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

June 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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.
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TRANSCRIPT

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.