BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Rick Atkinson, author of "An Army at Dawn," what is the "liberation trilogy"?
RICK ATKINSON, AUTHOR, "AN ARMY AT DAWN: THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA, 1942-1943": Well, the liberation trilogy is my effort to tell the narrative story of the American army's role in the liberation in Europe in World War II. The liberation in Europe is really a triptych. There are three panels that inform one another. The first one is North Africa. The second is Sicily and Italy. The third is Western Europe. So this is volume 1 of the liberation trilogy.
LAMB:: Where'd you get the idea?
ATKINSON:: I got the idea partly from Shelby Foote, partly from Bruce Catton. I wanted to try to do justice to the sweep of this tremendous story, the greatest epic of the 20th century, in the way that they did justice to the Civil War with their trilogies.
I spent three years in Berlin in the mid-'90s, working for "The Washington Post." I was there for that endless succession of 50th anniversary commemorations. And although I'd always been interested, fascinated by World War II, that really brought it home for me. I was around veterans a lot. I was at the battlefields a lot, from Normandy to the Bulge to the Seelow Heights east of Berlin. And I began to think of it in terms of an epic that had to be dealt with with sufficient grandeur that this story warrants.
LAMB:: What impact did your birthplace have on all this, and your father?
ATKINSON:: A big impact, really, because I was born in Munich, in occupied Germany, in 1952. My father was a lieutenant in the American army. He'd been a veteran at the end of the war, got out of the army, went to college, came back into the army and was a professional officer for the rest of his career. And we lived in occupied Salzburg for the first three years of my life.
So having been born in central Europe, there was always a question of what were we doing there? Why were we here? And then I spent my first 18 years on various Army posts. And World War II and the American army of the 1950s and 1960s was really a vibrant thing. There were many veterans still in the ranks. The war was a presence. The war was part of the mythology of the army. And I grew up with that. I absorbed a lot of that.
LAMB:: Did you ever serve any time in the military?
ATKINSON:: No. Eighteen years as a dependent, but no time in uniform myself.
LAMB:: Now, this book is 681 pages, including the index and all that. Is that about the length of all three of them, you hope?
ATKINSON:: Yes. The text is 550 or 540, and that's the ambition for the subsequent two volumes, Sicily and Italy, which will be out in three to four years, and then Western Europe, beginning in Normandy, three or four years after that. The whole package will be somewhere around 1,500 pages of text.
LAMB:: In the acknowledgments, you thank somebody named Rush Atkinson for finding photos that have never been printed before.
ATKINSON:: Rush Atkinson is my son. He's 19 years old. He's a college sophomore. And he worked as my photo researcher and archivist. And by going through one by one the shoe boxes -- literally, shoe boxes full of photos that they've got at the National Archives and at the Center of Military History at Fort McNair, you can find photos in there that are not only very compelling but, to my knowledge, never been printed.
LAMB:: Can you think of one? I don't have my finger on it, but...
ATKINSON:: I think that first photo in the first section there of Eisenhower -- I've never seen that before.
LAMB:: I agree. I had never seen this and wondered where it came from.
ATKINSON:: It's an amazing photo. It's Eisenhower in Tunisia in early 1943, if I remember correctly. And you wonder why is this man smiling? Because things are not going well for him at that point in the war and his career. There's a chance that he's going to be cashiered. And you see a certain buoyancy of spirit that I think served him well. And that photo, to me, is one of the more compelling ones that we found.
LAMB:: Now, another note in there is that you made 17 trips to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. What's up there? I mean, you talk about a lot of things that are up there.
ATKINSON:: Yes. The U.S. Army War College is in Carlisle. The U.S. Army War College has the Military History Institute. it's one of the great repositories of military records in the world. It's where all of the unofficial records that the army keeps -- diaries, letters, things that have been left by soldiers over the course now of more than a century are stored there. And it's an amazing repository. It's open stacks. The staff is wonderful. I've been up there on volume two already three or four times. And every time I go in there, I find things that I didn't know existed and that are just staggering. And then I also have the great advantage of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, being where my parents live. My father taught at the War College his last tour in the army. They settled there 20 years ago. And so I have a house to stay at when I go up there.
LAMB:: How many years did your father spend in the military?
LAMB:: What was he?
ATKINSON:: He was an infantry officer.
LAMB:: And what impact do you think that had on you directly, other than what we've talked about so far, the whole military thing?
ATKINSON:: Well, I think that when you grow up as an army brat, you absorb certain things about the military culture. The army of World War II was a lot different than the army today or the army of 1979, when my dad retired. It's a lot smaller today, eight million men in the army in World War II. But there's an ethos about it that obtains to this day, and I think that being around it, being around my dad and my mom, helped me to understand something about the culture, something about the values of the army, something about the way the military operates. It's served me well in trying to recreate the army of 1942, 1943.
LAMB:: How long did you work for "The Washington Post"?
ATKINSON:: Almost 20 years.
LAMB:: Writing what?
