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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 17, 2019 at 08:29:46 am

Dear Professor Schneider,

I have a question.

“The Greatest Generation” sold the soul of the United States for nothing, in 1960, when the Supreme Court struck prayer out of the public schools.

The question is: how is that generation, VE Day and VJ Day notwithstanding, “the Greatest Generation?”

That generation must be held to task for the SCOTUS’ nefarious deed.

Or that generation’s role in acquiescence to that deed.

The moral capital of the effort ending in victory in WWII, was squandered. Simply squandered. The foist of responsibility that the depression was never to be glimpsed by their children, doesn’t wash here.

The “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” generation inherited that deed. They did not DO that deed.

This is clearly seen in Andrew Klavan’s autobiography, “The Great Good Thing,” in the chapter that covers his high school days on Long Island, N. Y., the fierce rapidity with which his classmates sank into decline and depravity. Mr. Klavan was born on July 13, 1954 (wikipedia) and his father, Gene Klavan, was a popular morning radio personality, a ‘disc jockey’ in New York City. Andrew Klavan would’ve graduated High School in about 1971, and the Supreme Court ruled recognition of the creator out of Klavan’s Long Island High School in 1960.

The Greatest Generation?

I nominate the founding generation and the Continental Army as “The Greatest Generation.”

And...without ‘The Great Awakening’ and Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God,” those founders and that army would not have been there to do their God-blessed deed.

Would they have?

Have a nice day!
Mr. J. Ingvar Odegaard

p.s. You can listen to the English playwright and actor, Max McClean, recite Edwards’ sermon on youtube. I recommend listening to it. No sermon, no United States.”

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Ingvar Odegaard
on September 17, 2019 at 08:41:37 am

[…] American should read Ryan’s books to showcase what virtue and sacrifice mean. Remembering World War II with Cornelius Ryan syndicated from […]

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Remembering World War II with Cornelius Ryan | Best Legal Services
on September 17, 2019 at 09:32:19 am

I was wondering about Mr. Schneider's military service, but Mr. Odegaard's unfocused hissy-fit distracted me. What on earth does Jonathan Edwards' strident condemnation of everyone who is not him have to do with anything?

I was in Viet-Nam, by the way, and in 1974 was back home looking for a job. I regret being such a disappointment to Jonathan Edwards and all the keyboard warriors.


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Lawrence Hall
on September 17, 2019 at 10:20:52 am

Easy enough to cast blame but WHY assign blame to the soldier who sacrificed so much and not the pettifogging non-combatant content to bedeck themselves in Long Black Robes?

The soldier did his duty and did it admirably. Can the same be said for the Robed Ones?

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on September 17, 2019 at 11:35:04 am

Dear ejay95,

You have repaid me well- I have been distracted by your comment.

If you care to elaborate on the unfocused quality, and the hissy-fit quality, I would appreciate that.

If your time is as short as mine, no further response is expected: unplanned as this is, and stranger that I am.

All the best,

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Ingvar Odegaard
on September 17, 2019 at 11:37:43 am


My last comment/reply was addressed to Lawerence Hall (not ejay95).

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Ingvar Odegaard
on September 17, 2019 at 12:14:28 pm

Dear gabe,

I wrote because the moral capital amassed by “the soldier who sacrificed so much” was, in turn, squandered, to the lasting moral harm of subsequent generations.

Isn’t “pettifogging non-combatant content to bedeck themselves in Long Black Robes” characterization of the legal world of these United States?

I know this SCOTUS ruling that came out of our legal world, and the ongoing damage it is causing.

I don’t know the personal histories of those that played the key roles, but I do know, broadly, the generations involved. Generationally, we suffer for it now, and we still condemn the youngest to more such suffering.

All the best,

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Ingvar Odegaard
on September 17, 2019 at 13:51:52 pm

Okey dokey!

There is merit in your comments re: 'generational responsibility."
However, to paraphrase Johnathan Swift, and in an effort to recognize "generational depravity", I would say this about the "Baby Boomer" generation:

"Theirs is the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that has ever suffered to crawl [across the face of this once Great Nation."

We were (are) the most self-centered, self-important bunch of "righteous" miscreants that purposively chose to not only ignore the degradation of COTUS but actually WELCOMED and promoted it as it allowed us to give free rein to our selfish impulses.

How is that for blame.

The Greatest Generation, that is "[those who came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities, and the forges of mighty industrial towns" were ill equipped both educationally and emotionally to combat the destructive predilections of our Robed Masters; The Boomers, on the other hand, enjoying the prosperity and tolerance of the Greatest Generation, were provided with first rate educational opportunities, unparalleled employment / professional prospects and access to all manner of intellectual discourse but instead chose to satisfy their own baser instincts and tendencies.
Equipped as they were, they CHOSE to sit idly by AND ENJOY the results.

I'll take the Old Soldier to the "Statement Making" (remember THAT phrase) hedonist Boomer.

take care

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on September 17, 2019 at 14:20:46 pm

I'm not a fan of war but I am a fan of books and movies about WWII. Thanks for that great article. I loved The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far (the movie versions.)

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David R. Henderson
on September 17, 2019 at 18:23:06 pm

Thank you for writing back!
I will think about what you have said.
Again, thanks.

All the best,

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Ingvar Odegaard
on September 18, 2019 at 10:34:39 am

The books of Cornelius Ryan are among the few that I have read more than once. They are masterpieces of human storytelling.

My grandfather, Wesley Notgrass, was a clerk typist in the First Army Medical Corps Headquarters Company. He landed near Omaha Beach on June 7 and went to St. Lo, Paris, then Belgium and Germany. I tell his story in a first-person presentation using photographs that he took while in the service.

We should remember these things.

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John Notgrass

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