An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. Vol. 1 of the "Liberation Trilogy." By Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-6288-2. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Sources. Index. Pp. 681. $30.00.
Operation TORCH has never glowed so brightly. Rick Atkinson, former assistant manager at the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written an engrossing narrative of the action in North Africa from the initial planning to the final victory in Tunisia in May 1943. While his emphasis is on the American army, the author includes trenchant comments about the British, French, and German forces and their commanders. Atkinson has an impressive command of words, a flair for simplifying complex issues, and a vast reservoir of information. For the sake of readability, footnote numbers are omitted, but the innumerable sources are easily accessed page-by-page following the text.
This is a popular and very readable history. For those who swear by the U.S. Army's official "Green" books (to which Atkinson gives "special recognition" on p. 655), it should be pointed out that Army at Dawn differs notably from George Howe's Northwest Africa (Washington: GPO, 1957) in its ability to bring people, issues, and events to life. Atkinson's vignettes, with shrewd eye-witness quotes, give the reader some unusual insights into [End Page 271] personalities and they help explain a number of the campaign's early failures. He pulls no punches regarding rivalries among leaders and he has some refreshingly frank comments about Anglo-American mutual disdain. The Tunisian campaign brought forth many changes of strategy and much replacement of commanders, matters that Atkinson handles judiciously, placing blame among many, as well as on inexperience and confusing chains of command. He excels in sensitive coverage of events—for example, animating the formulaic "heavy casualties" with vivid pictures of hopeless attacks, senseless slaughter, and the agony of dying men.
While unquestionably well informed on global grand strategy, Atkinson minimizes war problems as viewed from Washington or London. At the Casablanca Conference he depicts Eisenhower, tired and unsure of himself, vying with the well-prepared British chiefs over objectives and means, but presents little on Churchill and Roosevelt who, after a meeting, "blessed the agreement and returned to their cocktails" (p. 289). But his conclusions on Casablanca, while brief (pp. 297-99), convey the essence of the new American-British relationship and the leaders' uncertainties—"the compromises at Anfa had been greased with ambiguity."
Atkinson is not trying to cover everything that happened in North
Africa—the book is essentially an accolade to the American army and
its commanders, evolving from untried and naïve in November 1942 to
hardened, blooded veterans six months later. "No soldier in Africa had
changed more—grown more—than Eisenhower" (p. 533). "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 fight on" (p. 537). This
is a fascinating work which any reader can enjoy, and professional
historians will find perusal of it eminently worth their while.
Arthur L. Funk
Emeritus, University of Florida