If you follow my ramblings elsewhere on War History Online you may recall I had the pleasure of meeting Tonie and Valmai Holt at the House of Commons back in the springtime. I told Tonie how I used his books and he put on a mock frown when I admitted I was still using a well-thumbed second edition of his Normandy guide I got for my birthday in 2003. Now I am in possession of the all-new seventh edition… but don’t tell him it is a review copy!
When I made my first proper battlefield tour of Normandy in 2003 I took along my Holt guide and a number of other treasured books. I did a lot of preparation looking for things to do. The guide was indispensable and I found the accompanying map to be a boon because I could use it to fix locations on my Michelin road atlas with relative ease. I still don’t use a satnav.
Travelling over from England was easy. For us it was a straightforward ferry job and then a long drive. France was and remains a land of mystery and wonders and I love driving there. To keep things busy we had Harry Potter books playing on the CD for our kids as the miles passed by. Once over the Pont du Normandie we had arrived.
We really got around and while we concentrated on many of the big hitters there were some wonderful moments I will treasure for ever; flying kites on Utah Beach, running around in the rain on Omaha and picnicking by Pegasus Bridge. Arromanches remains a special place for me and standing by the Sherman above the village, just as I had first done in 1975, was probably a defining moment in my life when I knew the battlefields were where I wanted to be.I have made two more trips to Normandy since and I haven’t looked back. I use Holt guides wherever I go.
A lot has changed since 2003. Road improvements and the increase in tourism related services are apparent. New memorials and museum alterations are a major factor of the Normandy landscape. There seems to be no end to this in sight. It is interesting to compare guide books published a decade apart to how things have progressed or regressed, depending on your point of view. I take the view there can only be so many memorials, but people find ways of fitting them in, whether it be in Normandy or on the Somme.
First published in 1999, the concept of the Holt D-Day guide is both clever and simple to use. You can read it as a straightforward book if you like, I did; but if you are a far away from travelling there it might just gnaw at your soul.
Getting your schedule in order is critical and, if you like, the book can do it all for you, breaking the days down into tours with itineraries you can follow with ease. I have to be honest and say I haven’t done this, preferring to use it as a pointer on my own routes. It will be immediately apparent just how much there is to see in Normandy and you need to decide what matters to you most. If you are on a tight schedule there is no luxury in faffing about and you must be ruthless. If you have more time you can be relaxed. Either way, this brilliant little book will fill in all the blanks.
This new edition is now subtitled as a definitive guide. A bold statement built on the confidence that the amount of work these books take to produce is helped along by the immense experience of the editors. The guide includes all the things a modern pilgrim needs with GPS locations and a fully updated text to get you around. The photography has expanded considerably with views of many more locations to help you identify what you are looking for.
How long we will wait for an eighth edition depends on the changes wrought on the Normandy scene in the years ahead. Just like the former battlefields, time does not stand still for guides such as this. Regardless of the fact, I shall be using this seventh edition for some time. I might even get to Normandy again next year because I still have a lot left to do. My kids are grown up and out and about in the world, so I won’t need Stephen Fry’s dulcet tones bringing me Quidditch match reports any longer. But the Holt guide fits in the glove box along with a breathalyser kit (French road laws insist!), a tire pressure gauge and far too many Ikea pencils.
Other guides may go in for bigger pages and a lot of stuff that looks nice but it doesn’t really cut to the chase. They are great to read in isolation, but the Holt guide is a convenient size and made of practical materials. You are meant to use and abuse it. My faded old copy can attest to this and can be retired with honour at last.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online
MAJOR AND MRS HOLT’S DEFINITIVE BATTLEFIELD GUIDE TO THE D-DAY NORMANDY LANDING BEACHES
Tonie and Valmai Holt
Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 84884 570 1