The Liberation Trilogy – Review

  • An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson [Rating – 5/5. Reviewer – daikama]
  • The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson [Rating – 5/5. Reviewer – daikama]
  • The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson [Rating – 4.5/5. Reviewer – daikama]

The Liberation Trilogy is a three-part series by Rick Atkinson’ covering the US North African and European campaigns in World War II. The first book is An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, the second, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, and the final book, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. The series has received wide-spread acclaim, with Atkinson winning a Pulitzer Prize for the first book, An Army at Dawn.

As indicated by the book titles, the Liberation Trilogy does not cover any aspect of the Pacific Theater. However, for the campaigns the trilogy does cover, Atkinson’s decision to write a separate book for each campaign pays off handsomely. The trilogy has a level of detail and completeness not possible with a single volume format. It was a big war after all ;). Obviously the level of detail doesn’t reach that of books devoted to one particular battle, but it does make a noticeable and beneficial difference when reading compared to a single volume approach. The books also contain some very good and much appreciated maps (one cannot have too many maps with military history!).

It’s not just Atkinson’s decision to combine greater detail (including some well-placed oral history). If you ever wondered what the term “wordsmith” meant, just read Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The man has a way with words. The narration is easy to follow, interesting, and lurid (in a good way). Crimson tracers light up the sky, while thundering salvos of artillery fly across the lines of battle. Very descriptive and easily to imagine the situation.  Atkinson’s writing style alone separates the Liberation Trilogy from the vast majority other books covering the same material.  But there’s more than just great writing. Atkinson for the most part is as objective as any author I’ve read when it comes to those in command regardless of rank. Rather than expound endlessly on his opinion, for most part he gives the facts and lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to whether those in command were worthy or not. In general, the books take a “top down”/”commanders eye-view” approach to the subject though instances of greater detail for individual battles are common along with comments by enlisted men, NCOs and junior officers. Still, no question the focus is on those wearing stars and/or holding the field marshal’s baton, and there are some pretty startling revelations about those men and why some decisions were made.

As indicated by the ratings, I thought the first two books, An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, were superb. In the first book, Atkinson does a fantastic job of covering the US (and related British) North African campaign. Not only are the battles covered in fairly good detail with plenty of strategic overview, but Atkinson offers some amazing unbiased and well-thought analysis of both the tactics and commanders involved. What’s most impressive about this book is that it gives the reader is a clear understanding of just how screwed up everything was. I found all very interesting and engaging – both in terms of the battles and Allied commanders. An Army at Dawn is at the top of my WW II history book recommendation list. It’s that good.

The Day of Battle covers US operations in Sicily and Italy. There’s no sophomore slump for Atkinson here, as I found The Day of Battle just as good as his award-winning prequel, An Army at Dawn. Like An Army at Dawn, Atkinson pulls no punches in evaluating both US and British commanders during that period. His analysis of commander strategy and decision-making remains remarkably objective (with one minor exception) – with both sides taking their fair share of criticism. That one minor exception concerns Atkinson giving a bit of a free pass for Field Marshal Montgomery’s slow march up the “boot” of Italy at a time when the US Salerno beachhead was in danger of being repulsed back into the sea. Montgomery’s forces to the south faced very little opposition yet they crawled north, even taking the time to stop for a medal award ceremony. Atkinson does mentions this, but in a very matter of fact way (one sentence) while he’s much more critical of other commanders. A minor quibble, but a noticeable one nonetheless.

In The Guns at Last Light, in terms of the Allies struggle against Germany in Western Europe, we finally get down to the “main business” to loosely paraphrase Field Marshal Montgomery. Unfortunately, the final book in the trilogy falls short of the high standard set by the previous two, ending with more of a “bang” than a truly thunderous roar. Given both the number and magnitude of events during 1944-1945 in the ETO, the book is regrettably short – only 53 pages more of “main story” than The Day of Battle. With that length, something had to give, and it did. At times the pacing felt a bit rushed and uneven – more summary than flowing narrative. Battle coverage frequently lacked the “just right” level of detail I had come to expect from reading Atkinson’s previous two books, giving sense of incompleteness (“…that’s it?”). At least twice I went back to make sure I didn’t skip a couple of pages by mistake (I didn’t).

Like his earlier works, there is plenty of frank, straightforward discussion about the men in charge – including their strengths, weaknesses, and surprisingly petty rivalries. However, unlike before, IMO Atkinson starts to lose his objectivity more noticeably. In The Day of Battle, I noted a small instance of that as mentioned above. In The Guns at Last Light, that trend is both carried forward and exacerbated in the early part of the book – especially for coverage of Montgomery’s Operation Goodwood. To be fair, Atkinson is critical of Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden later in the book, but his easy-going treatment of Montgomery early on was noticeable to me and other readers. The Guns at Last Light is definitely good book. It’s just not as good as its predecessors, or, regrettably, could have been but for the want of some additional pages and better objectivity. For that reason I give the book a rating of 4.5/5 rather than the 5/5 rating I had hoped.

Overall, this is a very easy series to recommend, especially for those who have a mild interest in the subject matter and/or have not read many books of this genre. Military history books tend to be “dry reading”, but Atkinson’s books are practically dripping wet by comparison. Atkinson’s writing style is simply pleasure to read and reread. It’s not an “oral history” based series, but there is a welcome amount of that which helps to keep the books from reading like an endless string of after action reports. All three books are very well researched to the point that even those familiar with the subject are likely to learn something new. A great series and I hope that Atkinson decides to cover the Pacific War at some point in the future.

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