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Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Guns at Last Light

Rick Atkinson ends his magnificent three-volume history of the War in Western Europe with The Guns at Last Light, which covers the conflict from just before D-Day to the VE-Day, almost one year of bitter fighting, as the Allies landed at Normandy and then punched their way to Paris and then on into Germany.

This book probably covers more that is known to most Americans than the first two books, which covered North Africa and Italy, respectively, as many of us have heard of Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge, Remagen and Arnhem. But Atkinson brings to brilliant life once again, capturing the personalities of the combatants, from the highest generals to the lowest privates.

He stars, of course, with OVERLORD, the invasion of France on June 6, 1944, which was bedeviled by bad weather reports. The American forces were gathered en masse in England--more Americans there than in all Nebraska--and they finally landed. This was Dwight Eisenhower's baby, and he was aware of criticism: "In his own diary he lamented the depiction of him in British newspapers as an administrator rather than a battlefield commander." He had a long-running feud with Bernard Montgomery, "Monty," the British Field Marshal. "Eisenhower came to believe that 'Monty' is a good man to serve under, a difficult man to serve with, and and in impossible man to serve under."

One wouldn't think one could learn more about D-Day, but of course, like some other historically significant events, there's always more. And Atkinson can get very poetic: "For those who outlived the day, who survived this high thing, this bright honor, this destiny, the memories would remain as shot-torn as the beach itself. They remembered waves slapping the steel hulls, and bilge pumps choked with vomit from seasick men making 'utterly inhuman noises' into their gas capes. Green water curled over the gunwales as coxswains waited for a tidal surge to lift them past the bars before dropping the ramps with a heavy clank an a shouted benediction: 'It's yours, take it away!'"

After D-Day, the Allied brass realized they would win the war, but it took a lot longer than they thought. "The pursuit and annihilation of a beaten foe is among the most difficult military skills to master, as demonstrated from Gettsyburg to Alamain; and defeats in Russia, North Africa, and Italy how to retreat." Atkinson chronicles the mistakes, such as MARKET GARDEN, which was the largest airborne operation up to that time, but a failure ("an epic cock-up" as one Brit described it), and the Battle of Arnhem, which attempted to take a series of bridges in the Netherlands.

He also writes extensively about the Battle of the Bulge--"For decades after the death struggle called the Battle of the Bulge, generals, scholars, and foot soldiers alike would ponder the worst U.S. intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor and the deadliest of the war. Only from the high ground of history could perfect clarity obtain, and even then the simplest, truest answer remained the least satisfying: mistakes were made and man men died."

This was Germany's last shot, their Hail Mary, with a Panzer tank attack that caught the Allies flat-footed. But, after a month of miserable winter warfare, aided by a tremendously effective bombing campaign over civilian Germany, the tide was turned. Much of this was due to personalities like George S. Patton, who appears in all three books and is as hard to dislike as much as he does offend. On December 25th his diary read: "a clear cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans."

Eisenhower is a much more complex figure. Atkinson writes of him smoking 80 cigarettes a day and reading Western pulp novels to relax, until he finds them no good, and says that he could write them better left-handed. He has internecine problems, other than Monty--"'Next to the weather,' Eisenhower would tell George Marshall, the French 'have caused me more trouble in this war than any other single factor. They even rank above landing craft.'"

As Patton and others head toward the major cities of Germany, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin met at Yalta, which gets ample coverage here. This is where Germany and Eastern Europe was carved up, and many think that Stalin got too much. But the Russians had paid a terrible price, and without them it would have been a very different outcome: "Two generations later, Yalta can be seen as neither the portal to Roosevelt's 'world of justice and equity' nor a disgraceful capitulation to red fascism but, rather, an intricate nexus of compromises by East and West."

There is also a moving section on the liberation of concentration camps, with the devilish names still fresh to us: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau. Grown men wept at what they saw. Eisenhower said, "Now do you know why we hate them?"

The Guns at Last Light is also full of interesting facts and anecdotes. One in ten of the American casualties in World War II occurred at the Battle of the Bulge. Almost as many Americans died in April 1945, the last month of the war, as in June 1944. Eighty years after the Civil War, white Americans were still reluctant to arm black troops, thinking that if they shot at white people they'd carry the idea home. Trench foot accounted for one-fourth of all hospital admissions. My favorite story is when, on the lookout for spies, sentinels asked questions that presumably all Allies would know the answer to. When the actor David Niven was asked "Who won the World Series in 1940?" he answered, "I haven't the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.'"

It's hard for any book or series of books to capture the totality of what happened in Europe seventy years ago. But Atkinson comes pretty close: "Twelve years and four months after it began, the Thousand-Year Reich had ended. Humanity would require decades, perhaps centuries, to parse the the regime's inhumanity, and to comprehend how a narcissistic beerhall demagogue had wrecked a nation, a continent, and nearly a world."

As big as this story is, this was only one theater of the war. I wonder if Atkinson would like to write about the war in the Pacific. I'd be glad to read it.

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