Book Review: ‘The Last Battle’

(C) 1966 Simon & Schuster

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

All art, no matter what the medium might be, is a product of the times in which it is created. A 1950s-era novel like Elliott Arnold’s Flight from Ashiya, for instance, will resonate with readers or movie buffs who remember director Michael Anderson’s 1964 adaptation, but it will still reflect the concerns and issues of the late Fifties.

Likewise, a film such as Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) or Andrew Davis’ The Package (1989) will be easily identified as artifacts from the late stages of the Cold War, not just because they were made in the last years of the late and unlamented Soviet Union’s existence, but also because they addressed the angst and paranoia that many Americans and Russians felt shortly before and after the Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989.

Military histories, especially popular ones such as those written by non-academic (or, if you prefer, amateur) historians like John Toland and Cornelius Ryan, are not exempt from this rule, and I can think of no better example of that than 1966’s The Last Battle, Ryan’s narrative account of the Battle of Berlin.

Published seven years after Ryan’s phenomenal bestseller The Longest Day: June 6, 1944, the second book in what many Ryan fans call the “World War II Trilogy” tells the story of how the war in Europe came to a climactic conclusion in early 1945 with the siege and capture of the Third Reich’s capital by the Soviet army. Told from the perspectives of the American, British, German, and Russian participants – both military and civilian, The Last Battle not only chronicles the downfall of Nazi Germany and the deaths of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis, but it also delves into the genesis of the then-ongoing Cold War and the growing tensions between the Anglo-American Allies and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s Russia over the postwar fate of Berlin and Eastern Europe.

Author Cornelius Ryan was already working on The Last Battle when he posed for this photo at Pointe du Hoc, France, on June 5, 1964. (Paul Slade; courtesy Paris Match via Getty Images)

Using the same techniques he employed in The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, Ryan interweaves personal accounts from military and civilian participants from both the Axis and the Allied camps with a sprawling yet fascinating “big picture” account of the last battle in the European Theater of Operations. In The Last Battle, Ryan 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.” 

The 1975 New American Library paperback edition.

The book is divided into five parts:

  • The City
  • The General
  • The Objective
  • The Decision
  • The Battle

And as in his previous works, Ryan includes a “Where Are They Now?” section that lists the many individuals who were interviewed or sent in filled out questionnaires to Ryan or the various Reader’s Digest bureaus that assisted the author during the research and pre-publication phase of the making of The Last Battle.

Ryan had been a young war correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph during the battles for Northwest Europe before transferring to the Pacific to cover the last months of the war and the surrender of Japan there, and although he was not an “academic” historian, he was a meticulous researcher and a keen observer of cotidian details that make his histories so compelling to the general reader.

This, for instance, is how he opens The Last Battle:

In the northern latitudes the dawn comes early. Even as the bombers were turning away from the city, the first rays of light were coming up in the east. In the stillness of the morning, great pillars of black smoke towered over the districts of Pankow, Weissensee and Lichtenberg. On the low clouds it was difficult to separate the soft glow of daylight from the reflections of the fires that blazed in bomb-battered Berlin.

As the smoke drifted slowly across the ruins, Germany’s most bombed city stood out in stark, macabre splendor. It was blackened by soot, pockmarked by thousands of craters and laced by the twisted girders of ruined buildings. Whole blocks of apartment houses were gone, and in the very heart of the capital entire neighborhoods had vanished. In these wastelands what had once been broad roads and streets were now pitted trails that snaked through mountains of rubble. Everywhere, covering acre after acre, gutted, windowless, roofless buildings gaped up at the sky.

In the aftermath of the raid, a fine residue of soot and ash rained down, powdering the wreckage, and in the great canyons of smashed brick and tortured steel nothing moved but the eddying dust. It swirled along the broad expanse of the Unter den Linden, the famous trees bare now, the leaf buds seared on the branches. Few of the banks, libraries and elegant shops lining the renowned boulevard were undamaged. But at the western end of the avenue, Berlin’s most famous landmark, the eight-story-high Brandenburg Gate, though gashed and chipped, still straddled the via triumphalis on its twelve massive Doric columns.

