A Review of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

May 14, 2006 | 6 books mentioned 14 3 min read

coverThe more I learn about World War II, the more it fascinates me. I feel like most people have a vague, middle-ground understanding of the war. Two generations removed from the war, I have trouble fathoming both the global scale of the conflict and the impact it had on hundreds of millions of individuals. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more. I also realized that I ought to know more about the war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one in Europe and one in the Pacific.

Wanting to get an overview, I opted for John Keegan’s The Second World War, which turned out to be an ideal choice in that it was the broad, readable overview of the war that I had been looking for. (I would later read Keegan’s history of the First World War and review it.) But after Keegan, I wanted to delve into the war more, to take a narrower view and learn about some of the hundreds of smaller conflicts that, taken together, comprised the war. I turned to Rick Atkinson, not least because I had the chance to meet him twice and because I read and enjoyed his book, In the Company of Soldiers, about being embedded in Iraq.

An Army at Dawn is the first book in Atkinson’s trilogy about the liberation of Europe during WWII. This book covered North Africa, while the forthcoming books will cover Italy and France. An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer in 2003 and deservedly so. I don’t think I’ve ever read a history book that flowed so well. The book is an incredible marriage of storytelling and historical fact, so that the reader feels both entertained and very well informed. Atkinson relied on battle memoirs and letters from soldiers to augment traditional, official sources and it shows. The war’s narrative is textured at every turn with the words of the men who were there, providing an insight I’ve not gotten from other history books. Along with using the men’s words directly, Atkinson also combines these collective observations in his own way to paint a vivid picture of the goings on. An example:

The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead.

That scene occurred near Longstop Hill as the conflict raged back and forth in Tunisia. We all know about World War II, but beyond the most familiar aspects of the War – the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust – how much do we really know? For me, it didn’t go much deeper than that, but as Atkinson makes so vividly clear, the world once watched North Africa, and battles like Kesserine Pass, Mareth, and El Guettar made headlines. To me, though, the book is powerful in that it goes beyond just knowing when and where and how these battles happened, it gives us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the men who were there. In that sense I found this book both incredibly informative while also conveying the unfathomable (to me in this day and age) emotions of war.

An Army at Dawn was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ll certainly read Atkinson’s next two books when they come out, but in the meantime, as I look at my queue of books to read, I see that only Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is about WWII. I need to read more books about World War II. Any suggestions?

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Hi,

    I have three recommendations. They cover different sides of the war and require no special knowledge of the military in order to enjoy them. They are wonderfully written.

    The first is a novel, the Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. It's about a crew of an anti-submarine corvette in the North Atlantic. I like it because you see how wearing it was. The crew gets on board in 1939 and those that live get off in 1945. The drudgery and terror are nicely described.

    Eric Bergerud's Touched With Fire is great. It concerns the land war in New Guinea and the Solomons. The fighting differed from Europe in a number of ways. For one it is tropical, making the fight somewhat similar to Vietnam. For another the two sides were more closely matched in air and sea power which forced the US to fight differently. It's an excellent read.

    Antony Beevor's Fall of Berlin 1945 is great, but is also terribly depressing. The end of the catastrophic Russo-German conflict is described in all its brutal horror.


  2. Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres is the story of a Greek island that comes under the control of the Italians and then the Germans in WWII. It's a fantastic read and one of those relatively untold stories of the war you were mentioning above. I highly recommend it.

  3. I second anonymous' recommendation of Corelli. Just a great book.

    A few nonfiction choices. In my opinion, Beevor's "Stalingrad" is the better of his two books on the war. Stalingrad was the true turning point in the European war (although you will see many smart folks argue that the turning point was Pearl Harbor, the Russian Front broke the Wehrmacht and Stalingrad, with Kursk following, was the breaking point). The scale of the battle is just amazing. I loved Atkinson's book, but reading about Stalingrad makes you wonder whether we could have won a battle like that and thankful we did not have to find out. Richard Overy wrote a very good overview of the Russian Front as well, in "Russia's War". William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" sets the standard and rightly so. For a thousand page tome it is incredibly readable and never less than fascinating. John Lukacs wrote a great book about the period immediately following Dunkirk, when any sane nation would have sued for peace and the British decided to fight on alone ("Five Days in May").

