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Cornelius Ryan chronicles the events of D-Day in "The Longest Day"

The Longest Day


When Cornelius Ryan's bestselling book The Longest Day was first published in 1959, only 15 years had elapsed since the first Allied airborne pathfinders leaped out of their C-47s and onto French soil shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944. Most of D-Day's veterans who had survived the war were still alive and remembered vividly the events of that pivotal day in world history.

Robert Wagner played an Army Ranger in The Longest Day
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Now, of course, the book itself is over 50 years old, and many new books about D-Day have been published since, but The Longest Day is still one of the most popular accounts of the first 24 hours of Operation Overlord.

Ryan, who had been a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, collected many personal recollections from American, British, Canadian, French, and German participants, aided by the staff of Reader's Digest magazine. Using vivid descriptive prose and the words of the soldiers and civilians themselves, Ryan paints a huge panoramic view of the greatest amphibious operation in history.

The story of the Normandy invasion is one of superlatives and astounding figures. It is still the largest operation of its type ever launched, and only the canceled invasion of Japan would have dwarfed it. To mount Operation Overlord, the Allies gathered nearly 5,000 ships of every size and type, ranging from battleships to Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) ship-to-shore vessels. Behind the first few thousand men waited 200,000 more troops with their weapons and thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, half-tracks, jeeps, and "deuce-and-a-half" trucks, and in the British Isles another 3 million men waited their turn to go into the fray.

Ryan divides his book into three parts – The Wait, The Night, and The Day.

The Wait is a quick setting-of-the-stage section describing the Allied buildup in Britain, the assembly of the armada and the embarkation process. Ryan also describes the lousy weather that hit the English Channel during the first week of June. In a tension-filled sequence, the author writes about bad weather that prompted a worried Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, to postpone the landings scheduled for Monday, June 5, for 24 hours until the meteorologists gave him a final forecast.

This section also discusses Field Marshal Erwin "the Desert Fox" Rommel's appointment as commanding officer of Germany's Army Group B, charged with the defense of Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

The Night covers the fateful events of the night of June 5/6, 1944, with the night airborne landings by the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions on the westernmost flank of the invasion area, and those of the British 6th Airborne Division near the Orne River on the eastern flank. Ryan describes the awful confusion experienced by both Allied and German troops as the paratroopers landed. Some, like Major John Howard's Orne River assault team, landed right on target and accomplished their assigned missions of capturing bridges and destroying artillery batteries. Other units were not so lucky: most of Lt. Col. Terence Otway’s battalion was widely dispersed and made the assault on the Merville battery a difficult task.

The American airborne divisions on the right flank of the invasion area were widely scattered across the Cotentin Peninsula. The inexperienced American C-47 pilots ran into clouds and then into intense German flak. Particularly famous among the episodes described in The Longest Day is the misdrop of an entire company from the 82nd Airborne into the square of Ste. Mere Eglise. The paratroopers dropped like clay pigeons into the enemy's gunsights, and Pvt. John Steele had his chute hung up on the church steeple, leaving him swaying in the predawn hours with the clanging of the church bells in his ears.

Nevertheless, as the night gives way to morning and the book reaches the third part, The Day, the paratroopers secure the flanks of the five-beach invasion area. Shortly after dawn, the German defenders are confronted by the awe-inspiring sight of the invasion fleet.

Dug in behind bunkers, pillboxes, and gun emplacements, thousands of Germans endure a massive but perhaps ineffective bombardment. Stunned and surprised, the Germans nevertheless put up a good fight against the seasick, tired and struggling soldiers of the Allied invasion force as they come ashore on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches.

And, of course, it is at Omaha Beach. that the issue seems to be in doubt. Amphibious tanks sink in the heavy seas, companies and platoons are decimated by enemy fire, units lose their officers, and men from the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions try to take shelter from the withering fire from the German 352nd Infantry Division.

Of course, history tells us that the Americans, aided by naval gunfire and the efforts of a battalion of Army Rangers, prevailed at Omaha Beach.

Ryan's classic book also tells of the battles on the other beaches, giving Allied and German participants "equal time" in his narrative to give the reader a fair and balanced account of "the longest day."

If there is any flaw in Ryan's classic D-Day book, it's his attempt to depict one particular veteran in a "politically correct" fashion. Ryan tells the story of how Pvt. Arthur "Dutch" Schultz wins $2,500 dollars in a crap game, then decides to lose it on purpose after he receives a rosary from his mother in the States.

The true story of why Dutch Schultz lost all that money is in the endnotes of Stephen E. Ambrose's D-Day: June 6, 1944. Schultz explains that Ryan's motives were well-intentioned. The author was a devout Catholic, and he did not think the real motivations of Schultz last minute gamble of the $2,500 jackpot were becoming a "good Irish Catholic boy."

The Longest Day was a successful best-selling book, partly because D-Day was so important historically, but mostly because it was not a military history tome. Instead, Cornelius Ryan focuses his attention on the human aspects of the story. He and the Reader's Digest research team interviewed 3000 persons in France, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S., including soldiers and civilians. The book's prose is crisp, clear, and reads almost like a novel. It has been reprinted several times since 1959, along with Ryan's other World War II works, The Last Battle (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1974). and it is available in paperback, audiobook, and e-book editions.

The book was adapted by producer Darryl F. Zanuck into a popular 1962 movie.Costing $10 million (with an initial budget of $7.75 million) and shot on location in France, The Longest Day was the most expensive black and white film in Hollywood history until Steven Spielberg shot Schindler's List (1993). Zanuck's film has been released on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray home video formats.

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