Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle: a book review

It is spring, 1945. 

Almost six years have passed since Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and began history's largest and bloodiest conflict, the Second World War. Once, Hitler's Third Reich -- which he had boasted would last 1,000 years -- dominated most of Europe and parts of North Africa. Now, having committed the biggest blunders of his 12-year reign of terror -- the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and his ill-considered declaration of war on the United States six months later, Germany's Austrian-born Fuhrer watches his Nazi empire shrink as first his conquered territories in Western and Eastern Europe are liberated by the advancing Allies, then his vaunted defenses are broken and German towns and cities find themselves occupied by the Soviets in the east, the Anglo-Americans in the west. Even the mighty Rhine River -- Germany's "moat" -- is no longer an effective defensive barrier against General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Allied Expeditionary Force. Only the flood-engorged Oder River on the Polish-German border stands in the way between the massed armies of the Red Army and the ultimate objective for most Allied generals: Hitler's bomb-gutted capital, Berlin. 


The Last Battle, Cornelius Ryan's second volume of what is unofficially called the World War II trilogy, is a masterful account of the Battle of Berlin, one of the bloodiest -- and most controversial -- engagements of the war. It was marked by desperate courage and fanaticism on the part of the German defenders, disillusion and some bitterness among the Western Allies, and determination and a thirst for retribution on the part of the Russians -- who were so set on taking Berlin that some Soviet generals vowed to fire on any American or British units that might attempt to race them to the German capital. 

Using the same techniques he employed in 1959's The Longest Day and 1974's A Bridge Too Far, Ryan interweaves personal accounts from military and civilian participants from both warring camps with a sprawling yet fascinating "big picture" account of the last battle in the European Theater of Operations. He vividly describes the dramatic advances of the Anglo-American forces across Germany after the stunning capture of the bridge at Remagen in early March, the daily lives of ordinary Berliners, and the surreal atmosphere inside Hitler's underground bunker -- where the 56-year-old Nazi dictator issues orders for the "scorched earth" policy of denying any factory, power station, water plant, or food warehouse to either the Western Allies or the hated "subhuman" Soviets...thereby condemning the German people to death. As Ryan writes in the Foreword, "...it is not a military report. Rather, it is the story of ordinary people, both soldiers and civilians, who were caught up in the despair, frustration, terror and rape of the defeat and the victory." 

Ryan divides his book into five parts -- The City, The General, The Objective, The Decision, and The Battle. Although the focus of each part can be inferred, elements of each are present in the others, fitting together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. For instance, Part One describes Berlin and its inhabitants as they endure the prelude to the final battle, but there are also sections devoted to the Anglo-American advance toward the Elbe River and the Soviet preparations to cross the Oder River, with particular emphasis on the panic felt by German civilians and fed by Nazi propaganda that railed against the "Asiatic Bolshevik hordes" that were assailing German maids and mothers. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is Ryan's in-depth reporting on why the Soviet Union, rather than the Western Allies, was destined to take the most prized piece of German "real estate." Part of the reason, obviously, lies in the geographic realities of Germany and how the Allies had agreed to divide the defeated nation at war's end. Berlin was almost at the center of the third alloted to the Soviets, even though each occupying power would have its own sector of the capital. Yet, Ryan reveals in Part Three that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had once insisted that the U.S. not only get to occupy the northern rather than the southern sector of Germany, but that Berlin itself be included in the American sector. However, one seemingly mundane detail -- the location of American bases and depots in the United Kingdom -- shaped the plans for the Allied invasion of Normandy and the ensuing campaign in northwest Europe and always had the American forces on the right flank of the Allied advance, predetermining the final occupation locations to such a degree that to change the orientation of the Anglo-American forces and supply lines would have delayed Operation Overlord until 1945. 

Nevertheless, most of Eisenhower's subordinate commanders, including British and American commanders ranging from Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery of the 21st Army Group to Maj. General Isaac D. White of the 2nd Armored Division, wanted to drive to Berlin, the city they considered to be the ultimate objective. Montgomery, in particular, had always advocated a single thrust (ideally under his command) toward the German capital, a strategy that ran counter against Eisenhower's more conservative "broad front" policy. Furthermore, they assumed that Ike still thought Berlin was still a military (as well as a political) objective. 

However, by March of 1945 Ike had changed his mind about making an all-out grab for Berlin, and The Last Battle explains them all in Part Four, The Decision. This six-chapter section dissects the Supreme Commander's reasons for not pushing for Berlin in detail. It also is one of the most tense accounts in the book, showing the reader how close the Western Allies were to Berlin before Eisenhower told his generals to halt their drives toward the city. 

Obviously, the climax of the book revolves around the Soviet assault on Berlin's defenses, starting with the crossing of the Oder River on April 16, 1945 and ending on May 1, 1945. The Battle, with its extremely detailed accounts of the Russians' own race to Berlin, Hitler's final days in the bunker, and the many tragic stories of rapes and suicide as Soviet troops entered the city make for a fascinating, if sometimes stunning, reading experience. 

As in his other two works, Ryan takes the reader into the narrative with a reporter's fine eye for detail, a historian's sense of perspective, and a talented storytellerer's way of weaving a word tapestry. It is well-written, full of many vivid moments marking the highs and lows experienced by both the victors and the vanquished.