An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 Rick Atkinson takes place in North Africa, so it wouldn’t seem like a book to read during my month of France. But that’s where you’re wrong. That’s where I was wrong, to be frank. I wanted to get the D-Day book by Stephen Ambrose, which takes place on the shores of Normandy, France, but I couldn’t get it in time, and started this book as a whim. However, North Africa was very much a French possession (which I didn’t know), so the Allies were fighting…that’s right Vichy France.
Vichy France was the French government that took over in the aftermath of the German invasion; it was very willing to do whatever Germany wanted to prevent an occupation of northern France, including fighting the Allies in North Africa. Bolstered by the Germany military, the French fought the invading American and British armed forces.
North Africa was the first toehold (or close, as British still had the Strait of Gibraltar) America sought to get in the war in the West—as opposed to the war in the Pacific. The idea was for the Allies to invade North Africa via Morocco and Algeria in Operation Torch in November 1942 and work their way east to Tunisia. Then they would be in a prime position to launch an operation on Sicily and move north through Italy (as recounted in The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944).
The operation went according to plan. Kind of. There were all kinds of drama among the troops, not the least of which was friction between the Brits and the Americans all the way up the ranks to the generals. Admittedly Alexander, a British general, made some poor decisions; although some of the stubborn American generals—ahem, General Patton—didn’t make things easy.
I’m going to skip my usual analysis of the characters, storyline, and writing because—as a historian—Rick Atkinson hardly has anything to do with two out of three of these categories. Except in portrayal.
The main commanders were really fleshed out well with little tidbits of information from letters and journal entries that made me feel like I could almost see them striding across a field of battle or hunched over a map while planning tactics.
He also brought life to a normally sterile timeline of the North African campaign while making it comprehensible. War is complicated and messy, and this book made it at least a little organized in my head. It was still crazy and men died tragically, but at least I could comprehend a little sliver of a piece of what they went through.
Mostly, I was extremely annoyed with the French. They were willing to kowtow to the Germans to prevent an occupation of northern France that ended up happening anyway. Because Hitler was a liar. He’d been demonstrably untrustworthy throughout his chancellorship (aka dictatorship). He promised not to go to war…and did; he swore not to invade another country…and then did. The French should’ve known better.
However, I should point out that it’s mostly the government I find fault with, the citizens did amazing things and made amazing sacrifices to undermine the Germans. No thanks to the Vichy rulers.
The point of a reading a book like this isn’t to enjoy a fascinating plot line or a character-driven narrative. It is to understand something of the lives of those who went before us, especially when those lives were given in pursuit of something that most of us don’t have to worry about. The point is to take a little piece of the suffering and pain and desperation of those nameless, countless soldiers, and swallow it whole until we carry a bit of them within our hearts.