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Strategy, Human Interest, A Definitive Historical Source
on 8 August 2009
"The Longest Day" by Cornelius Ryan is the epic history of Operation Overlord, the Normandy Landings of June 6, 1944. Brought to the big screen in the movie of the same title, it will be a very familiar read for many. This book employs a skillful weaving of the big picture with the human interest. Here we get an understanding for the objectives of the battle and the heroic, tragic and humorous incidents which arose during this momentous contest.
The days leading up to Overlord were demanding and nerve wracking for both sides. The Germans were split between Rommel, who believed that the invasion must be stopped on the beach or not at all, and Von Rundstedt, who wanted to let the invasion come ashore and then engage it beyond the range of Allied naval guns. Von Rundstedt based his opinion on what he thought that he had learned from prior landings. The Allies, for their part, had learned from the disastrous Canadian raid on Dieppe in 1942 that any invasion must have the advantage of overwhelming force. They had their own disagreements, such as how to employ air power. Should it be used in a Transportation Plan, to isolate the battlefield, or to pound the German heartland? The Germans had the disadvantage of having to defend the whole shoreline, while the Allies could choose where to direct their fury. The German Atlantic Wall of mines, barbed wire, gun encasements, "Rommel Asparagras", beach obstacles and other impedimenta presented a daunting front to the Allies and strained the productive capacity of the Reich. The Allies maximized their advantage through Operation Fortitude, the faux army commanded by Patton aimed at Calais. Still they had their own cases of the jitters, such as when a popular British crossword puzzle writer used several Overlord related words in the weeks leading up to the invasion. The final uncontrollable was the weather, which forced a one day delay and almost scrubbed the landings.
The complexity of the operation boggles the mind. The weeks of air bombardment, the parachute drops to secure causeways and crossroads behind the beaches, gliders to bring in more troops and heavier equipment, naval bombardment followed by the amphibious assaults on five Norman beaches had to be timed to the moon and tide. Considering the scope of the operation, the missed drop zones, the landings on the wrong beach, the assault on abandoned fortifications at Pointe du Hoc, and the other snafus are understandable.
A reader can get these big stories from many sources. What makes this book unique is the human touch, the narration of stories that we remember from the movie. We read about Pvt. Arthur B. "Dutch" Schultz, of the 82nd Airborne who really did win a wad in a crap game and then decide to lose it all, the troops who landed in the heart of Ste. Mare Eglise while a fire was being fought, including Pvt. John Steele of the 82nd who did get caught on the steeple and the chaplain who did dive five times to find his mass kit in the flooded drop zone, just to mention a few.
This is an interesting read for its human interest value. For anyone wanting an understanding of D-Day, it is essential. This and Stephen Ambrose's "D-Day" (see my Amazon review) are the two leading works available in English. The frequency with which Ambrose quotes Ryan gives testimony to the value of "The Longest Day" as a definitive historical source.