An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson“In the tradition of government-issue graves, the stones are devoid of epitaphs, parting endearments, even dates of birth. But visitors familiar with the American and British invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent seven-month struggle to expel the Axis powers there, can make reasonable conjectures. We can surmise that Willet H. Wallace, a private first class in the 26th Infantry Regiment who died on November 9, 1942, was killed at St. Cloud, Algeria, during the three days of hard fighting against, improbably, the French. Ward H. Osmun and his brother Wilbur W., both privates from New Jersey in the 18th Infantry and both killed on Christmas Eve 1942, surely died in the brutal battle of Longstop Hill, where the initial Allied drive in Tunisia was stopped – for more than five months, as it turned out – within sight of Tunis. Ignatius Glovach, a private first class in the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, who died on Valentine’s Day, 1943, certainly was killed in the opening hours of the great German counteroffensive known as the battle of Kasserine Pass. And Jacob Feinstein, a sergeant from Maryland in the 135th Infantry who died on April 29, 1943, no doubt passed during the epic battle for Hill 609, where the American Army came of age…”
- Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942
My first introduction to the U.S. Army’s invasion of North Africa in World War II came from Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. The film, starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, opens with the Torch landings, and combines elements of tragedy and farce predicated on the uncertainty over whether or not the French would fight on Hitler’s behalf. Initially, the French played the villains; in other words, they act French. The Americans are pinned down by heavy fire. Explosions throw up gouts of sand. Men die. Just as soon as the real sharp fighting begins, however, the French throw down their arms and begin hugging the U.S. infantrymen. Jaunty music begins playing. All in all, the scene is laced with dark humor.
Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn tells the full story of the U.S. Army’s involvement in North Africa, from the landings in Morocco and Algeria to the final push into Tunisia. Like Fuller’s film, this Pulitzer Prize-winning account has elements of farce and tragedy. Unlike the movie, however, Atkinson’s tale is laced mainly with blood and hard lessons.
It is the first volume of what Atkinson calls “the Liberation Trilogy.” Subsequent entries cover the invasions of Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. Thankfully, Atkinson finished the third volume is sublime fashion, so this is a trilogy you should definitely dive into. (In other words, you won’t be like every fan of George R.R. Martin or Robert Caro, waiting half a decade for the next book, wondering if there will be a next book).
As far as World War II books ago, heck as far as history books go, this is a gem. It is a triumph of narrative, characterizations, and sober analysis. Even if you’ve never read a single book about World War II (I’ve been told such people exist), you can dive right in. And even if you’ve read a hundred books about World War II, there is still much here to enjoy.
The quality of nonfiction is usually a compromise between accessibility and scholarship. The ease with which a book is read – the more you enjoy it – is usually inverse to its academic merits. And vice versa. Atkinson proves this doesnt have to be the case. He’s turned an obscure, neglected theater of World War II into a rousing saga that also has 80 pages of endnotes.
One of the things I most appreciated about Army at Dawn is that it doesn’t mess around. This isn’t one of those histories that takes around 100 pages to get the context just so. Instead, things are well under way in about 50. The story gets moving instantly, and never stops. This is a beach read for the beach reader who looks at the waves and sand and imagines an amphibious assault.
Partially, Atkinson gains this momentum because he doesn’t spend a lot of time debating the Torch landings. I’m fine with that authorial choice.
Briefly, Atkinson argues that the Torch landings were necessary in the paradigm in which they occurred. It was a doable operation, it helped ease pressure on the Russians, it set up a potential invasion of Sicily and Italy, and it blooded the American Army. There isn’t a lot of time spent on this argument because Atkinson’s entire book really supports it. The North African landings were all mitigated disasters. They succeeded, but only as bloody messes. Had the Americans thrown themselves straight at the Continent - an early D-Day, if you will - they would have been torn to shreds by the Wehrmacht. Its not just cheerleading or revisionism to say that North Africa was a vital proving ground. Had America tried to prove itself elsewhere, it might have been annihilated.
As a storyteller, Atkinson is engaging and efficient. Take, for instance, this paragraph, which neatly encapsulates the enormity of the undertaking, while never forgetting its human dimension:
Into the holds went tanks and cannons, rubber boats and outboard motors, ammunition and machine guns, magnifying glasses and stepladders, alarm clocks and bicycles. Into the holds went: tractors, cement, asphalt, and more than a million gallons of gasoline, mostly in five-gallon tins. Into the holds went: thousands of miles of wire, well-digging machinery, railroad cars, 750,000 bottles of insect repellant, and 7,000 tons of coal in burlap bags. Into the holds went: black basketball shoes, 3,000 vehicles, loudspeakers, 16,000 feet of cotton rope, and $100,000 in gold coins, entrusted to George Patton personally. And into the holds went: a platoon of carrier pigeons, six flyswatters and sixty rolls of flypaper for reach 1,000 soldiers, plus five pounds of rat poison per company.
