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Book review

‘The Guns at Last Light’ by Rick Atkinson

American soldiers wade from a landing craft toward Omaha Beach in France on the morning of June 6, 1944. US National Archives and Records

On Sept. 17, 1944, dozens of British officers crowded into a cinema in the Flemish town of Bourg-Léopold. The Allies had muscled their way into Western Europe, and these men had been summoned for a briefing on plans for the remainder of the war.

Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks — veteran of World War I, prisoner of war captured at Ypres, British pentathlon champion who competed in the 1924 Olympics, survivor of Dunkirk, El Alamein, and Salerno — stood before these officers and said: “This is a tale you will tell your grandchildren, and mighty bored they will be.’’

Their grandchildren now are adults, and these men very likely never did tell them about their valor — or the notion that, as Bill Clinton said many years later, when these men were young they saved the world. But fortunately for their grandchildren, and for the rest of us too, Rick Atkinson has recreated their story, and reminded us of their glory in a breathtaking, unforgettable way. Mighty bored this new generation of readers will not be.

“The Guns at Last Light” completes Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, a heroic retelling of the Allied victory in Europe, and this volume takes us from D Day — “the most prodigious undertaking in the history of warfare’’ — to V-E Day and beyond. Europe’s liberation, and Atkinson’s book, is launched off by a 30-word directive to Dwight Eisenhower that changed, and saved, the world:


“You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other united nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.’’

The challenge, however, was summarized in five letters whose familiarity among war planners symbolized the difficulties ahead: PINWE, standing for Problems of the Invasion of Northwest Europe.

American men and matériel — including 600,000 pounds of maps, carrier pigeons, blood, sulfa, vomit bags, and condoms — were unloaded in Great Britain only to be unloaded later in France, all amid secrecy inconceivable in our world of spy satellites and iPhones, all amid deception (dummy radio transmissions from a phony 150,000-man Army unit) and camouflage (dark brown and olive drab paint proliferated).


The invasion, involving 200,000 sailors in 59 convoys transporting 130,000 soldiers and with cargo that included 2,000 tanks and 12,000 other vehicles, has been described many times in print and on the screen.

But in ‘’Last Light’’ Atkinson provides us with especially POIGNANT descriptions (“Icy water sloshed around the ankles of thirty soldiers, already shivering and vomiting, packed like herring in the thirty-six-foot hull’’) in a blaze of writing and research that matches the drama and significance of the moment, all without peer in modern history: a feat of fortitude, ferocious battle — and, of course, fiasco, for in any military initiative of this scale tens of thousands of things went wrong. AMPHIBIOUS TANKS SANK ; beaches were turned into abattoirs.

Yet the big thing, the invasion itself, went right, above all a triumph of will. A lieutenant shot in the brain continued to give orders. Men found in themselves superhuman strength in their passion to defeat a nation that regarded itself as superhuman, or merely superior. “We’ve got to get the buildup ashore,’’ LIEUTENANT GENERAL Omar Bradley said, “even if it means paving the whole damned Channel bottom with ships.’’

Allies flew 37 times as many air sorties as their opponents. An Atlantic Wall hardened for four years was pierced in three hours. Before long, liberating soldiers would present the mayor of Cherbourg a Tricolor stitched together from parachutes.

That was but the beginning of the work. This is what the next phase looked like: “Bombs entombed men in their trenches or split them open like deer carcasses. Bombs obliterated command posts, tossed cows into trees, and raised the dead from local cemeteries.’’

Welders were airlifted to France to fashion abandoned German beach obstacles into implements for cutting through Norman hedgerows. But that wasn’t the only example of carpentry being employed for military advantage. Later, when the battle moved to the capital, Parisians schooled in the paintings of Delacroix and Daumier built 19th century-style street barricades.

The change in Paris post-liberation is best summed up by this civilian: “I’ll tell you what liberation is. It’s hearing a knock on my door at six o’clock in the morning and knowing it’s the milkman.’’


Atkinson vividly describes the pursuit of the Nazis, who swiftly began trading space for time: “Beyond Paris to St.-Denis they marched, through the rolling meadows of Ile-de-France, past stone churches and beetroot fields, marching as the blue shadows grew long, marching in pursuit of the foeman fleeing east, marching, marching, marching toward the sound of the guns.’’

More than 20,000 parachutists and glider troops descended behind German lines on Sept. 17, 1944.US National Archives and Records

Throughout this volume are many remarkable touches. Of liberated Brussels, for example, he writes: “Local worthies appeared in sashes and other badges of office to declaim, proclaim, acclaim.’’

This phase of the war was anything but an uninterrupted march to victory and glory. Both sides suffered shortages of men. The Allies suffered from a disastrous intelligence failure that led to the Battle of the Bulge and imperiled the war effort:

“[M]istakes were made and many men died. What might have been known was not known. What could have been done was not done. Valor and her handmaidens — tenacity, composure, luck — would be needed to make it right.’’

They did make it right, only to discover one of the greatest wrongs in history — the extent of what you might consider the third front of the Third Reich, the war against the Jews and others, conducted on urban streets and rural death camps. Atkinson’s achievement is that he captures both the meaning of this war and the brutal meanness of all war — “never linear,’’ as he puts it, “but rather a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and élan, despair and elation.’’ This volume is a literary triumph worthy of the military triumph it explores and explains.


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at