My interest in history began with World War II. After reading some books and watching some documentaries, I decided–in my 9th grade year–that I was going to be a history teacher. I never deviated from that course. For a couple of years, I read extensively on that war and on particular generals and key figures. As the years went by (now decades!), my interests in history broadened, focused on other areas, and expanded way beyond the Second World War. Yet, I still tend to read several books each year on that defining Twentieth Century event.
As great as my interest is in the war, I teach very little about that war. In part, it is because WWII comes along in the history course sequence too near the end of school. Either there is not enough time to do it justice or student interest crashes due to summer vacation’s nearness. There is another hesitation: World War II has become too big for me to teach. I am far from an expert, but I could easily devote a whole semester to dealing with that war and would still likely not get to many of the battles and key people.
I finished reading Volume 3 of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe 1944-1945 last night. I read and reviewed Volume 1, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa 1942-1943, in 2010 (click here). I read and reviewed Volume 2, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944, in 2013 (click here). Finishing the set gave me both a sense of accomplishment and sadness. I rank Atkinson’s books alongside Shelby Foote’s Civil War as must haves and must reads for students of American and military history.
Along with Cornelius Ryan’s older 3 volumes on the European campaign (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and The Last Battle), Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day: June 6, 1944 and Citizen Soldiers, Max Hastings’ Armegeddon, Gregor Dallas’ 1945–The War That Never Ended, and John Toland’s The Last 100 Days, Rick Atkinson’s books pass muster and yeild great rewards for the reader.
When I was really young, World War II stories left me saying, “Wow!” Now, they leave me saying, “How?” I am not simply using a silly rhyme, rather I am reflecting on the unbelievable nature of that war. I cannot answer the question of HOW men endured, faced, and even triumphed over the magnitude of death, destruction, danger, and evils in that war. Since I grew up around World War II vets, I feel the great gap between the way they rose to the challenges of their time and the inability I would have in their places.
On several occasions, Atkinson rattles off lists of supplies. The sheer cost of the war, the amount of stuff that was made, shipped, unloaded, and used is astounding. Bullets and cigarettes, tanks and shoes, trucks and eggs, maps and bandages were mass produced to supply the American, and in some situations, the British and French armies. In many places, descriptions are given of multiple tons of bombs being dropped on cities or strongholds. Add the artillery shelling to the bombing. You wonder if reading the book is going to damage your hearing.
Two main questions kept running through my mind while reading the book: How did the Allies win? And, how did Germany keep fighting for so long? Starting with the Normandy invasion, which is in the first part of the book, there were paratroopers who landed in the wrong places, unexpectedly strong defenses and obstacles at many of the landing beaches, bad weather before the invasion, and miscalculations and blunders by leaders at all levels. But Normandy ranks as one of the great victories of all times. Warfare involves intricate planning that then turns into a series of recalculations and adjustments when the shooting begins. It was the immensity of the forces that enabled the Allies to cling to the beaches and begin expanding the beachheads. Add to that, no, put in front of that, the sheer pluck, bravery, and dedication of those who jumped off those landing crafts and began trudging up through the water, mines, and dead bodies–all the while being under intense fire–to take the heights.
Lots of studies have examined Allied deceptions (which succeeded), the first days of the landing, the near impossible achievements, the sufferings of the French villagers, and the German defenses. Thankfully, the two incredibly apt German commanders, Von Rundstedt and Rommel, were both hindered by Hitler’s orders. Thankfully, some of the German forces were sub-par. (Actually, some were Russians who had been forced into serving in the Wermacht.) Thankfully, the Allies largely controlled the air.
Any alternative “what if” speculations about Normandy are frightening to consider. It is hard to imagine how the war would have gone if Normandy had failed. While the Allies knew it was not a sure thing, they ruled out failure as an option. But the next great obstacle came after the beaches were secured. For the first month or so, the war in Normandy turned into a trench by trench, hedgerow by hedgerow war of little movement. It resembled the near stationary conditions of much of World War I. The Allies could have won a war of attrition, especially since the Russians were chewing up German armies on the eastern front, but it would have taken a lot longer and cost more lives.
The Allied breakout, Operation Cobra, led to a reverse of the German blitzkrieg in France in 1940. Allied armies swept across the nation and sent the German army into retreat. Some time later, the second French landing, this one in southern France, took place. That campaign is often largely overlooked. The American general in charge there, Lucian Truscott, is not usually given adequate attention and praise.
It was not long until the war shifted from both the northern and southern beachheads in France to the eastern border of France. Germany suffered a major defeat in the first months following D-Day. The Allied armies quickly locked together in a line relatively close to the border of Germany. Talk began emerging–from soldiers in the trenches to the high command–of the war ending by Christmas of 1944.
It didn’t happen. Germany was wounded, but not killed. The time from about October of 1944 to the spring of 1945 is one of the most difficult periods to read about. Germany’s defenses and refusal to yeild ground was intense. Meanwhile, the Allies fought all manner of internal battles. Keeping the armies supplied, with gasoline for the everything motorized, winter uniforms (no proper planning had been done for this), and other needs was overwhelming due to the sheer logistics of getting materials from the U.S., having working ports to receive the supplies, and then getting them to the front.
Although the American army had expanded by this point to many millions of soldiers, there were often not enough men, not enough training for the men, and not enough time for replacements troops to be brought up. While we often think that the American army was largely made up of riflemen, there was actually a shortage of men trained and ready to do that most critical, dangerous, and necessary task in battle.
Even more potentially damaging than the shortages were the personality conflicts. High marks are often given, as deservedly so, for General Eisenhower’s ability to keep both the Allied coalition together and keep his own generals on track. The worst offenders were the French. General DeGaulle, as well as the other French generals, were determined to offset the shame of France’s defeat in 1940. They depended on the good graces and material supplies from the United States and Britain, yet they balked and complained and often threatened to go their own way. They were, in short, rather insufferable.
British General Bernard Montgomery was another thorn in Ike’s side. Eisenhower said of him, “…a good man to serve under, a difficult man to serve with, and an impossible man to serve over.” None of that is to imply that the American generals were without fault or that Eisenhower’s judgment was impeccable. It is amazing that Eisenhower, with all the stresses he endured along with the millions of cigarettes he smoked, was able to live through the war and go on to serve in many capacities for about 25 years beyond World War II.
Time forbids exploring the last 6 months of the war. To hasten through the events:
1. The Ardennes Offensive, often called the Battle of the Bulge, was an intelligence disaster, but a long-term benefit to the Allied victory.
2. The Yalta Conference, not a pleasant topic for political conservatives like me, was a complex matter. “What should have been done there and in the immediate post-war world” differs from “what realistically could be done.”
3. The capture of the standing bridge at Remagen and the crossing of the Rhine River ranks as one of the great battles in history.
4. The revelations of the Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps was then and continues to be one of the most compelling reasons why this war to exterminate Naziism was so vital.
5. Even in the last month of so of the war, when German soldiers were surrendering by the thousands and the war was basically won, 11,000 American soldiers died in Europe.
One last major point: While I read this book, I was more consciously aware of an uncle of mine, Clebert Moles, who was with the American army from Normandy to the end of the war. I knew him as a man who suffered from many internal and externals battles, but I knew nothing of what preceded and largely caused his life struggles. This book reminded me that he, along with countless others, who were killed, wounded, and scarred by the war, were heroic.
A minor point: I am a stickler for nice hardback books, dust jackets included, and I handle my books like fine China. But I discovered that my copy of this book is coming apart with a major break in the binding. Alas, I will have to procure a replacement.
A final point: Rick Atkinson’s next project is a 3 volume set on the American War for Independence.