Posts Tagged ‘Rick Atkinson’

guns at last lightI’m recovering from a foot injury and it has given me time to finish Rick Atkinson’s latest release, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 in his Liberation Trilogy. With school around the corner, I am excited to be teaching a couple dozen seniors once again about World War II, and in the springtime, the Holocaust.

I’m happy with Mr. Atkinson’s coverage of the heroics of the 30th Infantry Division-he even made a research pilgrimage to Hill 314 in Mortain, where elements of the 30th held off against a Hitler-ordered panzer counterattack for 6 days, saving the Allied breakout in Normandy in August 1944. 

If you are a follower of this site, you will know that that division is dear to my heart, not because of any blood relations who fought in it, but because they named me an honorary member of their Veterans of World War II Association for my work in the classroom and in uncovering and reuniting the story of the liberation of the concentration camp train at Farsleben, Germany on Friday, April 13, 1945.

So you can imagine my excitement when I ran across this passage last evening from page 599 of Rick’s book. He writes about some of the chaos that unfolded as POWs, slave laborers, and concentration camps were liberated in Germany:

“Instead, starvation, revenge, indiscipline, and chaos often created what Allied officers called a “liberation complex.” SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces ] had presumed that refugees “would be tractable, grateful, and powerless after their domination for from two to five years as the objects of German slave policies.” As an Army assessment concluded, “They were none of these things.… Newly liberated persons looted, robbed, murdered, and in some cases destroyed their own shelter.” Freed laborers plundered houses in the Ruhr, burning furniture for cook fires and discarding slave rags to dress in business suits, pajamas, and evening clothes ransacked from German wardrobes. Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. In Osnabrück, “rampageous” Russian slaves died after swilling V-2 rocket fuel discovered in a storage yard. Others smashed wine barrels and liquor bottles in a Hanover cellar, drinking so heavily from a sloshing, six-inch-deep pool of alcohol on the floor that several collapsed in a stupor and drowned before U.S. MPs could close the entrance.”

So I did a double take: Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. I checked his notes-page 801, sure enough, 30th Division G-2 report. I know I have read this before in my research of primary source documentation, originally sent to me by Frank Towers, one of the liberators.  Here it is.

30th Division Medical Detachment Diary & Log

Of course, the backstory surrounding the document above is the story that I have to tell- the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the attached 743rd Tank Battalion, the Holocaust survivors whom they stumbled upon, liberated, and were reunited with 62 years later at our high school and subsequent events.  I’ll probably share the Benjamin photo with Mr. Atkinson on his FB page. 

Anyway, I recommend the book to any of my followers interested in the history of World War II in the European theater, and am really pumped to teach some very excited and motivated students this year, including the grandson of the tank commander who was sent to investigate the train.

This is how you “do” history, and how the teaching of history can sometimes take on a life of its own. So cool to be a part of it, and to read something in a best seller and be able to grasp the incredible backstory that awaits to be told.

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This is from last evening’s PBS NewsHour. Book is on my summer reading list. April 1945 a focus of my studies.

‘Bad to the Very End’: Author Reflects on the Long, Deadly Road to WWII Victory

In honor of the 69th anniversary of D-Day, Ray Suarez talks to historian Rick Atkinson about his new book, “The Guns at Last Light,” which chronicles the brutal fight for victory at the end of World War II.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, we mark June 6, D-Day.

Ray is back with book conversation he recorded recently about World War II.

RAY SUAREZ: The war that had a hand in cementing U.S. status as a superpower and created the map of the modern world ended almost 70 years ago.

You could fill a library with books about the Second World War, yet historians still find new things to say and new ways to say it.

Award-winning author and historian Rick Atkinson has just completed the third book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945.” And he joins me now.

And, Rick, if nothing else, this book is a reminder that, with D-Day, there was still some of the worst fighting of the war left to go.

RICK ATKINSON, author, “The Guns at Last Light”: That’s certainly true, Ray.

I think the horror of it is difficult to imagine 70 years later. And it continues really after D-Day, almost to the last gunshot. There were almost 11,000 Americans killed in Germany in April 1945, the last full month of the war in Europe. And that’s nearly as many as died in June 1944, the month of invasion.

So the bloodletting continued right to the end. The notion that many Americans have that it was bad on the beaches, and then something bad happened during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, and then it was kind of sweeping into Germany and the war was essentially over is actually quite incorrect. It was bad to the very end, almost to May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ended.

RAY SUAREZ: Terrible, ferocious, deadly fighting through Northern France, through Holland and Belgium, and finally into the German homeland.

Then you bring us to one British officer who says, “Why don’t the silly bastards give up?”

What was the German calculation in those last months, when it was clear they could no longer militarily prevail?

RICK ATKINSON: Well, there are several things at play.

Part of it is terror. Hitler had a police state of the first order. And those who showed any sign of being weak-kneed faced prison or often summary execution. That prevented a lot of people who knew that the war was not going to turn out well for Germany from giving up.

In other cases, you have to say that 80 million Germans tended in large measure to be true believers, that they believed in the fuhrer almost to the bitter end. You would see parades, for example, on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1945, in Berlin — this is 10 days before he kills himself — of young girls, young boys who are too young to go into the military carrying flags and singing patriotic songs, people cheering along the streets of a badly battered Berlin at that point.

So, the German psyche was such that they’d been heavily influenced by propaganda. And they were just generally disinclined to give up.

RAY SUAREZ: Rick, you also remind us that the war got deadlier as it went on, because both sides were innovating, inventing new ways of killing the other side practically until the last day of the war.

RICK ATKINSON: That’s true, Ray. The lethality increases as the war goes along, and it — it’s extraordinary how brutal it is.

We Americans, for example, invented something called the POZIT Fuse. That was the code name. There was a little radar sensor in the nose of an artillery shell, and it could, by emanating radar signals, determine when a passing plane or when an approaching target was just within the kill radius of the burst, and detonate that shell.

It was used for the first time in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The Germans called it pure manslaughter. It was part and parcel of a generation of weapons that came along, napalm used for the first time around this time. The Germans had invented the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs and then a ballistic missile, the V-2, with terrifying results, most of them launched against London or Antwerp with devastating results to civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: We have in the final weeks and months of the war some moments where it’s hard to tell where moral authority existed, if such a thing any longer existed.

How could you tell concentration camp inmates not to rise up and kill their captors who were trying to surrender and act like normal soldiers? How could you put trial Americans who, sickened by the slaughter, would just turn and around pop these guys with their sidearms as they tried to surrender? It got nasty, brutal, and frightening in those final weeks.

RICK ATKINSON: This is true.

And it’s not just the final weeks, actually. There’s killing of prisoners that begins early in the liberation of Europe by American, British, Canadian soldiers, and, of course, by the Germans. It intensifies during that last 11 months from Normandy on.

But when you get to the camp liberation phase, particularly in April 1945, for example, at Dachau, American soldiers coming into this camp, tens of thousands of emaciated, horribly treated prisoners, and thousands of bodies lying around, and there were soldiers that went on a rampage. There were at least a couple dozen S.S. guards who had surrendered, had been taken into custody who were murdered, probably more than that.

This is at the same time that there are liberated inmates rampaging, tearing literally some camp guards limb from limb. There was an investigation. The investigators found that, yes, there had been prisoners murdered by American soldiers. Nothing was ever done of it. No one really had the stomach to prosecute American soldiers under these circumstances.

This is just one example of many, though, of the barbarity that war unleashes with — inside otherwise good soldiers.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to continue this conversation with you online.

The book is “The Guns at Last Light.”

Rick Atkinson, thanks a lot.

RICK ATKINSON: Thank you, Ray.



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