Ryan opens his story in the coastal village of La Roche-Guyon. He lingers there for only two pages, long enough to establish the date (June 4), the weather (gray, misty), and the sounds of dawn (a church bell ending the nighttime curfew and heralding day 1,451 of the German occupation) before introducing his most compelling character, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. When we meet him, the German commander—and D-Day’s biggest loser—is awaiting the invasion in the village’s castle. It is a neatly accomplished piece of foreshadowing; Ryan sprinkles in his facts without gumming up the machinery, and delivers an implicit promise to the reader. You want details? You want characters? I’ve got a million of ’em.
The author immediately makes good, tightening his focus on Hitler’s most celebrated general:
In the ground-floor room he used as an office, Rommel was alone. He sat behind a massive Renaissance desk, working by the light of a single desk lamp. The room was large and high-ceilinged. Along one wall stretched a faded Gobelin tapestry. On another the haughty face of Duke Francois de la Rochefoucauld—a seventeenth-century writer of maxims and an ancestor of the present Duke—looked down out of a heavy gold frame. There were a few chairs casually placed on the highly polished parquet floor and thick draperies at the windows, but little else.
Nothing slows the eye’s journey across the page; the author feels no compulsion to call out, “Look over here, it’s me!” And this makes it easy to miss what is so striking about this otherwise simple passage: the efficient accumulation of fact.
We learn that Rommel was a) alone, b) seated at a desk that was c) massive and d) Renaissance and fitted with a single lamp, and that he worked under the gaze of e) Duke Francois de la Rochefoucauld whose face was f) haughty and whose portrait was framed in g) gold. And then, quite subtly, Ryan offers a quick peek at his character: “In particular, there was nothing of Rommel in this room but himself.” Not a photograph of his wife (Lucie-Maria) or son (Manfred, age fifteen) or mementos of his great victories in North Africa, such as the field marshal’s baton Hitler had presented him (eighteen inches, three pounds, gold, red velvet covered with gold eagles and black swastikas) because such extravagance, Ryan writes, was alien to Rommel, a man who “cared so little for food that he sometimes forgot to eat.”
Rommel did not know when the Allies were coming nor where they would land. But, Ryan tells us, his defenses were stretched thin and he decided to return to Germany and plead for more materiel from Hitler. He would stop at home along the way to present a pair of shoes (gray suede, size five and a half) to his wife on her birthday, June 6.
Size five and a half? How did he get that?
Cornelius Ryan was at Normandy twice on D-Day, the first time on a bomber flying over the beaches, the second time on a patrol boat that took him back after he landed in England. He had turned twenty-four the day before. He had been working as a war correspondent for London’s The Daily Telegraph since 1943, having come to London from Dublin in 1940, and to journalism a year later at Reuters, after attending a school where he studied violin. He covered the air war over Germany—perilous work—as well as Patton’s Third Army, then reported from the Pacific.
In 1947, Ryan moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and, eventually, a writer for Time, Newsweek, and, until its demise in 1956, Collier’s. By then, he had written four books, including two about Douglas MacArthur, and another, One Minute to Ditch, about an airliner’s ocean landing. He also published a good many magazine stories that, taken together, reflected less a budding literary career—“I Rode in the World’s Fastest Sub”—than the workmanlike yield of a man who knew how to churn out copy.