    Oddly, or perhaps not, there is a lot of good detective fiction set in Europe immediately prior to and during the war. Robert Janes and Alan Furst are both good, as is Eric Ambler (the latter two are probably better described as spy novelists). If you get nothing else from this long entry (apologies), put this one in the queue: Philip Kerr wrote three detective novels that have been anthologized under the title "Berlin Noir". They are set in Berlin in 1933, 1938 or so (just prior to Kristallnacht) and in post-war Berlin around 1946. Spectacular – Kerr hasn't written anything close to this good since, but these are just fantastic. The changes in German society over the course of the three books are worth the price of admission by themselves, and the stories are quite good.

  4. I second the Beevor recommendations. Both are excellent.

    For a more personal look at the war, I recommend Studs Terkel's oral history of the war: The Good War. I'm a sucker for almost any Terkel book, but this one stands out even that body of excellent works.

  5. Great post. A guy like me doesn't find many readers interested in the warrior condition much these days. I recomend Flag of Our Fathers by James Bradley. Clint Eastwood is working on making it into a movie. I could make recommendations all day long, but I think you have a good start with the books already suggested.

  6. The war produced a lot of good fiction. I’d say all the famous books are still worth reading: The Naked and the Dead, The Young Lions, The Caine Mutiny, Catch-22, even A Bell for Adano and Tales of the South Pacific. A couple others I remember liking are Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens and A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown. For contemporary non-fiction you won’t do much better than Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles.

  7. I'm just a few chapters into Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. His The Great War and Modern Memory is one of the best WWI books I've ever read, and so far in Wartime he is proving just as insightful on WWII. He served in WWII himself as an infantry officer and that firsthand experience adds another layer to the analysis.

  8. "Articles of War" by Nick Arvin–this new novel was inspired by Arvin's grandfather's service in WWll. I've heard it compared to Red Badge of Courage. There was lobbying here to have it as the "one book" selection for in our city–it may be set in WWll but it's certainly timely today.

    See you at the party! Wendi

  9. The Beevor book on the Battle of Stalingrad is indeed good, but here's a couple of other suggestions on the eastern front, a side of the war which Americans tend to not know much about. Years ago I read a book by a German war correspondent: it's just called Stalingrad by Heinz Schroter. It's doubtless out of print and it's journalism more than history and only from the German side. But still, it's worth reading. The author was at the battle and the horrific stories and sheer immediacy conveyed by the book gives you a real sense of what it was like to endure this military disaster from the German side. I recently also read Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army by Vasily Grossman. Grossman was a Russian writer who worked as a war correspondent; most of the book is excerpts from his journals and reporting. Again, there's some vivid writing about the unbelievably horrible eastern front, and the entire book gives you a sense of the mixture of idealism and brutality which characterized the Soviet side of that monumental conflict.

  10. I keep coming back to this thread to note down the various recommendations that are being posted. Chatten's recommendation re: German perspectives and the Eastern front reminded me of a couple more books that I wanted to mention. One of the best books that I read last year was Uwe Timm's In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS. It's an extraordinarily powerful memoir that has to do more with the aftermath in Germany than with the war itself. I posted a mini-review of it on my blog in connection with my top ten reads from last year here. Another excellent book which covers similar territory in fiction is Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader. It's been a while since I read that one but I remember finding it deeply disturbing and very thought provoking.

  11. "The Forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sajer (Engrossing memoirs written by a German soldier); Ian Kershaw's recent biography of Hitler is excellent — though there are other good ones, his is bifurcated and the second volume deals with the 1936-1945 time period, which fits your bill nicely; "A World at Arms" by Weinberg (massive and slow-going, but comprehensive); "Ordinary Men" by Browning (the banality of evil — a look at the killing squads that moved through Poland in the wake of the fighting); I agree with previous posters that Beevor's books are worth your time, and also that "Fall of Berlin" is incredibly bleak; don't waste your time with "The Rise and Fall" by Shirer — it was poor history by the time it was published; also suggest you steer clear of Ambrose. One final suggestion: "The Book Thief" by Zusak (marketed as teen-lit, but a well-written).

  12. I don't know if you're still checking this, it's been a while since anyone posted but the book that got me started reading WWII stuff, that also does a great job of conveying the emotion tied to the war is "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides. It focuses on one event in the war, in the Pacific, but is a great read, also very well researched. I'll also differ from the previous poster and suggest reading at least the first third of Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." It was very helpful in understanding how it all came about, although it is very dry and you have to be really interested to get through it.

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