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Nations at war
Balkoski, Joseph. Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999.
Foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose; Preface; map legend; maps; photos;
References; Bibliography; Acknowledgments; Index
Appendix: U.S. and German Tables of Organization and Equipment
Originally published in 1989, Joe Balkoski's terrific book has been out of
print for several years. It's great to have it back.
The new edition contains a few revisions and additions but mostly remains
unchanged and that's just fine. The author's original version was a
near-perfect blend of "what-it-was-like" snippets from veterans,
authoritative descriptions of infantry operations, and thoughtful analysis
of the opposing forces. While Balkoski succeeds in giving the men of the US
29th Infantry Division a first-rate unit history from mobilization through Omaha Beach and St
Lo, he also succeeds in transcending the genre by revealing their failures
and successes as a microcosm of the larger struggle by the fresh and mostly
green American Army against its battered but hardened German opponents.
Not only does Balkoski understand the military aspects of his subject, his strong, graceful prose discloses the depth of his respect for the men
of the 29th Division. Their words and stories play an integral part in his
history without overwhelming the larger historical issues, and it's further
proof of Balkoski's skills as a writer that he can use a few telling
details (such as the "oot" and "aboot" accent of the 29th's Virginians) to
paint such lifelike portraits of his subjects. Which is not to say that his
historian's eye is blind to their faults and shortcomings, or that he
treats the soldiers of the German 352nd Infantry and 3rd Fallschirmjaeger
Divisions with any less dignity or respect.
The author also proves sure enough of his skills to twist the flow of his
story in order to maximize both the drama of the costly landing on Omaha
Beach and the reader's understanding of everything that has led up to
H-Hour. His Introduction opens in England where the 29th boards its
invasion vessels and sets out across the English Channel for the
enemy-occupied shore. The tension rises as the young soldiers board their
landing craft and begin the long run to the beach in conditions of calculated
chaos. Already under fire, with other boatsjammed with friends and comradesblown out of the water around them, the seasick men of the 116th Infantry
Regiment gird themselves as the first wave of landing craft crunch onto the
beach and drop their ramps.
From that climactic moment Balkoski shifts gears and scenes, jumping back
in time to the 29th's mobilization and training. He described the
division's time at Fort Meade, Maryland in 1940 and 1941, its low morale,
the aimless drills and routines, integration of draftees with the National
Guardsmen, and training at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia and Fort Bragg in
North Carolina. The narrative continues through 7 December 1941, and then
Balkoski jumps back in time again to discuss the military heritage of the
This heritage included the 116th Regiment's roots as the 2nd Virginia,
senior regiment of the Stonewall Brigade of Civil War fame. Indeed, the men
of the 116th continue to refer to themselves as the Stonewall Brigade. When
the 29th Infantry was formed with regiments from Maryland and Virginia, it was named "the Blue and Gray Division" for its Union
and Confederate antecedents and it symbolized this heritage with
a distinctive circular blue and gray "yin-yang" shoulder patch. In World
War I the division added to its battle honors with three weeks in the line
during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Balkoski returns to the Second World War at the time of Pearl Harbor to
find the division's wartime morale surging despite a series of unglamorous
assignments and exercises including patrolling beaches from the Outer Banks
to Atlantic City and guarding warehouses, railroad junctions, and docks. In
January 1942 Major Leonard T. "Gee" Gerow assumed command of the 29th. In
March the division was reorganized from "square" to "triangular", with its
176th Infantry Regiment (the "Richmond Blues") departing. In mid-April the
streamlined Blue and Gray departed Fort Meade for another round of
maneuvers at Fort A.P. Hill. In July the division moved to Carolina for
more exercises, and then to a new home post at Camp Blanding in Florida in
In September the 29th's units began moving by train to New Jersey and on
the 26th of the month they began moving to their points of embarkation. On
27 September 1942 the liner Queen Mary slipped past the Statue of Liberty,
taking the first echelon of the 29th to England.
On 2 October, 160 miles from her destination, in an incident that was
hushed up, the Queen Mary picked up an escort of six destroyers and the
cruiser HMS Curacao. Later in the day the cruiser cut across the huge ocean
liner's bow and the Queen Mary sliced the smaller warship in half. Both
sections of the cruiser sank in minutes with 338 sailors lost. The liner,
packed with thousands of troops, followed orders and did not even slow down.