ATKINSON:: I started as a general assignment report on the national staff, writing features, writing about politics. I covered Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 presidential election. I was an editor. I supervised the reporters who covered national security, intelligence, the Pentagon, State Department. I worked on the investigative staff as a reporter for a couple years for Bob Woodward. My last job there -- I was the Berlin bureau chief for three years. And my last job there, I was the assistant managing editor for investigations at the paper.
LAMB:: Where did you get your education?
ATKINSON:: I went to East Carolina, and then I went to the University of Chicago.
LAMB:: What'd you get at Chicago? A master's or...
ATKINSON:: Master's in English.
LAMB:: "The Long Gray Line" got you a Pulitzer. What year?
ATKINSON:: I won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
LAMB:: Why did you write that book? And what was it about?
ATKINSON:: That book is about the West Point class of 1966, 579 young men -- they were all men then -- who graduated from West Point in June of 1966 and thundered off to Vietnam, determined that they were going to win the war and come home to tickertape, the way their fathers had in World War II. And they lost more men in Vietnam and Cambodia than any other West Point class. Thirty of them were killed. And they had an extraordinary sequence of lives after the military, for those who left, and an extraordinary sequence of lives for those who stayed in. Wes Clark, the former NATO commander, is West Point class of '66.
That book is built around three characters, in particular, though. And I have to say to this day -- the book came out in '89 -- I feel as close to them as brothers. They've taken me into their hearts. They've taken me into their class. It taught me a lot, again, about the military. It taught me a lot about the brotherhood of combat. I learned things writing that book, learned how to be an author, I think, doing that book.
I learned something about empathy for men under the tremendous stress of combat. I learned about the fractures that occur in psyches under the stress of combat. Combat is a wonderful way to study human nature because there's nowhere on earth where people are under such stress. It's a great refractor of character. I learned that in studying the men of the class of 1966, and I certainly learned that in studying about North Africa in 1942 and 1943.
LAMB:: The Pulitzer was '89, did you say?
ATKINSON:: No, '82 because it was for a newspaper series.
LAMB:: Oh, I'm sorry. OK.
ATKINSON:: I wrote a newspaper series about the class. I attended their 15th reunion in '81 and wrote the series and won the Pulitzer in '82 and then spun it into a book.
LAMB:: When did you decide to leave "The Washington Post"? And how much was it impacted by this contract you have with Henry Holt?
ATKINSON:: Technically, I haven't left. In their wonderfully indulgent way, they consider me still part of the family. Doesn't cost them anything, so I think it's not terribly expensive to them. But my last day on the job was almost four years ago, and it was driven entirely by the desire to do this and frankly, to do something else in my life. I'd been in the newspaper business for more than 20 years. I love the business. It's a calling. I felt passionate about what I was doing there. But I also felt that a time had come in my life where I had the opportunity to write books full-time.
I had the opportunity -- I love W.H. Auden's dictum, "We were put on this earth to make things." And I feel that very strongly. If you have the capacity to make something, then you have almost an obligation to do it. Making a newspaper is important. It's honorable and very important work. But having the opportunity to make books is very important to me.
LAMB:: OK, what's the timetable for the trilogy?
ATKINSON:: This one comes out October, 2002. The second one will be October either 2005 or 2006. And the third one will be fall, 2008, 2009, somewhere in there. It's a little hard to project that far in advance.
LAMB:: This book is called "An Army at Dawn." Where'd you get the title?
ATKINSON:: Out of my head, to be honest with you. I had an image -- as I was learning about the Tunisia campaign, I had an image that hearkened back, really, to the Civil War, of armies around campfires in the first light of the day. And to me, it helps to link this army, the American army in Tunisia, in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, with all of its predecessors going all the way back to the Revolution.
LAMB:: Forty-two, forty-three, the war in North Africa's also on the cover of this book. What were the circumstances? And why did you start with North Africa?
ATKINSON:: Well, North Africa is really where we took the first blow against the German army, against the Wehrmacht. I started here because that's where the story begins. It's really where the great yarn starts. The circumstances of our going to North Africa and almost accidental, in some ways. After Pearl Harbor, there was a great hue and cry, of course, to retaliate against Japan, but there had been a decision between President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill that Germany first was the preeminent strategic impulse. The reason for that was a correct belief that if you could defeat Germany, then Japan would fall on its own.
So if you're going to fight Germany, where are you going to do it? The Americans wanted to cross the Channel in 1942 or 1943 and head straight for Berlin, drive right on Berlin. It's the American instinct for annihilating the enemy as quickly and as directly as you can. Churchill and the British, having been kicked out of Europe three times by that point, including at Dunkirk, recognized that, first of all, the Wehrmacht was a much more formidable foe than the American recognized, secondly, that it was important to blood the new allies, the Americans, and thirdly that there were benefits to be obtained by taking a Mediterranean strategy, Mediterranean approach. North Africa seemed like a good place to start. It was still controlled by Vichy France. And if you could seize North Africa, wrest it away from Vichy France, you basically got control of the Mediterranean back again. And that was very important. It was very important because you got control of Suez. You didn't have to send ships all the way around the cape of Africa.
