Reading from The Guns At last Light. The War in Western Europe 1944- 1945, by Rick Atkinson.

by Daniel Russ on December 12, 2018

Post image for Reading from The Guns At last Light. The War in Western Europe 1944- 1945, by Rick Atkinson.


This book is brilliant as it paints pictures we rarely imagine. He talks about immensely altered landscape of Europe in the last year of the conflict.


Five years of warfare had left British cities as “Bedraggled, unkempt, and neglected as rotten teeth.” People talked about ‘Before the war” as if it were a place not a time. Atkinson describes the wildflowers that pop up in bombed out shell craters and lots. Sow-whistle, ragwort, and rosebay willow herb. Along with open sewage, rats, and the unrelenting foul odor of death. The desperate need for metal resulted in disappearing fences and railing. Entire cemeteries would have no fence around them. There were no fountain pens or vegetable peelers or jewelry to be found. There were ads asking for unwanted artificial teeth.


Oddly, this rationing that began in 1940 would not end until 1954. By 1944, most British children had only seen lemons in photographs, and Vitamin C came from turnip soup. People lived in shambolic bomb shelters, many ad hoc shelters constructed as additions to an existing, shed, or walkway. Children had not slept in their own beds from over four years.


Pubs and restaurants looked like United Nations military gathering, with uniforms of all colors and the pendants and flags of Allied forces around the world.


There were also ubiquitous crowded accommodations as millions of troops rotated in and out of the United Kingdom for the duration of the war. At one point 3.5 million people were staged in and out of a country the size of Oregon. In London and in other cities of size, there were mandatory blackouts from 10 PM to 5 AM. City parks were populated by people that Bruce Springsteen might describe in his anthemic song Jungleland:


“…Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners
Desperate as the night moves on
Just one look and a whisper, and they’re gone

Beneath the city, two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender
In a bedroom locked in whispers
Of soft refusal and then surrender
In the tunnels uptown, the Rat’s own dream guns him down
As shots echo down them hallways in the night
No one watches when the ambulance pulls away
Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light…”


Parks were inundated with prostitutes trying make a buck and soldiers seeking comfort. Then accommodations were lacking, but not the desire.


The amazing size of World War II never ceases to amaze me. Poet Randall Jarrell said famously: “you are something that there are millions of.” Just over 8 million men had been inducted into the United States Army and Navy.  That’s 11,000 a day. The average GI was 26 and was born at the end of World War I. Half of all Americans coming into theatre were teenagers, and a third had a grade school diploma and a quarter of them had a high school diploma. Privates made $50 a month, Sergeants were paid $96 a month, Medal of Honor winners are given $2 a month extra. The average American GI was 5’88” and 144 lbs. As the war wore on, requirements were relaxed until you could have one eye, one ear and seven fingers and still pass muster.


One third of all civilian dentists were drafted.  


They would extract 15 million teeth, fill 68 million, and make 2.5 million sets of dentures.


Obsessive compulsive persons could serve given their compulsions were manageable. Thieves were out. Psychotics were out.


German Marder III Tank Destroyer 



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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Kolkman December 18, 2018 at 3:07 am

The picture of that soldier with his head hanging, is from the Vietnam war. The flak jacket, the combat boots and the uniform point to that.

Louis Kolkman January 16, 2019 at 4:04 am

Also, the picture of the Marder is probably taken in Nijmegen, as I think I recognize the building in the background, thatbeeing the late medieval City Hall. The picture is at least taken in the Netherlands, as the posters on the left side ar for “Winterhulp”, which was a program by the German occupation for people to donate money, which would then be spend to help the poor and starving.

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