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From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th…

From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division at Brest,…

by Joseph Balkoski

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I wanted to like this book. I really did. I've read BtB, OMAHA, and UTAH, and enjoyed all of them. However, when moving out of Normandy Balkoski seems to have stumbled.

The prose is stilted, disjointed, and repetitive. The same phrases keep appearing over and over, and the same action keeps being described on multiple pages. Balkoski really seems to have struggled with how to build a coherent narrative for the semi-complex situation that 29ID found itself in in Brittany. This is odd, since he handled the far more complex UTAH landings admirably.

The book is populated by cardboard cut-outs, rather than real humans. All the Americans are stern, proud, muscular and tactical geniuses. The Germans are ... totally absent. Only a few senior German commanders are described in any detail, and even those share a homogenous sameness of stereotypical Hollywood Nazi-ness. Only a very few of the German units 29ID encountered are named, otherwise they are bland "heinies". Similarly, the German fighting men that 29ID came up against are little more than faceless fanatical robotic automatons (FJs), or equally faceless but cowering gibbering idiots (navy, airforce, etc).

The sources used appear to have been shallow - it appears primarly what was available in the 29ID museum - and a great deal of use is made of the Divisional newsletter "29 Lets Go" to describe tactical actions. The newsletter is/was little more than a propaganda puff piece - useful for social commentary, but worthless for in depth analysis or for eyewitness reporting. Other commentators we hear from again and again - Cooper of the 110th, for example. While Cooper's commentary is interesting, a greater variety and depth of sources would have made for a more nuanced and credible story. As a result Balkoski makes some grandiose claims that are wholly unsupported.

As a campaign history of Brittany, this book is very nearly useless. There is virtually no mention of the initial clearance of the bulk of the Brittany Peninsular or the other ports, and virtually none on the actions of the other two infantry divisions involved in the clearance of Brest itself. This is a very narrow history of just the 29ID and what it did.

As is usual for Balkoski's books, there are plenty of maps included, but unfortunately these ones are very amateurish. Significant terrain is barely noted, units and movements are very sketchy and imprecise, frontlines are non-existent, and the enemy is notable only by their total absence. There is also no overall map that puts the small scale maps into context - an omission made worse by the lack of topographical detail on those maps.

The photos are little better. Not a lot of thought seems to have gone into them, and they order they are presented seems ... random. The sequence starts with the post-battle celebrations, and finishes with a (very interesting, it must be said) pencil sketch of terrain the Division fought over in the mid part of the battle. In between there are three photos of Ramcke, about six of the U-boat pens, and three or four of the Naval Academy, but none of most of the key US commanders, and very few of key locations. Captioning is generally ok, but the aerial photos could all have used an indication of orientation (ie, "photo taken looking north-east") to assist with understanding what is being shown, and how it relates to the main narrative.

In the end, this is a uninspiring paean to a single division, covering a small part of a large campaign. I realise that this *is* a divisional history rather than a general or campaign history, but for my tastes Balkoski has set his sights too narrowly with this book. Even within that narrow focus, the book is well below Balkoski's usual standards ( )
  JonSowden | Dec 20, 2011 |
While leaning to the popular side this does seem to be a fairly solid account of the "Blue-Grey" Division's involvement in the reduction of Brest. However, I didn't enjoy this work as much as I did the author's previous book on the unit. Maybe it's just a question of my having become a more advanced student of World War II. Also, while the author is welcome to write his book with whatever focus he choses, it would seem that this battle requires a corps-level study to be examined in a coherent fashion. I also really believe that to cite your sources by phrase, as is done here, is rather lame. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jul 2, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811703258, Hardcover)

In this highly anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Beyond the Beachhead, World War II historian Joseph Balkoski follows the U.S. 29th Infantry Division out of Normandy and into Brittany in the northwest corner of France, where the division was tasked with seizing the port of Brest. The Germans, including elite paratroopers, fought fiercely for every inch of ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans during bloody house-to-house fighting. By the time the German defenders surrendered, the Allies had taken other ports, thus rendering Brest nearly useless and casting controversy on the decision to capture it in the first place. Balkoski tells the story of the battle, from the generals who ordered the attack to the infantrymen who slogged through the streets of Brest.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:33 -0400)

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