So North Africa it was. And on the 8th of November, 1942, there was a vast armada which had sailed from the Eastern seaboard that landed in Morocco -- George Patton was the commander -- and an equally sizable armada that had sailed from the West Coast of Britain, that sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and landed in Algeria. And the ambition, the game plan, was for those two armies to seize Morocco, to seize Algeria, and then swing into Tunisia, which would give all of North Africa to the Allied powers.
LAMB:: You can see on the screen, Britain at the top, and then there's France, Spain. There's the Straits of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea and then French Morocco and Algeria.
You've mentioned Vichy France. What was Vichy France?
ATKINSON:: When Germany rolled into France in the early summer of 1940, within weeks France was defeated. And Hitler concocted a very clever armistice. He kept the northern two thirds of France, including Paris, for himself, under German control. The bottom one third of France, which would have its new headquarters in Vichy, a small spa town, was left to the French to administer. And along with that portion of metropolitan France, the French colonies overseas were left to the French to administer. This way, Hitler didn't have to worry about Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and the other colonies that France controlled.
It was a deal with the devil. It is something that France wrestles with to this day. The leader of Vichy France was a World War I hero, Marshal Pétain, who was old, feeble. He was trying to do the best thing for France. Every Frenchman who had any sense of conscience wrestled with what is the proper course of action.
So North Africa was under control of this rump state, with its headquarters in Vichy.
LAMB:: Where was DeGaulle?
ATKINSON:: DeGaulle would have no part of it. DeGaulle was a brigadier general, a real obscure figure in the French army. And DeGaulle said, I will not truck with this kind of deal with the devil. He left France, slipped out of the country and went to London. And he set up the headquarters of his Free French movement with tremendous support from the British, including a lot of financial support, and basically kept alive the notion that there would be no collaboration, that Vichy was a renegade regime, that it was invalid, and that true Frenchmen, who wanted to see France arise from the ashes of the catastrophe of 1940, must rally to his cause and oppose the Germans wherever they were, by whatever means they could.
LAMB:: How many times did Franklin Delano Roosevelt tell the electorate that he'd never send American boys to fight?
ATKINSON:: He said it often, and he said it most often before elections. The decision to fight back obviously was made by Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, we were in the war regardless of what Roosevelt had said before, but certainly, as the storm clouds had gathered over Europe in the late '30s and as war broke out on the 1st of September, 1939, Roosevelt said over and over again, including in speeches at Madison Square Garden and in Boston and Chicago, I will not send your boys into foreign wars again. All of that went out the window on December 7, 1941.
LAMB:: Where did you start this book?
ATKINSON:: Physically? You mean, where does it start in the first chapter?
LAMB:: Yes. Exactly what's the beginning, from what you know, in this book?
ATKINSON:: The book starts on October 23, 1942, and the admiral who's going to command the fleet that's leaving from Norfolk and other Eastern ports to go to Morocco, taking Patton and his soldiers there, is in Washington. He's flown up secretly from Norfolk for the day because he's been summoned to meet the president.
LAMB:: His name?
ATKINSON:: His name is Henry Kent Hewitt. He's a wonderful character. He is a really interesting man. He's forgotten largely by most Americans. He ought not be forgotten. He's a genuine original. There's Kent Hewitt, a very unformidable-looking man. He wore a uniform, sort of looked like blue rummage on him. He was somewhat soft-spoken. When he was a midshipman at Annapolis, he was said to have been so terrified of heights in the sail loft that he squeezed the tar out of the rigging. But he was a pretty formidable sea dog. He'd won the Navy Cross in World War I. He had an amazing knack for navigation. The stars ate from his hand, he was so capable at figuring out where he was.
So Hewitt has been given the task of taking this armada, more than 100 ships, across the Atlantic and depositing Patton and his men on three landing beaches in Morocco. And he's been summoned about a week before the fleet's to sail to the White House for what's really a pep talk with the president. And Patton is there, too. And so the book opens with this scene of Hewitt landing at old Anacostia field here in Washington, taking a staff car first to the Navy building and then to the White House, where Patton is there, waiting for him also. They've been escorted in a very circuitous manner around the White House, so no reporters would see them.
And they spend about 45 minutes with the president, who essentially wanted to wish them Godspeed and buck them up. Patton was there. Patton was ready to fight. Patton had qualms about the Navy's tenacity. He was afraid that at the first sound of gunfire, the Navy was going to turn around and come home. That wasn't the kind of man Kent Hewitt was, but Patton felt that by trying to buck him up with the president in the room that it would put some spine into Hewitt, where Patton suspected there was not enough spine.
LAMB:: So in October of 1942, how many Americans were under arms?
ATKINSON:: Oh, probably about five, six million.
LAMB:: Were we fighting anywhere?
ATKINSON:: Yes. Midway had occurred, critical battle in the central Pacific, really the beginning of the end for the Japanese ambitions of expanding into a greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere. We were fighting in Guadalcanal. The Army and the Marines had begun the island-hopping that would last for the end of the war. We were not fighting anywhere in Europe, so this is the first opportunity to try to liberate the continent. And they started by trying to liberate the continent just south of it, in Africa.
