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Rick Atkinson

An Army at Dawn

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


An Army at Dawn is a nonfiction military history book published in 2002 by American author and journalist Rick Atkinson. Subtitled The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, the book chronicles the successful Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II. The first installment of Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, An Army at Dawn received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for History.

This study guide refers to the 2002 edition published by Henry Holt and Company.

Plot Summary

On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler initiates World War II by leading Nazi Germany in an invasion of Poland. Poland's allies, Great Britain and France, proceed to declare war on Nazi Germany. In 1940, a French armistice with Germany allows France to remain in control of some of its territory, which includes colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. As the newly-established Vichy state, France is expected to collaborate with Germany and its Axis allies, Italy and Japan.

Upon formally entering the war following the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States partners with Great Britain to prepare for Operation TORCH, an Allied invasion of France’s North African colonies. Operation TORCH, along with the rest of the Allies’ operations in North Africa, will be overseen by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The plan is to land at three North African port cities in Morocco and Algeria, overpower the French army, and march to Tunis, Tunisia. From there, the Allies will invade Italy.

Shortly after midnight on November 8, 1942, US Major General Lloyd R. Fredendall leads a task force that envelops Oran, Algeria and captures the city, though not without significant casualties. Farther east, 30,000 Allied troops led by Major General Charles W. Ryder descend on Algiers, Algeria and successfully take the city. To the west, a task force led by Major General George S. Patton takes Casablanca, Morocco following a fierce naval battle.

Confident after the success of Operation TORCH, the Allies believe they can march over 500 miles east and take Tunis within a matter of days. Led by British Lieutenant General Kenneth A. N. Anderson, all available units are ordered to march eastward on November 14 in hopes of capturing Tunis. However, the Allies’ victory over the ill-equipped and poorly-motivated French army fails to prepare them for fighting the far stronger and more committed armies of Germany and Italy, which pour more troops into Tunisia each day.

Fighting in an overly-dispersed column and facing an Axis force that outnumbers theirs two-to-one, the Allies’ confidence dissipates quickly. In December, German General Hans Jurgen von Arnim launches a fierce counterattack against the Allies, stalling their march to Tunis. From his new command headquarters in Algiers, Eisenhower writes, "The best way to describe our operations to date is that they have violated every recognized principle of war" (246).

As the calendar year turns to 1943 and with all hopes for a quick end to the Tunisian offensive dashed, the Allies prepare for a chaotic field of engagement fought between four armies. There will be Anderson's and Arnim's armies, but also two forces headed toward Tunisia from the east. For weeks, British General Bernard Montgomery and his Eighth Army have been pursuing General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps across Libya. Nicknamed the Desert Fox, Rommel is considered one of the most brilliant military tacticians of his era.

Tantalized by a new Allied army to fight, Rommel joins Arnim in launching an aggressive offensive against the Allies, which begins on February 14. Axis forces overrun the Allies in the Eastern Dorsal mountains and capture a key valley known as the Kasserine Pass. Here, however, Rommel makes a critical error. To disrupt Allied supply routes, Rommel divides his troops and directs them toward two Allied targets. However, with a divided army, both assaults fail, and the Germans retreat on February 23. Even though the Allies eventually retake the Kasserine Pass, they suffer 10,000 casualties in the fight without gaining any new ground.

The disastrous Battle of Kasserine Pass causes Eisenhower to replace II Corps commander Fredendall with General Patton, who’s been busy building Casablanca into a massive supply post. Meanwhile, Rommel finds his most aggressive plans blocked by commanders in Berlin and Rome. With impatience mounting, he prepares a March 6 attack designed to slow Montgomery's advance into Tunisia. However, Allied intelligence uncovers virtually every aspect of Rommel's plan in advance of the operation. Rommel visits Hitler and advises that the Germans should retreat to form a heavily-fortified bridgehead around Tunis. However, Hitler refuses and furthermore prohibits Rommel from returning to Africa. Over the next two weeks under Hitler’s orders, Axis forces aim to drive a wedge between Montgomery’s army and the Allied forces led by Anderson and Patton. Montgomery, Anderson, and Patton manage to unite anyway, forcing Axis troops to retreat to the bridgehead just as Rommel suggested.

The final Allied attack in the Tunisia campaign—codenamed Operation VULCAN—begins on April 22. With Patton already withdrawn to prepare for the invasion of Sicily, that leaves II Corps under the command of Patton's deputy, General Omar N. Bradley. As two British assaults from the south stall, it's up to Bradley to break through the bridgehead. During his attack, Bradley displays an aggressiveness and a tactical acumen sorely lacking in many of the Allies' previous offensives.

On May 7, the Americans finally smash through the bridgehead and reach the port town of Bizerte near Tunis. With Bizerte in Allied hands, Tunis falls easily to the British that same day. On May 13, Arnim surrenders, bringing an end to the Tunisian campaign and handing victory to the Allies. Over the course of the North African campaign, Allied casualties total over 70,000 dead, wounded, or captured men. Axis casualties are estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000 dead or wounded Axis soldiers, along with 250,000 prisoners. In closing, Atkinson reiterates the underlying theme of the book: that the Allied North Africa campaign during World War II is a significant pivot point in the Allies' fight against Axis powers, as well as the United States' maturation as a global superpower.

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