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David Irving - "The War Between the Generals"
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April 16, 1981 


Books Of The Times

Date: April 16, 1981, Thursday, Late City Final Edition Section C; Page 21, Column 1; Cultural Desk Byline: Lead:

By Drew Middleton

THE WAR BETWEEN THE GENERALS. By David Irving. Congdon & Lattes Inc. 427 pages. Illustrated. $17.95.

SOMERSET MAUGHAM once wrote that Henry James had turned his back on the greatest event of the 19th century, the rise of the United States to world power, to report the tittle-tattle of London tea parties. David Irving, the author of "The War Between the Generals," has reduced the greatest campaign of World War II to the level of latrine gossip. Text:

This is not the story of how the Allies landed in Normandy, broke out and ultimately drove into Germany. It is a minor account of arguments between the generals who led those armies, of their drinking and womanizing, their jealousies and petty complaints. No one, from Eisenhower and Churchill to minor commanders, emerges unscathed.

Familiar Revelations

Oddly enough, much of what Mr. Irving, a Briton, presents as startling revelation is pretty well known and has been since the generals started writing their memoirs in the 1950's. For example, Sir Alan Brooke's comment that Eisenhower, "though supposed to be running the land battle, is on the golf links at Rheims - entirely detached and taking practically no part in running the war" first appeared in Sir Arthur Bryant's book on Brooke and the war published more than 20 years ago. The author has painted the lily by putting words into the mouths of some of his main characters that serve only to heighten effect.

Although there is a long list of "archival sources," there are no footnotes to connect the quotations with the sources. Moreover, you get the feeling that when Mr. Irving finds a particularly gamy quotation, he rushes it into print without considering the reliability of its source. In fact, without any sourcing indicated, the author has Gen. Omar N. Bradley telling Gen. Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, with far more violence than Smith had ever known from him before, "Montgomery is a third-rate general and he never did anything or won any battle that any other general could not have won as well or better." He may well have said it, but unless there is a reference, we cannot be sure. There is no reference to where and when General Bradley made the statement, no indication from which of the archives it is drawn.

Frequently Mr. Irving is in error. Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull was not Eisenhower's chief adviser but his G-3 (chief of operations), a much different thing. The German resistance on the Western front did not stiffen in April 1945; by that time the German armies were falling apart.

Mr. Irving appears so eager to recount the personal and professional failings of the generals that he fails to give as much attention as he should to the actual course of the campaign. A pity, because when he puts his mind to it, as in his description of D-Day on Omaha Beach, the result is very good. But in general the book is incoherent and uneven. This is especially true when the author deals with some of the important issues.

The chief strategic issue that confronted the Allies after they had erupted from Normandy was between Eisenhower's policy of an advance on a broad front into Germany and the project, advanced by Field Marshal Montgomery and supported by Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, for a single thrust into the heart of the Reich. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., of course, held the same view, although in his planning the thrust was to be made by his Third Army.

This issue should have been treated in a single chapter, because the future course and duration of the war depended on its resolution. Mr. Irving refers to it frequently, but the material is not pulled together or presented coherently.

Another weakness is the treatment of the Battle of the Bulge and the events at American First Army headquarters after the dismal news of the German success began to pour in. The author seems to be ignorant of what happened at First Army headquarters in those critical days.

Mr. Irving is highly critical of almost all the Allied commanders' generalship although, surprisingly and accurately, he pays tribute to Montgomery's original plan for the landing in Normandy. This called for the British advance to pin down the bulk of the German armor, thus allowing the Americans to break out on the right flank. What happened, the author says, was "just the way that Montgomery wanted it."

Only Mortal Men

Mr. Irving's assessment of generalship during the campaign in Normandy suffers from a disposition to think that the Allied plans invariably went wrong. They did not.

The author is correct to draw attention to the serious weaknesses in logistical support that overcame the Allied armies after they had plunged eastward from Normandy and beyond Paris. But again, this was known at the time and reported extensively.

Mr. Irving seems to take a juvenile delight in the sections in which he depicts Patton's womanizing and vanity, Eisenhower's vacillation and Churchill's dramatics. It is as though he expected all leaders to be without fear and without reproach. If he had been closer to his subjects, he would have known that they were mortal men grappling with tremendous problems day after day after day and that, in consequence, they often stumbled and transgressed.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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