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.
Ike had planned to bypass Paris in order to press the Germans, now fleeing in disarray toward the Fatherland. But the leader of the Free French insisted that Paris be liberated—and by French forces. “Deux Mètres,” as Charles de Gaulle was known at Allied headquarters for his imperious height, forced Eisenhower to relent. And so liberation for the City of Light came in late August. Delirious crowds cheered, and diehard Vichy militia and scattered German units dueled with Allied tanks in the side streets as the German commander surrendered at the luxurious Hôtel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli.
The importance of logistics, the necessary but unglamorous domain of quartermasters and accountants, is never long absent from Atkinson’s narrative. The author is fond of lists of equipment detailing the arcane and mundane materiel of war. He leaves the reader in no doubt regarding the vital role that supply played in the invasion and the prosecution of the war to its end. Keeping combat forces at the sharp end adequately furnished called forth a host of ingenious expedients. In command of this vast empire of supply, called the Communications Zone (or COMZ), was Lt. General John C. H. Lee, sometimes known as “Court House” Lee or “Christ Himself” Lee. Overbearing and tactless, Lee presided over a force of half-a-million behind the front who scrambled to improvise as the Allied presence on the continent swelled.
It did not help that, after stagnation in Normandy, Eisenhower’s armies now suddenly rolled east far ahead of timetable. Combat commanders groused about Lee, but few crossed the man who controlled some 800,000 separate items of supply, “eightfold more than even Sears, Roebuck stocked.”
Lack of adequate harbors bedeviled Allied logisticians from D-Day forward. Shortages and the inevitable shrinkage from pilfering made all the more mischievous the failure to secure the largest port in Europe, Antwerp. The city fell, intact, to British troops on September 4, but the Allies inexplicably neglected to clear German forces from the Scheldt Estuary downstream, rendering Antwerp’s vast wharves and dockyards useless. It was a blunder of immense import.
After the race across northern France, the tempo of war downshifted in the autumn. As he recounts the dogged heroism of infantrymen, paratroopers, and tankers, Atkinson faults the Allied high command for wasted opportunities and reverses in Operation Market Garden; in futile, bloody conflict over the Hurtgen Forest and Aachen; and in the frozen shock of the Bulge.
Readers looking for a high-octane combat narrative (à la Stephen Ambrose or John McManus), as well as those seeking the view from the heights of Allied leadership (see Andrew Roberts’s Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945), will not be disappointed. There are good thumbnail sketches of the major Allied and German generals and of numerous less-well-known figures. Atkinson delineates, without stooping to caricature, the personalities of such larger-than-life figures as Generals Montgomery, de Gaulle, and George Patton. Occasional criticism of Eisenhower does not diminish an overall positive portrayal of the supreme commander, the one man, in Atkinson’s writing, who had the instinct and temperament to keep the Western Alliance pulling in harness to accomplish its monumental task. Ike frustrated both Montgomery and Patton with his broad-front strategy for crossing the Rhine, and, despite the exhilaration of American convoys racing down the autobahns in spring 1945 meeting scant opposition, he resisted pleas for a dash to Berlin. He had changed his mind about this since the previous fall, and, given postwar political realities, his was a prudent decision.
In his epilogue, Atkinson sums up the staggering toll of casualties on all sides. He ponders the mystery, for survivors, of trying to reconcile this titanic spate of bloodletting—the most destructive chapter in human history—which, nevertheless, for some of them, begat “the one great lyric passage in their lives,” to quote philosopher and Army officer J. Glenn Gray. The tone of the concluding sentences captures Atkinson’s unabashed homage to America’s role in the great catastrophe that was World War II:
Yet the war and all that the war contained—nobility, villainy, immeasurable sorrow—is certain to live on even after the last old soldier has gone to his grave. May the earth lie lightly on his bones.
Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the editor of OSS Against the Reich: The World War II Diaries of Colonel David K. E. Bruce.