LAMB:: Who belonged to the Axis powers and who belonged to the Allies?
ATKINSON:: Well, the Axis was Germany, Italy and Japan. They had a number of smaller fellow travelers, but that was the core of the Axis. The Allied powers were the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, the free French, and a number of others who were fighting in some cases a desperate battle, a lost battle -- the Poles, for example. The Poles who had managed to get away when their country was overrun in 1939 had a pretty substantial presence in Britain, and we see them in Italy. They show up with 50,000 men -- tremendous fighters, fighting to the death because it was a life-and-death matter for them. So there were a number of allies like that, smaller allies who were part of the big three.
LAMB:: Other than the Pacific islands you mentioned, where were the other fronts?
ATKINSON:: Well, it was really a global war, and there were fronts everywhere. The British had sponsored an effort by the free French, for example, to recapture Madagascar. There was fighting in Burma and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Japanese, of course, had rolled south into Singapore and had taken most of Southeast Asia. India was threatened. The Pacific, the western half of the Pacific, really belonged to the Japanese, up until Midway.
There were little skirmishes in South America, river battles in Brazil. The submarine warfare that the Germans, in particular, were waging came right to our shores. You could see ships burning from the coastal beaches in North Carolina and New Jersey because the U-boats were sinking tremendous numbers of ships, hundreds of ships almost in our backyard.
So global war in 1942 really meant global war.
LAMB:: What about on the continent of Europe?
ATKINSON:: On the continent of Europe, the Germans had pretty well locked things down by November, 1942. France was defeated. The Low Countries had been conquered. Spain was neutral. Switzerland was neutral. Italy, of course, was part of the Axis. The British were fighting a perimeter war, a war around the periphery. So there'd been fighting in Crete, brutal fighting in Greece. And in North Africa, of course, Montgomery, the British commander of the 8th Army, was fighting the commander of the Axis forces there, Erwin Rommel. And the great Battle of El Alamein, which is in western Egypt, began on October 22, 1942, almost within a few hours of the meeting that I just described between Hewitt, Patton and President Roosevelt.
LAMB:: How many British troops were there in North Africa? How many Germans?
ATKINSON:: There were probably about 200,000 British troops there, British Commonwealth troops. It's important to remember that they weren't all British. There were Australians, of course, and New Zealanders. It was a very important part of the British war effort -- South Africans.
Rommel had a very large force of Italians under him and a smaller force of Germans. His total force was probably in the same neighborhood, 200,000. The Italian army had been battered badly in North Africa, and Rommel had no fondness for them at all. He felt, in general, with a few exceptions, they were poor units that could not be relied on. And this played out all the way across North Africa into Tunisia, and we see it again in Italy.
LAMB:: I'm not sure whether -- there's only, I think, one picture in here of Rommel?
LAMB:: Any reason for the one? I mean, I know you got a lot of pictures and a lot of characters. And it's this one right here. He's even hard to find. Which one is he?
ATKINSON:: He's right here. He's in the center, standing with his cloak -- his duster, really, draped over his shoulders. I don't know why there's only one picture of Rommel. I like that one a lot. It really gives you a sense of Rommel as the center of the -- of his particular war effort here. There's no doubt, when you study that picture carefully, who the commander is in that group portrait.
LAMB:: Tell us about him.
ATKINSON:: Well, he's a very interesting character. He's from southwest Germany. It's important to know that he's not Prussian. He didn't serve on the general staff. There's no "von" in front of his name. It's not von Rommel. He was a very adroit infantry officer. We think of him as an armor commander, but he was an infantry officer in World War I. And it's also important to know that he was a very good German. He was a loyalist to Hitler almost to the end of his life. He had commanded Hitler's personal guard for a while at the beginning of World War II.
And he was sent to North Africa after the Italians had been routed badly in an effort to expand Mussolini's empire down there. And because Hitler could not afford to have the Italians overwhelmed in North Africa -- there was the danger that Mussolini would fall, and so on -- he sent this young, very capable, very energetic and very charismatic commander down there to try to stem the rout, which he did. And for two years, the war between the British and Rommel swung back and forth across the northern littoral of Africa. It's a 2,000-mile-wide battlefield, virtually.
And by the time he comes into our sights, and he arrives in Tunisia, really, the end of January in 1943, he's spent. He's worn out. He's physically ailing. He's got blood pressure problems. He's got skin problems. He doesn't sleep well. Two years of the stress of combat in North Africa, on top of what he'd already experienced elsewhere, including as a commander in France, had really taken a toll on him. So when we see him, he's almost a shell of a man.
He rouses himself in Africa one final time, and that's the battle at Kasserine Pass, where he sees an opportunity to seize victory from what is almost sure defeat and lash out at the Americans, in particular. And this one final time, we see Rommel, the old warhorse, coming back with the same killing instinct, first of all, but with the same charisma and energy that he'd had two, three years earlier in the war.
LAMB:: You mentioned Montgomery.
