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The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

The following is an excerpt from "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943" by Rick Atkinson. Published by Henry Holt, October 2002.

[The publisher sent me a review copy of this book and it's terrific. It's the most engaging World War II history I've read in years. I'll be looking forward to the two forthcoming books in Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy." --Chris Whitten, Webmaster.]


War in North Africa, 1942-1943, book cover

An Army at Dawn: Prologue

Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with the thirteen of the saddest words in our language: "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God." A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: "Into Thy hands, O Lord."

This is an ancient place, built on the ruins of Roman Carthage and a stone's throw from the even older Punic city. It is incomparably serene. The scents of eucalyptus and of the briny Mediterranean barely two miles away carry on the morning air, and the African light is flat and shimmering, as if worked by a silversmith. Tunisian lovers stroll hand in hand across the kikuyu grass or sit on benches in the bowers, framed by orangeberry and scarlet hibiscus. Cypress and Russian olive trees ring the yard, with scattered acacia and Aleppo pine and Jerusalem thorn. A carillon plays hymns on the hour, and the chimes sometimes mingle with a muezzin's call to prayer from a nearby minaret. Another wall is inscribed with the battles where these boys died in 1942 and 1943 -- Casablanca, Algiers, Oran, Kasserine, El Guettar, Sidi Nsir, Bizerte -- along with a line from Shelley's "Adonais": "He has outsoared the shadow of our night."

In the tradition of government-issue graves, the stones are devoid of epitaphs, parting endearments, even dates of birth. But visitors familiar with the American and British invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent seven-month struggle to expel the Axis powers there, can make reasonable conjectures. We can surmise that Willett H. Wallace, a private first class in the 26th Infantry Regiment who died on November 9, 1942, was killed at St. Cloud, Algeria, during the three days of hard fighting against, improbably, the French. Ward H. Osmun and his brother Wilbur W., both privates from New Jersey in the 18th Infantry and both killed on Christmas Eve 1942, surely died in the brutal battle of Longstop Hill, where the initial Allied drive in Tunisia was stopped -- for more than five months, as it turned out -- within sight of Tunis. Ignatius Glovach, a private first class in the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion who died on Valentine's Day, 1943, certainly was killed in the opening hours of the great German counteroffensive known as the battle of Kasserine Pass. And Jacob Feinstein, a sergeant from Maryland in the 135th Infantry who died on April 29, 1943, no doubt passed during the epic battle for Hill 609, where the American Army came of age.

A visit to the Tunisian battlefields tells a bit more. For more than half a century, time and weather have purified the ground at El Guettar and Kasserine and Longstop. But the slit trenches remain, and rusty C-ration cans, and shell fragments scattered like seed corn. The lay of the land also remains -- the vulnerable low ground, the superior high ground: incessant reminders of how, in battle, topography is fate.

Yet even when the choreography of armies is understood, or the movement of this battalion or that rifle squad, we crave intimate detail, of individual men in individual foxholes. Where, precisely, was Private Anthony N. Marfione when he died on December 24, 1942? What were the last conscious thoughts of Lieutenant Hill P. Cooper before he left this earth on April 9, 1943? Was Sergeant Harry K. Midkiff alone when he crossed over on November 25, 1942, or did some good soul squeeze his hand and caress his forehead?

The dead resist such intimacy. The closer we try to approach, the farther they draw back, like rainbows or mirages. They have outsoared the shadow of our night, to reside in the wild uplands of the past. History can take us there, almost. Their diaries and letters, their official reports and unofficial chronicles -- including documents that, until now, have been hidden from view since the war -- reveal many moments of exquisite clarity over a distance of sixty years. Memory, too, has transcendent power, even as we swiftly move toward the day when not a single participant remains alive to tell his tale, and the epic of World War II forever slips into national mythology. The author's task is to authenticate: to warrant that history and memory give integrity to the story, to aver that all this really happened.

But the final few steps must be the reader's. For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.


No twenty-first-century reader can understand the ultimate triumph of the Allied powers in World War II in 1945 without a grasp of the large drama that unfolded in North Africa in 1942 and 1943. The liberation of western Europe is a triptych, each panels informing the others: first, North Africa; then, Italy; and finally the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent campaigns across France, the Low Countries, and Germany.

