From the Archives: The Longest Day

At this time last year, My Own True Love and I took a D-Day tour put on by the fabulous National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it seemed like a good time to re-run the blog posts I wrote about the trip.  I’m ending this series with the first post I wrote on the subject.  Thanks for traveling with me.


As I’ve mentioned before, My Own True Love and I are traveling to Normandy in May on a tour led by the National World War II Museum. The focus of the trip is D-Day–something I know about in only the broadest of terms. Which means I decided to read up, because that is what I do. The museum helpfully included a list of suggested reading: ten serious works of military history written by respected historians and journalists, ranging in scope from a comprehensive history of the war from the American and British perspective drawing largely on first hand accounts to the story of a group of men from one small town in Virginia who died at Omaha Beach.(1) Overwhelmed by the choices, I identified the ones we already owned (and by we, I mean My Own True Love) and then picked one at random.

The book gods smiled on me. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day proved to be just the kind of military history I like. In the foreword Ryan claims the book is “not a military history. It is the story of people: the men of the Allied forces, the enemy they fought, and the civilians who were caught up in the bloody confusion of D Day.” Ryan manages the paradoxical task of portraying the sense of confusion with utter clarity. Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of a omniscient narrator who can see the invasion as a whole, he moves from one powerful vignette to another, replicating the isolation of each unit on the battlefield. He moves from tragedy to comedy and back. His enlisted men are as vivid as his generals. He not only made me care about members of the invading force, he made me feel sympathy for lower-level German officers unable to respond to the invasion because of bad decisions made higher up the chair of command.  (Quite a hat trick.) My only complaint with the book is that it made me cry on public transportation.

Will The Longest Day help me follow the course of the invasion as we walk the beaches in Normandy? Maybe not. But it certainly helped me understand the battle in human terms. And that is, after all, one of the reasons I read history.

(1)Here’s the list for anyone looking to add to your To-Be-Read shelf:

Stephen Ambrose. Band of Brothers.
Stephen Ambrose. D-Day: June 6, 1944
Stephen Ambrose. Pegasus Bridge**
Rick Atkinson. The Guns at Last Light: the War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation
Robert M. Citino. The German Way of War
John Keegan. Six Armies in Normandy
Alex Kershaw. The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.
Donald L. Miller. The Story of World War II
Cornelius Ryan. The Longest Day

It’s an impressive list, but I must admit it made me wonder if there are any books about D-Day written by women. A quick Google search gave me an impressive number of hits, all with notation “missing: women“–which sums things up on many levels. If anyone knows of an example, please let me know.

(2) In case you hadn’t caught on, Dr. Ambrose was one of the founders of the museum.

From the Archives: The Falaise Pocket and the Long Legacy of Battle

At this time last year, My Own True Love and I took a D-Day tour put on by the fabulous National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In honor of  the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it seemed like a good time to re-run the blog posts I wrote about the trip. Settle in: for the next few posts it’s going to be D-Day in the Margins.

* * *

The final day of our tour of Normandy was spent on the critical engagement known as the Falaise Pocket or Falaise Gap. Between August 12 and August 21, Allied forces, including exiled Polish forces who had taken refuge in Britain after the Germans invaded Poland, encircled the German Seventh Army in a pocket around the city of Falaise.

Unlike many of the operations of the Battle of Normandy, which are often told in terms of the heroic actions of small groups or individuals in the midst of chaos, the events of the Falaise Pocket lend themselves to clear descriptions of troop movements. Allied troops surrounded 100,000 of Hitler’s best troops in a pincer movement: United States forces moving south and east while British, Canadian, and Polish forces moved in from the North. The delay of American troops created a brief opening, the Falaise gap, through which some 50,000 German troops fought their way free. The two-thousand-man 1st Polish Armored Division captured Hill 262, in the middle of the bottleneck, and held it against overwhelming odds against German forces for two days and nights until relieved by Canadian troops. It was a thrilling story, even though I am not generally a fan of military history reduced to troop movements.

