‘A Long Piece of Work’

The Guns At Last Lightby Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt and Co. 896p $40

In December 1944, as winter arrived across bomb-ravaged Europe, the Allied armies striving to crush Hitler’s monstrous war machine had cause for optimism.Though bloody and chaotic, the D-Day invasion six months earlier had been a success. American and British troops were advancing through France. The Allies had even seized control of their first German border town, Aachen. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall said the Nazis appeared “licked.” Allied intelligence reports suggested German resistance was crumbling. There was quiet talk of shifting some U.S. divisions soon to the fight raging in the Pacific. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, knew better—at least that is what he told his mother back home in Kansas. “Most people that write to me these days want to know when the war in Europe is going to be over,” Ike wrote to her. “I wish I knew. It is a long, hard, dreary piece of work.”

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That work—the last epic year of World War II in Europe, a struggle every murderous mile toward Berlin—is the subject of Rick Atkinson’s monumental new book, The Guns at Last Light. It is the third and final volume in his acclaimed Liberation Trilogy on the war, which was 14 years in the making. And in its narrative force and sweep, its utterly detailed and unsparing reporting, it is must-read history.

Rare is the book that is riveting even when you know exactly how it will end. World War II, of course, has been the subject of countless histories and films; Atkinson is not plowing new ground. Yet in his tick-tock recounting of how the Allies freed Europe from Nazi Germany’s grip, the story often feels fresh, definitive, even revelatory.

Before he became a best-selling author, Atkinson was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post, and it shows. He packs the book with extraordinary detail, dug up from thousands of sources, ranging from long-forgotten letters and diaries of military leaders at the time to new testimony from World War II veterans or their families who read his first two volumes in the trilogy and offered scraps of memoir and remembrance. At the end of the book, Atkinson spends nearly 200 pages citing his sources.

He also displays an unspoken determination throughout The Guns at Last Light to avoid any sentimental or rose-tinted rendering of the war’s last year, as is often the case these days as we pay our final respects to the aged and ailing American soldiers who battled the Nazis. There are no “Bands of Brothers” in this account, no star-spangled odes to the Greatest Generation.

Instead, Atkinson shows generals and G.I.’s alike in the raw—bickering, scared, prone to deadly tactical errors, vengeful, yet also brave beyond measure and remarkably resolute as the charge of Allied armies across Europe soon becomes a treacherous, uncertain slog.

Atkinson is so admirably intent on showing the truth of things as they unfolded behind the scenes that at times the reader is left to wonder: How did we even manage to win? So much goes wrong from the moment wet boots hit Omaha Beach, starting with the incessant squabbling of the U.S. and British commanders, who often appear allied in name only.

The beret-clad British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who commanded ground forces during the Allied invasion of the Normandy coast, spends the subsequent months constantly chafing under Eisenhower’s command, scoffing at his military judgments and pleading in private letters for his ouster. The distaste was mutual. The hell-bent U.S. General George Patton, never at a loss for words as he led his army onto the battlefield, described the prevailing American view of Montgomery this way: “Monty is a tired little f__t.”

But Eisenhower, chain smoking, exhausted, beset with alarmingly high blood pressure, never lost his cool—and he made sure that none of the sniping, egotism and distrust ever seriously undermined Allied unity. Perhaps by that alone the war was won.

Atkinson is at his best depicting Eisenhower’s pragmatism and resolve, which were hallmarks of America’s must-win mindset by late 1944 and an underlying theme of the book. The Guns at Last Light also offers memorable portraits of the men on both sides who orchestrated the war. You encounter a top Nazi admiral reading Gone With the Wind and comparing the destruction of the Civil War with the ruin engulfing Europe, and you bear witness to the celebrated German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel being forced by Hitler’s henchmen to commit suicide by cyanide pill after he was suspected of plotting to assassinate the Führer. You discover U.S. General Omar Bradley reflecting on lessons from a book he had recently read on Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and you see General Patton carrying along a six-volume history of the Norman conquest of England as his army rumbles across Europe. You also peek into Patton’s diary near the end of the war: “In hundreds of villages there is not a single living thing, not even a chicken.”

At times, The Guns at Last Light slows or suffers from the deluge of detail that Atkinson pours into the story. No pertinent fact—from the 4 million gallons of gasoline the Allies burned each day in Europe to the 144 bottles of gin the British brought to the remote Yalta summit with the United States and Russia—seems to be left out. The author’s meticulous accounting of which armies, divisions and regiments went where when in the last months of the war also becomes a kind of dizzying alphabet soup on some pages. But those are quibbles.

Much of how Atkinson chronicles the Allies’ liberation of Europe, the triumphs and the toll, is searing, even poignant, illuminated by his deft, recurring use of first-hand accounts from ordinary soldiers. That reporting puts you beside them on the front lines and eventually at the gates of Nazi concentration camps, where the shock of such unimaginable horror gave many the grit to finish off the Germans. “Hardly any boy infantryman started this cause as a moralist,” one G.I. wrote. “But after the camps, a moral attitude was dominant.”

Near the end of The Guns at Last Light, with Hitler dead and the shattered German army surrendering, Atkinson takes surprising note of how many American soldiers still lacked the spirit to celebrate. For so long, at every turn through Europe, all they had seen was more death and more destruction. U.S. forces had suffered nearly a half-million casualties since D-Day.

It is difficult to exult when the book is done. Like those G.I.’s, you feel spent, mournful, relieved. But Atkinson’s stirring history leaves the reader with another emotion, too: profound gratitude for the courage Allied leaders and armies showed in taking the fight straight to the Nazis and for never relenting until every vestige of that evil regime had been wiped out and they had brought forth, in the prophetic words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “a new earth.”

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