A Plethora of D-Day Books
I have an obsession with D-Day.
Don’t ask me why. I couldn’t begin to give you a rational answer.
As a first-generation American citizen born to two immigrants from Colombia, I don’t have any personal connection to the Second World War. Yes, Colombia joined the Allies (then called the United Nations) in 1943, and it made its own contribution to the war effort against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and militarist Japan. However, unlike Brazil or Mexico, my parents’ homeland did not send an expeditionary force to either the European theater or the Pacific, and my dad, who in 1944 was a 25-year-old pilot learning how to fly transport and passenger aircraft for what eventually would be called Avianca, never saw combat even though he had a commission in the Colombian Air Force Reserves.
(On my mom’s side, I must point out that my Uncle Octavio was also a young man and could have been drafted into the Colombian military. But my grandfather – like many patriarchs of the wealthy class that ran the country – simply paid a bribe to keep his middle child from serving in the armed forces.)
And yet, as the only U.S.-born member of my Colombian American family (my mom and older half-sister became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1996), I have long been drawn to books, films, and documentaries about the events of June 6, 1944 and the liberation of France.
In my Ikea-bought Billy bookshelves there are books that either focus exclusively on D-Day itself or go further and examine the 77-day campaign from June 6 to August 25, 1944 (the day Paris was liberated). They are:
- The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan (1959)
- Overlord: D-Day & The Battle for Normandy, by Max Hastings(1984)
- D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose (1994)
- D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor (2009)
- Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France, by James Holland (2019)
- Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France, by Peter Caddick-Adams (2019)
These books were written in a 60-year span of time. The best-known title, The Longest Day, is also the oldest; its Irish-American author, former war correspondent Cornelius Ryan, conceived the idea of telling the story of Operation Overlord’s first 24 hours shortly after the war and spent nearly a decade working on it. It was a best-selling popular history book when Simon & Schuster published it in 1959 – fifteen years after the events it chronicles, and it was adapted into a popular 1962 war movie by Darryl F. Zanuck. Considered to be a classic work in the genre of popular history, The Longest Day has never been out of print and is available in most formats, including audiobooks and e-books.
The Longest Day is well-written and exhaustively researched, yet it is hobbled by at least two factors. The biggest one, of course, is that at the time that Ryan and other historians (academic or otherwise) authored books about World War II, the U.S. and British governments had not yet revealed that Allied codebreakers had been able to unlock the codes to Germany’s Enigma encrypting system, thus giving the Allied senior military commanders a better idea of German orders of battle and upcoming military operations than they would have had if the Enigma codes had not been broken.
Due to this restriction, many authors who wrote books about the war, including Charles B. MacDonald, one of the Army’s chief official historians, had to leave out quite a few details about what the Allies knew (or didn’t know) about German, Italian, or Japanese moves in the European and Pacific theaters. And, of course, what readers got because of all this secrecy was a distorted view of the war, one that was carried over into the many documentaries made for TV between the early 1950s to 1974, which is the year in which the British and American governments declassified what was known as the “Ultra Secret.”
Another issue I have with The Longest Day is that Ryan sometimes changed a few things in the narrative for dramatic impact or to clean up some of the participants’ reputations. For instance, Ryan, who was a devout Catholic, did not like Private Arthur “Dutch” Schultz’s version of why he gambled away $2,500 ($36,920.17 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation) that he had won in a craps game. So he made it look like Schultz felt guilty about gambling and deliberately played craps until he lost.
Of course, Ryan wasn’t the only historian who wasn’t affected by the “Ultra secret.” Every historian in the world who wrote about the war was, and so was every documentary filmmaker; even the world-famous The World at War was affected because the secret was revealed after the 26-part series had completed production in Great Britain.
Consequently, most World War II history books written since the revelation of Ultra have been, by necessity, revisionist works that add previously classified or untapped sources of information, including memoirs, interviews with veterans and their descendants, personal diaries, letters, and government records that were previously off-limits or simply forgotten by archivists in the former belligerent countries. That’s why there are so many new books about D-Day (and World War II) being written and published, especially around landmark dates such as 2019’s 75th Anniversary.
Sand & Steel
On May 20, 2019, the Oxford University Press published Peter Caddick-Adams’ massive (998 pages) book Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France, a comprehensive account of the various phases of the D-Day invasion from the perspectives of the Allies, the Germans, and the French that is based on many years of painstaking research – including personal visits to the many battlefields in Normandy – and interviews of surviving D-Day veterans by Caddick-Adams.
“Tuesday 6 June 1944 was a day like no other.” So begins this history of D-Day, published on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. It was a day like no other for good reason. The invasion of Normandy by Allied forces was perhaps the greatest and most consequential military operation of modern times, heralding the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe. Its hold on the imagination remains no less commanding than when news of it first broke.
