I learned a lot from this book, perhaps more than any other, at least about the human side of the fighting. I recommend it. Ambrose is a World War II historian. I recall seeing him interviewed in the excellent series The World at War, narrated by Laurence Olivier. He died young at the age of 66.
The book starts at D-Day, June 6, 1944, and ends May the 8th 1945 (VE Day).
Before I tuck into my summary, a note for my Danish relatives. Denmark was overrun very early in the war. The Danes were ultimately "liberated" by Montgomery. I used quotes around the word because the Germans marched out of Denmark on their own steam. Why was Monty diverted away from Berlin and the main action? Because at the Yalta Conference, the fate of most European states was decided… most, but not all. Excepted, among others, were Austria and Denmark. These countries were essentially up for grabs. Had the allies not entered Denmark, the Russians would have. Denmark would have been behind the iron curtain and the future for all the Danes, including my family, would have been much worse. I certainly would not be living the good life as a Canadian. Monty was a dick, but he was a useful dick.
As the title of the book implies, it is about the experiences of the common (mostly American) soldier and their fight to win and to survive. The book also examines the experiences of the German soldier, as well as nurses, medics, pilots and other front line troops. I am awed by what these young men had to put up with. Weeks between hot meals or showers. Living in a foxhole dug out of frozen earth, cold and miserable, afraid of the slightest little escaping flash of light that might make the artillery rain down on then. Very few men made it from D-Day to VE day intact. Many units would suffer more 250% casualties! This can happen because replacements were constantly arriving from the States. By the time of the Battle of the Bulge, a rookie would arrive, dig in, and fight. If he was still alive in a week, he was a combat veteran who had to teach newer rookies how to not get killed. If you ever see anyone smoke a cigarette with the filter pointing out of the fingers, and the lit end near the palm of the hand, they were probably in combat at some time. Battle fatigue (also called "shell shock") was common and basically a new phenomenon. In prior conflicts, you would generally be dead before you fell victim to shell shock. We call it PTSD today.
By D-Day, the allies controlled the skies over Europe. The P47 Thunderbolt was a fighter/bomber that was to slow to act as a front line fighter. Instead, P47s did close ground support and pin point bombing. They typically carried a rack of missiles that could easily take out a Tiger tank. The Germans hated them. They referred to them as Jabos: taken from "Jager", which means hunter in German; and "Bomber". Piper Cubs (small, two seater, single engine airplanes) roamed the field of battle, giving accurate intel on the enemy's positions. Woe betide the German on the ground who shot at a Piper Cub. Within minutes of doing so, the area would be saturated with allied artillery. Unfortunately, the Piper Cubs did not see the build up prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
The French hedgerows were a major issue for the allies. Arial photos were taken from directly overhead, masking the issues created by the hedgerows. The Germans were well prepared for the allies. A common tactic was to let a tank rumble out into a hedgerow field. It would soak up small arms fire and retreat. And then mortars would rain down on the now revealed allied locations. It took many weeks for the allies to formulate new tactics and modify Sherman tanks to break through the hedgerows.
The Sherman was an excellent tank. Rugged, reliable and fixable in the field. This was not so for the more powerful German tanks. And the allies had many, many more tanks than the Germans. The (American designed!) T-34 Russian tank was perhaps the best tank of the war. German tanks and artillery fired far more dud rounds than did other armies, largely because the slave laborers who made them had mastered the art of sabotaging them without being detected.
The book then follows the order of battle from D-Day, through the Falaise pocket where many Germans were trapped, and towards the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried line ran the western border of Germany. Pill boxes, dragon's teeth (large concrete blocks used to block tanks), and pre-sited artillery made for tough going for the allies.
The Battle of the Bulge was the most costly battle ever fought by the Americans (I think Gettysburg was the second most costly). The winter was bitterly cold, and troops spent days in fox holes trying to stay warm and avoid trench foot. Famously, the Germans parachuted some 500 American-savvy spies lead by Otto Skorzeny in behind the US lines. The tactic paid off big time. They sewed confusion wherever the went, messing with signs and directing traffic in the wrong direction. Each GI carried an ID card in addition to his dog tags. The title on the card read "Not a Pass -- for Indentification (sic) Only". The ever perfectionist German forgers corrected the typo! One German spy was lined up against a wall and shot when a smart MP noticed the error (or rather, the lack of it). Another trick the Americans used was to ask a possible spy what his shirt size was. In America, shirt sizes were measured in inches, not centimeters. Many Germans either forgot the difference or were too slow trying to do the math in their heads. And again, they were lined up against a wall and shot.
