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.
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.
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.
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.
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.