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An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (The Liberation Trilogy, Volume 1)
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
HC, 672 pgs. US$30
ISBN: 0-8050-6288-2

The maturation of an army

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 23, 2002

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (The Liberation Trilogy, Volume 1)Although it's difficult to believe today with the power it wields, the American army that ventured into North Africa in 1942 to join the battle against the Axis powers was a poorly equipped and ill-trained group of men who were more citizen than soldier. Despite a poor beginning it can be plausibly argued that the foundation for the modern American army was laid in the early days of that campaign.

And it was a poor beginning. The first wave of Americans sent over were a mix of regular units and their National Guard counterparts and commanded by Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man who only 30 months before had been a Lt. Col. that had never commanded so much as a platoon in combat. Combined with supply problems that at one point saw more peanut butter delivered to the soldiers than the tools of war, it's not surprising that the invasion began with mixed results.

The first American units committed to battle suffered hundreds of casualties in the early hours of landings at Oran and Algiers, facing French units - who weren't sure whether Vichy or its opponents were commanding them - were unsure of whether to welcome the Allies or drive them back into the sea. Faring poorly against the feeble French, the Americans did little to impress the British who had already faced combat in the sands of North Africa against the likes of Erwin Rommel.

Yet, as Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson points out in his remarkable An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, the first of a trilogy, the trial by fire that the Americans faced ultimately imparted valuable lessons which they implemented successfully later in the war. Unused to large-scale multiple-unit actions, the Americans eventually learned how to combine their forces for devastating effect. Also learned was the crucial skill of combined arms, integrating the military's branches into a single action, something that has become the standard operating procedure for it to this day.

The Allied forces, however, faced other equally daunting problems in the higher echelons. Eisenhower was lightly regarded by both Americans - for his perceived pro-British slant - and the British - who saw him as unqualified for the mission. The career staff officer admitted that he lacked the killer instinct necessary and the planning for the attacks was, as Atkinson notes, "indifferently" carried out. Further down the chain of command, officers who simply weren't prepared for the demands of modern warfare hampered the Allied armies.

That slowly began to change, Atkinson argues, after U.S. forces were routed at the Kasserine Pass. For some reason, the repeated battering by German forces and their eventual victory infused the Americans with a new fighting spirit. It was, perhaps, along with a later battle at El Guettar the bloody nose they needed to finally begin hating their enemy, as several historians later noted. Thanks to tactical errors by the Germans, Eisenhower and the Americans felt confident enough believe that even the remarkable Rommel could be defeated.

Ultimately, North Africa produced several positive outcomes for the Allies. It matured Eisenhower as a soldier, something that would become vitally necessary when he was given command of Allied forces in Europe. It taught the Allies how to integrate soldiers and commands of different nations, something that gave the Americans and British plenty of problems early in the war. Most importantly it provided the education necessary for an American army which hadn't participated in a major battle since the First World War.

Atkinson's account of the battle for North Africa, an Axis defeat that dealt a serious blow to Germany and gave the strategic initiative to the Allies, is a masterpiece in laying out the grand themes of the campaign while still managing to capture the individual struggles which composed them. It takes a great deal of skill to bring new insights into a topic that has been explored countless times before and Atkinson possesses it in abundance. An Army at Dawn promises a gripping account about the liberation of Europe when the trilogy is completed and this first volume delivers in a grand way.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 at Amazon.com for only $21 (30% off)

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Read an excerpt from An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy
  • A charmed life by Steven Martinovich (July 8, 2002)
    Steve Martinovich thinks Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life is a fine piece of reporting about the military career of the man who would one day serve as a Republican president

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