Reviews for Guns at Last Light : The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

Book News Reviews
The final volume of the World War II trilogy brings to life the Allies' brutal struggles in Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge to the freeing of Paris as experienced by participants from every level of the military.

Booklist Reviews 2013 April #1
Spanning D-day to V-E Day, Atkinson culminates his three-volume epic of the U.S. Army in Europe during WWII. Readers of the prior volumes (An Army at Dawn, 2002; The Day of Battle, 2007) will discover a thematic continuation in this one, namely, criticism of American generalship. Debacles such as Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, and Patton's zany raid to liberate a POW camp punctuate the narrative of the U.S. Army's otherwise remorseless advance toward victory over the German army. To describe the high command's thinking concerning operations that turned into fiascoes, Atkinson funnels their postwar apologia through his appreciation of a particular battlefield situation, graphically conceptualized in this tome's excellent cartography. While casting generals in the light of human frailty, Atkinson allocates anecdotal abundance to soldiers' ground-war experiences. Emphasizing loss, he quotes many last letters from men destined to die. With a mastery of sources that support nearly every sentence, Atkinson achieves a military history with few peers as an overview of the 1944-45 campaigns in Western Europe. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 June
Capturing the calamitous tapestry of war

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson left the Washington Post in 1999 “to raise my game, to become a historian and use the longer lens of history” to write about World War II in Western Europe. He didn’t know that it would be 14 years before he typed the final words of The Guns at Last Light, the brilliant, more-than-worth-the-wait final volume of his epic Liberation Trilogy.

Atkinson did know from the outset that he faced daunting odds. An online search, for example, revealed something like 60,000 books devoted to World War II. The “Green Books,” the surprisingly well-written official U.S. Army history of WWII, run to 117 volumes. And the WWII archives of the Allied nations are seemingly endless. “The U.S. Army records alone—one service, one country—for World War II weigh 17,000 tons,” exclaims Atkinson, a self-described “archive rat,” during a call to the home he shares with his wife of 34 years, in Washington, D.C., abutting Rock Creek Park.

But for Atkinson, who was born in Munich in 1952 while his father, a career U.S. Army infantry officer, was serving in the occupation forces, WWII was “a part of the culture, a part of the landscape I grew up in. I think it’s part of my DNA.”

Then in the mid-1990s as a journalist, Atkinson “covered the endless successions of 50th-anniversary commemorations”—D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, VE Day—and had two epiphanies. “One was that because this was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history, it was the greatest story of the 20th century, and it was just bottomless. I don’t think you tap out the greatest events in human history. There will be more to write about this forever. The other epiphany I had was that World War II did not start at Omaha Beach for the Americans. There were earlier D-days in Africa and in Sicily and southern Italy. It’s a triptych, and the three panels are Africa, Italy and Western Europe.”

Atkinson published An Army at Dawn, the first volume of the Liberation Trilogy, in 2002. Hailed for its narrative power, vivid detail and riveting blend of the human experiences of common soldiers and battlefield commanders alike, it won the Pulitzer Prize for history. It also established the narrative style that would serve Atkinson so well throughout the trilogy. Each volume has a prologue, an epilogue and 12 chapters divided into four parts.

WWII was “a part of the culture, a part of the landscape I grew up in. I think it’s part of my DNA.”

“I sort of stumbled on the structure for volume one,” Atkinson explains. “Like a gem cutter, I think, I was trying to understand the structure of the story and how the facets naturally cleave. Then because I wanted to signal that this is really one story and that each volume mirrors the others, I thought having a similar structure would help me accomplish that, if I could do it without it being forced.”

The shared narrative structure does not feel at all forced in The Day of Battle, Atkinson’s brilliant account of the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943-44. Nor in The Guns at Last Light, the new and final volume of the trilogy, which takes readers from D-Day preparations to German surrender.

In fact, the exceptionally well-written new volume possesses an epic grandeur, draws from a broad range of historical and literary references, mobilizes an astonishing array of little-known detail and illuminates both the strategic and human dramas of all-out warfare in ways that allow it to shine even more brightly than the other panels in the triptych. In the 14 years since he began work on the trilogy, Atkinson’s children have grown into adulthood—his son is a Justice Department lawyer in Washington, and his daughter is a surgical resident in Cincinnati—and Atkinson himself has grown into mastery. The Guns at Last Light should be read not just as a great work of narrative military history, but as an accomplished work of American literature.

“By the time we get to the third book,” Atkinson says, deftly side-stepping a question about his literary ambitions, “the war has metastasized from company-level actions of a few score or a few hundred men in North Africa to Army Groups in which literally millions are fighting one another. It allows a sweep. There’s a tapestry quality to the whole thing. It’s almost as if you’re trying to write the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s just a big, huge, sprawling, awful calamity that you have an opportunity to write about in the grandest terms as a military historian.”

