The Guns at Last Light

The War in Western Europe, 1944-45
Volume Three of the Liberation Trilogy

By Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt, 896 pp. $38

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

Rick Atkinson opens The Guns at Last Light with a stirring set piece.

The Allied generals are meeting to put the finishing touches on Operation Overlord, the June 6, 1944, invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Here is the 53-year-old Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "a man at peace with his soul" but also a man with "high blood pressure, chronic headaches, and ringing in one ear" who smoked 80 Camels a day.

Without his usual grin, he implores his staff: "I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan not to hesitate to say so."

Here is British Field Marshal Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, "a wiry, elfin figure" with a narrow, foxlike face "in immaculate battle dress," popping to his feet, "pointer in hand."

And here is Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., "a ruddy, truculent American Mars," swaggering into the meeting decked out dazzlingly in Savile Row overcoat, trousers and boots.

These are a few of the principal players in Atkinson's great historical drama, which takes us from bloody Omaha Beach in Normandy, to the liberation of Paris, the disastrous Market Garden operation, the brutal, touch-and-go Battle of the Bulge, and ultimately, victory at the gates of Berlin.

The Guns at Last Light - a sweeping, prodigiously researched epic - is the concluding volume of a masterly best-selling trilogy that began with An Army at Dawn (2002), winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and The Day of Battle (2007).

The present volume, like the other two, contains dramatis personae from all sides of the conflict - British, German, French, Canadian, Polish, and, mainly, American generals and common soldiers. Atkinson uses excerpts from their journals, diaries, and letters to vividly animate the narrative.

Atkinson, former senior editor at the Washington Post and also author of books on West Point and the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars, manages to shoehorn seemingly every available fact into his story, yet never deadens the brisk narrative flow. The action always keeps the story moving.

The reality of the Normandy invasion was horrifying. Paratroopers of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions experienced heavy flak over France's Cotentin Peninsula. Planes were hit, spilling soldiers into the night, while others "hurtled earthward beneath burning shreds of silk . . . . Men hit the ground with a sound like 'watermelons falling off the back of a truck.' " Others sank into brackish graves in unexpected flooded swamps.

On Omaha Beach, machine-gun bullets flew "like wind-driven hail," a sergeant recalls. And as the Allies eventually moved off the beaches and inland, the savagery, as expected, only became worse.

On the German side, Adolph Hitler "looked like a man . . . losing a war," , Atkinson writes: "eyes bloodshot and puffy from insomnia, skin sallow, the . . . mustache a bit bedraggled." But, the author tells us, Hitler had tricks up his sleeve: jet planes and V-1 rockets. Though jets didn't play much of a role in the war, the V-1, "a flying torpedo, twenty-five feet long with stubby wings and a one-ton warhead . . . could cross the English coast twenty minutes after launch" and do enormous damage. The author informs us that approximately 2,400 V-1s hit greater London, killing 6,000 people and badly injuring 18,000.

Atkinson chronicles the Allies' steady march across Europe, even as their generals - Eisenhower, Montgomery, Patton, Omar N. Bradley - bickered frequently over strategy. But he also provides us tidbits about many less important, yet memorable, events.

The author recounts how sea mines prevented Prime Minister Winston Churchill from joining French forces as they invaded the Riviera in August, 1944. Forced to stay in his cabin, reading a novel, Churchill wrote on the flyleaf, "this is a lot more exciting than the invasion of Southern France."

Atkinson relates how Gen. Charles de Gaulle, now leader of a newly liberated Free France, prayed amid a cowering congregation in Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral as snipers' "shots reverberated through the nave." And how Ernest Hemingway, pulling up to the Ritz Hotel during Paris' liberation with two truckloads of French irregulars, ordered dry martinis for everybody - 73 in all.

A very low point in the story is the Allied liberation in April 1945 of the Nazi death camps such as Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, and the even more horrifying Buchenwald, the very epitome of systematic mass murder.

The Guns at Last Light is a definitive, heartfelt work of grandeur, atrocity, and profound sorrow. It is also, along with the two previous volumes, a long, fervent prayer for the fallen.