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Remembering World War II with Cornelius Ryan

As a young boy growing up in Chicago during the 1970s, I was obsessed with reading histories of World War II, and typically stayed up late at night to watch World War II movies on television. My favorite television show, in reruns, was Combat! with Vic Morrow. My father, a math teacher, was also interested in military history and cultivated my obsession which led me to read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Cornelius Ryan’s three books on World War II, The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far, before I was twelve years old.  I had no male relatives to speak to about the war. My father was a veteran of the Army but served during the Korean conflict, and all my other male relatives fought for the Wehrmacht and remained  in Germany. Everything I learned about the war I learned from books, and after all these years of reading on World War II, I found no better educator than Cornelius Ryan. Consequently, it is wonderful that the Library of America has honored Ryan in the 75th year after D-Day by publishing a handsome edition of two of his three books on the war. [1]

Cornelius Ryan was not a formally-trained military historian. He was a reporter. Ryan was born in Dublin in 1920 and moved to London to work at a biscuit factory before becoming a copyboy for Reuters in 1940. During the war, he was a reporter for the Daily Telegraph covering the western front from the air, the liberation of St. Lo, the drive to Paris, and General George S. Patton’s Third Army’s relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He also covered the Japanese war crimes trial, witnessed Hideki Tojo’s suicide attempt, and traveled to Hiroshima to see first-hand the destruction of the atomic bomb.  After the war, he moved to New York and worked for Time-Life and Collier’s before embarking on the three years of research—funded in part by $100,000 from Reader’s Digest—to write The Longest Day, which was a huge bestseller when published in 1959.

Ryan’s three books on the war cover the human side of the D-Day invasion, Operation Market Garden, and the fall of Berlin. You don’t read Ryan to understand the strategy and tactics of those conflicts. Rather, Ryan gives us—better than any other historian of the war—a close look at human dimensions of the conflict. He is an Irish storyteller. He provides vivid descriptions and moving tributes to the men and women who fought. His books are dramas which convey the sacrifice, heroism and bravery of combatants—on all sides. He is not judgmental about the Germans and treats their war effort as sincerely as he does the Allies. Ryan sees all the combatants as dutiful, brave, heroic, and steadfast in their desire to prevail.  His books do not romanticize war but expose it for its brutality as well as its contingency and farce.

Both books in the Library of America edition begin with a description of the German situation on the Western Front. The Longest Day begins with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s agony over where an invasion would be launched. Adolf Hitler and the German General Staff felt it would come at the Pas de Calais, the closest point to the British coast. In early 1944, Hitler charged Rommel with preparing the coastal defenses, a job he took to with relish, but defending a long coastline from the Scheldt estuary in Holland to the southern tip of France was an undertaking of tremendous proportions, and by the end of May, Rommel was ready for a break. He would leave his headquarters for Germany on June 4 convinced it would be some time before the Allied invasion came. 

A Bridge Too Far opens with a vivid description of a routed and ragged German army retreating into Holland, convinced the end was near. Over 300,000 German troops had been taken prisoner and an additional 200,000 killed or wounded in the Allied breakout from the Normandy hedgerow county and across the French plain. German armies in Holland were beaten, Dutch resistance leaders reported to the Allies, and the liberation of Holland seemed imminent in August 1944. But the Allied success had come with a cost—the port of Antwerp remained out of use as German troops controlled the approaches on the Scheldt; Allied tanks and armies had advanced so quickly that shortages of fuel and ammunition halted the advance on a wide front. Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, believed in a broad advance on all sectors. His British subordinate, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, believed in a knockout blow to the north which would open up the avenue into Germany through the Dutch city of Arnhem—seizing Rhine bridgeheads in this sector would open the door towards Berlin and end the war by Christmas, Montgomery argued.

Ryan spends little time on the plans and logistical background and history of the Normandy invasion—his focus is on what Rommel called “the longest day.” He showcases the tensions over the decision to launch and captures the intensity of Eisenhower’s concerns and worries quite well. But his real focus is on the men who would launch the paratroop drops, embark on glider landings, and provide air support on the night of June 5th, and those men in the first wave of the attacks on the beaches on June 6th. He describes the anguish of waiting—perhaps at its peak during the preparation for the attack—and the actual convoying of men to their prepared spots in the channel on June 4th before being called back because of weather. The men spend their time on the ships playing cards, praying, and vomiting; seasickness on both the ships and the LST’s is a constant theme of the book. 

A Bridge Too Far, by contrast, is much more heavily focused on the planning of Operation Market-Garden, Montgomery’s bold plan to launch paratroop drops behind German lines to seize and to hold five bridges before the British 1st Armored Division could race up a one lane highway to link up with the paratroopers within four days. Unlike D-Day—which was years in the planning and logistical buildup, and which also benefited from previous invasions of fortified coasts in North Africa, Sicily and Italy—Montgomery gained approval of his plan from Ike only one week before the scheduled attack, which began 75 years ago today. 

