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.