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Posted on Feb 3, 2011 in War College

Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat

By Douglas Sterling

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa. National Archives.

He was “the perfect fighting animal,” a man extolled in his own time as a military genius, even by his enemies. Of unquestionable courage and drive, of military dash and elan, he lived by his belief in the importance of direct command, of continuous movement and maneuver, of boldness to the point of rashness. Such was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whom history and awed opponents mythologized as the “Desert Fox.”

But much of what made him successful also made him distrusted by his superiors. And his driving ambition and egotism made him equally unpopular with his fellow marshals. German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring considered Rommel “a prima donna and the bane of his life” who would run to Hitler behind his back. And German General Franz Halder so distrusted Rommel that he sent General Friederich Paulus to Africa to check Rommel’s aggressive spirit and, in Halder’s own words, “to head off this soldier gone mad.”

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Though an undoubted tactical genius, Rommel ultimately failed in his missions in Africa and Normandy. Indeed, the very boldness of his conceptual designs and the strategic victory his tactical offensives almost brought him, make his strategic defeats all the more significant. This brilliant exponent of mobile warfare was eventually forced into suicide by the evil regime that he served. Wherein lies the explanation for the disparity between Rommel’s tremendous talent and promise, and his ultimate failure?

* * *

Erwin Rommel came from a middle class German family that instilled in him a strong, unemotional stolidity of provincial life, yet his family had some pretensions to the aristocracy, and young Rommel joined a military society that basically bestowed nobility on its members. The military in pre-World War I Germany was seen as a bulwark to defend the still relatively young German Reich, a society infected with the common German jealousies and anxieties of both internal and external threats.

Though the army introduced Rommel to a respected society, he always remained somewhat of an outsider to the main members of the General Staff, largely because he was more at home in the execution of decisions than in the formulation of policy. He was an instinctive rather than an intellectual fighter. It took the smell of gunpowder, almost literally, to excite his senses.

In the First World War he would get his fill of that gunpowder. In his first action, Rommel commanded a platoon in the 2nd Battalion of the 124th Regiment just inside France, near the Belgium border. Sent ahead of his battalion, Rommel found himself with three members of his platoon facing 15 or 20 French soldiers at a farmstead. Instead of retreating or sending for the rest of his squad, Rommel attacked.

He and his men dropped a number of Frenchmen, but were eventually repulsed by fire from other buildings. These tactics reflected how Rommel would fight throughout the war: His idea was always to attack, swiftly and unhesitatingly, to attain a tactical objective and disorient and disrupt the enemy.

He was not always successful, as seen in his first action, but his boldness often worked, as at Caporetto, Italy, where it led to the capture of 150 Italian officers, 9,000 of their men and 81 guns. But … . One can see in Rommel’s willingness (even eagerness) to take risks, the makings of the World War II Panzer leader—but also the seeds of the ultimate failure of his method. Such impetuousness in an Army Group Command, insufficiently supported, will fail in the face of superior force and equal determination. And as he moved up in the military hierarchy and was put in command of larger and larger forces, the political and military backing for impetuous moves would be less and less.

In the post–World War Weimar Army, General Hans Von Seekt emphasized training and modern practical theory to create a core of professionalism. Rommel thrived as an instructor at the infantry school at Dresden and in working through his own theories of dynamic mobile warfare. His book, Infantry Attacks, brought him national fame and the attention of the Germany’s new chancellor, Adolph Hitler. Though Rommel himself was not a Nazi, he was an eager and willing supporter of the regime and a believer in Hitler’s political and strategic goals.

In the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Rommel was able to observe the devastatingly successful effects of blitzkrieg tactics—mobile warfare distinguished by cooperation between armored, infantry and air attacks, in which success depended on audacity and tremendous superiority in firepower at the point of attack. Rommel combined these principles with a belief that the leader must command from the front to better control the action, to speed the forward units, and to better view the battlefield and conditions at the front.

Having gained the confidence of Hitler (though treated with mistrust by some members of the Fuhrer’s entourage), Rommel was awarded the command of a panzer division in the attack on France and charged with advancing through the Ardennes, establishing a bridgehead across the Meuse, then speeding to the Channel coast to cut off the Allied forces (including the British Expeditionary Force) that would have been drawn forward by the Germans’ weaker, diversonary attack through Belgium.

Rommel commanded the 7th Panzer Division of General Hermann Hoth’s 15th Panzer Corps. As with most of the Panzer divisions, the 7th made incredibly fast advances. Theese knifelike thrusts into France surprised and demoralized the Allied armies, preventing them from adequately responding to what were in actuality numerically inferior forces. Rommel’s division moved so fast and far ahead that it was sometimes strung out in a huge line, tenuously linked with supporting units. Indeed, it was called the “Ghost Division” because it was often out of contact for hours or days at a time. Hitler was even moved to tell Rommel, when visiting his division while the battle still raged, “Rommel, we were very worried about you during the attack.”

