Book Review: The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy)

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by Rick Atkinson

New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2013. Pp. xviii, 878. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0805062904


 

Covering the Second World War in northwestern Europe from D-Day to VE-Day, The Guns at Last Light is an excellent end to Rick Atkinson’s outstanding “Liberation Trilogy,” which began with An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.  This volume definitely does not disappoint the reader, from its prodigious prologue onward it keeps you enthralled until the very last page, as Atkinson successfully grabs the reader’s attention with his well sculptured prose and depth of detail.  He includes just the right mix of personal combat stories and tactical/strategic overview to produce a rich mosaic that keeps the reader immerse in the gigantic struggle that was the battle for Europe from Normandy to deep into the heart of Germany.

It is not a difficult task for historians to analyze and critique the actions of World War II commanders from decades of distance.  Atkinson does not do this; he presents the events sprinkled with personal testimony and documentary sources, and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions.  Monty, Patton, Ike, Bradley and many more “great commanders” of the war are presented in such a manner that the reader will be left pondering their place in the war, yet Atkinson does not forget the common soldier on both sides and the gut wrenching actions they had to take to execute their commander’s desires.  The home front is not neglected and his inclusion of a pregnant wife’s letter to her deceased husband is both touching and poignant.  Another oft neglected theater is Southern France and it was pleasing to see Atkinson give it due justice.  He weaves a description of battles and campaigns that clearly places the participants and events in perspective.  

Atkinson’s description of the Yalta conference is enthralling, shedding new light on the relationship between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin and on the stark conditions in that region of the world.  The small details that he weaves into this meeting of the three great powers add to the drama and magnitude of the event.

The Guns at Last Light   is an excellent finale to Rick Atkinson’s outstanding “Liberation Trilogy,” which began with An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.  The volume does not disappoint, from its prodigious prologue onward it keeps the reader enthralled until the last page.  Atkinson grabs the reader’s attention with his well sculptured prose and depth of detail.  He uses just the right mix of personal combat stories and tactical/strategic overview to produce a rich mosaic that keeps the reader immerse in the gigantic struggle that was the battle for Europe from Normandy to deep into the heart of Germany.

It’s not difficult for historians to analyze and critique the actions of World War II commanders from decades of distance.  Atkinson does not do this; he presents the events sprinkled with personal testimony and documentary sources, and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions.  Monty, Patton, Ike, Bradley and many more “great commanders” of the war are presented in such a manner that the reader will be left pondering their place in the war, yet Atkinson does not forget the common soldier on both sides and the gut wrenching actions they had to take to execute their commander’s desires.  The home front is not neglected and his inclusion of a pregnant wife’s letter to her deceased husband is both touching and poignant.  Another oft neglected theater is Southern France and it was pleasing to see Atkinson give it due justice.  He weaves a description of battles and campaigns that clearly places the participants and events in perspective. 

Atkinson’s description of the Yalta conference is enthralling, shedding new light on the relationship between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin and on the stark conditions in that region of the world.  The small details that he weaves into this meeting of the three great powers add to the drama and magnitude of the event. 

One of this reviewer’s pet peeves about many military works is that they neglect to provide adequate maps.  Thankfully, Atkinson is not in that group.  His numerous maps are well constructed and I found myself referring to them often.   Atkinson’s use of statistics is crisp and precise and helps the reader understand the scope of the campaign in new ways.  His bibliography and endnotes are extensive and he does not neglect to draw upon those who have gone before, yet his presentation is new, crisp, and invigorating.  The Epilogue is a magnificent example of a writing style that deserves all the accolades that are heaped upon Mr. Atkinson and should be studied by anyone wishing to be a master wordsmith.

Guns at Last Light  is a fitting conclusion to a trilogy that must be on the shelf of any historian or World War II buff.  It is time, in this writer’s opinion, for Rick Atkinson to add his deft touch to the panorama that was the Pacific War.

~~~~~~~~~ 
Our Reviewer: Bill Speer is a graduate of  the Pennsylvania Military College (formerly the Delaware Military Academy and now Widener University).  A long-time instructor in history at American Military University, he has written for the Office of Signal Corps History and North & South, among others.  Speer is the author of the series  From Broomsticks To Battlefields, dealing with PMC alumni in the Civil War, among them From Broomsticks To Battlefields: After the Battle, The Story of Henry Clay Robinett, who held “Battery Robinett” at Corinth, and the forthcoming Harum-Scarum: The Story of David Vickers Jr.    His earlier reviewed  Animals at War: Studies of Europe and North America  for StrategyPage

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Reviewer: Bill Speer   


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