The drama in Ryan’s books is gripping. You are with the men as they are in ships sailing to the French coast. He describes vividly the peril the men in the first wave assault on Omaha beach faced: “seasick men, already exhausted by the long hours spent on the transports and assault boats, found themselves fighting for their lives in water that was often over their heads.” In the airborne and glider landings, Ryan tells the story of one American paratrooper who landed in a backyard of a French woman who had just gone out to use the privy—startling each other, they both ran away. He also shows the cost of war: Rommel had flooded the dikes and fields, making swamps where there weren’t any on situation maps. Many paratroopers fell from the sky to be caught in the bogs, dying in less than two feet of water. Others were lost for a day before able to reconnoiter with their units. He also tells of the strange stories of war. In the 101st Airborne Division, Dutch Tallerday and his unit met German soldiers in the night. Instead of fighting, “each group silently walked past the other in a kind of frozen shock, without firing a shot.” Lt. John Walas of the 82nd Airborne found himself face to face with a German machine gun near Ste. Mere-Eglise. “For a moment,” Ryan reveals, “each man stared at the other. Then the German reacted. He fired a shot at Walas at point black range. The bullet struck the bolt mechanism of the rifle, which was directly in front of his stomach, nicked his hand and ricocheted off. Both men turned and fled.”

Ryan interviewed thousands of Allied and German participants in both battles for his books, as well as hundreds of French and Dutch civilians and resistance fighters. He was able to mail thousands of detailed questionnaires to veterans of the D-Day and Market-Garden operations, samples of which are found in this new edition. From this collection of interviews and a host of World War II books, maps, and other resources, Ryan was able to write on a grand narrative scale of historical scope, and he did so for both battles. The Longest Day was published in 1959 and was an international best seller. He finished A Bridge Too Far in 1974 just before he succumbed to prostate cancer at the age of 54. That book, too, sold widely, and both books were made into films, with A Bridge Too Far starring Laurence Olivier, Liv Ullman, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, and Maximillian Schell. 

The books deal with themes of honor, loyalty, patriotism, and duty. They teach these themes, all of which are necessary for the maintenance of liberty. From the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as Germans desperately cut their ropes, ladders, and fired down on them; to the Airborne units descending on a burning French church in the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise as German fire pinpointed the shocked troopers and killed many of them floating into the square; to the four day holdout of British paratroopers at the Arnhem bridge, who landed not in the predicted quiet salient, but right in the heart of the German II SS Panzer Corps and battled—in what was called the Dutch Stalingrad—against odds which would have defied belief, allowing many to escape (out of 10,005 British and Polish troops at Arnhem, casualties totaled 7,578); and to Major Julian Cook’s assault on the 400 foot wide Waal River to seize the Nijmegen bridge head, under intense fire and losing over half of his men, Cook’s forces prevailed to seize the bridge, as the devout Catholic major chanted, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace” over and over as his fourteen-man boat worked its way across the river.

It was these stories—a small sample of the heroism and duty in Ryan’s work—which showcase the epic nature of the conflict and the sacrifice made by those who perished in pursuit of freedom. In his speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan memorably told the assembled crowd, pointing to the Rangers in attendance: “these are the boys of Point du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end the war.” In his 75th anniversary speech at Normandy, President Donald Trump reiterated the themes laid out in Ryan’s books: 

they came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities, and the forges of mighty industrial towns. They ran through the fires of hell moved by a force no weapon could destroy: the fierce patriotism of a free, proud, and a sovereign people. They battled not for control or domination, but for liberty, democracy and self-rule.

Such themes are all developed in great majesty in Ryan’s books. Lest the sacrifice and valor of these men be forgotten, it is imperative to read Ryan for his clear depiction of what the best in manhood could do to promote the cause of liberty. Every American should read Ryan’s books to showcase what virtue and sacrifice mean. These men saved a continent and built a new world on its backs. As Trump neared his conclusion, he linked their sacrifice to what we as Americans have today:

The men behind me will tell you that they are just the lucky ones. As one of them recently put it, “All the heroes are buried here.” But we know what these men did. We knew how brave they were. They came here and saved freedom, and then, they went home and showed us all what freedom is all about.

The American sons and daughters who saw us to victory were no less extraordinary in peace. They built families. They built industries. They built a national culture that inspired the entire world. In the decades that followed, America defeated communism, secured civil rights, revolutionized science, launched a man to the moon, and then kept on pushing to new frontiers.

Although he didn’t live to see all of them, Ryan would surely take pride in these postwar accomplishments built on the success of the battles he so masterfully chronicled.

[1] One more personal note. I was a graduate student at Ohio University and was a member of the first class of the Contemporary History Institute, founded by Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. Each week, our seminar met in the Cornelius Ryan Room of the OU Library. Ryan spoke at Ohio University in 1974, was given an honorary degree, and the university houses his personal and professional papers.

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