by Rick Atkinson
New York: Henry Holt, 2003. Pp. xix, 681.
Illus, maps, table, notes, biblio., index. $16.00 paper. ISBN:0-8050-7448-1
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002, An Army at Dawn is essentially a study of the maturation of the U.S. Army in the North African Campaign, and constitutes the first volume of what the author terms the “Liberation Trilogy,” the subsequent ones dealing with the campaigns in Italy, 1943-1945, and in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945.
Atkinson has created a multifaceted look at the green American Army as it entered upon its first offensive campaign of the war. The scope ranges from top level matters of policy and strategy right down to the common soldier in the front lines, and manages to encompass organization, equipment, logistics, and much more, with a wonderful cast of characters that includes such notables as Terry Allen, Ernie Pyle, Ted Roosevelt, and many more.
Atkinson concludes – quite rightly – that the army that went into North Africa was by no means a mighty war machine. Poor training, inexperienced officers, overly optimistic expectations, all led to near disaster during the initial landings against the French, and later to very real disaster in the initial clashes with the Germans. But Atkinson also recounts how the army and its senior leadership learned, and learned well, much more quickly than anyone – friend or foe – expected, gaining the experience and skill that made possible the final victory.
An Army at Dawn makes a definitive case against the U.S. Army’s belief that a cross-channel attack was possible in ’42, and is important reading for anyone interested in the Second World War.