Yet despite the extensive number of books and films on D-Day across the decades, doing justice even to the events of that one day poses huge challenges. Most have viewed it through either too mythic or too narrow a lens – focusing too narrowly on a particular operation, nationality, outfit, or individual. American, British, and Canadian troops were dropped from the air or landed from thousands of vessels on five beaches that were Operation Neptune and Overlord’s designated targets. Those who disembarked on Juno confronted a world apart from those scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc or clawing their way up the sands of Omaha. The operation to gain a foothold in Europe depended on a complex and shifting array of contingencies: disposition of German troops and their degree of preparation behind uneven defenses; the movement of tides; the weather.
Peter Caddick-Adams has walked every inch of the Cotentin Peninsula and spent years interviewing veterans and eyewitnesses. Sand & Steel is an account in full of D-Day, one whose terrible velocity builds with every minute. Beginning in the months of preparation and its momentous impact on the island nation, he portrays a Britain steeling itself for an invasion it had put off as long as possible. He depicts a France bracing for impact. He gives a thorough and clear-eyed assessment of German preparedness behind the Atlantikwall.
At the heart of this magisterial, immersive, and deeply humane book are the beaches and landing zones and those whose fate it was either to take or defend them. Capturing the full extent of D-Day is beyond the reach of one account, but Sand & Steel comes closer than anything to this point. Sand & Steel does what justice can be done for June 6, 1944, that day like no other. – Publisher’s dust jacket blurb, Sand & Steel
Sand & Steel, as I said before, is a massive doorstop of a history book. It is divided into two parts, Preparation, and Invasion, which are in turn divided into 35 chapters: 21 for Part One, and 14 for Part Two. In addition, Sand and Steel includes a handy glossary of military terms used by the Allies and Germans in 1944, as well as an order of battle for both sides, a postscript about Operation Fortitude (the complex suite of deception plans conceived to deceive the Germans about where the invasion was to take place), a bibliography, and more.
As the publisher’s dust jacket blurb points out, Sand & Steel is in the same category of Normandy-themed books as The Longest Day and D-Day: June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. Despite its subtitle (The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France), Sand & Steel doesn’t cover the entire Normandy campaign from the initial landings to the liberation of Paris. To put it simply, the author gives us a larger, expanded panoramic view of D-Day, following the format of the late Stephen Ambrose’s 1994 D-Day but with far more detail about the preparations for Operation Neptune and Overlord – and the effect of the influx of three million U.S. soldiers, airmen, sailors, and coast guardsmen starting in the spring of 1942 on the war-battered British Isles – from the Allied, French and German perspectives.
Sand & Steel covers a wide array of topics, some of which were not covered by Cornelius Ryan in The Longest Day and touched on only lightly in Ambrose’s 50th Anniversary account, such as the initial unease felt by both Americans and British when large contingents of U.S. military personnel, war correspondents, and others first arrived in Great Britain. Despite sharing a common language and a historical relationship that stretched far back to the seventeenth century – Britain being America’s “Mother Country,” after all – there were cultural clashes and misunderstandings. Caddick-Adams explores some of these, including the different attitudes that Britons and Americans (especially whites from the South) held about African-American service personnel; the former did not practice segregation (official or otherwise), while the latter insisted on imposing the same strict rules of racial separation and unequal treatment of “Negro” GIs, most of whom were assigned to what amounted to menial labor in the Services of Supply branch of the Army.
Other sources of tension included a mutual cultural misunderstanding between the two English-speaking superpowers, the United States and the British Empire and its Commonwealth, which at the time also included the self-governed Dominion of Canada. The Brits – or Limeys – thought Americans would all be like the cowboys and gangsters they saw in the “cinema,” arrogant, uncouth, and too willing to bed British women whose men were away fighting the Axis in the Mediterranean and in Southeast Asia, while the “Yanks” thought their host country would be full of pretentious upper-class Colonel Blimp types who went around saying, “My dear chap, how good it is to see you, sir.”
(The part about brash Americans bedding British women – married or otherwise – was partly true, much to the resentment of the poorly paid British Tommies and Canadians who were training for D-Day. The British half-joking line about the big-spending GIs was, “You Americans are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” The Americans’ comeback was, “You Brits are underpaid, undersexed, and under Eisenhower.” But, the Anglo-American alliance endured throughout World War II, and endures today as the “special relationship” between London and Washington.)
Sand and Steel also covers the tense years of preparation for a cross-Channel attack, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to postpone or make unnecessary by producing campaigns in other battlefields far from Western Europe. American senior commanders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, resisted Churchill’s insistence in pursuing a peripheral strategy and launching invasions in North Africa (November 1942), Sicily (July 1943) and mainland Italy (September 1943). They believed that to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and liberate Western Europe, the surest and fastest route went from Northern France, across the Low Countries, and into the Reich itself.
