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The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (The Liberation Trilogy) Paperback – May 13, 2014
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The Amazon Book Review
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“A magnificent book...[Atkinson] is an absolute master of his material.” ―Max Hastings, The Wall Street Journal
“A tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity...The Liberation Trilogy is a monumental achievement, about 2,500 pages in all, densely researched but supremely readable.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Breathtaking, unforgettable...This volume is a literary triumph worthy of the military triumph it explores and explains.” ―The Boston Globe
“Monumental… As befits a journalist who knows his material inside and out, Atkinson can provide the incisive explanation to a complex situation or personage…A masterpiece of deep reporting and powerful storytelling.” ―The Los Angeles Times
“Atkinson] reconstructs the period from D-Day to V-E Day by weaving a multitude of tiny details into a tapestry of achingly sublime prose…With great sensitivity, Atkinson conveys the horrible reality of what soldiers had to become to defeat Hitler's Germany.” ―The Washington Post
“Detailed in its research, unsparing in its judgments and confident in its prose…This trilogy--on which [Atkinson has] spent 12 years, twice as long as the war itself--may well be his masterpiece.” ―Time Magazine
“Great characters, vivid details…The final volume of Rick Atkinson's ‘Liberation Trilogy' proves again that few can re-tell a story as well as he.” ―USA Today
“A remarkable conclusion to his three parts on WWII… A fabulous book.” ―Tom Brokaw on MSNBC's Morning Joe
“The same qualities that garnered Atkinson a Pulitzer Prize for An Army at Dawn--meticulous research married to masterful narrative--are apparent in The Guns at Last Light. The new book relates the oft-told (but never better) story of the war's final year, from D-Day to the German surrender.” ―The Chicago Tribune
“Epic, set-piece battle sequences are balanced by deft portraiture. The Greatest Generation is nearly gone….The Liberation Trilogy is the monument it deserves.” ―Vanity Fair
“A sweeping, prodigiously researched epic…The Guns at Last Light is a definitive, heartfelt work of grandeur, atrocity, and profound sorrow. It is also, along with the two previous volumes, a long, fervent prayer for the fallen.” ―The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[An] extraordinary accomplishment. This is a beautifully written, moving account of one of the most bittersweet chapters in modern history…The details build a stunning and precise account of major movements--from Normandy to Paris, from the South of France to Grenoble--and close-up portraits of famous figures that make them living, breathing beings.” ―Smithsonian Magazine
“A riveting book…Few historians have Atkinson's gift for language and few journalists pay as much attention to historical sources…Atkinson writes with the descriptive and lyrical power of a first-rate novelist.” ―Christian Science Monitor
“Emotionally gripping…This 850-page military history captivates the reader with the high drama of a spellbinding novel and a cast of characters that a master storyteller would be hard-pressed to invent…It's hard to imagine a more engrossing, dramatic, fair-minded and elegantly written account of these 11 months that changed the course of history.” ―Associated Press
“A terrific read…Atkinson never loses track of the men who fought the war. Mining their diaries and letters, he has produced an account that is achingly human.” ―The Miami Herald
“A richly detailed narrative of the war final's year, with riveting looks at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.” ―San Diego Union-Tribune
“Atkinson paints on a vast canvas while stressing the details. He cites the experiences of soldiers -- officers and grunts alike--caught up in a conflagration beyond their comprehension. He preserves the humanity of humans in an inhumane situation…Passages describe human courage and depravity in such vivid prose that readers need to pause, reflect and regroup…His book is a fitting tribute.” ―Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Soon, if not already, Atkinson will show up on the list of giants, as later historians stand on his shoulders.” ―The Dallas Morning News
“An epic conclusion to an epic historical trilogy about an epic quest to preserve Western freedom, The Guns at Last Light is sure to join its predecessor volumes in the best-seller ranks, and confirms the Liberation Trilogy as a new benchmark against which World War II books yet to be written will be measured.” ―Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Crisp narrative drive, prodigious research and incisive analysis of people and events...Atkinson's latest work is probably the single best volume about the war in Europe from the D-Day invasion...to the capitulation of German forces...Rick Atkinson…has become a poet of the war.” ―The Washington Independent Review of Books
“Superb…Atkinson writes sensitively, even lyrically…The Guns at Last Light offers an outstanding testament to all who sacrificed to defeat Hitler's Third Reich.” ―The Louisville Courier-Journal
“The master of narrative military history ends his Liberation Trilogy with this admired account of the 1944-45 fighting in Western Europe.” ―St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The Guns at Last Light is an important addition to the World War II bookshelf.” ―The Washington Times
“Impressively researched…and energetically written, with a brisk pace that carries the reader easily through the narrative's 600-plus pages.” ―The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Stark photographs complement the excellent prose.” ―Richmond Times Dispatch
“[The Guns at Last Light] is deep in detail, narrative and character description. Readers encounter famous generals--Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, and a host of lower officers--in illuminated portrayals, warts and all.” ―Knoxville News Sentinel
“Sweeping in scope, Shakespearean in drama and angst, unsparing in its observations, and rich in detail…Atkinson said that he wrote the trilogy as an effort to tell [the story of the frontline troops] ‘vividly and authoritatively, to current and future generations.' That he has.” ―Defense Media Network
