After five years of war, the battered cities and towns of Great Britain, frayed but unbroken, took on a dingy sameness. They smelled of coal smoke and infrequent bathing, while “privation lay on the land like another odor.” Shortages of food and the simplest tools of everyday life, from shoelaces to lemons to bed linens and artificial teeth, oppressed a civilian population bowed beneath the threat of German bombing, though no longer fearful of invasion.
Into this threadbare land poured thousands of well-supplied Americans. With their allies, they were about to write the final, defining chapter of Europe’s second bloody 20th-century civil war. Their latest chronicler is Rick Atkinson, who retells this familiar story in compelling, at times poetic, language. This is the third and final installment of the author’s Liberation Trilogy, the earlier volumes of which followed the American Army through North Africa and Italy.
Atkinson’s prologue displays his mastery of the set-piece historical scene. In it we see a confident Dwight Eisenhower at St. Paul’s School in London on May 15, 1944, addressing a great convocation of Allied generals and admirals. In the presence of Winston Churchill and George VI, Ike limned the contours of Operation Overlord with the aid of a giant plaster relief map of Normandy. That pastoral countryside would soon host the outcome of months of complex planning designed to pry Western Europe from Hitler’s grasp. Two weeks later, the supreme Allied commander took up his invasion post at Southwick House near Portsmouth. There, a panoramic view unfolded as a multitude of ships weighed anchor and joined thousands of others steaming from every British port, a “great effluent of liberation,” bound for 10 lanes swept clear of mines across the Channel, two each for the landing beaches whose names would soon be on the lips of people everywhere: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword.
On Omaha Beach, D-Day sowed widespread confusion, misdirection, blood, and death. For American soldiers of the 29th and 1st Divisions, who were pinned to the wide shingle dominated by cliffs studded with German MG-42s—the machine gun called “Hitler’s zipper” because of its fantastic rate of fire—any thoughts of victory seemed foolish when their very survival was in doubt. Slowly, the weight of Allied metal flung at the shore began to tell. Even more, the mettle of individual men here and there on the strand allowed them to find ways to move inland and surmount the carnage and disarray that very nearly lost the day. Erwin Rommel had been right to insist on defeating the Allies at the waterline rather than, as Hitler wanted, drawing them inland for a battle of annihilation. But though Rommel’s chance had passed, German reinforcements poured into Normandy and kept the Americans, British, and Canadians boxed into a narrow beachhead that grew far more slowly than Allied planning had forecast or the disparity in forces would have predicted.
Atkinson tells the tale from the Allied perspective but does not slight the other side. What the Germans accomplished in the face of overwhelming firepower from artillery, the air, and the sea was nothing short of amazing. If the Allies misjudged how difficult it would be to advance in the Norman hedgerows—the bocage—their enemy suffered from no such blindness: The Germans had become masters of the fighting retreat in North Africa, Italy, and Russia.
When the Allied breakout from Normandy ensued, far behind the timetable that had been imagined in England before it met the reality of combat, American and British commanders did not fully capitalize on their success. Atkinson faults Eisenhower as well as Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery for missing the chance to crush utterly the German withdrawal through the Falaise Gap. Even so, the Allies could be well content with the big picture: The advance begun on the Norman seaside presaged even greater victories to come. We should not forget, however, that Western triumph followed grinding Soviet gains in the East. Joseph Stalin, no less a malignant force on the world stage than Adolf Hitler, at least earns credit for bleeding the Wehrmacht white; by summer 1944, it could slow but not halt Eisenhower’s divisions sweeping across northern France.