6 June, 1944
by Stephen E. Ambrose
This book is the result of some 24 interviews, conducted between September and December, 1983, in Canada, England, France and Germany. At that time I had just completed some twenty years of work on Dwight Eisenhower, during which period I examined something over two million documents. In my next book I wanted to work from an entirely different kind of source material. I have always been impressed by the work of the American military writer S. L. A. Marshall, especially by his use of post-combat interviews to determine what actually happened on the battlefield.
My thought was, Why not do a post-combat interview forty years after the event? Even taking into account all the tricks that memory plays, I felt that for many of the participants, D-Day was the great day of their lives, stamped forever in their memories. I knew that was the case with Eisenhower, who went on to two full terms as President, but who always looked back on D-Day as his greatest day, and could remember the most surprising details. I also wanted to come down from the dizzying heights of the Supreme Commander and the President to the company level, where the action is. Further, I wanted a company that was unusual and that played a crucial role, Pegasus Bridge was an obvious choice.
So I set out. My recorded interviews with John Howard took twenty hours, spread over a period of some weeks. I got almost ten hours of tape from Jim Wallwork. My shortest interview was two hours.
Listening to the old veterans was fascinating. D-Day had indeed burned itself indelibly into their minds, and they very much enjoyed having an interested audience for their stories.
My major problem, it turned out, was the sequence and timing of events: I sometimes got six, eight, or ten individual descriptions of the same incident. When the veterans differed it was only in small detail, but they often disagreed on when the specific incident took place, whether before this one or after that one. By comparing all the transcripts later, by using such documentary material as exists, and by constant re-checking with my sources, I worked out a sequence of events and incidents that is, I think, as close to accurate as one can get forty years later.
The key time, on which everything else hinges, is the moment the first glider crashed. I use 0016, D-Day, as that moment. That was the time at which John Howard’s watch, and the watch of one of the privates, both stopped – presumably as a result of the crash.
When I began writing the book I quickly realised that the more these men and women spoke for themselves, the better. I found myself using more and longer quotations than I had ever used before. Gradually, I realised that what I was doing was putting their stories into a single narrative, rather than writing my own book. Because this is, truly, a book written by the veterans themselves, I’m glad to say that the royalties are going to the Royal Greenjackets Consolidated Charitable Fund (the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry became the 1st Battalion of the Royal Greenjackets in the late 1950s) and the Airborne Forces Security Fund).
The informants (listed in the order the interviews were done)
Jim Wallwork, John Howard, Wally Parr, Dennis Fox, Richard Todd, Nigel Poett, Nigel Taylor, M. Thornton, Oliver Boland, C. Hooper, E. Tappenden, Henry Hickman and Billy Gray (a joint interview), David Wood, John Vaughan, R. Ambrose, Jack Bailey, Joy Howard, Irene Parr, R. Smith, H. Sweeney, E. O’Donnell, Therese Gondree, and Hans von Luck.
The spring of 1944 was a unique time in European history, unique because virtually every European was anticipating a momentous event. That event was the Allied invasion, and everyone knew that it would decide whether the continent lived under Nazi domination.
By May of that year the war had reached its decisive phase, a phase in which invasion was inevitable. The British had been planning to return to Europe since they were kicked off in 1940. The Russians had been demanding the opening of a second front since the June of 1941, insisting that the Germans could never be beaten without one. And the Americans had been in agreement with the Russians since their entry into the war. Generals George Marshall and Dwight D. Elsenhower had argued forcefully for a second front in 1942 and 1943.