“The greatest catastrophe in human history”

catastrophe

If you were born after 1950 or so, and you think at all about the Second World War, it’s probably little more to you than an event shrouded in history — a big one, of course, but one that ended two generations ago and is now just one of many terrible episodes in a century prone to violence.


The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson (2013) 896 pages

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Chances are, you have no sense of the magnitude of that epochal event that many historians think of as “the most prodigious undertaking in the history of warfare” and “the greatest catastrophe in human history.”

If the Vietnam War is your yardstick for measuring the impact of war on an American generation, consider the following. Of the US population of 106 million in 1920 (the census year closest to the time when the younger soldiers were born), more than 16 million served in uniform during World War II. That was roughly one out of every seven people in their generational cohort, and more than one out of every four men, since fewer than half a million women served in uniform. By comparison, during the Vietnam Era, more than twice as long as WWII, a total of 9 million Americans – approximately one out of every 17 persons of the 151 million counted in the 1950 census — served on active duty in the armed forces. Since only about a quarter-million women served in the armed forces in Vietnam, the proportion of men who were on active duty there was roughly one out of every nine members of their age cohort. One in four vs. one in nine? The difference is enormous. And comparisons between World War II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan diverge far more dramatically.

Is it any surprise that the Second World War continues to loom so large in the consciousness of many older Americans, despite all that has transpired since then?

Viewed superficially, The Guns at Last Light is a straightforward, chronological account of the Allies’ march toward victory in Western Europe. The book focuses on the major events of the last year of World War II: the Normandy Invasion, the Allied landing in southern France, the Battle of the Bulge (“the largest battle in American military history”), the crossing of the Rhine, and the drive toward eastern Germany as the Soviet Union thundered toward Berlin from the east. But there are other books — many other books — that treat these events in greater detail.

What sets apart Rick Atkinson’s masterful treatment of the critical final stage in the war is the depth of his research into the thoughts and actions of the major military players in this monumental drama, particularly General Dwight David (“Ike”) Eisenhower, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, and Generals Charles De Gaulle, Omar Bradley, George Patton, and Jean de Lattre. FDR, Winston Churchill, General George Marshall, and Field Marshal Alan Brooke hover over the scene, intervening from time to time. Every one of these historic figures emerges from the pages of The Guns at Last Light as a living, breathing human being rescued from the dustbin of history.

However, Atkinson’s research was by no means limited to the journals and letters of the major figures. He illuminates every advance, every retreat with quotations from the correspondence of the Allied troops on the line, from “buck privates” to brigadier generals. He does the same from German sources, but to a much lesser extent.

Equally remarkable is the author’s treatment of four recurring themes: the decisive role of logistics and supplies, the often tragic imprecision of the air war; the leadership conflicts that stopped just short of tearing apart the Alliance, and the disproportionate role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Germany.

  • Miscalculations and everyday screw-ups in logistics might well have given rise to that charming contribution of the war to the English language, “SNAFU,” meaning “Situation normal, all f****d up.” For example, “dozens of U.S. Army divisions were stuck at home for lack of dockage in Normandy.” And “one quartermaster depot would report receiving 11,000 brooms, 13,000 mops, 5,000 garbage cans, and 33,000 reams of mimeograph paper.” But even worse was the perennial shortage of ammunition, which frequently forced Allied commanders to place strict limits on the number of rounds their soldiers could fire. Yet the supply chain for the Allies was immeasurably better than that for the Germans in the final year of the war, when hundreds of fearsome Tiger tanks were left by the roadside for lack of fuel.
  • The attack on German cities by Allied bombers was notoriously inaccurate, with bombs falling on or near their targets only a small percentage of the time. In one Allied action to resupply surrounded US troops, the sky was heavily overcast (as usual) and “more than 98 percent of the payloads missed their targets, often by miles.” Paratroopers fared little better. Of “more than six thousand jumpers from the 101st Airborne, barely one thousand had landed on or near the H-hour objectives” in the Normandy invasion. The result? Paratroopers were slaughtered by the thousands.
  • As one high-ranking US general wrote to an uncooperative French commander, “For many months we have fought together, often on the same side.” Disputes among the commanding generals – Montgomery vs. Eisenhower, Bradley vs. Montgomery, DeGaulle vs. everyone who wasn’t French, and Patton vs. nearly everyone – became so heated at times that Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and US Army Chief of Staff George Marshall (in Washington) were forced to intervene. The Alliance was most certainly not united by friendship.
  • In the final stage of the war in the West, Allied casualties were immense – “200,000 dead since D-Day alone” – but other countries suffered much more greatly. “Some 14 percent of the Soviet population of 190 million perished during the war; the Red Army suffered more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. armed forced did in the entire war. Soviet forces also had killed roughly nine times more Germans than the United States and Britain combined.” In other words, if anyone tells you that the US won the war, please correct them.

Despite these and many other drawbacks, the Allies did win both in the East and the West, as we know very well. As Atkinson asserts in the epilogue to The Guns at Last Light, “The enemy was crushed by logistical brilliance, firepower, mobility, mechanical aptitude, and an economic juggernaut that produced much, much more of nearly everything than Germany could – bombers, bombs, fighters, transport planes, mortars, machine guns, trucks – yet the war absorbed barely one-third of the American gross domestic product, a smaller proportion than that of any [other] major belligerent.”

The Guns at Last Light is the third and final volume of Rick Atkinson’s monumental Liberation Trilogy, a study of the strategic events in the Allies’ six-year effort to defeat Germany. First in the series was An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, which I read and enjoyed immensely before I began reviewing books in 2010. Then, preceding The Guns at Last Light, was The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44. Read together with Paul Kennedy’s superb analysis of the pivotal factors in the Allied victory, Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, Atkinson’s trilogy provides an in-depth introduction to the story of World War II.

For further reading

You’ll find this book listed on my post, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up).

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).

For more good books on the history of the US, see Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

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