ATKINSON:: Well, Montgomery -- you know, one of the things I like about North Africa is that all of the great battle captains, or most of the great battle captains that we see in 1944, 1945, when the final act begins in Europe, come onto the stage, really, in North Africa. There's Bernard Law Montgomery.
Montgomery drove the Americans crazy. He was a master of the so-called set-piece battle. Everything was arranged perfectly. He would not strike early. He would put all his supplies in order. He would make sure that he was going to fight on his terms, with overwhelming strength. When he fought Rommel at El Alamein in October and early November of 1942, it was an existential battle for Churchill. Another defeat at el Alamein, and there was a chance that the Churchill regime was not going to last for the duration of the war.
Churchill was always grateful to Montgomery for that. He recognized the importance, the service that Montgomery had rendered to the nation, but he was a very difficult man. He had spent part of his childhood in Tasmania. His father was a bishop. He described it as a loveless childhood.
He had a wife that he was quite infatuated with. She died relatively early in their marriage. Its scarred him forever. He told one of his confidants this kind of love only happens once and then it's over. So, he's a sad man in some ways and he's a man who was very difficult, especially for the British to get along with because he tended to the supercilious.
He tended to believe there was only one way of doing things. That was his way of doing it. He drove his colleagues in the British army, and particularly the Royal Air Force, completely nuts and that carried over to the Americans to some extent too. He was a very difficult man.
LAMB:: Some of the things I wrote down that she wrote about him was he's a teetotaler. He didn't smoke, wouldn't allow smoking, didn't allow coughing. What was that all about?
ATKINSON:: Well, before he would begin a conference, he would remind those attending, Eisenhower included on one occasion, he berated Eisenhower for smoking. Eisenhower at this point was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, berated Eisenhower for smoking and he said no coughing. I don't want to be interrupted. There will be no interruptions. He had a puritanical quality to him that was very difficult for a lot of his peers to accept.
LAMB:: You say he was wounded badly at Ypres. We did a book here on it with Winston Groom on that hold battle from World War I. What impact did that have on Montgomery?
ATKINSON:: I think the impact of World War I in general on Montgomery was similar to that on all of his peers who survived and rose to high rank in the British army in World War II, and the essence of that is never again. We're not going to throw a million men into a meat grinder, a recognition that generals are really important in fighting battles.
I think in America today we have something of a notion that native genius of American fighting men is such that if you just throw them onto a battlefield and let them go do their thing, they can win. Citizen soldiers can go win battles by themselves. Montgomery and the British high command knew that that wasn't true, that you need citizen soldiers. You need foot soldiers. You need men to pull triggers but you also needed generals who were capable of managing the battle and of preparing for battle and of managing the battle after the battle you're fighting now. I think Montgomery took that away as a junior officer in World War I, just as many of the other senior commanders in the British army did.
LAMB:: By the way, as you know, there are a lot of generals in this book and a lot of admirals. Who out of all this fascinated you the most?
ATKINSON:: Well, there's a number of wonderful characters. I have a particular affection for Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen. Somebody once said even his named swaggerers. He was the commander of the First Infantry Division.
LAMB:: By the way, before you go, how do you get from Terry Allen to Terry de la Mesa Allen?
ATKINSON:: His grandfather had been a Spanish colonel who immigrated to the United States and fought for the union in the Civil War. So, the de la Mesa comes from his mother's side of the family and he's spent a lot of his life in Texas. There's a real Hispanic heritage really in his family and he was badly wounded in World War I also as a junior officer. He flunked out of West Point in his senior year, which is hard to do.
He came to Washington, graduated from Catholic University, 1912 I think it was, went into the army, went off to war, World War I, was wounded, shot through the face. The bullet went in one side, out the other, knocked out all of his molars and for the rest of his life when he would get excited he would speak with a kind of, there would be a whistle through the scars here.
In the early 1920s, one of my favorite stories about him, he was posted in Texas and the Texas Cattlemen's Association decided that they were going to have a horse race. They wanted to see whether the best that the army could put up in terms of a horsemen, and Terry Allen was as good as they came, could beat the best the Texas Cattlemen's Association could put up in terms of a cowboy.
They put up a guy named Key Dunne, a famous bronco buster. He had been world champion, rodeo this and that and he was the boss of a four million acre ranch in Chihuahua. The army put up Terry Allen. The race was across half of Texas. It basically started, one of them started in Fort Worth. The other started in Dallas and the finish line was the Alamo in San Antonio, a four-day event.
Allen halfway through this, riding a big black horse named Coronado, hears that Key Dunne is having trouble getting fodder for his horse, a horse probably named AWOL. He ordered a carload of hay and oats sent to Dunne so that he could feed his horse so that the race could continue.
Allen beat him by seven hours, which certainly enhanced his stature within the Army and it was an event that all of Texas followed over the course of this four days. He was that kind of guy and when we see him we pick him up in 1942. He's about to lead the First Infantry Division into Algeria. The First Infantry Division is the oldest unit in the American army. It's got probably the greatest pride of any unit. The big red one. It's a storied unit.
LAMB:: Based where in the United States?
