While the World Waited

Portrait of a Fox

Rommel: Opting for a different strategy in Normandy

Erwin Rommel, the scourge of the British 8th Army in North Africa, was 52 years old in the summer of 1944. Born the son of a mathematician schoolmaster in the Wurttemberger region of southern Germany, he at first considered a career in mathematics. But in 1910 he joined the army, distinguished himself with bravery and skill in World War I and became the paragon of a military man. Sober, shrewd, quiet, businesslike, he was also called by his biographer Desmond Young, “cold, cunning, ruthless, untiring, quick to decision, incredibly brave.”

Rommel never joined the Nazi Party, but he found much to admire in Hitler, especially his fearlessness and, at least for a time, his uncanny military judgment. In the late 1930s, Rommel wrote a book on tactics that earned him the admiration of the Fuhrer, who placed Rommel on his personal staff. Hitler heeded Rommel’s request in 1940 and gave him command of the 7th Panzer Division with which he wreaked havoc in the Battle of France and became a national hero. Hitler called on him to drive the British out of Egypt in a quest for the Suez Canal and Middle East oil. True to form, Rommel applied blitzkrieg tactics to the desert.

Eating and sleeping with his men in the front lines, risking their dangers and deprivations, Rommel was a soldier’s general. And he very nearly seized Cairo. Had it not been for the British (unknown to him) intercepting and decoding wireless transmissions to and from his headquarters, Rommel might well have accomplished Hitler’s orders. Indeed, as leader of the Afrika Corps, he so bedeviled the British with cunning and surprise that these attributes earned for him his famous monicker, “The Desert Fox.”

Rommel’s eventual defeat in North Africa and the fact that he was never enamored of Nazis or SS troops, however, did not stop Hitler from placing him in charge of the Fifteen and Seventh Armies defending France.

Although he was a blitzkrieg man by inclination, Rommel felt the best strategy in Normandy was to crush the anticipated invasion at water’s edge. He had reason to be optimistic. The Allied attempts at Dieppe, Salerno and Anzio had demonstrated that with proper preparations and a bit of luck, defenders could smash a landing, or at least bottle it up. With the Allies struggling on the beaches, Rommel would then throw in his armored divisions and drive them into the sea.

This strategy was much contested by Rommel’s superior, von Rundstedt. The OB West commander disdained fixed defenses—having outmaneuvered the Maginot Line in 1940—and believed the Allies could gain a toehold on the beaches no matter what the Germans would do. His theory was to hold troops and panzers back from the beaches and then launch a crushing armored counterattack when the attackers were relatively weak, barely organized and short on supplies.

In addition to von Rundstedt’s doubts about his strategy and Hitler’s retention of crucial Panzer reserves, Rommel found himself further hobbled by deception and lack of intelligence. Despite its relative narrowness, the English Channel proved to be an opaque wall beyond which the Germans could see little or nothing. German spies in Britain had all been caught or compromised in some way so that any intelligence fed back to Berlin was leading military planners there to believe the main Allied invasion would strike Pas de Calais. Efforts by Luftwaffe spy planes were corralled by the Royal Air Force so that, for the most part, they spotted only what the RAF wanted them to see. Moreover, the British had mounted a huge deception effort, including the fabrication of the fictitious First U.S. Army Group led by General George Patton, supposedly building up in the east of England for a massive attack at Pas de Calais.

Still, Rommel saw through some Allied deceptions. He reckoned that the invasion would strike at one place, not two or more. He predicted that it would commence with a night parachute drop, followed by a first wave at dawn during low tide. He figured that the moon and tides for such a strike would be best in June between the 5th and the 7th and the 12th and the 14th. But having determined this much, the crafty Desert Fox then concluded that the weather was too stormy for an Allied attack during the first period and set off on June 4 for Germany and a celebration of his wife’s birthday, June 6. —BCS

An AMVET Recalls D-Day
by Nelson Rummel

Preparations for the assault on Fortress Europe began long before June 6, 1944. Company A, 507th MP Battalion (V Corps), to which I was assigned, participated in four invasion exercises in southwest England between February and April.

On May 14, my platoon was temporarily attached to the 18th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division (Big Red One). We were then transported to an assembly area, which encompassed the length of the southern shores of England for a distance of l0 miles inland. This was a tightly secured area constantly patrolled by security forces who did not allow anyone to leave. On June 1, we [were] transported to the port of Weymouth, where we boarded an LCT, a box-like, shallow-draft open craft with a hinged ramp for a bow and a platform for the Navy crew on the stem. The LCT contained our platoon, a jeep with a trailer loaded with explosives and the crew.

On June 4, the crew received orders to leave for a rendezvous area. A few miles out, however, these orders were countermanded and we returned to port. At 4 a.m., on June 5, orders were again received to depart, and this time it was for real.