Churchill and his generals, Caddick-Adams reminds the reader, thought that an invasion of France in 1942 or 1943 was madness. The United States had only entered the war in December of 1941, and even though it was building the largest armed hosts in its history (18 million men and women would eventually serve in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day), the well-paid and magnificently equipped GIs and flyboys were not battle-seasoned veterans ready to take on Hitler’s Wehrmacht in November of 1942. And even though the campaign in North Africa ended victoriously, the performance of the U.S. forces there proved Churchill’s point. Enthusiasm and material superiority weren’t substitutes for actual battle experience.
The book examines how the Allies finally reached a point in their military prowess and numerical superiority that made Operation Overlord inevitable. It covers such topics as the various training exercises to get the American, British, and Canadians ready for their visit to the far shore of the English Channel. Exercise TIGER, best known as the “Slapton Sands Incident,” is mentioned, of course. But so is Exercise FABIUS, and others like it, which historians often overlook because no tragedies occurred that required a coverup by Gen. Eisenhower and his British colleagues.
The stories of the occupied French, including the collaborators, the Resistance, and the ordinary Jean and Michelle who just wanted to get from day to day, are in Sand & Steel, as well as the tales of the German forces waiting tensely behind Hitler’s vaunted Atlantikwall to repel the invasion everyone knew was inevitable. Caddick-Adams includes anecdotes from both the occupied and occupiers to remind the reader that not every French citizen was a resister, and that not every “Kraut” was a murderous Nazi.
History, after all, is more complex and nuanced than the myths created not just by Hollywood and its British counterpart in countless films and even pre-1974 books about D-Day, but by the French themselves to assuage their collective conscience over their defeat and subsequent occupation by Germany in 1940.
Of course, Sand & Steel covers much ground that is familiar to readers of World War II history: the role played by Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan in drafting the first version of Overlord is retold here, as is the story of the role played by weather and 1944 meteorology in the postponement of D-Day from Monday, June 5 to Tuesday, June 6. Other familiar tales abound here, too, such as Churchill’s insistence on being present aboard a Royal Navy ship to see the “big show” on D-Day – and how King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father, convinced him not to.
Some familiar names will appear in the pages of Sand & Steel, too. Eisenhower, Marshall, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bernard L. Montgomery, Arthur Tedder, Bertram Ramsey, Trevor Leigh-Mallory, Omar N. Bradley, Ted Roosevelt, Jr., Hitler, Erwin Rommel, Gerd von Rundstedt, and other D-Day dramatis personae are here, as are Norman D. Cota, Hans Speidel, Alfred Jodl, James Gavin, Richard Gale, Maxwell D. Taylor, and Matthew Ridgway. So are some soldiers who are best remembered for their civilian careers as actors, including Briton Richard Todd, who in 1962 played Major John Howard of the British 6th Airborne in The Longest Day, and a Canadian junior officer named James Montgomery Doohan, who is better known to TV and film fans as Star Trek’s beloved chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise, Montgomery Scott.
As the publisher’s blurb freely admits, Sand & Steel is about a complete look at June 6, 1944 as a one-volume book can get. Obviously, even with 897 pages of narrative – including the Postscript and Acknowledgments sections – Sand and Steel can’t tell every story about this momentous invasion of northern France, not can it leave every stone unturned or every bullet, shell, or bomb accounted for in its prose.
Nevertheless, former British Army officer Peter Caddick-Adams does an excellent job of delving deep into the almost minute-by-minute account of D-Day and the long months of challenging work and preparation – on both sides of the Channel – undertaken by the men who had to carry out the landings…and the ones who had to attempt to repel them. Caddick-Adams has long been fascinated by World War II – his father served in the British Army during the war, so for him, it’s not just an academic interest or vocational choice; it’s a matter of family tradition, as the Caddick-Adams line has a long history of military service.
Caddick-Adams has authored several notable books about military history, including a 2014 book to which Sand & Steel is a prequel of sorts: Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-1945. He is the kind of military historian who not only knows about armies, soldiers, and battles first-hand, but does his homework, gets many veterans to speak to him on the record, and examines every possible source of material, from older works on the topic – in this case, D-Day – as well as diaries, correspondence of the famous and the not-so-famous, contemporary news articles, and official documents found in the national archives and military history departments of the various belligerent countries, including France and Germany.
If you have not read any book about D-Day because you were born in the late 20th century or the early 2000s and are new to the subject of World War II, Sand and Steel is a good one to start with. It doesn’t have the limitations imposed on pre-1974 authors like David Howarth or Cornelius Ryan, nor does it have the U.S.-centric tone of the otherwise excellent D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose. Those books and authors are worth reading, and their writing style might be more amenable to casual WWII buffs, but they do have the issues I mentioned.
For D-Day grognards like me, well…what can I say? I am enjoying Sand & Steel so much that after I browsed through the first pages, I ordered Snow & Steel, too.