On a May day, 70 years ago, World War II ended in Europe. Myriad books have been written, among the best “The Liberation Trilogy” by Rick Atkinson, which take us across Africa to Tunisia, into Sicily, through Italy and on to the Normandy beaches and Berlin. Atkinson clearly details the strategies, the tactics, the battles, but his gift lies in humanizing those who participated, those who were there. (The trilogy’s titles are “An Army at Dawn,” “The Day of Battle” and “The Guns at Last Light.”)
North Africa was the crucible. Our forces were raw youngsters from every state in the country and every imaginable way of life. Amid the turmoil, the good and bad decisions, we floundered. Eisenhower was in over his head; everyone was, except the Germans, who outmaneuvered and outgunned us. We shot it out with the Vichy French and the Italians, we argued it out with the Free French and the British. In April, General George Marshall wrote Ike citing “a marked fall in the prestige of American troops.” We had to turn it around and finally did at Bizerte, in Tunisia, the only victorious army in the Allies’ three-pronged attack. Africa was finally finished.
It was in Bizerte that three words appeared on a wall — words that would follow our troops to the very end: “Kilroy Was Here.” Caleb Milne was there, too — and died there. He’d just written his mother, “Think of me today and in the days to come, as part of the earth beneath you, part of the air around you … ”
Sicily was next, the eccentric Patton vowing to reach Salerno before the egotistical Montgomery. Patton succeeded but lost much of his glow when he angrily slapped two recuperating soldiers. Our army was now fierce, outraged by the cruelty of the Germans. Lt. Col. Jack Toffey wrote his wife, “War is as Sherman said and has no similarity with cinemas or story book versions.”
Italy was dreadful: mud, rivers and endless mountains. Anzio proved a trap, with 92,000 troops encircled, unable to move for months. At one point German planes jettisoned four bombs that fell into a field hospital, killing dozens — doctors, nurses and patients. One sergeant prayed, “God help us. You come yourself, don’t send Jesus. This is no place for children.”
On it went, San Pietro, the Rapido River, Monte Cassino, where someone said, “You could never lose it, it was always there, looking at you. That brooding monastery ate into our souls.” Then, finally, Rome. It was June 4, 1944, and headlines screamed the news … but only for a day.
On June 6, the beaches of Normandy were invaded by the largest armada ever assembled, announcing the beginning of the end. “We have come to the hour for which we were born,” The New York Times gravely said; Cpl. William Preston wrote poignantly of a dead soldier he’d come upon, “What were his plans, never to be fulfilled, what fate had brought him to that spot at that moment?”
On they ploughed — Caen, Falaise, Arnhem, Bastogne — while endless tons of bombs dropped on the cities of Germany. One Berliner wrote, “The destruction will continue until the world has bled to death,” and in Dachau an army nurse wrote, “I’m on night duty with 100 corpse-like patients. God, where are you?”
But it was over. May 8, 1945.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].