Few narrative historians have been able to capture the essence of war quite like Stephen Ambrose. The Eisenhower biographer published several books on the war later in his life, including Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and perhaps the best one volume treatment of the Normandy invasion, D-Day: June 6, 1944.
One theme running through all of those books was the sheer ordinariness of the American GIs and how, when confronted by the greatest challenges of their lives, they outperformed, outfought, and outsmarted the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine.
From a blurb advertising D-Day:
They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought. They were soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day. When Hitler declared war on the United States, he bet that the young men brought up in the Hitler Youth would outfight the youngsters brought up in the Boy Scouts.
Hitler lost, largely because “the Boy Scouts had been taught to figure their way out of their own problems,” writes Ambrose. Americans were trained to use their own initiative and not blindly follow orders, like the Germans. This proved decisive on Omaha Beach, as nothing went as planned, and the first and second waves of the landings were being slaughtered. And then, one by one — mostly NCOs — they began to realize that staying put was death and they began a slow, painful climb up the bluffs. There was no mass charge, but rather small groups of two and three soldiers taking it upon themselves to get the job done.
Ambrose points out that never could have happened in the German army.
In an interview on Brian Lamb’s C-SPAN show Booknotes, Ambrose expanded on this theme:
LAMB: Why was it a great day?
AMBROSE: You know, you can’t exaggerate it. You can’t overstate it. It was the pivot point of the 20th century. It was the day on which the decision was made as to who was going to rule in this world in the second half of the 20th century. Is it going to be Nazism, is it going to be communism, or are the democracies going to prevail? If we would have failed on Omaha Beach and on the other beaches on the 6th of June in 1944, the struggle for Europe would have been a struggle between Hitler and Stalin, and we would have been out of it. If Stalin had won, the Iron Curtain would have been on the English Channel. If Hitler had won, I don’t think he would have been able to take Britain, at least not in the immediate future, but he would have gone all the way to the Urals. Hitler’s plan was to turn the problem of conquering America over to the next generation, utilizing the resources that he intended to have as a part of the greater German Reich as a result of victory. It really did turn on getting ashore and penetrating that Atlantic Wall. Now, once that Atlantic Wall was penetrated and we had a beachhead and you could begin to move from England into the continent, this tremendous outpouring of America’s factories that we had managed to get over to England by winning the battle of the Atlantic in 1943, if you penetrated the Atlantic Wall then it was no longer a question of who was going to win. It was when is the end going to come. Germany could not possibly prevail against — but if Rommel stopped them cold on the beaches — this was an all-or-nothing operation. Eisenhower, when he took command in January of 1944, said, “This operation is being planned as a success. There are no contingency plans.” Had they stopped him — and they came very close to stopping him — we would not have been able to mount another operation in 1944. This was Hitler’s great chance to win the war — stop them in June of 1944 on the Atlantic coast, then he can move 11 panzer divisions to the east. Eleven panzer divisions might well have swung the balance on the eastern front, or they might have had another effect. They might have led Stalin to conclude, “Those blankety-blank capitalists. They’re up to their old tricks. They’re going to fight till the last Red Army soldier. To hell with that. I’m going to cut a deal with my friend Adolph again, just like we did in 1939. We’ll divide Eastern Europe between us.” That wouldn’t have lasted. Sooner or later they would have clashed, but the democracies wouldn’t have been in on it anymore.
I’m surprised that D-Day is trending on Twitter given the ignorance of the past couple of generations about the significance of June 6. But those of us old enough to remember when commemorating D-Day was a big deal should take the responsibility for passing on the feelings that all of America experienced that day, summed up in Eisenhower’s D-Day address to the troops, and FDR’s heartfelt prayer.
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