The Steel Wave: A Novel of World War II

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9780345461421: The Steel Wave: A Novel of World War II
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Jeff Shaara, America’s premier author of military historical fiction, brings us the centerpiece of his epic trilogy of the Second World War.

General Dwight Eisenhower once again commands a diverse army that must find its single purpose in the destruction of Hitler’s European fortress. His primary subordinates, Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery, must prove that this unique blend of Allied armies can successfully confront the might of Adolf Hitler’s forces, who have already conquered Western Europe. On the coast of France, German commander Erwin Rommel fortifies and prepares for the coming invasion, acutely aware that he must bring all his skills to bear on a fight his side must win. But Rommel’s greatest challenge is to strike the Allies on his front, while struggling behind the lines with the growing insanity of Adolf Hitler, who thwarts the strategies Rommel knows will succeed.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Jesse Adams, a no-nonsense veteran of the 82nd Airborne, parachutes with his men behind German lines into a chaotic and desperate struggle. And as the invasion force surges toward the beaches of Normandy, Private Tom Thorne of the 29th Infantry Division faces the horrifying prospects of fighting his way ashore on a stretch of coast more heavily defended than the Allied commanders anticipate–Omaha Beach.

From G.I. to general, this story carries the reader through the war’s most crucial juncture, the invasion that altered the flow of the war, and, ultimately, changed history.

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About the Author:

Jeff Shaara is the New York Times bestselling author of A Chain of Thunder, A Blaze of Glory, The Final Storm, No Less Than Victory, The Steel Wave, The Rising Tide, To the Last Man, The Glorious Cause, Rise to Rebellion, and Gone for Soldiers, as well as Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure—two novels that complete the Civil War trilogy that began with his father’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic, The Killer Angels. Shaara was born into a family of Italian immigrants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and graduated from Florida State University. He lives in Gettysburg.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. THE COMMANDO

At Sea, Bay of the Seine January 25, 1944

The air underwater was foul and wet, five men pulling against the thinning oxygen. He sat erect, his back painfully pressed against a coil of wire, part of the electrical system of the craft. She was an X-5 class midget submarine, designed to deliver a magnetic mine or similar explosive device, something to be attached to the bottom of an enemy ship. They were stealthy, of course, no blip on anyone’s radar screen, so the British navy had used them on raids all along the coastline, from Norway to the Mediterranean, usually with enormous risk to both the subs and their small crews. But tonight the sub was not armed, and where explosives had once been stored she now carried three passengers and their equipment.

He tried to stretch his back—no room—and twisted his shoulders instead, working out the kinks. The air was growing worse, thin and acrid, bitter smells of oil and wet cloth. There were no dry places in the small sub, every surface had a slick coating of oily grease or water, mostly condensation. The engine made a low hum, deadened by the steel of the bulkhead, the sub lurching slowly from side to side, held now by long low waves that rolled silently toward the beaches.

“Suit up, lads.”

The voice was low, a croak from the lieutenant. He knew the order was coming, yanked hard at his small duffel bag, and retrieved it from the tight gap beneath his feet. Inside were all the tools he would need for the mission. The first priority was unrolling the tight spool of the rubber suit, a single piece, zipped open down the front. There was little room to stand, and he fought to slide the thin rubber over his legs, working his feet downward, pushing. He slid the suit beneath his bottom, pushed his arms into the narrow sleeves, freed his fingers, gave one loud grunt, and pulled the suit up over his shoulders. The others were grunting as he was, straining in the tight space, backs and arms bent low, each man forcing himself into his taut suit. He tried to relax, leaning back against the bulkhead, and took a breath, sour air filling his mouth, took another, felt his chest heave in a futile gasp. He was sweating, worse inside the suit, and the air was growing fouler still. No matter how the air cleaners strained, they were not designed to handle the nervous breathing of five men.

He leaned forward again, pulled the zipper tight against his neck, then tugged at the headpiece, sliding it over his ears, snug, only his face revealed. He reached again into the bag, found a small tube of grease, black and oily, squeezed a thick stream onto his fingers, and rubbed it on his face, coating any part that would reflect moonlight. The duffel was nearly empty now, but he found his knife, his only weapon, and strapped it to his leg, tight and secure, then went into the bag again for a small bundle, a cloth pouch attached to a thin belt, and slid it around his waist. The man beside him gave him a nudge with his elbow.

“All set here. You all right, Dundee?”

“Yep. You tight in? Ready?”

The man slapped his hands on Dundee’s leg. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Dundee leaned forward, looked past, and said to the third man, “Lieutenant? You set, then?”

The lieutenant scanned both men. Dundee could see his face sweating, a dull wet mask, lit by the yellow glow from the sub’s instrument panel. Then the officer began to smear his face with the black grease.

“Don’t concern yourselves with me. My job is to worry about you. And right now I’m ready to get this little show moving.”

From the main control seat, the sub’s commander turned around toward them.

