"[The official U.S. Army history of D-Day] is a sanitized version of the original field notes."
— S.L.A. Marshall, The Atlantic Monthly, 1960
Go to S.L.A. Marshall's Ratio of Fire / The Marshall Problem / An Open Letter to the Airborne Community on the History of OPERATION NEPTUNE June 6, 1944 by Randy Hils, USAAF Troop Carrier Historian
How creepy was S.L.A. Marshall? In November 1960, he recklessly slandered honest historians (and his former colleagues) in a national magazine. His motive is clear enough. Marshall wanted fame as America's two-fisted, he-man historian. To do this, he ridiculed work by his former colleagues as namby-pamby in comparison with his own.
This friendly fire came in the November 1960 Atlantic Monthly (and later reprinted as part of Marshall's Battle at Best). The year before, Cornelius Ryan had published The Longest Day. D-Day was on people's minds again. Marshall began his article with a wobbly premise: "No other decisive battle has ever been so thoroughly reported for the official record." Then Marshall piles on a whopper. "While the troops were still fighting in Normandy," Marshall fibs, "what had happened to each unit in the landing had become known through the eyewitness testimony of all survivors."
Marshall's readers wouldn't know that collecting testimony in Normandy on this scale would have brought the war to a halt. Even on a smaller scale, Army historical personnel did not collect testimony from all key participants. It wasn't until February 1945, for instance, that historical personnel caught up with John Spalding in Belgium. At that late date, questions still lingered about where Spalding's section landed and fought inland. (For more on this, see Pogue's War).
But Marshall blushes not. Having dazzled the reader with his badge of authority, he races on in his favored style of exposition. These are statements which sound extraordinarily precise but, if examined, say little or nothing at all.
"On this two-division front landing, only six rifle companies were relatively effective as units," Marshall invents. "Three times that number," Marshall pulls out of the air, "were shattered or foundered before they could start to fight. Several contributed not a man or bullet to the battle for the high ground."
Marshall doesn't pause to clarify "shattered or foundered", the time of day he's referring to, or which units he's talking about. He goes on: "But their ordeal has gone unmarked, because its detail was largely ignored by history in the first place."
This is Marshall's main point. Detail exists in the record, he says, but the sanitizers missed it.
"Army historians who wrote the first official book about Omaha Beach, basing it on the field notes," Marshall exaggerates, the book was based on far more than field notes, "did a calculated job of sifting and weighting the material." But then "official accounts which came later took their cue from this secondary source instead of searching the original documents."
To suggest that Gordon A. Harrison didn't search original documents to write Cross-Channel Attack is ridiculous. Harrison served in the ETO as a combat historian and created his own share of "original documents". He knew what was useful for his purpose and what was not. Harrison notes in his preface to Cross-Channel Attack, "It is a pleasure to acknowledge indebtedness to Col. S.L.A. Marshall for his indispensable series of interviews and manuscript studies of the airborne operations and for his interviews with officers and men of the 1st and 29th Divisions." How could Marshall be so publicly nasty in return?
Marshall's Atlantic article concludes with his account of Dog Green sector. He indulges in sleight of hand to do so. He tells the reader that "field notes" contain the truth. Then he tells a story based not on field reports but on his "fading Normandy notebook". Since the notebook was in his possession, and has not been found since Marshall's death, one wonders how he could blame historians for not "searching" it.
Regardless, it's possible that the official historians trusted Marshall as a source too much rather than too little. It's worth comparing a set of field notes, 16-E on D-Day, to Omaha Beachhead and Cross-Channel Attack. Here are what the three say regarding casualties.
16-E ON D-DAY: "All told, 'E' lost 105 men during the day, and only 1 of these was lost during the movement inland. Most of the others were lost in the water."
OMAHA BEACHHEAD: "The greater number of the company's 105 casualties for D Day were suffered on the beach, in the first stage of assault."
CROSS-CHANNEL ATTACK: "Many of the men of Company E, hard hit and exhausted in their efforts to wade ashore, flopped on the sand and crawled in ahead of the tide; nearly half of them did not survive."
Of the three sets of statements, Cross-Channel Attack is actually the least "sanitized," but also the least accurate in detail. Harrison may have misread the meaning of "lost" in the field report. It is unfortunately typical of such reports to embed a precise figure (such as "105 men" which would be about half the company) in an imprecise context. "Lost" is a mixture of dead, wounded, and missing—mostly the last two. It doesn't mean these men did not survive. Another source available to Harrison, historical personnel's interview with Lt. John Spalding, has this corroboratively imprecise statement: "I later found out that [E Company] had lost 121 men."
Omaha Beachhead's statement is the most accurate except for the figure of 105. The number came from the field report which recorded a guess (possibly by the first sergeant) and hedged by calling them "lost."
Beyond statements of casualties, we can take up Marshall's challenge. Below is a table with three columns for comparison. The first has quotes from the field report, "16-E on D-Day". The other two are from official histories that made use of the field report and additional sources.
From the report
In all of the boats the in-passage was not too costly but when the ramps were dropped, automatic fire caught the open ends dead on. Some of them were caught in crossing bands of fire. The CP boat took its heaviest losses at that moment and only 12 of 36 men got to the beach. The rest got it in the water, as they waded in from a sandbar, or were hit as they returned to drag in the wounded.
All told, “E” lost 105 men during the day, and only 1 of these was lost during the movement inland. Most of the others were lost in the water: many of the wounded crawled to the edge of the sand, fell exhausted, and were there caught by the tide. In trying to pull these men in, the able-bodied were caught by enemy fire and some of these wounded also died from drowning.
From OMAHA BEACHHEAD
The final run-in was not costly, but crossing bands of automatic fire caught most of the craft as the ramps were lowered, and from there on losses were heavy. Most of them were incurred in the water, and among men who stopped to drag the wounded ashore. So exhausted and shaken were the assault troops that when they reached the sand, 300 yards from the shingle bank, most of them stopped there and crawled in just ahead of the tide.
The greater number of the company's 105 casualties for D Day were
suffered on the beach, in the first stage of assault.
Above all, stiff enemy resistance and the disorganization caused by mislandings and heavy casualties had combined to prevent infantry units in this wave from carrying out their mission of immediate assault. All the more credit is due those elements, most of them facing unfamiliar terrain and enemy defenses, which surmounted the shock of the worst period on the beach and shared in the first advances inland.
From CROSS-CHANNEL ATTACK
Naval gunfire had temporarily neutralized some of the enemy batteries and fortifications but most of them were still able to fire at the incoming troops as soon as the bombardment was forced to lift inland. The 1st Division men in the first LCVP's could hear machine gun bullets splatter against the steel ramps of their craft before they grounded. Debarking in water sometimes up to their necks, the troops on some sectors of the beach were met with a hail of bullets that drove some to seek shelter under the surf, others to scramble over the sides of the craft. Control of boat sections was thus often lost before the men were even started in to the beach. The troops, overladen with heavy clothing and equipment, waded slowly through the surf and through fire that increased as they approached the beach. Some stopped to rest or seek shelter behind obstacles. Some lay at the water's edge and were able eventually to crawl in with the tide. But casualties generally were heavier among those who delayed in getting up onto the beach. Many of the wounded were drowned in the rising tide.
Except for those four boat sections of the 2d Battalion the first wave of the 16th Infantry (Companies E and F) touched down immediately in front, or east, of the occupied fortifications of the Colleville strong point and was there caught in machine gun fire as intense as that which decimated the 116th Infantry. Many of the men of Company E, hard hit and exhausted in their efforts to wade ashore, flopped on the sand and crawled in ahead of the tide; nearly half of them did not survive.