The story begins in New York, but since the central character, Ennio, an Italian-American pastry chef, decides he should sign up, the action soon moves to the invasion of Italy. He becomes a cook with a company moving north from Naples, village by village, toward Rome. Meanwhile Lucia is working the family farm in the Liri Valley below the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Ennio and his friends are stopped short by the Germans at their Gustav Line, of which the Abbey forms a crucial part. Lucia’s farm is bombed, and she and Ennio are soon involved personally in one of the worst battles of WWII.
Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Belgium and Norway have fallen to the Nazis. In Paris, the government quails before Hitler and France prepares, confusedly, to be next. Two citizens, at least, are determined to not give in — a rich physics undergraduate who works on atomic fission, and her working-class chauffeur who is falling in love with her. Each in their own way fights back, with some touching, some disastrous, results.
A remote village in England, filled with Allied soldiers far from home, all of them poised on the brink of invading Europe. Into this volatile mix come three strangers: Eddie, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Los Angeles, who avoids jail by signing up as a gunner in an American bomber unit. Dot and her two singer sisters are bombed out of the family’s London home and evacuated to work on their aunt’s farm. Scotsman Duncan, his mother held by the Nazis in Dachau, is blackmailed to spy on Allied invasion plans.
Sean Russell, a Boston teen, has signed on as seaman on a convoy to Liverpool. His ship is torpedoed by a German submarine, and he’s washed ashore on the coast of County Mayo, the only survivor. His best friend has been drowned.
He is nursed back to health by the Connolly family, fishermen who live outside the law. As he recuperates, he meets Sally, the daughter of the local policeman, which alienates the Connollys. Sean does his best to remain his ties with them, though, because he plans revenge for the loss of his friend, and they could be useful.
The story opens in the present, at an anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Daniel Lamb, veteran ace pilot for the Royal Air Force, now ninety and handicapped, is being driven to the celebration to receive an award as one of the last of ‘the Few.’ On the way, the passing panorama triggers memories of that summer of war and love.