Rick Atkinson’s  first volume of his World War II Trilogy An Army At Dawn is an extraordinarily candid appraisal of the performance of the U.S. Military during its initial foray into the Second World War in North Africa.


This excellent historical work portrays the North Africa Campaign of 1942-1943 as a painful dress rehearsal for a green U.S. Command and Army, embarking on its first and often catastrophic combat missions since the First World War.  ” A great sorting out was underway: the competent from the incompetent, the courageous from the fearful, the lucky from the unlucky.”   Atkinson spares no one in his  harsh analysis of both the American and British forces and their leadership.  The takeaway is that if the Allies had invaded across the channel in 1942 as originally envisioned, D-Day would have been a disaster only rivaled by Dunkirk.  A move up the boot of Italy or into southern France according to Atkinson’s read would have also been doomed from the outset.

The North Africa Campaign learning curve was critical to the final Allied victory in Europe. ” Eisenhower had been naive, sycophantic,  unsure of his judgement, insufficiently vigorous and more a titular than actual commander.” Atkinson is blunt in his appraisal that North Africa taught the American Infantryman the necessity of  ” ruthless killer instinct”  in battle.”  ” A soldier is not effective until he has learned to hate. When he lives for one thing, to kill the enemy, he becomes of value. ”  The collaboration in the North Africa Campaign with the British under Montgomery  foretold difficulties to come in the invasion of Europe.

Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel, all portrayed  by historian Atkinson at their very worst and very best. The book is scholarly in its approach and yet very readable, filled with humanity, heroism,  and battlefield reality. After months of failure with enormous and often needless casualties,  American forces finally morphed into fighting form and marched through the Kasserine Pass and on to the sea at Tunis.

An Army at Dawn was written in 2002. The remaining volumes in Atkinson’s trilogy are The Day of Battle, the war in  Sicily and Italy ( 2007 ),  from 1943-1944 and The Guns at Last Light, (2012),  the war in Western Europe, 1944-1945. Atkinson also authored The Long Grey Line and Crusade.

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