On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, France and commenced an ground war against Nazi Germany. The European Theatre was marked by brutal fighting that saw high numbers of casualties on all sides of the conflict. In the end, Nazi Germany fell to allied forces and accepted an unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, commonly known as VE Day. The Japanese military continued to fight and remained defiant until two atomic bombs forced it too into surrending to Allied forces. VJ Day marked the end to World War II and the world breathed a sign of relief. For the United States Army, the European Theatre was a hard fought campaign that no one ever wanted to see again. Author Stephen Ambrose has composed a breathtaking account of the Army’s mission from the beaches at Normandy until the Allies seized Berlin in May, 1945.
It should be noted that this book is focused on the army in particular and not the other branches of the armed forces such as the Marines and Air Force. While the author does discuss air warfare during the conflict, the focus never wavers from the army. This is the grunt’s view of the war, in all of its horror and glory. Some readers may find the subject matter tough to read. The author pulls no punches and the descriptions of events that take place sometimes contain graphic details that bring home the horrors of war. But to accurately capture the gritty reality of the army’s mission, it is necessary.
As to be expected, the book follows the war’s timeline so that we can see the progression of the army’s efforts, their failurs and ultimate success. The Allied command are driven by the former General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and General George Patton (1888-1945). Even General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam during the Vietnam War makes an appearance. But make no mistake this is Eisenhower and Patton’s show, with each serving as the focus of a significant portion of the book, in particular when the European Theatre reaches middle to late 1944. The story is exciting and the pace is quick, with a significant number of names and places that will require extensive note taking.
Ambrose does an incredible job of covering not just the battles but all aspects of life as an infrantry soldier commonly known as a grunt. Life in infantry is tough, thankless and also deadly. Enemy soldiers, shells, mines and even freak accidents are the constant array of threats faced by the grunts. Europe is revealed as vast landscape of different terrains, some favorable for combat and others such as the Hurtgen Forest, seeming to come out of a horror film. And as Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) let his paranoia consume him, both sides settled in for a long and brutal fight. But the Allies remained determined and during the Europeant Theatre, it soon becomes clear that Germany would lose the war. The author discusses the German war effort, providing critical facts as to how and why it was no match for Allied forces in a protacted struggle.
On the American side, there are areas of confusion and even critical failure. Further, the plague known as trench foot proved to be as damaging as casualties that occurred in battle. Ambrose explores the trench foot issue, explaining just how much of an impact it hand on the infantry and troop supply. It is critical to understanding just how dangerous life on the front lines was during the war.
The United States Army had committed itself to eliminating Adolf Hitler and restoring peace to the world. However, at home, the United State still had yet to face its own problem of Jim Crow and open discrimination against its minority citizens. Ambrose does not shy away from the topic and sheds light on the racism that was nearly system wide in the military during the war. However, he also shows how black G.I.s served and proved themselves to be as good as others soldiers on the battlefield. The time he devotes to the topic does justice to the black soldiers who served in World War II including my great-grandfather Floyd Davision (1913-1988). I can only imagine what he saw, heard and experienced as a black soldier in a time when segregation was still the law of the land.
The number of facts provided in the book are staggering, yet it does not feel overwhelming any point in the book. The narrative flows freely and the author writes in a style that is gripping and brings the past to life as we move across Europe with sights set on Berlin. In what can only be described as bizarre, Hitler had decided to conduct military planning himself, rendering his generals almost useless. It was pure insanity and Ambrose examines the mistakes made by Hitler that sealed Germany’s fate several times before the war was officially over. Readers will find themselves scratching their heads at Hitler’s actions. However, Eisenhower and other commanders were waiting for him to slip up and when he did, the gloves came off and the Army went to work. It had a job to do and would not stop until Berlin fell into Allied hands. With the Red Army closing in from the east and America from the west, Hitler knew his fate was sealed and took his own life thus evading justice at Nuremberg. The nation he left behind was in ruins and Ambrose provides photos of the devastation. It is said that picture sometimes speaks a thousand words. They certainly do here in this book.
The battle to defeat Nazism was long and bloody but also a display of American and Soviet military might. In the story at hand, the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and took many bumps along the way. From start to finish the story is written beautifully there should be no doubt that the American campaign in World War II changed the war and the course of history. As each year passes, more veterans join the ranks of the deceased, taking with them countless memories of the war. Their names will be forever linked to it but for some veterans, Ambrose has given them a moment of fame in a book that provides a thorough examination of experienced military planning and execution. When its country needed them, the citizen soldiers of the U.S. Army rose to the occasion and showed the German menace the power of democracy and freedom. Highly recommended.