The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: The Allied Invasion of France 1942-1943

We review an alternative history of what might have been

Published on 6 NOV 2014 11:18am by Paul Robinson
  1. world war ii, western front, background / research material, europe, alternative history, english

The sub-title of this book, The Allied Invasion of France 1942-1943 An Alternative History, gives the game away that this sits in the “Alternative History” genre!  If you are not familiar with this type of book the Author gives an excellent description in the book’s Prologue:

The book is written in every way as if it were a history compiled after the supposed events described herein, although it is technically a fiction since none of this did happen.

So set in a World War Two universe one would recognise with the same historical characters but things have just been mixed up a bit!  This kind of military writing you either enjoy or not. Why, you might ask, write this kind of book in the first place?    Well in this case the Author, Alexander M Grace, contends that had the Allies attacked France from the South earlier in the War than they did in the North West (i.e. Normandy in Operation Overlord) then the War would have finished earlier.  Not only that the Author also believes the post war settlement would have resulted in a significantly different world order.

I have to say that whilst I enjoy the “Future War” type of military fiction I am not a fan of the “Alternative History” genre.  However written well it can have a challenging impact on how you think about the real history of an event or campaign.  So how does Mr Grace do?

The book opens in Chapter One with the Opening Moves and this presents a series of vignettes from this invasion of France from the south in 1942!  This serves to pique the reader’s curiosity as this is clearly not simply Overlord in 1944 moved back two years and shifted to a different geographic location.  Chapter Two, Duelling Strategies, moves us back in time to show how this circumstance comes about and shows where this fiction moves away from the historical path.  There are some similarities with reality-tensions between US military senior staff and the British senior staff on future strategy and the influence of the political leadership of both allies-but you can see the threads of the fates start to weave a different pattern.

The book then basically takes us through the rest of the campaign the Author has imagined for us.  The layout of the book is in a similar vein to the military aspects of a Tom Clancy or a Harold Coyle novel.  We move between the actions of individual characters of different nationalities at various levels of command; this is at sea (and under the sea), in the air and (mainly) on land.  The focus is mostly on the British, American and French main stream forces.  But we also find out about the actions of the Germans, Italians and (at a strategic level) events on the Eastern front.  Some of the characters only get a few short paragraphs before they disappear (sometimes violently) from the pages of the book.  Others we meet at different times throughout the book but there is really no one central character to follow.

It is worth saying at this point that reviewing this kind of alternative history is quite difficult.  This is because a large amount of the interest and enjoyment is reading this as a work of fiction and at the same time looking at where the writing diverts from the historical events.  Therefore some of the real surprises in the book that would make tasty snippets for a review, if revealed, would spoil it for anyone wishing to fully enjoy Mr Grace’s work.  So I am resisting giving some of these “real surprise” away.  I will say however that we move between southern France, to the corridors of power in Italy and Vichy France, the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw and even witness a Special Forces mission attacking allied shipping.

The book, like any similar “proper” (and that word is not meant in a derogatory way) historical work, has a series of black and white photographs showing various personalities, tanks, ships, planes and troops in action.  These have all been very carefully captioned to support the text of the book without denying their actual historical context.

So how successful has the Author been in creating this alternate reality?  Well I for one am not persuaded.  Firstly I think you need to be convinced that the Western allies were ready to launch a large scale Invasion of Occupied Europe (albeit with the help of the Vichy French) in late 1942.  I don’t think they were.  However if you suspend that belief the authors story is credible.  What lets the book down for me is that while on the surface he has created a credible storyline it actually is simply a series of real Second World War events simply re-cast with different units involved and with some changes in the basic geography (and obviously the timings).  So the big German counterattack against the Allies in Southern France is simply a combination of the closing of the Falaise Gap and the Battle of the Bulge.  Similarly with amphibious operations against Italy, different cast and crew, but essentially a lift from the real World War Two.   There are one or two entirely new military operations but again I am not convinced about how realistic they are.  My other main issue is that the Russian Front is something of a cipher that is occasionally mentioned but seemingly having little impact.  I think the author might have successfully explored the real impact on the Eastern front if the allies did land in France in 1942.  The book really only refers to the Germans not being able to move divisions about as they might and that in 1942 their war industry wasn’t as geared up as it was even a year later.

However this is the kind of debate that rages still about the real events of the Second World War and I suspect if this book generates debate about the Author’s basic premise and the theoretical consequences then Mr Grace will be content.

“Second Front” available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $29.95/£18.99 (ISBN 9781612002163) -  http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/title.php?isbn=9781612002163