Is it too much to say that the fate of the Western world hung in the balance on D-Day, June 6, 1944? Think of the possible consequences had the massive cross-Channel Allied attack on the shores of Normandy failed. Even after capturing the beaches and establishing a toehold on the Continent, it took the Allies almost another year of hard fighting to kick the Nazis out of France and conquer Hitler's Germany.
Failure 50 years ago -- and it could have happened -- would have emboldened Hitler. The myth of his invincibility would have soared. He would have had more time, prestige and power inside Germany (and Vichy France) to rule and ruin -- doubtless to add to the figure of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Hitler had mobile gas ovens ready to kill prisoners.) Allied defeat would have severely taxed Britain's morale and her already strained ability to fight. Would the heroic French Resistance have collapsed?
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the principal architects and the supreme commander of Operation Overlord, forever added to his luster at D-Day. Soon after that day when "the history of the world was changed" (to quote a war correspondent), Ike assumed command of the troops in the field and led them to victory. Afterward, his popularity at home guaranteed him the presidential nomination of either major party. When he accepted the GOP's offer in 1952 (and chose Richard Nixon as his running mate), Eisenhower left a permanent mark on history, not just American politics.
To date, the best exploration of that glorious (and terrible day) in 1944 has been Cornelius Ryan's 1959 book, "The Longest Day: June 6, 1944," now reissued in paperback (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 338 pages, $11). Ryan, a journalist and correspondent at D-Day who is now dead, did his homework. He interviewed hundreds of survivors, from German foot soldiers to the top brass in the United States. He read diaries, regimental histories and war reports.
"The Longest Day" (and also its Hollywood incarnation with a star-studded cast) is still a crisp, readable, reliable, action-packed account. Ryan's eye for telling anecdotes combined with an awareness that war is always, finally, about human beings -- as well as tactics and tanks -- has enabled his book to hold up well.
Anyone hungering for more on the first 24 hours of the Normandy Invasion -- and D merely stands for the first day -- should turn to Stephen Ambrose's monumental "D-Day, June 6, 1944" (Simon and Schuster, 655 pages, $30). Dr. Ambrose needs twice as many pages as Ryan did because he knows so much about what he calls "the climactic battle of World War II." (The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 might be thought climactic, but by then the direction of the war was clear.)
Readers of Dr. Ambrose's earlier, authoritative works will know to expect a sprinting narrative studded with detail and enlivened by stinging arguments. He is never shy about thrusting his chips on the table. He knows he has aces to play. His two-volume, highly favorable biography of Eisenhower is still respected; he needed three installments to get Nixon explained, and often defended.
A veteran scholar of military history, Dr. Ambrose begins "D-Day" with the passionate argument that the invasion's success represented "a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism." U.S. servicemen knew they were fighting for freedom; this made them better soldiers, sailors and flyboys. The German army had many fine units, but it was hardly the invincible force some have said. Too many in Hitler's Wehrmacht at Normandy were browbeaten conscripts, some from conquered lands.
Dr. Ambrose explores the great buildup of an armada of more than 155,000 troops, thousands of jeeps, "swimming" tanks, bazookas, 12,000 aircraft and 5,333 vessels -- more ships, one admiral noted, "than there were in all the world when Elizabeth I was Queen of England." This force, Dr. Ambrose writes, "was the greatest mass movement of armed forces in the history of the British and American armies."
No one who was at Omaha Beach that day, or who looks at the many photographs Dr. Ambrose includes, will easily forget the mangled bodies, many of them floating in the surf alongside disabled landing vessels and tanks. For more images see Donald Goldstein, et al., "D-Day Normandy: The Story and Photographs" (Brassey's, 180 pages, $30.)
Ernie Pyle, the correspondent whose dispatches in World War II became classics, shook his head at the carnage on Omaha Beach and called the final success a "miracle." No, says Dr. Ambrose, who is in many ways an old-fashioned but hardheaded romantic about war, "it was infantry."