Review: “D-Day: June 6, 1944” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Title: D-Day: June 6, 1944–The Climactic Battle Of World War II
Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Simon & Schuster, 1994

Well, this is awkward. I was all set to tell you how Stephen Ambrose was one of the greatest historians of the Second World War still living, and then tell you to read this book. Except that in looking up tidbits of fact to sprinkle in here and whet your fancy, I discovered two things. First, he died twelve years ago. Secondly, and more important, his reputation is not now as glowing as I had believed it to be. It seems that several of his books are riddled with improper citations and, in a couple places, even inaccuracies. Sentences or even paragraphs lifted almost verbatim from other sources, given a citation but not acknowledged within the text. An easy mistake to make, perhaps, but a rookie level one. Ambrose was one of the leading WWII scholars in the nation, even the world. You would think that indicated a level of care and professionalism that would preclude such sloppiness. (You can read about that whole mess here.) More troubling is the recent discovery that his relationship with General-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not exactly as he had described. Instead of Eisenhower approaching him to write his biography, Ambrose approached the former president. Instead of the hundreds of hours they allegedly spent talking before Eisenhower’s death, the meticulous records kept by Eisenhower’s secretary and assistant show only five. Some of the interviews cited by Ambrose take place at times Eisenhower was recorded to be elsewhere. Later-used citations are vague as to the date and time, simply cited as “Interview with DDE.” (You can read that story here.) This saddens me, for I had intended to consume his entire bibliography. Now….now my plan is to still read his WWII histories (Pegasus Bridge, Citizen Soldiers, re-read Band Of Brothers) which are less controversial, but I doubt I’ll push beyond that. We’ll see when the time comes I suppose.

But you know what? I’m still recommending this book. It was incredibly engaging and well-written–even his harshest detractors admit that he was one heck of a writer. With two lone exceptions (discussed below), there is no controversy concerning the facts as Ambrose relates them here. There may be a few spurious interview bits from Eisenhower buried in the passages he cites from his own books, I can’t check the whole chain of citation since I only have this one book on hand, but across the board his sources for this one seem legit. Would I use this as a source for a scholarly paper? Maybe not, at least without doing some more serious digging, but that’s really not a question I think most of my readers are concerned with. So far as I can tell, most of my readers are simply concerned with finding good books to fill their reading time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. History degree or not, I’m under no delusions that my review blog is a scholarly source. So, let me be clear as to what this is: Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day is an incredibly compelling study of arguably the single most crucial operation in the Second World War, told mostly by the men who were there and survived the experience. It is a tale of incredible human ingenuity, courage, and resolve, and it is very much worth reading.

In the wee hours of the morning, June 6th, 1944, the Allied nations launched the single greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. Hitler had spent years fortifying the French coast against this day, certain that it would have to come eventually, and the network of fortifications he had ordered constructed were intended to be impenetrable. Had any one of a hundred different factors played out differently, they may well have proved to be. Had the fortifications been better staffed, had Hitler proved more decisive and/or less inclined to micromanaging troop dispositions, had his staff even proved willing to wake him up when the invasion started so that he could give the proper orders, it would be a very different book I’m reviewing here. Had the invasion failed, what would the world look like today? That’s a question far too large for me to answer, at least here, but Ambrose believes that Berlin would have suffered the eventual fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it’s no spoiler seventy years on to tell you that the invasion of Normandy was successful, if incredibly costly. I urge you to read this book and see the operation through the eyes of the men who were there.

I think I’ve pretty adequately communicated that I think you should read this. I’ve touched on how well it’s written, and how despite the controversy surrounding the author nobody really takes issue with this particular work, with two exceptions. First, Ambrose portrays the pilots ferrying the airborne troops to their dropzones as untrained for the degree of AA fire they were taking, and blames this factor (and, by extension, their fear) for how scattered the paratroopers became. These pilots take offense to this portrayal and have repeatedly lobbied for changes in this and other books that make the same claim. The second minor controversy concerns an incident occurring off of Omaha beach, where a landing craft skipper wanted to abort and the infantry captain aboard forced him to make the run in anyway at gunpoint. A fine story, a compelling anecdote, and properly sourced to boot. Ambrose didn’t simply make this up–it comes from a 1960 article in Atlantic Monthly, and is a story that has been much repeated in a number of other works since. The problem? The sole survivor of that landing craft denies it ever happened. Either way, Ambrose acted in good faith here, though I do somewhat question the reliability of Atlantic Monthly as a reliable source of historical fact. So do with that what you will. But read the book.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, depending on how the veterans being interviewed censored themselves and their stories. Some graphic depictions of violence, especially in the accounts from Omaha beach. No sexual content.

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