Historians have a habit of making people, events and places of the past less understandable. Not so Cornelius Ryan, whose great trilogy covering Operation Overlord to the fall of Berlin is as immediate as actual gunfire and exploding artillery shells.
Operation Overlord was the Allied attack on Normandy, France and the German defenses installed there. It was one of the largest military efforts of all time, and involved 1200 airplanes, 5000 oceangoing vessels, and 160,000 soldiers. It was also one of the most destructive victories won throughout the course of the war.
Ryan's documentation of the invasion is almost as staggering as the invasion itself. To writeThe Longest Day, the book in his trilogy focusing on D-Day, June 6, 1944, he conducted over 1000 interviews with military leaders and unranked participants alike, compiling them into a seamless narrative that reads more like a military thriller than history.
The second volume covers the Battle of Arnhem, in which the Allies dropped the combined British and American airborne forces behind enemy lines in order to capture the Arnhem Bridge, what Ryan calls A Bridge Too Far. Allied casualties were twice as heavy as those incurred on D-Day.
In The Last Battle, he looks at the final conflict in the European war—the battle for Berlin, ultimate outpost of Adolf Hitler and the rapidly disintegrating Third Reich, which was supposed to have lasted 1000 years.
Cornelius Ryan, an Irish journalist, was no stranger to combat. Though not a soldier, he was present for fighting throughout World War II with bomber pilots, Patton's Third Army, those fighting in the Pacific, and the Jerusalem conflict of 1946.
This familiarity makes him particularly suited to write the kind of military history contained in this trilogy. While he describes the strategization and preparation behind each battle, he takes us directly into the center of the fighting, showing us how men under duress behave and what it is like to stare death in his cold, mechanized face.
Each volume is written as a story, and while the history in them is sound and thorough, they are eminently readable. We see the fear of the soldiers and the civilians, the stress of the generals, the sorrow of friends bereaved, and the defeat of those whose cause was false and wicked. In many cases we see these things literally, in the dozens of photographs contained in each book.
The face of war will be among us as long as there is an earth with humans on it. Ryan's monumental achievement shows that face as it truly is, without romanticization, without propaganda, without artifice. As exciting as any novel, this trilogy is also one of the finest literary works to come out of World War II, or any war for that matter.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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