Wednesday, November 29, 2006

D-Day June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II

D-Day June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose focuses on the D-Day invasion of German occupied France during World War II. The book starts the night before the landing with British airborne troops trying to take Pegasus bridge, covers the complete D-Day invasion in detail, and concludes at midnight of June 6th. It also covers the build-up in the United Kingdom of the invasion forces, including the logistical challenges. The book focuses a great deal on Omaha and Normandy beaches which were crucial to the success of the invasion, although it also covers to a lesser degree the Canadian and British contributions to D-Day. The author's attention to detail, narrative style of writing, and use of extensive eye-witness accounts (including Germans) for the basis of the book provide a very good picture of the challenges, heroism, and destruction of D-Day. The eyewitness accounts, especially those on Omaha Beach are quite riveting.

Ambrose is able to provide fresh facts about the battle through his interviews, even though the battle ended fifty years before the book was written. This seems to be the excellent contribution the author makes with this book.The author chooses to emphasize bravery, courage, and luck that all played a part in the invasion.

My Rating: Very Good (****). Ambrose writes well, like a novelist. Unfortunately, Ambrose's plagiarism which was widely publicized regarding some of his works, raises a question about the thoroughness of his research and how much of his writing is a paraphrase of someone else's work. In his defense, he has cited all of the works in question, with the argument being whether or not he should have used quotes for a paraphrase.

Ambrose’s research for this book found the story that became the source of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”


  1. Lead by example. Do as I do, not as I say. This is an attribute completely missing in today's business world where executives have a double standard for themselves and the rank and file. It is also true in the military as many examples are shown in other book review on this site where military leader in recent times (Iraq and Afghanistan) had a double standard than in WWII where officers had more honor. Most were also citizen soldiers, and had no intention of remaining in the military so they were not trying to rise to higher ranks over the bodies of others.
    • Lt. Den Brotheridge led his platoon of British Paratroopers in the first ground combat of the day to take a bridge. He killed the first German of the day and seconds later became the first soldier killed on the ground.

    • Lt. Robert Mason Mathias, E Company, 508th Parachute Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, was at the door of the C-47 transport plane ready to be the first to jump from the plane when a flak burst wounded him, knocking him off his feet. He struggled to his feet, raised his right arm and said 'Follow me' and jumped. He died from his wounds before he hit the ground (and probably could have survived with immediate first aid from the plane crew if had not jumped).

    • Brig. General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the late president, at age 56 with a bad heart, had to obtain special permission to go ashore on Utah with one of the first waves. His heart would not last the day.

    • Assistant commander of the 29th Division, Brig. General Norman Cota went over the seawall at Omaha Beach "giving encouragement, directions, and orders to those about him, personally supervising the placing of a BAR, and brought fire to bear on some of the enemy positions on the bluff that faced them. Finding a belt of barbed wire inside the seawall, General Cota personally supervised placing a bangalore torpedo for blowing the wire and was one of the first three men to go through the wire. Six mortar shells fell into the immediate area. They killed three men and wound two others, but Cota was unharmed." (pp. 339-340)

  2. Many individuals, not the senior officers, were the key to success. Each in a small way made a difference in winning or losing the war. It was not a battle of strategy played out by high ranking officers, but it was a battle won in the water, sand, trenches, and brush by the individual soldiers who often acted on their own, without orders. "I don't see how the credit can go to anyone other than the company-grade officers and senior NCOs who led the way. It is good to be reminded that there are such men, that there always have been and always will be." Sgt. John Ellery of the 16th Regiment (p. 359)

    The destroyers, seeing the troops pinned down on the beach may have saved the day. "This destroyer action against shore batteries ... afforded the troops the only artillery support they had during most of D-Day." (p. 388)

  3. Successful logistics are the key to successful operations. The Allies had two advantages for successfully invading a country over a body of water: first, the Higgins boats; and second, the C-47 Dakota cargo plane. D-Day, Operation Overlord, was first a logistical operation, and then combat. "In one night and day, 175,000 fighting men and their equipment, including 50,000 vehicles of all types ... carried or supported by 5,333 ships and craft of all types and almost 11,000 airplanes." (pp. 24-25)

