An Army at Dawn
An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson, (Henry Holt and Company, 2002)
An Army at Dawn, the first installment of author Rick Atkinson’s planned trilogy on the Allies’ effort to defeat the Axis in Europe in World War II, covers the landings of the American and British forces in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, their push eastward to meet the British Eighth Army coming westward from Egypt, and their defeat of German and Italian forces in Tunisia in May 1943.
Atkinson shows that in North Africa, against relatively small opposition, the U.S. prepared for the larger task ahead on the European continent. Starting out inexperienced, poorly trained, ill-equipped, badly organized and led, U.S. forces suffered heavy casualties and humiliating defeat before learning how to coordinate large-scale, multiple-force units under diverse commands in an aggressive engagement of the enemy. Without such experience and transformation, a premature assault on the enemy’s main forces in Europe could have been disastrous.
Atkinson also shows that the war was political as well as military. The USSR was desperately impatient for more Allied action in the west. Many in the U.S. wanted to focus on Japan in the Pacific. England was disdainful of America’s military leadership and capability. Within the U.S. Army, many generals and admirals pushed their own divergent priorities. Strong personalities and egos clashed within and across national boundaries.
It was in the North African campaign that General Eisenhower was transformed from a congenial staff officer to a determined combat leader, capable of harnessing and applying effective force amidst centrifugal political and personal pressures. It was here that the U.S. began to emerge as the senior partner in the Alliance.
In vivid and engaging prose, Atkinson balances big-picture strategy with unit-level tactics, provides character sketches of key officers and politicians, and combines grand themes of the campaign with the individual struggles that composed them. The book is a pleasure to read and – with its useful maps, index, and list of sources – a good place to learn.
The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the February, 2005 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.