#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The magnificent conclusion to Rick Atkinson’s acclaimed Liberation Trilogy about the Allied triumph in Europe during World War II
It is the twentieth century’s unrivaled epic: at a staggering price, the United States and its allies liberated Europe and vanquished Hitler. In the first two volumes of his bestselling Liberation Trilogy, Rick Atkinson recounted how the American-led coalition fought through North Africa and Italy to the threshold of victory. Now, in The Guns at Last Light, he tells the most dramatic story of all—the titanic battle for Western Europe.
D-Day marked the commencement of the final campaign of the European war, and Atkinson’s riveting account of that bold gamble sets the pace for the masterly narrative that follows. The brutal fight in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the disaster that was Operation Market Garden, the horrific Battle of the Bulge, and finally the thrust to the heart of the Third Reich—all these historic events and more come alive with a wealth of new material and a mesmerizing cast of characters. Atkinson tells the tale from the perspective of participants at every level, from presidents and generals to war-weary lieutenants and terrified teenage riflemen. When Germany at last surrenders, we understand anew both the devastating cost of this global conflagration and the enormous effort required to win the Allied victory.
With the stirring final volume of this monumental trilogy, Atkinson’s accomplishment is manifest. He has produced the definitive chronicle of the war that unshackled a continent and preserved freedom in the West.
One of The Washington Post's Top 10 Books of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013
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Rick Atkinson is the bestselling author of An Army at Dawn (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history), The Day of Battle, The Long Gray Line, In the Company of Soldiers, and Crusade. His many other awards include a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, the George Polk award, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. A former staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post, he lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A killing frost struck England in the middle of May 1944, stunting the plum trees and the berry crops. Stranger still was a persistent drought. Hotels posted admonitions above their bathtubs: “The Eighth Army crossed the desert on a pint a day. Three inches only, please.” British newspapers reported that even the king kept “quite clean with one bath a week in a tub filled only to a line which he had painted on it.” Gale winds from the north grounded most Allied bombers flying from East Anglia and the Midlands, although occasional fleets of Flying Fortresses still could be seen sweeping toward the Continent, their contrails spreading like ostrich plumes.
Nearly five years of war had left British cities as “bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth,” according to an American visitor, who found that “people referred to ‘before the war’ as if it were a place, not a time.” The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth—sow-whistle, Oxford ragwort, and rosebay willow herb, a tall flower with purple petals that seemed partial to catastrophe. Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through three thousand miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered sixty tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate, and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.
Privation lay on the land like another odor. British men could buy a new shirt every twenty months. Housewives twisted pipe cleaners into hair clips. Iron railings and grillwork had long been scrapped for the war effort; even cemeteries stood unfenced. Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bedsheets, vegetable peelers, shoelaces. Posters discouraged profligacy with depictions of the “Squander Bug,” a cartoon rodent with swastika pockmarks. Classified advertisements included pleas in the Times of London for “unwanted artificial teeth” and cash donations to help wounded Russian war horses. An ad for Chez-Vous household services promised “bombed upholstery and carpets cleaned.”
Other government placards advised, “Food is a munition. Don’t waste it.” Rationing had begun in June 1940 and would not end completely until 1954. The monthly cheese allowance now stood at two ounces per citizen. Many children had never seen a lemon; vitamin C came from “turnip water.” The Ministry of Food promoted “austerity bread,” with a whisper of sawdust, and “victory coffee,” brewed from acorns. “Woolton pie,” a concoction of carrots, potatoes, onions, and flour, was said to lie “like cement upon the chest.” For those with strong palates, no ration limits applied to sheep’s head, or to eels caught in local reservoirs, or to roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry.
More than fifty thousand British civilians had died in German air raids since 1940, including many in the resurgent “Baby Blitz” begun in January 1944 and just now petering out. Luftwaffe spotter planes illuminated their targets with clusters of parachute flares, bathing buildings and low clouds in rusty light before the bombs fell. A diarist on May 10 noted “the great steady swords of searchlights” probing for enemy aircraft as flak fragments spattered across rooftops like hailstones. Even the Wimbledon tennis club had been assaulted in a recent raid that pitted center court; a groundskeeper patched the shredded nets with string. Tens of thousands sheltered at night in the Tube, and the cots standing in tiers along the platforms of seventy-nine designated stations were so fetid that the sculptor Henry Moore likened wartime life in these underground rookeries to “the hold of a slave ship.” It was said that some young children—perhaps those also unacquainted with lemon—had never spent a night in their own beds.