ATKINSON:: Well, they were based for a long time in Kansas. Now, they're in Germany. Allen had an assistant division commander named Theodore Roosevelt, the president's son, who was just as unlikely and wonderful a character as Allen was. The president's son, of course, World War I hero. After the war, where he had been a colonel in World War I, he got out. He helped found the American Legion. He was the governor of the Philippines and the governor of Puerto Rico. He was a vice president of Doubleday Publishers. He was a renaissance man.
LAMB:: And this is Theodore Roosevelt's son, not FDR's?
ATKINSON:: This is Ted Roosevelt, Jr. A complete slob really of a soldier. One of his aides admiringly said he could be mistaken for a battalion cook. So, the two of these men together taking the first division into Algeria and then on into Tunisia, and then we'll follow them later into Sicily were both of them were relieved of command, are probably my two favorite men in this portion of the war.
LAMB:: George Patton?
ATKINSON:: Well, they broke the mold when they made Patton. There's no doubt about that.
LAMB:: And who is he in this picture with here, the French general?
ATKINSON:: He's with the resident general of Morocco. He had been a Vichy General. Patton kept him on. His name was Noguès. Patton kept him on basically as our puppet in Morocco and there's Patton on the right. This is in Casablanca or one of the towns in Morocco shortly after the invasion.
Well, Patton was such a unique character and we see him really emerge. He begins to ascend to the pantheon of the American military in Morocco because he's commanding the force that lands there. And, you see all of his great strengths as a commander and all of his great weaknesses as a commander right from the get-go in Morocco, terrible temper.
When the landings were going badly, he's in the surf thrashing around, berating men, striking them, kicking them, screaming at them to get going, acting like a very immature lieutenant rather a lieutenant general. He was actually a major general when the landings first occurred. And, Patton remains in Morocco as the drive toward Tunisia begins. Eisenhower is his closest and oldest friend.
LAMB:: Personal friend?
ATKINSON:: Personal friend. They'd been friends 20 years at this point. Earlier in the year, Patton had written a letter to Eisenhower that said just that. You are my oldest friend. So, when Eisenhower got in trouble, when things went badly after Kasserine Pass, he called on his old good friend George Patton to go take command of the American forces there.
And Patton who was the commander for about 45 days of the second core, which was the overarching unit under which all American forces were fighting, and had a kind of checkered experience in those 45 days. He won no great major battles other than the battle of el Gitar, where the Americans smartly repelled an attack by the 10th Panzer Division, a very good German armored unit.
But other than that, Patton didn't do anything spectacular and he left to go back to planning for the invasion of Sicily, which was to be his main job and turned the second core over to another up-and-comer, a classmate of Eisenhower's named Omar Bradley. And Patton left feeling somewhat unfulfilled by this experience, knowing that he had not been great, that greatness still eluded him and he was very driven to be great, and you see this ambition in Patton from the beginning in North Africa and it carries onto Sicily where he's the commander of American forces that go into Sicily, and then we see him again, of course, in western France.
LAMB:: I wrote down that you quote him as saying: "I want you to get more officers killed." What is that story? And also that he wanted, later on you point out he wanted more officers killed for the morale of the enlisted men.
ATKINSON:: Well, it's nutty and I think that most officers today and then would agree that it's nutty. On one particular occasion, in Tunisia, it's March, 1943 to First Armored Division, which is one of Patton's subordinate units as the commander of second core is stuck, and they've attacked. They've tried to break the German lines unsuccessfully. The commander is a very interesting, very sensitive major general named Orlando Ward.
And, Ward calls up to Patton's headquarters at one point during the sequence and says: "Well, there's good news. I didn't have any officers killed today" and Patton said" "That's not good news. I want you to get more officers out there. I want you to get them shot at. I want to get more officers killed. This will inspirit the enlisted men if they can see their officers leading them from the front, if they can see their officers bleeding with them. That's good for morale."
Well, it is good for officers to lead for the front. It is good for officers to share the risks and the dangers of enlisted man. It doesn't help anybody when officers get killed. It is deleterious to the morale of a unit. It breaks down the discipline and the good order of a unit.
At that point, shortly after that comment, Patton ordered Ward to lead the attack himself. So, you had a major general with a rifle taking the point at night going against very difficult German defenses. The attack was repelled. Many men were killed. Ward was wounded right here. He took a piece of shrapnel in the edge of his eye, face, front of his uniform covered with blood.
The shooting was so intense he was hugging the ground so ardently that there were machine-gun scars across the back of his uniform as if someone had laid a hot poker across him. It was that kind of combat. Ward was relieved of command shortly after that by Patton. He was sent home. Patton felt that he just didn't have what it took to lead an armored division in combat.
LAMB:: Because as you know, we are not even scratching the little bitty surface on this book, I want to jump way ahead just for people that are listening and may not have seen these people for awhile. What happened to Terry Allen? I mean I want to -- for all these generals, jump ahead. How long did he live? What happened to him?