“Atkinson's zest for research and his evident devotion to hard facts never obscures the grace of his writing. The proof of that lies less in the many accolades and prizes (including a Pulitzer in history in 2003) than simply in the reading. Rare is a 600-page-plus history book that qualifies as a page turner.” ―Military History Magazine
“Brilliant…Each volume [of the Liberation Trilogy] is characterized by superb research and fine writing. The high standard set in the prologue to the first volume carries through the epilogue to the last.” ―BG Harold W. Nelson, Army Magazine
“Richly rewarding and beautifully crafted …With lyrical élan, [Atkinson] accurately and objectively tells the greatest story of our time, and does so with the general reader always in mind.” ―World War II Magazine
“A marvelous capstone to a trilogy that will make Rick Atkinson to the U.S. Army in the European Theater of Operations what Shelby Foote is to the Civil War…Mr. Atkinson has a rare ability to combine a historian's eye with a reporter's pen to simultaneously provide a sweep and detail to combat that is both unique and enjoyable for the novice student and the hardiest grognard.” ―New York Journal of Books
“Superb…Atkinson brings his Liberation Trilogy to a resounding close…An outstanding work of popular history, in the spirit of William Manchester and Bruce Catton.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Superb…The book is distinguished by its astonishing range of coverage…[Atkinson's] lively, occasionally lyric prose brings the vast theater of battle, from the beaches of Normandy deep into Germany, brilliantly alive. It is hard to imagine a better history of the western front's final phase.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With a mastery of sources that support nearly every sentence, Atkinson achieves a military history with few peers as an overview of the 1944-45 campaigns in Western Europe.” ―Booklist
“The book stands out from others on World War II because it successfully explores the fallibility of participants at all levels…This is not a detailed account of any one particular battle but a sweeping epic, yet it is packed with fascinating details. Highly recommended to all who read World War II history.” ―Library Journal
About the Author
Rick Atkinson is the bestselling author of An Army at Dawn (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history), The Day of Battle, The Long Gray Line, In the Company of Soldiers, and Crusade. His many other awards include a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, the George Polk award, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. A former staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post, he lives in Washington, D.C.
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Other than that, I did not notice anything in the Normandy section. Nor did I notice anything else that jumped out in the remainder of the book. If I had to score his research, I would give him a 98% at a minimum. Those few errors, in my opinion, result from using dated (German accounts in the immediate post-war period)and not the latest academic scholarship using primary sources. That said, Atkinson's bibliography by itself (selected sources beginning on page 813) is well worth the price of this volume. The book is organized into four parts (each totaling approximately 160 pages), each with three chapters (about 40 - 50 pages apiece).
Part One is entitled "Invasion" and consists of chapters entitled "Invasion," "Lodgment," and "Liberation." Atkinson is a superlative writer who can take a wealth of otherwise meaningless statistics and weave those numbers into meaningful prose. For example, the mind numbing detail involved in carrying out Operation Overlord is fittingly brought to life when Atkinson describes events that NEVER occurred in great detail, e.g. the Allied retaliatory chemical attacks in response to a German chemical or biological strike against the invading armada. The sheer scope of the allied endeavor is driven home when talking about such mundane topics as maps (pp. 23 - 24): "Armed guards from ten cartography depots escorted three thousand tons of maps for D-Day alone, the first of 210 million maps that would be distributed in Europe, most of them printed in five colors. Also into the holds (of ships) went 280,000 hydrographic charts; town plats for the likes of Cherbourg and St. Lo; many of the one million aerial photos of German defenses, snapped from reconnaissance planes flying at twenty-five feet and watercolors depicting the view that landing craft coxswains would have of their beaches...."
PART TWO describes the Post-Cobra and Falaise gap events, e.g. Chapter 4 - Pursuit, Chapter 5 - Against the West Wall, and Chapter 6 - The Implicated Woods. The only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that Atkinson while writing Chapter 8 somehow overlooked a detailed article in World War Two magazine on the 9th Infantry Division's initial foray into the Hurtgen Woods in October 1944. The Germans reinforced their defenses in that sector because they thought they were facing "troops specially trained in forest warfare."
PART THREE resumes the battles on the German frontier before ending with the Rundstedt offensive in the Ardennes with Chapter 7 "The Flutter of Wings," Chapter 8 - "A Winter Shadow," and Chapter 9 - "The Bulge." The fourth and final section details the post-Ardennes fighting as well as the Allied conferences in the last year of the war. The Yalta conference in particular is detailed very effectively. Atkinson is particularly effective in weaving small details into the larger narration (who otherwise would have known that one of the villas occupied by Allied representatives served previously at Rundstedt's headquarters?) I think that Rick Atkinson's work reflects a labor of love as he does not recount events and personalities dispassionately. It is clear that Rick appeared to be as frustrated with the French Army's behavior as Eisenhower following the Normandy invasion nor does the author have much sympathy for Montgomery's perennial "bad boy" behavior resulted from deep seated hubris. That said, this book focuses on the experiences of the American soldier and American armies. Our British and French allies are mentioned only when the narrative demands additional detail along those lines.
