- - Sunday, December 16, 2018



By Robert Kershaw

Pegasus Books, $27.95, 376 pages


Extraordinary and excruciating, “Landing on the Edge of Eternity” might be the hardcover version of “Saving Private Ryan“‘s torturous opening minutes. Or a nonfiction reprise of Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” which humanized soldiers on both sides of World War II.

British author Robert Kershaw doesn’t cosset such niceties in this account of D-Day on Omaha Beach. Rather, as he relates the ordeals of both the invading Americans and defensive Germans hour-by-hour, he focuses on nuts and bolts: The muzzle velocity of German 88s (2,600 feet per second), the weight of a GI’s “equipment overload” (68.4 pounds), the depth of American bodies piling up (“two meters high” said one German. “It wasn’t my fault I had killed so many people there.”)

One suspects that Mr. Kershaw, a soldier himself, set out to write an expressly military history, ascertaining which infantry company landed where when, and which landing ship, tank (LST) foundered x yards from the beach. But within that book he wrote another, about war. It is hard to put down and harder to read.

Mesmerizing and nauseating, it is not for the tender-hearted. This is more unnerving than that famous sequence in the Spielberg movie before Tom Hanks shows up, and the tide turns, and the audience takes a breath, and the tragic heroics take over. Somehow the descriptions of decapitations and dismemberments seem less escapable on paper. Sometimes the reader’s eye returns to the paragraph just read and scans it again as if the brain has asked, “Did you just see what I saw?” No civilized person could read this and approve armed conflict without flinching.

As muckrakers uncovering graft must “follow the money,” Mr. Kershaw follows the action and the clock through the first day of battle at Normandy. He has researched ably, found new primary sources, and told it all without frills or jingo. Straightforward chronological order may be the storyteller’s faithful friend but its sidekicks, curiosity and suspense, go AWOL here.

The useful index tells why: Few named individuals rate more than a single entry. There is no time or space for personalities, only lives glimpsed in short takes. Or cut short. Mr. Kershaw writes of his deployments in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Bosnia, “My own personal memories of conflict come in snapshot form There are few certainties in the chaos of combat even minutes later, never mind decades later.” So he writes this in the same manner.

As for his overview, the assault on Omaha Beach was a cock-up, a monumental SNAFU multiplied by FUBAR to the nth power. He says the planners “had not factored in wind, current and tidal conditions” on a coast where the tide rises a foot in 10 minutes. The mistakes, predicted casualties and chaos defy tidy quantification.

For starters, the frontal assault against entrenched defenders — never a good idea — resembles World War I’s charges across No-Man’s-Land. Except this attack was launched from an “unstable platform,” militaryspeak for ships at sea on a dark and stormy night. How else to invade a captive continent from an island base?

Omaha Beach claimed 4,700 American casualties, according to one cited estimate, more than Pearl Harbor and five times the number at Juno Beach, the next-worst Normandy battleground. The German defenders had perfect fields of enfilading fire, and they nearly pushed us back into the sea. With only a thousand troops to start, “despite so few defenders left on our feet, [in the first hours] we had brought this major landing effort to it knees” said one. By sunset they might have won, if this section of Rommel’s “Atlantic Wall” had been finished.

Omaha Beach became iconic. Robert Capa’s photographs eclipse the slaughter of whole companies before they reached the high-tide line. There are stunning stats: One battalion landed 2 tanks and lost 37 in the water. I suspect some will want to burn this book for its ugly truths: Not every GI was a hero. Men came ashore seasick and cold, unfit to stand. Amid dead and dying, one sergeant said “I saw men frozen in the sand, unable to move.”

Certainly there are heroes: The Rangers who scale 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Huc to silence key German guns. There is the majesty of the launching of 6,500 ships in one armada. There are familiar tragedies; twin brothers of the famed Bedford Boys die here. There are enough ironies to silence the poet Homer: Flights of rockets fall short instead of cratering the beach with foxholes; landmarks in recon photos are obliterated by our artillery barrages.

Mr. Kershaw’s prose is blunt as rocks, the maps are ugly and unclear. Overall, this book gasps and stammers its epic of blood, destruction, valor and luck. It should be required reading for every civilian official and military officer who has a voice in ordering soldiers to go fight.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Chevy Chase, Md., writes about American history and culture.

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