#Reviewing Beyond the Beach

Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France. Stephen Alan Bourque. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

How did it come to pass that Allied air power killed more than 70,000 French civilians during the Second World War? This is the central question that animates Stephen Alan Bourque’s provocatively titled Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France. Bourque, professor emeritus at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and author of two books on the Persian Gulf War has produced an ably written, admirably thorough, and even-handed account despite an ever-present temptation towards polemic. Beyond the Beach is an essential addition to our understanding of the battle for France, these deaths, generally glossed over as “collateral damage,” profoundly shaped the French attitudes towards and understanding of the war. The work’s only shortcoming is that it teases but does not pursue many of its most interesting implications, leaving future scholars to build on its foundations.[1]

The air war against France had its genesis in Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe in mid-1943. Eschewing his subordinates preference for strategic bombing, he placed the forthcoming invasion of France at the center of Allied air planning. Whatever air support ground commanders might need to ensure the landings went off without a hitch, Eisenhower would make sure they got it.

Having established the aims of the Allied air war in France, Bourque spends the bulk of Beyond the Beach covering the nuts and bolts how that war was waged. Eight chapters describe the bombing of airfields and ports, rail and industrial centers, bridges, towns, and targets in direct support of the landings themselves. Also included in the discussion are the bombings conducted under the aegis of two broader operations, Fortitude (1943-1944) and Crossbow (1943-45). The former sought to support the landings by deception, directing German attention towards a non-existent landing force by targeting the Pas-De-Calais. The latter was a diversion of Allied resources, the use of air power to thwart German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks against England by targeting launch sites in northern France.

Where another history might have focused solely on a military assessment of the air war, gauging its effectiveness at advancing Allied war aims or its efficiency in destroying German forces, Bourque chooses quite another metric: its costs in innocent dead. The deaths of French civilians are the drumbeat marching us through the bombings. Sorties flown, the number of bombers over the target, and the tonnages dropped are relentlessly translated into train cars full of commuters immolated, desperate, frightened people buried alive in rural bomb-shelters, children digging through the rubble of their homes for dead parents, and dazed, survivors carrying the lifeless bodies of their kin through urban infernos.[2] Bourque makes the destruction of vengeance weapon launch sites as part of Crossbow inextricable from the roughly 7,000 innocent lives (including countless slave laborers imported by the Germans from the East to build and maintain them) cut short to achieve the goal. Likewise, he paints the efforts to shut down all rail traffic in northern France as hopelessly entwined with the deaths of 16,000 more.[3]

This attention to the human costs of war separates Beyond the Beach from more traditional histories of airpower or conventional accounts of the fighting in Normandy, and makes it more akin to a new body of scholarship coming to the fore that highlight the excesses of Allied forces, particularly in France. In that regard, Bourque’s work has much more in common with the scholarship of Mary Louise Roberts or J. Robert Lilly’s work on rape in the American army, John Tirman and Peter Schrijver’s work on civilian casualties, or the new wave of popular histories that have emphasized the dark side of the Allied war in Europe than it does the U.S. Army’s official history of the war. Indeed, Bourque squarely situates his work as a salvo against the mythic Good War, the "pure and noble cause" retold in histories that serve more as "triumphant marches" than honest assessments, and “rarely discuss unpleasant aspects of the conflict like prisoner mistreatment, soldier misconduct, or the killing of civilians and the destruction of their homes.” By restoring the fates of French civilians killed by Allied bombs to the historical record, Bourque hopes to reverse some of the "modern sanitization" of the Second World War.[4]

But it is in explaining the significance of the failure to grapple with the human cost of the bombings that Beyond the Beach falters. Having demonstrated the devastation wrought on France by Allied bombardment, deftly integrated French sources, and interwoven the careful, painstaking work of local historians in piecing together the stories of communities devastated by the bombings, Bourque has little to say about why this narrative has thus far received little attention—and more importantly why that matters. Indeed, despite framing the story of the Allied bombing of France as “A Missing Narrative,” Bourque has surprisingly little to say about why that narrative is missing or what its absence says about how historians and other observers understand the war.

On these questions, the reader is largely left to puzzle out their own answers. Certainly, for the older generation of more triumphalist historians, often heavily reliant on official histories, there seems little to explain. Seventy thousand French dead were an awkward and unpleasant reality best left unmentioned. But why then the short treatment of the topic from more recent accounts that show little hesitance about facing such unpleasant facts?

