The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach
By John C. McManus. 384 pp. NAL Hardcover, 2014. $27.95.
After 70 years, is there anything about D-Day left to discover? Yes, because history is a moving target made up of facts and human interpretation. But writing history significantly and convincingly is another story.
In The Dead and Those About to Die, John McManus hits the target, despite focusing on Omaha Beach— arguably the most written-about aspect of D-Day—and the 1st Infantry Division—one of the war’s most renowned. McManus believes the Big Red One has been historically overshadowed by the 29th Division’s gasp-inducing catastrophes on Omaha, and seeks to right the balance. He succeeds. Marshalling archival and interview resources gathered over decades, McManus chronicles the 1st’s Normandy ordeals in a rigorous, fluent narrative that evokes the nauseating carnage and unthinkable bravery on the beach, as well as the personalities of the men and the division.
But that’s only half the job. McManus argues that D-Day planning actually compounded disaster on Omaha. Once any part unraveled—air and naval bombardment missing the beach entirely; overlooked tides and scared coxswains shifting personnel to the wrong landing zones and shredding to-the-minute timetables; soldiers, freighted with 70 or more pounds of gear they didn’t really need, dropping into water over their heads or facing withering fire—the entire operational plan was bound to disintegrate. McManus suggests this fits “a recurring pattern in American military history—the tendency to place too much confidence in technology, firepower, and materiel.” For the Big Red One, all these elements failed. Only courage and improvisation carried the day.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.