The Triumph of Courage and Dynamism
D-Day histories reveal the cohesion and aggressiveness of Allied troops, born of long training and high morale, that brought victory
D-DAY, JUNE 6, 1944: THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE OF WORLD WAR II
By Stephen E. Ambrose
Simon & Schuster, 655 pp., $30
VOICES OF D-DAY: THE STORY OF ALLIED INVASION TOLD BY THOSE WHO
Edited by Ronald J. Drez
Louisiana State Univ. Press
310 pp., $24.95
JUNE 6, 1944: THE VOICES OF D-DAY
By Gerald Astor
St. Martin's Press, 370 pp., $25.95
D-DAY NORMANDY: THE STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS
By Donald Goldstein, Katherine Dillon and J. Michael Wenger
Brassey's (US), 180 pp., $30
PARACHUTE INFANTRY: AN AMERICAN PARATROOPER'S MEMOIR OF D-DAY AND
THE FALL OF THE THIRD REICH
By David Kenyon Webster
Louisiana State Univ. Press
262 pp., $29.95
THE invasion of Normandy brought the death knell of Hitler's Reich. The Allies now began conquering the sweeping, level spaces needed to deploy, maneuver, and attack Hitler's main forces. The green, yet thoroughly trained American forces showed that they could take the measure of a German Army that all Europe had feared for a half-century or more.
D-Day was less a battle in the traditional sense than a disjointed, 21-hour series of bombardments, assaults, debarkations, skirmishes, and airborne landings. It was conducted over 55 miles of front by an Allied coalition of American, British, Canadian, and a small number of French forces, against German units of varied quality and uncertain leadership. By nightfall, 175,000 Allied men had entered Normandy at the cost of approximately 4,900 casualties.
The scattered nature of the fighting, the failure of communications on both sides, and the fragmentation of large units into tiny isolated particles and subparticles, made this very much a soldier's battle in which Allied senior officers could do little while the sergeants and junior officers on the spot led handfuls of men inland, destroying German bunkers and batteries, and formed units slowly coalesced from the chaos on the beaches. German counterattacks might have exploited these weaknesses, but nothing happened; the German command structure failed at the war's vital moment.
The Allied side of the story has been fully covered in official histories and elsewhere, but our sense of this soldier's battle is greatly enhanced by the voices emerging from the books under review, essentially oral histories, drawn from interviews with direct participants.
Certainly the most authoritative, and also most touching and compassionate, is Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. Mr. Ambrose, the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, is a prolific historian, with several earlier books dealing entirely or partially with D-Day.
This book skillfully weaves interviews and secondary sources to argue that the invasion represented a triumph of the old United States Army, whose officers had transformed millions of civilians into a cohesive, highly trained and motivated mass army that, backed by a united nation, won with relative ease. To be sure, the German Army of 1944 was not that of 1940; only its elite forces could generate much fighting power. But Americans of all ranks showed a winning dynamism and aggressiveness, precisely the factors that long training had fostered, and that, he hints, were lacking in Vietnam. And Ambrose keeps the story moving with a light, yet suspenseful touch.
Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told by Those Who Were There, forms a kind of companion volume to Ambrose's book. Ronald Drez, the editor, is, in fact, assistant director of the Eisenhower Center, from whose 1,400 oral histories he has culled some 150 lengthy excerpts for this book. They convey memories, transcribed some 40 years later, of a cross-section of young Americans concerning their moment in history. They had joined up, bonded with buddies, sailed to Britain, trained hard, and then plunged into a battle whose horrors they remember, but whose experience they honor.
So it is in June 6, 1944: The Voices of D-Day, by Gerald Astor, another lengthy collection of largely positive reminiscences by those who were there. Both books reflect a sense of national confidence, anti-Nazi crusading, and a youthful zest for risk, adventure, and comradeship.
A pictorial sense of ``the longest day'' emerges from the 430 illustrations in D-Day Normandy: The Story and Photographs, selected by Donald Goldstein, Katherine Dillon, and J. Michael Wenger, a team well-known in World War II writing. The text and captions provide a concise overview of events, while the photos help us visualize the beaches on which so much depended.
World War II saw paratroopers emerge suddenly as a glamorous elite force. Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich, by the late David Kenyon Webster is a cool but touching account by an aspiring writer of his service in Normandy and elsewhere with the 82nd Airborne Division. Webster was a Harvard student who volunteered, and his account was written soon after 1945. It is notably grimmer and more critical of the Army's often humiliating ways than are the oral histories. Yet he became very close to his comrades, a surrogate family whose loyalty and toughness he admired, and who showed remarkable aggressiveness in battle.
If we look beyond the bloodshed, violence, and heroism of D-day, several conclusions are inescapable. The British Army, always cautious in the attack, showed a predictable competence. The Germans failed outright. The essential counterattacks never occurred, many men surrendered, and no general imposed unity on fragmentation and disorder.
The American Army, which had fought successfully, but not remarkably, in the Mediterranean, performed brilliantly in Normandy. Small groups of men, not awaiting orders, surged forward - and triumphed over Germans who remained in their bunkers. Tanks and bombers mattered little: It was the cohesion and aggressiveness born of long training and high morale that brought victory.