Monday, April 13, 2015

Passages: From The Liberation Trilogy

Grind of a Thousand Whetstones

An Army At Dawn (The War in North Africa, 1942 - 1943), the first volume of The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson, was a book of firsts.

It was the first book in which I purposefully tried to trace my father's footsteps when he was a man of the barges during WW2. (The invasion of North Africa in November, 1942 was his first D-Day of three).

It was the first book in which I wrote 'prose' or 'prose of war' as a marginal note. I envisioned Mr. Atkinson being forcefully caught up in certain words and phrases and sentences. And while I read, the events - seventy years old in 2012 -  drew breath and lived again.

I have since read others in which some paragraphs go beyond being the repository of mere facts and details, and illuminate the reader in a unique, poignant manner, but An Army At Dawn led the way. Excerpts follow.

The TORCH Plan, on Paper

   Three hundred warships
   and nearly four hundred transports
   and cargo vessels would land
   more than 100,000 troops - 
   three-quarters of them American,
   the rest British - in North Africa.

Task Force 34 would sail
for Morocco on Saturday morning.
The other armada would leave Britain
shortly thereafter for Algeria.
With luck, the Vichy French
controlling North Africa would
not oppose the landings.

   Regardless, the Allies were to
   pivot east for a dash into Tunisia
   before the enemy arrived.

An Army At Dawn, pages 30 - 31

Map of North Africa: Photo credit - Beachhead Battlefront

The Ships are Loaded

In Britain:

All the confusion
that characterized the cargo loading
now attended the convergence of
34,000 soldiers on Hampton Roads.
Troop trains with blinds drawn rolled
through Norfolk and Portsmouth,
sometimes finding the proper pier
and sometimes not.

   Sober and otherwise,
   the troops found their way to 
   the twenty-eight transport ships.
   All public telephones
   at the wharves were disconnected,
   and port engineers erected a high fence
   around each dock area...

Thousands struggled
up the ramps with heavy barracks bags
and wandered the companionways for hours
in search of their comrades.
A distant clatter of winches signaled
the lifting of the last cargo slings.

   And a new sound
   joined the racket:
   the harsh grind of
   a thousand whetstones
   as soldiers put an edge
   on their bayonets
   and trench knives.

In America:

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.

   The dawn
   was bright and blowing.
   Angels perched unseen on
   the shrouds and crosstrees.

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.

   as the great fleet glided past,
   dreams of them stepped, like men alive,
   into the rooms where their
   loved ones lay sleeping.

An Army At Dawn, pages 38 - 41

About those same days in 1942 my father, a Canadian member of Combined Operations (1941 - 1945) wrote, rather matter-of-factly, the following (in part):

We left Greenock in October, 1942 with our LCMs aboard a ship called Derwentdale, sister ship to Ennerdale. The 80th and 81st flotillas, as we are now called, were split between the Derwentdale and Ennerdale in convoy, and little did we know we were bound for North Africa.

I became an A/B Seaman (Able-bodied) on this trip and passed my exams classed very good. We had American soldiers aboard and an Italian in our mess who had been a cook before the war.

In the convoy close to us was a converted merchant ship which was now an air craft carrier. They had a relatively short deck for taking off, and one day when they were practicing taking off and landing. A Swordfish aircraft failed to get up enough speed and rolled off the stern and, along with the pilot, disappeared immediately. No effort was made to search, we just kept on.

One November morning the huge convoy, perhaps 500 ships, entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a nice sun-shiny day... what a sight to behold. (pages 23 - 25, "DAD, WELL DONE")

More to follow.

Unattributed photos by GH

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