The day Europe was liberated

Monday Books

June 06, 1994|By Geoffrey Fielding

THE LONGEST DAY. By Cornelius Ryan. Touchstone Books. 350 pages. $11 paperback.

IT WAS Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who predicted that D-Day, when the Allies landed in Normandy 50 years ago today, would be "the longest day." It was Cornelius Ryan who used that for the title of his 1959 best-seller, an account of those perilous 24 hours when American, British, Canadian and French troops stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy.

This, the largest water-borne invasion in history, and one not likely to be repeated because of vast changes in the technology of warfare, set Europe free from four years of Nazi domination. It ++ destroyed Hitler's "thousand-year" Third Reich.

To mark the 50th anniversary, Simon and Schuster, under its Touchstone Books imprint, has reissued "The Longest Day" in paperback. It is still a heart-stopper. Time and subsequent wars haven't diminished the heroism of those who, in the early hours of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, crashed into Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" on the beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The first two were assigned to Americans, the rest to British and Canadians, with a token French commando.

Some of the Americans were in battle for the first time. Others were veterans of North Africa and Sicily. There were the British, such as the Sixth Airborne Division, which used fox-hunting horns to assemble troops who had just made nightmare landings. The Americans used dime-store clickers to identify friend from foe. And there was Lord Lovat, who led his commandos into Caen with a bagpiper playing "Blue Bonnets Over the Border."

It's a great story Ryan tells, made no less great by the exploits of the 29th Division, the only National Guard unit used in the initial assault. Sodden and seasick, guardsmen landed on Omaha, where Allied intelligence had failed to note the arrival of a battle-tested German regiment several weeks before. Theirs was among the most grueling of the battles on the shores of Normandy that day. Of the 46 men from Bedford, Va., in the division's 116th Regiment, only half returned home alive. But by nightfall the front line had been pushed a mile back from the beach -- no mean task.

In reissuing this classic story, the publishers note that they not only reset the type (unfortunately, not eliminating some glaring typos), but also reproduced the photographs from the 1959 edition. But not all of them are here, and those used are muddy and dark compared to the originals.

Missing, too, are the endpapers, five maps of the landings (both night and day), the bases, the field commands and the first-day gains.

This re-issue is not up to the original, but it's better than nothing.

Geoffrey Fielding is a Baltimore writer.

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