THE GUNS OF LAST LIGHT/ THE TRAGIC REALITY OF 1944-1945

The final installment of Rick Atkinson’s WWII trilogy, THE GUNS  OF LAST LIGHT, offers prodigious unsettling detail of the final push to defeat Hitler during the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945.  The book begins with D-Day  continues through the Normandy hedgerows, the liberation of Paris, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.

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Atkinson’s narrative spares no detail  and his criticisms  of Allied leadership are jaw dropping. In his epic account  of the final months of the war, Atkinson creates no heroes.  His depth of research renders judgement on the good and bad.

American deaths in the winter of 1944 at the Bulge alone totaled 19,276.  In the final year of the  campaign of 135, 576 American soldiers  were killed on the Western Front while military bureaucrats meticulously planned the  up coming  Yalta conference between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. Millions of dollars  and endless hours of planning and logistics were spent on caviar, wild game, wines of every description, imported silver, cigars,  china and furniture. Little was accomplished  at Yalta, increasing speculation on how Germany would later  be  carved up among  the victors.

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This is a book for students of WWII history and the reader will be well rewarded by the depth of its six hundred plus pages. Atkinson’s work qualifies for my Every Word Counts honor. The two other volumes equally worthy of accolades are An Army at Dawn, the North Africa Campaign, (search gordonsgoodreads)The  Day of Battle, the war in Italy.

I can not resist sharing this quotation from the book.  Patricia O’ Malley was  a one year old when her father, Major Richard James O’Malley  was killed by a sniper at Normandy. Later as an adult she  wrote this following a visit to  her father’s  grave at the cemetery at Collerville above Omaha Beach. I cried for the joy of being there and the sadness of my father’s death. I cried for all the times I needed a  father and never had one. I cried for all the words I wanted to say and wanted to hear but had not.  I cried and cried.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AN ARMY AT DAWN-NORTH AFRICA-DRESS REHEARSAL FOR EUROPEAN INVASION

Rick Atkinson’s  first volume of his World War II Trilogy An Army At Dawn is an extraordinarily candid appraisal of the performance of the U.S. Military during its initial foray into the Second World War in North Africa.

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This excellent historical work portrays the North Africa Campaign of 1942-1943 as a painful dress rehearsal for a green U.S. Command and Army, embarking on its first and often catastrophic combat missions since the First World War.  ” A great sorting out was underway: the competent from the incompetent, the courageous from the fearful, the lucky from the unlucky.”   Atkinson spares no one in his  harsh analysis of both the American and British forces and their leadership.  The takeaway is that if the Allies had invaded across the channel in 1942 as originally envisioned, D-Day would have been a disaster only rivaled by Dunkirk.  A move up the boot of Italy or into southern France according to Atkinson’s read would have also been doomed from the outset.

The North Africa Campaign learning curve was critical to the final Allied victory in Europe. ” Eisenhower had been naive, sycophantic,  unsure of his judgement, insufficiently vigorous and more a titular than actual commander.” Atkinson is blunt in his appraisal that North Africa taught the American Infantryman the necessity of  ” ruthless killer instinct”  in battle.”  ” A soldier is not effective until he has learned to hate. When he lives for one thing, to kill the enemy, he becomes of value. ”  The collaboration in the North Africa Campaign with the British under Montgomery  foretold difficulties to come in the invasion of Europe.

Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel, all portrayed  by historian Atkinson at their very worst and very best. The book is scholarly in its approach and yet very readable, filled with humanity, heroism,  and battlefield reality. After months of failure with enormous and often needless casualties,  American forces finally morphed into fighting form and marched through the Kasserine Pass and on to the sea at Tunis.

An Army at Dawn was written in 2002. The remaining volumes in Atkinson’s trilogy are The Day of Battle, the war in  Sicily and Italy ( 2007 ),  from 1943-1944 and The Guns at Last Light, (2012),  the war in Western Europe, 1944-1945. Atkinson also authored The Long Grey Line and Crusade.

REFLECTIONS ON D-DAY, JUNE 6, 1944

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The 70th Anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, has obviously peaked interested in this monumental, historic event. There are two  books I would like to recommend to those who wish to pursue the historic details of this epic event and a third which offers important insight into the citizen soldiers so critical to the ultimate Allied Victory.  Two of these books are by the same author, historian Stephen E. Ambrose.
One of the most definitive and detailed histories of D-Day:  OVERLORD D-DAY AND THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by  British Historian Max Hastings, first published in Great Britain  in 1984. Wrote the Englishman, ” Not the least remarkable aspect of the Second World War was the manner in which the United States, which might have been expected to regard the campaign in Europe as a diversion from the struggle against her principal aggressor, Japan, was persuaded to commit her chief strength in the west.  Not only that, but from December 1941 until June, 1944 it was the Americans who were passionately impatient to confront the German Army on the continent while the British, right up until the eve of D-Day, were haunted by the misgivings about doing do.”  “Why are we trying to do this? cried Winston Churchill.”