“We’ll be on the surface in half a minute. On my command, Mr. Higgins will open the hatch, and out you go. Make it quick. I’ll not chance there’s some Jerry lookout who’s good at his job. This tub won’t take pleasantly to incoming fire, and the sooner I can drop us out of sight, the better I like it.” He looked at his watch. “Orders say two hours. I’ll wait for three if I have to, but that’s it. I’m not about to sit out here and wait for the damned sun to come up. Sitting ducks, all of us. You got that?”

The lieutenant pointed at his own watch. “I know my orders, Cap- tain. We’ll be back in two hours. Don’t go off sightseeing. You’ve got a periscope—keep an eye in it. I don’t plan to tread water any more than I have to.”

“I know my tub, Lieutenant. And we’re lucky tonight. The surface is pretty smooth right now. A dicky bird swims within a hundred yards of me, I’ll spot her. You just do the swimming; I’ll see you.”

Swimming. Dundee swallowed the word silently. Most of the commando operations were launched from surface crafts, LCNs, small and rugged navigation boats. The LCNs slipped in close to shore, depositing their commandos in folbots, folding canvas boats, flimsy canoes the men would paddle hard to the beach. But there was too much tide and too much current along this stretch of the French coastline, and a folbot might swamp and drown the men before they could even reach the shore. It was a painful lesson; several men had been lost already in earlier operations. Besides being a danger to her crew, a folbot had to be hidden from German patrols, patrols that were growing vigilant. And so, tonight, they would swim.

The captain turned toward his instruments and pulled a lever, the sub tilting upward, the bow rising. Dundee pushed his hands into the narrow metal seat, his back leaning hard against the tight coils, and tried to distract himself, thought suddenly of the captain’s boast. What the hell is a dicky bird? The sub swayed, rolling to one side, then upright again, and Dundee’s stomach rolled, the stink in the air filling his head with a dull pain, now growing worse. He heard the splashing of water against the bulkheads; the sub was level again, and the captain’s lone crewman stood, his hands pressed upward against the narrow hatch, and stared forward toward his captain.

“On your order, sir.”

“Steady, Higgins. Not quite on the deck. Wait for it.”

They sat quietly, feeling the low hum of the engine and, now, silence, the captain shutting down the engine. Dundee took a long breath, tried to ignore the sickening smell, his head pounding, a quiver in his hands. He shook his head, thought, All right, Henry, hold on to yourself. They taught you this. It’s all about lack of oxygen. We’ll be out of this damned can in a few—

“Now, Higgins.”

The crewman pulled hard on a round crank: The hatch was suddenly open, cold air filling the cabin, a splash of water. The lieutenant stood, hunched over by the overhead close above him, moved toward the hatch, slapped the captain on the shoulder, said nothing. Dundee waited for the man beside him, Henley, up and moving, the well-rehearsed routine, Dundee close behind him. The air was cold and delicious; a blast against Dundee’s face and the headache had vanished. He pressed forward, following the other two toward the blessed opening, watched the lieutenant pull himself up through the hatch, now just his legs and then gone. Henley followed quickly, up and out of the way, and Dundee grabbed the edges of the hatch and pulled himself up, his head clear of the dismal space. He was outside now, in cold darkness, and he pulled his knees up between his arms, thrust out his feet, sat on the edge of the hatchway, the deck of the sub narrow and flat. The water was black and silent, long low swells. Now came the splashes, the other two already swimming, the lieutenant leading the way, long strokes of his arms, already distancing himself from the sub, Henley trailing behind him. Dundee looked out that way, saw the shoreline, a vast shadow against the night sky. The sub suddenly rocked, caught by a swell, and Dundee released his hands, slid down, let the motion of the sub push him away, pressed his feet against the steel hull, and gave one sharp push, his arms and legs working the water, the training taking over. He moved with precise rhythm, his face bathed by the cold. He was a strong swimmer, essential for this job, slicing quickly through the water, lifted by more swells, the cold gone now, the strength returning, the power taking over: so many miles of swimming and running, months of lifting and climbing, all condensed into these long moments.

His brain kept count of the number of strokes, an exercise that might have no meaning at all. But in the dark, they would make this swim again, and if the captain was wrong, if the waves picked up or the surface became choppy, at least the men could swim out to within yards of where they had left the sub. It had always seemed to be a foolish gamble, but here, in the black water, it might be the only chance they had to be picked up again.

His brain ticked past three hundred strokes, and he paused, raised his head, scanned the shoreline, fought for a glimpse of the others, but there was nothing to see, dull blackness, new sounds in his ears, surf, gentle waves rolling forward. He swam again, pushed out sharp breaths, felt aching in his arms, his legs growing stiff, his chest heaving with each breath. Something rose up in front of him, a thin black shape, a man, standing and then dropping down again, crouched low, one hand pointed toward him, a signal, more of the training. Stand up.

Dundee eased his legs downward, his feet stopping on hard sand. He was breathing heavily, felt giddy, stupid, thought of the lieutenant, the man’s face invisible in the darkness, laughing at him. Every time, he thought, every damned swimming drill, so many times before. Every officer had teased him about it: Dundee, the man who swims until the sand bumps his chin. He knew what the lieutenant was thinking, had heard it too many times. Yes, you can stop swimming, you idiot. It’s three feet deep.