The Battle of the Bulge finished as soon as the weather broke and the Jabos had clear targets. But it was still a long fight just to get to the German border. The Americans learned that captured US flier POWs were treat better if they were officers rather than enlisted men. As a result, the Air Force promoted all its enlisted fliers to sergeants.
Only one deserter, Pvt Eddie Slovick, went through the entire court martial process in the US Army. He was shot. Most deserters were just put back on the line. For comparison, the Nazis shot 50,000 deserters in the ETO (European Theater of Operations).
Black soldiers were treated very badly. For example, German POWs got better treatment than wounded black veterans, especially in the southern US. They could use the whites only fountain; sit in the whites only area of the local theaters; and enter whites only stores.
In January, 1945, Montgomery sent a letter to Eisenhower basically saying that Ike was doing a poor job, and that he should be given overall command of all ETO forces on the ground. Eisenhower wasted no time in putting Monty in his place. His reply had obvious implications: Shut up; the US is the driving force; and he was in charge. This was not the first time Monty tried a major power grab. The fact is, Monty was not good at his job. When things went well, it was all about him, and when they went south, it was someone else's fault. Operation Market Garden, his plan, was a straight up disaster. Monty decided to toe the line and follow orders.
In one self serving press release, Monty tried to paint a picture of the British coming to the rescue of the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge, and his brilliant strategies that made it happen. In fact, the opposite was true, and the Americans were outraged. Monty was a glory seeker extraordinaire, and a political albatross.
The Germans were in a fighting retreat after the Rhine was crossed. In one hamlet, a burgher, who knew what American fire power was likely to do to his town, pleaded with a German officer to move his troops to a town that was already in ruins. He was so persistent that the officer asked where he lived. He pointed out his home. The officer ordered a mortar crew to set up next to his house, launch five fast rounds at the Americans, and scoot. Ten minutes later, the burgher's home was a smoking ruin.
After crossing the Rhine, the progress towards the heart of Germany escalated. The fate of European countries was settled at Yalta. Patton and others wanted to drive to Berlin, but that was left to the Russians who desperately wanted the glory. If the Russians had been smart, they would have surrounded the city with artillery and pounded it until everyone gave up. Instead, they charged in and suffered a terrible toll in soldier's lives. As previously noted, some countries were not marked for the East or the West at Yalta. Denmark was one of them. If the Russians had surrounded Berlin, they could have proceeded west and north and "liberated" Denmark.
After the war, some GIs were exchanging stories. An artillery crew recounted a funny story about how they had once been asked to target and destroy a haystack, which they did. Fifty three years later they met the man who had order the strike. He had seen the haystack move from a Piper Cub. He informed the artillery crew that they had, in fact, killed a disguised Panther tank.
Generally speaking, in Europe, and especially Germany , the Americans were well received. This cannot be said for the Soviet troops. The Americans showed up with smiles and chocolate bars. The Russians were more into rape and revenge.
This is one of the best books about man's greatest war to date. It is a well written and intimate look at the experiences of US soldiers. We owe the soldiers from all the powers that fought Germany a debt that cannot be repaid.
Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, the NAZIs and the Swiss Banks; Mark Aarons, John Loftus; 1991 (rev. 1998); St Martins Griffen; Biblio, notes, index
This is a hard book to read. So much so, I got about 1/2 through and then skipped to the conclusions at the end. It is hard to read because there are so many players and groups involved, from Nazis, war criminals, priests, and spies to shady countries and groups like Germany, Croatia, the OSS, the GKB, and so on. The peoples names are hard to follow as well, in part because there are a lot of them and most have Eastern European names.
The Ratlines got a lot of criminals out of Germany to various countries, especially Argentina, but including Australia, Canada, the US and Britain.
The whole of post-WWII Europe was a mess. Everyone, almost, wanted to see the bad guys get theirs. But who were the bad guys? The Vatican was cozy with the Nazis because they hated the commies and so did the Vatican. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" seemed to rule many decisions. Take the Gallacian SS, for example. It was composed largely of Ukrainians who hated Stalin (see the book Bloodlands). They wanted to fight for Ukraine and fight against Stalin. Some ended up fighting the allies, and not Stalin. Ukraine was part of the USSR. If you sent these SS men home, they would be killed by the Russians. They were essentially freedom fighters from their point of view. But many were also war criminals. How to deal with them? War and religion breed strange bedfellows.
