Off the coast of Normandy, within the cramped confines of a Royal Navy midget sub, a three man commando team makes its final preparations before their mission is away.
The midget then surfaces, the team slipping over the side one by one. They swim to their objective: a beach. Gathering together, their leader quietly says to them "Time to go to work, gents. Welcome to Omaha Beach." Their mission: Gather rock and soil samples to see whether or not the beach can sustain movement of tanks, trucks, etc.
Armed only with knives, they set about their task in the pitch black darkness. That is how the first chapter in Jeff Shaara's historical novel The Steel Wave begins.
The Steel Wave is the second book in a trilogy about World War Two in Europe which came after The Rising Tide and before No Less Than Victory. While the characters in this instance are fictitious everymen, they are authentically crafted from the historical records of such pre-D-Day forays.
The bulk of the characters, however, apart from some fictional Grenadiers of the German 352nd Division, are historical.
The main focus is on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a paratrooper Sergeant, Jesse Adams, of the 82nd Airborne, Private Tom Thorne of the 29th Infantry division, and last but not least, General George S. Patton Jr. Other figures such as Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, General James Gavin, and many others make appearances via their interactions with the three generals and Sergeant Adams.
Shaara takes time before plunging the reader into the past by including a note for the reader at the beginning describing what the novel is (a dramatic work depicting the events surrounding D-day and the Normandy campaign) and what it is not (a blow-by-blow textbook documenting of them), then continues his orientation with a list of historical sources, and an introduction describing the world situation and the events leading up to the formulation for the plans for Operation Overlord.
Shaara's talent for bringing historical figures to life is nothing short of miraculous. Ike, Rommel, and Patton have been the subject of many books and films; but only Shaara's novel, in my opinion, delves the deepest into their characters, bringing them to life with uncanny accuracy and humanity.
Even George C. Scott's memorable portrayal of Patton is given a run for its money by Shaara's literary dramatic take on the man. One in which he is able to utilize in full all the available historical resources about Patton such as the general's diaries, assets unavailable to the screen writers for Patton. Who had to make do with only two books as their research material: Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story, and Ladislas Farago’s Patton: Ordeal and Triumph.
What is more, Shaara's depiction of Patton's alleged faux pas involving failing to mention the Russians during a speech at Knutsford, England, in the months leading up to the invasion is far more accurate than the version done for the famous George C. Scott biopic: it turns out Patton did mention the Russians but not all the members of the press present took it down!
Shaara does not neglect the grunts-eye view of combat, either, a view largely seen via the eyes of Jesse Adams. (Who, along with Ike, Patton, and Rommel, appeared in The Steel Wave). Tom Thorne's appearance is brief, but compelling, cast into the maelstrom at Omaha Beach at H-hour on D-Day with a devastating twist at the end of his tale.
Shaara goes on past D-day to cover the whole Normandy campaign, closing with the tragic suicide of Erwin Rommel in September of 1944 after he was falsely accused of plotting against Hitler's life and given the choice of either prison, or suicide.
Shaara's prose is crisp and to the point, containing no cloying amount of details which might confuse readers not inclined towards history; and it is prose which carries the reader into the past to relieve one of the greatest dramas that ever unfolded upon the world's stage.