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An Army at Dawn/The Day of Battle – Rick Atkinson

Army at Dawn and Day of Battle are the first two parts of the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson which chronicle the American entrance and input in the Second World War.

The first covers the Torch landings (1942) in North Africa, the second the Sicily and Mainland Italian campaign (1943-44).

Both are full and slightly revisionist accounts.

Given the reluctance of America to enter the war – it was only the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the ill-judged Declaration of War by Hitler and Mussolini that initiated the decision – it must have been quite an eye-opener for American boys to fight in the North Africa campaign.

Aside from the heat, there were the medical conditions – dysentery was prevalent – and, above all, the threat of death in combat to a young life on foreign soil.

Yet the Americans under George Patten and Dwight Eisenhower showed great guts in forcing Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps out of Africa.

Perhaps Atkinson could have emphasised more the role of the 8th Army under Montgomery.

The second volume continues with the occupation of Sicily and landing in Salerno.

Curiously Atkinson does not mention the pact between local Sicilian Mafiosi and the the American high command which facilitated the latter’s army’s crossing of Sicily.

Conversely, the 8th Army under Montgomery made slow progress along the West coast to take Palermo, for which Atkinson is critical.

The landing in Salerno and General  Marl Clark’s decision that his 5th Army should be the one to take Rome are well documented.

The combat with Field  Marshal Kesselring’s Wehrmacht troops along the Gustav line was especially brutal – with many casualties – especially the taking of the Benedictine Monastery Monte Cassino.

However, after the final taking of Rome the book stops.

There is no account of the freeing from prison of Mussolini by German paratroops after Italy surrendered, the holding of the Gothic Line by Kesselring in the north, the round-up of Jews in Florence and the slow progress due to rain of the Allied forces.

Both books reveal the differences in tactics between the American and British High Command.

Eisenhower was less a career soldier than a political one who after a shaky start grew in stature.

Patten was more gung ho.

Harold Alexander and Montgomery were more experienced but played the junior role.

Rick Atkinson himself narrates the Audible version.

Sometimes his pronunciation is a bit strange e.g. ‘my-oor-tee ‘ for the Māori section in the New Zealand forces.

There is a tendency – as Montgomery was a showman – for the British role in winning World War Two – particularly the victory at El Alamein – to be over-emphasised, whereas the reality is that the failure of Operation Barbarossa attempt to invade Russia and the American involvement were the more crucial.

These two works certainly readdress this imbalance.

Once ‘The Yanks were coming’ Germany was doomed to defeat.

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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts