Off the English Channel, thousands of terrified infantrymen from twelve Allied nations, many having already vomited their breakfasts, floated in flat-bottomed landing craft toward shore beaches code-named Sword, Juno, Omaha, Gold, and Utah. As the coastline grew near, appearing to them through thick gray fog, the soldiers, carrying seventy pounds of wet battle gear apiece, jumped neck-deep into the waters and waded ashore. Now the battle was theirs to win or lose, all theirs. The first units, taking advantage of the element of surprise (the Germans had predicted that the Allies would invade at Pas-de-Calais, the channel's narrowest point, and were thus underfortified at Normandy), made their way quickly into the farmland at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. But the Americans pushing in at Omaha were not so lucky. There, in the center of the front, soldiers walked into a wall of German gunfire and paid dearly for it. Attempting to scale a bluff well covered by German defenders, more than 2,000 GIs were killed or wounded. By nightfall they had secured it, and joined the 156,000 Allied men on their way to liberate France.
Despite its astonishing success, the invasion of Normandy was a messy affair. German mines (nicknamed "Bouncing Betties") made the waters treacherous, and red with blood. After penetrating the corpse-laden beaches, the soldiers ran into the Normandy bocage, a maze of hedgerows in which the Germans had stationed small groups of machine gunners, invisible to the Allies until they were virtually on top of them. Still the British and American losses were nowhere near those anticipated. The total number of casualties suffered in the operation's first day was under 5,000, considerably less than the 75,000 some planners had feared.
Around the beginning of July, the Allies had landed more than one million troops, 566,000 tons of supplies, and 171,000 vehicles. By August, they had freed Paris and turned east. But the Germans were not ready to give up. They mounted one last strike at the Allies through Belgium in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge (because it pushed a forty-five-mile-wide dent into Allied lines). When Eisenhower's forces broke that offensive, too, the march to the Rhine was easy.
By early 1945, the Nazi strategy had been reduced to the bizarre. In an attempt to stiffen German morale, the high command unveiled an epic movie on the resistance of a small German town to the invasion of Napoleon in 1807. Kolberg, which had been created at Goebbels's insistence, was a film with Hollywood flair. It included 187,000 soldiers, who had been borrowed from the front to serve as extras. And at a time when the rail lines were under siege, hundreds of train cars had been commandeered to transport salt to the set where it became the "snow" of winter scenery. Even the director was appalled at the excess. "Hitler and Goebbels must have been obsessed with the idea that a film like this could be more useful to them than even a victory in Russia," he said.
Hitler was surrounded, his nation rapidly disintegrating. From the East, the Russian army pushed through Poland (conveniently pausing outside Warsaw so that the Germans could finish off the city and make it easier for the Soviets to hold it in their palm after the war) and marched toward Berlin. From the West, the Allied forces moved deeper into Germany, their eyes on the Elbe River. His nation was a landscape of ruins: Dresden, Essen, Dsseldorf, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Hamburg, all reduced to rubble. Hitler retired to a concrete bunker at the center of the German capital, the only place where the myth of his destiny remained intact, and waited for a miracle.
The German leader first put his hopes in a home army composed of teenagers and old veterans -- the only men who had not yet been drafted; later in the death of Roosevelt on April 12, which he received as his last bit of good news. Perhaps now, he thought, his fortune will change, just as it changed for Frederick the Great in 1762 when his rival, Tsarista Elizabeth of Russia, died, shifting the momentum back toward the House of Brandenburg. But of course the transition to Harry Truman was smooth, and the Allies remained solid.
Excerpted from The Century by By Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprint.
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