An Army at Dawn: The War In North Africa, 1942-1943
Rick Atkinson (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002)
If we based our understanding of history purely on popular culture — specifically, Hollywood — we might think of World War II along the following lines. The war started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (interrupting a number of love lives and little league games). Then, after some time getting organized, Tom Hanks invaded Normandy and saved Private Ryan. We dropped the Big One on Japan, and that was that.
The full story of the American victory, of course, is a good deal more complicated. Rick Atkinson, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, has set out to tell an important part of that story through a planned series of books that he calls the Liberation Trilogy. They will cover the role of the United States (largely the U.S. Army) in defeating Germany and its allies in the European theater of operations.
The first installment of the trilogy, An Army at Dawn, describes the U.S. and British campaign in North Africa that began with Operation TORCH, the amphibious invasion of French Morocco and Algeria on November 8, 1942. The initial invasion in the east took place just after the victory of the British Eighth Army, to the west at El Alamein. The two allied forces gradually converged on the Axis armies, first compressing the Germans and Italians into a beachhead in Tunisia and finally forcing their surrender on May 13, 1943. The Allies, having cleared North Africa of hostile forces and capturing or killing roughly 250,000 of the enemy, were now in a position to strike at Sicily and the Italian mainland. Atkinson spends over 500 pages to tell this story. He covers the campaign in painstaking detail, from the great political dialogue of Churchill and FDR at Casablanca in January 1943 to the ordinary details of the American home front. But he spends most of his time with the troops in the field. Atkinson refers to the American force as “An Army at Dawn” because it is just beginning to make an extraordinary transition from a small, poorly funded, peacetime cadre into a world-class fighting force. (Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan, you may recall, was said to have received his first combat experience in the Mediterranean campaigns.) To survive this uncertain dawn, the United States paid a considerable price: 2,715 killed in action, nearly 9,000 wounded and more than 6,500 missing. War is a miserable business, as Atkinson makes abundantly clear. Why should we, sixty years later, care? We want to honor those who made such sacrifices, of course, but don’t we have our own problems to worry about?
Atkinson argues that the North African campaign was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power — militarily, diplomatically, strategically, and tactically. This may be going a bit too far, but Operation TORCH and the subsequent operations are a good source for reflections on our own troubled times. It is of course dangerous to draw direct analogies — FDR or Patton did this and such, and therefore we should do thus and such. But history (with a small h) is the laboratory of great minds; and it explains much of how we came to be where we are today.
Grand strategy, Churchill tells us, is the summit where true politics and strategy meet. Atkinson makes clear that North Africa was a political war as much as a military campaign. FDR needed to have Americans fighting somewhere in the European theater to sustain support on the home front, and particularly to relieve the domestic pressure to emphasize the fight in the Pacific. We had been attacked by Japan, after all. But Roosevelt had decided, correctly, that the greatest threat was posed by Germany and that the greatest strategic opportunities came in the European theater, broadly defined. North Africa offered the quickest means to engage in that war, and it was favored by the British. One has to begin somewhere.
But many high-ranking American officers disagreed with the specific location — they argued that by fighting in North Africa, we were actually fighting for British imperial interests. They favored a more direct approach to Berlin, by preparing for an immediate invasion of France in late 1942 or at least 1943. The North African campaign, they said, was a distraction that would delay the cross-channel invasion until 1944. An earlier American attack on the continent might have led to a quicker defeat of Germany and (as it turned out) to less territory being conceded to Stalin and the Red Army.
Atkinson comes down firmly on the side that the British, in this instance, were right. The real bottleneck was limited Allied shipping and airpower, such that D-day at Normandy could not have been mounted successfully much earlier than June 1944; certainly not in 1943. Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics — and the Americans had a long ways to go in developing the infrastructure for war, despite the incredible productivity of American industry. But beyond material limitations, the Americans simply were not yet ready for the big leagues. Operation TORCH saved Washington and London form a disastrously premature landing in northern Europe. Given the dozens of Wehrmacht divisions waiting behind the Atlantic Wall, Atkinson writes, France would have been a poor place to be lousy in.