The Queen Mary arrived at Greenock the next day and the Queen Elizabeth on
11 October with the balance of the division. The units moved to Tidworth
Barracks near Stonehenge and quickly began to orient themselves and resume
training. The 29th was one of the first American divisions to arrive in
England and, as one that did not move to the Mediterranean for operations
in North Africa and Italy, by the spring of 1944 had become known
derisively as "England's Own."
In July 1943 Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt assumed command of the
Blue and Gray. Balkoski devotes a large section of his "England" chapter to
describing the new CO and his impact on the division. He was a demanding
officer who wanted his men to look like soldiers, act like soldiers, and
know the business of soldiers. He was also not above petty demands that,
for example, had his aide and divisional cooks scrambling to oblige his
sudden craving to have waffles for his breakfast. Later, the story is
also told how, among the debris and corpses on Omaha Beach, on the morning
of D+1 Gerhardt chewed out a passing GI for dropping orange peels in the
Later in 1943 the 29th also received Brigadier General Norman Cota as
assistant CO. He got along well with Gerhardt and, we're told, was the only
man in the division who could get away with wearing his helmet strap unfastened.
The "England" chapter ends where the Introduction began, with Gerhardt's
men ready to board their invasion vessels and serve as half of the first wave
assaulting Omaha Beach.
In the following chapter Balkoski switches gears again to describe the
German army and its forces occupying France and guarding the invasion
coast. In particular he examines the state of the 352nd Infantry Division,
the formation that would soon be providing a stiff test for the Americans.
Balkoski notes the unusual deployment of the 352nd with a high proportion
of its forces defending the sector least likely to see an enemy landing. He
also explains the siting of obstacles, "resistance nests", and weapons
along Omaha Beach.
In "Men and Guns" Balkoski presents a brilliant essay on small unit
organization, weapons, and tactics for both Americans and Germans. This lucid, well-written exposition should be required
reading for anyone trying to understand the beachhead, bocage, and
breakout. It also serves as an unsurpassed primer on some of the
fundamental differences between American and German ground forces and why
not only the Normandy campaign but the entire war in western Europe in
1944-45 unfolded as it did. This chapter alone is worth the price of
US Army field manuals emphasized the importance of fire
superiority, but in truth, the Yanks found it difficult to achieve without
supporting artillery. American infantrymen simply were not provided with
enough firepower to establish battlefield dominance. Each 29th Division
rifle company of 193 men had only two machine guns, both of which were in
an independent weapons platoon. On the other hand, a German infantry
company of only 142 men had fifteen machine guns. The German company's
firepower was further enhanced by its twenty-eight submachine guns. The
29ers had no weapons of this type. The American rifle company was dependent
on its nine BARs for rapid fire, but these weapons could not stand up to
the MG 42s. Instead of forcing the Germans to keep their heads down with a
large volume of M1 and BAR fire, as the American manuals demanded, it was
usually the Yanks who got pinned.
Even a depleted German rifle company, consisting of no
more than fifty men, commonly covered a 1,000-yard front. Such a sector
would have been considered lengthy for an American company at full
strength. As long as the German company's fifteen MG 42s were functionalwhich required a total of only thirty men (two per weapon)the
Kompaniefuehrer (company CO) was content, for the machine guns were
the linchpins of German tactics. The remaining twenty men would act as
ammunition bearers and lookouts for the MG 42 crews. Thus, on the
defensive, even a skeletal German company proved a tough opponent.
When the Americans run into the 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division later in the
campaign, Balkoski notes an even greater imbalance in infantry firepower:
The Fallschirmjaeger were probably the best-armed
infantrymen in the world in 1944. The Luftwaffe spared no expense in
providing the paratroopers with MG 42s. The 3rd FJ Division had 930 light
machine gunsalmost twice as many as the 352nd and over eleven
times [author's italics] as many as the 29th Division. An American
rifle company had two Browning air-cooled machine guns and nine BARs; a
Fallschirmjaeger company had twenty MG 42s and forty-three
submachine guns. At the squad level, the only source of automatic fire for
the Yanks was a single BAR; in contrast, the German parachute squad had two
MG 42s and three submachine guns. Thus, in a skirmish between equal numbers
of 29ers and the Fallschirmjaeger, the American quest for fire
superiority was doomed to failure.
Is it any wonder many sources condemn American infantry for being "overly
reliant" on artillery support?
