I’m an intensely loyal reader. If I read one book by an author and like it, chances are I’ll read anything else I can find by that writer. So it should be no surprise that after my happy experience reading Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle that I returned for more with An Army at Dawn.
Focusing on the Allied campaign in North Africa, An Army at Dawn is actually the first book in Atkinson's proposed World War II “liberation trilogy”, while The Day of Battle, about the Italian campaign, is the second; I read them out of order because the random spinning wheel that is the reserve system of the NYPL sent me Battle first. But no harm was done, and in a way, it’s somewhat intriguing to backtrack and see how the beginning of the second book fits into the end of the first.
The fight for control of North Africa was crucial for many reasons. It’s where the US forces really came of age and where the Axis began to lose steam, where the Americans proved themselves to the British and began to assert their power, and where the US economic and industrial strength first really showed its dominance; when the Germans were running out of fuel for their transports, the US was managing to ship crates of Coca Cola in with the rest of their supplies. In fact, from February to March 1943, the number of supplies sent from the US to Africa was mind-boggling and often times confusing; a train carrying rations for 50,000 men was found to contain “one sack of flour, a case of grapefruit juice, a boxcar of crackers, and sixteen boxcars of peanut butter.” A British officer remarked, “The American army does not solve its problems, it overwhelms them.”
The campaign wasn't waged solely with an overwhelming amount of supplies, of course, but with men. These men, many painfully young, came to North Africa as raw recruits but by the end of the fighting, they had turned into hardened soldiers. Some units arrived at battle scenes having literally never seen the weapons they were supposed to fight with. Most were shocked by the noise and chaos of battle, let alone prepared for the constancy of death. By the time they took Tunis, though, the men had participated in amphibious operations, fought in deserts, battled up mountains, and charged through cities. They had crawled across fields in utter darkness and struggled under hot desert sun. They had learned to kill. As Major General Charles W. Ryder observed, “There are three things that make a man fight. One is pride in himself, another is pride in his unit, and the third is hate.” After enough attacks from German Stukas and panzers, and enough days of watching friends die, the soldiers had reached the unfortunately necessary state of mind where they were no longer killing a person but eliminating an enemy.
The story of the commanders is equally as compelling as those of the average soldiers. These leaders were men who had grown up themselves in World War I, scaled the heights of their profession in a non-war world and now were being asked to take over; this time they would be the ones who ran the war and sent others to their deaths (I doubt there’s ever been a battle where people attacked fully confident that they are going to all emerge safely). The rivalries within each army were enough to sabotage and divide, with some officers waging backstabbing letter writing campaigns against each other; the rivalry between the British and the Americans (the French were seen as little more than tagalong little brothers) was enough to torpedo the operation.
The British, quite honestly, looked down on the Americans and more than one British officer said the soldiers weren’t able to finish, were only interested in defense rather than riskier offensive maneuvers, were undisciplined and sloppy, were, in fact, cowards. General Harold Alexander, after evaluating the American performance in one admittedly disastrous battle, patronizingly suggested that one division be handed over to the British for “retraining.”
But the American commanders didn’t give the British a lot of reason to believe, especially at first. They made mistakes, and Eisenhower, the uneasy commander-in-chief, was initially too reluctant to make changes when they were necessary; he left leaders who were in over their heads in charge when it was apparent to everyone that they were making mistakes. When he finally relieved Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall of his command after a sound beating at Kasserine Pass and put Patton in charge, progress finally began to be made. Patton, for all his failings—he was mercurial, bossy, selfish, and a bane to his men for his fines about minute things like not being in full dress uniform all the time—could at least make decisions without being timid. General Omar Bradley, when he was finally brought in, was actually able to convince the skeptical Alexander to give the Americans a chance on the drive to Tunis, and proved that the Americans could fight, even if it was in a somewhat unconventional way (Bradley’s decision to fight along mountain ridges instead of in the valleys where they would have been a veritable shooting gallery for the Germans, was somehow sneered at by the British).
And Eisenhower had the most changes to make. He learned to be tougher, that war was not the time to tolerate the failings of others. He had to become a commander, not an agreeable subordinate. Atkinson quotes Eisenhower’s son, John’s impression of how his father changed: “Before he left for Europe in 1942, I knew him as an aggressive intelligent personality….[North Africa] transformed him from a mere person to a personage…full of authority and truly in command.” (When I read that, I think how peculiar it must be to see one’s parent essentially grow up.)
Atkinson is fine at providing the big picture of the continuous battle across North Africa (and this campaign was almost pure fighting—there were no long layovers in towns or cities, and little to no contact with civilians). This was the most motorized of wars, far more than World War I. Hand to hand combat and advances by infantry into enemy lines happened, but much more common were tank battles, armored car travel, and air raids. And when that many fuel-filled engines mix with bombs and rifles, there is a lot of fire. It’s hard not to come away from this book with a picture of burning tanks and jeeps and planes scattered across Africa like so many bonfires. I admit to coming away with impressions more like these than a real grasp of the facts of battle, but this is my failing, not the author’s; the only way to compensate for my sorry inability to visualize and keep track of all the events, would have been a map on every page that tracked troop movements—preferably a video map showing dramatizations of all the action. Yeah, that would be helpful.
But as I found in The Day of Battle, Atkinson really excels at capturing the fine details that turn a list of skirmishes and battles into a story. With so many letters, memoirs, and transcripts available to World War II historians, a writer could easily overwhelm a page with quote after quote. However, Atkinson knows which ones to select and when to deploy them. He also has his own words for the small telling details about people and places; I liked the description of a visit to an estate in Marrakesh by Roosevelt and Churchill that was preceded by a frenzy of preparations, including a crash course in etiquette and food service given to an emergency crew of GIs brought in to supplement the French staff. The anxiety of the event “was all too much for the supervising American lieutenant, who suffered a nervous breakdown and was locked in a bedroom after heavy sedation with a bottle of bourbon.” And probably my favorite line in the book, a summation of the evolving standards of the draft as “the day would come when new recruits claimed the Army no longer examined eyes, just counted them.”
(And no, all this praise doesn’t mean I’ve developed a crush on Mr. Atkinson; as we know, my bruised and battered heart is still deliriously preoccupied, however hopeless that situation may seem sometimes…okay, all the time.)
So now there’s just one book left in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy—D-Day is on the horizon. Until then An Army at Dawn has left me with a greater understanding of WW II, a sense of despair that I will never be able to write any piece of nonfiction even half as well, and a mad desire to go to Morocco.