bookrev: An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson
World War II has always held a fascination for me: the global scale, the impact on world politics and powers of today, the coming of Age of the United States as a super power, the thoughts of what could have been had certain decisions or battles gone one way or the other (see Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or many of the other alternative history novels to get your imagination going). Over the years, I have read many books, including the great John Keegan’s, Cornelius Ryan’s and a 25 volume Encyclopedia of WWII that my mom got me for Christmas as a kid (no, I am not kidding).
I received The Day of Battle (the 2nd in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy) as an ARC at BEA, but wanted to read the series in order.
I am very glad that I did. Operation TORCH, the battles of Kasserine, Sidi Bou Zid, the taking of Bizerte and Tunis are told as stories from the perspectives of leaders and soldiers, based on meticulous research detailed in over 100 pages of notes. An Army At Dawn is a great representation of the grisly and personal nature of war, a fitting history of the men and women who fought in WWII.
Memory, too, has transcendent power, even as we swiftly move toward the day when not a single participant remains alive to tell his tale, and the epic of World War II forever slips into national mythology. The author’s task is to authenticate: to warrant that history and memory give integrity to the story, to aver that all this really happened.
The book is split into four chronological parts, with each part detailing not only what the leaders (Ike, Patton, Kesselring, Clark, Alexander, Rommel) said and did, but also with quotes from diaries, journals and letters from the infantrymen, artillerymen and others who participated.
Part I starts with the mostly joint decision by the Americans and Brits to invade North Africa first, vs. France or Italy. It goes through Operation TORCH (the invasion), the lack of experience that showed in the American invasion force, and the senseless waste of the battles with the Vichy French forces across Morocco and Algeria (including the destruction of Allied ships entering French controlled harbors):
The fighting between Anglo-American invaders and Vichy French defenders would last just over three days; sometimes it was a matter of halfhearted potshots, but there were pitched firefights on a dozen battlefields across two countries. This little war between ancient friends – many Americans still could not believe they were fighting the French – was complicated by concomitant diplomatic maneuvers and the first attacks from Axis forces.
Part II goes into the first battles with the Germans, in which the Allies lack of experience and overall coordination results in many setbacks and lives and equipment losses. The Allies push in from the original landings in Morocco and Algiers to Tunisia, where they meet Italian and German forces, including the to-date invincible Panzer divisions. Their bravado and assumption of an easy victory to Tunis are quickly swept away by defeats at Boudj Toum and Longstop Hill.
There would be no trapping of Rommel’s rump army in Libya between Anderson’s First Army and Bernard Montgomery’s Eight Army, now lumbering westward out of Egypt. Rather than crushing the Axis forces in the jaws of a vise, the failed Allied strategy gave interior lines to the enemy and all but guaranteed that four armies – Anderson and Montgomery, Arnim and Rommel – would slug it out in a campaign of attrition not unlike that on the Western Front a quarter century before.
Part III reviews the Allied leaders meeting at Casablanca, showing the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt and the political tactics that had the Americans thinking there were in charge with Eisenhower as Commander-in-Chief, but with three British officers underneath him given much leeway. The lack of coordination and experience continued to show as an Allied offensive to take Tunis was poorly planned and poorly executed, and the Germans, lead by Rommel, attacked. His Panzer divisions pushed through to Kasserine Pass and beyond, but then the Americans and British forces stiffened; even though their losses were high, it marked a turning point:
Beyond the modest combined-arms showing, three bright gleams radiated from Kasserine’s wreckage. First was the competence of American artillery at Sbiba, at Djebelel Hamra and at Thala. Second was the mettle under fire displayed by various American commanders, among them Irwin, Robinett, Andrus, Gardiner and Allen, and comparable mettle in British commanders. Third was the broad realization that even an adversary as formidable as Erwin Rommel was neither invincible nor infallible. He and his host could be beaten. This epiphany was not to be undervalued: he could be beaten. Amazingly, barely two months would elapse between the “handheadness” of Kasserine and the triumph of total victory in Tunisia.
Part IV marks the arrival of British Generals Alexander and Montgomery into the fray, Eisenhower starting to through his weight around, the Americans beginning to “hate the Germans” and fight like it, and the emergence of Patton. The final victory of Tunisia set the stage for the invasions of Italy, Normandy, and the rest of the war.
At a price of 70,000 casualties “one continent had been redeemed”, in Churchill’s phrase. But more than territory could be claimed. The gains were most profound for the Americans, in their first campaign against the Wehrmacht. Four U.S. divisions now had combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare: expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert and urban. Troops had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor. They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, and to fight on. They provided Eisenhower with a blooded hundred thousand, “high-grade stock from which we must breed with the utmost rapidity”, as one general urged.
The Allied eyes now turned toward Sicily and Italy, and I eagerly move to the next volume in the series.