The division’s success could be ascribed to Rommel’s habit of guiding from the front, placing himself at the spearhead of the attack, and trusting the remainder of the division to follow along. Sometimes it didn’t, forcing a halt, and the commander himself would furiously ride back down the column to hustle it along. But much of this was his own fault. He was forced to admit that he “had no idea where the main body of the division was.” His personal style of command was extraordinary: he was “a man who … led the division most of the time from the very front, who … laid some of the guns himself, shouted orders to the infantry men going into assault, jumped on the turrets of leading tanks to replace wounded crewmen; [doing these things] in a manner quite uncharacteristic of the average divisional commander.”

The blitz through France firmly established Rommel’s aggressive reputation, but North Africa would see his greatest successes, his greatest failures, and his ultimate defeat. In the forbidding sands of the desert he displayed audacity in attack, an incisive understanding of the battlefield and the possibilities it contained for offensive action, a tremendous grasp of the fluid nature and foggy haziness of war, and an ability to squeeze the ultimate effort from his troops and his tenuous supply system. He became a legend in his own time.

But he never quite understood the constraints he was under. For all his fretting about the supply situation and its tremendous shortfalls, he refused to accept the limitations that imposed upon his options. Nor did he grasp that the North African Theater was, in the minds of his superiors and planning officers in Berlin, a peripheral one.

* * *

Rommel arrived in Africa in February 1941 in command of a German Africa Corps consisting originally of one light and one panzer division sent to aid the Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s army. The Italians had been chased out of Libya by the British Eighth Army under Field Marshal Archibald Wavell. If possible, Rommel was to put the British on the defensive, but primarily his mission was to stabilize the situation. For such a limited mission in a theater considered of little relative importance, Rommel was the wrong choice for commander—he could never quite accept that “relative unimportance.” Had German intentions in North Africa been loftier, things might have been different.

Twice, he advanced swiftly and boldly across hundreds of miles of desert, pushing the British back into Egypt, eventually almost to Cairo, before the exigencies of his own army’s shortcomings, losses, lack of supply, reinforcement and air support and his disagreements with planners in Berlin finally led to the total defeat of the Army Group Africa.

In his opening campaign, when German leadership thought much more time would be needed to prepare an offensive, he attacked almost immediately. On March 24, 1941, he launched what was to be a limited offensive, in anticipation of reinforcements due in May. The British, weakened by troops being withdrawn to fight in Greece, fell back and started constructing defensive works. Wavell overestimated the strength of the Axis forces, based significantly upon the brash and consistent Axis attack and ordered a further withdrawal. Sensing blood in the water, Rommel decided to seize the entire Cyrenaica peninsula and headed the advance. He ignored protests from the commander of the German division, and Graziani was unable to contact him. But his impulsive advance disarmed the British, creating the Desert Fox legend that still survives today, and raised fears he was threatening a conquest of Egypt and perhaps the valuable oil fields of the Middle East.

Those fears were groundless. Although only a few hundred miles from Cairo, Rommel didn’t have the resources to push forward—only 13 tanks were still operational by the time he reached El Alamein. And to Rommel’s frustration, Hitler did not see any great advantage in capturing Egypt, beyond tying down British forces.

Rommel seemed to think that if he waited until he had a secure logistical base before operations, he’d never be ready, but if he plunged ahead and made gains, he would force the hand of the logistics and supply people. He trusted they would not fail him. True, Rommel showed concern with his logistic liabilities, but a concern with logistics does not necessarily entail an understanding of them, nor does it imply an understanding of the limitations they impose on offensive action.

His naivete can be seen in his overwrought belief in Plan Orient, which postulated that his Panzergruppe Afrika would conquer North Africa and advance through the Middle East, eventually linking up with German forces moving through the Caucasus and cutting off the British Asian territories. Thus would be closed a fully defensible ring around Europe. But it is clear Germany did not have the resources for such a far-ranging strategy. The defeat of the Afrika Korps resulted directly from the failure of Rommel to follow the strategic guidelines under which he was sent to Africa in the first place. His overreaching negated the very real victories he gained through his skill and tactical genius.

The last two years of Rommel’s life showed the effects of the African disaster on the previously bold, almost reckless leadership of the field marshal. He was now a man without the blind audacity that led to such stunning successes in France and Africa, a man with little or no belief in the ultimate victory of the cause for which he fought, and. Whether or not this lack of conviction was caused by or led to political considerations, or whether opposition to Hitler was truly involved is irrelevant to the assessment of Rommel’s military career. By the time he was charged with preparations to oppose an amphibious invasion in France, Germany did not have the resources to prevail against the combined might of the Allies. Limited options and his feeling of the loss of the initiative in battle left Rommel vulnerable to a peculiar lethargy. In the Normandy campaign he was remote from the actual fighting and had little, if any, real independence. One sees in Rommel’s time in Normandy and along the Atlantic Wall an inability to maintain his conceptual power of the offense while tasked with the defense. According to a biographer, Rommel’s “obsession with the great technical resources which America was bringing into the battle seemed to blind him to the essential unpredictability of all war, and certainly to downgrade that very human factor which his own personality had shown was such an essential ingredient in any battle.”

