Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

06 June 2024

D-Day: from memory to commemoration


This post highlights a small selection of the many books published in the last two decades and available in the Library that bring a contemporary approach to the history and understanding of D-Day and the battle for France.


Timeleft between us

In The time left between us, by Alicia DeFonzo, Lincoln : Potomac Books (University of Nebraska Press), 2022, shelfmark m22/.11296, the author explores the link between past and present through her grandfather’s experience of D-Day and fighting in France.


To coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, BBC2 has screened a groundbreaking documentary series, D-Day: The Unheard Tapes (available on iPlayer). The series brings to life audio interviews with those who fought by using actors who resemble the speaker at the time of the war to lip-synch to the recordings.  The use of actors bridges the gap brought by time and gives a contemporary feel to the recordings, many of which have not previously been heard beyond the archives where the tapes are held. The series, accompanied by a new book – one of many focusing on D-Day to be released this month – highlights the way these events are passing from the testimony of living witnesses into cultural history. 


Both the programme and the accompanying book offer new insights, and show that there are new and different ways of approaching history both to make it meaningful to younger generations and to re-examine established narratives to draw out different aspects and understandings. This post focuses on some of the books currently available to readers in the Library’s reading rooms that have been published in recent years that bring a contemporary approach to the telling of social history.  Some of the books featured in this post bring to the fore different perspectives on the invasion, others consider how a younger generation can relate to these events, and some examine the social and political implications of the commemoration of war and of D-Day itself.       


The selection of books highlighted are among those that are held in print format and should currently be available to readers in the Library’s reading rooms.  Most are held at our St Pancras site whilst a couple are held at our site at Boston Spa in Yorkshire.  Some books held in Yorkshire are now available to readers, although those held in automated storage cannot yet be accessed following the cyber incident last year.  Just under half of our current intake of books published in the UK come to us in digital format, and access to these has not yet been restored, so they are also excluded from this selection of books.  An update on the restoration of services can be found on our Knowledge Matters blog.


And so to the books we can make available to readers...   Pictured above, Alicia DeFonzo’s The time left between us blends memoir, history and oral story-telling. DeFonzo, who lectures in English at Old Dominion University in Virginia, retraces her grandfather’s steps through France and Germany and weaves his account of his experiences in wartime Europe into her own memories to understand the relationship between past and present.  Her grandfather’s memories – passing from the Normandy landings to the liberation of concentration camps - become part of her own history.  Starting from the realisation that she knew almost nothing about this history and that her grandfather had not previously related these experiences – she arrives at an understanding that she has a part to play in safeguarding and transmitting memory.


Jonathan Mayo

D-Day minute by minute, by Jonathan Mayo. London : Short Books, 2014. YC.2015.a.763


A more straightforward, fast-paced, and highly accessible account of events is offered by Jonathan Mayo’s D-Day minute by minute, London: Short Books, 2014 (shelfmark YC.2015.a.763).  In just over 300 pages, Mayo’s book draws on a wide range of personal narratives to construct a detailed account of events as they were experienced not only by those who fought but by many people impacted by these crucial events, from French villagers and journalists, to schoolchildren and nurses.  Mayo’s book focuses not on military strategy but on the human experience of involvement in shaping the course of history.



James Holland

Normandy '44 : D-Day and the battle for France: a new history, by James Holland, London : Bantam Press, 2019, YC.2020.a.1072


A similarly broad range of experiences is brought to the fore in James Holland’s Normandy ’44: D-Day and the battle for France.   Holland uses archival research and eyewitness testimonies from around the world to re-examine established narratives of the invasion, bringing out the human aspect of the conflict as well as differing perspectives, with accounts from civilians and resistance fighters as well as military personnel.



Forgotten: the untold story of D-Day's Black heroes, by Linda Hervieux. New York, HarperCollins, 2015. Shelfmark  m15/.11728


Blending social history, biography and an account of military events is Linda Hervieux’s book, Forgotten: the untold story of D-Day's Black heroes (New York: HarperCollins, 2015, Shelfmark  m15/.11728).  The book focuses on the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, a unit of African-American soldiers within the racially-segregated US forces involved in the assault on the beaches. Using military records and interviews with surviving members of the battalion and their families, Hervieux highlights the sense of freedom these men gained in Europe and in England in the lead-up to the invasion. The book notes the lack of recognition accorded to these men and the denial of military honours after the war. The disparity between their experiences in Europe and the segregation and injustice they faced at home was an important backdrop to the emergent civil rights movement.


Breath of freedom

A breath of freedom: the civil rights struggle, African American GIs, and Germany, by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. YC.2013.a.5132


This theme is shared by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke’s book, A breath of freedom: the civil rights struggle, African American GIs, and Germany, which explores the social and historical impact of serving in Europe for African American servicemen and how this fed into activism within the civil rights movement.  Although not focused specifically on D-Day, it is one of a number of books to consider the wider social and political aspects of participation in the fight to bring to an end to the German occupation of Europe.  This is explored in a more recent work by Sandra Bolzenius, Glory in their spirit: how four black women took on the Army during World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), shelfmark YD.2022.a.1758.  The book records a strike against discriminatory work assignments by four African American female privates serving in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in 1945.  At the time, their well-publicised protest “pushed the army's segregation system to its breaking point”.



