In This Review

Alamein
Alamein
By Jon Latimer
Harvard University Press, 2002, 400 pp.
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
By Rick Atkinson
Henry Holt, 2002, 672 pp.

Two timely books on a critical moment in World War II. Latimer meticulously describes how, after a couple of dispiriting years of desert warfare, British and Commonwealth forces achieved in October 1942 the victory they craved over German and Italian forces at El Alamein in Egypt. The next month U.S. and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, where they encountered their first obstacle, the Vichy French forces, in Operation Torch. With German troops caught in Stalingrad, however, this was the moment when the tide of war clearly turned. Although Torch was not quite the second front that Stalin had wanted, it was all that his Western allies could safely do at the time.

Atkinson's U.S.-centric account of the North African campaign makes clear it was just as well that a dash across the channel was not attempted then; American forces were quite unprepared for the rigors of modern war. This was a coming of age not only for the troops but also for their commander, Dwight Eisenhower. It was also the time when the United States began to assert itself as senior partner in the alliance. Students of coalition warfare will find in the campaign numerous examples of what can go wrong when tactics are negotiated and military egos clash (and the egos here included those of Generals George Patton and Bernard Montgomery). Both books exemplify the welcome trend in military history of moving with ease from the personalities of the generals to the politicians who tried to guide them to the core dilemmas of grand strategy. Both also touch on the practical matters of logistics as well as the conduct and the experiences of the individuals caught up in the trauma and heartache of battle.