Best Defense

Atkinson’s ‘Guns at Last Light': Even better than you think, for these 5 reasons

Atkinson’s ‘Guns at Last Light': Even better than you think, for these 5 reasons

By Robert Goldich

Best Defense guest book reviewer

Rick Atkinson’s final work in his Liberation Trilogy, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt, 2013), has just been published, to rave reviews. They are entirely justified. It’s a triumphant conclusion to his previous two volumes on the war in North Africa and the war in Sicily and Italy through mid-1944. Critics have correctly praised its depth, its evocative nature, and its grasp of the human dimensions of this titanic campaign without losing sight of a broader narrative.

All true. But there are even more good things to be said about this magisterial work. Let me summarize five of them:

First, and perhaps most importantly, The Guns at Last Light is an American book, written by an American author, in an extraordinarily felicitous literary style in American English, in which the narrative and interpretation of the American components of the Northwest Europe campaign are stressed. It’s about time. For far too long, general histories of the campaign, and particularly of the Battle of Normandy, have been dominated by supercilious British historians. These men almost never fail to grasp an opportunity to criticize American military performance from privates to generals, up to the highest-ranking American leader of all, Dwight D. Eisenhower. From Chester Wilmot in the early 1950s, to Max Hastings in the early 1980s, to Antony Beevor over the past couple of decades, the British have monopolized the popular historiography of the Northwest Europe campaign (largely, I suspect, because Britain has done nothing beyond the tactical level of war since 1945, and American military historians have had four major wars involving forces of field army size to write about). This narrative of alleged American military bungling would simply make an American uncomfortable if there was any substantive truth in it. But there isn’t. By being scrupulously fair in his evaluation of American, British, and Canadian commanders, Atkinson shows that the latter two were not one iota better, and arguably slightly worse, than American leadership at the division, corps, army, army group, and theater level. Certainly he reinforces the long-known truism that, to quote Field Marshal Lord Carver (as 29-year-old Brigadier Michael Carver, the youngest brigade commander in the British Army while serving in Northwest Europe during 1944 and 1945), the Americans were more willing to “go at it” than the British. Atkinson’s casualty figures show this. Although at VE-Day two-thirds of 93 Allied divisions under Eisenhower’s command were American, the 587,000 casualties the Americans suffered in 1944-1945 were over 75 percent of the total.

His meticulous description of British and Canadian operations, particularly in Normandy, shows a considerable sluggishness on the part of high-level British commanders. There were no British armored division commanders with the aggressiveness of — just to take those American armored divisions employed in Normandy — Edward Brooks of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, Maurice Rose of the 3rd, “P” Wood of the 4th, or Robert Grow of the 6th. There were no British corps commanders who were hard-chargers like Lightning Joe Collins of VII Corps. Even the slower American corps commanders, like Leonard Gerow of V Corps, Troy Middleton of VIII Corps, and Walton Walker of XX Corps, were dynamos compared to their British counterparts. Reading Atkinson’s melancholy account of Operation Market-Garden, the failed drive popularized by the movie A Bridge Too Far, one weeps when one thinks about what could have been done if the armored advance had been conducted by an American corps, commanded by a Joe Collins or Walton Walker, rather than the personally attractive but operationally incredibly diffident Brian Horrocks commanding British XXX Corps. Or if an American armored division, instead of the leisurely Guards Armoured Division, had led the attack.

Second, Atkinson sends us an important message that can never be repeated too often: When armies of roughly equal military competence and weaponry clash, tactical and operational deadlock are almost inevitable, and usually the only way to break it is through attrition. This was particularly true in Normandy. In a small beachhead crammed with troops, and no flanks to turn, Field Marshal Lord Wavell’s remark that “In every war, there is a time when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to his front” couldn’t be avoided. Furthermore, the Allied Snodgrasses were opposed by lots of Schmidts and Webers with a great tradition of military excellence, led by men with five years of wartime experience, and weapons about the same as those of the Allies. So there was nothing for it but to spend lots of men to expand the beachhead and wear down the Germans in Normandy. The brutal battles of attrition from D-Day through early August 1944 were absolutely essential to enable the much-touted armored breakout to take place. Someday we’ll fight somebody just about as good as we are. When we do, we’ll have to use our huge population, and the high casualties that such a huge population can absorb, as well as our productive capacity, to attrition them if we are going to win. Planners for future wars, especially with possible peer competitors, take note.

Third, something which Atkinson doesn’t address directly, but which comes through very clearly in his discussion of Allied general officers in command at division level and above, is that nothing is more important for such men than having physical and moral stamina. Tactical and operational elegance and great imagination is nice to have, but there are two more important personal qualities needed by division, corps, army, army group, and theater commanders, especially but not only in high-intensity conventional conflict. They’ve got to be able to accept the responsibility for the lives of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of their soldiers — and send many of them to their deaths and maiming. And they’ve got to be able to keep their head when plans fail and disaster strikes and the enemy’s vote kicks in. Eisenhower, no Napoleon at Austerlitz, had this. Montgomery, tactically and operationally mediocre at his best, had it. Omar Bradley and his sadly unknown counterpart on the southern flank of the Allied front, Jake Devers, had it. So did most of the army and corps and division commanders — as did the opposing German generals.

Fourth, Atkinson shows very clearly how logistical considerations dominate planning and conducting an operational offensive. He shows that Montgomery’s plan for a pencil-thin thrust to the Ruhr after the pursuit across Northern France in August 1944 was logistically unsupportable. It would have been an operational disaster because the speed of the Allied advance was such that there just wasn’t enough transport to sustain a force of any size that far — planners estimated that the number of divisions that could have made it would have been in the single digits. The Germans would have annihilated it. Similarly, Atkinson shows just how worn out all the Allied units were after two and a half months of attrition fighting in Normandy and a vehicle-consuming pursuit across Northern France. They had to wait until their logistical tail caught up with them, literally and metaphorically, until they could conduct the great November-December 1944 offensives of all four U.S. field armies. When politicians or outside analysts start talking about intervening in Ambarzagoomiland, they frequently don’t bother to think at all about logistical constraints. Soldiers (and sailors and Marines and airmen) can’t avoid it.

Finally, Atkinson does a superb job of showing just how perfect Eisenhower was as Allied theater commander. Ike perceived from the beginning, as did Norman Schwarzkopf in a later and smaller war with a much more heterogeneous coalition, that the crucial center of gravity of the Anglo-American alliance was the alliance itself. This has generally been recognized. But Atkinson shows us that a logical corollary of this was that maintaining Allied comity and cooperation had to be Eisenhower’s first priority, even at the expense of additional Allied casualties. Thus, even if Montgomery’s incessant bombardment for a single narrow thrust into northern Germany had been doable, which it manifestly was not (look what happened when it was tried in Market-Garden), it was politically more important that no one country, in this case Britain, carry the lion’s share of offensive operations against the enemy, so as not to antagonize public opinion in either democracy. It is a measure of Montgomery’s lack of qualification for the position of theater ground forces commander, for which he constantly agitated, that he failed to grasp this.

There’s much, much more in this absolutely splendid capstone of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. He’s produced a profound work, worthy of being rapidly placed on the service chiefs’ and other senior American commanders’ reading lists. And he’s given those of us livin’ in the USA a long overdue accolade for the biggest single military campaign in American history.

In Tom’s opinion, Bob Goldich is, like Rick Atkinson, a force of nature.