Pierre Bertaux, who participated in the French Resistance. Hans von Luck, a Colonel in the German Army who was Rommel’s assistant. British Major John Howard. These were some of the WWII luminaries who helped to inform Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day to the Rhine Tour.
The D-Day to the Rhine Tour: The Beginning
Our renowned D-Day to the Rhine Tour dates back to the 1970s, from the days when Stephen E. Ambrose was a history professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO). At the time, fellow faculty member Peter McLean was administering the Innsbruck study abroad program for the university. During a leisurely sail on Lake Pontchartrain with Stephen, Peter brought up the idea of traveling to Europe to do a reconnaissance trip for what would become the first commercially operated D-Day tour.
One of the highlights of their trip came when they were walking through the American Cemetery in Normandy and Steve abruptly left. As Peter remembers, Steve was so moved by the experience that he had to leave to collect himself. After splashing some water on his face, he returned and announced, “I am going to write the story of all these boys.” At that point, he had already written numerous books on Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but that was the beginning of his best-selling writing on the D-Day invasion.
In 1980, Peter and Steve led the first official D-Day to the Rhine Tour along with Moira, Stephen’s wife. Besides many paying guests, they were also joined by Stephen’s two brothers, Harry and William, and their widowed father.
Citizen Soldiers and WWII Luminaries
Stephen Ambrose founded the Eisenhower Center at UNO in the 1980s, when he began work on the book Eisenhower: Soldier and President, the first in a multi-volume biography of Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. As part of Dr. Ambrose’s research, he began interviewing thousands of D-Day veterans about their firsthand experiences fighting during WWII. He set them up with tape recorders and each soldier started with his name, rank and serial number and then told his story.
Stephen Ambrose also began traveling with these veterans to the battlefields of Normandy to record their firsthand recollections. Not only did he use this research for many of his best-selling books, including D-Day: June 6, 1944, but he also began to tell the stories of these citizen soldiers on his D-Day tour at the very places where they fought.
Ambrose was not the only one speaking on these tours. Many of the other contributors were people he met along the tour, but they also included people he knew because of his scholarly work. Among the many top notch speakers he was able to assemble were British General Bernard Montgomery; Hans von Luck, a Colonel in the German Army who was Rommel’s assistant; and Major General John Frost, whose leadership at Arnhem bridge was chronicled in the movie A Bridge Too Far.
Pierre Bertaux, who participated in the French Resistance, was also among the well-known speakers Dr. Ambrose recruited. On one occasion, as Peter recalls, the group was standing in the cathedral in Ste. Mere Eglise when Bertaux said, “You people are looking at the big doors, the big battles. You are looking at the movements of armies, the big picture.” Then he pointed to the windows and said, “Look at the small windows. That’s where the trouble will be. Terrorists.”
On another tour and quite by chance, British Major John Howard happened to overhear Stephen Ambrose speaking to his group on Pegasus Bridge—the major objective of the British airborne troops during the D-Day Invasion—and he followed the guests back to the bus, where he got on and announced, “Perhaps I can add something. I’m John Howard.”
George McGovern, who was a B-24 pilot in World War II, was yet another of the experts who added a personal dimension to the D-Day to the Rhine Tour. He also became a close friend of Stephen and Moira—and eventually the subject of one of Ambrose’s last books, The Wild Blue, which recounted the heroism of the boys turned men who flew B-24s over Germany during the war. It was these moments on the tour that give it the legacy and historic detail that remains part of the experience to this day and makes it stand out from all others.
One of the stories that McGovern would share on the D-Day tour was about an interview he did on a radio station in Innsbruck discussing his days as a pilot in WWII. His plane had been hit and in order to save his crew, he had to drop the bombs they were carrying on a farm below. The thought that he had killed innocent civilians had haunted him ever since. In the middle of the interview a farmer called in to say that it was his farm that McGovern had bombed and he wanted McGovern to know that he and his family had been taking shelter in a ditch and had survived. It made McGovern’s day.
The D-Day to the Rhine Tour Today
Today, owner Dr. Edie Ambrose, who is Stephen Ambrose’s niece and also served as his teaching assistant at UNO, and her husband, Yakir Katz, carry on the history and legacy of the D-Day tours that Stephen Ambrose once led. The knowledge that comes from Stephen Ambrose as Eisenhower’s biographer, the expert WWII speakers he could garner, and his interviews with the men who fought on D-Day and in Normandy continue to inform our D-Day to the Rhine and Operation Overlord tours.
As it was when Dr. Ambrose was leading the D-Day to the Rhine Tour, we have only the most qualified historians lead our D-Day tours, including our Chief Historian, Captain Ronald Drez, who assisted Dr. Ambrose with his research while at the Eisenhower Center. All of our historians are leaders in their field and world-renowned authors on WWII. Their extensive research and interviews of hundreds of D-Day veterans on the very battlefields where they fought make our tours unmatched in their authenticity.