In “The Guns at Last Light,” Rick Atkinson tackles a story that has attracted historians for decades, from Cornelius Ryan on: the Allied victory in Western Europe. But rather than focus on a piece, he tackles it all, from D-Day in June 1944 to the Nazi surrender in May 1945, in one sweeping volume.
It’s an ambitious task, and Atkinson, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is up to it. The book is impressively researched — his notes alone take up more than 150 pages at the end of the book — and energetically written, with a brisk pace that carries the reader easily through the narrative’s 600-plus pages.
It’s a capstone for Atkinson’s World War II trilogy, 14 years in the making, also including the Pulitzer-winning “An Army at Dawn,” the story of the war in North Africa, and “The Day of Battle,” about the Allies’ invasion of Italy.
Atkinson’s books don’t dwell much on the geopolitics of war. He’s more interested in telling stories about people, stories large and small, from the foxholes on the front lines to the generals’ war rooms.
His most detailed portraits are of those generals. He paints an especially human picture of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a man who, Atkinson says, “seemed transparent and simple but was neither.” Eisenhower’s health suffered as he juggled the demands of his job as supreme commander, or, as he called it, “chairman of the board,” making almost no one happy — until the final victory.
One of Eisenhower’s effective moves was the controversial decision during the Battle of the Bulge to put two American armies under the command of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Atkinson gets beyond Montgomery’s cartoon image — petulant, egotistical and politically tone-deaf — showing him also as a gifted tactician who deserves much credit for the victory at Normandy.
A key to victory was the Allies’ superiority in war materials, not just in quantity but in how they used new technology. Germany’s V-1 and V-2 missiles terrorized civilians but had little impact on the battlefield. The Allies introduced the first proximity-fuze artillery shells with devastating effect.
“The Guns at Last Light” is filled with anecdotes that stay with you: Lt. Gen. George Patton’s ill-conceived and ill-fated attempt to liberate a German POW camp that held his son-in-law; a crowded theater in Antwerp destroyed by a direct hit from a V-2; the slaughter of dozens of U.S. prisoners by a German SS unit near Malmedy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
That is a theme that Atkinson returns to in all three books: War is a time of great deeds, but also many horrifying ones. The book is peppered with the killings of soldiers trying to surrender — killing not just by the Nazis, but by U.S. troops. You’ll never use the phrase “take no prisoners” lightly again.
Casey Common is a Star Tribune copy editor.