Book Review: ‘Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far’ (No. 318 Library of America Series)

© 2019 Library of America/Penguin Random House

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Two Classic WWII Histories in One Commemorative Volume

On May 7, 2019, the non-profit Library of America published Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, a 75th Anniversary commemorative reprint of two classic “popular histories” of World War II: The Longest Day (1959) and A Bridge Too Far (1974). Published a decade and-a-half apart, the two books told the stories of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 and Operation Market-Garden (Sept. 17-26, 1944), the star-crossed attempt by the Allies to capture a bridgehead over the Lower Rhine River and end the war by Christmas of ’44.

Edited by Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light) this Library of America edition presents both volumes as closely as possible as their first printings, with the legendary illustrator Rafael Palacios’ full-color endpaper maps for The Longest Day and 88 black-and-white photographs from both books’ photo inserts. Additionally, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far includes some of the author’s wartime dispatches for the London Daily Telegraph, articles written for various magazines – including Reader’s Digest – to supplement The Longest Day, letters written to his publishers, and two sample questionnaires that Ryan sent to veterans during the research phase for the two books.

Along with The Last Battle, Ryan’s 1966 account of the Battle of Berlin, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far comprise what many history buffs call Ryan’s World War II Trilogy. Written in an episodic “minute-by-minute” style based on thousands of personal accounts by veterans and civilian participants on both sides of the European Theater of Operations, Ryan’s books featured careful, almost obsessively relentless reporting and a narrative approach that is novel-like in its detailed descriptions of individuals, places, and events. (In his introduction, editor Rick Atkinson remarks that Ryan’s stylistic choices, first perfected in articles for the now-defunct Collier’s magazine in the 1950s, could put The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far into the non-fiction novel genre, along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List.)

The Longest Day

“Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire,” photograph of Omaha Beach landings, June 6, 1944, by Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

The Longest Day (which was originally published in 1959 by Simon & Schuster to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of D-Day) is perhaps Ryan’s best-known work; in part because for many years it was the definitive popular history about the events of June 6, 1944, and also because Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox adapted it into a 1962 movie. (Zanuck hired Ryan to write the screenplay; as Atkinson notes in his short biography of the author, Ryan disliked the legendary producer, mostly because Zanuck wanted to use more artistic license, while Ryan insisted on historical accuracy. In fact, things became so heated that the two men stopped speaking to each other during the filming of The Longest Day in France, using intermediaries to communicate about the screenplay.)  Ryan conceived the book during a visit to the Normandy beaches in 1949, and with the help of the Reader’s Digest Association, interviewed or corresponded with hundreds of military and civilian participants in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, and West Germany. A consummate researcher, Ryan also scoured official government records and published works about D-Day and the war in Western Europe, collecting a vast amount of facts and anecdotes for the book that would make him a best-selling author.

A visit to the Normandy beaches in 1949 inspired Ryan to write a book about D-Day, a task that took a decade to complete. The Longest Day is a democratic history in which American paratrooper John Steele, hanging from a church steeple in the midst of battle, and German infantryman Josef Häger, trapped inside a besieged bunker, share the stage with top commanders General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Ryan captures the nervous anticipation felt by Allied servicemen and French civilians as they await the signal for the invasion; chronicles the confused German response to the Allied onslaught; and provides cinematic depictions of the grim battle for Ste.-Mère-Église, the desperate assault on the Merville battery, and the bloody struggle to get off Omaha Beach. – Publisher’s dust jacket blurb, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day/A Bridge Too Far

The Longest Day is divided into three parts, The Wait, The Night, and The Day. Part One is an overview of the last few weeks of preparations for the cross-Channel invasion on the Axis and the Allied sides. Ryan covers some of the “backstage drama” aspects of Operation Overlord, such as near-disasters when the plans for the operation were mailed by accident to a GI’s relatives back in the States and nearly exposed, and a tale of extraordinary coincidences involving some of the code names related to the invasion and a London newspaper’s crossword puzzles.

