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Book Reviews

Fields Of Fire: The Canadians In Normandy
(The 1998 Joanne Goodman Lectures)

by Terry Copp
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 344 pages, $40.00
Reviewed by Donald E. Graves

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Book CoverIn Fields of Fire, Terry Copp, a professor at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, sets out to demonstrate that the prevailing wisdom about the Normandy campaign – that the Wehrmacht was superior to its Allied counterparts and was only defeated by superior numbers and materiel – is wrong. Copp believes that the Allied forces performed much better in the summer of 1944 than has been previously acknowledged. Copp suggests that this is particularly true of the Canadians, who the author feels (pp. 13-14) played a role in Normandy “all out of proportion to the numbers of troops engaged” and, though their performance “was far from perfect,” it still compared very favourably with the other Allied armies. This is a very admirable thesis – and a very patriotic one – but it must be proven.

Much of Fields of Fire is based on a series of three lectures Copp delivered at the University of Western Ontario in 1998. The topics of these lectures were “Military History without Clausewitz”, Operation “Spring” in July 1944, and Operation “Totalize” in August. The first lecture, which forms the basis of the opening chapter of Fields of Fire, is both a review of the historical literature on the 1944 campaign, and an account of the preparation of First Canadian Army for battle.

This literary review is engaging and interesting, but Copp does not devote much space (about seven paragraphs in all) to the two seminal works that must be taken into account when discussing the Canadian Army’s performance in Normandy. The first is C.p. Stacey’s The Victory Campaign (published in 1960, not 1962 as Copp would have it). Stacey was the Army’s official historian and Copp implies (pp. 5-6) that Stacey’s critical comments about Canadian soldiers in the summer of 1944, which appeared on pp. 274-277 of The Victory Campaign, particularly the statement (p. 277) that the Germans “contrived to get more out of their training than we did,” are the genesis of the established wisdom that the Canadian performance in Normandy was not as good as it should have been. In this regard, it is unfortunate that Copp (and the other historians who have castigated Stacey on this matter) did not see fit to quote an earlier passage (pp. 274-275) in The Victory Campaign in which Stacey provided the context for his statements:

All the Allied armies committed to the battle had one thing in common: a high proportion of the formations used had never fought before – and those that had fought had operated under conditions very different from those of the North-West Europe theatre. It is probably true, in these circumstances, that all the Allied forces had very similar problems, and the comments upon Canadian formations which follow could doubtless be applied with little change to the British and American forces also. (The emphasis is mine).

The lack of battle experience undoubtedly had its due effect within the Canadian formations. They did well, but they would certainly have done better had they not been learning the business as they fought. It is true that all had undergone exceptionally long and careful training; but no training is entirely a substitute for experience of battle, and no division has ever realized its full potentialities until it has actually been fought and thereby acquired the “battle wisdom” and the confidence that can only be gained in time.

In these succinctly-written and accurate words, Stacey makes his points clearly that the majority of Allied soldiers who fought in Normandy were new to battle and that legitimate criticisms can be made about the performance of all the Allied armies that fought in Normandy, not just the Canadians.

Stacey believed the Canadian soldiers did not benefit as they should have from their pre-invasion training. The important subject of the preparation of First Canadian Army for battle is a major theme in the second seminal work that must be taken into consideration when examining the Canadian record: John English’s 1991 book, The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign: A Study of Failure in High Command. One can agree or disagree with English’s well-researched and well-reasoned study, but one simply cannot ignore it, and, certainly, English’s work deserves more attention than Copp accords it. Rather than undertake a detailed examination of the massive body of evidence that English accumulated to back up his thesis – and then present a careful and organized refutation of that evidence – Copp instead surmises (p. 6) that English, a Canadian regular infantry officer with considerable staff and unit experience, “seems to have shared assumptions about the comparative combat effectiveness of the German and Allied armies that were commonly held in NATO training and doctrine circles.” He then summarily dismisses The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign with the comment (p. 6) that English “decided before he began his research that Canadian performance in Normandy was ‘lackluster’,” and “simply echoed Stacey’s criticisms.” This statement, too, must be put in proper context. English actually wrote (p. 3 of his book) that, in contrast to the record of the Canadian Corps on the Western Front in 1918, “the Norman summer of 1944 appears in retrospect disappointingly lacklustre”. He adds that his own purpose in writing The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign was to answer just why this was so.

