/ Published October 23, 2018
Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France by Stephen Alan Bourque. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 376 pp.
Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France is a historical monograph that focuses on the Allied bombing campaigns carried out against German-occupied France with a particular emphasis on the months leading up to Operation Neptune in June 1944. The inspiration for this work struck author and retired Army officer Stephen Alan Bourque during his travels in France. There, he came across a marble plaque at the Metz train station memorializing hundreds of civilians killed in Allied air attacks. With his interest piqued, the author was surprised to find very little historiographical mention of the heavy toll that the Allied bombing raids took on the French civilian population—the sheer scale of the destruction and loss of life inflicted by the “good guys” (p. xi). Beyond the Beach thus begins to fill in the details of the French civilian experience. However, as Bourque notes, this book is a survey, and as such, it is only able to alight briefly on various regions and bombing targets.
In the first chapter, Bourque acknowledges three different perspectives from which to view the Allied bombing campaign over France. The first of these, that of the American and British leaders directing the course of the war, has for decades occupied a prominent place in the academic literature of World War II. The second prevalent perspective is that of the aircrews and operators themselves. The third and most elusive story derives from the experience of the men and women who found themselves living in the shadow of the Allied bombardment. It is this experience that Bourque seeks to describe and place in its context, both enriching and expanding the Operation Overlord/Neptune narrative while reminding the reader of the true cost of war.
Chapter 2 sets the stage for the Allied campaign against France. The author briefly surveys French geography, history, infrastructure, and the national sentiment of the time. Chapter 3 deals with the bureaucratic and political maneuvering behind General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and the development of the policy, strategy, operations, and tactics that were to dictate the air war against France. Bourque divided the following chapters by target type, including airfields and ports, German V-weapon operations, and finally even the towns themselves. The final chapter provides valuable commentary and a broader critical look, in retrospect, at the Allied bombing policies and their value in accomplishing Eisenhower’s objectives.
The goals of this book are quite straightforward. The thesis is simple but not negatively so. The author noticed a gap in the historical record, and Beyond the Beach is the first step in filling that gap. He effectively and dispassionately places the French losses in their historical context through the excellent use of primary source material ranging from personal accounts to official records, to photographs. His endnotes are thorough if not embellished upon, and the bibliography further demonstrates the depth of his research. His use of visual aids is appropriate and particularly appreciated when wading into the muddy waters of the Allied chain of command.
The scope of this book, intentionally limited to a broad overview of the bombing campaign, is both one of its greatest strengths and one of its potential weaknesses. Without similar forays into the subject matter, an overview is a good place to start and a worthy contribution to the historiography of World War II. Such an overview, however, does not lend itself to the deeply personal or emotive history that would appeal to the casual reader. As a scholarly source, Beyond the Beach is highly commendable. Perhaps other scholars will be able to build on the foundation that Bourque has built and delved into the more quotidian aspects of the French experience.
Organizationally, the structure of the book is clear, and the thesis consistently reiterated and supported in each chapter. A similar criticism might be levied in that Bourque repeated the pattern of each chapter, which while driving home the thesis, also meant that each section tended toward predictability, accompanied by a touch of dryness. In the grand scheme of things, however, the topics covered were necessary, clearly pertinent to establishing and supporting the book’s thesis. The author succeeds in keeping the drama to a minimum and allowing the historical record to speak largely for itself. The narrative is pleasantly objective, although one wishes that the author included more of the feelings of those involved in the bombings and not just their actions.
As mentioned above, this book is an excellent contribution to our understanding of the aerial bombing campaign over France in the months and weeks leading up to D-Day. Also, it exposes some hard questions involving the nature and principles of war itself, many of which have no easy answer.
Capt Mallory E. Marlin, USAF
Tinker AFB, Oklahoma
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."