The Victors: Eisenhower and his Boys: The Men of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998, $24.
Private Fritz Niland of the 101st Airborne Division was the real Private Ryan, whose story was recently immortalized in the award-winning film. Two of Niland’s brothers were killed on D-Day, and a third was killed that same week in the China-Burma-India Theater. When his mother received all three telegrams on one day, the U.S. Army decided to remove Fritz from combat and send him back to England.
Niland’s story is just one of many soldiers’ stories in The Victors, by Stephen Ambrose, but it is the most memorable, if only because of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In fact, many of the stories in this book will seem familiar to anyone who has read Ambrose’s other treatises on World War II because he has drawn on his previous books–Eisenhower, Pegasus Bridge, Band of Brothers, D-Day and Citizen Soldiers–to tell this tale of World War II in Europe.
The Victors is the story of how Eisenhower’s leadership led to the defeat of Germany. Unfortunately, with the exception of sections on D-Day and the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower is a scarce character in the book. Readers learn more about Eisenhower’s rise to power than about his military acumen. Ambrose, however, does examine at length Eisenhower’s decision not to attack Berlin, which was based on the belief that young men should not have to die to take a city devoid of any strategic importance.
It is a shame that Eisenhower is not more prominent here, since every time he does appear he is saying or doing something interesting that gives insight into his personality. For example, D-Day had to be delayed because of foul weather, and most of the Allied offensives the following month were hampered by rains. When Ike arrived at General Omar Bradley’s First Army headquarters in France in the middle of a rainstorm on July 21, 1944, he told Bradley: “When I die, they ought to hold my body for a rainy day and then bury me out in the middle of a storm. This damned weather is going to be the death of me.”
Generally, the book is half D-Day and half Citizen Soldiers. The first 10 chapters deal with Operation Overlord, while the following nine cover the advance across Europe. The author has not made much effort to discover anything new, and anyone who has read the previous two books will recognize the stories that are presented here in condensed form. The only thing unique about The Victors is the author’s reflections on the publication of Citizen Soldiers.
Anyone who has followed Ambrose’s writing will be disappointed by this regurgitation of previously published material. Those who have not will enjoy the foxhole-eye view of combat in Europe, and the general picture of war that Ambrose is so adept at creating. The Victors is a great book for newcomers to World War II or Ambrose fans who want to complete their personal collections. Everyone else would be better off reading his previous works in their entirety and enjoying his storytelling and his incredible knowledge of World War II.
Kevin M. Hymel