Book Review: The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

01 Apr
The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson

The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson

Atkinson, Rick. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2013.

Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, provides a capstone to the third and final installment of his “Liberation Trilogy’, a sequential historical series starting with An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, a narrative history of Allied involvement in North Africa, followed by The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, which chronicles the war in Italy. With The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson confirms why his writing earned Pulitzer Prizes in 1982, 1999 and 2003 (for The Day of Battle).

The successes Atkinson has achieved with The Guns at Last Light are the result of extensive in-depth research, and more importantly his skill for writing creative non-fiction. His “Selected Sources” section comprises 28 pages; sources compiled from, and listed as: “Books;” “Periodicals;” “Newspapers;” “Papers, Letters, Collections, Personal Narratives, and Diaries;” “Interview, Questionnaire, and Oral History Transcripts;” and “Miscellany.” Not surprisingly, his bibliography is preceded by 168 pages of “Notes,” which confirm effective interpretation of his selected sources, by chapter.

But it is Atkinson’s flair for putting the reader ‘in the room with Eisenhower and Montgomery’, or ‘in the streets with citizens of Cologne or Essen following Allied bombing’ for example. To achieve the top spot on the New York Times ‘Best Seller’ list with a work of non-fiction history, the writing must be rich, colorful and engaging. Atkinson has achieved this with The Guns at Last Light. For example, in this narrative of the book’s most widely known history—Allied ships departing Great Britain for Normandy, France and the resultant legendary beach landings—Atkinson writes most imaginatively:

Ship by ship, convoy by convoy, the OVERLORD fleets slid into the broad, black Bay of the Seine. A vanguard of minesweepers carved an intricate maze of swept channels, demarcated by dan buoys agleam in the phosphorescent sea. Sailor and soldiers alike were astonished to find the Barfleur lighthouse still burning east of Cherbourg; among the tallest and most conspicuous beacons, the rotating double flash was visible for thirty miles.1

The writer’s ability to engross the reader with such richness contrasted however with his over-weighted digressions, occasional references which deviate from the era, and random inclusion of language not in ordinary usage.

Atkinson’s off-topic forays, however so slight, both add to, and detract from the book. One theme dominating much of the narrative is that of Allied leadership. While the continued struggle for power by Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery with SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Commander U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower is relevant and interesting and worthy of inclusion, Atkinson carries Montgomery’s desire for complete Allied control following the Normandy landings far too long throughout the book. As a lesser theme it was relevant to the book as whole, but became tiresome. This had me contemplating the difference between new history, and trivia.

I found it necessary to put down the new book from time to time. Atkinson’s writing became tedious compared to similar literature on the subject. While I admire his Master’s credential in English from the University of Chicago, at times his writing in this particular work gives the impression that he is trying to move the reader with his expansive vocabulary. After numerous dictionary consultations, Atkinson had me longing for Stephen Ambrose or Antony Beevor and their less self-indulgent writing style. For example, Atkinson writes: “But even the bouncy sangfroid and the too-ready smile sometimes slipped a bit as his troops prepared to fling themselves into the Vosges.”2 Or: “A churlish, dolorous mood had taken hold, belying their station as the winning generals of winning armies in a winning, righteous cause.”3

In The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson occasionally digresses too far into the past when his narrative dictates precluding a scene set in 1944 or 1945. And this not always proves effective. In Chapter Five’s introductory paragraph, Atkinson, in describing the locale of a new command post for Eisenhower, writes:

Versailles had long proved irresistible to empire builders. A modest seventeenth-century hunting lodge, built above a fenny country village twelve miles southwest of Paris, has quickly grown into the world’s most celebrated chateau, an emblem of both the [ancien] regime and French regal indulgence. More than twenty-thousand nobles, courtiers, merchants, and servants eventually basked in the radiance of the Sun King and his dimmer heirs, crowding together in what one traveler described as ‘a state of unhygienic squalor’. Later, the palace had served as a headquarters for the Prussian army besieging Paris in the starving winter of 1870, when 65,000 Parisians perished despite eating the city’s cats, crows, and rats.4

If possible, what serves to make Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light so superb, at the same time slows or halts the pace for the reader too frequently; that critical pace and flow which combine to make the best books ‘page turners’.

Overall however, Atkinson’s final book in his ‘Liberation Trilogy’ is a winner. The Guns at Last Light will appeal to those keenly interested in the backstory to D-Day and Allied victory in Europe.

[1] Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2013) 53.
[2] 367.
[3] 389.
[4] 235.
Atkinson, Rick. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

1 Comment

Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Book Reviews, WWII in Europe


One response to “Book Review: The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

  1. Martha Trowbridge

    April 1, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    What a review, Scott! Many thanks.


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