Although the storm of the previous day had abated, the weather remained bad, with overcast skies and a strong wind causing 3-foot waves in a choppy sea. We bobbed about until approximately 6 a.m., on June 6, when we caught sight of OMAHA BEACH shrouded by the smoke of the naval and air bombardment.

As the skies lightened, an armada of ships and small craft stretched across the horizon. The noise of battleships and other vessels firing rose and fell. These sights and sounds boggled the mind and infused a feeling of awe among all who were witnesses.

At 11 a.m., our craft started its run toward the landing area, but heavy enemy shelling forced the crew to abandon the attempt. Finally, at 3 p.m., we started what became our final run to the beach. [When] our craft came to a halt and lowered the ramp, the sight that greeted us was less than inviting—since the ramp disappeared into the water (which we soon learned came up to our chests) about 100 yards from dry land. The beach extended only a short stretch before it reached a low sea wall. Then there was a grassy plain for a distance until it rose to some bluffs about 150 feet high.

At this point, each of us weighed almost 300 pounds, including our own body weight, plus combat boots, steel helmet, web belt (with ammunition, canteen, first-aid kit, knife and bayonet), gas mask, knapsack (with underwear, socks and K-rations) and, above all, a carbine (at this point, literally carried above the head). The walk to dry land was far from easy, with shell holes to be stepped in and man-made obstacles to avoid.

It was about 4 p.m. when we first set foot on the soil of France with nowhere to go. The beach was littered with the debris of war and occupied by GIs, wounded, dead and ambulatory. Those still able to function were trying to determine how and when they could reestablish their units and move forward. Our unit found space along the sea wall, where we could take stock of our situation and regroup. The head count showed that we had lost one of our own to enemy fire.

At 6:30 p.m., as we moved from the beach toward our objective, we noticed enemy shells impacting in a line from the bluffs but fortunately stopping about 50 yards from us. With a feeling of relief, we continued for about 200 yards, where we stopped briefly to reestablish our bearings. We resumed our march inland about 7 p.m. [and] continued on to our C.P., about half a kilometer east of the village of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, where we dug foxholes in an apple orchard for an overnight stay.

On awakening the next morning, we found ourselves pinned down by a sniper who kept raining apple blossoms down on us for most of the morning. “Apple Blossom Time” by the Andrews Sisters is a song that has always remained in my memory.

From this beginning, we continued through France, Luxembourg, Belgium [and] Germany, ending at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. This part of the journey had its events and episodes, but nothing could approach the experience of the assault of the Normandy beachhead.

Nelson Rummel is a member of Post 30 in Nutley, N.J., and editor of NEW JERSEY AMVETS, published by the Department of New Jersey. This article is reprinted with permission from the January, 1994, issue of that newspaper.

A Man a Common Touch: Cornelius Ryan

Ryan: writing about the courage and despair of people caught up in war

Late in 1959, the 15th anniversary of the invasion of France, there appeared a modest-sized book called The Longest Day: June 6, 1944. The author was 39-year-old Cornelius Ryan, an Irish-born reporter assigned by a London newspaper to cover the American GIs in Britain during the war. Since that time, he had emigrated to the United States, become an American citizen, married and settled into magazine work.

Despite the fact that another book on the invasion had appeared only months earlier, Ryan’s unpretentious volume caused a small sensation. From that time forward, D-Day would be indelibly etched into the folklore of the American experience, with Ryan himself forever linked to it. The reasons for the success of The Longest Day can be debated. One that stands out, though, is the title. It comes not from some gigantic battle plan such as OVERLORD, or from commander jargon such as “D-Day,” or even from the side of the Allies. Rather, it comes from an informal and anxious observation that the opposing general, Erwin Rommel, made to his aide prior to the invasion.

Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Some reporters, on hearing the story of Rommel’s worrisome remark, would have let it slide. Ryan, however, saw it as giving voice to what thousands of men and women would feel that day—terror, pain, elation, liberation, grief, confusion—a day that none who lived through it would ever forget.

Although uttered by a commanding general, a field marshal, the remark cuts to the experience of the men who commanded no one but themselves, who jumped or waded, gathered up equipment or helped where they could, in the greatest battle of the century. By taking the book to the level not only of the commanders who worried about the fates of tens of thousands, of corps and divisions, but also of the men who felt the concussion of mortars and the sand in their faces, Ryan struck a chord with readers than resonates still.

Probably because he understood that no matter what the complexity of the battle, or its geopolitical significance, for each of the men involved, it was really a matter of great simplicity: deal as best you can with your fears, then do your job as best you can.

