Editor’s Note: Alex Kershaw, author of the “The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II,” will read and sign copies of his book today, Friday, May 17, at 5:30 p.m., at Off-Square Books.
Next month, we commemorate the largest and most complex invasion in history, the amphibious assault that moved a million-man army from British training camps to the beaches of Normandy. “The First Wave,” by Alex Kershaw, focuses on the servicemen who were the first to land: the paratroop pathfinders who guided in wings of transports, the commandos who attacked German strongpoints, and the infantrymen who scrambled through the cold surf and pushed the invasion inland.
In an army of a million men, there are countless stories to tell, and Kershaw finds them. His earlier books on the Second World War range from “The Bedford Boys,” the account of a Virginia National Guard company cut to pieces as they landed on Omaha Beach, to “Avenue of Spies,” a non-fiction thriller caught up in the secret currents of wartime Paris. “The First Wave” is a worthy successor to these histories.
Kershaw paces his story flawlessly. He emphasizes how the invasion clock kept ticking even as operations went amiss, forcing soldiers to play a continual catch-up game. The first American paratroops jumped at 12:15 am, carrying radio beacons to guide the rest of the 101st Airborne Division. They found themselves a mile from their planned jump zone. Immediately, they located a different set of open fields, scrambled to a church belfry, and set up their beacons, just before the first wave of transport planes arrived – at 12:57 am.
Outside the Merville Battery, a monstrous German gun emplacement, British Lt.-Col. Terence Otway found that his pre-dawn attack, so carefully planned, now “lay in tatters.”
“Not one glider had landed on the battery. His men were dispersed for many miles. He had no mine detectors, no 3-inch mortars, no portable bridges to cross anti-tank ditches, no radio. There was just one machine gun, a Vickers, and no explosives to destroy the battery guns. . . . He was supposed to attack the Merville Battery with a battalion of more than six hundred men. He had only 150.”
Otway and his soldiers attacked anyway and overran the battery. They were fighting Germans, but the real race was against time. The attack began at 4:30 am. Otway knew that at 5:30 a British cruiser would start shelling the position, killing his men as well as the enemy, unless he signaled that the battery’s guns had been disabled.
“A steel hand from the sea,” Winston Churchill melodramatically called the D-Day landings. One Allied commander, the Scots nobleman Lord Lovat, congratulated his commandos on being “a proper striking force, the fine cutting edge,” of the war to free Europe. In this book, however, there is nothing glamorous about combat. Rather, Kershaw makes readers feel the slog of war and the weight of weapons that have to be lugged into place. (Paratroopers are so loaded down with rations and ammo that they have to be helped into their planes.) At other points, unexpected noises pierce the tense darkness. Men form up on the sound of an officer blowing a coach’s whistle; they go into combat to the note of a hunting horn. Lovat had even brought a piper.
As “The First Wave,” concludes, dense pages of endnotes tie Kershaw’s narrative out to the record. Many notes set forth citations for valor – name men who won both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor, or brought home a Victoria Cross that they never talked about. Kershaw’s great contribution is to tell the stories that lie behind the valor.
Allen Boyer is the Book Editor for HottyToddy.com. A native of Oxford, he lives and writes in Staten Island.