 

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The author of Eisenhower, Stephen Ambrose,  wrote the quintessential  D-Day history:  D-DAY, JUNE 6, 1944, THE CLIMATIC BATTLE OF WORLD WAR II. First published in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of D-Day.  Dwight Eisenhower, ” The Fury of an aroused democracy.” Eisenhower on Omaha Beach in 1964 on the D-Day 20th Anniversary.  ” But it’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve  our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own. But to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

imagesHow ordinary enlisted men’s ability to assume leadership turned the tide for the Allies:  Stephen E. Ambrose, CITIZEN SOLDIERS.  First published in 1997.  From the memoir of  Bruce Eggert who rose from private to staff sergeant: ” Not a man among us would want to go through it again, but were all proud of having been so severely tested and found adequate. The only regret is for those of our friends who never returned.”

Any of these volumes would make a wonderful Fathers Day gift for lovers of history. All are still available in hard cover and paperback editions.

 

THE STORM OF WAR- PROFOUNDLY ACCOMPLISHED OVERVIEW OF WORLD WAR II

Andrew Roberts The Storm of War is without question the best and most complete overview of World War II that I have read. Extraordinary research, crammed with detail and revelations that  even well read students of the war will find enlightening.

Roberts, Britain’s  premiere military historian, writes with clarity and transforms this enormous subject into an understandable read that  links nearly every facet of the war to a logical conclusion. His penchant for detail and numbers easily falls into place making the narrative more exciting, eye-opening and impactful.  He clearly demonstrates that this two theater war,   based upon what he terms “false ideologies,”  is what led to the ultimate downfall of both Germany and Japan. Beginning with the rationale for Hitler’s failure to seize a victory at Dunkirk, the fall of France ( more French fought on the side of the Axis than the Allies,)  an explanation as to why Operation Sealion ( the invasion of Britain) was never carried out , the catastrophic blunder of Germany declaring War on the United States giving Roosevelt the green light to enter the war in  Europe, Roberts courses each twist and turn and his story is  often explosive and emotionally disturbing.  

Aficionados of military statistics are led through details of  comparison of  weapons, tanks, airplanes, submarines, troop strength.  In 1943, just over a year after Pearl Harbor the United States was building  98,000 war planes per year compared to Germany’s 40,000.  The Russians suffered 2-million casualties at Stalingrad and replaced the loses in a month. Germany lost 238,000 but had exhausted its reserves. His use of facts, rather than confuse, come together to strengthen the forcefulness of the book.

All of the major players are front and center, Churchill,  Roosevelt, Hitler, Hirohito, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Nimitz, Rommel, and the Nazi  cast of Field Marshalls, SS Officers plus  Goebbels, Goring, and Rundstedt. The author’s denunciation of the murder of millions of Jews is carefully calibrated and leaves absolutely no avenue for anyone involved to escape responsibility. 

Roberts brings insight into the Eastern front and Russia’s stalwart defence of Moscow, the  battle of Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad.  The author outlines the impact of the failure of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa ( the conquest of Russia based upon his ideological hatred of  Bolshevism.)  To highlight the fallacy of Hitler’s fanatical focus on Russia, the German’s lost 2.4 million men killed in Operation Barbarossa as compared to 202,000 fighting the Allies on the Western front. Despite these losses  on the Eastern front, Hitler maintained a “stand and die policy” nearly to the end. Ideology again!

The war in Pacific receives equal attention. From Pearl Harbor  through the dropping of the atomic bombs the reader learns why the great battles in the Pacific were won and lost in many cases  because the ideological leaders in Japan, like Germany, refused to listen to the generals on the ground. “The awakening of the sleeping giant.” ” The miracle at Midway.”

If I were asked to recommend just one volume as an overview of the Second World War my choice would be The Storm of War. However, this work will be appreciated even more  by those who have read extensively individual works by other renowned World War Two Historians such as Max Hastings , who is referenced throughout the volume by Roberts.

I met Andrew Roberts at a lecture in New York City. It became immediately clear that The Storm of War  would require reading every page, packed with facts and few wasted words. No quick read here and definitely not a historical novel. However, despite the immersion in detail, this epic story is profound and the conclusions logical because in the end Andrew Roberts seems to have missed nothing.

For W Roberts history on the World War II Western front, read Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won The War in the West ( 1941-1945)