Even during these short summer nights, the mandatory blackout, which in London in mid-May lasted from 10:30 p.m. to 5:22 p.m., was so intense that one writer found the city “profoundly dark, like a mental condition.” Darkness also cloaked an end-of-days concupiscence, fueled by some 3.5 million soldiers now crammed into a country smaller than Oregon. Hyde and Green Parks at dusk were said by a Canadian soldier to resemble “a vast battlefield of sex.” A chaplain reported that GIs and streetwalkers often copulated standing up after wrapping themselves in a trench coat, a position known as “Marble Arch style.” “Piccadilly Circus is a madhouse after dark,” an American lieutenant wrote his mother, “and a man can’t walk without being attacked by dozens of women.” Prostitutes—“Piccadilly Commandos”—sidled up to men in the blackout and felt for their rank insignia on shoulders and sleeves before tendering a price: ten shillings (two dollars) for enlisted men, a pound for officers. Or so it was said.
Proud Britain soldiered on, a bastion of civilization even amid war’s indignities. A hurdy-gurdy outside the Cumberland Hotel played “You Would Not Dare Insult Me, Sir, If Jack Were Only Here,” as large crowds in Oxford Street sang along with gusto. London’s West End cinemas this month screened For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, and Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant. Theater patrons could see John Gielgud play Hamlet, or Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now in its third year at the Duchess. At Ascot on Sunday, May 14, thousands pedaled their bicycles to the track to watch Kingsway, “a colt of the first class,” gallop past Merchant Navy and Gone. Apropos of the current cold snap, the Royal Geographical Society sponsored a lecture on “the formation of ice in lakes and rivers.”
Yet nothing brightened the drab wartime landscape more than the brilliant uniforms now seen in every pub and on every street corner, the exotic military plumage of Norwegians and Indians, Belgians and Czechs, Yorkshiremen and Welshmen and more Yanks than lived in all of Nebraska. One observer in London described the panoply:
French sailors with their red pompoms and striped shirts, Dutch police in black uniforms and grey-silver braid, the dragoon-like mortar boards of Polish officers, the smart grey of nursing units from Canada, the cerise berets and sky-blue trimmings of the new parachute regiments . . . gaily colored field caps of all the other regiments, the scarlet linings of our own nurses’ cloaks, the electric blue of Dominion air forces, sand bush hats and lion-colored turbans, the prevalent Royal Air Force blue, a few greenish-tinted Russian uniforms.
Savile Row tailors offered specialists for every article of a bespoke uniform, from tunic to trousers, and the well-heeled officer could still buy an English military raincoat at Burberry or a silver pocket flask at Dunhill. Even soldiers recently arrived from the Mediterranean theater added a poignant splash of color, thanks to the antimalaria pills that turned their skin a pumpkin hue.
Nowhere were the uniforms more impressive on Monday morning, May 15, than along Hammersmith Road in west London. Here the greatest Anglo-American military conclave of World War II gathered on the war’s 1,720th day to rehearse the death blow intended to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Admirals, generals, field marshals, logisticians, and staff wizards by the score climbed from their limousines and marched into a Gothic building of red brick and terra-cotta, where American military policemen—known as Snowdrops for their white helmets, pistol belts, leggings, and gloves—scrutinized the 146 engraved invitations and security passes distributed a month earlier. Then six uniformed ushers escorted the guests, later described as “big men with the air of fame about them,” into the Model Room, a cold and crepuscular auditorium with black columns and hard, narrow benches reputedly designed to keep young schoolboys awake. The students of St. Paul’s School had long been evacuated to rural Berkshire—German bombs had shattered seven hundred windows across the school’s campus—but many ghosts lingered in this tabernacle of upper-class England: exalted Old Paulines included the poet John Milton; the astronomer Edmond Halley; the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, who supposedly learned the rudiments of military strategy from a school library book; and the diarist Samuel Pepys, who played hooky to watch the beheading of Charles I in 1649.
Top secret charts and maps now lined the Model Room. Since January, the school had served as headquarters for the British 21st Army Group, and here the detailed planning for Operation overlord, the Allied invasion of France, had gelled. As more senior officers found their benches in rows B through J, some spread blankets across their laps or cinched their greatcoats against the chill. Row A, fourteen armchairs arranged elbow to elbow, was reserved for the highest of the mighty, and now these men began to take their seats. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, dressed in a black frock coat and wielding his usual Havana cigar, entered with the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Neither cheers nor applause greeted them, but the assembly stood as one when King George VI strolled down the aisle to sit on Eisenhower’s right. Churchill bowed to his monarch, then resumed puffing his cigar.
As they waited to begin at the stroke of ten p.m., these big men with their air of eminence had reason to rejoice in their joint victories and to hope for greater victories still to come. Nearly all the senior commanders had served together in the Mediterranean—they called themselves “Mediterraneanites”—and they shared Eisenhower’s sentiment that “the Mediterranean theater will always be in my blood.” There they had indeed been blooded, beginning with the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, when Anglo-American forces had swept aside feeble Vichy French defenders, then pivoted east through the wintry Atlas Mountains into Tunisia. Joined by the British Eighth Army, which had pushed west from Egypt after a signal victory at El Alamein, together they battled German and Italian legions for five months before a quarter million Axis prisoners surrendered in mid-May 1943.
