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the guns at last light

8 july 2013

The first two volumes of Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy – An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle – had the advantage of relative novelty. They are about famous campaigns of the Second World War, but neither North Africa nor Italy are remotely as well-known or heavily-written-about as the Normandy landings, the liberation of France, or the end of the war in western Germany. Even if, like Atkinson, you've established formidable credentials as a military narrator, it's hard not to anticipate just another in a long line of D-Day books.

Yet there's a certain Atkinson style, almost a "brand," that carries over from the first two Liberation books and distinguishes this retelling. He draws liberally from accounts of common soldiers and junior officers, but also loves his Churchill and Monty anecdotes. Staggering lists of Allied materiel production are a standby; so are appalling casualty figures. Military operations play a surprisingly small role in Atkinson's military histories. He sets the scene (with the help of well-chosen photos and good maps), and then proceeds to evoke what it must have been like to take part, rather than chronicling which battalion took which hill.

The war in the West had a strange, tragic rhythm that makes it seem more wasteful than a conflict that helped doom a great evil empire should seem. Realistically, Hitler should have surrendered shortly after the D-Day armada hit the beach. Even if the Western Allies had been browbeaten into neutrality, he should have surrendered to the Soviet Union. But after 6 June 1944, the writing was on thousands of walls across Europe: Kilroy was advancing inevitably on the Rhine.

Inevitably, but not very steadily. The D-Day beachhead remained pent up near the Normandy coast for longer than the invaders hoped. Then, suddenly, in a vast operation dubbed Cobra and led largely by Omar Bradley, Allied armies raced across great stretches of Northern France while the German armies evaporated before them. Near the Rhine, the offensive stalled again for months, and then suffered great reverses in the Battle of the Bulge. After more stalemate in the far west of Germany in the winter of 1945, resistance suddenly collapsed again, and western forces roamed at will across the former Reich while the Soviets were seizing Berlin.

One of Atkinson's great themes is the idiocy and waste of continuing such warfare against all odds. But logic did not always prevail, especially in Hitler's bunker. Like a gambler who believes that one more trifecta will put him ahead for good, Hitler kept staking the lives of his people against the vain hope that the Allies would tire of the war and surrender instead. And the Allies did tire of war, especially the men in the front lines and the aircraft whose survival was tenuous. But it would have made even less sense for the Allies to sue for peace when complete victory was so near.

Twenty-first century warfare, aided by satellite and air freight and weapons of instant and precise (if not always "surgical") deployment, can obscure the tremendous challenges offered to armies throughout history by terrain and weather. Atkinson brings these challenges to life. The English Channel was the first and most basic. In later eras when American force can be projected across any ocean, the Channel would mean as much as any other ditch, but it was an impediment that delayed the Allies for years. The hedgerows of Normandy, the forests of eastern France, mountain ranges, the Rhine, all take on impossible-to-surmount significance. When you cross a major river by car today, you notice the river, for sure, but probably aren't aware of how few bridges cross such rivers even today, and how narrow and vulnerable they are. Allied armies got to experience the frustrations of trying to send forces across the Rhine in dramatic fashion.

Atkinson, Rick. The Guns at Last Light: The war in western Europe, 1944-1945. New York: Holt, 2013. [Volume Three of the Liberation Trilogy]