Nancy and Ronald Reagan at American Cemetery in Omaha Beach.
June 13, 2013

Guns at Last Light

I'd waited nearly five years for Rick Atkinson to finish his trilogy on the liberation of Europe, so when it became available in November for pre-order on Amazon, I placed an order immediately. Naturally it came while we were in California, so I had to wait an additional week to start reading it.

Atkinson focuses on the time from shortly before D-Day until V-E day, May 1944, the month before, until May 1945. In 650 pages he covers the D-Day battles, Market Garden, the Bulge, and the entry into Germany.

The salient points that emerge from the book are:

  1. The importance of logistics. Victor Davis Hanson, in The Soul of Battle, asserts that there were about 25,000 troops in London handling logistics. Atkinson gives a higher figure, and describes the imperiousness of J. C. H. Lee, the general in charge of logistics. Many of the problems faced by the allies were ones of supply, and it was not just the obvious ones of gasoline, shells, jeeps, and so on. Shoes and socks were also important. Frequent changes of socks were necessary in the cold and damp of the Ardennes to prevent trench foot, whose complications can lead to amputation. You can find a report on trench foot in WW II here.
  2. Eisenhower was an inadequate battlefield commander. He comes across as a better politician, who smooths out internecine conflicts between subordinate commanders. Here is what Atkinson said about Eisenhower in an interview with the Chicago Tribune:
    "I've lived with Dwight David Eisenhower for 14 years now, and my admiration for him has only deepened. And yet it's important to recognize that he is, in fact, flawed. He is not a particularly talented field marshal. He makes mistakes from the beginning. He is not a natural battle captain. His job is to be chairman of this enormous, fractious martial enterprise. But it's important to see that he has defects and deficiencies. It makes him much more interesting and accessible to us. We can appreciate him more.”*


  3. Bradley was overrated, and was hyped by the press. There's one moment in which he reveals his callous disregard for his soldiers' lives. Bradley's attack plan for COBRA called for bombers to drop their payloads close to the ground troops who were supposed to be advancing. The airmen estimated that it would take three hours, not the one hour that Bradley had allotted, for the planes to prepare the area for the ground assault. The margin of safety for the troops was estimated at 3,000 yards, a bit under two miles.
    "Bradley agreed to pull his assault battalions back twelve hundred yards rather than eight hundred, but he balked at further concessions. Warned that 3 percent of the munitions would lime fall awry—some 1,800 bombs in the proposed COBRA payload—he accepted the risk. If GIs died they were ‘nothing more than tools to be used in the accomplishment of the mission,’ he later wrote. ‘War has neither the time nor heart to concern itself with the individual and the dignity of man.’ As he had told Ernie Pyle. ‘I've spent thirty years preparing a frame of mind for accepting such a thing.’”*

    *Atkinson, 140.

    " If anyone deserved to have a soldier remark “His blood, our guts,” surely it was Bradley, and not Patton.*

    *If memory serves there's a scene in the movie Patton in which one soldier refers to Patton as “Old Blood and Guts.” His companion makes the remark referred to above.

    " Here's what Atkinson, in that same interview cited above, says about Bradley:

    "Omar Bradley was a contributor — by virtue of two memoirs — to the mythology about his role and his level of competence. But he was what you see in war frequently and in WWII, in particular. It's the Peter Principle at play, where people are promoted above their natural level of competence. Bradley is commanding a corps in Tunisia in 1943, and then in the blink of an eye he's commanding an Army Group. That is a huge leap. So many of them had no real experience in commanding large units under the most stressful circumstances. I'm admiring of the fact that they are able to do it as well as they can, but it's important not to sugarcoat it.”*

    *op. cit.

  4. The uselessness of the French. While DeGaulle marched into Paris at the head of columns of French soldiers, most of the fighting and dying from the invasion beaches until Paris was done by the Americans, British, Canadians, and Poles. The two French commanders under DeGaulle, Leclercq and DeLattre spent a good deal of their time fighting with each other.
  5. Parachute and gliders frequently missed their LZs or their drop zones. The airborne troops struggled to get back to their designated areas.
  6. The inaccuracy of Allied bombing. The Americans had the Norden bombsight, and when I was growing up it was legendary. There was a movie entitled Bombardier (1943, Pat O'Brien, Randolph Scott, Eddie Albert, Robert Ryan) about the Norden bomb sight, and how the fliers were pledged to protect its secret. The bombsight was supposed to be able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In fact the sight was neither secret, the Duquesne Spy Ring had passed the secret on to Germany in 1941. Nor was it accurate. The sight had a claimed CEP (circular error probable) of 75 feet. In combat it achieved a CEP of 1,200 feet. Part of the discrepancy has been attributed to testing the sight in clear desert conditions, while conditions in Europe were unclear, and urban. So no pickle barrels were hit in Berlin.
  7. Atkinson brings this out in his book on Sicily and Italy, and here as well: When your enemy is fleeing, and has an army that can be used again, pursue him and kill him. Meade failed to do this after Gettysburg, and Lee's army remained effective from July 3, 1864 to April, 1865. The allies failed to cut off escaping German divisions in Sicily, and those divisions returned to ill effect, for the Allies, in Italy. The failure to clear Antwerp and its environs properly, notably the Scheldt, prevented efficient use, or even use at all, of the port of Antwerp. Atkinson doesn't comment on this, but I think it could be argued that a similar and later instance of this failure can be found in the first Gulf War. The high command had improperly defined objectives, which should have been the total destruction of the Iraqi army and the removal of Saddam Hussein, and it failed to kill the fleeing remnants of Hussein's army. Arguably at least some that army came back in 2003. Also, the failure to kill that army may have convinced some that we were not the strong horse, but the weak one.*

    *See Osama bin Laden's pronunciamento about how people would follow the strong horse over the weak horse. Of course, he did not anticipate some events and made no comment about the followers of a dead horse.

  8. There was not much that could have been done to prevent the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe.
Next up, two by Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower, and The Guns of August. I'll be doing them in reverse order of publication. The Proud Tower deals with the world before WW I, and The Guns of August deals with the period right before and up until the first major battles of the war.