The three men moved close together, and Dundee stared at the beach, a wide stretch of flat sand, saw a fence row, posts, odd, his brain trying to understand. Fences? The lieutenant moved away, low in the water, crawling, moving up onto the sand, seeming to ignore the others, and Dundee followed, feeling his way with his hands. They were clear of the shallow surf, and the lieutenant kept himself low, began to run, heavy deliberate steps. There were no orders now, the training so familiar, and the others followed automatically. Dundee felt the sand hard beneath his feet, his footsteps echoing in small thumps, shallow puddles. He passed one of the fence posts, glanced up, saw it tilting outward, toward the open water, a small round hat on top. He understood from the briefings, drawings they had seen. They’re not fence posts. It’s low tide, and they’re shore obstacles. And the hat on top? It’s a mine.

The sand began to slope upward, the men climbing, the sand softer, beyond the high-water line, and Dundee kept running, felt the strength in his legs, his breaths heavy and sharp. The lieutenant stopped and knelt low, ducking behind a long low mound of rocks, something else from the briefings, another landmark. Then he pulled a small bundle from the pouch around his own waist, and Dundee understood. It was the tape, the fluorescent stringer that would guide their return, the only way they would ever find their way back to this point on the beach. Dundee watched him unroll it and anchor one end in the sand with a small metal spike. The lieutenant seemed to pause. All three men were breathing heavily, and Dundee heard a whisper.

“Time to go to work, gents. Welcome to Omaha Beach.”
They were one squad of the Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Party, a mouthful of description for the men who were sent ashore to find out just what the Allies might be facing on the beaches that had been designated for Operation Overlord. The training had begun months before at the enormous facility at Achnacarry, Scotland. Nearly every commando unit in the British army had received training at Achnacarry, and the Americans had gone as well, Darby’s Rangers, men who had already been through the bloodiest days of the fights in the Mediterranean. Many of the commandos had been designated to make armed raids, landing in fleets of rubber rafts, attacking the enemy’s seaside installations, ammo and supply dumps. Some of the raids were launched against various ports, other midget submarines slipping into the harbors to target German ships. Few of the raids had been terribly successful, and many of the Royal Navy’s higher-ups considered the midget subs a dangerous waste of machines and good men. The X-5 class midgets had no defenses and could barely escape the enemy’s spotter planes and fast-moving E-boats, but in the dark the subs could bring their commandos close to the shore, close enough for the folbots and, tonight, close enough for the men to swim.

Their mission was absurdly simple: Gather samples of the sand and rock on Omaha Beach. The beach itself was cut by four draws, deep ravines, passageways that led inland, dividing the high bluff into sections that the mapmakers had designated by various code names. But those ravines interested not just the infantry commanders but the engineers as well. Over the centuries, streams and floodwater had flown into the sea, and with it had come tons of silt. If that silt was too soft to support the weight of trucks, tanks, and other armored vehicles, an amphibious landing on Omaha Beach simply wouldn’t work. The entire motorized portion of the invasion would grind to a halt, embedded in a mire that would make them stationary targets for the German artillery above.

The engineers had another concern as well, so more commandos had gone ashore on other nights with other objectives. Behind the bluffs, around the seaside villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, the land was rich in history, a countryside once occupied by the Romans. But the Romans had left a mystery and, possibly, a deadly problem. The land along the Normandy coastline had often been used to farm and gather peat, thick layers of sod used for fuel and building material. The question had to be answered: Had the two-thousand-year-old peat bogs become vast pits of soft mud? For now, though, that wasn’t Dundee’s problem. His problem was keeping up with his lieutenant.

On this night, Dundee’s mission had much more to do with engineering than combat, the men armed only with their knives, since any weapons fire was certain suicide. On the bluffs high above what the planners had named Omaha Beach, German gun emplacements, artillery pillboxes, and machine-gun nests covered the open sands below in what would certainly be interlocking fields of fire. Among the various outposts, German infantry had also been positioned, the Allied aerial reconnaissance showing miles of trench works. Any lookout who heard movement on the beach would know to fire a star shell or a Very light, which would bathe the beach in the glow of man-made sunshine for deadly seconds. As much as Dundee felt the itch to have his pistol handy, tonight there could be no firefight. Just do the job and then find that precious line of tape and make your way back into the surf, all the while praying the midget sub’s captain could find you in the black water.
They moved across the sand in total silence, even the gentle surf too far away. Dundee knew the timetable, the tide expected to rise well before dawn, but to a level he found hard to believe. The training taught them that the tide here rose eight feet or more, and in a few short hours, the flat plain of hard sand they had run across would be completely submerged. The high tide would provide a fatal disguise, submerging the posts, the steel girders and wooden poles capped by the mines. As the tide came in, the distance they had to swim would lengthen by hundreds of yards. But it woul...

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