The Guns at Last Light

The Guns at Last Light Book Cover The Guns at Last Light
Rick Atkinson
May 13, 2014

Disclaimer: I love history. I enjoy reading about World War Two. This is a fantastic trilogy. I started with the last book first. The final volume of the trilogy chronicles the Allied victory in Western Europe, from the brutal struggles in Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge to the freeing of Paris. I love the way Atkinson approached this project. He weaves together his chronicle from people on both sides of the conflict and from people at different service levels. It provides an almost 360 degree perspective.

Five German divisions, including the 21st Panzer Division, would oppose the invaders on D-Day;

Yet for OVERLORD the die was cast, spelled out in a thirty-word order to Eisenhower from the Charlie-Charlies: “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.” Now was the time, as Eisenhower put it, for “ramming our feet in the stirrups.

The supreme commander often quoted Napoléon’s definition of a military genius as “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.

No objective was more important than Ste.-Mère-Église for the 82nd Airborne as the division’s six thousand men swooped over Normandy an hour behind the 101st. Roads from all compass points converged here, and the trunk cable linking Cherbourg in the north with Carentan in the south passed through Ste.-Mère. Unless it held the town, the 82nd had “almost no chance to sustain offensive operations across the Merderet River and to the westward, dispersion confused the enemy as well as the dispersed.

The struggle in Normandy would depend in large measure on the only armored unit within quick striking distance of the invasion beaches, the 21st Panzer Division. A stalwart from Africa, the division had been obliterated in Tunisia, then rebuilt with sixteen thousand men—some still wearing oddments of tropical uniforms—and 127 tanks.

Suddenly, forty Typhoons from the RAF Second Tactical Air Force roared over the treetops in three waves, spitting rockets. Moments later, seventy-one Mitchell bombers pummeled the orchard with 436 500-pound bombs, turning La Caine into an inferno.

A flanking attack from west of Caen began with promise on June 13 when the British 7th Armored Division—the famed Desert Rats from Africa—captured Villers-Bocage, guided through the village streets by gendarmes and baying civilians. Then calamity: on the far side of town, Tiger tank fire raked the lead column; within fifteen minutes, more than a dozen British tanks and as many trucks had been gutted, most by a single audacious panzer commander, SS captain Michael Wittmann.

“the Gethsemane of the hedgerows.

Mortar fragments caused 70 percent of the battle casualties among four U.S. infantry divisions in Normandy;

Operation GOODWOOD massed three British and Canadian corps—some 76,000 troops and 1,370 tanks—for a southward dagger thrust into five German divisions with 230 tanks plus 600 guns and heavy mortars. The iron-plated British VIII Corps would lead the attack with 700 tanks in three armored divisions.

Typhoon fighter-bombers soon scalded the German ranks with two thousand 60-pound rockets and 20mm cannon rounds the size of tent pegs. Joined by cab ranks of Thunderbolts and Hurricanes, the planes attacked until dusk in a shark-feed frenzy.

Spitfires, Typhoons, Mustangs, Lightnings, and Thunderbolts flew fifteen hundred to three thousand sorties each day in sanguinary relays from first light to last light.

Most prominent among the German dead was Erwin Rommel, albeit his was a death delayed. For two months he recuperated from the strafing attack at home in Herrlingen, reminiscing about Africa and fingering his marshal’s baton. Insomnia, headaches, and his injured left eye troubled him; merely lifting the eyelid proved difficult. Despite an unctuous letter to Hitler—“Just one thought possessed me constantly, to fight and win for your new Germany”—he was implicated in the July 20 assassination plot as a man who had known too much for his own good. The killers would come to Herrlingen in a green car with Berlin plates on October 14. After a brief private meeting with them in his study, Rommel told his son, “I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.… Hitler is charging me with high treason.” Dressed in an open-collar Africa tunic, he emptied his wallet, petted the family dachshund, and climbed into the rear seat of the car with his marshal’s baton under his left arm. To spare his family he swallowed cyanide, permitting the regime to claim he had died of his injuries. Hitler, who sent a six-foot floral wreath even before Rommel’s death was confirmed, said of the news, “Yet another of the old ones.” In a funeral oration at the Ulm town hall, Rundstedt would declare, “A pitiless destiny has snatched him from us. His heart belonged to the Führer.” That was another lie: not his heart, but certainly his soul.

The 28th’s ancestry reached back to units first organized by Benjamin Franklin before the Revolution; its forebears had fought in every American war since.

For two days, the 3rd Division inched along before creeping into Arles at midday on August 24 and into Avignon a day later, tormented by mines, felled trees, and dropped bridges, but by few Germans. Most enemy troops were scurrying north up the Rhine

An Ultra intercept of a Führer order on September 3, stressing the “decisive importance” of holding the Scheldt, was disregarded by Allied commanders; so were subsequent orders from Hitler, including an intercepted message reminding Fifteenth Army that “it must be insured that the Allies cannot use the harbor for a long time.