Cornelius Ryan, “Connie” to most, was the first born of a soldier in the British army and an Irish-nationalist mother. Ryan’s father John (from whom he received his middle name) was not successful in civilian life, but managed to send his oldest son to England for education. Young Ryan worked for a time for a politician, but bolted for what he knew would be his profession—journalism, like that of irascible grandfather, Cornelius, a notorious gadfly in Ireland.

He worked hard at Reuters learning the trade, then moved to the more prestigious London Daily Telegraph. One day the owner, Lord Camrose, called young Connie into his office and said, “Ryan, we’ve got to have someone reporting the doings of these American chaps. Since you’re Irish, would you mind?” Ryan was never sure what being Irish had to do with it, but he accepted. The work was rough sledding at first, landing among a group of men the likes of which he had never met. Said Ryan, “Among those brash, irreverent, confident [American] soldiers, I found my spiritual home.”

One of Ryan’s best friends, and editor of A Bridge Too Far about the battle at Arnhem in September 1944, was Jerry Korn, himself the co-pilot of a bomber on D-Day. Korn, too, pursued journalism as a career and met Ryan in the early 1950s when both worked for Collier’s magazine.

Asked how Ryan came up with the idea for The Longest Day, Korn replied, “As far as I know, it was entirely his idea. He had been there and had never forgotten it. He had hoped for years to get a chance to write about it. He first approached Life about underwriting him, but Life could not handle such a big project. Reader’s Digest, however, did.

“The thing that made Connie’s book succeed was the scope of the research, the notion of quoting so many of the people who actually took part. He talked to so many of the men that you really did get a sense of what it must have been like to have been there.” Nobody had ever written anything like that. The reviewers rallied to it, and the fact that there had been a book out on the same subject just months before meant nothing when The Longest Day appeared. It's a bit hard to appreciate now what a kind of literary bombshell that was.”

Korn recalls that Ryan was an extraordinary researcher. “He was meticulous, and a very careful writer; accuracy was everything to him. The thought of being caught in an error was appalling to him; and so there really were no errors. He did most of his interviews face to face and had a knack for asking the right questions. In many cases, the interviewees were surprised, I’m sure, at the kinds of questions he was asking, which to them must have seemed irrelevant. But what he got was a 3-dimensional view of what happened and how it affected each person.”

At his home in Ridgefield, Conn., Ryan edits his “hanging manuscript,” pages of which were hung as each was written.

But that was really only the start. Korn recalls, “It’s almost incomprehensible the amount of work that went into the making of his books even after the interviews and field work were complete. He had filing cabinets jammed with research. He must have had millions of words of research filed away very carefully so that he could always get what he needed. The result was not only popular acclaim for his books and sales to match, but international respect. Says Korn, “My best recollection is that the French, the British and the Germans all were greatly impressed by The Longest Day.”

Ryan grew as a writer and as a respected man as the years flowed by. He was asked to give talks and lectures. He wrote the screenplay for the film version of The Longest Day, which appeared in 1962.

He was sometimes criticized for going into too much detail, but he was just as often praised for “brilliant reporting within the well-told story.” He is reported to often have said, “I am a reporter. If I am some help to serious historians, I’ll be satisfied. I’m not a great writer, but I know I combine a vast amount of material into a dramatic context. There is no reason for history to be dull.”

He wrote The Last Battle, a book on the struggle for Berlin in the waning weeks of the war, that came out in 1966. He then went to work on what may have been his most ambitious book, A Bridge Too Far. But he was always linked with D-Day and the men who struggled in the effort to get a toehold in Normandy.

In 1974, Ryan was awarded the highest honor the French government can bestow, the Legion of Honor. Not long after, he succumbed to cancer at age 54. A Bridge Too Far, which he had written during the four years of pain and body deterioration that marked his struggle with disease, had just been published and was second on nonfiction bestseller list.

At his burial, veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division acted as the honor guard. Walter Cronkite read from The Longest Day, and General James Gavin presented Kathy with the flag that had draped her husband’s casket.

As reported by his wife, co-author of A Private Battle, Ryan often went to the cemeteries in Normandy. There, he said to her, “Nobody knew their names until I began research for The Longest Day. No nation ever gave them any medals—those paratroopers who dropped from the skies, the air and naval personnel involved in D-Day, and the infantrymen who stormed ashore in the crucial first three assault waves. I guess I wrote The Longest Day because I never understood why nobody seemed to care about the names of the ordinary men and the civilians involved. If I ever did anything right in my life, I made their names immortal.”

His favorite passage from The Longest Day, one that reportedly he worked on over and over and which he knew by heart, reads in part, “The men of the invasion fleet heard the roar of the planes. Wave after wave passed overhead . . . Nobody said a word. And then as the last formation flew over, an amber light blinked down through the clouds on the fleet below. Slowly it flashed out in Morse code three dots and a dash: V for Victory.” —BCS