The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
By Rick Atkinson
877 pages, $40
By Stephen T. Watson
News Book reviewer
On June 6, 1944, a massive armada crossed the English Channel to begin the long-awaited Allied attempt to win back Western Europe from its German conquerors.
Eleven months later, on May 7, 1945, a group of German generals representing what remained of the Third Reich surrendered unconditionally to an 11-man Allied military delegation in Reims, France, concluding six years of war in Europe.
Schoolbook history leaves the impression that the fight against the Germans ended on D-Day, skipping over the months that followed with a brief stop to congratulate the stalwart U.S. Army division that held fast at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
In reality, the last 11 months in World War II’s European theater were marked by bitter combat, divisions over strategy and episodes of bravery and villainy.
Rick Atkinson, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, captures all of this in “The Guns at Last Light,” the exhaustively researched, highly readable final book in his Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, “An Army at Dawn,” examined the uneven debut of the American armed forces in Africa and won Aktinson a Pulitzer Prize for history. The second, “The Day of Battle,” detailed the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy.
“The Guns at Last Light” treads more familiar ground. Atkinson’s final work picks up in spring 1944, as American and British military planners wrap up preparations for Operation Overlord – an ambitious amphibious landing in France.
He takes us through the deadly assaults on beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, the breakout into France, the liberation of Paris, Brussels and the other subjugated cities of Europe and the final, relentless attack on Germany itself. At least 165,000 Americans died between D-Day and V-E Day, along with tens of thousands of British, Canadian, French and Polish soldiers.
Atkinson spent years studying official military histories, materials collected in national archives, the diaries kept by soldiers and the letters they sent home, and he personally visited many of the battlefields.
“The Guns at Last Light” doesn’t focus on any one combatant, or company of soldiers.
But Atkinson does provide telling thumbnail profiles of the main American, British and German generals, such as Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander and future president who read “cowboy pulp novels” to take his mind off the war, and Bernard Montogmery, the “wiry, elfin” British field marshal who clashed frequently with Americans over credit and strategy.
Atkinson takes us to the top-secret planning meetings and to the moments when the generals shared their true feelings, as when Eisenhower, shortly before Overlord, confessed to his driver, Kay Summersby, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.”
The grunts and Tommies, their German adversaries and the civilians caught in the war’s grip also have a voice.
Some found sardonic humor in war, as with the nickname given to the Purple Heart, which was awarded to U.S. personnel wounded in combat: “the German marksmanship medal.”
Many quotes are grimmer.
One soldier, fighting in the Hürtgen forest along the German-Belgian border, recalled, “The days were so terrible that I would pray for darkness, and the nights were so bad that I would pray for daylight.”
Soldiers, sailors, air crews and civilians are gunned down, blown to pieces, starved, frozen, gassed and drowned.
If ever the American or British soldiers forget why they were fighting this war, they learn when they arrive at the concentration camps, where 6 million Jews, and others considered undesirable by the Nazi regime, were killed during the war.
“If all the heavens were paper and all the water in the world were ink and all the trees turned into pens, you could not even then record the sufferings and horrors,” a rabbi said.
Atkinson is good at explaining the ultimate reasons why the Allies defeated the Germans. He cites their coordinated collaboration but primarily credits the might of American industry.
“The enemy was crushed by logistical brilliance, firepower, mobility, mechanical aptitude, and an economic juggernaut that produced much, much more of nearly everything than Germany could,” he writes.
He highlights episodes that show the Allies in a less favorable light, too, such as the occasional killings of Germans attempting to surrender, the continued, costly use of airborne forces for little strategic gain and the missed warning signs that allowed the Germans to – briefly – turn back the tide during the Battle of the Bulge.
Atkinson also reveals the political side of war strategy, taking the reader to the Allied council at Yalta, where promises to allow all liberated countries to control their destinies were swiftly broken by the Soviets.
Atkinson doesn’t condemn a dying FDR for giving away Eastern Europe to the Communists. It was not a “disgraceful capitulation,” he writes, but “an intricate nexus of compromises by East and West.”
Atkinson, who spent 14 years researching his trilogy, also seeks to place the war in its historical context. The end of World War II saw the dimming of the British Empire, and the rise of the Soviet Union, the United States and the Cold War.
Just over 16 million Americans served in uniform in the war, and only one million are expected to still be alive at the end of next year.
Seven decades later, the story of their service remains compelling, and that’s why so many find it worthy of retelling.
An unnamed lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division, writing a letter to his sister, perhaps best summed up their experiences: “I’ve learned what it means to be alive, to breathe and to feel. I have seen men do such things, both good and bad, that surely the recording angel in heaven must rejoice and despair of them.”
Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter.