloo, the sieges of Lucknow and Delhi, or Rorke’s Drift. Great attacks were seldom celebrated, unless they were disastrous, like the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. But we must also remember that in 1944 the country had been at war for nearly five years, so there was a considerable weariness. And as the end came in sight, men increasingly wanted to survive. They became reluctant to take risks.

Soldiers and NCOs had also become far more politicised than their father’s generation in the First World War. As a result, a trade union mentality influenced attitudes as to what could be expected of them. It produced a demarcation mentality — of not doing anything beyond your own job. British sappers, a Canadian observed, did not believe it was their task to fire at the enemy and infantry refused to help “fill a crater or get a vehicle out of difficulties”. There was little of that attitude in either the German or US armies.

American and Canadian observers were also amazed by the British soldier’s expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks. On D-Day itself, an astonishing number, who felt tired after wading ashore, believed that they had earned a rest simply for having survived the landing. An American liaison officer reported: “There was a feeling among many of the men that having landed, they had achieved their object, and there was time for a cigarette — and even a brew up — instead of getting on with the task of knocking out the enemy defences and pushing inland.”

British tea breaks were not just an American bugbear. “The British Army couldn’t fight for three and half minutes without tea,” a Canadian Glengarry Highlander remarked with cheerful exaggeration. A week later, when part of the 7th Armoured Division attacked Villers-Bocage, troops stopped for a break in the town before throwing out reconnaissance patrols or taking up fire positions. The consequences were disastrous when the SS panzer ace Michael Wittmann charged into the town with his Tiger tank, blasting unoccupied tanks right and left.

On June 6, Trump will be at the impressive American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha beach to celebrate American exceptionalism and the triumph of its might over evil in Normandy. Even though he will be accompanied by President Emmanuel Macron, it is hard to imagine him emphasising international co-operation.

The British commemorations in Normandy during this coming week, on the other hand, will be mercifully free of Saving Private Ryan’s manufactured sentimentality, whether during the service in Bayeux Cathedral or the ceremonies in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. The beautiful simplicity of British cemeteries, especially the one at Bayeux, with 4,648 graves, is the best form of tribute to those who gave their lives in this vital step to the liberation of western Europe.

The very first ceremony on this June 6, however, is to inaugurate the site at Ver-sur-Mer for the British Normandy Memorial. This will commemorate the 22,254 men and women who died under British command during D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. The ground chosen, overlooking both Gold beach and the remains of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, is the perfect position. All the names of the fallen will be engraved on the elegant stone columns to remind future generations of visitors of their combined sacrifice in the liberation of Europe.

The 75th anniversary edition of Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is out now (Penguin £9.99)

To contribute to the Normandy Memorial Trust, visit