The first section of the "D-Day" chapter explains the exact plan for the
landing on Omaha Beach in the sector of the 29th Division, although its
assault elements would be subordinated to the 1st Infantry Division on 6
June. Finally, after his tour de forceand now that we know exactly who
these men are and what they'll be facingBalkoski returns to the moment
he left the assault companies in their landing craft with ramps clanging
down on enemy-held beaches.
At this point the author proves he is also a master of describing the
combat operations of companies, platoons, and small groups of frightened
men. Thanks largely to the efforts of assistant division command Norm Cota,
the Stonewallers of the 116th Regiment, soon supported by their comrades of
the 115th, despite horrendous casualties managed to fight their way off the
beach and into the heights beyond.
Cota continued to energize the 29th on D+1:
Cota was a one-man army again. He spent most of the
morning with the 115th, supervising their mop-up efforts, prodding the men
forward, issuing progress reports to Gerhardt. During the fighting near St
Lauren, Cota came across a group of infantrymen, pinned by a few obstinate
Germans in a nearby house. Cota sought out the man in charge, an infantry
captain, and asked why the men were making no attempt to take the building.
"Sir, the Germans are in there, shooting at us," the captain replied.
"Well, I'll tell you what, captain," said Cota,
unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. "You and your men start shooting
at them. I'll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully.
I'll show you how to take a house with Germans in it."
The astonished captain watched as Cota led his little
group around the house to a nearby hedge. Suddenly, the general and his
group raced forward, screaming like wild men, hurling grenades in the
windows. Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a few more
grenades inside, waited for the explosion, and then disappeared into the
house. As the rest of Cota's team followed him inside, the Germans streamed
out the back and ran for their lives.
Cota returned to the captain. "You've seen how to take a
house," said Cota, still out of breath. "Do you understand? Do you know how
to do it now?"
"Yes, sir," the captain replied meekly.
"Well, I won't be around to do it for you again," Cota
said. "I can't do it for everybody."
Leavened with brief, to-the-point quotes from veterans of the 29thrather than overwhelmed with lengthy tales that don't add to the storyBalkoski's narrative follows the Blue and Gray division through the bocage
fighting where time and again the 29th's operations ("ill-conceived,
ill-planned, and ill-executed" in the words of Norman Cota) led to heavy
casualties among unsupported companies and battalions at the hands of
steadfast German defenders and their deadly MG 42s. 2nd Battalion of the
115th was ambushed while sleeping along hedgerows without having dug
themselves foxholes. The 175th Regiment was "roughly handled on June 12 and
13...[t]wo companies were decimated, one was almost annihilated, and a regimental CO...was presumed dead..." when attempting to cross the Vire.
Whether Gerhardt and his soldiers recognized it at the time, the book makes
it clear the infantry was being frittered away in uncoordinated and
unsupported movements and attacks. "In only eight days of combat, the
division had suffered 2,400 casualties17 percent of its authorized
Despite heavy losses while in the process of unlearning some questionable
tactical doctrine and discovering the realities of grappling with the enemy's
intense automatic weapons firepower, Gerhardt's men gradually gained the
upper hand as they repeatedly pushed forward and inflicted irreplaceable
losses on the dwindling German defenders. The "one squad, one tank, one
field" doctrine for breaking through the bocage eventually winkled the
352nd Infantry and 3rd Fallschirmjaeger from one position after another.
Despite dispersed forces, uncoordinated movements, and failure to exploit
local successes, the Americans
managed to seize St Lo, the objective long denied them, on 18 July.
By that time there was only a dwindling number of original 29ers still with
The old-timers sarcastically referred to Gerhardt as a
corps commander rather than a division commander. "He has a division in the
field, a division in the hospital, and a division in the cemetery," the men
used to say.
Painful and costly though the campaign proved to be, the 29th persevered
and emerged victorious. After forty-three days of combat from Omaha Beach
to St Lo, the division was granted eight days of rest before joining the
battle once more. The final scene, a description of the 29th Division
memorial service at the new American cemetery near Omaha Beach on 23 July
1944, provides a moving conclusion to the account.
Beyond the Beachhead is outstanding, an engrossing book by an
author who knows and respects his subject. Balkoski succeeds in educating
the reader about the nuts and bolts of organization, tactics, and weapons
while simultaneously providing a dramatic, entertaining story of men in
combat. Highly recommended.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Stackpole Books.
Thanks to Stackpole for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 26 March 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone