Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Why yet another book on the battle for Western Europe in World War II? It’s a story oft told, but seldom told as well or as enthusiastically as by Rick Atkinson. Atkinson set a high standard for popular military history in his earlier books about the American involvement in the Western Theater. He has succeeded once again in The Guns at Last Light, the third and last volume of his Liberation Trilogy.
Atkinson sprinkles his narrative with relatively unknown (at least by me) small-scale anecdotes without ever losing view of the major strategic issues faced by the allies. Moreover, nearly every chapter contains at least one excellent map to guide the reader through the details of the geographical maneuvering of the armies.
A major theme discussed throughout the book is the bickering that took place among various generals and political leaders about the correct strategy to defeat the Nazis. Churchill bitterly opposed the Allies landing in Southern France after the Normandy invasion, preferring instead bolstering the attack in Italy. Although Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that an American (Eisenhower) would be Supreme Commander of the allied forces, they apparently never fully convinced British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery that he should not be (in some cases, was not) in command. An even pricklier “ally” was the imperious Charles De Gaulle, who managed to provoke the enmity of every non-Frenchman with whom he dealt. One British wit said that a staple of De Gaulle’s diet was the hand that fed him. Eisenhower once told George Marshall, “Next to the weather, the French have caused me more trouble than any other single factor. They even rank above landing craft.”
Some of the juicy details that vivified the narrative were:
- Prior to D-Day, the Allies identified senior German railway officials for assassination by the French resistance in order to complicate enemy logistics once the invasion took place.
- GI’s who received the Medal of Honor also received a $2 per month raise.
- American dentists extracted 15 million teeth (more than one per soldier) from the men serving in the military during the war.
- American soldiers smoked more than 1 million packs of cigarettes a day, an addiction that strained shipping resources. Dwight Eisenhower himself smoked four packs a day. When his blood pressure rose too high, he banned doctors from taking further readings, lest they order him home.
- Soldiers learned to make do with what they had. On one occasion, German soldiers, lacking white flags with which to surrender, waved chickens instead. G.I.s forced to retreat across the Moselle River fashioned water wings from inflated condoms.
- Churchill was said to speak French “remarkably well, but understands very little.”
- The U.S. Army hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons (battle fatigue, shell shock, or PTSD) during the war, including as many as one in four during the Battle of the Bulge.
Atkinson is even-handed in his evaluation of the actions of key leaders, which often means he is highly critical of them. Montgomery and De Gaulle are seen as capable, but monumentally egotistical. Patton is shown to be an able tank commander, but occasionally very unwise, as with his unimaginative tactics to take the city of Metz.
Evaluation: This book can serve as an excellent introduction to the war in Western Europe for readers unfamiliar with those events, but it can also be edifying for those who have read a great deal about them. I highly recommend it.
Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013
Note: As stated above, this is book three of a trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, received the Pulitzer Prize. The second volume, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 also received wide acclaim. A multimedia website about the three books and their subject matter offers an interactive time line of the war; maps from all three volumes, historical videos, photos, and other documents.