A special crate, requisitioned in a frantic message to the War Department on October 18, held a thousand Purple Hearts.
Atkinson is masterful in his descriptions of combat, utilizing both primary remembrances and vivid prose. Overconfidence, under-planning, and the perfidious French create a brisk and violent confrontation on the beaches. Later, as the Allies move slowly into the desert, their tanks come up against the superior German panzers:
Another Stuart [tank] was hit, and another. They brewed up like the first. Crewmen tumbled from the hatches, their hair and uniforms brilliant with flame, and they rolled across the dirt and tore away their jackets in burning shreds. Others were trapped in their tanks with fractured limbs, and their cries could be heard above the booming tumult as they burned to death in fire so intense it softened the armor plates…
An Army at Dawn introduces dozens of memorable individuals, from the famous, such as George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, to lesser known but equally deserving men such as Terry De La Mesa Allen, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., and Patton’s son-in-law, John Waters. In telling his story, Atkinson moves easily from the top down and from the bottom up. At the very end of this food chain, looming over everyone, is Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It would be going way too far to suggest that Atkinson is critical of Eisenhower. In the realm of World War II, he’s something of a sacred cow, where even his flaws are deemed virtues in the larger scheme. But in this volume, Eisenhower is just one step removed from failure. Atkinson paints him as a man stretched right to the breaking point, chugging enough coffee and smoking enough cigarettes to give the reader lung cancer. One early British complaint about Ike was his penchant to play politics; of course, it would later be his political abilities that made him such an asset to the Allies.
A few years ago, the Greatest Generation was in high fashion. Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, and their many dollar-sign-eyed imitators scooped up just about every “We Saved the World” story they could find and put it between hard covers. The glut of books that came out in this time created a distorted view of what World War II was, what it was like, and what it meant.
In many ways, Atkinson can’t quite contain his hero worship. He speaks of the American Army – here in its infancy – with the pride of a father speaking of his child.
But he is also clear-eyed enough to call a mistake a mistake, and to separate the George Patton’s from the Lloyd Fredenhall’s. He takes time to explain all the foul-ups, but he never excuses them. And though his sentences occasionally soar too high, he always brings you back down to the few inches of sand and fear and whining bullets where the war actually took place.
An Army at Dawn is the slightest of the three entries in the Liberation Trilogy. Yet it tells you something about the magnitude of Atkinson’s achievement that that it is also a masterpiece.
The Battle for North Africa: Battles of WWII
European theatre of World War II
Mediterranean and Middle East. The Allied powers fought the Axis powers on two major fronts the Eastern Front and Western Front as well as in a massive air war and in the adjoining Mediterranean and Middle East theatre. Germany was defeated in World War I , and the Treaty of Versailles placed punitive conditions on the country, including significant financial reparations , the loss of territory some only temporarily , war guilt, military weakening and limitation, and economic weakening. Germany was humiliated in front of the world and had to pay very large war reparations. Many Germans blamed their country's post-war economic collapse and hyperinflation on the treaty's conditions. These resentments contributed to the political instability which made it possible for Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party to come to power, with Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany in Japan and Germany had already signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in , to counter the perceived threat of the communism of the Soviet Union.
In the early years of the war Germany swept through western Europe and threatened to encircle the Mediterranean through offensives in North Africa and.
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The area was vital for Britain, which needed to maintain access to the Suez Canal in order to remain in close contact with the rest of its empire. Following Italy's declaration of war on Britain and France, Italian troops quickly seized British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa and laid siege to the island of Malta. - Allies British Empire.
Importance is in the eye of the beholder. In the early s, a television documentary about the eastern front aired internationally. The tendency is understandable. Of the five million American troops sent overseas, most served in Britain and France. The United States was simply closer to the Old World than to the East, geographically, politically, and historically. The dominant language in the United States was and remains English.
Australian troops approach a German-held strong point under the protection of a heavy smoke screen somewhere in the Western Desert, in Northern Africa on November 27, Photo taken in Libya, in Australian troops string out behind tanks in a practice advance over North African sands, on January 3, The supporting infantry is spread out thinly as a precaution against air raids. One of the Bren gun carriers used by Australian light horse troops in Northern Africa, on January 7, One holds a Mascot a puppy found during the capture of Sidi Barrani, one of the first Italian bases to fall in the African War. An Italian flying boat burning of the water off the coast of Tripoli, on August 18, after an encounter with a royal air force fighter patrol.