Part Two deals with the night drop of Allied paratroopers to secure the far ends of the invasion area and a somewhat romanticized account of the French resistance’s role in assisting the D-Day landings. The Germans’ confused reaction to the drops and some of the airborne troopers’ adventures and mishaps throughout the predawn hours of D-Day also described in this section of the book.

The third part of the book delves into the daytime activities on the various airborne drop zones, in the Bay of the Seine – where the greatest invasion armada ever assembled was arrayed – and on the five invasion beaches, as seen through the various accounts from military and civilian participants. In The Day, Ryan captures the chaos, the fear, the courage, and the mix of triumph and tragedy that seared the words “Normandy” and “D-Day” into the collective consciousness of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

Members of an Army Engineer Special Brigade (identifiable by the insignias on their helmets) assist troops whose landing craft was sunk by enemy fire off Omaha Beach, near Colleville-sur-Mer, on June 6, 1944. (Louis Weintraub, Army Signal Corps / National Archives)

Published on November 22, 1959, The Longest Day spent 22 weeks on the New York Times’ best-sellers’ list. The book’s success couldn’t have come at a better time; Ryan was $60,000 in debt at the time of the book’s release, but royalty payments from Simon and Schuster and the sale of the film rights (French producer Raoul Levy bought them for $100,000 and hired Ryan to write the screenplay) put the author’s finances “in the black.” And although other works about D-Day – including Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day: June 6, 1944 – The Climactic Battle of World War II have revealed new facts about the Normandy landing and even reinterpreted some of Ryan’s conclusions, The Longest Day has never been out-of-print and is still popular among readers.

Though flawed in many ways – John Wayne’s miscasting, for one – The Longest Day’s 1962 film adaptation was an international box office hit and saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy.  © 1962 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

A Bridge Too Far

Cover of the 1974 edition of A Bridge Too Far,  © 1974 Simon & Schuster

The success of The Longest Day – reinforced by the popularity of Zanuck’s three-hour-long film epic – encouraged Ryan to write a second book in what Ryan planned to be a five-book series about World War II in Europe: The Last Battle, which “jumped” ahead in the timeline to the European war’s end in the spring of 1945. Ryan spent five years working on his account of the Battle of Berlin, a task that entailed getting access to the then-closely held Soviet military archives and interviewing Red Army veterans who participated in the capture of Adolf Hitler’s capital.

Although – like The Longest Day – The Last Battle is meticulously researched and most of its narrative is historically sound, Ryan’s thesis that a politically inept Dwight D. Eisenhower “allowed” the Russians to “beat” the Allies in a race for Berlin is flawed. In The Last Battle, Ryan not-so-subtly hints that many of the Cold War tensions that had Berlin as their epicenter – including the East German government’s construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – could have been avoided had the Western Allies captured the German capital. (As Rick Atkinson points out, Ryan’s argument is not supported by the historical evidence. Berlin was deep in the zone of Germany that had been already allocated to the Russians in various inter-Allied agreements, including those made at the Yalta Conference of early 1945.

Furthermore, Ryan dismisses the harsh reality that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would not have allowed the Anglo-Americans to cross into the Soviet zone without opposition. In his book about the fall of Berlin in 1945, British historian Antony Beevor states that the Red Army’s massive forces around Berlin would have fired on their Western Allies if they had made a last-minute bid for the German capital. Needless to say, former General and two-term President Eisenhower was not amused by The Last Battle’s argument that Ike, perhaps the most politically-adept World War II commander, was “naïve.”)

Despite the controversy, The Last Battle was also successful with readers and most critics; it spent 30 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers’ list. Metro Goldwyn Mayer – with an eye on the success of Fox’s The Longest Day – bought the film rights and hired Ryan to write the screenplay. The movie was never made; Ryan was already working on his book about Operation Market-Garden – a project that was beset by the author’s failing health – and the divisiveness of the Vietnam War had soured the public’s taste for World War II epics. In 1969, MGM canceled The Last Battle.

