The Guns at Last Light – Book Review
Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light covers the last year of the Second World War in Europe. As with his preceding two volumes, the Pulitzer Prize–winning An Army at Dawn and Day of Battle, it is organized into four parts, bookended by a Prologue and an Epilogue: Part 1 covers the Allied landings in Normandy to the liberation of Paris; Part 2 encompasses the Allied drive across France to their arrival on the German frontier; Part 3 centers on the Battle of the Bulge; and Part 4 begins with the Yalta conference and ends with the ultimate collapse of Germany. In this final volume, Atkinson tells the story in a comprehensive and readable fashion; in concluding his Liberation Trilogy on the American involvement in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), he weaves in individual, “tip of the spear” perspectives of individual soldiers, sailors, and airmen with the viewpoints of the generals and the political leaders arguing over strategies and resources. The individual parts fit together into a seamless whole.
The narrative starts in England, which was in its fifth year of the war. The privations and ongoing suffering of the British people is juxtaposed with the growing anticipation of the imminent return to Europe. Despite the alliance, American and British grated on each other, from things as mundane as pay disparities between American and British soldiers to the British disdain for Americans’ desire for a direct “iron mongering” approach to confronting the Germans head-on. Some Americans claimed this British dilatoriness led to the eighteen months of campaigning in the Mediterranean instead of a direct assault on France that only now, in the spring of 1944, seemed imminent. The friction of this inter-Allied squabbling was much forestalled by one man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose grand leadership role as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) commander was not to be that of “a Great Captain, a commander with the ability to see the field both spatially and temporarily.” Rather, what Eisenhower was perceived is described by British field marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff as:
No real director of thought, plans, energy, or direction! Just a coordinator – a good mixer, a champion of inter-allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him.
Eisenhower’s greatest achievement was keeping a lid on the internecine warfare and skillfully keeping the Allied forces directed toward their ultimate goal; where he could be faulted lay in not focusing on the details and relying on subordinates at critical moments. On the eve of the landing at Normandy, British pessimism was perhaps more accurate, as British manpower was reaching its limit. British Evetts’ Rates—formulas used to estimate casualties—expected “Double-Intense” combat, with up to 40% of the assault force being depleted; this was equivalent to the 1916 Somme offensive of World War I. The optimistic Americans, using their own model, estimated 25%. Atkinson does note that American forecasts models were fatally flawed and under-predicted infantry casualties, leading to a shortfall of American rifleman in the late fall of 1944.
Although criticized for not being bolder or listening to his subordinates, Eisenhower’s decisions are clearer when viewed in the light of alliance politics. Part of the decision to launch campaigns like Market-Garden can be seen in the need to alleviate the pressure on the British home front. Clearing the V-1 and V-2 launch sites, which had begun to terrorize Britain in 1944, was important; Britain had suffered over 50,000 civilian deaths from air raids and even more were possible with the continuing threat of buzz bombs and the more unstoppable V-2s. In the aftermath of Market-Garden, the need to prioritize supplies to Montgomery’s British and Canadian forces to clear the sea approaches to Antwerp were driven by logistical needs that were already crippling the Allied forces’ ability to sustain offensive action. One little-known story is the greater vulnerability of Antwerp to German V-Weapons. At sea level, the city had no subway tunnels or deep cellars for sheltering against aerial bombardment. The need to open up that deep harbor port to Allied shipping was even more pressing as American Liberty ships were not being unloaded quickly and returned to the United States in some cases without fully loading for the return trip. Steps such as awarding Bronze Stars to unloading crews could not alleviate the situation completely.
In other areas, Eisenhower could have taken more decisive steps, from reining in the profligate luxury and lack of focus on combat logistics of the Supply Services chief, Lt. Gen. John C.H. “Court House” Lee. An inveterate self-promoter, Lee commandeered (against Eisenhower’s orders) 315 Parisian hotels and 3,000 additional properties, and he travelled with a 40-person entourage, which included a chiropractor and a publicist. Renamed Communications Zone (COMZ), the Supply Services was a sizeable force and “now comprised half a million troops, or one in every four GIs on the Continent.” The famed Red Ball Express which carried supplies from the Normandy beaches to the front line is seen as being overly wasteful of gasoline and vehicles, “[burning] more than 300,000 gallons of gasoline a day, as much as three armored divisions in combat … [and three quarters of the vehicles] ‘deadlined’ and useless in Europe in the fall of 1944 [were trucks] littering French byways.” The Red Ball units were better known as Truck-Destroyer battalions.
On the military front, Eisenhower’s desire to be accommodating was a potential weakness, as “he was reluctant to intrude on subordinate prerogatives.” Allowing First Army Commander Courtney Hodges to trickle in divisions into the inhospitable Hurtgen Forest in a futile offensive is not examined in detail, but it could be contrasted with Eisenhower’s earlier relief of General Lloyd Fredendall in Tunisia, whose status as a protégé of General George Marshall, Eisenhower’s superior, initially shielded him—just as that relationship also protected Court House Lee.
As the Allied forces converge on Germany, Atkinson helps explain the total war effort undertaken by the United States, from the airmen who continued to bomb Germany—nicknamed “the Land of Doom” throughout 1944 and into 1945—to the men on the ground as they fought forward into the heart of the Third Reich. The book’s battle descriptions tell the story from all perspectives, including that of the German forces waging their desperate defense against the Russians who met the Western Allies along the Elbe. One telling statistic is that the 135,576 American dead in Europe in the last year of the war were almost half of the U.S. total worldwide. Atkinson concludes this book with a description of the final return of personal effects and bodies of American soldiers to their families. He notes that by late 2014, one million American veterans remain alive; that will drop to below a hundred thousand by 2024.
Atkinson examines the viewpoints of well-recognized major military and political leaders such as Eisenhower, Patton and Roosevelt and provides quotes from these leaders; more numerous, however, are the poignant observations he intersperses from individuals whose role in the war never brought them fame. In doing so, he brings names and faces to what often are just sanitized movement of lines across a map. The final fate of the individuals can sometimes be deduced from the context of the quote. Carefully culled from archived letters, newspapers, and oral interviews, these individual vignettes are often heart wrenching. Unfortunately, readers will often have to puzzle out for themselves what original source document a specific quotation was taken from. While extensively annotated—bibliography, footnotes, and index comprise 235 of the 877 pages—the book uses blind endnotes that, while making the text more readable, are marred by the absence of page numbers above each set of citations. Providing those page numbers would have eased the cross-referencing of quotations to source materials.
The Guns at Last Light is a fitting conclusion to the World War II trilogy. This book and its accompanying volumes are a definitive account of the American experience in the Second War in Europe. It will appeal to anyone looking to understand not just the grand advances of the Allied forces, but the human side of war, from the psychology and weighing of competing priorities needed to lead an alliance, to the tremendous physical and spiritual costs incurred not just by the soldiers but by their families and friends. A lesson for future supreme commanders is the ongoing need to weigh priorities and make hard decisions. What should always be kept in mind is that the lines moving across the maps are the result of expenditures of human lives and psyches. Even if you are well read on the ETO, this volume will provide deeper insight into the war as you see its outcome created by the sum of its parts. Rick Atkinson’s account provides the definitive account of the Western Front in Europe during the Second World War. More information and additional material can be found at the site: http://liberationtrilogy.com.
Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.