An Army at Dawn: The War In North Africa, 1942-1943

An Army at Dawn Book Cover An Army at Dawn
Rick Atkinson
May 15, 2007

This is the first volume of the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson. It is set in 1942 and 1943 in North Africa.  It follows the American and British armies as they fight the French in Morocco and Algiers, and then take on the Germans and Italians in Tunisia. Again, I love the format. Atkinson pulls from personal and government records/documents from privates to the Commanders. He really weaves it all together amazingly well. He really gets into the extraordinary but flawed commanders who come to dominate the battlefield: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and Rommel.

From a distance of sixty years, we can see that North Africa was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically.

In Egypt, the Afrika Korps was only sixty miles from Alexandria and the Nile valley, gateway to the Suez Canal and Middle East oil fields.

In the short run, the Americans could, and did, strip 300 new Sherman tanks from the newly outfitted U.S. 1st Armored Division for shipment to British troops in Egypt.

The president had made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than with his countrymen. He had repudiated an American military tradition of annihilation, choosing to encircle the enemy and hack at his limbs rather than thrust directly at his heart. And he had based his fiat on instinct and a political calculation that the time was ripe.

Moving a single armored division required forty-five troopships and cargo ships, plus warship escorts, and moving the fifty divisions needed to sustain an invasion required far more ships than the Allies now possessed.

Some believed it to be the greatest amphibious gamble since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont in the fifth century B.C.

He had reduced his extensive study of history and military art to a five-word manifesto of war: “violent attacks everywhere with everything.”

He addressed her as if from beyond the grave: “Your confidence in me was the only sure thing in a world of dreadful uncertainty.”

Young men, fated to survive and become old men dying abed half a century hence, would forever remember this hour, when an army at dawn made for the open sea in a cause none could yet comprehend.

In addition to collecting intelligence through Ultra, the Allies had managed—by seduction and burglary—to purloin various Italian, Vichy French, and Spanish diplomatic codes. Washington also had an espionage network in North Africa: a dozen American vice consuls, known as the Twelve Apostles, who technically served as “food control officers” under a trade agreement still in effect between Vichy and Washington.

Spitfires and Hurricanes

After confused debate, the task force commanders decided the signal meant what indeed it did mean: that in the land of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, the Allies had captured their first town.

Some lessons were fundamental: stay low; take a few extra moments to study the map before setting off. But others involved the nature of combat and leadership: a realization that battlefields were inherently chaotic; that improvisation was a necessary virtue; that speed and stealth and firepower won small skirmishes as well as big battles; that every moment held risk and every man was mortal.

An enemy Ju-88 dodged Allied flak and launched two torpedoes from an altitude of fifty feet.

A squadron of Grumman Wildcats finally launched from the Ranger and tangled with Vichy fighters in a dogfight that cost four American and eight French aircraft.

“One of the first lessons that battle impresses upon one,” he later observed, “is that no matter how large the force engaged, every battle is made up of small actions by individuals and small units.”

Yet today all I can think of is your triumph, and the thought that rings through my mind like a peal of bells is that the first jump is taken and you will never have to take it again.”

The truth was that a callow, clumsy army had arrived in North Africa with little notion of how to act as a world power. The balance of the campaign—indeed, the balance of the war—would require learning not only how to fight but how to rule.

Marauding Messerschmitts

Stuka dive-bombers

It was in Medjez that Allied and Axis forces would first collide “with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze,” in Homer’s phrase, and it was around Medjez that much of the struggle over the next seven months would revolve. Medjez-el-Bab

The “light,” fourteen-ton M-3 General Stuart was a fast, agile deathtrap with a 37mm gun known to American tankers as the “squirrel rifle.”

Recovery from a battlefield victory could sometimes be more difficult than recovery from defeat,

German Me-109 fighters

U.S. P-38 Lightnings

Approaching Mk IV Panzer tanks,

German 88mm guns used for anti-aircraft protection were stripped from the airfields, to be used as antitank weapons in the west.

Fischer also deployed the Wehrmacht’s latest secret weapon, sent by Hitler with a guarantee that it would be “decisive” in the Tunisian campaign. No one had ever seen a tank like the Mk VI Tiger:

It was a sixty-ton monster with an 88mm main gun and frontal armor four inches thick.

Just forty miles south, Eisenhower’s boyhood hero, Hannibal, had been smashed at Zama by Scipio Africanus to close the Second Punic War in 202 B.C.