Ryan began working on his book about Market-Garden a year after the publication of The Last Battle, once again assisted in the research by Reader’s Digest, which used its various foreign bureaus to help the author gather information from veterans and civilian eyewitnesses scattered throughout the U.S., Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands. However, his screenwriting efforts for MGM (he also wrote an adaptation of Leon Uris’s novel Armageddon, set in post-World War II Berlin, along with The Last Battle) and the painful symptoms of prostate cancer (which was diagnosed in the fall of 1970) caused delays.

Tired, anxious, and in constant pain, the author – then in his early 50s – struggled to complete A Bridge Too Far in a neck-to-neck race with terminal cancer. He completed the manuscript on October 27, 1973; Simon & Schuster published the hardcover edition of A Bridge Too Far on September 16, 1974, one day before the 30th Anniversary of Market-Garden’s D-Day (September 17, 1944).  

Cornelius Ryan at Pointe du Hoc, France, on June 5, 1964. (Paul Slade; courtesy Paris Match via Getty Images)

In Ryan’s tragic masterpiece A Bridge Too Far (1974), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s uncharacteristically bold plan to end the war in 1944 by crossing the Rhine in Holland sets in motion the greatest airborne assault in history. Ryan narrates with consummate skill the heartbreaking hour-by-hour unraveling of Operation Market Garden as the Allied offensive encounters unexpected German resistance, precipitating a series of merciless battles fought in the Dutch countryside and the shattered streets of Nijmegen and Arnhem. Written as Ryan was fighting his own private battle with cancer, A Bridge Too Far is an unforgettable story of physical and mental suffering, bewildering confusion, stubborn endurance, and unyielding courage. – Publisher’s dust jacket blurb, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far

In this almost hour-by-hour account, Ryan describes the badly-planned and ultimately-doomed combined-arms bid to capture a series of bridges along a single highway in Nazi-occupied Holland by dropping three elite airborne divisions (two American, one British) and a Polish brigade) from Eindhoven at the southern limit of the Market-Garden area to Arnhem – 64 miles behind enemy lines – on the Lower Rhine, to be relieved by Lt. Gen. Brian G. Horrocks’ British XXX Corps. Horrocks’ armored and infantry units had to meet an unforgiving deadline: they had to reach the lightly-armed paratroopers and their Polish reinforcements within a window of two-to-six days. But a shortage of transport aircraft in the European Theater meant the parachute drop could not be carried out in one day – so the plan called for three “lifts” over three consecutive days.

As Ryan points out in the book, overconfidence at almost every level infected the planning stages of Market Garden. In order for Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s plan to work, the Allies needed:

  • Three days of clear weather – a rare occurrence in Northwest Europe in late summer
  • The quick capture of all the bridges on D-Day
  • The absence of elite German units, including panzer and SS troops, from the Market Garden drop zones and the bridges
  • Reliable communications between the airborne units and the various commands involved – including forward air controllers and higher command levels
  • No delays to the advance of XXX Corps to Arnhem

But as A Bridge Too Far painfully points out, none of these bits of wishful thinking came to pass, and the Allies did not grab a bridgehead over the Rhine at Arnhem as planned. Instead, as Ryan  – quoting John C. Warren, an American historian – bitterly observes, “All objectives save Arnhem had been won, but without Arnhem, the rest were as nothing. In return for so much courage and sacrifice, the Allies had won a 50-mile salient – leading nowhere.”

The Library of America Edition

“A gifted reporter and writer, Cornelius Ryan set the standard for telling war stories that fly by like the best novels. Any reader seeking both the broad strokes of military strategy and the gritty, surprising, inspiring, and often terrible details of combat can do no better than these two books.” — Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down and Huê 1968 – Back dustjacket blurb, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far

As I said earlier, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far was published by Library of America in May of 2019 to commemorate the 75th Anniversaries of both the Normandy landings in France and the Market-Garden operation in Holland, which took place in that fateful year of 1944. It also marked the 60th year since The Longest Day’s publication, and the 45th year since A Bridge Too Far was published – and, of course, Cornelius Ryan’s passing.

 Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far is not – as one might expect – a huge doorstop of a book. It is a hardcover book, but it’s almost the same size as a trade paperback – its dimensions are 5.1 x 1.4 x 8.1 inches and only weighs 1.6 lbs. Nevertheless, including the various indexes, bibliographies, and other addenda, it is 1008 pages long. Neither The Longest Day nor A Bridge Too Far have been abridged, and great care was used by the producers of the Library of America edition to maintain the integrity of Ryan’s text. Only in instances where there were egregious printer’s errors in the 1959 first edition were any corrections made to The Longest Day, and only one photo and its cutline were swapped for a new one in A Bridge Too Far.

© 2019 Library of America/Penguin Random House

Table of Contents

Introduction by Rick Atkinson

Foreword: D Day, June 6, 1944
Part One: The Wait
Part Two: The Night
Part Three: The Day
A Note on Casualties
D-Day Veterans: What They Do Today

Foreword: Operation Market-Garden, September 17–24, 1944
Part One: The Retreat
Part Two: The Plan
Part Three: The Attack
Part Four: The Siege
Part Five: Der Hexenkessel
A Note on Casualties
The Soldiers and Civilians of A Bridge Too Far: What They Do Today

Selected Dispatches for The Daily Telegraph, 1944–45
The Major of St. Lô (1957)
The Longest Day (1965)
Untold Stories from The Longest Day (1974)
To William Buckley, November 19, 1957
To Peter Schwed, February 24, 1959
Sample Response to Questionnaire for The Longest Day: William Rhinehart Washington (c. 1958)
Sample Response to Questionnaire for A Bridge Too Far: J. T. Richards (c. 1967)

Note on the Texts

Per the publisher’s website, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far is “printed on acid-free paper and features Smyth-sewn binding, a full cloth cover, and a ribbon marker.”  The acid-free paper is lightweight and will not turn yellow or brittle over the years. With careful handling, the Library of America edition Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far is intended to last for centuries.

Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far is just one of over 300 volumes in the catalogue of Library of America, a non-profit organization based in New York City and founded in 1979 to “ preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, America’s best and most significant writing.”

My Take

© 2019 Library of America/Penguin Random House

I first read a condensed edition of The Longest Day in an issue of the Colombian (Spanish-language) edition of Reader’s Digest some time in 1969, when my mother, my older half-sister, and I lived in Bogota. I was six going on seven at the time, so I don’t remember if it was a Reader’s Digest from that year or if it was from a relative’s collection. I do remember that even at that age I could read material at the sixth grade level, and that even then I often read books from my mom’s personal collection. In fact, The Longest Day – even in an abridged and translated version –  made such an impression on me as a young boy that I became a history buff.

So it should come as no surprise when I say that I have owned several paperback editions of all three of Cornelius Ryan’s classic works about World War II, The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far since 1975. My mom bought me the (then) new paperbacks of all three books in late 1975, which is when A Bridge Too Far was released in a mass paperback edition by the New American Library, under license from Simon & Schuster. I lost those much-read paperbacks during the 1977 move from our Westchester home to the last townhouse I shared with my mother till she died in July of 2015, but I replaced A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day with reissues in the early 1980s. I still have those copies, too  – I recently saw my battered and held-together-with-Scotch tape 40th Anniversary of D-Day paperback from 1984 among a stash of books that is still packed in a Home Depot moving box from my last move.

The 1995 Touchstone cover for the trade paperback edition.

I also have larger “trade paperbacks” of what buffs call Ryan’s “World War II Trilogy” issued in the late 1990s by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone paperback imprint. I acquired those in the early 2000s either at Waldenbooks or in my early days as an Amazon customer. I read all three just enough times to give them creases on the soft covers, but by and large they’re still in good, if not quite mint condition.

