The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson, is the third volume in his Liberation Trilogy. Begun in 2002 with the release of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and followed by (after his 2004 digression In the Company of Soldiers that told the story of the 101st Airborne in Operation Iraqi Freedom) The Day of Battle in 2007 about the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, Atkinson has now completed his epic account of World War II in Africa and Europe.
And what an account it is! Sweeping in scope, Shakespearean in drama and angst, unsparing in its observations, and rich in detail, with a narrative totaling 641 pages, The Guns at Last Light is the largest of the three books. As might be expected of what is arguably the most written about period in the war, there are few surprises.
But the trilogy’s emphasis has been not so much on the “what” as it is on the “how” – how the Allies maintained unity when cultural differences and cross-purpose national self-interests threatened to sunder the coalition.
As in the preceding two volumes, Atkinson’s narrative is enlivened by all manner of details, ranging from the illuminating to the bizarre. A good example of the former is his account of a September 1944 meeting at the height of the supply crisis between Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and Hodges, where Patton offered to stake his reputation on the Third Army’s ability to reach the Rhine. Previous accounts have Eisenhower’s response, “That reputation of yours hasn’t been worth very much,” delivered as a rebuke and Patton taking umbrage. Atkinson reveals that Eisenhower said the line with a good-natured smile, causing Patton to laugh. As for the bizarre, he came up with a doozy: that Patton’s wife, Beatrice, once tried to get a clipper ship tattoo on her chest.
More importantly, Atkinson offers additional details of the stormy (to put it mildly) Eisenhower/Montgomery relationship. Though he doesn’t say so outright, Atkinson makes a good case for Montgomery being the Allies’ luckiest general – not on the battlefield, but at SHAEF headquarters. It is hard to imagine Gen. George Marshall, originally slated to be Overlord’s commander, putting up with Monty’s increasingly outrageous behavior the way Eisenhower did.
The cracks in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s pedestal, too, are widened. Difficult to deal with even in the best of times, Atkinson shows how impossible Churchill became as Britain’s declining resources increasingly marginalized his influence.
The French get their knocks as well. When not fighting with their fellow Allies, they’re (not surprisingly) fighting each other. Atkinson masterfully recounts the confusing, infuriating, and, at times literally fatal, infighting that permeated French political and military life.
The Guns at Last Light contains one of the more complete – and overdue – accounts of SHAEF’s G-4, the Communications Zone (COMZ), and its commanding officer Lt. Gen. J.C.H. Lee. Strictly speaking, COMZ was not a failure; after all, the Allies did win. But Atkinson reveals how, through self-interest, mismanagement, and occasional outright incompetence, COMZ gave battlefield generals one headache after another and, during the fall and winter of 1944-45, significantly added to the misery of the frontline troops.
While politicians and generals bickered and verbally battled, the war that uprooted peoples and devastated a continent was being fought by men whose ambitions were focused on food (hopefully hot, often not), mail, and staying alive. It is in telling the stories of the frontline troops that Atkinson delivers some of the most moving passages in the book. Atkinson said that he wrote the trilogy as an effort to tell their story “vividly and authoritatively, to current and future generations.” That he has.