A terrestrial innovation was the Red Ball Express, a cargo haulage service begun in late August. Soon seven thousand trucks carried four thousand tons or more each day on one-way highways to First and Third Army dumps, typically a three-day round-trip. MPs posted 25,000 road signs in English and French, and Cub planes monitored the traffic flow. Problems arose immediately. Red Ball burned 300,000 gallons of gasoline a day, as much as three armored divisions in combat. Drivers sometimes loaded six to ten tons of cargo on 2½-ton vehicles; the Red Ball units became known as “truck-destroyer battalions.” Despite a twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit, seventy trucks on average were wrecked beyond repair every day.

The V-2 was the handiwork of a young Prussian Junker named Wernher von Braun, who belonged to the Nazi Party and the SS, and who since 1937 had been working on a liquid-fuel rocket at Peenemünde, a bucolic Baltic fishing village recommended by his mother.

Eighteen new “Volksgrenadier” divisions had been created in late summer from recuperating hospital patients, industrial workers, stragglers, combat veterans, converted sailors and airmen, and boys. More such divisions would materialize, but each numbered only ten thousand troops, compared to seventeen thousand in the Wehrmacht’s palmy days, and transport was predominately bipedal or four-hooved.

MARKET GARDEN. The Allied objective was “to dominate the country to the north as far as the Zuider

Everyone at SHAEF was deluded: MARKET GARDEN had been lost on the very first day through failure to seize the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen, and the failure was compounded by the ponderous overland advance. A titanic, often heroic battle remained to play out, with particular fates by the tens of thousands in the balance. But the margin for victory, always razor thin, now was irretrievably gone.

Nebelwerfer six-barreled rocket launchers—Screaming Meemies

Cornelius Ryan, whose A Bridge Too Far remains the classic narrative of the battle, put total Allied losses at 17,000 in nine days. The II Panzer Corps listed 3,300 killed, wounded, and missing, but other tallies suggested that total German losses were at least double that figure. Dutch road builders and construction crews went on finding skeletons for decades.

MARKET GARDEN proved “an epic cock-up,” as a British major averred, a poor plan with deficient intelligence, haphazard execution, and indifferent generalship.

Beyond battlefield consequences, MARKET GARDEN preyed on the mind of every man scarred by this primordial struggle. “There was a change of mood after Arnhem,” a British captain wrote. “One just didn’t feel the same. We were getting rather tired.

Here Charlemagne may have been born and here certainly he died, in 814, after creating the First Reich.

select rooms in cleared houses were booby-trapped, often with a No. 2 green bean can filled with nails, three pounds of dynamite, a No. 8 blasting cap, and a trip-wire trigger.

Another lethal legacy from the Italian campaign was the M-12, an ungainly 155mm gun mounted on a tank chassis that was capable of keeping pace with armored spearheads during the gallop across France.

83 percent of Aachen’s houses had been destroyed or damaged. Most streets were impassable except on foot.

“We come as conquerors, but not as oppressors,” Eisenhower had declared in late September.

“I have a feeling that he was a far more complicated man than he seemed to be,” wrote Don Whitehead, “a man who shaped events with such subtlety that he left others thinking that they were the architects of those events. And he was satisfied to leave it that way.

Eisenhower was romantic enough to regret this failing: a lifelong admirer of Hannibal, he privately hoped that a double envelopment of the Ruhr would echo the Carthaginian destruction of the Romans at Cannae.

the Canadian First Army had sustained nearly thirteen thousand casualties in winning the Scheldt.

Insufficient attention was paid to the last of these components, for among body parts it was the foot that most plagued the American war effort in Europe.

TORCH landings in Morocco

The Allied strategic air effort in Europe cost some eighty thousand lives and ten thousand aircraft, and the vast tactical air war in direct support of ground forces added more losses.

No industrial disparity during the war had greater importance than the gap between German and American fuel production. From 1942 through 1944, Berlin’s refineries and plants generated 23 million tons of fuel; during the same period, the United States produced more than 600 million tons.

Strasbourg’s emancipation brought two significant discoveries. Thirty miles southwest of the city, at Natzweiler, GIs overran their first concentration camp.

The second discovery was no less portentous. Close on the heels of Leclerc’s armored spearhead was an American intelligence unit code-named ALSOS, carrying secret instructions from the physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Luis W. Alvarez on clues to look for in investigating “the Y program”—the German atomic bomb effort. Evidence discovered in Paris and at the Philips factory in Eindhoven pointed to the University of Strasbourg as a key atomic research center.

War, that merciless revealer of character, uncloaked these men as precisely as a prism flays open a beam of light to reveal the inner spectrum. Here they were, disclosed, exposed, made known, and if rectitude was to obtain, they would have to fight their way to that high ground just as surely as they would have to fight their way across the Rhine.

