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By Rick Atkinson(A)/Rick Atkinson(N):The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy) [AUDIOBOOK] (Books on Tape) [AUDIO CD] Audio CD – May 14, 2012
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Top Customer Reviews
With so many books and research available about WWII, I don't know that I'd call any one volume (or three in this trilogy's case) truly 'definitive.' However, author Rick Atkinson has provided what the best history does, and that's the motivation to learn even more. As I read this volume, I found myself drawn to do further research into things I'd never heard of - Operation Dragoon in southern France for example - or more details about the landing craft used on D-Day, or more about the mistakes made during the campaign around Antwerp.
This is hardly because Atkinson left out information - his amazingly seamless narrative weaves personal stories of soldiers both high ranking and low, with researched documentation from many sources. Unlike historical accounts that keep the reader "above" the action, he very deftly immerses the reader in the tactical battles as easily as the overall strategy. It's never a 'dry' faceless history - the battered humans on the ground, whether it's Eisenhower or a junior private, are almost always the focus. Occasionally, he will offer a quote from a deceased soldier's letter to give a heartbreaking end to a chapter, reminding the reader of the human cost.
And what a cost. We as a country have grown so spoiled over the last 10 years of war, and expectations of easy victories, that WWII becomes difficult to relate to - friendly fire on D-Day killed hundreds of soldiers. Mistakes made by various generals - especially at Operation Market Garden, and the early days of the Battle of the Bulge - no doubt prolonged the war or put soldiers in impossible positions, costing thousands more.
It's easy to criticize these decisions with hindsight - but Atkinson never criticizes; instead, he lets the documents and testimony do the work, as it should be. It made me appreciate how difficult and frankly, impossible, this war was to manage - and what an beyond amazing job generals like Eisenhower and Montgomery did (and unfortunately, Atkinson details the German generals occasional moments of brilliance - and it's awful to think how hard the Germans fought for such a wretched, awful cause, especially when the war was all but lost, and so many people still had to die).
He provided plenty of information that was fairly new to me, even though other works have covered it. For example, the V-1 and V-2 raids over England I knew about in concept - but the accounts he's provided bring it home in much more detail. I had not known what a morale-killer they were to England at the time. That's just one example of many where Atkinson's research and organization and story-telling skills have told so many 'small' stories within this big one.
The book's back cover describes WWII as the epic struggle of the 20th century, and that's certainly true. To give justice to those soldiers needed an epic story to be told, and Atkinson has done the job. It's as five-star as a book can be.
FURTHER READING: After finishing this book, readers could turn to Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, which takes the reader into Europe's next few years.
Also, I recently read The Liberator: One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau, which is a battalion commander's story within this larger struggle, and of course Eisenhower in War and Peace would be a good additional resource. The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today would complement a lot of Atkinson's discussion about the Montgomery-Eisenhower relationship. Also, Ricks deals with the battlefield relief of generals, and it's interesting to note how many commanders Atkinson mentions are 'fired' for their various failures.
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.