Not much is widely understood about the battle for North Africa in World War II. To many, it consists of one battle: Kasserine Pass. Here, the American army had its first taste of defeat. They learned a lot from this defeat, though, and carried those lessons on to Italy and to the invasion of France. Never again were they defeated to any great extent. This understanding is hopelessly incomplete, as there were many defeats in this campaign before the Allies finally disposed of the German presence on North African soil.
An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson is a comprehensive look at this campaign. Taking place between November 8, 1942, when thousands of troops stormed the beaches of Morocco and Algeria, and May 13, 1943, when American and British troops marched into Tunis and Bizerte, Atkinson presents a rich and detailed account of every battle that took place. This book had me fascinated from page one and didnít let up until I had finished it. I have not read such a complete account of the battle before, and the combination of Atkinsonís writing and newness of the material made me race through this book faster than I have ever read such a lengthy tome. The only thing that slowed me down is the weight of the book, as it prevented me from taking it to work on the bus. A hardcover at 541 pages of text plus 140 pages of notes and indices, itís pretty hefty. It was well worth the effort.
Atkinson is an ex-journalist, and the level of detail in this book speaks to that. The book covers everything from the initial planning and preparation of the invasion, to the boring (for the soldiers) time stuck in Morocco after the front lines had moved on to Tunisia, to the meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca, to the final endgame as the German defenses collapsed. Atkinson tells the story in both a broad overview, discussing the planning among the upper echelon of generals, as well as from the foot soldierís point of view. He uses numerous letters and other sources of quotes talking about how individual soldiers felt about what was going on around them. Some of these quotes really get to the heart of what the soldiers were going through and are quite graphic about what they have seen and heard. The fear that some of them felt is almost palpable, and Atkinson really succeeds in setting the mood.
North Africa was the crucible for the American army. From a young, inexperienced force that had never seen battle before, the U.S. army went through the fires of numerous battles in places never heard of and places that would never be heard of again (such as Sidi bou Zid, Sidi el Moudjad, and so forth) and emerged a tough fighting unit. Bloodied, sometimes broken, eventually the army became forged as tough as steel. While this book is a comprehensive history of the North African campaign, one of the major themes of the book (hence the title) is the transformation of the American army from a green force to a tough fighting machine. There are numerous passages in the book where Atkinson talks about the British feelings about this new upstart army, and how it would never amount to anything. British Field Marshal Montgomery was very disdainful of it, saying that they didnít know how to fight and never would. He would be proved wrong.
Atkinsonís writing draws the reader into the action. He wastes no words but provides vivid descriptions of the action. At times he is quite graphic, talking about how a tank shell decapitated somebody or how a soldier is lying on the ground trying to keep his insides from falling out. He sometimes falls into the trap of melodrama, though, such as on page 76 when he says: ďFar above, at the shrine of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, a weathered stone madonna extended her hand toward the harbor, as if to offer absolution for all that she had witnessed.Ē Lines like these are sprinkled throughout the text and get a little annoying after awhile. However, they donít detract from how successful Atkinson is in getting across to the reader what is happening. He makes the book hard to put down.
An Army at Dawn is wonderfully researched. There are 28 pages of sources listed, as well as 82 pages of notes. Itís obvious that Atkinson spent a lot of time and effort to make sure everything was correct, and I can find no fault in his research. I do, however, detest the form of notation in this book. The notes are confined to a section in the back of the book, and they have no numerical notation at all. Instead, four or five words of the quote, or whatever it is that Atkinson is noting, are presented and then the source is given. It makes it hard to go back and forth, though at least the page numbers are given so it is a bit easier to find them. I hate flipping to the back of the book anyway, so consider me a fan of the footnote at the bottom of the page. That is a personal preference, though, and doesnít detract from the quality of the book.
One other minor problem is the emphasis on the negative when Atkinson is talking about the quieter times. I consider it a plus that Atkinson pulls no punches in telling the reader about the bad things that happened during this time. Heís honest about the fact that the American fighting man, for the most part, was not ready for this war. Many ran, or died due to the incompetence of their leaders. He also talks about some valorous actions taken by the troops. But when Atkinson talks about things taking place behind the lines, he tends to concentrate on the negative. He talks about the treatment of the Arabs, how some of the women were raped or brutalized in other ways. That story does need to be told, but he never talks about any good things that the troops may have done. Iím sure there must have been some good things that he could have talked about, such as an American soldier protecting a family or giving them some food, or something. Iím not quite sure why he avoids this, but I did find that detracted from my enjoyment.
Overall, I have to heartily recommend An Army at Dawn to any serious history buff. The North African campaign is one that has not been widely remembered as more than a footnote, where the American army faced its first trial by combat. Itís nice to see such a comprehensive work about it. It is quite heavy (both literally and in the text), so be prepared. But donít worry. The text is rich enough that if you have any interest in the subject at all, it will be well worth your time.