The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
- Rick Atkinson
- Henry Holt
- 896 pp.
- Reviewed by James A. Percoco
- May 22, 2013
This final work of a trilogy may be “the single best volume” about the war in Europe from D-Day to the capitulation of German forces.
In addressing American veterans of World War II in 2001, Michael DiPaulo, a French consular officer, remarked, “We live in a free world today because in 1945 the forces of imperfect goodness defeated the forces of near-perfect evil.” Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in the capable hand of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson’s latest and final installment of his celebrated Liberation Trilogy. Readers and fans will delight in The Guns at Last Light.
As in his first two volumes, An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, Atkinson’s strength is rooted in his crisp narrative drive, prodigious research and incisive analysis of people and events.
Atkinson’s latest work is probably the single best volume about the war in Europe from the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, to the capitulation of German forces a little more than 11 months later, on May 8, 1945 — VE Day.
That the Allies won the war was remarkable given the confluence of personalities in the Allied high command and the petty drama that often played out behind closed doors in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the coalition of mostly Anglo-American forces whose target was to defeat Nazi Germany. The colorful cast of characters, led by history’s greatest coalition builder, General Dwight Eisenhower, who ironically never in his stellar military career saw any combat, include Americans Omar Bradley and George Patton; England’s chief prime donna, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery; and on the periphery, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, among many others. Atkinson’s premise is that the Allies secured a total and overwhelming victory in spite of the drama at the top.
Once the D-Day landings were complete and a bridgehead secured in Normandy and Brittany, followed by the liberation of Paris, the struggle in Allied Expeditionary Force headquarters was how best to quickly defeat the Nazis. Eisenhower, true to traditional American military logic, preferred one long, unified advance along a single front. His American subordinates approved the policy. Not so Montgomery, the consistent foil in the narrative, who argued that one army group should lead the charge—Montgomery, of course, the ultimate glory grabber—while the other army groups held the Germans in place on the flanks.
Eisenhower struggled mightily to keep everybody happy, which is a theme that runs through all three volumes. Balancing the clashing personalities and egos was the greatest challenge. As one disgruntled officer in the U.S. Seventh Army wrote home, the Allied Expeditionary Force leadership “treats us like bastard children.”
Atkinson clearly has an affinity for those who put boots on the ground, particularly American GIs and British Tommies. Atkinson draws sharp contrasts between the accommodations of the American top brass, almost always housed in some opulent former palace, castle or chateau and the grimy foxholes and bombed-out basements of the grunts.
The author laces his narrative with grim combat scenes. The action may be on Omaha Beach, on the edge of the Falise Pocket, in the tree line of the Huertgen Forest or in the bloody snow of Bastogne during the Bulge — but always it is intense, mocking and painful, supported by quotes from the battle-weary and sometimes battle-broken. For one soldier, the winter weather of 1945 made his capture by the Germans so much worse: “Our clothes were so frozen after we were captured that we rattled like paper.” Another soldier wrote home: “My mind is absolutely stripped of any traces of reason for war … Maybe the overall picture justifies what goes on up here, but from an infantryman’s point of view, it is hard to see.”
And then there is Atkinson’s prolific use of statistics. In his hands they become the critical mass of the large sweeping drama, and it is not all about bomb tonnage, troop deployment, uniforms, weapons, money spent and the booty of war. The author’s account of the commissary list prepared by British provisioners for the February 1945 Yalta Conference is staggering: “144 bottles of whiskey, 144 bottles of gin, 200 pounds of bacon, 200 pounds of coffee, 50 pounds of tea, 100 rolls of toilet paper, 2,500 paper napkins, 650 dinner plates, 350 tea cups and saucers, 500 tumblers, 100 wine glasses, 20 salt and pepper shakers, 400 sets of cutlery, 36 tablecloths and 13 sugar bowls.”
Written between the lines is the great chasm between those who lead men into battle and those who pay the ultimate price. In conveying that, Atkinson challenges the notion that World War II was a “good war.” It is clear he laments the necessity of this particular war.
After the war, the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak,” a eulogy to the carnage. Like others, MacLeish was searching for something to make sense of in the wake of such a human catastrophe. His line “We leave you our deaths, give them their meaning” is the apogee of the meter. In The Guns Last Light, even more than with his previous two volumes, Rick Atkinson too has become a poet of the war.
James A. Percoco is the director of education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial.