June 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day. With months of planning and subterfuge about when and where the Allies would strike, troops landed on Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. The shoreline was heavily fortified, but more than 160,000 Allied troops landed. The cost was high with over 9,000 deaths; however they had gained a foothold on Europe from which they could fight their way forward. This month we’ll look at new books and classic looks at D-Day.
“The First Wave”
The scale of D-Day can be overwhelming. Journalist and historian Alex Kershaw captures the momentum and chaos of “The First Wave.” Kershaw focuses on the men who were part of the very first wave, who parachuted behind lines or landed on the beach itself. Among the key locations he looks at are the American Rangers’ assault on Pont du Hoc, the British glider troops who took Pegasus Bridge, the groups on Sword and Juno Beaches, the Bedford Boys from Virginia who landed on the shores of Omaha Beach and lost ninety percent of their group and others. Kershaw reminds readers that when careful plans fell apart, determined troops of the first wave kept the invasion moving forward.
“Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die”
Historian Giles Martin’s “Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die” explores the planning of Operation Overlord, but it is the soldiers on the ground who lead his story. Martin weaves together the personal stories of those on the front lines of the beach, resistance fighters, the butcher’s daughter and others. Using these individual accounts, readers are viscerally immersed in the events of the invasion.
D-Day is often viewed as a man’s story, but Sarah Rose looks at the women who parachuted behind enemy lines and faded into the background to do their work in “D-Day Girls.” The Special Operations Executive was established by Churchill in 1940 to plan sabotages and gather intelligence. In 1942 the SOE trained 39 French women to return to France and engage in espionage. After intense training they were sent to organize the resistance, which was operating in isolation and up against the well trained Gestapo. The riveting and sometimes tragic stories of this group have not been well documented due to material being classified and the fact that the women were not in the military. Rose bridges this gap in the story leading up to the invasion.
Before troops can land on the beach, a plan to successfully get them there needed to be made. Military historian Craig Symonds shares that story in “Neptune.” It took over thirteen months to lay out the strategy of Operation Neptune. Symonds finds the Americans overly eager and optimistic about hitting the beach. The British, who had been fighting longer, had a more restrained, realistic take on what would be needed to be successful on this second front.
“The Longest Day”
In 1959, Cornelius Ryan released the classic historical account, “The Longest Day.” Ryan interviewed combatants on both sides of the conflict. Ryan was a journalist who was imbedded with troops in both European and Pacific Theatres. Today’s authors may have access to more resources, but between his opportunity to interview troops and his own personal experiences, “The Longest Day” has a flow that is hard to top.
“D-Day, June 6, 1944”
Stephen Ambrose, author of numerous compelling histories, released his classic telling, “D-Day, June 6, 1944” in 2010. Like Ryan’s book, it stands up well. He analyzes the Allied and German military leadership leading up to and during the battle. Ambrose doesn’t focus solely on the leaders. He weaves in the recollections of combatants on both sides as well. His talent is keeping this massive tale moving forward in such a way that readers will find it a thrilling tale.
“D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion”
Reading through histories of D-Day, readers will find themselves with more questions about the details of the invasion. Barrett Tillman’s “D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion” offers the answers. Tillman, who readers may know from “The History Channel,” covers the key players, equipment, weapons, geography, the divisions and units and more.
“Young American Patriots”
“Young American Patriots” can be compared to a military yearbook. It was published shortly after World War II in eight volumes, including one for West Virginia. Organized by county, individuals are then organized alphabetically. A photo in uniform is accompanied with a brief note about their service and family. At over one thousand pages, it doesn’t list everyone who served from West Virginia, but includes many. It would be a great resource for readers researching family history.