On the nearby Wilhelmstrasse, lined by government buildings and former palaces, shards of glass from thousands of windows glittered in the debris. At No. 73, the beautiful little palace that had been the official residence of German presidents in the days before the Third Reich had been gutted by a raging fire. Once it had been described as a miniature Versailles; now sea nymphs from the ornate fountain in the forecourt lay shattered against the colonnaded front entrance, and along the roof line, chipped and gouged by flying fragments, the twin statues of Rhine maidens leaned headless over the littered courtyard.

A block away, No. 77 was scarred but intact. Piles of rubble lay all around the three-story, L-shaped building. Its yellowish-brown exterior was scabrous, and the garish golden eagles above each entrance, garlanded swastikas in their claws, were pitted and deeply scored. Jutting out above was the imposing balcony from which the world had been harangued with many a frenzied speech. The Reichskanzlei, Chancellery of Adolf Hitler, still remained.

At the top of the battered Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s Fifth Avenue, bulked the deformed skeleton of the once fashionable Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church. The hands on the charred clock face were stopped at exactly 7:30; they had been that way since 1943 when bombs wiped out one thousand acres of the city on a single November evening.

One hundred yards away was the jungle of wreckage that had been the internationally famed Berlin Zoo. The aquarium was completely destroyed. The reptile, hippopotamus, kangaroo, tiger and elephant houses, along with scores of other buildings, were severely damaged. The surrounding Tiergarten, the renowned 630-acre park, was a no man’s land of room-sized craters, rubble-filled lakes and partly demolished embassy buildings. Once the park had been a natural forest of luxuriant trees. Now most of them were burned and ugly stumps.

In the northeast corner of the Tiergarten stood Berlin’s most spectacular ruin, destroyed not by Allied bombs but by German politics. The huge Reichstag, seat of parliament, had been deliberately set ablaze by the Nazis in 1933 — and the fire had been blamed on the Communists, thus providing Hitler with an excuse to seize full dictatorial power. On the crumbling portico above its six-columned entrance, overlooking the sea of wreckage that almost engulfed the building, were the chiseled, blackened words, “Dem Deutschen Volke” — To the German People.

The 1995 Touchstone edition uses the same photograph on the front cover as the 1966 hardcover edition.

My Take

For the most part, the follow-up to The Longest Day is a fine example of good research, a reporter’s dogged determination to get access to sources no previous author could acquire easily, and an almost novelistic approach to narrating a complex series of events that still resonated – often painfully – not just with the author but with the readers of the 1960s.

The Last Battle, unfortunately, is also a good example of what happens when an author, either consciously or not, writes a book about an event – in this case, the Battle of Berlin – with judgment clouded not just by one’s emotions but also by the political currents at the time in which the book is being created.

According to the notes by Rick Atkinson in the Library of America’s edition of The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, Cornelius Ryan began working on The Last Battle in 1961, the same year that the Berlin Wall was erected by the Soviet-backed East German Communist regime. Like President John F. Kennedy, who was a fan of The Longest Day, Ryan was an Irish-American Catholic (he moved to the United States in 1947 and became a citizen) who was deeply troubled about the sad fate of the divided city.

In a classic case of an author wearing his heart on his sleeve, Ryan telegraphs his intentions in the book’ dedication:


Peter Fechter, the young East German bricklayer shot by East German border guards on August 17, 1962 near Checkpoint Charlie. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Last Battle is, on the surface, a journalistic narrative based on a combination of sources, including official histories, memoirs, and hundreds of personal interviews of civilian and military participants. It covers roughly the last two months of the Battle of Germany, starting some time after the Western Allies cross the Rhine River (March 1945) and advance toward the Elbe River, the geographic feature that the four Allied powers – France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States – chose as the dividing line between East and West in negotiations that took place in 1944.

And for the most part, much of the story, including the then-surprising reveal that the Germans’ discovery of the Allied decision to divide Germany into three (later four) zones of occupation actually hardened Nazi resistance and might have prolonged the war, rings true. Ryan accurately reconstructs the scenes and moods in the warring camps as the Anglo-American armies advance toward the demarcation line at the Elbe, whilst the Soviet juggernaut pushes relentlessly across western Poland and East Prussia to the Oder River, the last major natural barrier between the Red Army and Berlin.

Clearly, Ryan does not radically change any of the accounts of Hitler’s final days or the vivid details of the battle for the city itself. The Soviets – who had uncharacteristically given the author unprecedented access to Russian archives and even allowed him to interview almost every surviving Soviet general officer who led forces during “the last battle” (except for Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who was out of favor with the Communist regime at the time) – were not happy with the book due to its documentation of rapes and murders of German civilians during the final days of the Reich.

