I apologize for my long break from the world of blogging. I don't have a good excuse, so I won't waste your time by giving you a bad one. Just kidding. I actually do have a good excuse. In the past, I've been slaving away as an adjunct teaching 8-9 courses a semester while taking 2 graduate classes of my own as I try to finish my MS in Criminal Justice. This past semester, I reduced my teaching load to six classes and this spring I will finish my Criminal Justice degree (finally!). So there you have it. I do not know if I will be as prolific in the upcoming weeks and months as I have been in the past, but I suppose something is better than nothing. Now on to the subject of today's post!
I don't know how I missed these books when they came out. I mean, I heard of them, but I did not read them. I can only surmise that it is for the same reasons given above for not blogging very much over the past months. As I am now making an effort to set aside more time for reading and less time for watching TV, over the Christmas break I was able to obtain the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson. The actual book titles are An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light. If you do the kindle thing, which I finally started doing in May after I ran out of room for any additions to my 2,000 book collection, you can get the three volumes together in a set for a very reasonable price, around $23. So about a week ago, I got my copies and dove in.
It is somewhat embarrassing for me to admit that despite having a lifelong interest in World War Two, my knowledge of the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy are more general than specific. I can speak at length and with authority on the Eastern Front, the air war over Europe, and the campaign in northwest Europe from D-Day to the Fall of Berlin. I cannot do that as it relates to Operations Torch, Avalanche, or Husky. Compounding my shame is that my own grandfather commanded an infantry platoon in North Africa and Sicily! (Despite having been in the Army since June of 1940, it was until 1943 that the Army decided an officer who was fluent in French and German might be of more use to the war effort as an intelligence officer rather than an infantry officer.) Thankfully, this wonderful series of books has remedied my lack of knowledge!
Mr. Atkinson is a journalist. I say this because it means he knows how to tell a story. While plenty of analysis exists in the pages of his books, it is at its core, a narrative history. When it comes to writing this kind of book, journalists have an edge of academic historians. Academics get bogged down in arguing their thesis and storytelling takes a back seat, if it is even in the car at all. Journalists just make better storytellers, in my opinion. This is quite evident in the Liberation Trilogy. His books move from the halls of Washington to Eisenhower's Headquarters, to those of various generals, and finally, to the soldiers in the foxholes, the sailors in their ships, and the aircrew in the planes. This movement is seamless and the transitions excellent. At no point does it appear disjointed or choppy.
What I also appreciate about these books is that the author does not follow what I call the Brokaw/Ambrose school of World War Two history which goes something like this: American soldiers in Europe were all wonderful people who were fighting for freedom and liberty for all and did no wrong. And, of course, they won the war all by themselves. Atkinson covers the war warts and all. He mentions cases of American soldiers murdering prisoners, of various misdeeds both minor and serious, and also of serious command lapses, including on Eisenhower's part. He gives full attention to our allies in the West and covers British, Canadian, and even French contributions too. As his volumes cover the fighting in the West, the books do not fully explore the contributions of our Soviet allies, but this was not necessary for these volumes as it was not the point of the books. I did watch a C-SPAN interview with the author and he did talk about the importance of the Soviet contribution. This, of course, flies in the face of contemporary American history which ignores the Soviet war effort and also the fact that the Soviets took on around 80% of the German Army and caused around 90% of their casualties. Given the Russo-phobia that still exists in this country, this is not surprising.
I found his analysis of the various commanders to be spot on as well. With all the political infighting that went on, it is surprising that our combined forces were able to accomplish anything! His account of the 36th Infantry Division (Texas National Guard) and their ill fated attempt to cross the Rapido River was exceptionally moving. My grandfather enlisted in the Texas National Guard in June of 1940. He remained part of that unit until January of 1942 when he went to OCS and was, upon graduation, reassigned to a different unit. And this is just one of the many stories told in these marvelous volumes.
My grandfather was in the Army from June of 1940 until July of 1946. He rose from the rank of buck private to Captain. He talked a lot about his time in London, or Paris, or Berlin.....where he was part of the first group of Americans to arrive in the city. Granddaddy did not talk a lot about his time in North Africa or Sicily other than to mention some of his soldiers. Though I knew why he was close mouthed about his time in combat, these books help put it into focus a little better. Sadly, my grandfather passed away on Easter Sunday in 2009 at the age of 88. I'm sure he would have enjoyed these books too.
Mr. Atkinson's website says he is now working on a trilogy on the American Revolution which sounds quite promising. Given the fact that he spent 15 years researching and writing the Liberation Trilogy, I sure hope the Revolutionary War books don't take that long! Part of me wishes he would turn his attention to the Pacific Theater, but I'm sure that whatever he writes will be good. I'll certainly be looking forward to it.
So, Dear Readers, you should make haste to acquire these books if this is a subject which interests you. I promise that you won't be sorry.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half Ass Historian.