ATKINSON:: Terry Allen took the First Infantry Division into Sicily with Ted Roosevelt. He was relieved of command in Sicily and sent home, as was Roosevelt. Unlike most generals who are relieved, he got a second chance. He came back with 104th division the Timber Wolves fairly late in the war and lead the Timber Wolves to the end of the war. Ted Roosevelt came back at Utah Beach, won the Medal of Honor, dropped dead of a heart attack.
LAMB:: Right there on the beach?
ATKINSON:: A month after Utah Beach. He was about to get a division command.
LAMB:: Wasn't he pretty old by then?
ATKINSON:: Yes, he was. He looked older than he was and he was in poor health. He was 58.
LAMB:: Terry Allen's son?
ATKINSON:: Yes, Terry Allen's son went to West Point, his only child. He was a battalion commander in Vietnam. He was killed in October, 1967 when his battalion, part of The Big Red One, First Infantry Division, walked into an ambush north of Saigon. And Allen, General Allen by that point had been long retired and was suffering from dementia but it just killed him. It just killed him. He died shortly thereafter. I think he died in '69.
LAMB:: And, there's another book being written about that story I guess.
ATKINSON:: By David Maraniss.
LAMB:: Another former colleague of yours.
ATKINSON:: One of my good friends at the Post, yes.
LAMB:: When's his book out?
ATKINSON:: I see him often. His book is out next fall, fall of 2003. He's clipping along. I think he's on Chapter 20.
LAMB:: By the way, one name that surprised me in the back because it seemed it was out of context with the rest is the vice president's aide Lewis Libby, the same Lewis Libby that's your friend?
ATKINSON:: Same guy. Same guy.
LAMB:: Where does that come from?
ATKINSON:: I met Scooter, which is what we call him, before the Gulf War started. We became friends. We play football together every Sunday morning in the winter and softball in the summer. It a game that's been going on for 30 years and Scooter got me into it. So, yes we're close friends.
LAMB:: Can you make a living solely writing this trilogy?
ATKINSON:: Well, that's a question. It will depend in part on how many people buy into the first volume. Yes, I think I can make a living doing it. I have to be disciplined about it and I've got to get it done. Holt has been very generous in supporting it, the publisher. John Sterling the president and publisher at Holt was my editor on the "Long Gray Line" and "Crusade," the book I wrote about the Persian Gulf War, and he believes in the vision of this book. He thinks that there's a market for this trilogy. So, I hope so, Brian.
LAMB:: Well, without prying on your personal life, do you have to do other things along the way? Do you have to speak? Do you have to write other articles to be able to afford this?
ATKINSON:: Not really. I'm lucky. I have a wonderful wife who's got a good job.
LAMB:: What does she do?
ATKINSON:: She's the assistant dean at the University of Maryland Dental School. She worked at the National Institute of Health for a long time as a researcher. So, she helps to keep us a solvent. She helps to keep the liberation trilogy going. But my arrangement with Holt is such that I can really take on these books, I think, without having the distraction really of doing other things to put bread on the table.
LAMB:: How do you write something like this? What I mean by that do you write a chapter at a time? Where do you write the book? How do you keep it organized? I get lost. I mean there are so many battles and people and all that stuff. I mean I think there are two different ways you read this, either very quickly and just get the overview or really study each individual battle. So, how did you put together?
ATKINSON:: Well, I do all the research before I start writing for the most part. I cannot see the whole book without having almost all the research done first. I'm an inveterate outliner. I sit down and I spent in this case four months outlining the book. I go through all the material that I've got, all the computer files of all the primary and secondary material that I've got and I go through and I decide this is a fact that goes in the trash. This goes in the trash. This looks interesting. This goes in Chapter 3. I can see the scene where this goes and I construct this outline and the outline is 250 to 300 pages long.
That's the blueprint, that's the map. That lets me know that I know where I'm going. And once I've got the outline done, then I start at the beginning and I go through and you've got to have some flexibility when you've got this roadmap. You got to be willing to say OK this is a dead-end. I want to take this shortcut. This actually goes over here or hopefully this gets thrown out, this gets thrown out.
And, I write on the third floor office of my house in northwest Washington. I've written three books there. It's got a wonderful panorama. There's a bank of windows that look out into the stand of white oak trees in the backyard and just beyond the backyard there's a thumb of Rock Creek Park so it's very bucolic. It's very quiet.
And, I typically start work, start writing at 7:30 in the morning and I write until usually 1:00 or so when I'm spent for the day, and then I'll spend the afternoon reading back over what I've written, editing it and preparing for the next day's work which usually involves taking the outline and further refining it, thinking it through.
LAMB:: How many days you think it took you to write this book?
ATKINSON:: It took about a year to actually write it.
LAMB:: When did you finish it?
ATKINSON:: I finished it, if you exclude the editing, I finished it in December of last year, 2001. And then, there is rewriting, reworking and so on that lasted until early spring.
LAMB:: And who are you writing it for? Who do you envision reading this? What's the market?
