Of the many powerful images of the liberation of Europe at the end of the Second World War, two stand out. The first is of Charles de Gaulle and the Free French striding down the Champs-Elysées in August 1944, watched by cheering men and women throwing flowers; the second is of the skeletal figures and mounds of corpses found by the British the following April in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. But in between lay eight months of appalling and destructive warfare, as the Allies advanced across German-occupied Europe, and the Germans retreated. In some places – Normandy, the Ardennes, Warsaw – liberation was considerably worse, in terms of deaths, brutality, rape, hunger and looting, than the war itself. Liberation is about neither military tactics nor soldiers, but is a much needed, detailed look at the civilians caught between what at times must have seemed not just one enemy but two.
No one imagined that the final defeat of the Germans would be easy. D-Day alone saw 3,000 French civilians – the same number as American servicemen – killed in Normandy. But as it became rapidly clear that the Allies, faced by a well-equipped, trained and disciplined German army,