Al's Reviews > Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy

Beyond the Beachhead by Joseph Balkoski
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4.5 stars.

This book was a surprise, in a positive way. When I started it, I thought that this was going to be a so-so account of the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, but it turned out to be very good, in part due to the prose of the author and the organization of the text.

“[The 29th] was in combat for 242 days. Total casualties were 28,776. The percent of turnover for the division as a whole—including staff, support elements, artillery units—was 204.” This quote from the forward takes on significance as Balkoski describes the unrelenting combat and misery of operations in the Bocage.

This book is superbly organized; Balkoski describes the call up of the division in Virginia and Maryland, and how they trained until their deployment to England in the fall of 1942, and their subsequent training in England leading up to Overlord. The attention to detail is amazing, and this along with a tightly organized text is key to the excellence of this book. Balkoski uses first person interviews and vignettes to illustrate his points about the fighting, or the influence of key personalities. Another strength of this book is that Balkoski describes the capabilities of the 29th Infantry Division and their opponents, the German 352nd Infantry Division and the 3rd Parachute Division, side by side, from squad level all the way to division level. He also includes an easy to read MTOE table at the end of the book covering these three divisions.

Another aspect of this book which makes it a great read is Balkoski’s detailed description of the combat operations of the 29th as they sought to capture St. Lo. He includes plenty of maps with unit locations down to the battalion level, and intersperses personal stories which changes this from a dry unit history to a truly compelling read. As an example, Balkoski describes an incident involving the 2nd BN 115th Infantry. After continuous movement and fighting among the hedgerows, the unit was to pause for the evening.

“The Army’s cardinal rule about digging a foxhole before going to sleep was ignored that night. Whole platoons slumped against hedgerow embankments, and most men were asleep within minutes….From behind every hedgerow, MG 42s and submachine guns opened fire on the slumbering Yanks. Mortar rounds fell into the pastures every few seconds….The 29ers never stood a chance. With no time to set up a coherent defense, [they] ran to and fro looking for a way to escape the death trap, but the Germans on top of the surrounding embankments could easily pick off the Yanks…. As Gerhardt [the division commander] listened, he became enraged. “No security!” he screamed. “They just went into the field and went to bed!””

The intensity of the fighting in Normandy is shown by the fact that from 6 June to 14 June the 29th suffered 2400 casualties, which was 17% of its authorized strength. By mid-July, the toll was much higher. Riflemen accounted for 37% of the division’s strength, but accounted for over 90% of the division’s casualties. Most of the rifle companies that landed on D-Day went through almost a complete turnover in personnel. The battle for St Lo itself cost the division more casualties than it suffered on Omaha Beach.

“In March 1945, when the 29th Division was momentarily in reserve, the 115th Infantry was scheduled to receive a Distinguished Unit Citation. General Gerhardt wanted each company guidon to be carried by a member of that company who had served with the outfit on D-Day. Half the regiment’s companies could produce only a handful of such men. The other companies—mostly rifle companies—could find none. Every single G.I. in these units had joined as a replacement.”

Balkoski also gives a good description of the replacement system of both the German and American armies, and illustrates how key leaders were replaced when they became casualties. He points out that by the occupation of St Lo in July 1944, the 29th Infantry Division had rendered the German 352nd Infantry Division and 3rd Parachute Division combat ineffective through personnel and equipment losses.

Balkoski packs an amazing amount of detail into this book, which is only 294 pages. His writing style and organization of his material made this possible, and the result is a compelling, fast paced narrative which went by all too quickly. I highly recommend this work for those who want to find out what fighting in the Bocage was like for both German and American units.
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Reading Progress

December 5, 2012 – Shelved (Hardcover Edition)
December 5, 2012 – Shelved as: military-history (Hardcover Edition)
June 1, 2016 – Started Reading
June 1, 2016 – Shelved
June 22, 2016 – Shelved as: military-history
June 22, 2016 – Finished Reading

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