By Rick Atkinson
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

“Shepherds become like sheep,” we are told, and the writing of epic historical narratives certainly lends credence to that old adage. Consider Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. The first volume, An Army At Dawn, covered the North African campaign. Volume two, the newly released The Day of Battle, covers the invasion of Sicily and Italy. The third and final volume will narrate the culminating invasion of Western Europe. The many interrelated facets of planning, coordinating, and undertaking a Sea borne invasion, are mirrored in the arduous complexity of successfully planning, coordinating, researching and executing a narrative account of it.

A central theme of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, is that the Allied invasion of North Africa provided a perfect environment for the army to develop and refine itself, to work the bugs out of its supply and sea borne strategies, its fighting tactics, weapons development, and organizational issues. Atkinson persuasively argues that the successful invasion of Normandy in 1944 was the result of a developmental progression. The army which landed in North Africa in 1942 was not remotely prepared to take on the invasion of German controlled Europe. By the end of the North African campaign, however, the Allies had developed sufficiently to undertake the invasion of Sicily and Italy. In turn the experience of the Italian campaign informed the preparation for the Invasion of Normandy to the point where it became a success in its own turn.

The irony of Atkinson’s account is that he runs the risk of providing an inverse example of his own central theme. An Army at Dawn, which justly won The Pulitzer Prize, is a superb narrative history. Atkinson clearly worked out a formula for conveying the scope of his story, the nature of its characters, authoritative positions on the embedded elements of historical controversy, and a progressive theme into which all the actions fit. This intricate, balanced structure, provided the perfect delivery of biographical, historical and tactical information. One left the pages of An Army at Dawn feeling that one had learned a great deal, and been in the hands of an author whose command of his narrative probably exceeded that of any of the commanders in the narrative, at least as of 1943.

Another thing one was left with, of course, was a great desire to read the second volume. For this the reader was made to wait three years longer than originally expected. Atkinson clearly struggled somewhat with The Day of Battle, yet at last it has found its way into readers’ hands. The Day of Battle is a good, and worthwhile read, yet it is less vital, less smooth, and less authoritative than its predecessor. The reason for this slide is that the second volume is too much like the first. Atkinson forced the second volume into the formula he created for the first. It’s a good formula, of course, but it was vital precisely because it was created by grappling with its content. Using the same formula for fresh material, however related, has taken some of the air out of Atkinson’s narrative, and rendered it choppy, and inconsistent. In not reinventing and reinvigorating his formula for his second volume, Atkinson fares as those generals fare who fall prey to the understandable folly of fighting the previous war, of sending cavalry against tanks, as it were.

Even though The Liberation Trilogy is a sequential narrative, the lesser quality of The Day of Battle, provides a persuasive argument against using a fixed formula. A successful formula is the outcome of a dynamic process. That is the truth of Atkinson’s central theme, concerning the progressive development of the Allied fight against Germany and Italy. The successive invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, are the very embodiment of a dynamic, rather than a fixed formula. The Day of Battle is well worth reading, but it’s not the book it should have been. The reader can only hope that Atkinson struggles to reinvent his formula for the third volume, rising to the challenge as it were, rather like his subjects.

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