Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: An Army At Dawn by Rick Atkinson

For the last couple of months, I've been saturating myself in "all things World War Two".  From watching HBO's The Pacific and re-watching Band of Brothers to reading E.B. Sledge's With The Old Breed, through movies and pulp novels and several Fairbairn manuals as well as an ever-growing pile of Osprey books.  Much of this is both self-education and refreshing my knowledge of the war, as well as research for my next big project, but it is all fascinating and entertaining, if at times shockingly grim.

My latest WW2 read has been Rick Atkinson's An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943.  This rather massive volume (the paperback runs 768 pages) is a very engaging, almost literary look at the Allied invasion and eventual conquest of the North African theater of World War Two.  This is a part of the war that I was not terribly familiar with, except from some of the early battle scenes in Patton and in playing through the early British missions in Call of Duty 2, so this was going to be a great education for me.

And what an education it was.  In 1942 America had just thrown its hat into the ring after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but our military might was less like Captain America and more like shrimpy Steve Rogers, pre-transformation.  We had some pluck and a resolve to take the fight against the Axis, but our military was woefully obsolete, not only in terms of much of our equipment, but in our training methods, our officer corps, and most importantly, our manpower.  America was 17th in terms of the world's armies as of 1939, but in six short years we would come to dominate the globe.  That enormous transformation has its genesis in North Africa, and Operation TORCH. 

But TORCH was definitely an ugly baby.  Reaching Atkinson's book, it is a miracle the Allies were able to win in North Africa; no one had the foggiest notion of how to launch amphibious assaults with a modern combined arms army, and not only were we fighting against the Germans, but the Vichy French were duty-bound to defend their African colonial territories against "Allied aggression".  Friendly fire casualties were enormous, hundreds of men drowned before they even made it to the beaches because no one knew how to get them ashore correctly, and once ashore, no one had prepared supplies and logistics to take modern combat operations of this nature into account.

And even when men made it onto the beach and eventually took the ports, there was the actual conquering to be done.  As is noted by Atkinson and other authors, our soldiers in North Africa "had not yet learned to hate" and hadn't yet learned the "profession of killing".  This is nowhere more true when reading about those early armor battles; pitting Stuart tanks and their 37mm "squirrel rifles" against German Panthers and Tigers makes for some really cringe-worthy reading, and in many places you simply have to put the book down, take a deep breath, and reassure yourself that it all works out in the end.

On another note, this was the longest e-book I've read, having purchased and downloaded the volume onto my new Kindle.  Although the merits of a e-reader vs. a simple paperback can be debated ad nauseam, the Kindle is far, far lighter and more compact than the roughly pound and a half of the paperback version of the book.  Virtually "shrinking" big, heavy books like this into a slim, lightweight package is clearly one of the advantages of the Kindle.

In conclusion, if you are looking to begin a well-researched, well-written account of the American experience in WW2, this is the place to start.  Atkinson's "big picture" concept behind writing his Liberation Trilogy (of which this is the first volume) is to show the growth and evolution of the Allied forces in general, and the American Army specifically, from a largely incompetent train-wreck into a massive war host capable of defeating two of the largest, most aggressively militant nations on Earth...at the same time.  I think with An Army At Dawn, Atkinson has succeeded in the first of his objectives.


Civil War Horror said...

The North African campaign is for me the most interesting of the war. The Afrika Korps was the only German army not charged with war crimes. In a sense, it was the only "clean" theater of the war.

Glad to see you're picking up some Osprey titles. They're a great company to write for. Unlike so many other publishers, everyone on the team (designers, editors, layout, etc.) is very professional and really care about the end product.

If I may, I suggest checking out Afrikakorps Soldier 1941-43 by Pier Paolo Battistelli. I met Pier Paolo last year while doing research in Rome and he really knows his stuff and this is a very informative book.

Indyguy said...

I've read Atkinson's two books in the series and enjoyed them quite a bit. I felt his richly detailed account of the litany of mistakes made in TORCH from logistics to tactics were quite impressive. He continues examining this in Day of Battle. While this is leadup to the colossal staging of D-Day and that operation's success I found learning of debacles I didn't know of helped my appreciation of battles I did know. The progress of the US army in North Africa seemed more like a child learning to walk and talk than the unleashing of a juggernaut.

Whenever the third book is published I'm looking forward to reading it.