Friday, August 29, 2008

Normandy to Victory

A major World War II diary is about to be published for the first time. It chronicles the activities of General Courtney Hodges and the First US Army from D-Day to the German surrender, and, according to the publisher, offers ‘an intriguing glimpse into the personalities and operations of Allied military leaders’. Although the diary has not been published hitherto, it was used extensively in a biography of Hodges. For an insight into the enemy, albeit at a political rather than a military level, see the diary of Galeazzo Ciano.

Normandy to Victory has just been published by University Press of Kentucky in the US (Amazon) and is due out in the UK (Amazon) on 1 September. It’s subtitled, The War Diary of General Courtney H. Hodges and the First US Army, but the writing is credited to two of his aides - Major William C. Sylvan and Captain Francis G. Smith Jr. - who recorded daily entries, which Hodges reviewed and approved. According to the publisher, the book chronicles Hodges’ ascent to Commanding General in August 1944, as well as his viewpoints on strategy and the enemy; and it follows Hodges and the First Army ‘through savage European combat until the German surrender in May 1945’.

During World War II, officers were encouraged to record their everyday activities and those of their units, and this diary, about Hodges and the First Army, the publisher says, is one of ‘the most important’. Only available to researchers until now, retired US Army officer and historian, John T Greenwood, has edited the entries for a more general readership. However, the publisher stresses that Hodges’ aides were not privy to the top-level discussions with Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and others, and so the diary mostly recounts ‘on-the-ground’ details.

A release from University Press of Kentucky on 22 August gives more details. It says the diary opens on 2 June 1944, as Hodges and the First Army prepare for the Allied invasion of France, and closes on 7 May 1944 with a representative of the High German Command signaling surrender of all German land. It highlights the crucial role that Hodges’ Army played in the execution of Northern European battles, ‘being the first army to cross the German border, the first to cross the Rhine, and the first to close to the Elbe’ which enabled it to spearhead successful operations for the troops who followed.

Although the promotional material for the book does not include any extracts from the diary itself, Stephen T Wishnevsky used the diary extensively for his biography - Courtney Hicks Hodges - published in 2006 by McFarland. Many pages from this are available to view on Googlebooks. Here is an extract which includes a bit of the Hodges diary.

‘One visit to the 30th led ‘the General’ as Sylvan referred to him, to remark that there were two kinds of offices, ‘the quick and the dead, and he preferred to be among the former.’ On that visit, shells screamed overhead, and Hodges and his aide were close enough to hear the short range ‘Screaming Meanies’ and the crackle of small arms fire. On this day there was a briefing at Montgomery’s HQ, with Patton in attendance. He scowled in his diary, ‘Monty went to great lengths explaining why the British have done nothing.’ ’ And here’s another snippet from later on in Wishnevsky’s book: ‘There is no evidence he [Hodges] ever took a whole day off and the War Diary records only two evenings he didn’t work until midnight.’

For a first-hand view from the other side in the conflict, one can turn to Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, who left a good set of diaries. Having married Mussolini’s daughter Edda, Ciano rose to become a member of the Fascist Supreme Council, then secretary of state for press and propaganda, and eventually minister of foreign affairs. In 1939, he signed the Pact of Steel with Germany’s Joachim von Ribbentrop. The Diary Junction provides more information on Ciano and links to his texts. Here, though, is an example from the diaries, from 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbour:

‘A night telephone call from Ribbentrop. He is overjoyed about the Japanese attack on America. He is so happy about it that I am happy with him, though I am not too sure about the final advantages of what has happened. One thing is now certain, that America will enter the conflict and that the conflict will be so long that she will be able to realize all her potential forces. This morning I told this to the King who had been pleased about the event. He ended by admitting that, in the long run, I may be right. Mussolini was happy, too. For a long time he has favored a definite clarification of relations between America and the Axis.’

More authoritative information about World War II diaries (and other sources), however, is available from World War II Plus 55, a website run by American journalist, David H Lippman. In a discussion on methodology for his history articles, for example, he refers to a number of original diary (and other) sources. This is Lippman on Ciano’s diary. ‘[His] cynicism is brutal and raw, revealing the tawdry nature of the Fascist state and its drive for empire at the expense of others. The diaries were intended as Ciano’s blackmail weapon when he was arrested for helping to overthrow Mussolini, but they did not save his life. Instead they stand as a testament to the aggressive and incompetent leadership of the Fascist regime.’

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