After the British Army's narrow escape from Dunkirk and the subsequent fall of France in June 1940, Hitler's Third Reich dominated almost all of Europe. For four years a tense stalemate ensued as Hitler fortified France's channel coastline with an "Atlantic Wall" of artillery emplacements and mines, while the British, American and Canadian Allies steadily built up their invasion force in England. And each side nervously eyed the 50-mile expanse of the English Channel that separated them.
In The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara's second installment (after The Rising Tides) of his World War II trilogy of novels, the author vividly recounts the events surrounding D-day, or Operation Overlord, the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Europe.
Shaara, who lives in Sarasota, is also the author of novels about the Revolutionary, Mexican and Civil Wars such as Gods and Generals. In The Steel Wave he provides excellent character portraits of the generals and politicians who took part in the D-day story. There is the conflicted and disillusioned noble warrior, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who is torn between his love of Germany and his growing disaffection with Hitler: "Rommel understood with perfect clarity that the Fuhrer had no stomach for the sounds of war. He would never choose to visit the front, would never see the condition of his withering army, would never bother to gaze upon the fantasy of his mighty Atlantic Wall."
There is the authoritative yet cautiously diplomatic supreme allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who must find a way of leading his diverse army — British, American, Canadian, Free French and Polish contingents — to victory over Hitler's Fortress Europa.
And then there is the irascible prime minister of England, Winston Churchill, who, irked at having to defend his offering of military advice to Eisenhower, barks: "You think I'm a bloody pest, sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong. Yes, I'm a pest. I like to be a pest. I like people to shut the hell up when I walk into a room."
American Gen. George S. Patton and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery are on display in all their colorful, quirky bravado. Even Der Fuhrer himself makes a brief, believable appearance.
But while Shaara's portraits of the historical figures appear authentic, it is the fictional fighting "grunts" whom the reader will readily empathize with and who really propel this novel. Sgt. Jesse Adams, rugged veteran of the 82nd Airborne, is about to fly to Normandy in the early hours of
D-day with his platoon in one of thousands of C-47 transports. As he boards his plane, Shaara writes, Adams "looked up, high overhead, and realized the sky had filled with stars. He stared for a brief moment — cold perfection, vast emptiness . . ."
Adams' C-47 soon encounters heavy anti-aircraft fire as it crosses the French coast: "The plane rolled over hard again, tossing him to one side, his gear punching him in the side . . ." There was "a chorus of sounds, cursing, raw fear. . . . There was more of the chattering of shrapnel against the plane, a blast on the far side."
Just as Steven Spielberg did with the movie Saving Private Ryan, Shaara vividly depicts the searing sights and sounds, the feeling of combat. In breathless prose the author describes Pvt. Tom Thorne of the 29th Infantry Division as he hits hellish Omaha Beach:
"Thorne tried to move his legs, cramped, paralyzed, another hard blast, black smoke rolling over him, machine-gun fire striking the steel in front of him. He felt himself shaking, wanted to cry, terror holding him, but another wave of men was moving past him. . . . The thumping explosions came in a steady rhythm around them, throwing sand in the air, a direct hit on one of the steel obstacles a few yards away. He stared that way: pieces of men, an arm hanging on a steel beam, rocking slowly, fingers curling up."
In the "To the Reader" section, Shaara tells us that he is certainly not suggesting in his World War II drama that "we should compare lessons learned then to lessons we should be learning today," and I take him at his word. But there are undeniable universal characteristics common to all wars, whether they occur during the Peloponnesian War in Greece in 431-404 B.C., in World War II Europe or in the present day Middle East. And those characteristics include the fact that all fighting soldiers have always, in countless lands, experienced excruciating agony and horror on the field of battle.
Pounding with fierce action and human drama, and packed with accurately rendered history, The Steel Wave is an eye-opening reminder of the bitterly high price that combat soldiers have always been called upon to pay.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.