Atkinson says he turned down an appointment to West Point after high school because he already knew he wanted to be a writer, and the military academy “was not only all male at the time, it was all engineering. That didn’t play to my strong suit.” He thought he might become a college English professor but left the University of Chicago after earning a master’s degree because he “decided teaching was just too sedentary for me.” He became a journalist instead, and then, 14 years ago, a military historian.

“The challenge,” Atkinson says of his craft, “is to take a story that people think they know and about which much has been written—good stuff, too, in many cases—and try to make it fresh, try to make it sound in the reader’s inner ear as if this is a story they haven’t heard before.”

To that end, Atkinson first recruits the extraordinary detail gleaned from burrowing deep into the archives, examining not just official records but personal journals, letters and memoirs. Then, like a good novelist, he wri[Mon Sep 1 09:42:05 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. tes his chapters in dramatic scenes, highlighting the titanic (and petty) clashes of ego among the Allied leadership and the harrowing efforts of troops on the ground. Even more importantly, throughout the trilogy and especially in this final volume, Atkinson writes with great power about the wrenching human cost of the conflict.

“There’s something at play here that’s just so heartbreaking,” he says. “So I try to take this industrial-strength catastrophe that we call World War II and bring it down to an individual level so that the singularity of death—it’s like a snowflake or a fingerprint—comes home to the reader periodically to remind them of what this is really all about.”

Atkinson adds, “My feeling is that the true ambition of a narrative historian should be to bring people back from the dead.” To which an avid reader can only say, amen.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 March #1
Atkinson (The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, 2007, etc.) brings his Liberation Trilogy to a resounding close. The war, of course, ended in Allied victory--though, it often seems even in these closing pages, just barely. Among the challenges were not just a ferocious German war machine that refused to stop grinding, but an Allied effort often hampered by internal disagreements and the inevitable jockeying for power. One skillful player was British general Bernard Montgomery, whom Atkinson captures with a gesture in an opening set piece: "With a curt swish of his pointer, Montgomery stepped to the great floor map." That map provided a visual survey of Overlord, the great 1944 multipronged invasion of Normandy, of which the author's long account is masterful and studded with facts and figures. Many of the key actors--Eisenhower, Patton--will be well-known to American readers, but others will not, not least of them Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the oldest general at D-Day and perhaps the bravest as well. American readers may also not know that British and Canadian troops landed elsewhere in Normandy on that day and paid a fearful price; Atkinson is to be commended for giving equal billing to those Allies. Toward the end, those Western Allies finally worked out some of their big differences, just in time for the final savage campaign of winter 1944–1945, which included the Battle of the Bulge. Atkinson assumes little outside knowledge of his readers, so his story is largely self-contained; as such, with the other volumes in the trilogy, it makes a superb introduction to a complex episode in world history. An outstanding work of popular history, in the spirit of William Manchester and Bruce Catton. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 December #1

Atkinson wraps up his "Liberation Trilogy," which opened with the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and best-selling) An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and continued with The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 April #1

Atkinson (former senior editor, Washington Post) has won Pulitzer Prizes in both journalism and history (An Army at Dawn). In this last book in his "Liberation Trilogy" on World War II, he continues to tout the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers and airmen. The book stands out from others on World War II because it successfully explores the fallibility of participants at all levels. Atkinson acknowledges the impact of infighting among volatile Allied generals, who egotistically pursued their own agendas and timelines, risking thousands of lives. He portrays the fighting as equal parts courage, cowardice, and chaos. Intermingled with the lurking fears among all involved was their feeling of being intensely alive. In exposing the vulnerabilities and imperfections of the enlisted men and officers, Atkinson does not diminish the overall heroism of their actions but instead humanizes their contributions. VERDICT This is not a detailed account of any one particular battle but a sweeping epic, yet it is packed with fascinating details. Highly recommended to all who read World War II history, although those seeking detailed information about a specific unit or action may not find it here. [See Prepub Alert, 11/19/12.]--Beth Dalton, Littleton, CO

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 January #1

Adding to the trunkful of extended WWII histories by the likes of Sir Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts, Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Norman Davies, Atkinson, winner of two Pulitzers (for An Army at Dawn, the first in the Liberation Trilogy, and for reporting), concludes his series on the war in Europe and North Africa with this superb work. Though lacking an overall theme, the book is distinguished by its astonishing range of coverage--peopling the pages are German, British, French, Canadian, and (primarily) American generals and common soldiers. Excerpts from the letters of dead soldiers on both sides, as well as from the diaries of captain generals, fill out the story. Atkinson takes readers through battles large and small, strategy as well as on-the-ground tactics, accompanied by vivid maps (courtesy of "master cartographer" Gene Thorp). Drama, the absurd, and the desperately sad weave throughout the narrative. War, Atkinson writes, is "a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and lan, despair and elation." In his estimation, such was the war for both the victors and the vanquished. His lively, occasionally lyric prose brings the vast theater of battle, from the beaches of Normandy deep into Germany, brilliantly alive. It is hard to imagine a better history of the western front's final phase. Two 16-page b&w photo inserts, 29 maps. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, Sagalyn Literary Agency. (May)

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