The 'Majestic Sweep' of a Brilliant Volume on World War II

By Nelson, Harold W. | Army, May 2013 | Go to article overview

The 'Majestic Sweep' of a Brilliant Volume on World War II


Nelson, Harold W., Army


The 'Majestic Sweep' Of a Brilliant Volume on World War II The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. Rick Atkinson. Henry Holt and Company. 896 pages; black-and-white photographs; maps; $38. Publisher's website: www. henryholt.com.

In his prologue to An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson wrote, "The liberation of Western Europe is a triptych, each panel informing the others: First, North Africa; then, Italy; and finally the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent campaigns across France, the Low Countries, and Germany." This insight shaped his work for more than a decade, producing three brilliant volumes. An Army at Dawn describes the war in North Africa and won a Pulitzer Prize. The Day of Battle covers the war in Sicily and Italy. The Guns at Last Light, the third book in the series, continues the action from Normandy to V-E Day. Each volume is characterized by superb research and fine writing. The high standard set in the prologue to the first volume carries through the epilogue to the last.

Atkinson's mastery of his sources is one of the book's more appealing characteristics. He relies largely on official documents, letters, diaries, contemporary journalism and secondary sources to provide useful, interesting and compelling detail without hampering the flow of the narrative. This helps the reader identify with the challenges facing senior leaders without losing track of the courage and sacrifices of soldiers at the front. The framework is chronological, and the U.S. Army is the centerpiece of the action.

Atkinson served as an embedded journalist with combat units in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, so he is able to address the realities of modern warfare candidly. Reflecting on one successful Allied operation, he writes, "Rarely in war did success and sorrow exclude one another from the battlefield." This sentiment will resonate with any veteran. His trilogy begins where most Army staff rides end - in a military cemetery - and he never overlooks the cost of victory.

He does not, however, measure that cost solely in the blood of soldiers. He reminds us that the strain of decision making in a long, intense war places immense burdens on leaders at every level as they struggle to achieve decisive results with minimal loss of blood and treasure. We see mis most clearly in the senior Army leaders who are on the team throughout the trilogy, especially Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton Jr. and Omar Bradley but also leaders in the 1st Infantry Division and other units.

Atkinson is sympathetic to Eisenhower and his 'broad front' operational concept, writing:

He would never be a Great Captain, and perhaps his war had grown too big for such an archaic figure. Eisenhower was romantic enough to regret this failing: a lifelong admirer of Hannibal, he privately hoped that a double envelopment of the Ruhr would echo the Carthaginian destruction of the Romans at Cannae. He had long recognized that his task was not to be a field marshal, but rather to orchestrate a fractious multinational coalition, to be 'chairman of the board' - the phrase was his - of the largest martial enterprise on earth.

Much later in the book, writing about the ultimate success in closing the Ruhr pocket after many disagreements with Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, Atkinson might have reflected on that hoped-for Cannae. He noted that the encirclement yielded 323,000 prisoners of war - more than taken at the attacks on Stalingrad or Tunis. Decisive results that could be achieved in one day in the third century B.C. might be months or years in the making by the 20th century - especially if a great nation went to war with an Army that had wasted away to nearly nothing after its last big battles. …

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