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Stories of D-Day heroism shape history

June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of Operation Overlord, when Allied forces established the beachhead from which they would begin to roll back Nazi troops from the coast of France. 

This was the greatest amphibious operation in history – or indeed even in mythology, since the more than 5,000 ships of D-Day outnumbered the 1,000 ships of Homer’s “Iliad.”  

Those 5,000 ships converged in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, for an assault on five beaches: Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword, and Omaha. The troops faced a nightmare: heavily mined waterways, mist-shrouded cliffs bristling with machine gun nests, beach slopes covered with wire and booby traps, and the prospect of a long slog to dry land under heavy fire. 

Two classics written a half-century ago still hold up as among the best books written about Allied maneuvers: The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, which have been reprinted in one volume by the Library of America. Both books by the Dublin-born historian Cornelius Ryan were turned into feature films, in 1962 and 1977 respectively.

Library of America

Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day / A Bridge Too Far, Library of America, 1,000 pp.

The new volume is introduced by bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II historian Rick Atkinson, who writes about Ryan: “As a war correspondent, he had helped compose the first rough draft of history. Now, as a military historian, he lengthened and widened his lens to write a more enduring account.” 

“The Longest Day” is every bit the terrific, engrossing reading experience that made it so popular in its own day. 

“What follows is not a military history,” Ryan wrote at the beginning of the book, one of the most-read military histories of the modern era. “It is the story of people: the men of the Allied forces, the enemy they fought and the civilians who were caught up in the bloody confusion of D-Day – the day the battle began that ended Hitler’s insane gamble to dominate the world.”

Ryan’s approach, building his larger narrative from the ground up and filling his story with the voices of individual enlisted men, is frequently adopted by contemporary authors. 

The best of these is Alex Kershaw, whose The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II records the experiences of a handful of participants on that chaotic first day. He tells the stories of men such as Capt. Leonard Schroeder from the U.S. Army’s 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division, who waded ashore with his Colt .45-caliber pistol above his head. “‘I knew my company was in the first wave, but I didn’t know I was actually going to be the first ashore,’ recalled Schroeder. ‘Besides, I was too scared to think about it.’”

Dutton Caliber

The First Wave by Alex Kershaw, Dutton Caliber, 528 pp.

The season’s best comprehensive one-volume history of Operation Overlord is Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasions and the Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams, author of “Snow & Steel,” a great history of the Battle of the Bulge. 

“When walking the ground,” he writes about the Normandy beaches, “the majority of questions I am asked still reference either Cornelius Ryan’s epic account, The Longest Day, first published in 1959, the subsequent film released three years later, or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan of 1998.”

Oxford University Press

Sand & Steel by Peter Caddick-Adams, Oxford University Press, 1,069 pp.

Caddick-Adams makes the wise and unusual decision to give the familiar D-Day story far more historical grounding, reminding readers that what ended up succeeding in June of 1944 required an enormous amount of training. 

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In his telling, this is the story of a generation: “We know them as heroes, but for them, the Second World War sucked in all their contemporaries: they were all involved, it was something everyone participated in and if fortunate survived,” he writes. 

All three of these offerings do an impressive job of bringing D-Day alive, from the earliest plans to the thrilling exploits of the morning itself to the broader conflict that extended out into the hedgerows and villages of Normandy and eventually broke the Nazi hold on Europe. The books take to heart the words of a prayer inscribed on the walls of the memorial chapel overlooking Omaha Beach: “Think not only upon their passing, remember the glory of their spirit.”

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