Sympathy for their struggle in the Pacific against the Japanese. But for Churchill, as his physician Lord Moran put it, “the control of the Mediterranean meant…control of the Western world.” The Middle Sea was critical to British imperial fortunes in Egypt, the Middle East, and India; Churchill also deemed it the Axis’s most vulnerable point.

Rommel’s 21st Panzer Division had already begun moving north into Tunisia.

Since we cannot go into the Continent in force until Germany weakens, we should try to make the Germans disperse their forces as much as possible.

Perhaps a closer parallel lay in the Third Punic War, when Rome demanded that Carthage unconditionally surrender all her “territory, cities, and citizens,” as scholar Anne Armstrong has observed; the Carthaginians refused, and the war ultimately ended with their city’s obliteration in 146 B.C.

The Germans had emplaced 88mm anti-aircraft guns as antitank weapons above the western approaches to Faïd Pass,

Instead of concentrating the 1st Armored’s two combat commands as Eisenhower desired, Fredendall even further fractured the division.

Erwin Rommel did know what he was doing. And he would not wait until March.

He rocketed from lieutenant colonel to field marshal in four years, his reputation burnished by Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry; the young division commander’s dash across Flanders and down the French coast to Spain in 1940 was featured in the film Victory in the West, which Rommel also helped direct.

Spearheaded by more than 200 Mark III and Mark IV tanks, plus a dozen Tigers, FRÜHLINGSWIND was designed to “weaken the American by destroying some of his elements and thereby confuse and delay his advance.

Ultra intercepts of messages from Rommel and Arnim revealed the depth of Axis supply difficulties.

Tongues had begun to wag about Eisenhower and his willowy driver, Kay Summersby. Nicknamed Skibereen after her Irish hometown, Summersby had worked in England as a model and movie extra before enlisting as a military driver in London; she had been assigned to Eisenhower the previous summer, joining him in Algiers in mid-January after surviving the U-boat sinking of her transport ship off the African coast. At thirty-four, discreet, divorced, and comely, she served not only as the commander-in-chief’s “chauffeuse,” but also as his bridge partner and riding companion. When she turned out in boots, flying jacket, and helmet, Eisenhower teasingly accused her of trying to look like Patton.

The 21st Panzer, the first German division in Africa and perhaps the most experienced desert fighters on earth.

“Venari lavari ludere ridere hoc est vivere”: To hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh—that is to live.

10th and the 21st Panzer Divisions

Antique M-3 General Lee,

Thus the initial defense of Kasserine fell to the 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, 1,200 men singularly miscast for the task.

Compounding the terror was a new German weapon deployed for the first time, the Nebelwerfer,

When a staff officer at Dunkirk told him, “Our position is catastrophic,” Alexander was said to have replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand long words.

Both sides had violated key principles of war to the detriment of their respective causes; they had, among other errors, failed to

Maintain contact with a retreating foe to exploit his derangement. The Axis had made this mistake at both Sidi bou Zid and Thala. Rommel, moreover, had violated the cardinal precept of concentration by twice dividing his force and attacking at too many places at once.

He studied his mistakes—this practice was always one of Eisenhower’s virtues—and absorbed the lessons for future battles in Italy and western Europe.

Rommel had ventured forward during the day before returning to his bivouac on Hill 715. The slaughter had been so lopsided, the battle so plainly anticipated by the British, that the field marshal suspected treachery, perhaps from the Italians, a suspicion Kesselring came to share. Neither ever imagined that the Allies were decoding his mail. “This operation was pointless from the moment it turned out that we had not taken the enemy by surprise,” Rommel said. “A great gloom settled over us all.

Rommel stood and shook hands. Tears flooded his eyes. “The tears of a great man now cast down,” Luck added, “moved me as much as anything I saw in the war.

More and more of his time was spent on HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily tentatively scheduled for a fair moon in mid-June, and he now looked over the horizon toward the next campaign, as a commander-in-chief must do. He formed a secret group called Force 141—the number was that of a meeting room in the Hôtel St. Georges—to draft and redraft nine separate plans for the assault. “HUSKY planning is most involved and difficult…[and] presents intricacies and difficulties that cause me a lot of headaches,” he told Marshall. He scrutinized lessons from TORCH regarding landing craft, shipping schedules, paratrooper operations, and a hundred other elements.

But modern war was a clash of systems: political, economic, and military. The engine of an enemy’s destruction could be built only by effectively integrating forces that ranged from industrial capacity to national character to educational systems that produced men able to organize global war.