In October, a home guard dubbed the Volkssturm—People’s Storm—also was created under Himmler’s SS; the joke went around that retirement homes now bore the sign “Closed because of the call-up.

Eisenhower in a subsequent cable to Marshall would confess that “all of us, without exception, were astonished” at the strength of HERBSTNEBEL, and nearly a week would elapse until SHAEF intelligence confirmed German ambitions of cleaving the Allied armies in half.

Operation GREIF, or “condor,” proved no more competent. Under the flamboyant Viennese commando officer Otto Skorzeny, 2,000 men had been recruited into the 150th Armored Brigade for behind-the-lines sabotage, reconnaissance, and havoc. Their motor fleet included a dozen Panthers modified to resemble U.S. armored vehicles, German Fords painted olive drab, and a small fleet of captured U.S. Army trucks, jeeps, and scout cars. Some 150 men who spoke English—only 10, mostly former sailors, were truly fluent in the vernacular—would lead raiding parties X, Y, and Z to seize three Meuse bridges. They were issued captured or counterfeit identification documents, as well as GI uniforms, many of which had been purloined from American prisoners under the pretext of disinfection. To mimic American cigarette-smoking techniques and other mannerisms, the men studied Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

Perhaps inspired by the legendary epithet uttered by a French general when asked to surrender at Waterloo—“Merde!”—McAuliffe offered a one-word answer to the ultimatum: “

The resulting device, eventually known by the code designations “VT” or “T-98,” and by the code name “pozit,” contained a tiny radio transmitter, which broadcast a signal in flight. When the beam bounced off a solid object, a receiver in the fuze detected the reflected signal and tripped a firing circuit that detonated the shell. A 5-inch pozit shell, fired by U.S.S. Helena in the South Pacific, had for the first time brought down a Japanese plane in January 1943. But for eighteen months the fuze could be used only over open water or friendly territory, for fear that if the enemy retrieved a dud, Axis engineers could copy the design.

P-47 squadrons now bound for Bastogne.

At his urging, an extra skin of armor plate was welded to the front of some Sherman hulls, for a total thickness of four inches, and these “Jumbo” tanks were to lead the columns churning north. “Drive like hell,” Patton urged. “We have an opportunity of winning the war.

The enemy had accumulated such a large American motor pool that pilots were ordered to bomb any column that included both Allied and German vehicles.

Even as American losses in the Pacific spiraled, roughly one in ten U.S. combat casualties during World War II occurred in the Bulge, where 600,000 GIs had fought, fourfold the number of combatants in blue and gray at Gettysburg.

Churchill sought to repair Anglo-American discord with a gracious speech in the Commons. “United States troops have done almost all the fighting and have suffered almost all the losses,” he said. “They have lost sixty to eighty men for every one of ours.” The Bulge “is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.

The Battle of the Bulge had affirmed once again that war is never linear, but rather a chaotic, desultory enterprise of reversal and advance, blunder and élan, despair and elation. Valor, cowardice, courage—each had been displayed in this spectacle of a marching world. For magnitude and unalloyed violence, the battle in the Ardennes was unlike any seen before in American history, nor like any to be seen again. Yet as always, even as armies and army groups collided, it was the fates of individual soldiers that drew the eye.

The Americans alone occupied sixteen barracks, palazzi, and improvised hostels, including the local YWCA and the Lascaris Bastion, a dank warren excavated eons ago by the Knights of St. John, a monastic order founded during the First Crusade.

First came young King Farouk I of Egypt, wearing a fez and sunglasses, followed by the diminutive Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and descendant of Solomon and Sheba. Finally the destroyer U.S.S. Murphy pulled along Quincy’s starboard flank to deliver the imposing, black-robed King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, with an entourage that included a fortune-teller, a food taster, bodyguards carrying scimitars, a royal coffee server and his deputy, nine slaves, and a herd of sheep whose numbers diminished with each bloody butchering on Murphy’s fantail.

“never send an infantryman where you can send an artillery shell.

Hardly more credible was the so-called Werewolf movement. Conceived by Himmler as a paramilitary insurgency and named for a lycanthropic, flesh-eating character from a German novel about the Thirty Years’ War, the Werewolf commandos accomplished little more than to scribble a bit of graffiti—“Traitor, take care, the Werewolf is watching”—and assassinate the mayor of Aachen for collaboration. General Donovan briefly considered hiring Basque assassins to hunt down all Werewolves, but nothing came of it.

Churchill, who would sob like a child at the president’s passing, subsequently wrote that “he altered decisively and permanently the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the Old. His life must therefore be regarded as one of the most commanding events in human destiny.” Roosevelt’s chief of staff said simply, “How could a man die better?

Devers coined the perfect epigraph. “For many months we have fought together,” he wrote De Lattre, “often on the same side.

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 major belligerent. A German prisoner complained, “Warfare like yours is easy.

One line from Eisenhower’s address would be engraved over his tomb in Kansas a quarter-century later: “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.