On this question Bourque is silent, but even a cursory look at the scholarship challenging the idea of the Good War in the West suggests Beyond the Beach differs from its contemporaries on a fundamental level. Those challenging the Good War narrative have overwhelmingly focused on the morally inexcusable aspects of the Allied campaigns. John Tirman’s The Deaths of Others serves as a useful example of the broader trend. Tirman’s treatment of civilian casualties caused by the American military in the Second World War deals solely with the strategic bombing campaigns against Japan and Germany, focusing heavily on the firebombings of cities like Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[5] It is noteworthy that one of the key points of argument surrounding the issue of strategic bombing, particularly in the debate on the American use of nuclear weapons, is whether the use of indiscriminate force against civilian populations was effective and justified in bringing the war to a quicker end. Those opposed to the idea of the Good War almost uniformly argue that these campaigns were ineffective and unnecessary, the needless killing a moral blot on the Allied cause.

Bourque does not have the luxury of unequivocal condemnation, and in this his scholarship is more deeply challenging to both the narrative of the proponents of the Good War and their interlocutors. Indeed, Beyond the Beach is in many ways a testimonial to the stunning effectiveness of the Allied air campaign in France. Allied air attacks had reduced the number of German fighter aircraft available to oppose the landings to an insignificant 170 (against an Allied fleet of 5,600), while the campaign against the Seine bridges held up German supplies and reinforcements for crucial days while leaving those assets vulnerable to further air attack.[6] The campaigns against the vengeance weapons were similarly successful, with the German military “[un]able to launch a single rocket” from sites in Normandy, resulting in a “three-month delay in V-1 flying bomb launches and as much as a six-month delay in deploring the V-2 rocket,” a result Bourque deems “crucial to the ultimate Allied success.”[7]

For those parts of the air campaigns Bourque deems more questionable, namely the attacks on rail centers in major urban areas and in direct support of the landings, his issue is with the methods and the cost-to-benefit ratio. Attacks on rail centers, he argues, could have been more restrained, making greater use of Resistance assets to minimize civilian casualties, while the decision to all but instruct bombers to overshoot their targets on the beaches for fear of friendly fire could have been fixed with a better timetable and a greater tolerance for risk. In neither case were the targets devoid of military value, nor was there any question that effective bombing of such targets would have increased the odds of the landing’s success. Only in the case of twenty-six towns near Caen and in the vicinity of St. Lo is he unequivocal in condemning Allied leadership for dropping bombs in a manner both reckless with French lives and without reasonable hope of securing military advantage.[8] 

Beyond the Beach offers its readers an unusually challenging narrative. The Allied bombings in support of the Normandy landings were, by and large, militarily effective and, if not necessary, at least reasonable efforts to gain crucial advantages for an unprecedented and risky amphibious operation. Yet these bombings were, by dint of the inaccuracy of the era’s heavy bombers and the populated areas where their targets were located, incredibly costly in human life. There is no simple way out of the dilemma Bourque presents. This is not a matter of eschewing nuclear weapons or the deliberate targeting of civilian populations with incendiaries. It requires us to confront the fact that even in an operation as militarily necessary as Overlord in a war against as clear cut an evil as Nazi Germany, those on the side of right will inevitably be stained with innocent blood. Beyond the Beach does not confine itself to the question of whether the Second World War was  Good War. Instead, Bourque quietly asks his readers a far bleaker question—whether any war, no matter how necessary, can be anything other than an atrocity.

Benjamin M. Schneider is a doctoral candidate in history at George Mason University and a dissertation fellow at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. He is currently working on a dissertation examining the army’s trials of U.S. troops for war crimes during the Second World War.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Aerial view after the bombardment in Vire, Normandy, 1944 (Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie/National Archives/Wikimedia)


[1] Stephen Alan Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[2] Bourque, 188.

[3] Bourque, 131–32, 178–79.

[4] Bourque, Beyond the Beach, 5–8.

[5] Tirman, The Deaths of Others, 50–58.

[6] Bourque, Beyond the Beach, 78–79, 204.

[7] Bourque, 132.

[8] Bourque, 161-162, 178-179, 226-230, 232-233