No recent historian is more qualified to document the combat history of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II than Joseph Balkoski. As Command Historian of the Maryland National Guard, his prior effort, _Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy_...
No recent historian is more qualified to document the combat history of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II than Joseph Balkoski. As Command Historian of the Maryland National Guard, his prior effort, _Beyond The Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy_ (1989) is considered by many as a classic account of that division''s actions on D-Day through the bitter struggle for St. Lo. His office, the Fifth Regiment Armory Building in Baltimore, Maryland houses every conceivable primary source relating to the 29th Division in World War II. His recent D-Day contributions: _Utah Beach:_ and _Omaha Beach:_ which rely heavily upon oral history testimonies of veterans of all ranks have been well received. His latest release, _Beachhead to Brittany_ by Stackpole Books follows many of the same stylistic formats as his previous books, which tends to dull the historical labors of its author, a point that will be explained further.
Anyone interested in the post D-Day campaigns in Northwest Europe during World War II cannot ignore this work. Only one other author in recent memory, Jonathan Gawne, has tackled the Brittany Campaign (see my review of _1944 Americans in Brittany: The Battle of Brest_). Anyone interested in the 29th Division or who had a relative serve in this outstanding unit also cannot ignore this book. The significance of this book cannot be over stressed.
In his Preface, Balkoski admits this narrative tells of the liberation of the French port of Brest "from the perspective of the 29th Infantry Division." At times, the author unwittingly places the 29ers in a vacuum, and gives the sense that the 29th Division faced not only the brunt of the forty-four day struggle, but that its commander, Major General Charles H. Gerhardt was instrumental in many of the major command decisions of the entire campaign. Balkoski handles the cooperation of the 29ers with attached units such as the 5th and 2d Ranger Battalions, and even a British Tank regiment of Crocodile flame thrower tanks admirably, but bogs down a bit conveying how Gerhardt, and his division fits into the overall scheme of this complex campaign. Likewise, some of his concluding analysis of the overall controversy of why Brest was ultimately abandoned after capture could have been placed in a more detailed Introduction to better prepare his readers. These minor flaws pale in comparison to Balkoski''s masterful compelling combat narrative that flows evenly from the division War Room tent to the squad''s foxhole. It''s obvious the author''s heart is close to this division, and as with _Beyond the Beachhead_, does his subject justice.
This reviewer firmly believes that an historian/author and his/her publisher should work together as a team. Either the publishing house Balkoski has loyally chosen for the past two decades is not holding up its end, or Balkoski has simply outgrown them. Twenty years ago when I first read _Beyond the Beachhead_, I was not very concerned with historical methods. Thumbing through footnoted sources to see where an historian culled his facts and information did not interest me as much as a compelling read. That has changed. Balkoski surely can deliver a compelling read, but his methods need a major overhaul. Choosing to incorporate a confusing citation format of bold print and half italicized fragments in all his published works rather than the numbered Chicago style only lessens the author''s credibility as a serious military historian. Known for his use of simplified maps since _Beachhead:_, recent computer generated maps have become dumbed down to a fault. Even something as petty as numbered sub-headings (eliminated in _Utah:_ and _Omaha:_ but back again in _Brittany_) should be red-penned out by an alert editor. If a publisher does not take history seriously enough to insist upon some basic house-cleaning it''s time Balkoski dumps this publisher. Encouraged to utilize more stringent academic historical methods, Balkoski will undoubtedly take his well deserved place among today''s best military historians.
The significance of _Beachhead to Brittany_ far outweighs its stylistic flaws, and warrants a strong recommendation with four-stars.