In This Review
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy)

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Liberation Trilogy)

By Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt and Co., 2013, 896 pp.

With The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson concludes his celebrated trilogy on World War II. The first two volumes covered the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy. In this one, Atkinson is on more familiar territory: the buildup to the Normandy landings and the drive to Berlin, with its frustrating setbacks. Most of his readers will know this story. Yet Atkinson still manages to keep it fresh, with a talent for narrative and a mastery of detail that make this book one of the great contributions to the war’s history. He has an impressive command of the high-level strategic debates, coalition politics, and logistical feats that shaped the war, and he brings them to life with the accumulation of small details: U.S. General George Patton’s exuberance at the prospect of battle, the inventory of personal effects found on corpses, the U.S. decision to excuse American soldiers who shot captured SS guards in cold blood at the concentration camp in Dachau, the bedbugs and caviar at the Yalta conference.

Atkinson also describes the sexual temptations that greeted American GIs in France and the dire consequences in terms of prostitution and venereal disease. Roberts zeroes in on this aspect of the war in a remarkable study that complicates the view of the liberation of France and casts doubt on the moral character of the vaunted “greatest generation” of Americans. She vividly depicts the impact of the influx of hundreds of thousands of GIs on French society, especially on French women. One of the book’s most troubling revelations is the way that U.S. authorities wrongly blamed the rapes of French women on African American soldiers. Roberts demonstrates how officials excused appalling conduct by referring to the stereotype of the licentious French woman -- blaming victims for the sexual assaults they suffered. The book is marred by a tendency to overgeneralize and to overinterpret observations gleaned from letters and diaries. Nonetheless, it is a powerful reminder of the dark side of the liberation.