Sylvia Wild

Woman at the front: memoirs of an ATS girl: D-Day to 1946, by Sylvia Wild, Stroud: Amberley 2012. YK.2013.a.3983

Returning to different perspectives and experiences of D-Day itself, is Sylvia Wild’s first-person account, published in 2012, of her service in the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a shorthand typist working for the Senior Royal Engineer officers developing the D-Day plans concerning ports, docks, harbours and railways as part of Operation Overlord.  Her service continued in France, where she lived in French households as transport services were reinstated in France, Belgium and Germany.  Her first-hand account could be read alongside the very different experiences of the 39 women who served in France within the Special Operations Executive working undercover to support the French Resistance. Their story is recounted in Kate Vigurs’ Mission France: the true history of the women of SOE, published in 2020 by Yale University Press, shelfmark YC.2022.a.4932.




German eyes

Normandiefront: D-Day to Saint-Lô through German eyes, by Vince Milano and Bruce Conner. Stroud: Spellmount, 2012. Shelfmark YK.2013.a.1164)


A different perspective on the fighting, based on interviews with, and the testimony of, German combatants in 352 Division is offered by Normandiefront: D-Day to Saint-Lô through German eyes, by Vince Milano and Bruce Conner (Stroud: Spellmount, 2012, shelfmark YK.2013.a.1164).  Through the course of their work over many years, the authors collected German and Allied photographs and documents, many of which had not previously been published.  Although focused more on the course of the battle than on the feelings of those involved, the book gives an insight into a very different experience of how events unfolded.




100 locations

D-Day UK: 100 locations in Britain, by Simon Forty, Swindon: Historic England, 2019, shelfmark YC.2020.b.320


The preparations for D-Day and the way that they involved a wide range of people from across the country is the focus of D-Day UK: 100 locations in Britain, by Simon Forty (Swindon: Historic England, 2019, shelfmark YC.2020.b.320). It is one of a number of books to consider the planning and information-gathering that was necessary before the invasion could be attempted.  This is also the focus of Bletchley Park and D-Day: the untold story of how the battle for Normandy was won, by David Kenyon, published in 2019. Using previously classified documents, David Kenyon shows how preparations for the Normandy landings in 1944 - the turning point in the war in Europe - began at Bletchley in 1942, with the careful collation of information extracted from enemy signals traffic.




Bletchley Park and D-Day: the untold story of how the battle for Normandy was won, David Kenyon, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019. YC.2020.a.1359




Screenshot 2024-06-04 at 20.58.28

The cruel victory: the French Resistance, D-Day and the battle for the Vercors 1944, by Paddy Ashdown, London : William Collins, 2014, shelfmark YC.2015.a.14166


In a very different vein, Paddy Ashdown’s book about the French Resistance in the Vercors mountain range near Grenoble aims to tell a story overlooked by most English-language histories of D-Day. As Allied troops stormed the beaches in Normandy, the resistance in the Vercors rose up in a planned rearguard action that was brutally crushed when German reinforcements arrived. The book shows how the tragedy gave the Vercors a place in French history and gives voice to the many fighters who fought to gain a say in the future of their country.



Divided memory

Divided memory : French recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the present, Olivier Wieviorka, Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2012. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.312


Wieviorka's important book tackles the conflicting memories of all aspects of wartime France: the fall of France, Vichy, the Occupation, the deportations, the Resistance, trials and amnesties. Wieviorka examines the contested area of who should be honoured within French history in the wake of war and occupation.



In memory and history

D-Day in history and memory: the Normandy landings in international remembrance and commemoration. Edited by Michael Dolski, Sam Edwards, and John Buckley. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2014, shelfmark YC.2015.a.5044


The politics of commemoration is the focus of a work bringing together a collection of essays on the complex and often conflicting memories of D-Day.   The work aims to deconstruct and counter the way D-Day has frequently been mythologised by bringing together multiple national viewpoints.



D-Day remembered

D-Day remembered : the Normandy landings in American collective memory, Dolski, Michael, 2016. YC.2017.a.7666.


Addressing similar themes, historian Michael Dolski’s book examines how understandings of the past are shaped by the present through consideration of how D-Day is remembered and commemorated by Americans. His study aims to expose and consider the cultural functions of war remembrance.  Drawing on a wider range of international examples of warfare, Commemorating war : the politics of memory, by T G Ashplant, Graham Dawson, and Michael Roper (New Brunswick, N.J.; London: Transaction 2004) is one of a growing number of academic works to explore war memory and the role of commemoration.  The latter book is available on the open shelves in the Social Sciences reading room at SPIS303.66 and can also be ordered to other reading rooms via shelfmark YC.2009.a.7918.


Because of the Library's IT outage, readers will have to wait a while before access is available to the new crop of books published to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, but as services are restored, anyone with an interest in delving deeper into this history will be able to access these works in the Library's reading rooms.