The Steel Wave, the second book in Jeff Shaara’s proposed World War II trilogy, covers a key period of the war: January-September 1944, months during which plans for the Normandy Invasion were finalized and a successful invasion of France allowed Allied troops to begin the push that would ultimately rid France of the occupying German army. This may sound like just another dry bit of American history, but Jeff Shaara does such a remarkable job of capturing the nerve-wracking tension experienced by those who lived through those nine months that this 493-page book is a page-turner from start to finish.
Shaara conducts a huge amount of research in preparation for each of his historical novels, largely relying on primary sources such as diaries, interviews, radio transcripts and memoirs in order to place his readers in the minds of those who saw the making of history firsthand. In The Steel Wave, he primarily uses three voices, in alternating chapters, to tell the story of the planning and successful execution of the Normandy Invasion: General Dwight Eisenhower, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and Sergeant Jesse Adams, a paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne.
The book opens several months prior to the actual invasion with the description of a three-man commando raid on Normandy, whose sole purpose was to obtain rock samples from the beach. Even at that late date, Eisenhower and his staff remained uncertain that the surface of the beaches of Normandy could physically support the tanks and heavy artillery pieces that needed to be unloaded there in support of the invading ground troops, and they hoped the gathered rocks would answer that question. But that was only one of the unknowns faced by the Allies as they worked toward a plan that they hoped would surprise the German defenders.
Therein lays the beauty of Shaara’s style of historical fiction. The way that he contrasts the day-to-day activities and mindsets of Eisenhower, the aggressor, and Rommel, the defender, emphasizes the precarious nature of the invasion and just how big a gamble it really was on the part of the Allies. As Eisenhower worries about storm forecasts, German gun emplacements and making the Germans believe that the invasion will happen at Calais rather than at Normandy, Rommel is desperately trying to convince Hitler and Hitler’s staff that the entire French coast needs to be defended, not just the port of Calais. Both men fear failure as the invasion approaches and takes on a life of its own, and the reader gets to spend time in both their heads.
Shaara also uses Rommel and Eisenhower to explore the politics and internal power struggles that nagged at both sides as the war progressed. Eisenhower unexpectedly finds himself defending Montgomery’s lack of success when Churchill and British officers are calling for his head while at the same time he tries to keep George Patton, Montgomery’s opposite in almost every way, under control. Rommel, on the other hand, is determined to do his duty to the German nation without being implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, something he was unable to do and which, of course, cost him his life.
The Steel Wave is one of those books that make history come alive, and it will be enjoyed by more than just the history buffs who will be most likely to pick it up, but it will likely disappoint some readers because of the very limited number of pages it devotes to describing the beach landings themselves - a minor quibble, perhaps, but a noticeable omission.