Review: The Liberator by Alex Kershaw

The Liberator
One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau
By Alex Kershaw. 448 pp.
Crown, 2012. $28.

War is hell, but Felix Sparks, the central figure in The Liberator, learned the very hard way that hell comes in many forms. Sparks lived through sickening battles of attrition and the torment of seeing his men die in droves as his battalion fought its way through Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. Then he discovered a whole new kind of evil when he reached a concentration camp called Dachau.
Bestselling author Alex Kershaw uses the combat-hardened Sparks to track the Seventh Army’s 45th Division, the Thunderbirds, during its long, bloody attempts to reach Germany from the south. Raised in Arizona during the hardscrabble Depression years, Sparks served a hitch in the army, left, and was drafted following Pearl Harbor, leaving behind a pregnant wife. Chafing at his role as regimental adjutant during the Sicily campaign, he asked for a combat command; he discovered he had a knack for battle, and preferred to be with his men at the front. Even after being wounded outside Ponte, Sparks insisted on returning to his unit for the brutal winter campaign in Italy.
The stalled Italian offensive, especially the carnage at the Battle of the Caves during the bungled aftermath of the Anzio landings, ushered Sparks deeper into hell: only he and one other soldier from his company survived. Promoted to command the division’s 3rd Battalion, Sparks found the invasion of southern France—“the Champagne Campaign”—to be a piece of cake in comparison. But enemy resistance stiffened as the Americans approached Germany. During the Battle of Reipertswiller in the Vosges Mountains, Sparks’s battalion, alone and exposed, fought experienced SS troops in the cold, snow, and ice, and suffered their first defeat of the war. Sparks called it his most tortured memory. Stunned by his losses—more than 600 of his thousand men—Sparks exchanged angry words with division commander Robert Frederick, who had refused to withdraw the battalion. In turn, Frederick vetoed a recommendation that Sparks receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
On April 29, 1945, Sparks received orders to liberate Dachau. At its outskirts, he and his men discovered boxcars filled with human corpses—“bodies stacked on bodies, waist-deep, stacked like cordwood,” Kershaw writes. The added horrors inside the camp pushed some of Sparks’s battle-weary men past their breaking points: they killed at least 17 of their SS prisoners being held in a coal yard. Sparks rushed back to the scene, firing his .45 into the air, and put an end to the killing. General George S. Patton later quashed an investigation. Kershaw’s account of this controversial and unsettling incident is even-handed yet compelling, particularly his depiction of Sparks, close to the edge himself, forcing a publicity-hungry American general to leave Dachau at gunpoint.
Kershaw’s accounts of the battles Sparks survived are clear and grisly and gripping. The terrors Sparks and his men endured in combat again and again prompt the question, how could they do it? The answer for Felix Sparks, as for many veteran warriors, was to turn off his emotions. “So long as he stayed numb, Sparks could fight,” Kershaw writes. Perhaps that’s why Sparks seems less of a fully fleshed-out individual than a somewhat shadowy guide, as Virgil was for Dante, on a harrowing journey—especially when he and his men grapple with the mind-bending enormity of what they find at Dachau. The Liberator is about war at the point of the spear, and it’s not pretty or reassuring. It’s hell.

4 Responses

  1. Many Arrows

    A careful reading of the book shows Sparks to be an agressive and reckless commander. He holds in contempt any authority that disagrees with him. Should we really lionize any commander who has two units under his command totally destroyed, and a third unit accused of killing unarmed prisoners?

    The narrative is marginally interesting. The subtext,when examined closely is disturbing. Looking for heros, look elsewhere.

    Reply
  2. Teacher Holly

    My careful reading of this book should give the reader a more objective, positive and realistic perspective. I found to book to be very entertaining, informative and very emotional like any good book should be. I didn’t find Sparks to be reckless. If he was reckless, I don’t think he would have survived 511 days in combat and live to tell the story. I found him to be a smart and a cunning warrior. He seemed to have a strong bond with his men and that’s what helped them survive the war. As for being aggressive he certainly was that there is not question about that. This is war and he is a combat soldier and he is supposed to be aggressive, as opposed to what? Being submissive, come now that is absolutely absurd. One of the best traits one needs to have in war is to be aggressive and I don’t need to say anymore. As for him getting his men destroyed in his squad that is absurd as well. No one goes into battle with the intention of getting their command destroy, they go to war to survive and come home. If he was a problem as a commander the Army would have simply replaced him or he would have been killed. We have to remember this is a war and his men were simply killed by the opposing German Army. Just reading the book it transports you there to the setting and it has a very descriptive plot. These people were true Heroes, and I don’t think anyone could have done a better job than Sparks under the same circumstances, they took the time to share their personal and emotional stories with the reader. That should be respected and not criticized. One should criticize the sentence structure and grammatical form or editing mistakes in a book. Not the story content of history book because we can’t change what happens in a real life story. We should not say how things should have happened, we were not there. To speculate such things is not logical and display pure emotional ignorance. We need to write a proper review which is supposed to be objective. We should simply say that it was entertaining or not. I received the message that the book was trying to relay and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the book, I learned something and it was a GOOD BOOK! Read it yourself. I am recommending it to my book club.

    Reply
    • SCOTT

      I ENJOYED THE BOOK. HE LOST HIS COMMAND TWICE BUT NEITHER TIME WAS HE RESPONSIBLE. SOMETIMES IN WAR UNITS ARE SACRIFICED TO HOLD TERRITORY. IT IS UNPLEASANT BUT QUITE COMMON. THE 45TH WAS VIRTUALLY WIPED OUT. IT WAS IN BATTLE FOR 2 FULL YEARS. CHECK THE RECORDS OF OTHER DIVISIONS IN THE WAR FOR SIMILAR PERIODS. THE BIG RED ONE 2ND ARMOURED AND ON.

      HE WAS HARDLY RECKLESS, THE RECKLESS DIE QUICKLY OR ARE RELIEVED.
      I THINK HIS HUMANITY CAME THROUGH VERY CLEARLY. ESPECIALLY WITH THE MURDER OF HIS YOUNG NEPHEW.

      I RECOMMEND THE BOOK. I BOUGHT IT.

      Reply

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