Rick Atkinson, author of The Guns at Last Light, the last volume in his trilogy on World War II, writes in this issue about the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest. The son of a U.S. Army officer, Atkinson was born in Germany but didn’t visit Hürtgen until the mid-1990s, when he lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent. He and his family were driving home from a vacation in Paris when they took a detour from Aachen, in western Germany. “The Kall gorge and surrounding woodland got hold of my imagination and never quite let go,” he says.
Atkinson later returned to the Hürtgen with military maps and a sharper sense of what played out there in 1944–1945. He visited once with General Montgomery C. Meigs, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe from 1998 to 2002, and Meigs’s senior officers: “All of them were baffled by the tactical decisions that led the American high command—their predecessors—to throw more than six divisions into ‘this meat-grinder,’ as General Meigs called it.”
Chris McNab, who writes Weapons Check each issue, grew up in South Yorkshire, England, next to a Royal Air Force base that was home to spectacular air shows and a squadron of Vulcan bombers that regularly scrambled for nuclear-attack drills. Not far away was a dumpsite for old military vehicles and equipment; he and his friends would sneak under the fence and play among the tanks and helicopters.
It wasn’t long before McNab was reading classic war memoirs such as The Forgotten Soldier and A Rumor of War. Veterans in the neighborhood told him war stories that gripped his imagination.
McNab’s passion for military history led him to study the tactics of Roman and Greek warriors while at college. He’s been writing about military topics ever since, including special forces, armies of the Napoleonic era, weapons, and advances in technology spurred by war. “I’ve also had a lifelong interest in firearms—within the limits of the United Kingdom’s firearms laws, of course,” he says.
Working on his classic book 1776: The Year of Illusions, Thomas Fleming had amassed file cabinets of material before the book’s theme—and title—hit him. “Both sides had begun the war with illusions,” he says. “The Americans thought they could win the war in one big battle—a general action. The British thought if they defeated George Washington’s army, the rebels would quit.”
Both were wrong, but Fleming argues that it was Washington who made the truly daring decision—to completely change America’s strategy, avoid a general action, and protract the war.
Later, when Fleming wrote a history of West Point, he asked several generals what they thought of Washington as a military leader. Each answered with this: He was very, very good. He stayed cool and changed his strategy when everyone around him was panicking and talking surrender.
Not many people understand this aspect of Washington, says Fleming, who writes in this issue about the general at the Battle of Brooklyn. “Too many historians see him as a figurehead who let other people do his thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth.”