Anniversaries have their uses. They make good copy for the media. Politicians can play statesmen in telegenic locations. And there is a ready market for books (and even book reviews). But is there any deep point to jubilee-itis? In June 1994, are we making too much fuss about D-Day?
In his new book Stephen Ambrose answers this question with an unequivocal 'no'. Unlike many of the new books on D-Day, his is not a pastiche of reminiscences. To be sure, Ambrose includes much of human interest, drawing on the unique collection of 1,400 oral history tapes that his Eisenhower Center in New Orleans has accumulated from veterans, particularly American, but also British, Canadian and German. But Ambrose is also master of the big picture, as befits the biographer of Eisenhower and the author of a best-selling history of modern US diplomacy.
The result is quite simply the best narrative history of D-Day, shifting deftly from analysis of the strategic context to vivid descriptions of scenes such as the beach defences or the great armada, and brought alive by a stream of soldier stories about the bizarre mixture of boredom and frenzy, fear and exhilaration that is battle.
The epic quality is heightened by his convictions about the meaning of D-Day. In the first place, it was the greatest combined operation in the history of war. Ambrose's command of narrative and detail brings that cliche alive. A total of 150,000 men were landed in one day in Normandy, while a massive deception convinced the Nazis that the main assault would come later at Calais.
Weeks of preliminary air attacks across northern France paralysed German transport and drove the Luftwaffe from the skies. On D-Day itself there were 14,000 Allied sorties. At sea the naval armada of 5,000 ships was a truly unforgettable sight. And another 2 million men and women laboured in England, sustaining the fighting personnel.
This, notes Ambrose, was four times the size of Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf war. And it was all planned in an age before computers and photocopiers, using typewriters, duplicating machines and ream after ream of carbon paper. The book goes on to catalogue the overwhelming physical presence of the invading force - the sheer weight of numbers gathered on the coast:
'They came by land, by train, bus, truck, or on foot, men and equipment from Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Midlands and Wales. They formed up by the hundreds in companies and battalions, by the thousands in regiments, to march down narrow English roads, headed south. When they arrived in their marshalling areas, they formed up by divisions, corps and armies in the hundreds of thousands - altogether almost 2 million men, nearly half a million vehicles. It took 54,000 men to provide necessary services for the force, including more than 4,500 newly trained army cooks. It was the greatest mass movement of armed forces in the history of the British and American armies. It culminated with a concentration of military men and weaponry in southern
most England such as the world had never seen, or would again.'
Eisenhower liked to say that before a battle plans were everything, but after battle was joined they were worthless. That was certainly true for the GIs trapped on the killing field of Omaha beach. There, little went to plan. Success, even survival, depended on the initiative and courage of individuals. For Ambrose, these are the real heroes of D-Day and they are the centrepiece of his story.
But this was also an Allied operation. Ambrose dwells on Ike's theme of teamwork. Twelve different nations were represented in the Allied armada. Americans, British and Canadian troops all took lead roles on the beaches, with the French resistance heroically harassing the German rear.
Moreover, these were not militaristic dictatorships. Again Ambrose's text comes from Eisenhower, about the fury of an aroused democracy. For him, this was ultimately the triumph of a way of life, whether the productive miracles of American industry, the ingenuity of British inventions (from Ultra code-
breaking to the special tanks clearing the landing beaches), or the will-power of young men in their early twenties conscripted reluctantly into making war.
Ambrose's book captures not only the drama of D-Day but also its appeal 50 years on, in countries where cynicism about leaders is rampant and heroes seem in short supply. In June 1994 the public, as well as the veterans, want more than spam fritters.
But 6 June was only Day One. In an important collection of essays that are both scholarly and accessible (D-Day 1944, Eurospan, pounds 22.50) Theodore Wilson and his collaborators underline this. One piece shows the problems faced by the British and Canadians, who had it relatively easy on D-Day, in sustaining a bloody battle with minimal reserves of manpower - a major reason for Montgomery's notorious 'caution'. We are also reminded of the French population caught in the middle, as ravaged cities such as Caen and St Lo bore witness. Another essay makes clear how, until recently, our assessment of why D-Day succeeded was skewed by official concealment of the Allied deception campaign.
Yet the aperture of our historical vision must be widened still further, beyond one day or one part of Europe. June 1944 saw another, forgotten, D-Day - on the 22nd. This was Operation Bagration, mounted by 1.2 million Russians under their paranoid dictator Stalin. Within two weeks they had destroyed a German army group in Belorussia and inflicted 350,000 casualties.
The Eastern Front was an essential complement to the battle of Normandy. This is now more widely acknowledged in the West since the end of the Cold War. But what are the human realities behind the statistics? We do not know. Many of the documents have perished and there is no archive of 1,400 oral histories for Bagration. German scholars are now interviewing veterans systematically; the Russians have hardly begun. With these men in their seventies, time is running out. Yet one suspects that if a Russian historian could capture the events of 22 June as Ambrose has done so memorably for 6 June, the summer of 1944 might well look rather different.
The writer is Fellow in History at Christ's College, Cambridge.
Robert Winder returns next week.Reuse content