Title: D-Day 6 June 1944
Author: Stephen E Ambrose
Paperback: 656 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
D-Day is one of the few truly momentous events of the twentieth century. Ambrose book captures the experience from the recollections and memories of the poor bastards who lived through it. In this, he has created a wonderful record of the build up, execution and aftermath of the event which should be read by everyone. The book’s only fault is that it’s written by an American.
The strategy of the book is to start at the widest possible scale then narrow in on particular details. Ambrose outlines the problems facing the Allies and Axis powers at the start of the American involvement in the War (like always, arriving on the scene two years after everyone else): a largely demoralised Britain, an eager but untested United States, and Germany fighting on two fronts with all sorts of command and control problems. Even coming to the agreement that an invasion of Europe is desirable was a major obstacle at the political level. Once the decision had been made, the logistics of when, where and how to invade took the central focus. Ambrose spends considerable time explaining how the Allies kept the German High Command in the dark largely through misdirection.
Once he starts to focus on the men who parachuted, flew or staggered ashore on 6 June 1944, Ambrose really comes into his own. He deftly switches focus from one point on the battlefield to another showing the thoughts, fears and perceptions of the men in the middle of the action. I remember standing on the marker stones where the 6th Division gliders landed at Pegasus Bridge outside of Ranville and thinking “how the hell did they do it?” The answer is that by careful planning none of the men in the first waves of the assault were experienced soldiers. As one general quipped, “an experienced soldier is a cautious soldier.” The fact that these inexperienced men not only survived the day but won through against solid fortifications and determined resistence is something that will never be repeated.
However, there’s a fine line between writing an accessible popular history and pandering to the prejudices of your audience. Ambrose staggers like a drunkard from one side of the line to the other. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that D-Day was a solely US affair when, in the real world, other than having a US general in overall command, the British and Commonwealth forces outnumbers the yanks by close to two-to-one. In terms of soldiers landing on the beaches, by glider or parachute, the US fielded 56,000 men while the British and Commonwealth forces totaled 83,000. Behind the scenes, the US air force and navy personnel numbered approximately 55,000 while the British and Commonwealth contributed almost 120,000.
Admittedly, Ambrose did work for the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans and I guess that this pre-disposes his oral history collection to US veterans and a US view point. However, I got the distinct impression from the book that the US servicemen achieved survived D-Day through dogged determination, tenacity and courage whereas the British and Commonwealth soldiers survived despite being British. They just don’t rate the same level of attention in AMbrose’s view as the Americans.
Having said all that, Ambrose’s D-Day is a brilliant overview of this remarkable event. If you could one read one book on D-Day, it has to be this (or Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day).