  4. "Eisenhower said: '[Higgins] is the man who won the war for us. ...If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different." (p. 45) The Germans inability to invade Great Britain was their failure to have an adequate transport vessel in which to conduct the invasion. If they had one before the US entered the war, they probably would have succeeded in conquering all of Europe. "By the end of the war, Higgins Industries had produced over 20,000 LCVPs." (p. 46)

    The Dakotas "were the most dependable, most rugged, best designed airplane ever built." (p. 47) They were used for the paratroopers and almost any logistical need. The combat plane that did the most to upset the German logistical support of their troops "was the B-26 Marauder, developed by the Glenn L. Martin Company. A medium bomber, it flew at low altitudes and could be extremely accurate, so it was the principal attacker of the railroad bridges and rail yards." (pp. 98-99)

  5. Quality troops will make up for lack of experience. "... there was a vast difference between American draftees and their German counterparts. ...One-third of the men called to service were rejected after physical examinations, making the average draftee brighter, healthier, and better educated than the average American. ...These were the best-educated enlisted men of any army in history." (p. 48)
  6. Teamwork was critical. Eisenhower may have learned from his experience as a staff officer during WWI that teamwork and a central leadership was critical to the success of the war. WWI showed fractional division among the Allies even though there was an overall commander of the effort. "Eisenhower's emphasis on teamwork, his never flagging insistence on working together" was his greatest attribute. (p. 66)
  7. Clear-cut command was necessary. Eisenhower threatened to resign if he did not receive clear-cut overall command of all forces. "Thanks to the clear-cut command authority, a single-minded clarity of purpose pervaded Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF)" (p. 69)
  8. Training, training, training. Eisenhower stated "'From now on I am going to make it a fixed rule that no unit from the time it reaches this theater until this war is won will ever stop training.' As supreme commander, he enforced that rule." (p. 130) "Eisenhower spend a great deal of his time in the field, inspecting, watching training exercises." (p. 135)
  9. Everyone needed to carry the supplies that could possibly be needed. The biggest failure of the Allied senior officers was their inability to realize they were limiting the ability of the first waves of the invasion force by bogging them down with uncessary equipment to complete their assigned task (take the beach area). It is astonishing that Eisenhower or any other commanding officer did not challenge the load the first wave soldiers were carrying. They were sent to their death, in particular, at Omaha Beach, because they drowned or were too water logged and weighed down to move fast enough.

    The first waves did not need backpacks and hundreds of pounds of equipment. Some soldiers almost carried their body weight in equipment. Those that were landed in water over their head found it difficult to stay afloat, some with even two Mae West life jackets. All they needed was enough ammunition to get them through six hours of combat--to take the beach and the accompanying bluff. They should have been sent ashore with 1/4 the load they had, and they could have been more effective in reaching the seawall. "'Our life expectancy was about zero,' Pvt. John MacPHee declared. 'We were burdened down with too much weight. We were just pack mules.'" (p. 347)

    Additionally, nobody in the first wave was assigned the duty to clear the hill on the beach. The first troops to make through the defenses kept moving to the assigned objectives on the mainland while Germans in the defenses kept firing at the arriving American troops. This opposition could have easily been terminated if the first troops were told to clear and secure the hill since the defense fortifications were constructed to survive a frontal attack, but they were very vulnable to flanking attacks and from behind (which troops could have done by doubling back once they reached the top of the hill).

Some opinions expressed about the participants:

  • "[The Germans] found it remarkable that the British would abandon a pursuit to brew up their tea, and even more remarkable that British troops would surrender when their ammunition ran low, when their fuel ran out, or when they were encircled." (p. 50)
  • "One reason for the shortcomings of the World War II British army was inferior weaponry." (p. 50)
  • "...pacifism had eaten into the souls of British youth after the catastrophes of the Somme, Flanders, and elsewhere in World War I." (p. 50)
  • "[British] contempt for all things American ... and the assumed superiority of British techniques, methods, tactics, and leadership" (p. 51).
  • "[The British] always get other people to do the fighting for them, the Australians, the Canadians, the New Zealanders, the South Africans. They are very clever people these English." Field Marshall Rommel (p. 127)

Click here to buy "D-Day June 6, 1944: Climactic Battle of WWII"

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