It seems that we will never run out of new books about World War II. That is not a bad thing. World War II saw more combatants than any other war in history. It affected a large percentage of the world’s population. Much of the war was fought between literate soldiers, officers, and civilians on both sides. This has left us with a mountain of material. Every author has his own reading and prejudices that he brings to the study. This means that we will receive many different views of the same subject. Rick Atkinson’s The Guns At Last Light: The War In Western Europe, 1944-1945, brings us his view of the war. The book starts with the invasion plans for Normandy. Atkinson goes in to a lot of detail about the logistical troubles that the allies had to prepare for what would be the largest amphibious assault in history. The information on D-Day itself and the Normandy campaign is very comprehensive, but not overwhelming with minutiae. The author points out the successes and failures of the campaign. One of the great failures was the lack of preparation by the commanders for dealing with the hedgerow country.
Many books on the campaign in France tend to focus on the Normandy campaign and the subsequent breakout. There was a subsequent invasion of the south of France known as Operation Dragoon. Atkinson spends a good deal of time talking about Dragoon. He also spends a lot of time discussing Operation Market Garden. Market Garden was one of the more controversial campaigns of the war and it is covered quite well here. One of the reasons Eisenhower was willing to try Market Garden was the need to stop the new rockets that Germany had developed. First the V1 then the V2 rockets were causing a lot of havoc in London. The other reason was the need to gain Antwerp. Logistics was a nightmare for the Allied force. The port in Antwerp would significantly increase the supply capacity.
The Battle of the Bulge is portrayed in the book as the greatest failure of Allied intelligence during the war. The Battle is portrayed in very vivid scenes. This section contains some of Atkinson’s best prose. One can almost feel the cold when reading the book.
Atkinson spends a lot of time discussing generals who are not as well known to the general reader. Almost everyone has heard of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery. Here we also get to see generals like Roosevelt, Truscott, Hodges, Devers, and others. Atkinson is obviously not a fan of Omar Bradley and never passes up a chance to criticize him. He tries to be fair to Montgomery, but it is hard. I’m not sure that it is possible to portray Montgomery accurately and in a positive light. There are a lot of stories about the British intrigues against Eisenhower. The British never approved and never understood Ike’s large front strategy. They always favored a narrow front with a heavy strike force. Of course they also wanted Monty in charge of it. Eisenhower knew better. Ike favored the same kind of battle order that Grant used in the Civil War. He knew that the Germans simply didn’t have the manpower to hold the entire front.
The Malta and Yalta conferences are the subject of a chapter and they help to set the stage for the end of the war. It is interesting to see the interaction of the three leaders (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) as the decide the fate of Europe in the post-war. The section on the liberation of the concentration camps is also very well done and very interesting. I was intrigued to lean that at Buchenwald American troops and officers took it on themselves to kill a number of SS troops who surrendered. The only really weak point in the book occurs here. Atkinson seems outraged by the actions of the American troops and seems them as simply murderers. His language gives the impression that it makes them no better than the SS thugs that they killed. I think that the context certainly gives the lie to any such moral equivalency. The GIs were well aware that the SS had massacred American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge. Now they see this fresh hell and in front of them are the men who committed the atrocities. I doubt that any of the soldiers who took part in the executions slept poorly over what they did.
That one criticism aside this is an excellent book. Atkinson’s style is easy to read and the information is presented in such a way that the average reader will not be overwhelmed. He tries on the whole to give a thorough look at the campaign and the players. This should not be the only book that you read on this subject, but it is a book that you should read.