My Newest Favorite Military Author

 

Cornelius Ryan Joins Exclusive Company

By Jeff Salter

On these pages, I’ve previously highlighted the remarkable Rick Atkinson (author of the Liberation Trilogy) and I believe I’ve mentioned Stephen Ambrose (most famous for Band of Brothers but my favorite is Pegasus Bridge). Atkinson and Ambrose are indeed at the very pinnacle of my list of fine authors of WW2 non-fiction… and to their elite group I now add Cornelius Ryan. [Note: within the realm of WW2 FICTION, my clear favorite is Jeff Shaara.]

Bless his heart, Ryan died over 42 years ago (1974) and for most of this time I knew him only as the author of two war books which were converted into excellent war movies. I’ve seen each movie many times over. These are, of course, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. But I had never taken the time to read the books themselves… and what a treat I’ve been missing.

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Let me begin with a little biographical capsule of Ryan, born in 1920 in Dublin. He was inspired to write by his favorite English teacher, Frank MacManus. As a youngster, Ryan played the violin; as a young adult he worked at Collinstown Airport and dabbled in amateur theater.

By his early 20s, Ryan was already a war correspondent. Initially covering the air war in Europe, Ryan flew along on fourteen American bombing missions. He then joined Patton’s Third  Army and covered its actions until the end of the European war. He transferred to the Pacific theater in 1945.

According to Wiki: “On a trip to Normandy in 1949 Ryan became interested in telling a more complete story of Operation Overlord than had been produced to date. He began compiling information and conducting over 1000 interviews as he gathered stories from both the Allies and the Germans, as well as the French civilians. In 1956 he began to write down his World War II notes for The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day, which tells the story of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, published three years later in 1959.”

Along the way becoming a friend of President John F. Kennedy, Ryan published three best-selling books before his cancer death at 54.

bridge-2-far2

A Bridge Too Far is the book I’m just now finishing.

Says an Amazon review: it’s the “masterly chronicle of the Battle of Arnhem, which marshaled the greatest armada of troop-carrying aircraft ever assembled and cost the Allies nearly twice as many casualties as D-Day. In this compelling work of history, Ryan narrates the Allied effort to end the war in Europe in 1944 by dropping the combined airborne forces of the American and British armies behind German lines to capture the crucial bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem. Focusing on a vast cast of characters — from Dutch civilians to British and American strategists to common soldiers and commanders — Ryan brings to life one of the most daring and ill-fated operations of the war. A Bridge Too Far superbly recreates the terror and suspense, the heroism and tragedy of this epic operation, which ended in bitter defeat for the Allies.”

Wiki states: “The Allies had failed to cross the Rhine and the river remained a barrier to their advance into Germany until offensives at Remagen, Oppenheim, Rees, and Wesel in March 1945. The failure of Market Garden to form a foothold over the Rhine ended Allied expectations of finishing the war by Christmas 1944.”

My analysis

What has impressed me about Ryan’s account is the futility of a poorly planned mission: on one hand, the courage, sacrifice, and endurance of the troops committed to battle and the civilians caught in the crossfire. On the other hand, the apparently casual acceptance (by higher-ups) of every setback and a seeming willingness to forsake the military and civilians in harm’s way. It was a terrible plan that Montgomery wanted and almost nobody else cared for. But, as he often did, Monty got his way. Too hasty, too incomplete, too optimistic, too short-sighted. The planners lacked information on the enemy strength and the Dutch terrain, they refused to believe info and intel from the Dutch civilians and refused to accept assistance from the Dutch underground.

Pinning all their hopes on the element of surprise, the Allies experienced more surprises than the Germans did. Among the huge failures were the poorly functioning radio sets, the lack of coordination among airborne units (two American, one British, and one Polish), between airborne units and the ground elements, and between all units and their own HQ. Not to mention poor coordination and communication between the distant planners/overseers and the air forces (back in England) who would deliver parachutists, gliders, supplies, and would provide bombing and strafing missions.

To put it succinctly, hardly anyone could communicate directly with anyone they needed to reach in real time. What little info that moved at all, was fragmented and woefully out-of-date. Vitally needed supplies landed more in enemy territory than among the Allies desperately waiting. The weather in England delayed or cancelled flights of reinforcements, supplies, and attack support missions. The Horrocks vanguard of tanks and armored vehicles – confined to a single highway barely sufficient for ordinary traffic – spent most of the nine-day battle bottled up and unable to advance. That left the valiant airborne divisions scrambling and sacrificing to hold their objectives for the relief that never came.

