The Archetype of an epic tale is the Three Act play, and to this day, the format remains in constant use.
But it is rare for the events of history to so neatly conform to this methodology. But the history of the US Army in World War II follows this arc quite closely.
Act I, the campaign in Africa introduces our protagonist, a young brash Army, versus its antagonist, a battle hardened Wehrmacht that seems nearly invincible. The battle is joined, and the protagonist suffers defeats and setbacks, only to achieve a victory, but not the final victory, at the end of the first act.
Act II brings our Army to the Italian campaign. As with all second acts, it starts with optimism, but also gathering clouds. Mighty struggles will ensue, and dark times ahead for our hero.
Act III, the Invasion and Campaign in Western Europe will eventually lead to the great finale showdown, the epic battle- in this case, the Battle of the Bulge- and to the final victory, with our hero poised to savor the fruits of victory, and imagine new horizons.
It is a tale that begs for a talented writer to put it to paper.
Fourteen years ago, Rick Atkinson set out to tell the story of the US Army’s World War II European campaigns. And not surprisingly, he followed the arc that history had providentially set out for him, dedicating a book to each of the three major campaigns of the Army in Europe.*
The Liberation Trilogy is a narrative, not a textbook. It tells a tale, not a history. Serious historians may well enjoy reading it, but would focus on other historical records. But for the lay reader, or the professional soldier, the story is well told, accessible, and often moving.
The story of the Army’s campaigns is also very much a story of coalition warfare, especially with the British, but to a fair extent also the French. The Army’s operations cannot be understood without a fair grasp of the overall Allied campaign, and Atkinson devotes a fair amount of attention to this higher point of view. But Atkinson also does a fine job of bringing the challenges and heartache of the average soldier to the reader, through extensive use of soldiers letters and oral histories. Throughout the trilogy, we hear Privates and Captains tell the despair, fatigue, exhilaration, and frustration of men at war.
From a personality standpoint, every story of the campaigns must tell of the complex, often tense, sometimes acrimonious relationships between Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, and of course, Patton. Eisenhower was also intensely aware of the political factors at play at his level of command. The US war aim was to secure peace through the defeat of Germany. And Roosevelt was largely content to leave Eisenhower under the day to day supervision of George Marshall. The British war aim, as seen by Churchill, was to secure the future of the Empire through the defeat of Germany, and he had no reservations about bypassing the Combined Chiefs and pleading his case for a course of action directly to Ike, or whispering in Monty’s ear that he should pursue a certain course.
But for all the challenges of coalition warfare and the oft differing aims and strategies of the Allies, they were remarkably successful in achieving compromise courses of action that were plausible, and if not the most perfectly possible plans, ultimately effective. The Germans, with the strength of unity of command, found themselves time and again hamstrung by schemes of maneuver that were patently impossible, and yet had to be tried, if only because The Fuhrer had so deemed.
While Atkinson also pays more attention to the 6th Army Group operations in the south than most histories, he still provides only the barest bones. Of course, that’s largely because Eisenhower too paid only the barest attention to operations in the south. The main effort was in the north. The only question for the Allies to suss out was would it be Monty’s 21st Army Group, or Bradley’s 12 Army Group?
Atkinson does a serviceable job of detailing the timelines of major operations, and does so with a minimum of jargon. The reader new to military history should have little trouble understanding the books.
Generously footnoted, the bibliography suggests quite a number of further books for the reader.
A very solid, very readable series, and while I’m frustrated it took 14 years for Rick to complete the series, it was worth the wait. Now if he’ll only do a similar series on the Army in the Pacific.
*Granted, North Africa isn’t Europe, but virtually all the fighting was done by either the Americans, the Europeans, or their colonial troops, and was so close to the European continent that it was for all practical matters, a European campaign.
Henry Holt publishers provided an advanced review copy of The Guns At Last Light. I had previously bought my own copies of An Army at Dawn, and The Day of Battle.