Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose / The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan

61OeOq8gXpL._SL1113_ 51hmYi3hyEL._

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day and, at the risk of being too misty-eyed about it, that is worth perhaps taking just a moment to think about. The invasion of continental Europe by Allied forces on June 6, 1944 was an extraordinary operation, involving thousands of ships, soldiers and paratroopers securing objectives on and behind five beaches, as a prelude to driving through France and, ultimately, on to Germany. Stephen E. Ambrose, using the template he later expanded for Band Of Brothers, focuses on one specific action – the capture of two crucial bridges over the Caen Canel and Orne River by British glider troops from D Company, 6th Airborne, under Major John Howard – while Cornelius Ryan tries to pull together the whole 24 hours from the perspectives of soldiers from both sides, their commanders and the civilians caught in the middle. Ambrose was an academic and Ryan a journalist who was actually there, but both books, built from the ground up by talking to many of those involved, are valuable documents of an important day, remembrance of which is increasingly a second-hand venture. The Allies had some things in their favour, not least an element of surprise in terms of exactly when and where the assault would take place. Erwin Rommel, the brilliant ‘Desert Fox’ commanding the German defences, was also not at his post. He was in Germany on a personal mission: his wife’s birthday was June 6 plus he wanted to talk to Hitler about the command of some key Panzer divisions. He never got to see the Fuhrer and, as Rommel had feared, the tanks which could have blocked the invasion were engaged far too late to do so. A number of senior officers were also away war gaming – imagining what they’d do if an invasion came. Most of the Luftwaffe‘s fighter planes had also been moved out of range of the beaches. German intelligence intercepted the correct code signals for the invasion but failed to act on them. So much for the wider picture: both books are really about people under frankly staggering duress. Many of the stories are now, at this remove, heading into folklore but the whole truth is often forgotten. Lord Lovat, leading the Commandos, did indeed walk from Sword Beach to the bridges, carrying a stick and wearing a cream jumper, accompanied by a piper Bill Millin, who was playing the bagpipes. This is magnificent. But rather than heeding Howard’s warning about being careful on the bridge, he insisted on marching his men across, losing a dozen of them shot through the head by snipers before caution prevailed. In Ambrose’s account, the undoubted thrill of a daring mission by the glider troops undertaken successfully in darkness with few casualties turns into a ghastly slog over the next couple of months: trench warfare becomes the norm as the Germans defend Caen. Men of D Company are killed continuously, or driven mad through bombardment, or deliberately wound themselves in order to be invalided out. That part of the story, less glorious, is not usually heard. I first read Ryan’s book when I was ten and it was to be another 20 years before the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan came anywhere near capturing visually the carnage on Omaha Beach which he describes. War is, self-evidently, hell. Dante is certainly on the shoulder of the German conscripts, one blinded, who find themselves in a pillbox growing hotter and hotter as a flame-thrower is directed on it. During the assault on Pegasus Bridge, an 18-year old German soldier has one leg blown off and the other amputated using scissors by D Company’s doctor. Some of the US 82nd Airborne land in the heavily-defended town of Ste.-Mere-Eglise, where an 18-year old paratrooper is one of several to be caught in trees in the town square, machine-gunned by German soldiers before he can untangle his chute. ‘The boy hung there with his eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes,’ recalls the town’s mayor. Veterans often talk about how exciting combat is and both books capture that. This was also a just war, a necessary one. But the veterans know better than anyone – and the books do not gloss over it – that amid the unimaginable bravery, D-Day was also about mortally wounded teenagers in Allied or German uniform, on beaches and in ditches, crying for their mothers before they passed away.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s