Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy by Joseph Balkoski

In Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy, Joseph Balkoski tells the story of the 29th Infantry, a National Guard Division. As Mr. Balkoski shares the story of the “Blue and Gray Division” we start with them in their training camps in Maryland and Virginia. We travel with them across the Atlantic Ocean for their deployment to England. We go with them during their training in England. We feel their loss on bloody Omaha Beach. We experience the stupidity of the continual frontal assaults and prodding of their divisional commander in their efforts to get to the city of St. Lo. We share in the triumphant entry into St. Lo.

We meet and see some interesting personalities along the way. People like General Gehrhardt, General Cota, Major Tom Howie, Glover Johns and Charles Cawthon. We share with them as they endure the training, D-Day and the hedgerow slaughter.

Mr. Balkoski doesn’t just go over old facts and statistics. He gives a graphic description of the initial assaults onto the Omaha landing zone. It is sobering, entire land craft wiped out, whole companies annihilated.

He does a very interesting compare and contrast of the 29th to its German counterpart, the 352nd Infanterie Division. He shows German methods and compares the weapons used by both sides. He explains why the fighting in Normandy was an attacker’s nightmare and a defender’s dream. The maps and photos included are good and provide help in understanding both the terrain and the troop movements.

Joseph Balkoski also has woven a story within the story. It is also the story of the prejudice of the regular army toward the National Guard. We see Guard officers passed over for higher rank. We see a refusal to elevate Guardsmen to higher command when company and battalion commanders are killed or wounded, and the attitude of the division’s regular army commander.

There is still another story told if one reads between the lines. We see American military leadership at the Divisional level willing to permit heavy casualties without any appreciable gains. General Gerhardt is often quoted angrily screaming “Let’s keep pushing”, “We’re going to get to that objective or else”, “Keep pushing them”, “The best defense I know of is to attack”, and “Expend the whole battalion if necessary, but it’s got to get there” even after units take as high as 60% casualties. He points out that the 29th Infantry Division spent 8 weeks in Normandy, and took in 15,000 replacements to maintain the fighting strength of the 14,000 soldier Division. With so many replacements being required the book contains an excellent explanation of the American replacement system.

After reading this book, one is left with a deep respect for the young Americans in the rifle squads who went forward each day, killing and being killed, knowing their chances of survival were low. That the American army performed as well as it did in WWII is a tribute to the courage and tenacity of the guys at the “sharp end of the stick.”