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Was this the way it was?

Charles Wheeler, who witnessed the D-Day landings, on where Spielberg went wrong
STEVEN SPIELBERG's latest epic, Saving Private Ryan, begins in the American military cemetery above Omaha beach. An elderly man hobbles past rows of white crosses, peering at inscriptions, looking for the burial place of a buddy. An American family - wife, sons, daughters - follows at a respectful distance. Dad finds the grave he's seeking. Joints creaking, he sinks to his knees. He's a Normandy veteran, fifty-something years on. He's ashamed he survived. He weeps.

Cut to high waves, vomiting in boats, screaming shells, whizzing bullets, bursting grenades, screams, yells, young men drowning, calling for their mothers, dying of wounds. A leg flies ten feet into the air, a creation of Spielberg's 17-man prosthetics and corpse design department. Twenty more minutes of gratuitous bloodshed follow. All accompanied by 180-degree, nearly deafening sound.

Was Omaha like that? Is Spielberg's claim to have told it as it was valid? Broadly speaking, yes. Eyewitness accounts collected while memories were fresh by a half-dozen authors - Max Hastings, Robin Neillands, Russell Miller and others - show that Omaha was indeed sheer hell. As for people who arrived on the scene seven hours after the assault and watched what remained of the action from the relative safety of a ship, as I did, we'd be courting derision if we dismissed his version of the truth out of hand.

I wish, however, that a film-maker commanding such massive resources, together with a reputation guaranteeing him an audience of tens of millions, had thought it worthwhile to give his story of the landing some context, telling us not simply what happened but why. Why, for instance, was it necessary to land troops at that point on the coast at all? The short answer is that the D-Day planners had no choice. The beach they code-named Omaha was the only gap in 20 miles of cliffs separating the three British and Canadian beaches to the east from the second American beach, Utah, at the far, western end of the assault area. Without Omaha, the distance between the two allied armies would have invited a German counter-attack that might have defeated the invasion and prolonged the war in Europe by several more years.

Omaha's terrain was ideal for defence. At both ends the cliffs were nearly perpendicular. At mid-tide a short stretch of firm sand led to a ledge of heavy shingle, impassable to vehicles, and on to a sea wall five to 15 feet high and topped with barbed wire. Inland of the wall was a paved road, a deep anti-tank ditch, a stretch of swamp and a steep climb to a network of trenches on higher ground.

A deadly combination of natural and man-made defences made Omaha a killing field, much as Dieppe had been. Field Marshal Rommel, who had masterminded a build-up of Germany's Atlantic Wall defences since January 1944, had provided Omaha with the most extensive waterline obstacles of the entire Normandy coastline, starting with a labyrinth of mined posts and angular steel obstructions to act as barriers to incoming tanks and landing craft. Overlooking the beach, and pre-positioned to sweep every square foot of shallows, sand and shingle with cross-fire, were 88-millimetre and 75- millimetre guns in eight concrete bunkers, 38 rocket barriers, six multi- barrelled mortar pits and no fewer than 84 machine-gun nests.

Four ravines formed exits from the beach. On D-Day they were mined, wired and covered by 35 pill boxes manned by infantry armed with rifles, grenades and machine guns. Snipers lay hidden at intervals. And there were more defences in depth further on.

How to train men for an opposed landing had exercised military minds since Dunkirk in 1940. The answer the experts come up with was simple. When your landing craft hits land and the door drops you sprint straight ahead at the enemy's defences. On no account stop, not even for a fallen friend. At all costs get off the beach, where you're most likely to die. But there was reassurance as well. The briefers had promised America's two attacking divisions the mother of all bombardments of enemy positions immediately before their boats hit the beach. Together the bombs and the shells would so disrupt the defences that the first wave of Americans would be able to clear the beach, and reach high ground before the Germans regained their balance.

In the event, part of the plan was faulty and the rest didn't work. The naval bombardment was too brief and inaccurate to provide significant help. The air force, fearful of hitting the incoming landing craft, dropped their bombs in fields up to three miles inland, killing cows instead of German soldiers. The admiral, worried about anchoring his ships within range of German artillery, and ignoring the rough seas and lack of protection from the weather, launched his landing craft some 12 miles from the shore, forcing the troops to endure an unimaginably miserable, and in itself defeating, run-in to the beach. A colonel recalled later that some of his men "just lay there with the water splashing back and forth over them, not caring whether they lived or died".

Loading in darkness at 3am, 10 transports, each carrying 300 men, were swamped and sank; 26 heavy guns went straight to the seabed in their amphibious trucks, called DUKWs. Of 32 swimming tanks assigned to one Am-erican division with orders to clear the way to the beach exits, 29 foundered and sank. Their loss was to cause hundreds of additional casualties.

Waiting for the Americans was not a single, second-rate enemy division, as the planners had expected, but two. Unknown to allied intelligence, fresh troops from the Russian front, arriving at the coast only days earlier, had just completed anti-invasion exercises. As the first line of landing craft reached shallow water the defenders opened fire, killing many of the grievously seasick Americans before they could disembark. Some of the landing craft were blown apart before they reached the beach. Others grounded on a sand bar.

Infantrymen, weighed down by up to 70lbs of equipment, stepped into deep water and drowned. Within minutes the beach was a shambles of wrecked landing craft, stranded vehicles and wounded and dying men. One company lost 96 per cent of its effective strength before it fired a single shot.

The defences at Omaha were simply too strong for the forces sent against them and many of those who made it to the top of the beach, their weapons lost or clogged with sand, huddled against the sea wall for hours, leaderless and shocked. It got worse as successive waves of American infantrymen were cut down. As the tide rose - eight feet in two hours and with no more room for reinforcements - the beach become a massive traffic jam, providing the defenders with stationary targets. None of the beach exits had been opened or even approached.

Two things saved the day. A pair of destroyers came in close enough to scrape the sand and fire point-blank at the German fortifications. And a few brave men, pointing out that retreat was impossible, rallied enough of their comrades to launch an attack on the heights and tackle the enemy positions from the rear. By afternoon, against all odds, a foothold had been won.

And there we rejoin Saving Private Ryan, cutting from resting soldiers above Omaha beach to Washington, where General George Marshal, the US Army's chief of staff, has discovered that three brothers have all been killed in action within days of one another, while a fourth, hopefully surviving sibling, James Ryan, is somewhere in Normandy, having dropped into France with his airborne division. Marshal orders a rescue mission - brother James must be extracted from the battle and sent home to spare his mother another bereavement.

This device is frankly unbelievable. You might imagine that a radio message to Ryan's commander - to any unit which Ryan, if lost, might have joined - would suffice. But that would rip the heart out of the script. Instead a Captain Miller is ordered, along with eight increasingly reluctant GIs to comb the countryside for James. And off they go on foot, rifles at the ready, in line abreast, the captain's silver insignia glinting in the sun, in an unintentionally farcical and wildly unmilitary expedition into the heart of enemy territory. Cue battle. Still no sign of Ryan. Change location. Cameras roll on second battle. Ryan is found but heroically elects to stay with his buddies - Mom will understand. Cue third and final battle - even noisier than D-Day and featuring Tiger tanks blasting a church. It's Boy's Own stuff. But no doubt there will be another shower of Oscars for Steven Spielberg.