Suzanne's Reviews > Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany

Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose
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Feb 28, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, world-war-ii
Read from March 02 to 08, 2012

What is the fascination we have with war? Is it the disturbing realization that humankind can descend into such madness? Do we seek out the horrific? Or perhaps there’s something more. In Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, I admired the resiliency, ingenuity and humanity of our soldiers in a time when chaos and inhumanity reigned. Because World War II history is already known, I won’t consider the excerpts I’m about to include as spoilers. I hope to give you a small sense of what I enjoyed and learned from this excellent book.

When the allies landed on D-Day, they brought with them over a million soldiers, vehicles, equipment and supplies. Once the soldiers were mobile, the big problem was how to get a supply line to them.

“The crisis was inevitable. It had been foreseen. It could not have been avoided. Too many vehicles were driving too far away from the ports and beaches. The Red Ball Express, an improvised truck transport system that got started in late August, made every effort to get fuel, food, and ammunition to the front lines.”

The problem was the front lines kept moving east and the supply lines were too thin. They couldn’t keep up. Another major problem had by the allies was their tanks.

“The Sherman was universally denounced by anyone who had to fight against a Panther or Tiger.”

And these Sherman tanks were vulnerable in hedgerow fighting. In the first place, they couldn’t get through the hedgerows, and second, if it tried to climb them, their unarmored underbelly was exposed, making them an easy target for Germans. This is where the ingenuity of the Americans really impressed me.

“Lt. Charles Green, a tanker in the 29th Division, devised a bumper that was made from salvaged railroad tracks that Rommel had used as beach obstacles. It was incredibly strong and permitted the Shermans to bull their way through the thickest hedgerows.”

Another GI invention equipped the Sherman with a blade to cut the hedgerows. Shermans with this device were called “rhino tanks”

The fighting was fierce and chaotic. Sometimes the soldiers would get lost and find themselves behind enemy lines. I love this story told by German soldier Lt. Hans-Heinrich Dibbern:

“From the direction of the American line came an ambulance driving toward us. The driver was obviously lost. When he noticed that he was behind German lines, he slammed on the brakes. The driver’s face was completely white. He had wounded men he was responsible for. But we told him, ‘Back out of here and get going – we don’t attack the Red Cross.’ He quickly disappearred.”

Later, another Red Cross truck showed up. The driver took a crate out the back and left it for the Germans. They were afraid it might be a bomb, but it ended up being a “thank you” – a crate filled with Chesterfield cigarettes.

As the war dragged on, the soldiers faced their toughest test in the Ardennes, It was cold, wet, and the fighting was intense. The soldiers did not have winter clothing or access to other, much needed supplies. The hatred towards the Germans was growing intense. When the allies started invading Germany, they saw the destruction wrought by their bombers and themselves. And they were glad of it. As Lt. John C. Harrison put it:

“I thought how odd it is that I would feel good at seeing human misery but I did feel that way, for here was the war being brought to the German in all of its destructive horror…The war has truly come to Germany and pictures of these terrible scenes should be dropped over the entire country to show them what is in store for them if they continue.”

Another fascinating part of this war was the scope of the campaign itself. Eisenhower was in command, but he had generals under him that often disagreed with him. Sometimes he was right (as in the case with Montgomery most of the time), and sometimes he was wrong. When the Germans were finally retreating the Ardennes, Bradley and Patton wanted to push through, where Eisenhower wanted to attack from the north. I loved the phone conversation between them:

“Bradley’s final words were, ‘I trust you do not think I am angry. But I want to impress upon you that I am goddam well incensed.’ Patton, in the background, said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the telephone, ‘Tell them to go to hell and all of us will resign. I will lead the procession.’ As Bradley slammed down the receiver, every officer on Patton’s staff rose to his feet and applauded.”

You gotta love Patton. Every time I read about him, I am convinced I need to read his biography!

Of course, once the Germans started the retreat, it was pretty much over for them. Hitler commanded that they still fight, the young Hitler Youth recruits were too immature to realize they should just go home. Our boys continually faced pockets of 15 year old kids with weapons. But often, the story the was different:

“The Air Force guys told their story: when they started to dash out of their burning plane, the first man was shot, so the rest came out with their hands up. The Germans took them to the cellar of a farmhouse, gave them some cognac, and held them ‘while the Germans decided who was winning. A little later the Germans realized they were losing and surrendered their weapons and selves to the bomber crew. The Germans were turned over to the airborne and the bomber crew went to the aid station.’ This was perhaps the only time a bomber crew took German infantry prisoners.”

Stephen Ambrose was a master storyteller. Or rather, he was gifted at relating the stories of others. At any rate, Citizen Soldiers is a remarkable work about everyday people rising to accomplish the extraordinary.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Julie Such an extraordinary book, Suzanne. I was so moved by these stories. Miss the heck out of Stephen Ambrose.


Suzanne I agree, Ambrose was such a wonderful author!


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