And the Americans proved lousy, in many respects, in North Africa. Atkinson is particularly hard on the American commanders, the legendary George Patton included. Patton displayed the conspicuous command attributes for which he was famous: energy, will, a capacity to see the enemy’s perspective, and bloodlust. But, Atkinson argues, he had a wonton disregard for logistics, a childish propensity to feud with other services, a willingness to disregard the spirit if not the letter of orders from his superiors, and an archaic tendency to assess his own generalship on the basis of personal courage under fire. (Although, as Atkinson describes quite critically elsewhere, other American commanders had a disconcerting tendency to avoid coming anywhere near the front). And then there is Eisenhower — implausibly elevated from an obscure Lieutenant Colonel to allied commander in a space of thirty months. Atkinson at first finds him shallow, indecisive, out of his element. But as the campaign continued, Eisenhower began to find his stride.
Eventually, such men of real leadership stepped forward, and those incapable fell by the wayside. At the end of the day, four U.S. divisions had combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare: expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert and urban. The troops had learned the importance of terrain, combined arms, aggressive patrolling, stealth, massed armor. They had been toughened by the difficult Tunisian terrain and harsh winter climate: “a cold country with a hot sun.” They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled and machine-gunned and to fight on. More importantly, Atkinson writes, the Yanks had arrived in North Africa with the sense that they were still fighting somebody else’s war. By the end of the campaign they were fully vested, with a stake of their own, because they had seen their friends killed and maimed by the SOBs on the other side. War had become personal. North Africa is where American soldiers became killing mad, where the hard truth about war was first revealed to many.
But at the same time, North Africa is where irony and skepticism began refracting the experiences of countless ordinary soldiers. Atkinson largely follows those who argue that combat effectiveness depends largely on small unit cohesion — the desire to gain the esteem of one’s buddies, to be thought a cool head in a fire-fight — and not on a sense of high moral purpose. Atkinson’s Army at Dawn marches to a ribald tune about Tunisian whores and not to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
That was undoubtedly true, but not comprehensive (again to paraphrase Churchill). Here we come once more to Eisenhower, who entitled his war memoirs, Crusade in Europe. As Atkinson makes clear, Eisenhower meant it: he was a true believer in the righteousness of the Allied cause. “If [the Axis] should win,” he wrote, “we would really learn something about slavery, forced labor, and the loss of individual freedom.” The great Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman said it well: “There is a soul to any army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.” This reflective quality — of commanding the souls of men — is true not only for military excellence, but the higher purpose and honor that transcends the battlefield.
Atkinson highlights the other key aspect of Eisenhower’s leadership — his genius in commanding a coalition and especially in managing the subtle shift in the balance of power within the Anglo-American alliance, as the United States became the stronger partner. British commanders initially had nothing but contempt for American martial skills — “our Italians,” they called the Yanks, not meaning this a compliment. American commanders naturally resented British condescension: “The British cope, we fix.” These frictions were never totally worked out, but Eisenhower made sure that the military coalition worked. And it still does.
And then there were the French. Much of North Africa prior to the invasion was under the nominal control of Vichy France, the German satellite state in unoccupied mainland France. Eisenhower had to deal with the French and bring them to the Allied side, forcibly if necessary, in order to secure the landings and protect his rear area. Many of them were brave and happy to be free of the Germans, but some were unsavory, pathetic and clownish, such as General Giraud Admiral Darlan. Eisenhower also had to deal with the prickly Free French, above all Charles de Gaulle. This part of the coalition never worked well, although it served its immediate purpose. In examining the complicated psychology of the French in North Africa, we can get some insight as to why the “alliance with Lafayette” never approximated the special Anglo-American relationship during and after the war. And it still doesn’t.
None of it was inevitable, Atkinson writes. Not the individual deaths, nor the ultimate Allied victory, nor eventual American hegemony. History, like particular fates, hung in the balance, waiting to be tipped. History hung heavy over North Africa. The jaded locals and their ancestors had seen countless battles before; they treated this latest war something like a spectator sport. They could point to the battlefield at Zama, where Hannibal had been smashed by Scipio Africanus to end the Second Punic War in 202 B.C. They probably thought that this would not be the last battle the Arab world would see. And they were right.
Patrick J. Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.