ATKINSON:: Well, I think, I hope it's a broad market. I think that the great interest in World War II has prepared a market of sorts for me. I think that it's a general audience. I don't think you have to be a specialist in the military. You don't have to have a native interest or any knowledge of the military. I think it's fundamentally a book about character. I think it's character driven. I think that in the United States in particular that there's kind of a belief that World War II consisted of Pearl Harbor and then Normandy and then the war was over.
The Normandy campaign and the last ten months of the war really is what most Americans think of as being our involvement in the war in Europe in particular. I don't think you can understand what happened at Normandy and thereafter without understanding that there was a cumulative history to that army that went ashore in Normandy and there was a cumulative history of the characters who commanded and peopled that army and it starts in North Africa.
LAMB:: Quick things because time goes by quickly. How many Americans fought in North Africa?
ATKINSON:: Well, there were 100,000 who landed initially, 100,000 mostly Americans, some British in that first landing. By the end of the campaign, there were 460,000 there in May of 1943.
LAMB:: And we were there for how long?
ATKINSON:: Well, the campaign lasted for seven months.
LAMB:: How many were killed?
ATKINSON:: There were 70,000 Allied casualties, 20,000 of those were American. About 7,000 of them were killed.
LAMB:: Were we successful?
ATKINSON:: Yes. It took longer than anticipated. It was a harder fight. The Germans reacted with such alacrity and audacity really in getting to Tunisia that the fighting in Tunisia was much more protracted and much more brutal than Eisenhower or Roosevelt or anyone else had hoped. But yes, we ended up defeating a very large German and Italian army, capturing 250,000 German and Italian prisoners, including a dozen generals, and clearing the shores of North Africa, winning back the Mediterranean. The first unimpeded convoy from Gibraltar sailed the Suez right after the campaign in Tunisia ended.
LAMB:: Did we not know whether the French, the Vichy French would fight us when he landed there?
ATKINSON:: We did not know that.
LAMB:: And what happened?
ATKINSON:: The Vichy French did fight. There had been diplomatic efforts, secret meetings, secret rendezvous, all kinds of efforts to try to get the Vichy French to throw in with us when we landed. All soldiers, including the Brits wore American uniforms and American flags on their shoulders out of a belief that the spirit of Lafayette would obtain somehow and the Vichy French would not fire on Americans.
They did fight. The army, the Vichy army didn't fight very intensely. The French navy fought very intensely. There was a tremendous sea battle off the coast of Casablanca. They fought hard for three days. They, the French, suffered about 3,000 casualties and at the end of those three days basically they threw in the towel.
LAMB:: They were fighting with us then?
ATKINSON:: After that, they fought with us, yes. There were not well-equipped. They were not particularly well disciplined but they did. They put together a division and then more came into Tunisia with us.
LAMB:: We don't have time to get into the French generals but that is interesting part of the book, some of the characters. But, the trip of FDR to Casablanca, how did that happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen?
ATKINSON:: Well, it happened in January of 1943. The president and the prime minister, Winston Churchill, had met earlier at summit conferences we would call them today. They met in Washington in May of 1942 and a decision was made that they needed to have a face-to-face meeting with their respective military brain trust to decide where the war was to go from here.
Roosevelt wanted to meet in an exotic place. He wanted to meet in a warm place and Casablanca sounded intriguing to him. Churchill had spent a lot of time in Morocco and persuaded him that it was a very exotic place to meet. It was done in great secrecy.
The president left Washington, I think it was the 12th of January, 1943 without telling anyone really. He slipped out of town in the dead of night on the Ferdinand Magellan, his train. He was the first president ever to fly while President. He was the first president ever to leave the country during a war.
And, they spent about twelve days in Casablanca deciding what do we do next. And the decisions made there were very important because for one thing it affirmed this Mediterranean strategy. They decided that Sicily would be the next blow after the campaign in Tunisia was finished.
It was a wonderful place to meet. They took over a compound outside of Casablanca called Anfa, and along with all the serious business that was conducted, there were great hijinks. And, of course, since Churchill was there, there was great drinking and very little sleep and lots of exotic card games and you had field marshals building sand castles on the beach and so on. It's a wonderful story and it occurs right in the middle of this North African campaign.
LAMB:: What was the impact on the rest of the war after North Africa was finished?
ATKINSON:: The impact of the campaign in North Africa?
LAMB:: Yes. You say in the beginning that this changed everything?
ATKINSON:: Yes, I think it changed things in a fundamental way on several counts. First of all, it's where the United States first began to act like a great power, strategically, diplomatically, even tactically. It's where we muscled up for the first time. It's where the relationship between the United Kingdom, between Great Britain and the United States changed.
The British slipped into the role of junior partner because the preponderance of American power, including the preponderance of the American capacity to make hundreds of thousands of tanks and airplanes and so on really became evident for the first time. It's really where the strategy for taking on Germany blossomed and the rest of the war in Europe follows in train from what happened in North Africa.
LAMB:: This is the first of three books called "The Liberation Trilogy." Our guest has been Rick Atkinson and the title of this first book of three is "An Army at Dawn, The War in North Africa 1942-1943." We thank you very much.
ATKINSON:: Thank you very much.
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