Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy by the Allies, was such an important aspect and turning point of the war that I decided to read D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose.
Ambrose starts this book by laying out the background of Operation Overlord, the way that the Allies misdirected the Germans to think an attack would occur in Calais, how General Rommel of Germany built the Atlantic seawall (and others thought he was crazy) to repulse an attack, how American soldiers were trained for years for the operation.
D-Day was to take place along the Normandy coast on five beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The Americans had charge of the first two. While Utah went off without nary a hitch, Omaha was fubar for a variety of reasons…
Rewind pre-attack. The battleships of the Allied navies were supposed to bomb the German positions along the coast followed by air bombardment. Then the airborne troops would be dropped behind enemy lines. Their job was to take certain German batteries or strongholds and then meet up with the troops that would land among the beach. Within the first waves were infantry and demolitions experts, the latter of which were trained extensively to place explosives along the seawall and create gaps for incoming tanks, jeeps, and troops in later waves.
While this plan worked at Utah, at Omaha the ships didn’t bomb the German positions long enough or hit enough targets. The air bombardment was ineffective. So the first troops on Omaha witnessed a peaceful early morning, not the smoking craters following tons of bombs having fallen (or been launched) on it. Furthermore, the skippers of the landing crafts often landed too far from shore or (most commonly) far off track because of the swift currents, forcing men to swim to the shore. Whole tanks and jeeps disappeared in the waters. What followed was all out chaos: the fog of war. Whole platoons were shot up by the Germans behind their defenses. Mines killed men. Later waves brought heavy machinery that couldn’t get off the beach or organized.
Truly, the Allies hold on Omaha was tenuous; failure seemed inevitable. Only the bravery and courage of the troops, the leadership of the sergeants and lieutenants and captains, and the force of the human will to conquer got the Allies up the beach and beyond the sea wall. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Germans didn’t see the attack coming and refused to recognize it as a real problem when they saw it.
Only Juno Beach, invaded by the Canadians, experienced anything close to what the Americans at Omaha did. The British were left to take both Gold and Sword beaches.
This book was emotionally powerful, fierce and beautiful not because of the war, but because of what the warriors were willing to do, to give up.
The Characters. There are no characters in this book, only real people. But the real people are so amazing that no writer in the world could imagine them up. Ambrose didn’t concentrate on any single person to move the narrative, but on many men. To be exact, 1,380 men or, rather, their oral and written histories. This may seem like a lot, but 156,000 men landed on Normandy on D-Day, 4,413 of which were killed.
The Storyline. Describing the chaos of war—especially on the biggest military operation in human history—in words is not easy. So Ambrose moved from one beach to another, talking about the navy, infantry, airborne, and other troops in turn. It was a very organized telling; it made sense.
The Writing. Ambrose has a powerful narration style, and this book was no different. The writing was beautiful and haunting in turns, expressing beyond what words themselves can tell the sacrifice and bravery given.
Every person should read this book; they should understand intimately what sacrifice their freedom cost, the lives that were lost, the innocence that was given:
“I want to tell you what the opening of the second front entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”