My late uncle Ronald Boyd (1926–77) was present at D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was an eighteen-year-old able seaman on HMS Ajax, a light cruiser of the Leander class, part of the vast armada that assembled to assault the Normandy coastline in the biggest seaborne invasion the world had ever witnessed. Not that my uncle would have seen much of it as he worked down in the ship's magazine, many decks below, loading shells and cordite charges into elevators that rose to the gun turrets firing on targets behind the beachhead. HMS Ajax's 6-inch shells were among those that famously took out the giant gun-emplacement at Longues-sur-Mer overlooking Gold and Omaha beaches. In fact Ajax remained on station off Normandy for three weeks providing naval fire support for the shore operations and during those three weeks some 2,507 shells were launched at various targets, including the beleaguered city of Caen. I assume that, from time to time, as his shifts in the magazine permitted, my uncle would have climbed up on deck and surveyed the progress of the invasion front as it was visible from offshore. I “assume” because I never questioned him – because I was never aware of what his war was like until after his death – though I knew the mature man that was my uncle well. He never talked about it; I never asked.
I suspect this is why most readers, myself included – that army of curious, well-informed non-specialists — seek out histories of warfare. We are looking for answers to hitherto unanswered and unasked questions. My paragraph above is a micro-historical piece of familial lore about a gigantic macro-historical event that has gone down in the annals of European warfare. James Holland describes D-Day as “probably the best known episode of the entire Second World War”. I am curious to know where Ronald Boyd's individual experience fits into this vast picture. However, I am also, I confess, equally curious about other military-historical events where there is no personal connection: the Hundred Years War, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Trafalgar, Goose Green, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and so on. Popular, serious histories of warfare – those that sell in their tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands – as opposed to official, academic histories, cater for this fact-driven, nitty-gritty hunger. Writers such as Holland himself – author of books on Italy's war, the Battle of Britain and the Burma campaign among other subjects – not to mention Antony Beevor, Max Hastings, Ben Macintyre, Niall Ferguson, Michael Burleigh et al, have firmly established this category of history in the public mind and are booksellers' darlings. What are their countless readers looking for? At the root of this colossal interest, I believe, is the fundamental question: what was it like to be there?