Rick Atkinson has won this year's Pulitzer Prize for history for his book "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43." It's the first volume in a planned three-book series on the Allied liberation of Europe during World War II.
This is the third Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post writer, who's currently embedded with a U.S. Army division in Iraq. Speaking with VOA's Nancy Beardsley after his book was published, he told her his interest in World War II began during his childhood years in Germany, where his father was a U.S. Army Lieutenant.
Rick Atkinson: Growing up on an Army post in the 1950s and 1960s, World War II was really a living presence. It was very much part of the culture. And then I was the Washington Post bureau chief in Berlin in the mid-1990s, and I was there for that endless succession of 50th anniversary commemorations, and that really sparked my interest anew. One of the things I came to realize was that the story is bottomless. Some scholars calculated that the entire archive of World War II records and other material weighs 14,000 tons. And there are wonderful things to discover, as I have discovered.
In this case my feeling was that Americans in particular have a notion that World War II started on June 6, 1944 with the invasion of Normandy. Well, it really begins in North Africa where the United States with our British allies invaded, on November 8, 1942, 60 years ago, and that was the first blow struck in the liberation of Europe.
Nancy Beardsley: Beyond the fact that it was the first stage of the war, what made those battles in North Africa so significant?
Atkinson: One of the things that makes them significant is it is where the American army first confronts the Wehrmacht, the German military. And we were unprepared. That extended not only to individual men in foxholes, who didn't really understand what they were coming up against. It also extended to the commanders. Eisenhower was really quite callow. He'd never led a platoon in combat. And so there's a lot that needs to be sorted out, finding who can command, who can lead men in the dark of night in very cold, harsh, bitter conditions. So all of this has the effect of hardening the troops who are there and turning them into the kind of army that's capable of beating the German army, which is at this point the best in the world.
Beardsley: And it was a controversial decision to begin the fighting there. Why was it that ultimately the Allies launched their battle there?
Atkinson: You look back and think what were we doing in North Africa? If the plan is to defeat the Germans and Japanese, why not go straight for Berlin and Tokyo? And that's exactly what the American high command wanted to do. Winston Churchill and the British, having been kicked out of Europe three times by the Germans at this point, say, 'Wait a minute. These Germans are much tougher than you think. They've got 25 divisions in France alone. Wouldn't it be better if we attacked on the periphery?' Among other things, it would open up the Mediterranean. It would give the American fighting men some experience against a foe that's not as tough as German forces in Europe, because at this point the Vichy French controlled Northwest Africa. President Roosevelt listened to these arguments, and Roosevelt, contrary to the advice of all of his senior commanders, including General Marshall, sided with the British, and decided in late July of 1942, we're going to North Africa.
Beardsley: And this would be where the Anglo-America alliance would be forged. How well did that work?
Atkinson: It's very interesting. We think that we've always been close friends with the British, that they've always been shoulder to shoulder allies. In fact, you find a deep Anglophobia in the senior ranks of the American army. Part of this is because they're fundamentally 19th century men. Patton born in 1885, Eisenhower in 1890, and they have a residual dislike for the British because we had not that long before fought two wars against them, the Revolution and the War of 1812. It's Eisenhower's greatest achievement that he was able to overcome this narrow-mindedness that so beset almost every general in the American army, as the alliance turns into what we come to think of as the Anglo-American alliance of World War II.
Beardsley: And then there were the French, whom we were fighting both against and with?
Atkinson: Most Americans don't know that our first foe in fighting for the liberation of Europe was our oldest friend, the French. We fought the French in pretty bloody fighting for three days, November 8, 9 and 10, 1942. This is because the French still had control of their colonies in North Africa - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as part of the deal Hitler cut when he conquered France in the summer of 1940. The French eventually capitulated, and another thing you see in the campaign in North Africa for the rest of the winter and into the spring is the French aligning themselves with the Allies.
Beardsley: Did you find some critical points that would eventually tip the fighting in the Allied favor?
Atkinson: There are several events that occur in Tunisia in 1943. The great defeat at Kasserine Pass occurred beginning on February 14, 1943, when General Rommel launches a sneak attack on the American forces trying to drive the whole Allied force back into Algeria. He came very close to doing that. It was the greatest defeat in terms of yardage lost in World War II for the American army. Rommel didn't have the wherewithal to pull it off completely. He was physically ailing. He suffering from depression. He was short of fuel, short of ammunition. Consequently, even though it was a bad defeat for the American army, it's not a strategic defeat. And it's at this point you really see the Americans in particular come to the realization that this is an enemy that can be beaten.