The Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson

The only way I could have read these books in a worse order was if I had gone fully backwards in time from Hitler’s suicide to the Battle of El Alamein. As it was, thanks to the vagaries of Islington Library stocks and Kindle sales, I went 2-3-1, which was sort of disorientating – the Allies got good at war and then really bad again.

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Richard Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy is really good. Essentially an account of U.S. participation (more on that later) in the war against the Nazis (the Pacific war goes basically unmentioned), it is well-researched and solid military history, but written by a journalist with some grasp of prose. So the whole thing is engaging and entertaining, and quite frequently almost beautifully lyrical. Generally the chapter openings and endings are more poetic, while the middle bits are mostly death and misery. Occasionally it’s both at the same time – there’s one passage in the second book that I immediately copied out to text to a variety of people I wanted to make glum.

The books have a fairly logical separation – it goes War in Africa, War in Italy, War in North-Western Europe. The only issue I have is where he starts the series – because of his focus on the U.S., the war ‘starts’ with Operation Torch, where the Allies landed in Algeria and Morocco. Montgomery and the Eighth Army don’t really appear until they approach Tunisia. Given the pivotal nature of El Alamein, this struck me as odd, although having read two books covering that part of the war this year, I wasn’t too fussed. Once the Allied armies are in the same theatre, Atkinson starts to pay them both the attention they deserve.

This often means extensive coverage of intra-Allied sniping, be it the Americans and the British squabbling, or the French being generally awkward. I think Atkinson gets better at reporting this as the series goes on. In the first book, there’s a prickly tone to how he quotes British criticism of U.S combat performance that is, on the one hand, kind of fair, they were dicks, but equally, sounds slightly petulant. Combined with an occasionally nauseating Band of Brothers-esque “they were boys on their way to becoming men/heroes etc.” tone, the books do toe the line of becoming jingoistic in that infuriating way. This is, I think, exacerbated by, again the U.S. focus. Atkinson acknowledges Soviet contributions, and covers the Big Three’s summits, including the desperate calls for a Second Front, but not much.

This is even more pronounced when it comes to the Axis perspective – where Beevor’s Ardennes gave over whole sections to the Kampfgruppe Peiper and its offensive (admittedly it’s easier to give narrative weight to an attacking army), the Liberation Trilogy dedicates limited space to the men across the battlefield.

Still, this isn’t as bad as three paragraphs of criticism makes it sound.

Possibly because of his journalist background, Atkinson is excellent when he focuses on the personalities of the commanders involved. This is one area where reading the books in order might have helped, as again, the way I read it, Eisenhower was a decent commander, a good one, then a newbie. But there is a real sense of how these men thought, interacted, and behaved, and how that affected the war effort. From the problems caused by inexperienced commanders in Tunisia to the heroics in Normandy, passing through the general “what” that was George S. Patton, there’s a lot going on.

As a frequent complainer about maps (I just really don’t have any sort of spatial logic I think), the maps in this are good – depending on the edition! The Kindle version was perfect, as you could zoom in on maps and all sorts. The first book came as a paperback with tiny margins, which was awful, and the third, paperback, had good maps but with the usual caveat that you have to flick backwards and forwards to find them – effort.

Just generally as a history of the Western front (loosely defined), you could do a lot worse than the Liberation Trilogy. It’s quite long, which means it doesn’t speed through any crucial moments, but you’re not spending three hundred pages reading about a battle, either. It’s not too nerdy (not enough tanks tbh), but it’s not shallow, either.

v.v.g. imo.

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