The writing of history is essentially a process of accretion – one author takes a subject so far, and then another author either refutes or adds to the first author’s work. When examining Canada and Normandy, Stacey and English are two historians whose work must be discussed in detail – particularly, as is the case with Copp, if an author wishes to change perceived wisdom about a subject. Copp, however, simply sweeps aside the scholarship of the two paramount Canadian historians of the Normandy campaign with a few cursory remarks, and then proceeds to develop a quite different version of the campaign without ever properly addressing – or refuting – their arguments. Copp’s unfortunate failure to ground his work on a solid foundation of historical scholarship constitutes a fatal flaw in Fields of Fire.

It also results in some convoluted reasoning. On the important subject of training, Copp avoids the thorny issue of whether the Army’s preparation in Britain was adequate by simply stating (p. 31) that:

Earlier accounts [e.g. English and Stacey] of the pre-invasion training period and previous discussions of Anglo-Canadian battle doctrine were based on assumptions about inadequate performance in Normandy. Since the argument of this book [Fields of Fire] is that the Canadians and the rest of 21 Army Group fought a highly successful campaign that required flexibility and improvisation, it seems logical to suggest that both officers and men must have learned the essentials of their trade before they entered battle. [The emphasis, once again, is mine]

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It may very well be logical to suggest it – the question is whether or not it was true.

Having commenced with this rather sweeping generalization, Copp then presents his version of Canadian operations in Normandy, one that differs markedly from that presented by other knowledgeable commentators, notably English and Stacey. This should not concern the reader, however, because, as noted in the quote above, Copp starts with the premise that First Canadian Army “and the rest of 21 Army Group fought a highly successful campaign that required flexibility and improvisation.” Saying it is one thing; proving it is quite another. Throughout his account of the campaign (space restrictions unfortunately preclude the reviewer from undertaking a more detailed examination), Copp not only fails to present the evidence necessary to back up many of his claims but also fails to develop a coherent argument that the reader can grasp readily and follow. This is unfortunate because he does present some interesting new interpretations (notably on the use of artillery and tactical aircraft), but they get lost because of the author’s irritating habit of jumping from one subject to another.

Among the claims made in Fields of Fire not backed up by solid evidence is that concerning the heavy Canadian casualty figures in Normandy. Copp states (p. 267) that they came about because Canadian formations were “required to fight more often than their British counterparts,” thus spending “a greater number of days in close combat with the enemy” with the result that they suffered higher losses. If true, this is important new information, but the reader looks in vain for what should be there – a day-by-day comparison between the British and Canadian divisions of the time spent by each formation in combat during the summer of 1944.

Copp also makes some statements so radical that they lead one to question the extent of his knowledge of military organizations. For example, consider his definition (p. 266) of the role of the divisional commander:

The major responsibility of the divisional commander and his staff was to ensure that the formation was prepared for battle, and from a logistical and administrative perspective, the Canadian armies were well served.

Not only is this a confusing sentence, it comes perilously close to reducing the duties of the commander, primarily concerned with the proper co-ordination of all three combat arms, to little more than those of a quartermaster.

In many ways, it is regrettable that Fields of Fire is not better researched and argued. Terry Copp’s purpose – to prove that the performance of the Canadian Army in Normandy was much better than has been previously thought – is a highly laudable one. It’s right up there with hockey and maple syrup in the patriotic firmament. The operative word, however, is “prove” and, in that respect, the verdict on Fields of Fire must be that of the old Scots law: “Not Proven.”

I have one additional critical comment to make about this book. That concerns the poor quality of the maps and the rather thin collection of photographs in Fields of Fire. Good maps are absolutely essential in a work that discusses tactical and operational military history in detail. However, it is very difficult to follow Copp’s discussions of such matters using the poorly-reproduced maps in this book. In addition, most of the two dozen or so photographs have been published many times in previous books. I am fully aware that this may be the fault of the publisher, not the author, but I still think that, in view of the price that the University of Toronto Press is asking for Fields of Fire, they could have made a much better effort in this regard.


Donald E. Graves is a military historian and the author of two books that deal with the Normandy campaign, including the well-received South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War.