The Guns at Last Light is the final volume of the Liberation Trilogy detailing the American military World War Two campaigns of North Africa, Sicily and Italy and in this book the Normandy Landings and their aftermath.
It is immensely detailed: a blow by blow, day by day, account with exhaustive – and I have to say exhausting – lists of casualties, materiel and profiles of the leading characters.
It opens with a presentation by Dwight Eisenhower in the theatre of St. Paul’s School.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery attended that school – as did I and indeed was in the house named after him.
I can claim a connection with that theatre as I acted in the final play The Happy Haven produced there before the school moved to Barnes.
In the audience for the presentation on Operation Overlord were the King and Winston Churchill. Sadly, the school is no more as it was demolished for flats so this important historical venue and archive is not preserved.
Operation Overlord met with many casualties, especially on Omaha Beach when the invading force coming through the sea were mowed down by raking fire.
In retrospect more lives might have been saved by exercising Allied air superiority and bombing the pillboxes and gun emplacements.
Field Marshal Rommel was in charge of the Atlantic defences of the Wehrmacht and realised the best chance of success was to drive the Allied forces off the beaches.
The Allied established a foothold but the German resistance was stout, helped by the hedgerow countryside called le bocage, which provided ideal territory for snipers. The Allies did eventually take Brittany and marched towards Paris.
Atkinson details well the conflict of command.
Montgomery clearly and resolutely held the opinion that there should be one Supreme Commander and that should be him. He advocated one thrust into Germany, Eisenhower and Omar Bradley two, through the Saar and Ruhr valley.
Then there was General de Gaulle who believed any liberation in France should be achieved by the French army under Generals Lecletc and Lattre.
The Americans, British and French did not sing from the same hymn sheet and all the time the Soviet Red Army was advancing on Berlin from the east.
This mass of detail is not always easy to absorb and I began to wonder if a historical account is the best way to do so.
I found my DVD of Battle of the Bulge starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas.
Although the storyline was far-fetched, all the events were there: the secrecy of the operation, the initial ground made by the Tiger Panzers, the lack of gasoline, the refusal of the Americans to surrender at Bastogne with the celebrated response of “Nuts”, the covert fight column activities of American-speaking German units behind the Allied lines, the massacre of GIs at Malmedy.
However I did think the best way to appreciate the Normandy Landings is a guide and I have found such a person, Philip de Zulueta.
He is the grandson of Daphne du Maurier and Boy Browning, one of the architects of the disastrous paratroop assault on Arnhem.