Footnote 5 – An Army At Dawn

Footnote 5 – Rick Atkinson, An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43 (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), pp. 33-34, 40-41, 413-415.

Perhaps it is appropriate to consider the battles waged across 1,000 miles of North African coastline 70 years ago in early 1943. Though the “timeline” is segmented by identifiable battles such as Kasserine Pass (28 February 1943) and el Guettar (23 March 1943), the genesis of the conflict occurred months before.  Perhaps modern Americans can only imagine how much went into the conflict, even in terms of sheer material goods, as described by Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Atkinson:

“Dawn on October 24 revealed a forest of masts and fighting tops across Hampton Roads, where the greatest war fleet ever to sail from American waters made ready…..Young men, fated to survive and become old men dying abed half a century hence, would forever remember this hour, when an army at dawn made for the open sea in a cause none could yet comprehend.”

In addition to 33,843 soldiers, the holds of this flotilla carried “tanks and cannons, rubber boats and outboard motors, ammunition and machine guns, magnifying glasses and stepladders, alarm clocks and bicycles.  Into the holds went: tractors, cement, asphalt, and more than a million gallons of gasoline, mostly in five-gallon tins.  Into the holds went: thousands of miles of wire, well-digging machinery, railroad cars, 750,000 bottles of insect repellant, and 7,000 tons of coal in burlap bags.  Into the holds went: black basketball shoes, 3,000 vehicles, loudspeakers, 16,000 feet of cotton rope, and $100,000 in gold coins, entrusted to George Patton personally.  And into the holds went: a platoon of carrier pigeons, six flyswatters and and sixty rolls of flypaper for each 1,000 soldiers, plus five pounds of rat poison per company.

“A special crate, requisitioned in a frantic message to the War Department, held a thousand Purple Hearts… Phrase books with pronunciation keys, to be distributed at sea, perfectly captured Allied ambivalence, giving the French for both, ‘I am your friend’ and ‘I will shoot you if you resist.’  A propaganda radio station, cobbled together with a transmitter salvaged in Jersey City and a generator from a South Carolina cotton mill, was secretly installed in the U.S.S. Texas … Quartermasters had rounded up 10 million salt tablets and 67,000 American flag armbands, with 138,000 safety pins to secure them to uniform sleeves….Using a Michelin commercial road guide to Morocco, a government printing plant outside Washington had spent weeks reproducing sixty tons of maps, which were manhandled into the holds along with sealed bundles of Baedeckers, old issues of National Geographic, French tourist guidebooks, and volume ‘M’ of various encyclopedias….”

All this in addition to 72,000 troops and half a million tons of cargo previously shipped to England for the “shorter” sea journey to North Africa…. “In late January, Eisenhower had pleaded with Washington for more trucks.  Less than three weeks later, a special convoy of twenty ships sailed from Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore with 5,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, 2,000 cargo trailers, 400 dump trucks, 80 fighter planes, and, for ballast, 12,000 tons of coal, 16,000 tons of flour, 9,000 tons of sugar, 1,000 tons of soap, and 4,000 submachine guns, all of which arrived in Africa on March 6 ….”

“’The battle,’ Rommel famously observed, ‘is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.’  The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own.  The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell.  In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles.  Another factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.”

“In Africa, total supply requirements amounted to thirteen tons per soldier each month. …From late February to late March, 130 ships sailed from the United States for Africa with 84,000 soldiers, 24,000 vehicles, and a million tons of cargo….The Americans’ genius ‘lay in creating resources rather than using them economically,’ a British study observed astutely….’The American Army does not solve its problems,’ one general noted, ’it overwhelms them.‘   There was prodigal ineconomy – of time, of motion, of stuff – but beyond the extravagance lay a brisk ability to get the job done.  After Kasserine, American aviation engineers built five new airfields around Sbeitla – in seventy-two hours.  More than one hundred fields would be built during the Tunisian campaign.  The enemy would not be ‘solved’ in Tunisia.  He would be overwhelmed.”

And, above and beyond the material cost, at the expense  of more than 70,000 Allied casualties, “a continent has been redeemed,” to use Churchill’s memorable phrase.

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