Monthly Archives: May 2013



An extract from The Bedford Boys
By Alex Kershaw


6 June 1944, 12.30am: The British troopship Empire Javelin steamed steadily across the Channel. Among her passengers were 34 young men from the small Virginia town of Bedford. They belonged to the 116th Infantry’s Company A, a select 200-man unit. After 18 months of arduous training, Company A had been chosen from among the 15,000 GIs in the Army of the United States’s 29th Division to spearhead the most critical US assault of the entire war.

Bedford boy Lieutenant Ray Nance, 28, managed to get a few hours’ sleep. He awoke at 2am, dressed in full combat gear. He had not even removed his boots. Nearby were five fellow officers from Company A. By lunchtime, three of them would be dead.

In the non-commissioned men’s berths, a few dozed fitfully. Most sat in silence, alone with their thoughts. Other Bedford boys lay in bunks writing last-minute letters home. Nance knew that some would not live to write another. He felt responsible for them all. He had grown up with these men, trained them to be first-class soldiers, censored their love letters to girls he knew back in Bedford. The men under his command were family.

As Nance was getting up, 21-year-old British Sub-Lieutenant Jimmy Green was being woken by an orderly and told that his flotilla commander wanted to see him urgently. Green was second-in-command of the flotilla, but in full command of the first wave of boats that would land Company A in France. Green’s commander told him the boats would have to leave earlier than planned because weather conditions in the English Channel were so bad. Green grabbed a cup of tea and a ‘bite to eat’ and then drew his weapons from the Empire Javelin’s store. He had no illusions about what lay ahead. There would be heavy casualties. In his last shore briefing, he’d been told to expect to lose a third of his men and his boats.

After breakfast, Ray Nance gathered his kit and climbed up a gangway. A heavy canvas curtain stopped light seeping on to the deck from below. Nance stepped through and into pitch blackness. He went to the rail and looked out at the dark waters, swelling ominously. Suddenly, he noticed Captain Fellers at his side. Fellers had, like Nance, grown up on a farm outside Bedford. The two were cousins. Twenty-nine-year-old Fellers was tall and thin, with a prominent chin and rolling gait. He was suffering badly from a sinus infection and looked tired and concerned. Before embarking for France, Fellers had confided in Nance, telling him that very few would come back from France alive. Fellers had studied the Allied intelligence and countless aerial shots and concluded that Company A was being sent to face certain slaughter.

Fellers and Nance both looked out to sea.

‘We stood there awhile,’ recalls Nance. ‘We didn’t say a word, not a single word to each other.

I guess we’d said it all.’

An anti-aircraft gun broke the silence, tracer bullets spitting through the sky, and then a searchlight caught the blaze of an exploding plane. ‘That brought it home to me,’ remembers Nance. ‘This thing is real. It’s not an exercise.’

A loudspeaker called the British naval crew to its stations. The troops knew they would be next.

‘Now, hear this! All assault troops report to your debarkation areas.’ As 34 Bedford boys emerged from below into the cold darkness, Nance touched every one of them lightly on the arm. ‘It was a gesture, a goodbye,’ he says 60 years later. ‘They were the best men I have ever seen in my life.’

The men included husbands, three sets of brothers, pool-hall hustlers, a couple of highly successful Lotharios, a minor-league baseball player destined for great things, and several Bible-reading, quiet young men who desperately missed their mothers and dreamed of home cooking.

The Bedford boys checked weapons and kit, exchanged scribbled home addresses ‘just in case’, wished each other good luck, and tried to bolster others who suddenly looked terrified.

‘This is it, men,’ a loudspeaker blared. ‘Pick it up and put it on, you’ve got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line.’



The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945
By Rick Atkinson. 896 pp.
Henry Holt and Co., 2013. $40.


For almost 15 years—three times longer than World War II lasted—Pulitzer winner Rick Atkinson has toiled with Herculean devotion to trace the American journey through hell to moral and military victory in Europe: from North Africa up the jagged and murderous spine of Italy, and now at last from Normandy to the gates of Dachau.

Has it all been worth it? The question inevitably arises when assessing yet another sweeping account of Europe’s liberation: what can be added to the canon that has not been covered before by so many so well? In short, a great deal. To use that well-worn but apt cliché, it all depends on how you tell it. Indeed, this final installment of Atkinson’s exhaustive Liberation Trilogy is unlikely to win the Pulitzer for originality. But it will gain Atkinson his largest readership yet. Unlike other heavyweight authors who penned doorstopper tomes in recent years, Atkinson does not resort to contrarian posturing, blatant regurgitation, or queasy mythmaking. Instead, with lyrical élan, he accurately and objectively tells the greatest story of our time, and does so with the general reader always in mind.

While the pacing is a little too slow at the outset, once the Allies land in France the narrative moves into high gear and rarely falls back. It pulls us across Hell’s Beach where young Americans were “butchered like a bunch of hogs,” as one dispatch put it on June 6, 1944, through the Norman hedgerows, to sunlit avenues during the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944—”one of the greatest days of all time,” in the words of Ernie Pyle, whose muscular and elegant prose Atkinson’s best writing often evokes. The stalling of the Allies in fall 1944 along Germany’s borders, the British debacle at Arnhem, the immense courage and suffering of GIs throughout but particularly at the Battle of the Bulge, the egomania of the Allied generals, the infighting that seemed only to grow more rancorous the closer the Allies got to Berlin—Atkinson covers all of it with both judicious broad strokes and vivid detail.

There is much to savor that hasn’t received full due from others attempting to tell all in one volume: the heady march north from the Cote D’Azur after Dragoon, the war’s most successful amphibious invasion, the unforgivable slaughter in Hürtgen Forest, where so very many died for no good reason, and the bitter winter fighting in the Vosges. These episodes contain little glory but more than enough tragedy, and now have their proper place in the greater story of the American odyssey in Europe. Particularly effective are Atkinson’s crisp portraits of the Allied generals. There is no cheap sniping at Montgomery, no over-inflation of Eisenhower’s skills. Both legends are fully realized humans—flawed but still possessed of awe-inspiring devotion to duty. “If I could get home,” a chain-smoking Ike wrote his mother in July 1944, “I could lie down on the front lawn and stay there for a week without moving.” Patton too leaps from these pages as a charismatic enigma. America’s last great cavalryman, he was crucially also the hard-driving maniac even democracies need to win wars. “Hang up and keep going,” bellowed Old Blood-and-Guts to a subordinate who called to report his position.

Finally, gloriously, the Rhine was crossed, the unimaginable camps liberated, and Germany’s surrender accepted as spring flowers bloomed amid the ruins where more people had died more quickly than ever in history, including 135,576 Americans. For the 361,000 wounded GIs who returned home, forever changed, there were further struggles. But there was also profound consolation for more than a few. The war had been the most meaningful accomplishment of their lives—”the one great lyric passage,” as one officer called it. The same could be said of Atkinson’s richly rewarding and beautifully crafted book.

Alex Kershaw has been a journalist for 25 years, and is the bestselling author of several books about World War II, including
The Bedford Boys (2004) and The Liberator (2012). The National WWII Museum, for which Kershaw leads the annual Victory in Europe travel tour, opened an exhibit in January 2013 on the USS Tang, which Kershaw first wrote about in his 2008 book, Escape from the Deep.


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