My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“I realized that the greatest drama here is not the event but the raw and frightening uncertainty for everyone involved.” So states Jeff Shaara in his introduction to the second volume in his WWII trilogy, and wow, did he ever come through! Though the events of this horrendous war have been chewed over for more than half a century, Shaara brings a sense of immediacy to his recounting that stimulates genuine anxiety in the reader. He’s definitely hit his stride as historical novelist, bringing together painstaking research with his considerable skills at dramatization.
The Steel Wave covers the period from January to September, 1944, beginning with the planning of D-day and ending with the Allies’ success at driving the Germans from France. Shaara alternates between action scenes involving the fighting men and their generals, and strategic sessions involving the higher ups, most notably Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Patton for the Allies, and Rommel for the Nazis. Even Hitler makes the occasional appearance. The author’s admiration for Rommel, who fought with honor for his country while despising Hitler, is obvious, and probably justified. Similarly, Shaara illustrates the delicate balancing act performed by Eisenhower as he coordinated American and British staff officers and juggled American and British political demands. Having watched all the old WWII movies, it’s easy to shrug off the Normandy invasion as perfectly planned and executed, but having read this book, your comfortable assumptions are blown to bits. Very little went as planned, and the men who fought this campaign carried on in the face of mind-boggling, unforeseen obstacles.
What Shaara does best is encapsulate the experience of the soldiers. As his father did in The Killer Angels, in which provided the most incredible description of an artillery bombardment that I’ve ever read, the son now does for Omaha Beach and its grueling aftermath. “… Screaming wails, the air above them ripped and shattered. The shells began to thunder above them, jolting him, the men tumbling again, more dust, the concrete shaking, deafening blasts. He lay flat, held his helmet to his head, curled his legs in tight, felt himself bouncing on the concrete, his hands hard on his ears, his brain screaming into the roar of fire, the terror grabbing him, pulling him into a complete and perfect hell.” When these guys, those who survived the landing, hit the beach, they were soaking wet and really scared, and it’s been said that men were dying at the rate of one every six seconds. And yet they prevailed, in the air, on the sea, and on the land, in the face of everything Rommel could throw at them.
The Steel Wave makes the battles, and those who fought them, come alive. No dry facts, maps, and figures here. We must not ever forget those who won this war, and those who read this book are in no danger of that.