The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II

The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II

by Alex Kershaw
The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II

The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II

by Alex Kershaw


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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of Against All Odds, returns with an utterly immersive, adrenaline-driven account of D-Day combat.
“Meet the assaulters: pathfinders plunging from the black, coxswains plowing the whitecaps, bareknuckle Rangers scaling sheer rock . . . Fast-paced and up close, this is history’s greatest story reinvigorated as only Alex Kershaw can.”—Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of Spearhead and A Higher Call

Beginning in the predawn darkness of June 6, 1944, The First Wave follows the remarkable men who carried out D-Day’s most perilous missions. The charismatic, unforgettable cast includes the first American paratrooper to touch down on Normandy soil; the glider pilot who braved antiaircraft fire to crash-land mere yards from the vital Pegasus Bridge; the brothers who led their troops onto Juno Beach under withering fire; as well as a French commando, returning to his native land, who fought to destroy German strongholds on Sword Beach and beyond. Readers will experience the sheer grit of the Rangers who scaled Pointe du Hoc and the astonishing courage of the airborne soldiers who captured the Merville Gun Battery in the face of devastating enemy counterattacks. The first to fight when the stakes were highest and the odds longest, these men would determine the fate of the invasion of Hitler’s fortress Europe—and the very history of the twentieth century.
The result is an epic of close combat and extraordinary hero'sm. It is the capstone Alex Kershaw’s remarkable career, built on his close friendships with D-Day survivors and his intimate understanding of the Normandy battlefield. For the seventy-fifth anniversary, here is a fresh take on World War II's longest day.

Praise for The First Wave:

“Masterful... readers will feel the sting of the cold surf, smell the acrid cordite that hung in the air, and duck the zing of machine-gun bullets whizzing overhead. The First Wave is an absolute triumph.”—James M. Scott, bestselling author of Target Tokyo

“These pages ooze with the unforgettable human drama of history's most consequential invasion.”—John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451490070
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 60,985
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alex Kershaw is a journalist and the New York Times bestselling author of Against All Odds, as well as other books on World War II. Born in York, England, he is a graduate of Oxford University and now lives in Savannah, Georgia. His critically acclaimed books include The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, and Escape from the Deep. He is also the author of The Liberator, which was made into a drama series for Netflix in 2020.

Read an Excerpt



June 5, 1944


the clock in the war room at Southwick House showed 4 a.m. The nine men gathered in the twenty-five-by-fifty-foot former library, its walls lined with empty bookshelves, were anxiously sipping cups of coffee, their minds dwelling on the Allies' most important decision of World War II. Outside in the darkness, a gale was blowing, angry rain lashing against the windows. "The weather was terrible," recalled fifty-three-year-old Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower. "Southwick House was shaking. Oh, it was really storming." Given the atrocious conditions, would Eisenhower give the final go-ahead or postpone? He had left it until now, the very last possible moment, to decide whether or not to launch the greatest invasion in history.


Seated before Eisenhower in upholstered chairs at a long table covered in a green cloth were the commanders of Overlord: the no-nonsense Missourian, General Omar Bradley, commander of US ground forces; the British General Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, casually attired in his trademark roll-top sweater and corduroy slacks; Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, the naval commander who had orchestrated the "miracle of Dunkirk"-the evacuation of more than 300,000 troops from France in May 1940; the pipe-smoking Air Chief Arthur Tedder, also British; Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, whose blunt pessimism had caused Eisenhower considerable anguish; and Major General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff.


A dour and tall Scotsman, forty-three-year-old Group Captain James Stagg, Eisenhower's chief meteorologist, entered the library and stood on the polished wood floor before Overlord's commanders. He had briefed Eisenhower and his generals every twelve hours, predicting the storm that was now rattling the windows of the library, which had already led Eisenhower to postpone the invasion from June 5 to June 6. Then, to Eisenhower's great relief, he had forecast that there would, as he had put it with a slight smile, "be rather fair conditions" beginning that afternoon and lasting for thirty-six hours.


Once more, Stagg gave an update. The storm would indeed start to abate later that day.


Eisenhower got to his feet and began to pace back and forth, hands clasped behind him, chin resting on his chest, tension etched on his face.


What if Stagg was wrong? The consequences were beyond bearable. But to postpone again would mean that secrecy would be lost. Furthermore, the logistics of men and supplies, as well as the tides, dictated that another attempt could not be made for weeks, giving the Germans more time to prepare their already formidable coastal defenses.


Since January, when he had arrived in England to command Overlord, Eisenhower had been under crushing, ever greater strain. Now it had all boiled down to this decision. Eisenhower alone-not Roosevelt, not Churchill-had the authority to give the final command to go, to "enter the continent of Europe," as his orders from on high had stated, and "undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces." He alone could pull the trigger.


