Jeff Shaara. The Steel Wave. New York: Ballantine, 2008. Print.
Though his father’s The Killer Angels on the Battle of Gettysburg won the Pulitzer and may be the best known of the Shaaras’ historical novels, this reviewer believes that son Jeff is as good a writer as his father, if not better. The method started by Shaara senior works well for Shaara junior.
The Steel Wave describes the events surrounding D-Day. Featured in particular are Generals Eisenhower, Gavin, Bradley, Patton, and Rommel. We are reminded that in an unplanned stroke of historical irony, Rommel was on leave back home in Württemberg when the invasion began.
We get scenes and scenarios leading up to the invasion—lots of politics, both Army-Government and Intra-Army types. It appears that Eisenhower and Churchill got along well, but certain military and political leaders seemed to cause problems for others. That was just as true for the Germans, as by 1944 Hitler was micromanaging the war far from the battle lines.
The Steel Wave also gives us a perspective of the enlisted men, the “grunts,” the guys actually doing the fighting. Fictional characters include a paratrooper who is dropped behind the lines and a soldier who is among the first on Omaha Beach. There is plenty of horror to go around.
The beach assaults were brutal. Especially, as it turned out, on Omaha Beach, which one of the best veteran German units was defending. Parachute drops rarely go quite as planned, so we get a sense of what the paratroopers endured as well. The invasion also included many gliders (“flying coffins”) going behind enemy lines. Many of them crashed, but they also carried necessary supplies, weapons, ordnance, and even jeeps.
What looked like checkerboard farm fields from the reconnaissance photos turned out to be bocage—a network of small fields, each separated by twelve feet of dense hedge. This slowed things down for the Allies once they got beyond the beaches, but also hindered the Germans and forced their vehicles out into the open more.
Some things succeeded well. The Allies had Patton command a nonexistent battalion in England and had double agents convince the German command that they were going to attack at Calais. The D-Day attack was truly a surprise attack, and the Germans did not have the supplies and troops along the Normandy beaches as they could have. Even after the invasion began, the Germans were slow to move their forces from Calais because they still believed a second wave was going to attack there.
Some things, at least from an Allied perspective, did not go well. A number of Americans including a general were killed by friendly fire when British planes bombed the wrong area. Patton and Bradley had the main German Panzer group in Northern France nearly surrounded and could have probably finished them off, but Eisenhower told them to hold off so that Montgomery could catch up. Montgomery did not move. Patton watched thousands of German troops and many tanks escape east through a gap that he could have plugged but was not permitted to in order to keep Montgomery happy. (I should note that in the book Killing Patton< /em>, General Patton is repeatedly frustrated by orders telling him to wait.)
While this is a fictional account, it is based on interviews, diaries, memoirs—many first person accounts. The story, then, comes across as realistic. Eisenhower and Churchill could have had the conversations in this book even if they actually did not. Here is one great quotation from Churchill to Eisenhower explaining why Patton was in hot water with politicians in both England and America:
Your General Patton caused a big d___d row, all over the place. His crime? He said we were destined to rule the world, you, me, and the Russians. B___y gigantic mistake. Not because he was wrong. His crime was he told the truth. Stupid bastard.” (114, emphasis in original)
If Killing Patton is true, that famous frankness may have gotten Patton killed.
The Steel Wave also quotes one of the paratroopers after the war. While Jesse Adams is a fictional character, it takes little imagination to understand a D-Day paratrooper saying something like what he said. Perhaps one of Shaara’s interviewees or memoir writers did.
I’m not a hero. I just like to jump out of airplanes. It didn’t matter much along the way I had to kill Germans. They shot at me, and missed. I shot back. And didn’t. (491)
Shaara’s last book of his original Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure, ends with the death of Jeb Stuart, a key Confederate leader who could not be replaced. Ditto with the second book in the trilogy, Gods and Generals, which ends with the death of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general whose tactics are often credited for the CSA’s army’s early successes. So The Steel Wave concludes with the death of Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, who understood what the Allies were doing but was unable to get the high command to listen to him.
The account of Rommel’s death is different from what I remember being told in junior high school, but Shaara assures us in an afterword that it is based on “the most reliable and the most oft-quoted perspective on the extraordinary drama of [Rommel’s] death.” (487) Shaara presents both Jackson and Rommel having doubts about their cause, but not about the loyalty and duty of the soldier.