Book Review: Field Marshal

In this biography the author tears down the Rommel mystique while also confirming it.
In case you didn’t catch that, this is the story of the man called the Desert Fox, the general who led Germany’s Afrika Korps in World War Two. There’s over 600 pages here, if you include the notes, biblio, and index, but it’s a surprisingly easy read. 82 pages in it feels like I’ve just started. Made a note to the same effect after 450 pages: the writing is so smooth and easy to read. I remember books of this size on World War 2 taking me a month to muddle through; I finished this in just over a week.
As one would expect this covers all of his life, though surprisingly the focus isn’t simply on his most famous role. There’s plenty on his exploits in WW1, from leading the charge into France to the mountains of Romania and Italy, as well as the beginning of the second, where he again led the blitzkrieg west. But the largest part of this book tells about his time in Northern Africa, where he became the legend, though a lot of that was thanks to him being Hitler’s golden boy and a media—propaganda—darling.
There are plenty of small stories that succinctly explain why certain battles turned out the way they did, showing how sometimes Rommel was just plain lucky and other times unlucky. For instance, Mussolini decided it was a good idea to invade Greece; it wasn’t. Hitler had to send troops to help out his buddy, which meant the British had to send their own troops to fight them, and the nearest available soldiers were those in Africa tasked with stopping Rommel, so less opposition for him. Another story mentions an early battle where Rommel forgot the first rule of war: logistics. Something as simple as forgetting to tell the fuel people he would be going on attack meant his tanks ran out of gas before the battle could be won.
There’s also small moments that humanize him, my favorite of which is when they landed in Africa and he had a military parade in Tripoli. To make the Allied spies think he had a lot more firepower than he actually did, he had his tanks race around to get back to the start and go through again. There’s also a note about him and his officers sightseeing at one of my favorite archaeological sites, Leptis Magna, where he laughs as a photo of Lt. von Harftdegen is taken while he’s asleep between statues of nude females.
The author mentions that Ultra (cracking of the top-secret German Enigma code) and the Manhattan Project were the two best kept secrets of WW2, which sounds right. This meant the Brits were reading Rommel’s orders from HQ, allowing them to react accordingly. . . only to find Rommel disobeying orders and winning the battle anyway. Which is not to say this kind of intel was worthless; one of the reasons Rommel was constantly running out of fuel was because Ultra told the Allied subs where the Italian tankers were, making it an easy job to sink them.
But it doesn’t take long for the author to give a very telling description that shatters the Rommel aura: “The Easter attacks on Tobruk revealed Rommel at his worst. Short-tempered, impetuous, and imperious, he refused to listen to the advice or council of his subordinates, underestimated his opponent even as he overestimated his own skills, all the while committing the worse offense possible by any commanding officer: he demanded more of his soldiers than they were able to give him.” So here’s Rommel painted as a vengeful petty little man. . . which makes him just a man, not the superhero he’d been glorified as over the years. But he was also brilliant at what he did, and what made him one of the few Germans of that era to respect is told in these three quotes:
“Rommel’s sin was his integrity.”
“Rommel had to die because he chose to tell the truth to Adolf Hitler.”
“A true German’s loyalty was always given to Germany, not to any particular governmental form or leader.”
This last one is further expanded here: “Rommel would have willingly sacrificed his army—and himself—if fighting to the last man and last round was required for the defense of Germany; he was not prepared, however, by inclination or temperament, to make such sacrifices merely to serve what he now understood were Hitler’s delusions of grandeur.”
This book also confirms what I’ve said for years: Churchill and Montgomery were idiots. The author uses deadpan snarkery to full advantage when he writes, “Apparently Montgomery believed that Rommel was obliged to stay put until such time as Eight Army and its commander were fully prepared, then dutifully remain in place when the attack finally began.”
After Africa he was sent to France to shore up the coastal defenses against Allied invasion, but D-Day caught him with his pants down, and soon after a strafing run by a British fighter sent him into the windshield of his car, fracturing his skull in three places and basically destroying the left side of his face before being tossed onto the road. For those of us who love counterfactuals, one has to wonder what might have been had that not happened, though by that time Germany had pretty much already lost the war.
So my takeaway from this book is that, despite his faults, Rommel was a “decent human being.” Never looked the other way, never took Hitler’s bribes, never used the excuse “I was just following orders.” He didn’t see Hitler for what he was at the beginning, perhaps wanted to believe, but once he saw it, he made no excuses. As for the book, this is an astonishingly entertaining and easy-to-read tome on one of the truly great characters in the history of warmongering.
Now I need to take a refresher on the difference between tactical and strategic. . .
4.5 pumped up to 5/5