Marshaling the greatest invasion in the history of war had been, at times, as terrifying as the very real prospect of failure. The last time there had been a successful cross-Channel attack was 1066, almost a millennium ago. The scale of this operation had been almost too much to grasp. More than 700,000 separate items had formed the inventory of what was required to launch the assault. Dismissed by some British officers as merely a "coordinator, a good mixer," the blue-eyed Eisenhower, celebrated for his broad grin and easy charm, had nevertheless imposed his will, working eighteen-hour days, reviewing and tweaking plans to launch some seven thousand vessels, twelve thousand planes, and 160,000 troops to hostile shores.


Eisenhower had overseen vital changes to the Overlord plan. A third more troops had been added to the invasion forces, of whom fewer than 15 percent had actually experienced combat. Heeding General Montgomery's concerns, Eisenhower had ensured that the front was broadened to almost sixty miles of coast, with a beach code-named Utah added at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, farthest to the west. It had been agreed, after Eisenhower had carefully managed the "bunch of prima donnas," most of them British, who made up his high command-the men gathered now before him-that the attack by night should benefit from the rays of a late-rising moon.


In addition, it was decided that the first wave of seaborne troops would land at low tide to avoid being ripped apart by beach obstacles. An elaborate campaign of counterintelligence and outright deception, Operation Fortitude, had hopefully kept the Germans guessing as to where and when the Allies would land, providing the critical element of surprise. Hopefully, Erwin Rommel, the field marshal in charge of German forces in Normandy, had not succeeded in fortifying the coast to the extent that he had demanded. Hopefully, the Allies' greatest advantage-their overwhelming superiority in air power-would make all the difference. Hopefully.


Not even Eisenhower was confident of success. "We are not merely risking a tactical defeat," he had recently confided to an old friend back in Washington. "We are putting the whole works on one number." Among Eisenhower's most senior generals, even now, at the eleventh hour, there was precious little optimism.


Still pacing, Eisenhower thrust his chin in the direction of Montgomery. He was all for going. So was Tedder. Leigh-Mallory, ever cautious, thought the heavy cloud cover might prove disastrous.


Stagg left the library and its cloud of pipe and cigarette smoke. There was an intense silence; each man knew how immense this moment was in history. The stakes could not be higher. There was no plan B. Nazism and its attendant evils-barbarism, unprecedented genocide, the enslavement of tens of millions of Europeans-might yet prevail. The one man in the room whom Eisenhower genuinely liked, Omar Bradley, believed that Overlord was Hitler's "greatest danger and his greatest opportunity. If the Overlord forces could be repulsed and trounced decisively on the beaches, Hitler knew it would be a very long time indeed before the Allies tried again-if ever."


Six weeks before, V Corps commander General Leonard Gerow had written to Eisenhower outlining grave doubts, even though it was too late to do much to alter the overall Overlord plan. It was distressingly clear, after the 4th Division had lost an incredible 749 men-killed in a single practice exercise on April 28 on Slapton Sands-that the Royal Navy and American troops were not working well together. Apart from the appallingly chaotic practice landings-the woeful yet final dress rehearsals-the defensive obstacles sown all along the beaches in Normandy were especially concerning.


Eisenhower had chided Gerow for his skepticism. Gerow had shot back that he was not being "pessimistic" but simply "realistic." And what of the ten missing officers from the disaster at Slapton Sands who had detailed knowledge of the D-Day operations, the most important secret in modern history? They knew about "Hobart's Funnies," the assortment of tanks specially designed to cut through Rommel's defenses-including flail tanks that cleared mines with chains, and DUKWs, the six-wheeled amphibious trucks that would take Rangers to within yards of the steep Norman cliffs-and they knew exactly where and when the Allies were landing. Was it really credible to assume that the Germans had not been tipped off, that so many thousands of planes and ships had gone unseen?


Even Winston Churchill, usually so ebullient and optimistic, was filled with misgivings, having cautioned Eisenhower to "take care that the waves do not become red with the blood of American and British youth." The prime minister had recently told a senior Pentagon official, John J. McCloy, that it would have been best to have had "Turkey on our side, the Danube under threat as well as Norway cleaned up before we undertook [Overlord]." The British Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, had fought in Normandy in 1940 before the British Expeditionary Force's narrow escape at Dunkirk. Just a few hours earlier, he had written in his diary that he was "very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very, very far short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing about its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war!"


No wonder Eisenhower had complained of a constant ringing in his right ear. He was almost frantic with nervous exhaustion, but he dared not show it as he continued now to pace back and forth, lost in thought, listening to the crackle and hiss of logs burning in the fireplace. He could not betray his true feelings, his dread and anxiety.


The minute hand on the clock moved slowly, for as long as five minutes according to one account. Walter Bedell Smith recalled, "I never realized before the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with the full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone."


