Although a vast literature has covered every aspect of World War II, the war’s length, scope, and intensity mean that authors still manage to find new angles on the same material. Holland adopts a bottom-up approach to the familiar story of the June 1944 Normandy landings and the subsequent fighting on the continent. He shows how the commanders laid their plans and responded to new developments, and he conveys well the sheer scale of the logistical effort and the cleverness of the Allied deception plan. At the heart of the book are the stories of individual people caught up in great events: a teenage German soldier crouching in a bunker watching the Americans land while his confused superiors try to make sense of the invasion, Allied paratroopers dropping into hostile territory, resistance fighters sabotaging German communications, exhausted pilots flying sortie after sortie with little expectation that they would survive much longer, infantrymen scouring the roads and fields for ambushes, a nurse coping with the wounded. The sheer weight of the Allies’ firepower and their command of the air (the Allies flew 14,674 sorties on D-Day; the Luftwaffe flew 80) might make the result seem inevitable in retrospect, but amphibious landings had failed before, and Holland brings to life what a grueling, vicious, and terrifying battle this was.
In contrast to Holland, O’Brien tells his story very much from the top down. Admiral William Leahy was U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s closest adviser on military affairs from early 1942 until Roosevelt’s death, in 1945. (Leahy stayed on to advise President Harry Truman until the end of 1948.) During and after the war, Leahy deliberately kept out of the limelight, content to be known for ensuring smooth processes rather than deep thinking on policy. A dull autobiography, published in 1950, revealed little about his life and work. O’Brien makes a compelling case that this reticence has led historians to miss Leahy’s vital role in shaping U.S. grand strategy during the war and to exaggerate General George Marshall’s part in consequence. The son of a Civil War veteran, Leahy attended the U.S. Naval Academy and rose to the rank of admiral through his professionalism and good judgment, seizing the chance to forge a warm relationship with Roosevelt when the latter was assistant secretary of the navy, from 1913 to 1920. Leahy’s peak influence came during Roosevelt’s last ailing months, when Leahy was virtually the acting president. Although Leahy got on well with Truman, the field of policymaking became more crowded after Roosevelt’s death, and Leahy’s influence declined.
Nagorski focuses on the war’s big decisions, especially those taken during 1941. The book begins with Hitler in control of much of Europe but frustrated by the British refusal to agree to a negotiated peace. He decides to get on with his main project—defeating the Bolsheviks to the east, assuming that once the Soviet Union collapses, the British will come to their senses. Thanks to Stalin’s refusal to heed repeated warnings about Germany’s plans, Hitler almost got away with his boldest gamble, but his troops failed to make enough progress before winter set in. When the German invasion of the Soviet Union began, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at once put aside his deep hostility to the Soviet regime and accepted Stalin as an ally. When another surprise attack, this time from Japan, brought the United States into the war, Churchill knew that the tide had turned. Germany had simply too many enemies to win. This is an old tale, but Nagorski tells it well.