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Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel

Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel

Daniel Allen Butler
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” has developed a romantic allure as a gentlemanly general – spared being tarnished with the brutalities of Nazi Germany in spite of being a creation of that state’s propaganda machine and for several years the favourite of Hitler. That contradiction, combined with his astonishing performance in Africa, makes him one of the most written about generals in history. So any new book about him has to be good and have something useful to say.

This book achieves both those goals, and some. As the author points out, it is a biography not a military history. However, as the circumstances shaped the man, it has to describe the environment into which he was born, lived and died. Butler achieves this with aplomb; the prose is attractive and the history complete, yet light and digestible. It’s a page turner, without falling into the trap of hyperbole.

And Rommel was remarkable; he won the Iron Cross Second Class (1914) and First Class (1915) in the first World War (as, unusually for a Corporal, Hitler did). Rommel also collected a Pour le Merite (the Blue Max) in 1917 having become an alpine soldier and by capturing Longrano with just his abteillung. Unsurprisingly he qualified for the Reichswehr, and thus avoided the Frei Corps and much of the political turmoil of the Weimar Republic. As an ambitions professional soldier he plied his craft through a range of postings. In 1936 he commanded Hitler’s military escort at the Nurenburg Rally and in 1937 published an account of his experience in the First War, which became a best seller. In 1938 he commanded Hitler’s field headquarters in the Sudetenland and was promoted to Oberst (colonel). The next year, as a Major General he commanded the Fuhrer’s headquarter defence brigade and, in 1940 given command of 7th Panzer Division.

In May he led 7th Panzer in the attack on France, crossing the Meuse by “borrowing” a neighbouring division’s bridging equipment, defeated the British at Arras and was among the first to get to the channel. Along the way he collected a clasp to his Iron Cross Second Class and, a few days later, the Knights Cross; he really was the poster-general of Germany and the Nazi party; unlike many of the officer class Rommel was Swabian, not Prussian and middle class not aristocratic. He had also avoided staff training -largely as a result of events – and was, like most successful armoured commanders (Guderian included), inclined to lead from the front.

Perhaps it was this combination that led to him being put in command of the two Panzer Divisions being sent to bolster Italy’s failing campaign in Libya, with promotion to Lieutenant General, in 1941. IT was a backwater while the majority of the Wehrmacht was getting ready to invade Russia. As a tactical commander, with a talent for the use of ground, seizing opportunities and inspiring his soldiers he may well have been less than ideal as a coalition commander to support a struggling ally. As it happened the British had completed and offensive and were at the end of their supply lines. They were also moving forces to Greece, an opportunity was there so Rommel struck. And so the next two years went with Rommel arguing with his allies, interpreting his orders widely and, when he had a moment and motion potion, attacking or counter attacking. He was the only senior officer to serve in Africa for the entire duration of German operations there.

While not a military history, the author covers the escapades of the Afrika Korps (which grew to a Panzerarmee) well and the key engagements are well described. He makes the point (missed I fear by many doyens of staff college) that in manoeuvre warfare destroying the enemy force is the name of the game rather than holding or taking pieces of ground. He also makes the point that the 8thArmy was getting pretty good (as Rommel recounts) and the huge role played by Ultra in ensuring that at times 90% of shipping heading to support Rommel’s logistics were sunk. He is no fan of Montgomery and points out, at some length, that the victor of Alamein was actually commanding an army trained by his predecessor in delivering an assault planned by him too.

Rommel’s loss of belief in his higher commanders is well described and introduced, leading to him being sacked for informing Hitler that he could not win the war in Africa (and then Italy and then in France). The route to Rommel’s “suicide” is well described, with many threads neatly intertwined.

The author confesses at the beginning that he is Rommel fan. By the end of the book so am I. To quote from the epilogue “…what can never be doubted is the integrity of Erwin Rommel’s stature as a man. By turns and sometimes in combination brilliant, generous, petty, jealous, shrewd, headstrong, arrogant, short sighted, visionary, loving and dispassionate, he was at his core a decent human being.”

This book is a tour de force and easily one of the best that I have reviewed for Arrse. It also defines what a military biography should be – heaven help anyone else planning a biography of Rommel.

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