After driving through the Dives valley where the battle of the Falaise Pocket occurred we stopped at a small private museum dedicated to the battle, the Mémorial de Montormel.  Located on a hill overlooking the battlefield, the museum told the story of the battle in three different forms: a contoured table map with lights representing the various troops movements,* a brief film, and a personal narrative told by the museum director while we stood at an enormous picture window looking out over the valley where the battle occurred.

The director’s account brought the battle back to the human level, and reminded us that even liberation leaves horror in its wake. General Eisenhower described the events at Falaise as “one of the greatest killing grounds that any sector of the war has ever experienced… forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap, it was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.” The museum director made it clear that the effects lasted more than forty-eight hours. He described land cloaked first with a layer of black flies and later with a white layer of maggots. It was two years before the people of the Dives Valley could plant crops again because the ground water was polluted with the corpses of dead men and dead horses.** Twenty years later, contractors were still removing scrap metal left from the battle. I can’t say it too often: war is ugly.

*I thought it was excellent. My Own True Love thought it was confusing. Just so you know.
**We tend to think of World War II as highly mechanized, but horses still played an important role and died in battle. More than 10,000 horses were killed in the Falaise Pocket alone.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Before I abandon the invasion of Normandy for other historical topics, I want to recommend a museum on the other side of the Channel which deals with the invasion from another perspective: the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth. The museum does an excellent job of portraying both preparations for D-Day and the invasion itself, but it is not “just” a military museum. A significant portion of the exhibit focuses on social history of the period, looking at bombing raids, women in the workforce, black outs, evacuation and rationing as experienced in Portsmouth. I was particularly taken by the oral history element of the museum: the museum not only provided book after book of first hand accounts for the visitor to read, it also played recordings of those accounts in the relevant sections of the museum. The centerpiece of the museum is the Overlord Embroidery: a 272-foot long embroidery commissioned as an answer to the Bayeux Tapestry. Pretty spectacular.

From the Archives: The Destruction and Reconstruction of Caen

 

At this time last year, My Own True Love and I took a D-Day tour put on by the fabulous National World War II Museum in New Orleans. With the 75th anniversary of D-Day marching toward us, it seemed like a good time to re-run the blog posts I wrote about the trip.  Settle in:  for the next few posts it’s going to be D-Day in the Margins.

  *   *   *

As I’ve mentioned before, you can’t go very far in Normandy without coming up against William the Conqueror and/or D-Day. Even on a tour day devoted to William the Conqueror in Caen, the impact of D-Day on the population of Normandy was an unavoidable part of the story.

The issue first appeared when we stood on the grounds of William’s castle: a site which was forgotten by l’homme in the street in the twentieth century until bombing during the invasion of Normandy destroyed the medieval town that surrounded the fortified walls. The bombardment came up again when we visited William’s abbey, where many citizens of Caen took refuge during the bombardment.

The battle for Caen began on June 6, 1944. The city was “liberated” on July 8, but fighting around the city continued until July 21. The cost of liberation was high. Some three thousand civilians were killed in the battle for Caen. Seventy-three percent of the city was destroyed, leaving two million cubic meters of rubble that had to be removed before the city could begin to rebuild. For more than three years, the residents of Caen lived in temporary housing on the outskirts of the city while German prisoners of war moved rubble.*

Reconstruction finally began in 1948, in many cases using the prized Caen limestone from destroyed buildings.

Moral of the story, at least as far as I am concerned: it is easy, and important, to remember D-Day from the perspective of the soldiers. Both the acts of heroism and the tragic loss of life. But we also need to remember the civilian casualties of war.

*Even decisions that seem obvious were complicated. On the one hand,  prisoners of war were used because the work was hard and dangerous: the rubble contained unexploded shells. On the other hand, the German prisoners were fed in exchange for their work at a time when many French civilians went hungry.

 

Reminder:  If you are reading this blog post as an email, you will need to click through to your browser to see the video.  Just click the blog header.