As with the earlier volumes, “The Guns at Last Light” moves seamlessly between broad issues of strategies and the tactics employed by Allied and German armies and the fighting as experienced by individual soldiers. No military history can succeed unless the author clearly describes how the battles were planned and executed and the impact each engagement had on the broader conflict. Aided by a large number of exceptionally clear and detailed maps, Atkinson does this exceptionally well.
But it’s not just the battles that matter. For example, Atkinson underscores the importance of logistics and supply. By late 1944, the Allies had largely won the Battle of the Atlantic and could move men and equipment across the ocean with ease. But they had exceptional difficulty getting the ships unloaded and getting the materiel to the troops in a timely fashion. These delays often disrupted military plans. For the Germans, the issue was largely oil – they couldn’t get enough of it to adequately fuel their armored divisions and they too were forced to design battle plans around supply chains. More than once, readers will be reminded of the old aphorism that “logistics win wars.”
The role of airpower is another central theme. When the skies were clear, Allied forces had a powerful advantage. But when weather made flying impossible, Germans troops had great freedom of movement. Atkinson does not oversell the benefits of airpower – calling it “a blunt instrument, a bludgeon rather than a scalpel” – and he underscores the terrible impact of indiscriminate bombing on civilians. But he makes the reader well aware that control of the air was an extraordinary asset for the allies.
Ultimately, two things make this a riveting book. The first is the great emphasis that Atkinson gives to contemporaneous accounts such as diaries, letters, and unpublished manuscripts and the light this sheds on the thoughts and experiences of those who lived, fought, and often died in these battles. As a result, even at a remove of almost 70 years, the reader has some small idea of what it must have been like to fight on the front lines.