Holger Eckhertz’s grandfather, Dieter Eckhertz, was a wartime correspondent for German army publications such as Signal and Die Wehrmacht (The Army). Shortly before the Allied landings in Normandy, he visited that sector and interviewed quite a number of soldiers while preparing articles for the army’s magazines. After the war, he left journalism, but ten years later he did pursue one final project: finding men who had served in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and interviewing them about their impressions and experiences, their frames of mind and their motivations. The elder Eckhertz passed away in 1955 before he could shape the interviews into any final form.
In 2015 and 2016 the younger Eckhertz published the two books, collected in a single volume in the edition that I read, of interviews detailing, just as the title promises, D-Day through German eyes. After I had read the book and written most of this review, I saw that there are questions of whether it is true or not. Unfortunately, the most prominent places claiming that the book is fiction are outlets such as the New York Post and England’s Daily Mail that at the very least flirt with publishing fiction themselves on a regular basis. On the other hand, the book’s publisher, DTZ History Publications, does not appear to have any other titles on the market. Self-publishing is a totally legitimate way to get to the market in the 21st century, but coupled with the classic framing narrative and lack of any supporting apparatus, I think I have to at least express some uncertainty about the whole enterprise. A little bit of research shows that some reputable books have used Eckhertz’s volume as a source. Checking in on a couple of scholarly locations did not turn up any discussion of the book, which doesn’t say anything either way about the book’s veracity.
Given that I am in Berlin, I suppose that I could clear up this question definitively by checking records. If someone is willing to foot the bill, I could take a few days to do that. But for the rest of this review, I will presume that D-Day Through German Eyes is what it purports to be.
The first half of the book contains five interviews, one soldier from each of the five beaches where the Allies landed: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The second half contains interviews with service members who had different functions: observation post, Luftwaffe pilot, military police, self-propelled assault gun crew, and so forth.
The soldiers’ experiences differed, but definite patterns emerged. The German army expected the Western Allies to invade France and establish a second front some time in the spring or summer of 1944. Up and down the coast, the soldiers were told from March or so onward that an attack could come at any time. Most of the soldiers were glad to be stationed in France because it was much less of a hardship than the Eastern front. Some of the men Eckhertz interviewed were veterans of previous campaigns and were transferred to France because they had been wounded and were not fit for more demanding duties. It is also true that by 1944, the fifth year of the war in Europe, the Third Reich was running low on manpower. Several accounts mention foreign conscript workers, often Poles or Russians, who were compelled to do construction work on German defenses in France.
The days preceding the invasion were like other days of the war, none of the men (and they were all men) interviewed mentions unusual levels of Allied activity until the night of June 5th. Nearly all of them say that the amount of planes flying over France that night was immense. Some saw signs of paratroopers landing, or of gliders bringing in airborne troops. At first light, soldiers who were stationed close to their sea caught an initial glimpse of the invading armada. To a man, they were astonished at its size. The account of Henrik Naube, a corporal in the infantry at Omaha Beach, is typical:
The sea was slightly foggy out there, but I could still see first a handful of shapes, then more, and finally an absolute wall of these grey outlines stretching almost across the whole horizon.
All of us men who had binoculars stood and stared at this apparition, while the other men demanded to know what we were looking at. We handed the binoculars around for a few seconds, and many of the men took a look. Their reactions varied, ranging from curses to a kind of apprehensive laughter, or just silence. …
The whole situation was unfolding in a way that seemed almost like a dream, detached from reality. This great assembly of ships was simply looming out of the sea mist, just getting bigger an bigger, closer and closer, and nothing at all was happening on our side. I could not hear any firing from our coastal batteries further along the coast, and no Luftwaffe aircraft were visible overhead. The sea between us and the ships was completely empty, there was not a torpedo boat or a seaplane or anything. (pp. 46–47)
Air attacks intensified as the landing craft drew near, then stopped as the troops arrived on the beaches. Initially, the German defenders were able to inflict casualties on the Allies, but never enough to come even close to stopping the invasion. Allied technical innovation surprised the Germans: Sherman tanks that could float well enough to deliver themselves directly to the beaches; other Shermans that had great spinning drums with many chains attached, mounted far enough on the front of the tanks to detonate mines without harm coming to the tank itself. The defenders had counted on minefields to steer any invaders into their weapons’ fields of fire. They had also counted on facing infantry, rather than armor.
The Germans, in their accounts, fought fiercely. The interviewees did not hold back in their descriptions of the horrors of combat, and parts of the book are gruesome. Sooner or later, though, all of their positions were overwhelmed. Most of the men interviewed came extremely close to dying that day, some of them several times. Most of them were captured on D-Day.
They were amazed by the scale of the resources that the Allies were able to commit to Normandy. They were surprised that there were no horses in the Allied armies. Fuel was scarce enough in the German war machine by 1944 that horses were routinely used to haul supplies. Allied access to oil meant mechanized, more efficient armies. Allied dominance of the air was total. Time after time in the soldiers’ accounts a momentary respite for German forces would be shattered by the appearance of a Thunderbolt or a Mustang, bombing or strafing. Even the Luftwaffe pilot interviewed in the second half of the book can only say how little he and his comrades were able to do against the Allied onslaught.
The soldiers’ individual personalities come through somewhat in the interviews. None says he was a committed Nazi, though one for example talks about how the American government was controlled by “international finance,” and several are at pains to emphasize Allied missteps that they heard of, such as the bombing of an orphanage. Neither Eckhertz gives any commentary about the reliability of any of the interviewees. Of the thirteen men interviewed, only one alleges serious mistreatment during his time as a prisoner, and he was captured well after D-Day. Most of them report being sent quickly to the beach after their surrender, getting shipped away from the theater of war nearly immediately first to England and then sometimes to America.
D-Day Through German Eyes is short, vivid, and clear about what it covers and what it does not. I appreciated that Eckhertz asked everyone similar questions, so that patterns could emerge even as stories remained individual. The younger Eckhertz gives a minimum of commentary, so someone new to the history will find little support, and not much discussion of larger themes. Eckhertz seems to think that descriptions of trade or intimate liaisons between German occupying forces and French civilians would be controversial, but, at this late date, I am not sure why. The men showed varying degrees of disillusionment with what they had been told about the “United Europe” that they were defending on the shores of Normandy, but in 1954 only one was willing to say that everything he believed during the war was a mistake.
“I understand today that we Germans were not in France to protect the people, we were there only to exploit and persecute them. We should never have been in France, or Russia, Italy, and of those places. The things that we did were appalling … everything was wrong. Why would those Americans hate us so much? Why would they cut our throats and break our necks like animals, in the road, without a word? Well, because they knew the truth of what we were doing, that is why.” (p. 266)