Book Reviews -- D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose

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Stephen E. Ambrose. D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, $30.00.

Since its appearance in 1959, war correspondent Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day has been the popular American account of the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy that began the liberation of France from Nazi control. Made into a movie, the book was initially commissioned by the Reader's Digest, which featured a condensation in the June 1994 issue commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and called the work "the definitive account of this epic event." They were wrong. The definitive account of American's landing on the French coast is now Stephen E. Ambrose's D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.

Ambrose is the Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and director of the Eisenhower Center, which has been gathering oral histories of American veterans for over a decade. Ambrose draws freely on the 1,380 personal accounts in the Eisenhower Center, many of them collected by Ronald J. Drez, the assistant director of the Center, who edited a selection published this year as Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told by Those Who Were There. These oral histories give Ambrose's book a breadth and intimacy of the American experience not achieved by Ryan, although he, too, used personal accounts.

Ambrose also writes from the perspective of five decades and of a historian who has worked closely with General Dwight Eisenhower's papers. He is the author of a biographical study of the wartime Supreme Commander. Although Ambrose uses Ryan's technique of moving back and forth between Allied and German scenes, Ryan is much stronger in portraying the German side than Ambrose, who concentrates on the Allied armies, especially the American soldiers. Only occasionally does he switch to the German view of events.

Ambrose contends that the Allied military operation was successful because the young Americans who landed on that hostile shore were young and "magnificently trained and equipped and supported" (25). Few of them had ever been in combat before and were not terrified as experienced infantrymen often were. They were citizens of democracy, not professional soldiers, and in the chaos of battle when nothing went according to plan, they directed their own actions, used initiative and common sense, and assumed leadership roles.

Today Omaha Beach is changed from the way it was to American soldiers in June 1944--the wood and masonry seawall is gone and the bank of shingle, which prevented vehicles from moving inland, has mostly vanished. When I visited the area three days before the 50th anniversary of D-Day and watched the calm sea at low tide roll up on the golden sands of the wide beach, it was hard to imagine what it must have looked like with all of Erwin Rommell's mines, wooden and metal spikes, and barbed wire protruding from the sand. It was a long way for a man to run for the cover of the slopes below the bluff to avoid the fire from German gun emplacements above.

Ambrose often shows little respect for the German troops in Normandy, many of them Ost battalions composed of "volunteers" from countries occupied by Germany--Ukrainians, Muslims, Tartars, Poles, Finns, and so forth. …