“The battle,” Rommel famously observed, “is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own. The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell. In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles. Another new factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.

After Kasserine, American aviation engineers built five new airfields around Sbeïtla—in seventy-two hours. More

Ships not yet sunk were often immobilized for lack of fuel. Allied bombers battered Italian shipyards so relentlessly that at any given moment two-thirds of all escort vessels were unfit for service. Enthusiasm for “the Germans’ war” dwindled with each new casualty list, and Italians increasingly worried over the dolorous prospect of defending their homeland.

Contrary to the Desert Victory mythology, pursuit after Alamein was hardly “relentless.” Rommel had escaped with the core of his army despite a fifteenfold British advantage in tanks, an artillery superiority of twelve to one, and an intimate knowledge of Axis weakness thanks to Ultra and other intelligence. Eighth Army had hugged the ancient Pirate Coast across Libya much closer than it hugged the retreating Axis. That lollygagging had allowed Rommel time to drub the Americans at Kasserine, return to Médenine for a drubbing of his own, then slip away again. “Once Monty had his reputation,” charged the British air marshal Arthur Coningham, “he would never risk it again.”

The circuitous 200-mile expedition took the Kiwis past the arid land of the Troglodytes, an ancient people who lived like moles in subterranean hovels and whose strange language Herodotus had likened to the cry of a bat. The cavalcade also drove through a locust plague of biblical intensity: millions of insects borne on a hot, southwesterly wind pelted windshields and tank turrets.

Bernard C. Freyberg. English-born but raised in New Zealand, Freyberg had been a dentist before finding his true calling as warrior of Homeric strength and courage. Known as Tiny to his troops, he had a skull the size of a medicine ball, with a pushbroom mustache and legs that extended like sycamore trunks from his khaki shorts.

There were, in fact, more, although the entire 10th Panzer was down to fifty-seven tanks and a comparable number of armored cars and half-tracks.

Worse was to come. On April 18, Palm Sunday, four squadrons of the American 57th Fighter Group—the Black Scorpions, the Fighting Cocks, the Exterminators, and the Yellow Diamonds—joined a Spitfire squadron over Cap Bon for the final patrol of the day. Sixty fighters were “spaced up into the sky like a flight of stairs, each line of four planes abreast making a step,” according to a contemporary account by Richard Thruelsen and Elliott Arnold. “The bottom of this flight was at four thousand feet. The Spits, at the top, were at fifteen thousand feet.” Purple shadows were stretching across Cap Bon when the pilots suddenly spotted several V-formations of Ju-52s and six-engine Me-323s six miles off the coast. “They were flying the most beautiful formation I’ve ever seen,” one pilot said later. “It seemed like a shame to break it up.

The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions had roughly 5,600 men each, while the 90th Light Africa was down to 6,000 and the 164th Light Africa numbered only 3,000. The Italian Centauro and Spezia Divisions had been obliterated,

Gurkhas—short, swarthy Nepalese warriors said to tire only when strolling across flat ground—reportedly took no prisoners, delighted in decapitating enemies with their long, curved kukri blades, and calculated Axis losses by the number of enemy wristwatches adorning Gurkha arms at the end of any fight.

Ten teams from a counterintelligence unit known as S Force also swept through town carrying a list of 130 targets, including the suspected Gestapo and SS headquarters at, respectively, 168 and 172 Avenue de Paris, and a house on Rue Abdelhouab used to train Arab saboteurs. Also warranted for arrest were scores of civilians, whose descriptions and purported offenses were equally vague:

They were renaming him Ikus Africanus.

No soldier in Africa had changed more—grown more—than Eisenhower. He continued to pose as a small-town Kansan, insisting that he was “too simple-minded to be an intriguer or [to] attempt to be clever,” and he retained the winning traits of authenticity, vigor, and integrity. He had displayed admirable grace and character under crushing strain. But he was hardly artless. Naïveté provided a convenient screen for a man who was complex, shrewd, and sometimes Machiavellian. The Darlan affair had taught him the need to obscure his own agency in certain events even as he shouldered responsibility for them. The failings of Fredendall and other deficient commanders had taught him to be tougher, even ruthless, with subordinates. And he had learned the hardest lesson of all: that for an army to win at war, young men must die.

“There are three things that make a man fight,” Ryder observed. “One is pride in himself, another is pride in his organization, and the third is hate.