You’ve seen the movie, now read the book on D-Day

August 9, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

After seeing the movie "Saving Private Ryan" not once but twice, I wanted to know more about D-Day. The answer turned up almost immediately as I was browsing in a local bookstore: "The Longest Day" by the late Cornelius Ryan (no relation to the Ryan being sought in the movie).

No, Cornelius Ryan the author was a native of Ireland who became an Air Force pilot and war correspondent covering the D-Day landings and the advance of General Patton’s Third Army across France and Germany. Ryan went on to publish books, magazine pieces, plays, screenplays and radio and TV scripts. "The Longest Day" was originally published in 1959 and has since been reprinted several times. The edition I read, new typos and all, was published by Simon and Schuster in 1994.

Ryan was a good storyteller and his history book is hard to put down. Unlike the movie, this book gives the reader a slightly bigger picture of what happened in the hours leading up to and during June 6, 1944. We find out, for instance, that the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach (where the action in the movie took place) was heavily defended by the Germans, but that some Allied troops landing on nearby beaches met hardly any resistance at all.

The German "Atlantic wall" defense was spotty and unfinished and the German command was very slow to react to news of the invasion even though this was an event they had long been expecting. Hitler knew the invasion was inevitable, but he also feared spreading his troops too thin and neglecting other fronts.

One reason for the initial failure to respond when the invasion finally did take place was the absence of a key officer. Field Marshal Rommel was not in France on D-Day. He left 48 hours earlier to drive to Germany on two errands. One, he wanted to see Hitler and firm up advance plans for the invasion’s counterattack. And he also wanted to see his wife. He was bringing her a pair of handmade gray suede shoes as a gift, for June 6 was her birthday.

The Germans couldn’t be faulted for not figuring out in advance exactly when the invasion would take place. General Eisenhower himself, the Supreme Allied Commander, had to make that decision and no day in June met all the requirements he had in mind. Beyond the logistics of men and machines, Eisenhower had to worry about something he could not control: the weather. He needed a dark night, a late-rising moon and, shortly after dawn, a low tide. British and American paratroopers and glider-born infantry needed darkness for the surprise attack and moonlight for safe landings. The seaborne landings had to take place when the tide was low enough to expose Rommel’s beach obstacles and mines and troops much later in the day also would need a low tide before dark.

Tide alone reduced the number of days for the attack in any one month to six and three of those were moonless. He also preferred a calm sea, low winds and three relatively clear days after the landing to build up men and supplies. Finally, there was no one night that gave Eisenhower everything he wanted for a successful invasion. He delayed D-Day once, then gave the go order for June 6.

A 60-year-old French schoolmistress in a village 27 miles from Cherbourg might have been the first to see an American paratrooper land in Normandy. Private Robert M. Murphy landed in Madame Levrault’s back garden as she was on her way to the outhouse at 12:15 a.m. on June 6, 1944. Murphy, the 18-year-old paratrooper, was tall and thin and had warpaint on his face. He appeared weighted down with equipment. Before he disappeared from the old lady’s view, he put a finger to his lips in a gesture of silence. She watched in terror, unable to move or make a sound.

Coded messages about the invasion were sent to the French resistance and these were intercepted by the Germans. But again, key parts of the German command failed to react in a timely manner. There had been so many false alarms in the past that everyone was painfully cautious – and a key report activating the Germans failed to reach the Seventh Army in Normandy. The tanks and planes Rommel needed were delayed and this cost Germany the war.

Had Rommel been in charge, the outcome of the war might have been quite different, for he knew that the invasion would be decisive, one way or the other. In April, only a few weeks before D-Day, he told an aide: "The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive...the fate of Germany depends on the outcome...for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day."

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