Eisenhower finally stopped pacing and then looked calmly at his lieutenants.


"OK. We'll go."



The shadows were lengthening at North Witham airfield when an officer stepped down from a C-47 plane, a small case attached to his right wrist. Armed guards who usually patrolled the airfield, which lay a hundred miles north of London, accompanied the officer into a building where he was met by twenty-eight-year-old Captain Frank Lillyman, a slightly built New Yorker who could often be found with a wry smile and an impish glint in his eye but was now all business.


The officer opened the small case and pulled out a message and handed it to Lillyman, who since December 1943 had commanded the 101st Airborne's pathfinders. At last, after weeks of growing tension and restless anticipation, the top-secret orders from the division commander, General Maxwell Taylor, had arrived-D-Day was on. The drop was a go. "Get the men ready," Lillyman told a sergeant, and then the message was burned.


Lillyman's men assembled at a flight line where they began to strap on their silk parachutes. Having watched a 1939 film about the legendary Apache warrior Geronimo, some had shaved their scalps, leaving an unruly strip of hair across their heads. They were all volunteers, many of them cocky misfits busted down the ranks for bad behavior, or, as one of them put it, "a bunch of good guys who had screwed up one way or another." For all their past faults, none doubted that they now belonged to an elite group that had been superbly trained; Lillyman had rejected three out of four applicants, disappointing some unit commanders who thought they had gotten rid of troublemakers.


Out of nowhere, it seemed, there appeared grinning Red Cross girls with hot coffee, a gaggle of cooing press photographers, a Signal Corps cameraman using rare color film, and several members of the 101st Airborne's top brass, all present to witness the departure of the very first Americans to fight on D-Day, the spearhead of the Allied invasion.


There was playacting for the cameras, followed by nonchalant waves and friendly punches to buddies' shoulders. A paratrooper riding a children's bicycle did circles in front of a plane to much laughter. Then a medic gave Lillyman's chain-smoking pathfinders "puke" pills in small cardboard boxes to combat airsickness, and bags to vomit into. Some threw the pills away, not trusting them, wanting to be sharp, clearheaded, the moment they touched the ground in France.


There was the guttural coughing of engines as the C-47s started warming up, and the horsing around came to an end. Lillyman's men clambered or were helped aboard the twin-propped aircraft, which had been hastily daubed with black and white "invasion" stripes-the colors of Operation Overlord. Brown masking paper covered some areas of the fuselage to prevent damage from the still drying paint. To preserve secrecy, the stripes had been added to thousands of planes in a matter of hours, consuming a hundred thousand gallons of precious paint and twenty thousand paintbrushes.


Captain Lillyman took his place beside the door of one C-47, his customary stogie between his lips, wearing white leather gloves, a tommy gun strapped to his left leg just above the M3 trench knife (useful for slitting throats) attached to his shin. He would be the first American to leap into the darkness over Normandy-if he made it to the drop zone. None of the pathfinder aircraft were armed, and none had any protection against anti-aircraft fire, and there would be no escort to defend against enemy fighters. Once airborne, Lillyman and his men would be all on their own.



It was early evening as thirty-one-year-old Major John Howard and his men from D Company of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry arrived at RAF Tarrant Rushton, in Dorset, where six Horsa gliders awaited them, chalk-marked with the numbers 91 to 96. Howard noticed the wind was up and there was some rain, but the sky seemed to be clearing in parts. A half-moon was just visible in the gathering gloom. The trucks carrying him and his 140 men rolled along a runway and were greeted by women belonging to the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, who wished them luck, some with tears dripping down their cheeks.


A sprightly, dark-haired Londoner with a wisp of a mustache, armed with a pistol and a Sten gun, Howard was a rarity among field commanders of Britain's elite forces on D-Day: he was dyed-in-the-wool working class. The eldest of nine children, the son of a barrel maker who had fought in the trenches in Flanders in World War I, he'd joined the army to escape unemployment during the Great Depression. Cruelly turned down for a commission, he'd left His Majesty's armed forces, angry and dejected, to become a police officer before rejoining upon the outbreak of war.


Howard still felt the sting of rejection from a decade before. Even though he had risen steadily through the ranks since 1939, he was still acutely aware of his lowly status in the British caste system, at its most hierarchical in the military. And although he had drawn high praise from superiors, he had yet to prove himself as a leader in combat. He had never killed or even been shot at. In just a couple of hours' time, he'd have the perfect opportunity to show his mettle under extreme duress.


Howard was pleased to see the Horsa pilots awaiting him and his men. Before long, the pilots were chatting away with his troops, using first names, casually sharing cigarettes. Hot tea was passed around, and Howard watched as his men, their faces blackened with burned coke, checked their weapons and gear. Some had coal-black hands, having stuck them into truck exhaust pipes and smeared the soot on their pale cheeks.

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