To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, Simon and Schuster published Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II on June 6, 1994. Based on over 1,400 interviews with American, British, Canadian, French, and German veterans and civilians, D-Day became Ambrose’s first best-selling book and was one of the catalysts for the renewal of public interest in World War II in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Ambrose’s interest in D-Day was first piqued when he began editing former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal papers and became his official biographer. At the time, Ambrose worked under the supervision of Dr. Forrest Pogue, an eminent historian (and World War II veteran) who worked on the U.S. Army’s official history of the European Theater of Operations. As Ambrose writes in his introduction to D-Day, Pogue not only wrote one of the most important volumes in the “Green Books” series (The Supreme Command), but as a sergeant under the command of Army historian S.L.A. Marshall, he conducted on-the-spot interviews of American soldiers and sailors on a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) off Omaha Beach during the initial phases of Operation Overlord.
Ambrose’s 656 page book was also inspired by Cornelius Ryan’s international best-seller The Longest Day (1959), which was widely hailed for its vivid descriptions of the first 24 hours of the Normandy invasion and for its attempt to tell the story of D-Day from the Allied and German points of view. Though Ambrose’s research led him to disagree with some of Ryan’s interpretations of the events of June 6, 1944, he still acknowledged the immense debt he owed to The Longest Day.
Although the bulk of D-Day’s 32 chapters focus on the various events that took place on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches and the Anglo-American airborne drop zones, Ambrose devotes several chapters setting the stage for Overlord and its various supporting operations. Nearly one-third of D-Day covers the preparations – on both the Allied and German sides – for the greatest amphibious operation in history.
Starting with a prologue in which he describes the actions of two young airborne officers (one British, one American) during the night drops that preceded the seaborne landings, Ambrose describes the contrast between Adolf Hitler’s world view and that of his Anglo-American adversaries.
It was an open question, toward the end of spring 1944, as to whether a democracy could produce young soldiers capable of fighting effectively against the best that Nazi Germany could produce. Hitler was certain the answer was no. Nothing that he had learned of the British army’s performance in France in 1940, or again in North Africa and the Mediterranean in 1942-44, or what he had learned of the American army in North Africa and the Mediterranean in 1942-44, caused him to doubt that, on anything approaching equality in numbers, the Wehrmacht would prevail. Totalitarian fanaticism and discipline would always conquer democratic liberalism and softness. Of that Hitler was sure.
If Hitler had seen Den Brotheridge and Bob Mathias in action at the beginning of D-Day, he might have had second thoughts. It is Brotheridge and Mathias and their buddies, the young men born into the false prosperity of the 1920s and brought up in the bitter realities of the Depression of the 1930s,that this book is about. The literature they read as youngsters was antiwar, cynical, portraying patriots as suckers and slackers as heroes. None of them wanted to be part of another war. They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other young men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought. They were soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day, and to them we owe our freedom.
Like most books about the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II delves into the backstory of Operation Overlord, including Hitler’s decision to reinforce German forces in the West and build what he called the Atlantic Wall. This was a line of fortifications which was intended to run from Norway’s North Cape to the Franco-Spanish frontier, Like most of the Fuhrer’s military schemes, the Atlantic Wall was more of a propaganda bluff than a physical reality and was only complete in some sections of France’s northern coast.
Because Hitler and his generals expected the Allies to land at the Pas de Calais (where the English Channel is at its narrowest point), the Atlantic Wall was at its strongest there. For the same reason, Hitler placed his strongest force, the Fifteenth Army, near Calais, Dunkirk, and Dieppe.
But Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his planners knew that the Germans expected a landing in the Calais area and refused to play the game by Hitler’s playbook. After evaluating and discarding such sites as the Brittany coast, Allied planners chose the Calvados coast in the Normandy region as the invasion area.
In Ambrose’s crisp and clear narrative style, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II explains the complex strategic and tactical issues involved in the planning and execution of Operation Overlord. It also has interesting insights into the personalities of Eisenhower and his chief German adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Allied deception plan known as Operation Fortitude, and the roles played by the French Resistance, the Allied air forces, and the relatively experimental airborne divisions.
But the heart of D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II is contained in the 22 chapters about the events of that historic day that marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. In those chapters, Ambrose tells the stories of “the men of D-Day” in vivid, often heart-stopping, detail.
Pvt. Dwayne Burns was crouched beside a hedgerow. He heard a noise on the other side. “I climbed up and looked over, and as I did, a German on the other side raised up and looked over. In the dark I could barely see his features. We stood there looking at each other, then slowly each of us went back down.” They moved off in opposite directions.
Ambrose, who died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 66, later became a historical consultant to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (which is based partly on an incident described in D-Day) and an executive producer for HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers (which is based on his popular 1992 non-fiction book about a company of American paratroopers). In these roles, as well as through such subsequent books as Citizen Soldiers and The Wild Blue, Ambrose was influential in the renewal of public interest in World War II.
Though Ambrose’s later years were dogged by reports that some of his works were not well-researched and that he may have used other authors’ work without proper attribution, he is still regarded as one of America’s most popular historians. His writing style is accessible to readers who otherwise would not read books about military history. Ambrose had a Ph.D in history, but he was not writing for his academic peers, some of whom may have fanned the flames of the plagiarism controversy out of envy for his success. He wrote for the wider general audience, including the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of the men who fought in World War II. Ambrose was, first and foremost, a storyteller, and D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II is one of the greatest stories he ever told.
- Hardcover: 656 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 6, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0671673343
- ISBN-13: 978-0671673345