- - Monday, June 3, 2013

By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt, $40, 877 pages, illustrated

Nearly seven decades have passed since the close of World War II, yet appreciation of its horrors seems to increase as time passes. More than 50 million people are estimated to have died from 1939 through 1945, 20 million of them in Russia. The extent of destruction and sacrifice that the war engendered remains difficult to comprehend.

The trench warfare of World War I had brought home the brutality of modern war. Yet a person not serving in his country’s forces was likely to have emerged unscathed from those war years. In contrast, the emergence of area bombing in the second war put civilians at as much at risk as soldiers.

Rick Atkinson, the author of two highly regarded studies of World War II in North Africa and Italy, has now capped his trilogy with a detailed examination of the war’s final year. This holds certain perils, for the war in Europe has been extensively examined by other historians. Yet few have written in such detail as Mr. Atkinson, whose latest work runs nearly 900 pages and includes excellent maps.

According to the author, the typical GI in the European theater was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 144 pounds. “A man could be drafted if he had only one eye, or was completely deaf in one ear or was missing a thumb or three fingers on either hand, including a trigger finger.” On D-Day, the average rifleman’s combat load was 68 pounds.

This American soldier lacked the combat experience of his German counterpart, and operated at the end of a supply line that began back in America. His weapons were rarely as modern as those of the enemy. But over time, quantity came to trump quality and, what is more important, an American soldier held the moral high ground. The fundamental evil of the Nazi cause was not open to question.

A reconquest of Europe, however, was a daunting task. The same English Channel that had protected Britain in 1940 was now a formidable barrier to be overcome. The British, including Winston Churchill, had doubts about the fighting qualities of the largely unbloodied Americans. As related by Mr. Atkinson, D-Day was a close-run thing, an operation in which the Allies prevailed in part because Hitler refused to commit units that he believed were required to defend against a presumed second Allied invasion.

If D-Day was confused, what of the ill-conceived airborne offensive of Holland? Worn down by having to veto Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s proposed offensives, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower consented to an ill-conceived British proposal, code-named Market-Garden, to occupy a sliver of Holland as far north as Arnhem, and thereby to outflank the Siegfried Line. According to Mr. Atkinson, “Montgomery’s senior staff officers almost to a man voiced skepticism about Market-Garden,” but Ike declined to interfere. The result was a bloody setback for the Anglo-American forces.

So what of the Allied leadership? In the first volume of his trilogy, Mr. Atkinson found Eisenhower lacking in the qualities required of an army commander in North Africa. Yet Ike “grew” in his job. In terms of strategy, Eisenhower insisted on a broad advance across Europe, despite constant harassment from Montgomery, who favored a single, and highly vulnerable, thrust into Germany. Ike held together a fragile coalition of allies that had in common little more than a shared hostility toward Hitler’s Germany.

The author has few kind words for Ike’s senior subordinates. Montgomery was unspeakable. Gen. Omar Bradley was promoted beyond his capabilities. Gen. George S. Patton, for all his energy, initiated a failed attempt to free American prisoners held by the Germans because the prisoners included Patton’s son-in-law. The leader of Market-Garden, Lt. Gen. Frederick “Boy” Browning, was a socially prominent “popinjay” who had seen no combat action in World War II.

But Mr. Atkinson reserves his harshest verdicts for two Americans, Lt. Gen. J.C.H. Lee and Gen. Courtney Hodges. The former, who was Eisenhower’s senior logistician, lived in Paris in vulgar splendor but could not be bothered to obtain winter clothing for American soldiers. Elsewhere, the author holds Hodges responsible for a series of costly assaults against entrenched German forces in the Hurtgen Forest.

Mr. Atkinson does not provide fresh insights into key strategic decisions, but he does provide interesting details. The German forces defending Normandy, for instance, were dependent for transport on 87,000 horses. After the Germans evacuated Paris, the British requisitioned 12 hotels, the Canadians two and the Americans more than 300.

The author brings to his work a gift for apt quotation. Bullets puncturing the skin of an American glider reminded one officer of “typewriter keys banging on loose paper.” German machine guns suggested to another GI “a venetian blind being lifted up rapidly.” At Omaha Beach, one solder advanced “dragging my unwilling soul with me.”

The author himself provides vivid images of war. In London, German rockets “sucked workers from office windows, incinerated mothers in grocery stores, and butchered pensioners on park benches.” Bombs “entombed men in their trenches, or split them open like deer carcasses.”

If Mr. Atkinson has heroes, they are quiet heroes. He quotes Lt. Gen. James Gavin to the effect that “courage for every man is like a bank account” that must not be overdrawn. The people the author seems most to admire are the junior officers who led their companies in one final push, and the airmen who flew “extra” missions into German flak.

“The Guns at Last Light” is an important addition to the World War II bookshelf.

Historian John M. Taylor’s books include “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).

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