That having been said, Ryan’s trustworthiness as a dispassionate observer goes out the window in the sections “The Objective” and “The Decision.” In those portions of The Last Battle, the author – bolstered by statements from Gen. William H. Simpson, the commander of the U.S. Ninth Army, in which he claimed that his troops could have done it – states that the Western Allies should have captured Berlin before the Red Army.

Ryan lays a foundation for this notion – which has been debunked by historians such as Stephen E. Ambrose and Antony Beevor – by devoting a lot of space to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s insistence that the U.S. should occupy the northern part of Germany as well as Berlin at war’s end. Ryan cannily explains why this was not logistically possible, as it would have required a change in the embarkation ports used by U.S. forces in the British Isles, as well as a shift in the invasion beaches so that the Americans would land on the “left” or easternmost flank (on a north-to-south axis) and the Anglo-Canadian forces on the “right” or western side.

However, the way that Ryan tells the story of why the U.S. was assigned to occupy the south of Germany (albeit with control of two northern German ports, including Bremen), the reader gets a feeling that Ryan is saying, subconsciously, “Gee, FDR should have stood firm on his idea of including Berlin in the U.S. zone.”

That’s bad enough, but it’s understandable if you keep in mind that The Last Battle was written at a time when the status of Berlin was a source of geopolitical and military tension between the Soviet Union and the Western Alliance.

What diminishes Ryan’s authorial credibility in The Last Battle – and Pulitzer-winning historian Rick Atkinson pointed it out when he edited the Library of America hardcover edition of Cornelius Ryan: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far – is the assertion that the Soviet leadership, in the person of Josef Stalin, tricked a politically naive Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower into not sending American and British forces to capture Berlin before the Red Army got there.

I’m not going to delve too much into that subject here; this is a book review and not a dissertation on the genesis of the Cold War. Suffice it to say, however, that Ryan’s thesis, while popular with large segments of the British and American audience who were strongly anti-Communist, is poppycock.

First, General Eisenhower was not chosen as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) for his skills as a battlefield commander. Ike, unlike his former boss Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had never seen combat. As a young officer, he had commanded small units in the infantry branch, but by and large his duties as a field grade officer were in operations and planning. As such, Ike was a skilled organizer and a man who knew how to motivate others in such a way that they wanted to please him. Eisenhower, in short, was perfect for the job of theater command not because he was a hell-for-leather battle captain like his friend and subordinate George S. Patton, Jr., but because he was a politically adept general.

Second, considering how successful Eisenhower’s two terms in the White House as the 34th President of the United States were, to accuse him of being politically inept as a five-star general in 1945 is not only false, but also insulting. (Eisenhower, by the way, was not thrilled with The Last Battle, calling Ryan’s version of his decision to abide by the inter-Allied agreement to stop at the Elbe “stupid.”)

Ryan also seems to dismiss the possibility that an Anglo-American dash for Berlin at the last minute would have been catastrophic. Yes, the Allies would have prevailed against the Nazi capital’s defenders, but at what cost? The Soviets suffered heavy casualties during the 16-day battle for Berlin, including 81,000 dead, 280,000 injured or incapacitated by illness, and close to 2,000 tanks and self-propelled guns.

I can’t imagine that many GIs wanted to fight their way in to Hitler’s capital city against die-hard SS and Wehrmacht troops fighting tooth and nail for their Fuehrer as long as he lived and urged them to keep fighting to the last man. Eisenhower certainly didn’t think Berlin was worth the price in Allied blood, especially if the Americans and British would have to “let the other fellow” take it over in accordance to arrangements made many months before any Allied soldiers had entered Germany.

On top of that, the Red Army would not have stood idly by and watched their Allies-of-convenience traipse into its allocated zone of occupation, which had been designated as far back as the fall of 1944, without objection. The Soviets would have fired warning volleys at the approaching American and British columns, and if that did not deter the encroaching Westerners, then there would have been armed clashes between East and West, much to Hitler’s delight.

The Last Battle is still worth a read, though. Just understand that, in this book at least, Cornelius Ryan allowed his emotions and the politics of the early to mid-1960s to cloud his judgment.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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