Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ambrose's D-Day

In the past, I've read/reviewed one WWII book by Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) and his book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Undaunted Courage. I've also read/reviewed two of the three WWII books by Michael Atkinson (on the North Africa and Italy parts of the European campaign) and Laura Hillenbrand's book on the amazing Louis Zamperini, Unbroken (to be released as a movie around Christmas)-- the bulk of which covers his experience during WWII.

Some time ago, I had picked up Ambrose's D-Day and finally got around to reading it, finding a bloc of time when I could enjoy a book without needing to pay great attention to what I was reading.

Ambrose describes the importance of the military's experience in Africa and Italy (39-40). In part, soldiers were now veterans, but the larger issue was the growth in the leadership (a point emphasized by Atkinson). This was the crucial battle-- at least looking back. We'll never know what would have happened if D-Day had failed. But it seems like the moment in which the Allies would be turned back (perhaps permanently) OR that a defeat would allow the Nazis to stall for time. Getting on the Continent in France on D-Day would be a morale-crusher (41), signaling the impending end of the War. Given its material advantages, establishing a beachhead would make Allied victory only a matter of time, effort, and carnage.

Ambrose spends about half the book on the preparation for D-Day. The reconnaissance efforts were impressive-- from types of sand at various beaches to in-land photos. At the end of the day, things were so crazy as they attempted to land-- that the recon efforts bore relatively little fruit. One noteworthy oversight: they noted the many hedgerows, but were unaware of their thickness and height, assuming that they would be the same as their shorter English cousins (452). This caused a lot of trouble for the gliders that were bringing troops and equipment inland.

The Allies were also busy with an immense plan of deception, including double-agents and faux cryptology (54-55). They set up a variety of "dummy operations", especially hinting at an attack on Pas-de-Calais, where the Nazis anticipated the primary attack given its proximity to England. I was surprised to learn how little the Germans could see and anticipate-- not so surprising when one considers the available technology and how much the Allies controlled the skies. If I'm "on the ground" and see 10,000 troops coming, is that *the* invasion or just a distracting military thrust?

Controlling the air, the Allies also bombed at will. It was a huge effort with limited direct success. Its impact was largely indirect-- as the Germans were weakened inland, reducing their industrial production and in particular, limiting supply lines and troop/tank mobility (251).

The Germans invested heavily in their defenses at the Atlantic Wall (321), including barriers and mines on beaches. Their cross-fire and impenetrable "pillboxes" were very effective, until the Allies established their beachhead and approached the Germans from behind. However, the emphasis on the first line of defense made it prohibitively difficult to counterattack (454) .

The Germans had other problems: they were surprised; they were confused; and their command structure was a mess. The generals did not trust each other; Hitler controlled everything and slept till noon that day; and Field General Rommel was out of town (480-483). Rommel expected the invasion at higher tides. So, he was in Berlin visiting his wife when the invasion began. Moreover, it took him days to get back to the front; he couldn't fly back with the Allies controlling the skies and driving was difficult with all of the bombing (175).

Ambrose points to the key role of the destroyers (ch. 20)-- as they were able to come in close to shore and provide cover fire. Making themselves vulnerable to German guns, Ambrose sees them as unanticipated and unsung heroes. He also noted that engineers were almost one-fourth of the troops on D-Day, given all that they needed to do (143).

A few miscellaneous things...

I've always enjoyed looking for references to religion and morality in books written about earlier time periods in American history. We're often told that the pre-1960s were stronger in this regard, but I've long had my doubts. After all, the parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s. My suspicion is that most of the "religous" belief was in "civil religion" (vs. Biblical Christianity) and much of the good behavior (such as it was) stemmed from cultural conformity. The other books I've read seem to echo that interpretation. In many cases, the colorful references far outweigh what you would expect from a more moral time. Here, as well, there are plenty of references to sex and drunkenness (51, 133, 153).

But, in all, I'd say that the ledger is much more balanced-- perhaps even leaning toward morality and faith. Ambrose cites the Catholicism and character of Bob Mathias (23). He notes that the signal phrase used in one phase was "Praise the Lord" (426). He points to the practice of "quickie marriages" (488) in order to have a licit sexual encounter before heading off to war. He spends a lot of time on the exhortation and prayer that Ike distributed just before the invasion, something that became a treasured memento for many troops (171). Millions of condoms were distributed, but most were used to protect weapons from water and sand (153). Finally, he spends a big chunk of time (491-496) on the prayerful responses back home to D-Day: FDR's public/radio prayer; the Lord's Prayer on the front page of the NY Daily News, the New York Times' prayer/editorial. In sum, Ambrose notes that "the impulse to pray was overwhelming".

Two bits of syncretistic evidence may explain the combination. First, Broadway and many stores shut down; and sporting events cancelled. But Wall Street and politicians were doing business as usual. The "powers that be" continued on as if nothing significant was happening, but daily life was more reflective and centered. Second, Ambrose says that most soldiers had a "Lord was I lucky" story (447). When you're believing in the Lord, you can't believe in "luck". Perhaps these sorts of inconsistencies are the best way to think about that era in terms of religion and morality.

One area where morality was still clearly a mess: African-Americans were active in the military, but segregated and relegated to relatively modest roles: 150K troops, but mostly in supply. They had three infantry divisions, but only one saw combat (147), including one battalion at Omaha Beach. Later, they served a more prominent role in moving from truck drivers to infantry at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 (372). A racial irony: the Germans assumed racial superiority, but then had to depend on all sorts of "racially-inferior" conscripts from conquered areas (33-34).

Individuals are praised throughout the book. A few struck me as particularly praiseworthy: Harrison Summers is described as the "Sgt. York of WWII" (297-299); Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was the oldest man to go ashore on D-Day (258) and an effective, inspirational leader. Col. George Taylor and Gen. Norman "Dutch" Cota also received particularly impressive commendations.

A few other small things: The Germans had canceled their U-boat patrols due to bad weather. And German radar was ineffective because of bombings and the use of "windows-- foil strips that caused hundreds of echoes on the radar" (259). And I would remiss if I didn't note that spam sandwiches were the last-second, pre-invasion meal for many soldiers (260).

I enjoyed two quotes on Ambrose's final page (582). First, he cited one soldier who said, "I would not take a million dollars for my experiences, but I surely wouldn't want to go through that again for a million dollars." Not that there's much of a comparison, but it reminds me of something I've often said about grad school: I can recommend having a PhD, but I cannot recommend getting a PhD.

And I will follow Ambrose in using John Ellery's poignant words to close: "My contribution to the heroic tradition of the US Army might have been the smallest achievement in the history of courage, but at least, for a time, I walked in the company of very brave men."


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