For those who are interested in the military history of Europe during World War II but do not enjoy dealing with the minutiae of military detail for each battle Rick Atkinson has done us all a service. He has produced what has been labeled as the “liberation trilogy” which he has just completed with the publication of THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT THE WAR IN WESTERN EUROPE, 1944-1945. Mr. Atkinson has spent the last fifteen years researching and writing his history of the war in Europe. In 2002 he presented AN ARMY AT DAWN, THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA, 1942-1943, and in 2008, THE WAR IN BATTLE: THE WAR IN SICILY AND ITALY, 1943-1944 was published. The project has been a remarkable undertaking and I felt a void in my own study of the war having not engaged these volumes until now. After watching a series of interviews of the author the last few weeks I decided to undertake the joyful task of tackling the first volume dealing with the war in North Africa. To say the least, I have not been disappointed. Mr. Atkinson writes in a fluid manner, presents the necessary background, detail, and analysis of each confrontation, in addition to character studies of the important personages who led the allied armies, and leaves the reader with the feeling he has accompanied allied troops from the landing in November, 1942 to final victory in North Africa in May, 1943.
The reader follows the journey of untrained American troops who make up a somewhat ragtag army through months of fighting emerging as an effective fighting force that learns the key lesson for military success, the ability to hate. The themes that the author develops are ostensibly accurate throughout the narrative. He begins by arguing that the invasion of North Africa was a pivotal point in American history as it was the place where the United States began to act as a great power. The invasion defined the Anglo-American coalition and the strategic course of the war. The decision to invade North Africa found President Roosevelt going against the advice of his generals who favored a cross channel landing on the French coast. Roosevelt, ever the political animal was facing the 1942 congressional elections saw the need for a positive military result and North Africa seemed like the safest bet. By going along with the British Roosevelt made the correct decision because it was unrealistic to expect a successful cross channel invasion in 1942 or 1943.
Atkinson presents the infighting among the allied generals as plans for Operation Torch evolved. The reader is taken into the war councils and is exposed to the logic of each position as well as the deep personality conflicts that existed throughout this period between the leading actors in the American and British military hierarchies. The British made known their contempt for the fighting ability of American troops in addition to their disdain for American military leadership throughout this period. The Americans reciprocated these feelings at the haughtiness and egocentric attitudes of British planners. The vignettes dealing with Generals George S. Patton, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Omar T. Bradley on the American side and those of Generals Harold Alexander and Bernard L. Montgomery are brutally honest. We see the development of Dwight David Eisenhower, who is periodically stricken with self-doubt into a confident Supreme Commander. The relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt does not break any new ground but Atkinson summarizes their relationship nicely developing the most salient points relating to political and military decision making.
The most interesting part of the book involves American GIs. From the outset Atkinson’s goal is to present the war from the perspective of those who groveled, crawled, marched, and died in the North African campaign. The author’s discussion of the 34th Infantry Division provides insights into the problems of creating an invasion force without the requisite training. The issue of “time” to prepare American troops has a lasting impact on the early conduct of the invasion and the attempt to push the Germans out of Tunisia. The discussion of the “34th” is a microcosm of the war American troops faced and the problems that had to be overcome during the six months of combat that led to victory over the Germans in North Africa in May, 1943. Perhaps the author’s greatest success is creating the “fog of war” accurately. The needless death due to planning errors, the civilian casualties, the emotions displayed by the troops are all on display. In all of these instances Atkinson provides unique examples to supplement his comments. Whether he is describing the battle for Hill 609 in northern Tunisia, the landings in Oran, Algeria, or the fighting at the Kasserine Pass the reader cannot help but be absorbed in the narrative. It is not a stretch to come to the conclusion that Mr. Atkinson is a superb writer of military history.
Another area that Atkinson excels is his discussion of wartime diplomacy. The issue of how the French would react to the invasion would go a long way in determining the length and depth of the fighting and its ultimate results. Portraits of the two key French figures; Admiral Jean Louis Darlan and General Henri Honore Giraud, both Vichyite collaborators and their negotiations with General Mark Clark and Robert Murphy reflect the tenuous nature of Franco-American relations during the war and by integrating the role of General Charles De Gaulle we have a portent of the problems that will exist during the war and after. The competition between Patton and Montgomery and other officers is on full display throughout the book. Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment was his success in dealing with the diverse egos he was presented with. Eisenhower’s realization of his lack of combat experience and its impact on his decision making is used by Atkinson to explore his evolution as a successful military leader. The North African campaign provided Eisenhower with the training ground in his development as the man who would lead the allies to victory by 1945.
The depth of Atkinson’s work makes it an exceptional read. He argues correctly that the key to the allied victory in North Africa and the war in general was that the United States was the “arsenal of democracy.” As the British kept pointing out it was American industry and its capacity to produce that made up for any military errors the allies may have made. What also separates Atkinson’s work from other histories dealing with North Africa is the human drama that explores the daily activities of the men who fought. Whether describing battle scenes, the plight of the wounded, and the impact of casualties on the home front, and other aspects of combat Atkinson has done justice to his subject. Whether talking about such diverse topics as the $26,000,000 life insurance policy purchased by an American division before battle, the role of General Edwin Rommel, or negotiations at Casablanca the reader can trust the material presented. If you are a World War II scholar, or are simply interested in a narrative of what for me is the turning point for the United States in the Second World War, the first volume of the “liberation trilogy” is worth exploring and I recommend it highly.