Still, I love hardcover editions of books. If taken care of properly, they can last – barring an unforeseen catastrophe such as a house fire or a flood – for many years. For this reason, mostly, I prefer to get hardcovers rather than paperbacks or even e-books. They are a bit more expensive, but they’re durable and – in most cases – are easier to read due to the larger print size of the text vis a vis the smaller print in mass-market paperbacks.

And although I have read hardbound editions of all three of Ryan’s books, mostly borrowed from the Miami-Dade Public Library system or the Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus library, I’ve never owned any of then in hardcover editions.

That is, until now.

This authoritative Library of America volume also collects seventeen of Ryan’s wartime dispatches for the London Daily Telegraph, including his eyewitness account of D-Day as seen from an American bomber; magazine stories that supplement The Longest Day; revealing letters to publishers; and samples of the research questionnaires he sent to veterans. It restores to print the full-color endpaper maps from the first edition of The Longest Day, and includes an introduction, a chronology of Ryan’s life and career, explanatory endnotes, eighty-eight pages of photographs, and eleven black and white maps. – Publisher’s dust jacket blurb, Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day/A Bridge Too Far

Since I have read The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far countless times before I received my copy of Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far yesterday afternoon, I am not in a rush to read the “main text,” at least not for the moment. I did, however, read editor Rick Atkinson’s  introduction, which recounted the amazing but all-too-brief life of Dublin-born émigré Cornelius “Connie” Ryan, a life that included a stint as a young war correspondent for a major London newspaper, a freelance writer who wrote pieces not just for the long-gone Collier’s, but also for Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening -Post, Holiday, and Reader’s Digest, and – of course – the writing of his three most-remembered books. Atkinson also discusses Ryan’s plans for a five-book series, of which The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far were a part, plans that Ryan never fleshed out or got a chance to finish due to the cancer that cut his life short at the age of 54 just a few months after A Bridge Too Far hit bookstores in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The introduction, as well as the supplementary materials appended to the two books in this beautifully-crafted Library of America edition, is reason enough for anyone who has read Ryan’s World War II Trilogy to get a copy of Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far. Atkinson (who is my current favorite active historian) does a good job of revealing the real man behind the legend known to readers everywhere as “the author of The Longest Day.” Ryan comes across as a man on a mission – his desire to write an account of D-Day that is both historically accurate and accessible to the average reader is almost an obsession, really – and a guy who, although he is generally sincere and scholarly, is not above changing the historical record to fit his personal opinions, as he did in The Last Battle, which is not included in this Library of America edition.

(Ryan, like some of his American contemporaries, tended to see the Battle of Berlin through the prism of the Cold War. There is, throughout The Last Battle, a not-so-subliminal message that strongly suggests that the postwar world might have been better off if the Anglo-American forces under Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had been allowed to capture Berlin in the spring of 1945, even though the Red Army was closer to the city than any American or British units on April 16, 1945, and even though the city lay deep in the part of Germany already designated as the Soviet occupation zone  in various agreements signed by the Big Three in 1944 and early 1945. One can only speculate that Ryan, a devout Catholic with moderate but clear conservative leanings, allowed his personal views to color his usually objective reporting. His dismay over Berlin’s postwar fate as a divided city is obvious – just read the dedication to The Last Battle and you’ll understand why I think Ryan was so harshly critical toward Eisenhower on the issue of Berlin.)

The Last Battle aside, though, Cornelius Ryan clearly deserves all of the accolades – including a distinction of France’s Legion of Honor – and good reviews he received during his life as a reporter and respected amateur historian. (That term, incidentally, is not a putdown. Ryan was, by any standard, a professional writer of history; he wasn’t an academic who taught history in colleges and universities. A few months before he died, Ryan received an honor he had long hoped for – he was elected as a Fellow of the Society of American Historians.) And this Library of America edition of Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far is a fitting literary memorial to a man who sought to tell stories about “ordinary people caught up in fear and crisis” – and preserve those stories for future generations in his works.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far’ (No. 318 Library of America Series)

  1. Wow, Alex. This was quite the work in itself. I’m glad I waited to read it in the early morning when I could read it without distraction. Nicely done!

    Liked by 1 person

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