This is the third and final volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first two volumes handled the invasion of North Africa and the invasion of Italy. This one begins with D-Day, and ends with the death of Hitler and the final surrender of Nazi forces to the Allies.
It is a familiar story: the landings, the breakout from Normandy, the capture of Paris, the fatally flawed bridge too far called Operation Market Garden, the failed attack, Montgomery’s idea, that condemned the Allies to another winter of war, the Hürtgen forest, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine.
But also here is Atkinson’s memorable pacing and selection of details. He moves adroitly back and forth between the thoughts and actions of the commanders to the pain and suffering of the ordinary infantryman or the civilian caught up in the horrors of war.
He also does not hesitate to place blame where blame lies. The failure at Nijmegen was partly a failure of intelligence, but more so a failure of Allied commanders in pursuit of glory, Montgomery, in particular. The surprise spring on the Allies when Hitler’s forces launched the Battle of the Bulge was also an intelligence failure, and once again, an intelligence failure that had to be redeemed in blood, much of it American. (Not that Montgomery missed the opportunity; in a press conference, he took most of the credit for winning the battle for himself, seriously angering the Americans, again.) The crossing of the Rhine, as Atkinson points out, was another blunder by Montgomery redeemed in the blood of infantrymen and paratroopers. Despite the enormous casualties the airborne had suffered in almost every operation, Montgomery seemed determined to use the airborne arm; Atkinson says it was like a coin burning a hole in the general’s pockets.
Apart from the generals and the ordinary soldiers, Atkinson also gives us glimpses into decision making at the very highest levels of command. He takes us to the conference on Malta, where Marshall at last had had enough of British complaints about Eisenhower, and turned on the Brits. He takes us to Yalta, where Stalin argued for reparations and the division of Germany while Churchill fought for assurances of free elections in Poland, something that didn’t happen. Still, Roosevelt felt he got the best peace he could, considering the size and location of Stalin’s armies.
The book also shows how Hitler’s megalomaniacal intransigence and the German soldier’s determination to fight, often, to the death, resulted in thousands of unnecessary casualties, both civilian and military, long after Germany had for all practical purposes lost the war. (Almost as many Americans died in April 1945 as died in June 1944.)
Finally, the book details the suffering of the millions of innocents caught up in Nazi cruelty. There is the liberation of the death camps, the millions of displaced persons, often freed slave laborers, many of whom wandered the roads of Europe actively seeking revenge.