Early on in the war, he was praised by his opponents. He is perhaps the best known of Hitler’s generals even today. He was surely a great warrior and a tactical genius. However, he is not without his critics, now or in his own time. Hitler himself once complained that he was not a real “stayer,” that he became easily discouraged. But perhaps it could be said that his inadequacies as a strategist, logistician and commander were mirrored and ultimately furthered by the moral bankruptcy of the system and designs which he served.

(Editor’s note: By coincidence, Douglas Sterling sent in this article about a week before we received a review of Martin Kitchen’s book Rommel’s Desert War, a book that comes to some of these same conclusions. Click on the link to read the review.)

About the Author:
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and WWII.  He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History and is currently working on an article on the First Punic War for ArmchairGeneral.com.

10 Comments

  1. Great article. Thanks for sharing the insight.

  2. Rommel’s career to me mirrored that of John Bell Hood. As an aggressive, forceful, intuitive commander a division-size unit was ideal. A corps would be a stretch, and definitely not an entire army. Rommel felt that logistics were a problem for the quartermasters. He tried to separate them from battlefield tactics but by World War II this was no longer the case. In Rommel’s defence, he had to deal with a horse cavalry commander (von Kleist) in France, ineffectual Italian supply systems in North Africa, and an envious von Rundstedt in Army Group West in 1944. Rommel had an ego, and was not above self promotion. As Omar Bradley was not Karl Malden, Erwin Rommel was not James Mason

  3. Most balanced short article about Rommel I can remember reading.

    Sensemaker

  4. This article makes me want to hug Rommel…

  5. thanks for the article….

  6. Military Errors of World War II. London: Arms and Armour Press. 1987. ISBN 0-85368-830-3.

    Kenneth Macksey made a very similar analysis. He may not have been the first either.

  7. I wish there were many more commentators, scholars and historians who could write with the incisive clarity and brilliance of Douglas Sterling, which makes reading such a joy. He sizes up Field Marshal Rommel very well, which can only come from his wide ranging studies and an in-depth understanding of the subject. But still I would beg to differ. No assessment of the Desert Fox can be complete without a reading of Rommel Papers, edited by Capt B.H.Liddell Hart, a graphic, stirring and analytical account of Rommel’s experiences in the desert, which provides a slightly different perspective. Hitler seldom heeded Rommel’s requests for more supplies and equipment, preoccupied as he was with the Russian theater. The Fuhrer downgraded and punished Rommel for being right most of the time, unwittingly helping the British snatch Africa from right under his nose. Hitler committed a grave blunder by refusing to permit Rommel to evacuate his vastly experienced tank crews,especially during Afrika Korps’s retreat. Who knows the outcome at Normandy might have been very different indeed. Although outnumbered, Rommel virtually decimated Gen Wavell’s VIIIth Army. Even in retreat, Rommel’s formation overran the freshly inducted American army, taking more than 6,000 prisoners, whom the British referred to as “our Italians.” But for all of Rommel’ apparent recklessness, driven by an extremely sharp tactical mind, he is universally rated as “one of the 10 greatest military commanders of all time,” and rightly so.

  8. The West always judge the Nazi’z and Rommel and losers. What Rommel did in Africa was nothing short of a miracle. Suppliy lines cut of and most of the German Army in Starlingrad and south of Russia AND the fact people forget the German’s were fighting England, America, France, Poland, Serbia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and virtually all of Europe AND ONLY JUST LOST due to winter. I believe the Nazi empire will be labelled hero’s like the Vikings in years to come, and at present are just oppressed to mask Jewish world domination, a calculating, sly genocide of other cultures, Palestine included. Its the truth and it should be stopped!!!

    • Wow, that is stupid the Nazis are not going to be “labelled hero’s like the Vikings in years to come” the Vikings are not heros they MURDERD unarmed civilains. The Nazis did the same thing they will NEVER be regarded as heros. The Jews are not taking over the world that is insane, if you believe that you are plain DUMB, I would not be suprised if you believe the world is flat. Rommel is remembered because he was a great commmander and he refused to kill Jews that my friend is why he is remembered.

      • Most unfortunately, Churchill, an unapologetic and rabid racist, hailed as an icon of the western world, is no better than Hitler when it comes to mass murders. He engineered the starvation deaths of three to five million innocent Bengalis in undivided Bengal, in order to send food grains to the VIII th British Army in North Africa, which Field Marshal Rommel had virtually decimated. Churchill should have been tried as a war criminal.

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  1. Rommel’s Desert War – Book Review » Armchair General - [...] Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat » Armchair General says: 2/3/2011 at 9:09 [...]
  2. The Rogue Republic – Book Review » Armchair General - [...] Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army,…

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