The Anglo-Americans pounced on Sicily two months later, overrunning the island in six weeks before invading the Italian mainland in early September. The Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini collapsed, and the new government in Rome renounced the Axis Pact of Steel to make common cause with the Allies. But a death struggle at Salerno, south of Naples, foreshadowed another awful winter campaign as Allied troops struggled up the Italian boot for two hundred miles in one sanguinary brawl after another with entrenched, recalcitrant Germans at places like San Pietro, Ortona, the Rapido River, Cassino, and Anzio. Led by Eisenhower, many of the Mediterraneanites had left for England in mid-campaign to begin planning overlord, and they could only hope that the spring offensive—launched on May 11 and code-named diadem—would break the stalemate along the Gustav Line in central Italy and carry the long-suffering Allied ranks into Rome and beyond.
Elsewhere in this global conflagration, Allied ascendancy in 1944 gave confidence of eventual victory, although no one doubted that future battles would be even more horrific than those now finished. Command of the seas had been largely secured by Allied navies and air forces. A double American thrust across the central and southwest Pacific had steadily reversed Japanese gains; with the Gilbert and Marshall Islands recouped, summer would bring assaults on the Marianas—Saipan, Tinian, Guam—as the American lines of advance converged on the Philippines, and captured airfields provided bases for the new long-range B-29 Superfortress to bomb Japan’s home islands. A successful Japanese offensive in China had been offset by a failed thrust from Burma across the Indian border into southern Assam. With most of the U.S. Navy committed to the Pacific, along with almost one-quarter of the Army’s divisions and all six Marine Corps divisions, the collapse of Tokyo’s vast empire had begun.
The collapse of Berlin’s vast empire in eastern Europe was well advanced. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 with more than 3 million men, but by the beginning of 1944, German casualties exceeded 3.5 million even as Soviet losses quadrupled that figure. The tide had turned, red in all senses, and Soviet campaigns to recapture the Crimea, the western Ukraine, and the territory between Leningrad and Estonia chewed up German strength. The Third Reich now had 193 divisions on the Eastern Front and in southeastern Europe, compared to 28 in Italy, 18 in Norway and Denmark, and 59 in France and the Low Countries. Nearly two-thirds of German combat strength remained tied up in the east, although the Wehrmacht still mustered almost two thousand tanks and other armored vehicles in northwestern Europe. Yet the Reich was ever more vulnerable to air assault: Allied planes flying from Britain in May 1944 would drop seventy thousand tons of high explosives on Axis targets, more than four times the monthly tonnage of a year earlier. Though they paid a staggering cost in airplanes and aircrews, the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces had won mastery of the European skies. At last, after wresting air and naval superiority from the Germans, the Allies could make a plausible case for a successful invasion of the Continent by the ground forces currently gathering in England.
In 1941, when Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union first formed their grand alliance against the Axis, “the only plan was to persevere,” as Churchill put it. Perseverance had brought them to this brink: a chance to close with the enemy and destroy him in his European citadel, four years after Germany overran France and the Low Countries. The Americans had long advocated confronting the main German armies as soon as possible, a muscle-bound pugnacity decried as “iron-mongering” by British strategists, whose preference for reducing the enemy gradually by attacking the Axis periphery had led to eighteen months of Mediterranean fighting. Now, as the great hour approached, the arena would shift north, and the British and Americans would monger iron together.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man: at ten p.m. that Monday, Eisenhower rose to greet the 145 comrades who would lead the assault on Fortress Europe. Behind him in the cockpit of the Model Room lay an immense plaster relief map of the Normandy coast where the river Seine spilled into the Atlantic. Thirty feet wide and set on a tilted platform visible from the back benches, this apparition depicted, in bright colors and on a scale of six inches to the mile, the rivers, villages, beaches, and uplands of what would become the world’s most famous battlefield. A brigadier wearing skid-proof socks and armed with a pointer stood at port arms, ready to indicate locales soon to achieve household notoriety: Cherbourg, St.-Lô, Caen, Omaha Beach.
With only a hint of the famous grin, Eisenhower spoke briefly, a man “at peace with his soul,” in the estimate of an American admiral. He hailed king and comrades alike “on the eve of a great battle,” welcoming them to the final vetting of an invasion blueprint two years in the making. A week earlier he had chosen June 5 as D-Day. “I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan not to hesitate to say so,” Eisenhower said, his voice booming. “I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.” The supreme commander would remain preoccupied for some weeks with the sea and air demands of overlord, as well as with sundry political distractions, so he had delegated the planning and conduct of this titan...
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