History comes vividly to life in this four-cassette audio production of Stephen Ambrose's already-classic account of the battle that turned the tide of World War II. If you were moved in any way by the film "Saving Private Ryan" and want to learn more about the experiences our American soldiers suffered through during World War II and the sacrifices they made to restore democracy to a world gone mad, this audio is a good place to start.
Professor Ambrose, a Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, assembled hundreds of oral accounts from those who actually assaulted the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 to smash through the thought-to-be-impregnable Nazi Atlantic Wall. From the accounts selected for this audio, it's safe to say that Mr. Spielberg didn't exaggerate the facts during the jaw-dropping opening of his recent film, which depicts the beach landings of June 6. Professor Ambrose's book, and now this audio, make it abundantly clear that on that morning, the usual tranquil and lovely oceanfront of France's Normandy region was easily the worst place on the planet for a human being to be.
A major theme of "D-Day" is the examination of expectations versus reality. Hitler clearly expected that American soldiers raised in a pacifist, "soft" democracy would ultimately wither under the assault of the German fighting men trained under his iron-fisted regime. More telling, many American generals had the same doubts about the American soldiers! In fact, one of the early directives of D-Day was to assure that only inexperienced Allied soldiers were sent to storm the Normandy beaches. "An experienced infantryman is a terrified infantryman," seemed to be the mantra of the generals in the days before the invasion. The commanders knew that soldiers who had any idea of the horrors awaiting them on the beaches when the two armies clashed would clearly have a big problem storming the shores with the enthusiasm and bravado required.
As we soon learn, however, the Americans surprised quite a few people that day. In the words of Professor Ambrose, "They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22's at rabbits, not M-1's at other men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought. They were the soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day."
The first two cassettes provide involving background information about the formulation of the invasion of Europe and why the beaches of Normandy were ultimately chosen as the invasion site. They also include detailed information about daily army life in the months prior to the invasion, including the state of mind of the average soldier, and the frequent culture clashes between Allied troops of different nationalities (for instance, it seems that the Americans tended to steal the English troops' girlfriends). There is also an examination of the crucial role of the wartime economy back home.
The final two cassettes deal with the invasion itself: the air assault, the beach landings, and the days following the successful smashing of the "invincible" Nazi defense. There are too many amazing accounts in the audio at this point to even try to select a few to recount here. However, I will describe one surreal image that stuck with me. In the day or so following the successful beach landings in Normandy, among the first items the Allied troops delivered to the beaches were office supplies! Typewriters, folding tables, boxes of manila files, etc. were carried over the torn and rent bodies lying on the beach, and makeshift offices were set up among the dead. The bureaucracy had to be maintained at all costs!
In the reading of his work, Professor Ambrose never once sounds like a stuffy member of academia. He delivers his accounts with reverence, gusto, and charisma, and truly makes you feel like you were there, among these ordinary men who rose to face an extraordinary challenge. Luckily, that's the closest most of us will ever get to the horror of war.
Reviewed by Joe Menta, Jr. on January 21, 2011