From his soldiers’ point of view, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was an inspiration; seeing how their commander risked his life at the front right alongside them, his troops would follow him anywhere. In the minds of his enemies, Rommel’s unpredictable, lightning-fast victories earned him near-mythical status as the uncanny “Desert Fox”; British military and political leaders had to work specifically to counteract the psychological effect this mystique was having on Allied troops. In the opinion of many of Rommel’s superiors, however, Rommel as a theatre commander left much to be desired; though he was acknowledged as a daring leader with a sixth sense for the exploitation of enemy weakness, and a brilliant tactician who could cleverly turn unfavorable odds to his advantage, other German generals tended to complain that Rommel, who had not achieved his high rank via the staff college route, lacked strategic vision and, more importantly, any due restraint within the bigger picture of the Mediterranean campaign.
The gist of Rommel’s interactions with high command over the course of the campaign might have sounded something like this:
German and Italian superiors: “Don’t do that, Rommel. You shouldn’t attack now or go that far. There isn’t enough support or back-up to make it stick.” Rommel: “Fine. (I’ll do it anyway… The opportunity for victory is just too obvious — to me anyway — if only we can act boldly enough to seize it.)”
Some of Rommel’s own Afrika Korps officers bitterly resented his “bold” practices, which to them meant driving the men too hard and taking too many casualties. Such officers who openly spoke up in dissent were often sacked for their “lack of spirit.” Rommel was perhaps the archetypal general: a hard commander, rolling around the desert like hot, spiked steel shot, seemingly immune to damage, inciting and cajoling his army to great feats, earning the respect of the men who followed him and the envy, criticism, scorn — and, yes, sometimes admiration — of those who led with him.
Insights such as these, as well as an impressive photographic record of the campaign, come into startling clarity in two recently published volumes from the Images of War series, both by David Mitchelhill-Green.
Rommel in North Africa: Quest for the Nile focuses all information through Rommel himself, taking stock of the legend and leavening it with a dose of reality drawn from the writings of German officers who worked closely with him. The book’s purpose is not to narrate the details of the campaign’s battle history but rather to immerse the reader in the more intimate reality of Rommel’s role in the desert war, a task in which it succeeds admirably. The immense trove of photographs, most of which feel like they were taken from someone’s personal scrapbook, shows Rommel in every scene, inspecting troops and weapons, scouting the battlefield, and conferring with other officers. When paired with the diaries, reports and letters of men who served with Rommel, these quotidian images allow us to see through the veil of myth and discover the reality of the man and the campaign, not the propaganda or the hype.
Mitchelhill-Green’s companion volume, With Rommel in the Desert: Tripoli to Alamein, focuses less on the field marshal himself and more on the troops’ experience of daily life campaigning in the Western Desert, but the combination of photographs and narrative enables a similar level of everyday empathy with the subject. Along the way, both works offer ample close-ups of the uniforms and equipment used by both the German and Italian armies in North Africa, making these books valuable references for miniaturists, as well. Their only shortfall in that regard is that there are no color illustrations to help hobbyists with color schemes.
For decades, World War Two buffs have been fascinated with Erwin Rommel and the Desert War he fought against British and Commonwealth troops in Libya and Egypt. The fascination for me grows partly from the uniqueness of the terrain, partly from the aesthetics of the men and machines used there, and then not least also because the fighting in Africa seemed to retain a modicum of decency amid the death and violence of modern war. We have long been told that Rommel was an honorable German soldier facing an Allied adversary who respected him and whom he respected in return. Though all war is surely terrible, the African campaign has held lasting historical appeal, perhaps because its reputed gallantry offers some shred of hope for humanity, especially when compared to the out-and-out butchery of the conflict elsewhere. That part of the story, at least, continues to be borne out by books such as these. Rommel insisted, for instance, that Allied POWs be given the same rations of food and water (an unbelievable half-cup a day at one point) as their Axis captors. Mitchelhill-Green revises the positive legend of Rommel in many ways, revealing his shortcomings as a commander and noting his role as a Nazi propaganda darling, but the material nonetheless appears to confirm the notion that these battles were conducted according to a certain code of honor.
To think that there might be honor in the conduct of war may be comforting on a subliminal level — and if there must be war, honorable treatment of the enemy must certainly be counted as better than arbitrary slaughter — but ultimately it might be well for us humans eventually to reexamine and depose all of the generals we have put on pedestals. Surely some of the wars in human history have been necessary to prevent the spread of evil, but whenever we glorify a general or deem a certain campaign to have been “good,” we run the risk of concluding that war is sometimes palatable — and that is a dangerous premise. As another widely admired general who fought for a questionable cause, Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America, said: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Romanticizing Rommel and the war in the desert has given war a good name. (As a counterpoint, consider the Vietnam War. We could see just how terrible that war was ; nightly television and more open reporting kept us from mythologizing the brutality of it.) These books don’t show brutality, but they do make a valuable historical contribution by putting a human face on a campaign that many of us have perhaps been rather too fond of.