This is a masterful, wonderfully researched presentation of the initial battles of WWII. Precisely described, in plain language, it brings the war and its character to the readers, depositing them right onto the battlefield, enabling them to hear the sound of the fighting, the cries of the wounded, and forces them to smell the stench of war.
In 1939, WWII was overtaking Europe. After the invasion of Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941, America entered the war. The plan was to concentrate in North Africa, conducting Operation Torch. Hoping to help Churchill, they believed that North Africa was the least dangerous place to begin, considering the green, mostly untrained, American forces. North Africa was, basically, their training ground for the next phase in Europe. At first, tremendous losses were incurred because of their inexperience, inferior equipment and weaponry, more suited to WWI. Moreover, poor communication, a lack of coordination and inconsistent training, coupled together with the incompetence of an untrained military, peopled with commanders who were unprepared for war, led to early failures. In 1942, the Battle of Midway was their first success. Sadly, there were many failures to follow, as well, as their inexperience on the battlefield was revealed and tested again and again. From 1942-43, World War II raged on unabated in North Africa, until finally in May of 1943, it belonged to the Allies, and finally, the Axis knew the ignominy of defeat.
In this, Book 1, of The Liberation Trilogy, we are introduced to General Eisenhower, Rear Admiral Hewitt, General Patton, General Bradley, and General Clark, among many, many others, from the Allied and enemy Axis armed forces, as they begin to plan and mount attacks in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Throughout, the commanders competed with and criticized each other, as politics, not common sense or military strategy, often ruled the day, leading to incomprehensible tragedies and casualties that could probably have been avoided.
The German weaponry was far superior, the German communication was more advanced, the soldiers were better equipped, better trained and more seasoned, they had been fighting since 1939, and as a result, they were, initially, handily defeating their American and British counterparts. Learning from their failures, however, the Allies improved, ultimately winning North Africa from the Axis powers, but it was a hard won fight and even Eisenhower wondered if he would be replaced because of the numerous defeats. The first month of the war was devastating for the Americans. Lives were sacrificed as reconnaissance failed, as the soldiers fears overcame their common sense and they ran away, showing a lack of courage, often when they were actually winning, but the lack of clear information left them thinking they were in retreat. In the fog of war, cruelty was contagious and the troops on both sides committed atrocities, some of which went unpunished. Ultimately, though, the American's secret weapon was their determination; they improved, they gained experience and they simply never gave up, as the author said, they withdrew when necessary, but never retreated, and more often than not, they fought harder, repeatedly, in the face of great danger. General Eisenhower was often faced with doubt, thinking he was not seasoned enough for this battlefield, until many months of casualties and defeats passed and his methods proved successful.
The author describes the taking of every hill, every battle, in precise detail, often using appropriate humorous quotes and anecdotes to soften the effect of the tragic consequences of war. He even made some of the failures seem laughable, despite the resultant loss of life and appalling injuries.There are moments of nostalgia like when the author refers to the Ronson lighter, a thing of the American past. There were moments of tenderness, as well as rancor, when the author describes some of the reactions of the men in the field, the remarks of the commanding officers and their descriptions of each other or the enemy. The North African training ground was a killing field, but it led, finally, to victory, and North Africa was theirs, in May of 1943.
The generals were bull-headed, they worried about their wounded pride when their efforts failed, the field of war forced them to sacrifice a generation of men, deliberately, to make small gains and only a hardened man, of a certain stripe, could issue such orders and command men to their death. Patton was one such man. However, after reading the book, I was struck even more with the futility of war, and it was hard to take after awhile. These pompous generals often gave orders to go into harm’s way, criticizing men for being insubordinate or lacking courage, while they, themselves, sat in safe houses and ate like royalty, remaining unscathed as they called these men weak, even when they returned maimed and gravely wounded.
I listened to an audio of the book, but I think a written version would have been far better, especially one with a map so the battlefield could be illustrated and followed more carefully. I was unfamiliar with many of the locations that were written about and would have, if it was a book, simply gotten up and looked them up. With an audio, you are not always in a convenient place, and by the time you are, you forget the unfamiliar name you want to research.
In the end, the final impression, for me, was one which defined these men, who were sometimes maligned as cowards, as heroes who fought with courage and valor and saved us all from a heinous outcome in which we could have been the vanquished, had they failed. The generals suffered wounds to their pride while the fighting men suffered emotional and physical injury beyond repair. The battle to take North Africa was equal parts bravery, fear and arrogance and hubris, from those commanded and those who did the commanding.
The second and third in the series await me!