In The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II (Dutton Caliber, out now), bestselling author Alex Kershaw immerses readers in the stories of the individuals responsible for some of the invasion’s most dangerous assignments. We asked Kershaw to talk about some of the most important takeaways from The First Wave.
What are the most news-worthy items in the book?
It has the first full and detailed account of the actions of the first American to jump into Normandy and the first American to wade ashore on Utah beach. I also include a detailed account of a French commando—based on an interview—who is one of just four from 177 Kieffer commandos alive today. The story of the first men to fight their way off Omaha Beach is also a highlight.
What surprised you the most as you did your research?
How very few veterans are alive today. Four died while I was working on the book. I was surprised also by how little attention has been paid to the stories and lives beyond
D-Day of those who gave so much. I follow the men on D-Day to the end of the war and beyond, and in one case right until today. It is important to trace the impact of combat on these men beyond the fighting to show what it really cost. Two men who fought off Omaha were terribly affected and died young in tragic circumstances. They had seen the worst and suffered the most, and it stayed with them afterward. And I was surprised by how young some German soldiers were—15 or 16. And shocked by how much carnage there was in the battle of Normandy—it was a very bloody battle, indeed, that lasted 77 days.
What are the most significant popular misconceptions about the attack?
That it was mostly an American exercise and that people were sure it was going to work. Not one senior general was utterly confident of success. I think people watch movies and still don’t realize that the combat on D-Day, although bloody in some sectors, was not as terrible as in the days after, when the Germans counterattacked. That was the terrible, terrible part for the First Wave—the days when they really had to fight off German assaults. The violence escalated every day after D-Day.
Your publisher bills D-Day as “the most important day of the 20th century.” Why do you think it merits that designation?
We would not have had a free and prosperous Europe without it. It was the key day that changed the outcome of WWII in Europe and led to victory in the greatest conflict in human history. Countless lives were saved by the arrival of the Allies. Anne Frank wrote in her diary that friends had arrived at last. Millions had hope. Those enslaved could finally be freed. Nineteen million European civilians died in WWII. We stopped the genocide. We restored liberty and humanity. We rebuilt a ruined Europe. We returned light to a place of immense barbarism. Had it failed, we would not have tried again. Europe would not have been freed. The Soviets would have probably—with our great help—occupied all of the areas we liberated. Repressive communism would have crushed Western Europe.
What is its significance today?
Never in Europe’s history has there been such a long period of peace and prosperity and unity. The foundation of postwar Atlanticism was D-Day. D-Day was the pinnacle of cooperation and alliance between Western democracies. It should be remembered as a great victory for democracy and all the values we hold so dear. It was America’s finest hour. So much was sacrificed to free the Old World from tyranny. America gave its best and lost so many to preserve the values and beliefs it is based on.