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“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.”
So wrote General Dwight Eisenhower on June 5, 1944, 69 years ago.
According to Rick Atkinson’s new book, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945, currently number one on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list, Ike continued, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Atkinson, a graduate of East Carolina University and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, writes that Ike misdated “the paper ‘July 5’—symptomatic of exhaustion and anxiety—he slipped it into his wallet, for use as needed.”
If the June 6 D-Day landing at Normandy had failed, Ike was prepared to take the blame.
The Guns at Last Light follows the last year of World War II from the Normandy invasion until the war’s end less than one year later.
Numerous books about the war to defeat Hitler’s Germany have made us familiar with the basic outline of Atkinson’s story from the landings at Normandy, the breakout from the coast, the liberation of Paris, the push to the German border, the Battle of the Bulge, and the final collapse of Hitler’s Reich.
Why do we need another account?
Shelby Foote’s Civil War books demonstrated how much good storytelling matters. Like Foote, Atkinson is much more than a chronicler of the bloody business of battles and troop movements. He gives us character studies of the war’s players, not just the top leaders.
For instance, while describing the enormous challenge of supplying millions of troops in Europe, with weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, medicine, and things like office supplies, Atkinson introduces us to a man responsible for organizing and operating the supply chain.
Lieutenant General John C.H. Lee was “also known as John Courthouse Lee, Jesus Christ Himself Lee, and God A’Mighty Lee… a fussy martinet who wore rank stars on both the front and back of his helmet, he was said to have a supply sergeant’s parsimony in doling out army kit ‘as if it were a personal gift,’ rewarding friends, of whom he had few, and punishing enemies, of whom he had many.
He had a knack for risible self-delusion, once standing in a London theater to acknowledge an ovation in fact intended for Eisenhower.”
In describing the horror of the war in the air, he uses the poetry of an American airman named Randall Jarrell:
“In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school —
Till our lives wore out.”
Jarrell, who died in 1965, taught writing at UNC-Greensboro.
The main character of this story is Dwight Eisenhower. And the main question the book deals with is, what made him, rather than British general Bernard Montgomery or George Patton, the best person to command the allied effort?
Both these men, especially Montgomery, questioned Eisenhower’s competence as a commander. Montgomery once said, “Eisenhower is quite useless…He is completely and utterly useless.”
But Atkinson gives his readers hundreds of other answers, his own and those of people who worked with Ike that show his remarkable ability to manage and coordinate thousands of generals and millions of soldiers.
The answer I like best came from an aide to General Omar Bradley who said, “There's something about the guy, the way he brushes along, the way he breaks out in a big grin, the way his voice, harsh and loud, cracks out, that disarms all within his vicinity… that's the way he is, gay, loud, democratic, dynamic, thinking fast, acting fast, spreading confidence.”
Eisenhower, and most of those who fought in World War II, are gone. Atkinson’s fine new book should remind us to give special thanks to those who still with us.
—D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.