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. Along with Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II. It is where Great Britain slipped into the role of junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance, and where the United States first emerged as the dominant force it would remain into the next millennium.

None of it was inevitable -- not the individual deaths, nor the ultimate Allied victory, nor eventual American hegemony. History, like particular fates, hung in the balance, waiting to be tipped.

Measured by the proportions of the later war -- of Normandy or the Bulge -- the first engagements in North Africa were tiny, skirmishes between platoons and companies involving at most a few hundred men. Within six months, the campaign metastasized to battles between army groups comprising hundreds of thousands of soldiers; that scale persisted for the duration. North Africa gave the European war its immense canvas and implied -- through 70,000 Allied killed, wounded, and missing -- the casualties to come.

No large operation in World War II surpassed the invasion of North Africa in complexity, daring, risk, or -- as the official U.S. Army Air Force history concludes -- "the degree of strategic surprise achieved." Moreover, this was the first campaign undertaken by the Anglo-American alliance; North Africa defined the coalition and its strategic course, prescribing how and where the Allies would fight for the rest of the war.

North Africa established the patterns and motifs of the next two years, including the tension between coalition unity and disunity. Here were staged the first substantial tests of Allied landpower against Axis landpower, and the initial clashes between American troops and German troops. Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough finally to prevail.

North Africa is where the prodigious weight of American industrial might began to tell, where brute strength emerged as the most conspicuous feature of the Allied arsenal -- although not, as some historians suggest, its only redeeming feature. Here the Americans in particular first recognized, viscerally, the importance of generalship and audacity, guile and celerity, initiative and tenacity.

North Africa is where the the Allies agreed on unconditional surrender as the only circumstance under which the war could end.

It is where the controversial strategy of first contesting the Axis in a peripheral theater -- the Mediterranean -- was effected at the expense of an immediate assault on northwest Europe, with the campaigns in Sicily, Italy, and southern France following in train.

It is where Allied soldiers figured out, tactically, how to destroy Germans; where the fable of the Third Reich's invincibility dissolved; where, as one senior German general later acknowledged, many Axis soldiers lost confidence in their commanders and "were no longer willing to fight to the last man."

It is where most of the West's great battle captains emerged, including men whose names would remain familiar generations later -- Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel -- and others who deserve rescue from obscurity. It is where the truth of William Tecumseh Sherman's postulate on command was reaffirmed: "There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs." Here men capable of such leadership stepped forward, and those incapable fell by the wayside.

North Africa is where American soldiers became killing mad, where the hard truth about combat was first revealed to many. "It is a very, very horrible war, dirty and dishonest, not at all that glamour war that we read about in the hometown papers," one soldier wrote his mother in Ohio. "For myself and the other men here, we will show no mercy. We have seen too much for that." The correspondent Ernie Pyle noted a "new professional outlook, where killing is a craft." North Africa is where irony and skepticism, the twin lenses of modern consciousness, began refracting the experiences of countless ordinary soldiers. "The last war was a war to end war. This war's to start 'em up again," said a British Tommy, thus perfectly capturing the ironic spirit that flowered in North Africa.

Sixty years after the invasion of North Africa, a gauzy mythology has settled over World War II and its warriors. The veterans are lionized as "the Greatest Generation," an accolade none sought and many dismiss as twaddle. They are condemned to sentimental hagiography, in which all the brothers are valiant and all the sisters virtuous. The brave and the virtuous appear throughout the North African campaign, to be sure, but so do the cowardly, the venal, and the fools. The ugliness common in later campaigns also appears in North Africa: the murder and rape of civilians; the killing of prisoners; the falsification of body counts.

It was a time of cunning and miscalculation, of sacrifice and self-indulgence, of ambiguity, of love, of malice and mass murder. There were heroes, but it was not an age of heroes as clean and lifeless as alabaster at Carthage, demigods and poltroons lie side by side.

The United States would send sixty-one combat divisions into Europe, nearly 2 million soldiers. These were the first. We can fairly surmise that not a single man interred at Carthage cemetery sensed on September 1, 1939, that he would find an African grave. Yet it was with the invasion of Poland on that date that the road to North Africa began, and it is then and there that our story must begin.



Copyright © 2002 Rick Atkinson. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Henry Holt and Company.

"An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943" is available from Amazon.

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