Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Barry Turner
William Morrow, New York, 2004
It’s hard to review Barry Turner’s new book without reference to the recent work by Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Hastings’ anecdotal history of the last year of the war is not without its problems, in particular a trite and outdated analysis of the allegedly poor fighting qualities of the American, British and Canadian armies. Nevertheless, his skill at handling first-person testimony from participants in the fighting, along with formidable writing skills, do combine to produce a well-integrated and very readable book. It has already won a large following, and deservedly so.
No such luck with Barry Turner’s Countdown to Victory. Think of this book as “Armageddon lite.” While it covers the same ground — exactly the same ground — as Hastings, it is an unfortunate example of a very common syndrome in recent World War II literature. Rather than offering much in the way of a historical analysis of the fighting, or even a comprehensive narrative, Countdown to Victory is little more than a haphazard collection of extremely long first-person quotations strung together and linked only tenuously by the author’s very brief capsule comments. Turner presents those extracts, some extending to three or even four full pages, with a minimum of explanation or context, and they often wander far and wide from the matter under discussion. The author winds up a mere compiler of other people’s words, and his book a notebook of quotes — some interesting, to be sure, but others banal in the extreme. The individuals doing the talking are rarely identified beyond rank and nationality. Since we know next to nothing about them, we cannot assess what they are saying in any legitimate way. As to the voice of the author, ostensibly the reason that one buys a book, it is hardly present at all.
Thus, the discussion of the Battle of the Bulge includes the author’s simple statement that “on Christmas Day, the Germans mounted a strong attack on the northwestern sector of the Bastogne perimeter.” This is — quite literally — his entire analytical contribution on one of the most crucial moments of the siege. The thread then continues with long extracts from five sources: paratrooper Ed Peniche, a later official history of the 4th Armored Division, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, German Captain Rudolf Schueppel (who contributes the letter he wrote to the parents of one of the soldiers killed under his command) and Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division. There is nothing tying them together except the briefest of transition sentences; the final effect is more deadening than illuminating, and the reader learns next to nothing about the character or meaning of the Christmas Day fighting around Bastogne. Chapter 9, dealing with Operations Grenade and Veritable, ends with a quotation that is two full pages long, and in Chapter 10 (on the approach to the Siegfried Line) the quotes take over altogether. While most are at least from unpublished sources, the author repeatedly inserts long passages from published works as well — Leonard O. Mosley’s Report from Germany and Saul Padover’s Psychologist in Germany, for example.
The “primary source” is the basic building block of historical writing, and it is certainly possible for an author to rely heavily on first-person testimony. Joe Balkoski’s recent Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944 does just that. Balkoski worked overtime, however, to construct an eloquent narrative of his own, giving background and context to his speakers. That is precisely what is missing here. The book ends, fittingly, with a chapter called “Reflections”: 11 long block quotations, with not a single word of summary, commentary or analysis from the author.
On closer reading, however, perhaps it is just as well. On the few occasions that Turner does carry the weight of the narrative himself, he shows no special insight into the historical problems he is discussing. In fact there are more than a few questionable — even downright erroneous — assertions, and they crop up early. It is certainly not true to say that “the German Fifth and Seventh armies had been trapped and destroyed” in the Falaise Pocket, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Normandy campaign knows.
The Western Allies would have been over the Rhine a whole lot earlier if it were true. Likewise, if it were true that “the Soviet summer offensive had annihilated three Germany [sic] army groups,” the Red Army would have been sailing into Berlin well before the end of 1944. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few references in the entire work to the Eastern Front. While the book is subtitled “The Final European Campaigns of World War II,” there is no Red Army, no Georgi Zhukov, no East Prussian campaign, an utterly inadequate summary of the lighting drive from the Vistula to the Oder and no final “armageddon” (apologies to Hastings) in Berlin. Somewhere along the way the author does find time to devote extensive space to the hotel accommodations of the Allied representatives at Yalta, however.
The problems continue. In discussing the fall of Antwerp, Turner seems to believe that it had solved the Allies’ supply problems (“supplies could now be moved forward on Belgian railways which had suffered relatively little damage”). He neglects to mention a key fact, which is again part of “World War II 101”: the failure to secure the Scheldt Estuary rendered Antwerp meaningless as a supply base. There would be months of bitter fighting before a single pound of Allied supplies came in through Antwerp. His account of the fighting around Aachen and in the Hürtgen Forest is barely recognizable, as is his treatment of the Bulge. There is a brief discussion of the atomic bomb project, and the discussions between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill over whether to inform Josef Stalin. It is an interesting point, but it is marred by the author’s complete misunderstanding of the technology involved. An atomic bomb does not “fusion” [sic] a uranium nucleus; the process is actually “fission.” It’s moments like this that make it hard to believe this manuscript was ever proofread.
Repeated problems of organization also mar the book. The Yalta chapter borders on the disastrous. The Allies arrive after the rigors of a long journey; we learn that the Vorontzov Palace (British headquarters) was a nice place to stay; we move out to a brief recapitulation of the fighting in the East; and we then come back to Yalta. Turner’s transitions are inadequate, even amateurish (“The scene shifts to Yalta….”). We experience a similar situation in a later chapter, as he takes us briefly to the fighting in the capital (“on April 16th the Red Army struck at Berlin,”) and then informs us gravely a page later that “German forces abandoned Vienna after a week of bitter street fighting. That was on April 13th.”
What’s good here? A few things. It is interesting to see how criticism of the bombing campaign over Germany has seeped into the popular literature on the war, and Turner’s treatment of it is solid and impassioned. It also includes reference to recent literature, something sadly missing from the rest of the book. In particular, he discusses recent works by Jörg Friedrich (Der Brand: Deutschland in Bombenkrieg, 1940-1945) and W.G. Sebald (On the Natural History of Destruction). While he accepts both of them in a completely uncritical spirit, seemingly oblivious to the bitter controversy they have stirred even in Germany, at least they are here. Likewise, the chapter on the plight of the Netherlands during the last year of the war, and especially the “hunger winter,” is well done. Here the reliance upon unadorned first-person testimony — as we read, for example, of Dutch families reduced to eating tulip bulbs to stay alive — has its greatest impact.
As for the rest? Beware: A fool and his money are soon “fissioned.”