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The Guns at Last Light

Is there really anything more to be said about World War II? The third volume of Rick Atkinson's 'Liberation Trilogy' proves that there is.

By Terry Hartle / May 14, 2013

The Guns at Last Light By Rick Atkinson Holt, Henry & Company 896 pp.

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Journalist Rick Atkinson has spent the last 15 years writing the history of the American army in the European theater during World War II. The result is a three-volume series called “The Liberation Trilogy.” In “An Army at Dawn,” he described the invasion of North Africa and won a Pulitzer Prize. “The Day of Battle” focuses on the war in Sicily and Italy. With The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson brings the project to a close by analyzing the war in western Europe from D-Day to VE Day.

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This is a well-ploughed field. A number of first-rate historians – Cornelius Ryan, Steven Ambrose, Martin Gilbert, Max Hastings, and Anthony Beevor all come to mind – have examined individual battles or the entire European campaign in detail. And, given all that has been written before, it’s reasonable to ask whether an additional book can shed much new light on this topic. Atkinson’s latest volume answers that question affirmatively and decisively. 

The basic story is familiar: The complex and bloody invasion in Normandy and the difficulty of fighting through the hedgerows. Operation Dragoon and the invasion of southern France. The disastrous effort to capture a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The brutal and bloody fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. The Battle of the Bulge. Jumping the Rhine at Remagen and, ultimately, Germany’s swift collapse. 

As with the earlier volumes, “The Guns at Last Light” moves seamlessly between broad issues of strategies and the tactics employed by Allied and German armies and the fighting as experienced by individual soldiers. No military history can succeed unless the author clearly describes how the battles were planned and executed and the impact each engagement had on the broader conflict. Aided by a large number of exceptionally clear and detailed maps, Atkinson does this exceptionally well. 

But it’s not just the battles that matter. For example, Atkinson underscores the importance of logistics and supply. By late 1944, the Allies had largely won the Battle of the Atlantic and could move men and equipment across the ocean with ease. But they had exceptional difficulty getting the ships unloaded and getting the materiel to the troops in a timely fashion. These delays often disrupted military plans. For the Germans, the issue was largely oil – they couldn’t get enough of it to adequately fuel their armored divisions and they too were forced to design battle plans around supply chains. More than once, readers will be reminded of the old aphorism that “logistics win wars.”

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