This happened all the time. The British played everyone, and like the Americans after the war, would cut deals with criminals if it served their national interests. The Brits new how to keep their secrets, and they still do. Much of their machinations are still under lock and key.
In the end, I skipped to the "conclusions" chapters. Everyone was bad, so who were the worst guys?
The Vatican: the worst of the worst. Up to their eyeballs in the slime and ooze. They got thousands of criminal refugees out of Europe for money. It was very much a for profit organization and the Nazis refugees had a lot of money. They hated the commies and would tolerate almost anything as long as it was against them. Ironically, the Soviets had moles throughout the Ratline operations. Father Dragonovic was the Pope's master smuggler, who eventually disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. By contrast, the god-loving Pope Pius XII with all his power, managed to save exactly zero Jewish refugees.
Austria: Pretty bad, and wading up to their hips. They gave us a known criminal who went on the head the UN: Kurt Waldheim.
Italy: They sanctioned the Ratlines and gave them political cover. Knee deep in the muck.
France and the US: Complicit in many ways. E.g.: Werner von Braun put a man on the moon. He was also a Nazi war criminal. Knee Deep.
Britain: Up to their armpits. Worst after the Vatican/Holy See. Britain had been playing at European politics so long, they had lost their moral compass. They are still sitting on secrets that would embarrass the hell out of them to this day.
The Swiss Banks: Hand in hand with the Vatican. So also up to their eyeballs in the muck.
The Holy See: There is not much separating the Holy See from the Vatican itself. They are guilty of: Crimes against Peace (cooperated with anyone who was against the commies, including the Nazis); Obstruction of Justice (hiding Nazis); Receiving Stolen Goods (theirs was a for profit business); and Abuse of Diplomatic Privileges (forging documents, etc). The Pope et al knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew it was wrong by any measure.
It is hard to understand why that piss-ant religious hole in the wall and haven for child molesters and Nazi war criminals, called the Vatican, is recognized as a country by anyone after all their crimes. Churches are generally not supposed to dabble in politics, but it is the Vatican's full time preoccupation.
This book tires to tell a story that is frighteningly complex and intertwined. It is hard to follow for those reasons. A good book to have on the book shelf, but a very hard read.
Grand Design, The; Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow; 2010; Bantam Books; 181 pgs, glossary, index
I do not know why I delayed in reading this book. I think it is Hawking's last popular book. He died in 2018.
I quite enjoyed this book. It is a bird's eye view of modern physics and cosmology and attempts to explain the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Loose leading, a lot of white space and quite a few high quality illustrations which add up to a quick read.
It starts with an historical perspective and ends with M-Theory… the only current possibility for a viable marriage of QM and Relativity. Because the book is a short summary of a huge topic (literally and figuratively), my summing up a summary would be a waste of time. Suffice to say that when you get to the end of the book, the "answer" is a lot closer to 42 than it is to god.
It has zero (or nearly zero) mathematics in it and is readable for anyone from a first timer asking these questions to someone like me, who reads a fair bit on the subject.
Recommended for religious friends with a open mind (that might be a oxymoron).
This book was interesting, but disappointing. It focuses entirely on the training of the First Special Services Force, aka The Devil's Brigade. That moniker comes from the movie starring a too-old-for-the-job William Holden as Fredrickson, the Force commander. The Germans actually referred them as the Black Devils, a name they acquired for missions after the famous taking of M. Le Difensa.
The movie got a few things right and a lot wrong. Actually, the Americans and the Canadians did not fight each other, but they did fight a lot… ditto drinking and whoring. They did not take an Italian village to prove their worth. And they did not climb a huge vertical face with ropes.
The FSSF was a combined American/Canadian unit. Part of the reason for the Canadians being there was their familiarity with cold conditions and winter sports. They trained a lot. Imagine walking 25 miles in a day. Now imagine doing it with 60-80 lbs of gear. They were undoubtedly the most fit unit in WWII. They were held back waiting for an opportunity to use their had-acquired winter skills, and their specially designed snow-cats. But that never happened.
The famous assault on M. La Difensa did not require any scaling of sheer walls with rope, although they were prepared to exactly that.
I was disappointed with the book because it did not discuss their other missions at all. Rather, the focus was on the human side of creating the FSSF and its first action. Technically, its first action was to take an island in the Aleutian Islands. But, as it turned out, the Japanese had abandoned the island a few days before.
I learned less than I would have liked.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.