the first wave

THE FIRST WAVE. The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II.

By Alex Kershaw. Penguin Random House. 384 pages. $30.

Alex Kershaw is best known in this part of Virginia as the author of the 2001 best-seller “The Bedford Boys,” drawing international attention to the rural community that paid an immense price on D-Day. Since that release, Kershaw has explored other aspects of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge in “The Longest Winter,” French resistance and espionage in “Avenue of Spies” and the Holocaust in “The Envoy.”

His latest book returns to the subject of D-Day, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the epic invasion. “The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II” explores on an international level one particular aspect of Operation Overlord: the special units sent in ahead of the main waves of invaders to achieve specific — and enormously crucial — objectives.

“The First Wave” is not intended to be a full history of D-Day and why the Allies were victorious on June 6, 1944. Rather, it’s history in microcosm, zeroing in on heroic individuals and often letting them tell their own stories in their own words. The WWII buff looking for a tactical analysis of the operation won’t find it here. But the reader looking for inspirational accounts of what it took to win the day — especially in its very first hours — will find Kershaw as compelling as ever.

The book fittingly opens with Eisenhower’s monumental (and monumentally solitary) decision to launch Operation Overlord. After a 24-hour delay June 5, Ike alone had to make the fateful call: Go on the 6th despite far from perfect weather conditions, or delay further and risk the Germans discovering the massive fleet in the channel. He mulled a few minutes and then made his pronouncement: “OK, we’ll go.” With this short sentence, Ike had committed the greatest invasion force in history to action.

Many pieces had to fall into place in a precise order, and “The First Wave” concentrates on those men and units whose risky assignments led the way. The reader meets an international cast: Frank Lillyman’s American Pathfinders, jumping into France to mark drop zones for follow waves of paratroopers; the eccentric Lord Lovat and his team of commandos, including the kilt-wearing bagpiper Bill Millin and 177 Free Frenchmen eager to liberate their homeland; George Kerchner’s 2nd U.S. Ranger Battalion scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc; and Terrence Ottway’s British glider force given a “Grade-A stinker of a job” of silencing menacing German gun battery. Meanwhile, John Howard’s “Ox and Bucks” glidermen from Britain have landed to seize Pegasus Bridge and have suffered the first Allied fatality of the war: Howard’s best friend Den Brotheridge.

The narratives of these key units are not told sequentially. Rather, just as events unfolded at the same time over significant distance, Kershaw switches his focus from one to another in rapid fashion. Some may find it distracting, but most will sense the frenetic energy of the invasion emerging. The reader follows simultaneously the battle-hardened warriors of E Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Division (under the intrepid John Spalding) as they attempt to cross the murderous Omaha Beach; while the untested 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division tries to accomplish its mission on Utah Beach despite landing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

American readers, largely unfamiliar with the indispensable role of our northern neighbors, will find captivating the story of the Dalton Brothers, each one commanding a company of Canada’s “The Queen’s Own Rifles” at Juno Beach. After the battle was joined, neither would know the fate of his brother until a chance meeting at a hospital days later.

Despite the book’s title, the narrative does not end on D-Day. Kershaw follows the men and units of the First Wave through the rest of the European War and even into the postwar period, where many suffered with what today would be diagnosed as PTSD. The reader comes to the last pages well aware of what victory cost the men who fought the battle.

Well-read aficionados of D-Day history will find much here already familiar but will still enjoy the way Kershaw weaves the several threads into a complete tapestry. The casual reader, less familiar with the drama of D-Day, will likewise find “The First Wave” gripping. Either way, this new history of the 20th century’s most momentous day belongs on any history lover’s bookshelf.

One theme Kershaw explores subtly is that the heroes of D-Day were never adequately recognized for their valor. For all the intrepidity displayed in Operation Overlord, only four Medals of Honor were bestowed by the U.S. Army; while the British awarded only a single Victoria Cross. Those numbers could have been justifiably much higher — many of the men Kershaw profiles arguably deserved their nation’s highest decorations. But if they were not so honored at the time, Kershaw’s “The First Wave” is at least a heartfelt tribute to the men who “led the way to victory.”

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