As a professional historian, my own take on this story would have involved more discussion along the lines of "battalion X moved from Point B to Point C, sustaining 23 casualties in the process of killing of capturing XX German defenders...." Atkinson brings those events to life with a vivid literary brush that literally almost places the reader at the scene of the action. His research is for the most part impeccable, which translates into ACCURATE dramatic prose.
I am genuinely thankful to the author for making these events accessible and interesting to so many more Americans than academic historians like myself. Mr. Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy represents the penultimate account of the US Army in the Mediterranean and European Theaters during the Second World War. With 29 maps and many photographs, it is well worth the price!
ADDENDUM: Atkinson ends the book not with the final surrender in May 1945, but with a detailed description of the repatriation of American war dead from Europe and the gathering of other American war dead at newly created American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC)cemeteries. I think that this particular approach is a fitting and appropriate way to conclude an outstanding set of books.
Atkinson follows the popular style of authors like Cornelius Ryan, Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings and Ian Kershaw where he tells the story from multiple participants’ viewpoints. It’s a winning technique and builds a narrative the reader can really relate to. Mr. Atkinson presented many interesting nuggets of information that I’d never seen anywhere else such as Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering’s marshal’s baton was “sixteen inches long and encrusted with 640 diamonds, twenty gold eagles, and twenty platinum crosses”. After Goering’s capture it was used as a prop to sell war bonds in the U.S. Guess Goering knew how to accessorize, but that little trifle speaks to the kind of personality he was.
I enjoyed reading this book and have decided to read the other two in reverse order since starting with the third will read the second book “The Day of Battle” next. Highly recommended to WWII buffs everywhere.
I commend “Guns at Last Light” to anyone with interest in WWII. If I were teaching writing, or if I were assembling an anthology of writing about history, I would include chapter 8, “A Winter Shadow”. With prose that moves ominously forward like the score from a suspense movie, Atkinson uses this chapter to describe the events of the weeks that immediately preceded the Nazi German launch of the counteroffensive through the Ardennes - the Battle of the Bulge - in which Allied armies suffered their most devastating losses.
In the chapter titled “A Winter Shadow” Atkinson details the effects of German V-1 and V-2 rockets on London with vivid detail, so that the reader finds himself poised to cheer on the fire-bombing of Dresden - and realizes that he has fallen under the spell of “war fever”.
Atkinson describes Hitler’s impassioned insistence on a counterattack that would compel the Allies to sue for peace, and the reader soon sees that though the Ardennes counteroffensive may have been a Hail Mary pass of a sort, the ultimate victory of the Allied forces in response to it was a near-run thing. Atkinson takes the reader to the conference room deep in the German woods where Hitler gathered his high command to rant and to demand their march to his will - in a room where each member of that command sat unarmed and silently before an armed SS officer poised to kill him if he did not assent to the Führer’s orders.
Atkinson then takes the reader behind the Allied lines, where complacency was growing, as expectations grew that the bloodied Nazi foe was tottering close to defeat. Allied troops were not being provisioned for a winter campaign, and were huddled in foxholes or in unheated tents or requisitioned farmhouses at the onset of what would be Europe’s coldest winter in a couple of decades. Meanwhile, to the rear, a swelling bureaucracy of supply corps were fattening themselves on the sweetmeats of Paris, a city gifted at smoothing the sheets for its occupiers. Tens of thousands of American and British deserters roamed Paris’ back streets and alleys, or the side roads of liberated France. The egotism of Field Marshal Montgomery and his execrable adjutant Brooke were threatening to undo the unity and purpose of the Allied high command. Meanwhile, Allied leadership as far up as the three star generals were willfully choosing to disregard the intelligence straws in the wind of German action, as the troops they commanded hunkered in the cold, and as massed German troops moved westward toward the designated lines of attack night after night. Things seemed so secure that commanders division level and above were escaping to Paris or to London for Christmas leave.
Atrocity, desertion, abuse of power, failure to think ahead or to contemplate information at odds with preconceptions, neglect of the needs of subordinates, complacency, battle fatigue - those are the realities of the human experience in war. They offer a kind of mirror that not only reflects but exaggerates human failings on smaller stages. All of this is offered in one sobering, disturbing and elegantly written chapter.
It was impossible to read “A Winter Shadow” without a sense of deep gratitude for the men who were stationed along their over-extended lines in the dark wood of the Ardennes in December of 1944. It was impossible to read that chapter without coming to understand their leaders as less than heroic, and more accurately as flawed and human and, in a strange way, to appreciate their achievement more deeply. It was impossible to read that chapter and not to see war as embracing ignominy and farce and corruption and dishonesty as well as parade ground heroism, to see how they are inseparable threads, and to have perhaps a glimmer of understanding as to why so many veterans did not want to speak about that they had experienced. It is to wish that those among our politicians or our punditry who call too easily, too readily for war, could spend a night or two in a foxhole in a winter forest before they make that vote or write that column.