- The German Army  1657-1945


The impact that Rommel made on the world with the sword will be deepened by his power with the pen. No commander in history has written an account of his campaigns to match the vividness and value of Rommel's - which, for the most part, has now been retrieved from its various hiding places and put together in this volume.
No other commander has provided such a graphic picture of his operations and method of command. No one else has so strikingly conveyed in writing the dynamism of Blitzkrieg and the pace of panzer forces. The sense of fast movement and quick decision is electrifyingly communicated in many of the passages - Rommel carries the reader along with him in his command vehicle.
Great commanders have mostly been dull writers. Besides lacking literary skill in describing their actions, they have tended to be cloudy about the way their minds worked. In relating what they did, they have told posterity little about how and why. Napoleon was an exception, but the value of his account is impaired by a more than usual un-smipulousness in treating facts, and by his intentness to falsify the balance-sheet. Like Caesar's, his writing was not merely coloured but dominated by a propaganda purpose.
Rommel's narrative is remarkably objective, as well as graphic. In drafting it he certainly had, like most men who have made history,' a concern for his place in history. But while he shows a natural desire for justification in his explanation of events, it is subordinate to his burning interest in the military lessons of the campaigns. His evidence stands up uncommonly well to critical examination, and checking by other sources. A number of errors of fact can be found in it, but fewer than in many of the official and personal narratives compiled with the advantage of post-war knowledge. There are some disputable interpretations, but not the purposeful distortions, for national or personal credit, wich are all too often found in such accounts.
The clarity and high degree of accuracy which distinguish Rommel's picture of the operations are the more notable because of the confused impressions that are apt to be produced by fast-moving tank battles, especially in the desert. The clearness of Rommel's picture owes much to his way of command - his habit of getting right forward and seeking to be near the crucial spot at the crucial time. It also owes much to his prolonged self-training in observation, highly developed eye for spotting what was significant in a scene, and knack of registering it. His passion for taking photographs at every step of advance was a symptom of this characteristic - as it was with Lawrence, in the Arabian theatre of World War I.
There were marked resemblances between these two masters of desert warfare, whatever their differences in temperament, range of interest and philosophy. They were strikingly akin in their sense of time and space, instinct for surprise, eye for ground and opportunity, combination of flexibility with vision, and ideas of direct personal leadership. Another military link was in the application of mechanised mobility to desert warfare. Lawrence, who is popularly associated with camel-rides, was among the first to see how the new means of mobility could transform desert warfare, and had demonstrated this embryonically and in miniature, with a few armoured cars and aircraft. Rommel's exploitation of these potentialities on the grand scale would have delighted the Lawrence who was a connoisseur of military art and had a revolutionary bent.
Rommel, also, had an urge to express himself on paper as well as in action. That became evident - long before he became famous as a commander - from his extraordinarily vivid treatise on infantry tactics, inspired by his experiences as a young officer in World War I and by his reflections upon them. Most text-books on tactics are deadly dull, but he brought life into the subject. The more mobile operations of the next war, and his own greater role, gave him bigger scope - of which he took full advantage. He was a born writer as well as a born fighter. The same expressive gift and urge can be seen in the way he sketched on paper, with pencil or coloured chalks, the operations he planned or even imagined.
Throughout his activities in World War II he kept constantly in mind the project of a book to match the performance, and continually made notes for the purpose - notes that he developed into a narrative whenever he had a breathing space.
Death, under Hitler's decree, prevented him from completing the project, but what he had already drafted makes a book that has no peer among narratives of its kind. It may lack polish, but its literary power is very striking. Along with descriptive clarity it has dramatic intensity, while its value is much increased by the comments that accompany and illuminate its story. His section on " The Rules of Desert Warfare " is a masterly piece of military thinking, while the whole narrative is sprinkled with sage reflections, often with a fresh turn—about concentration in time rather than in space; about the effect of speed in outweighing numbers; about flexibility as a means to surprise; about the security provided by audacity; about the stultifying conventions of the " quartermaster " mind; about creating new standards and not submitting to norms; about the value of indirect rather than direct reply to the enemy's moves; about the way that air inferiority requires a radical revision of the rules of ground operations; about the unwisdom of indiscriminate reprisals and the folly of brutality; about the basic inexpediency of unprincipled expediency.
Until I delved into Rommel's own papers I regarded him as a brilliant tactician and great fighting leader, but did not realise how deep a sense of strategy he had - or, at any rate, developed in reflection. It was a surprise to find that such a thruster had been so thoughtful, and that his audacity was so shrewdly calculated. In certain cases, his moves may still be criticised as too hazardous, but not as the reckless strokes of a blind and hot-headed gambler. In analysis of the operations it can be seen that some of the strokes which miscarried, with grave results for him, came close to proving graver for his opponents. Moreover, even in failure his strokes made such an impression on them as to assure his army a chance of escape.
One of the clearer ways in which commanders can be measured is by the extent to which they impress the opposing side. By that measure Rommel's stature is very high. In centuries of warfare only Napoleon has made a comparable impression on the British, and that was not achieved purely in the military field, as it was in Rommel's case.
Moreover, Rommel became much more than a bogey to the British. Awe for his dynamic generalship developed into an almost affectionate admiration for him as a man. This was inspired primarily by the speed and surprise of his operations, but it was fostered by the way that he maintained in African warfare the decencies of the soldierly code, and by his own chivalrous behaviour towards the many prisoners of war whom he met in person. He became the hero of the Eighth Army troops who were fighting against him—to such an extent that it became their habit, when wanting to say that someone had done a good job of any kind on their own side, to describe it as " doipg a Rommel".
Such intense admiration for the enemy commander carried an underlying danger to the soldiers' morale. Thus the British commanders and headquarter staffs were compelled to make strenuous efforts to dispel " the Rommel legend ". It is a tribute to their sense of decency and his personal conduct that such counter-propaganda was not directed towards blackening his character but towards diminishing his military scale. In that respect, his ultimate defeats provided a lever - and it was hardly to be expected that his opponents would emphasise his crippling disadvantages in strength and supplies, or the significance of what he managed to achieve under such handicaps. Juster comparison and truer reckoning are left for history, which has a habit of correcting the superficial judgments that temporarily keep company with victory. Hannibal, Napoleon and Lee went down in defeat, yet rose above their conquerors in the scales of history. 
In true judgment of performance, due account must be taken of the conditions and relative resources, together with the other factors that He outside a commander's control. Only then can we properly estimate the quality of his performance. The outstanding feature of Rommel's numerous successes is that they were achieved with inferiority of resources and without any command of the air. No other generals on either side in World War II won battles under these handicaps, except for the early British leaders under Wavell - and they were fighting Italians.
Rommel's performance was not flawless, and he suffered several possibly avoidable reverses - but when fighting superior forces any slip may result in defeat, whereas numerous mistakes can be effectively covered up by the commander who possesses a big margin of superiority in strength. For all his audacity and rapidity of movement and decision, Rommel comes out well, on balance, from the test embodied in Napoleon's saying that " the greatest general is the one who makes the fewest mistakes."
That criticism, however, has too passive a note to fit the nature of war, and is apt to foster a dangerous caution. It would be more profoundly true to say: "the greatest general is the one who leads his opponent to make the most mistakes." By that test, Rommel shines even more brightly.
The best line of comparison between famous commanders of different eras lies through their art, which can be distinguished from changing technique. It is possible to make a comparative study of the use they made of the means at their disposal to achieve their effects - particularly their use of mobility, flexibility, and surprise to upset their opponents' mental and physical balance. It is even possible, with such as have disclosed their conceptions, to gauge how far their effects were a matter of calculation.

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