Howard Cincotta's Reviews > The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: history-biography, nonfiction

Objective: unconditional completion of the book. Strategic overview: 641 pages (hardback), plus extensive footnotes, sources, bibliography, index, photos. Plan of attack: perhaps a double envelopment, picking sections from the back along with reading from the front – like Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Cannae – a battle that many WW II generals sought to emulate, often unsuccessfully. But finally, like Normandy, there is nothing for it but a direct frontal assault, page by page.

By this third volume in his Liberation Trilogy, Atkinson has fully mastered the complex weaving of narrative threads from strategic overview – Normandy, liberation of Paris, Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine – to individual accounts of the misery, terror, and sheer endurance of frontline troops.

Several of Atkinson’s subthemes are especially fascinating.

Logistics. Atkinson is brilliant in his careful examination of the monumental complexities involved in mounting the Normandy invasion and sustaining an Allied force that grew to more than 2.5 million by the end of the war. Everything from ammunition and winter socks to fuel – especially fuel – became critical issues at different points of the conflict. Even more so for Germany: in the end, fuel shortages crippled the Wehrmacht, along with its inability to replace its crushing losses in men and materiel.

Fallible commanders. World War II was fought by the young, but it was led by exhausted middle- aged men who were prey to multiple physical ailments along with strategic misjudgments and feuds – petty and not – with fellow commanders. Faulty intelligence, for example, contributed to the fiasco of the Battle of the Bulge, at least in its initial phases. But the failure to secure the vital port of Antwerp in a timely manner represented lack of focus and clear communication, especially between Eisenhower and Montgomery, perhaps the most consequential relationship for the Allies outside that of Roosevelt and Churchill.

Let me confess my bias here. Montgomery was an absolute snake: disloyal, undercutting, and never able to concede to Eisenhower’s position as supreme allied commander. Atkinson, to his credit, is judicious in his assessments, and certainly points to lapses in generalship on Eisenhower’s part. But Montgomery’s machinations are in their own class. Montgomery can be credited as chief architect of the Normandy landings, but also as the commander largely responsible for the failure of Operation Market Garden (“a bridge too far”). When Chief of Staff George C. Marshall finally steps in at a London conference to berate the British, especially Montgomery, for continual backstabbing, it is, I confess, a satisfying moment.

Air, armor, and artillery. By Normandy, the Allies held air superiority that could be constrained only by bad weather – not uncommon in northern Europe, especially in the opening phases of the German Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge) in December 1944. Long-range bombing missions devastated German cities, even while the Allies suffered heavy losses in air crews. Atkinson gives voice the suffering of Germans civilians under these area-wide bombing raids, a topic shrouded in relative silence until recently. Individually, German Panther and Tiger tanks may have been superior to U.S. Sherman tanks, but proficient deployment of U.S. artillery and tank destroyers repeatedly prevailed on the battlefield, from the Normandy hedgerows to the final battles in the Ruhr and western Germany.

The Germans. German forces eventually retreated, crumbled and surrendered – and suffered from intramural feuds as bitter as those of the Allies. But the “butcher’s bill,” in Atkinson’s phrase, remained high as the Wehrmacht fought town by town, pillbox by pillbox, one bloody counterattack after another – long past any hope of victory. The Nazi regime left behind a country utterly devastated – a true Götterdammerung – along with horror-filled discoveries of concentration camps. An understanding of the full dimensions of the Holocaust, however, would not come until the postwar era.

The French. If U.S.-British relations were often acrimonious, the American relationship with de Gaulle and French leaders reeled from comic opera to poisonous drama. France, to be fair, found itself in a difficult relationship with the Allies: dependent upon them for everything from munitions to uniforms and able to mount only relative small forces compared to the U.S. and Britain. Still, de Gaulle (known as “Deux Metres” for his height) seemed unable to adopt any posture other than continual outrage and condescension toward Eisenhower and other Allied leaders.

World War II is so much a part of our heritage that we think we are familiar with its basic features. After all, we know how it ends. WW II is even referred to as the “Good War,” a grotesque label for a conflict that consumed as many as 60 million civilian and military lives worldwide. It may, however, have been a necessary war.

One of Atkinson’s achievements is demonstrate that we don’t know as much as we think we do. The Second World War was strange and terrible in ways that we today find difficult to comprehend. Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy helps us to recover at least parts of that unknown country.
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Reading Progress

July 27, 2015 – Started Reading
July 27, 2015 – Shelved
July 27, 2015 – Shelved as: history-biography
July 27, 2015 – Shelved as: nonfiction
August 4, 2015 – Finished Reading

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