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An Army at Dawn_Book Review

As a genre I love to read history.

As a sub-genre I love to read military history and even historical novels.

I tend to read them in batches or in sequence if they are part of series. I’ll hang around in different time periods and read all I can and eventually move on to another period.

So when someone purchased for me Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn I was wallowing in a period other than WW2. I read the introduction and first chapter and mentally made a note to return to the book when I got back into WW2. I placed the book in a drawer and promptly forgot about it for a couple of years.

My mistake.

I rediscovered An Army at Dawn and read  through the 540+ pages in about two weeks. It’s the first in a trilogy that documents the US Army’s experience in North Africa, (An Army at Dawn), the Italian Campaign (The Day of Battle)  and in the planned third volume, The Normandy Invasion and the War in Western Europe to be published in the Spring of 2013.

Just for the hec of it I went to Amazon to see what other miliary history geeks said about An Army at Dawn.

Instant Classic

What I found was a mountain of reviews totalling 185,  most favorable with quite a few giving it an outstanding rating.

It’s easy to see why. The writing is crisp as Rick is adapt at describing the big wigs like Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Giraud, De Gaulle, Alexander, Marshall and the annoying Montgomery and Patton, two egotists of the highest order.

But this is not a book limited to big wigs and the big picture for Rick has an eye to recording the experiences of the men who did the fighting. He flows between the big picture stuff to the small picture stuff with ease and with equal sharpness. He even makes the logistics of Operation Torch interesting!

In fact what made it such a pleasant, fun and easy read is that you get the feeling he wrote it in a series of short stories that dealt with people whether they were the politicians and generals or they were the American GI’s or British Tommies. I found portions that dealt with the 34th Infantry Division particularly interesting because it was recruited from national guard units in Minnesota and Iowa neighbor states to my own Wisconsin. The unit would suffer badly and many a small town in those two States would mourn their sons, brothers and fathers. Atkinson never short changes the men who fought in WW2 and he is clear in reflecting war’s terrible costs.

Atkinson is deft in shifting between the big picture and the smaller pictures that make up the mosaic of the North African Campaign.

One minute you are in Eisenhower’s cave in Gibraltar chain-smoking with him as he sweats out what the French may or may not do when Operation Torch takes place. The next minute you are on the beach with American grunts who have sown small American flags on their shoulders in the hopes the Vichy French won’t fire on them (some did and some did not).

Then Rick will take you on an inside look at the generals like the Big Red One’s Terry Allen and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. I came away with an admiration for the crippled TR Jr. who was Allen’s second-in-command. The picture of him leading from the front despite his age and handicap is nothing short of inspiring.

On the other hand I came away with a growing dislike of George Patton. It’s true the Patton was a driver and pushed his men to the brink but he was also a jerk who frequently flew into rages and insulted brave officers as cowards. The famous later slapping incidents that the press covered up for a long time were really the tip of the iceberg as we get glances into Patton’s rage and megalomania.

While the book is mostly about Americans our British allies get a fair amount of coverage too. If anyone thinks the two armies and their commanders got along seamlessly you are badly mistaken. All too often there were Americans who simply did not like the British and British who held an equal disdain for the Americans. The glue that held the alliance together was Roosevelt’s admiration for the old bull-dog Churchill and Churchill’s admiration for the American President. The selection of Eisenhower as the Commander-in-Chief was not done because he was a great strategist; it was because he could be objective when it came to the numerous squabbles between the allies and the squabbles he had to settle were numerous.

One thing I found interesting is that both Yanks and Brits didn’t like Monty. While it seemed his men loved him because he rarely started a fight without the maximum artillery and air cover for them others saw him as the maximum “diva” who disdained everyone else’s ideas but his own. Eisenhower in fact loathed Montgomery and Eisenhower was good at getting along with almost everybody.

What was also interesting was the French. They were caught between a rock and hard place. If they did not fight the invasion the Germans would take over the rest of Vichy France with unknown repercussions. If they fought, they had to know they would lose for the French Army in North Africa was third rate and while the Navy was somewhat better it had no chance against the combined might of the allied fleet assembled for Torch.

So, the French hemmed and hawed never quite sure what to do and some fought and others did not. In the end the Germans did take over southern France and the French joined the allies. One French personality who comes across both annoying and amusing is Giraud Commander of French land forces in Morocco. Giraud thought he should command all of the allied forces (honest) as the price for the French not opposing Torch. He spoke in the third person of himself such as “Giraud believes” or “Giraud would do this or that”  and after he would not get his way as Commander in Chief  “Giraud will be a spectator in this affair.” He was and now is a footnote in history. Giraud was one odd duck even by French standards.

The Germans also receive coverage and Atkinson is fair I believe in his assessments.

There is the sick and burnt out Rommel retreating to Tunisia after the Battle of El Alamein pursued by a lethargic Monty. Rommel arrives in Tunisia just in time to give some vision to what we be the US Army’s first defeat in the European Theater at Kasserine . The Germans like the Allies have their own infighting going on and Rommel is recalled to Germany (he was very sick) to leave the German forces in the hands of Von Armin and the Italians in Messe’s hands. After Kasserine things just got progressively worse for the Axis and eventually it would cost them a quarter of a million men, mostly Italian.

Field Marshall (smiling) Albert Kesserling gets some space. Kesserling was a Luftwaffe General who commanded all the German forces in North Africa and Italy. He got to work with Commando Supremo Benito Mussolini commander of the Italians.

Kesserling was rare among the Germans because he liked the Italians although he had no illusions about their ultimate desire to fight. Kesserling would prove to be a major pain for the allies during the later Italian Campaign. He had an eye for defense and the geography of Italy would favor the Germans and thus they kept the allies out of Rome until June, 1944. All that is in the future however. In An Army at Dawn Kesserling is patching together the German defense of Tunisia and trying to keep the Americans and British separate and he does so with some success for a time.

Like the French the Italians seemed to be between a rock and hard place. On one hand Mussolini had made the Pact of Steel with Hitler. Prior to the pact Mussoilini had ambitions of his own to restore the old Roman Empire. Italian colonies in North Africa provide the springboard for his adventures. The German Africa Corps was sent to North Africa to bail out the Italians who received a thorough thrashing from the small British Army coming out of Egypt. By the time of Operation Torch the average Italian had little stomach for the war and referred to it “as the German’s war” even though their leader was responsible for most of their adventures that ended in disaster.

The Italian Army like the French Vichy forces was third-rate and the reliance on the Germans to do the heavy lifting led to German disdain for the Italians who rewarded this disdain further by being half-hearted at best when it came to opposing the allies. In the Tunisian Campaign some Italian units did very well but the majority could not wait to surrender. This would be repeated in the follow-up campaign in Sicily.

All of these interactions between politicians, generals, common soldiers and countries are played out with Rick’s flair to make it interesting. You get the feel for the period and get real insight into some of the personalities running the war and the campaigns. I was never bored and never skimmed and I think that says something for Atkinsen’s gripping writing style.

An Army at Dawn is an incredibly well-researched book. Besides the 540 pages of reading there is an additional 200 pages of notes and sources as well as an index.  The research pays off with numerous quotes from the actual participants diaries and letters home.

I’ve read a lot of military history in my time but An Army at Dawn easily is one of the best hard to put down books I’ve ever read. I was only 1/4 of the way through when I ordered Day of Battle, second in the trilogy.

If this period interests you then don’t be like me and put off this excellent read!

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