Initially overjoyed at the sight of Allied parachutes and gliders, Dutch civilians naturally assumed Allied ground troops were on the way immediately. Indeed, the Allies could have exploited the surprised Germans if they’d acted quickly — but everything bogged down.

Expecting “liberation” (from German occupation) by the Allies, instead the Dutch faced reprisals and months of deprivation and suffering. Many Dutch cites were reduced to rubble; many civilians were left without homes, property, and food. Market Garden was a dismal defeat both for the Allies and the innocent civilians who happened to be caught between two warring enemies.

longest-day-2

Just a quick word about Ryan’s other major book, which “endures as a masterpiece of living history” (says an Amazon reviewer). I finally read this one a few months ago.

Look at what Robert McNamara has to say about it: “A true classic of World War II history, The Longest Day tells the story of the massive Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Journalist Cornelius Ryan began working on the book in the mid-1950s, while the memories of the D-day participants were still fresh, and he spent three years interviewing D-day survivors in the United States and Europe. * * * Ryan was enormously skillful at weaving small personal stories into the overall narrative * * *. [S]ubsequent historians, dutifully noting its accuracy, have relied heavily on Ryan’s research for their own accounts.”

My Final Word

I may not be able to back this up, but it’s my impression (having read numerous books on WW2) that – prior to Ryan’s 1959 epic – most authors writing on battles and campaigns went solely to the official sources, including the published accounts of generals, public officials, and formal historians. Of course, Ryan also mined those sources exhaustively. But as I see it, Ryan shook things up by additionally interviewing soldiers, airmen, sailors – up and down the ranks – on BOTH sides… as well as civilians in the affected areas. Many of the military histories (prior to Ryan’s 1959 masterpiece) read almost like a detailed account of a chess match — where the decisions were analyzed and the results dissected, but the humanity was overlooked. In Ryan’s accounts, you can feel the tension, fear, pain, hope, despair, and (yes) even humor at times. Without Ryan’s successful approach, I wonder if Ambrose would have hit his stride. Without Ryan and Ambrose, I wonder if Atkinson would have discovered both voice and audience.

My hat’s off to my new buddy, the late Cornelius Ryan.

[JLS # 320]

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About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Twelve completed novels and five completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015, "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015, "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015, "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014, "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014, "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014, "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014, "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013, "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013, "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013, "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012, "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012. Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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12 Responses to My Newest Favorite Military Author

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I bet these books are very interesting, especially given that he has accounts from multiple sides of the fighting lines. Thanks for sharing, Jeff. I just may add Ryan’s books to my collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    What an insightful review. I can only imagine the dedication Ryan had in going to directly to the people involved and getting first-hand accounts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      yeah… and (to a large extent) hardly any serious researchers had made the effort (prior to Ryan) to track down the “ordinary” military folks actually involved in the battle. Not to mention the civilians who lost friends, relatives, property, and suffered so many hardships.

      Like

  3. Fascinating,Jeff! I did not realize that Ryan was “Old Word” Irish. The Longest Day is one of the few war movies that I will watch over and over (willingly; my brother and my husband have subjected me to many war movies many times). It is unfortunate that many of the politicians and indeed, military leaders are often cold-hearted…there are few Eisenhowers throughout history.I have become totally impressed with what I have learned about him over the past few years.
    I have read posts here to Joe, but I will sit him down to read this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      Having actively collected military history books for at least 20 years, I’m still both amazed and embarrassed that it took me this long to finally read Ryan’s. He also has a book about the final battle in and around Berlin. I may get that one next.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You found the master! Ryan has long been one of my greatest influences, not only in NF but also in fiction. But my favorite of all of his books is The Last Battle. Truly a landmark work, give it a go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jeff7salter says:

      thanks, Bill. Yes, even though I have less interest in that battle than in ones fought by the Americans or the British, I do plan to acquire and read Ryan’s account of the Berlin battle. My sense of that battle now (before reading Ryan’s book) is that Ike had been told to step back and allow the Russians to take Berlin. It will be interesting to see what Ryan has to say.

      Like

  5. Joselyn says:

    It’s always great when you find a new author in your favorite genre.

    Liked by 1 person

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