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Posted on Feb 3, 2011 in Books and Movies

Rommel’s Desert War – Book Review

By Steve Schultz

Rommel’s Desert War. By Martin Kitchen. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 598 pages, hardcover. $38.00.

Many years ago, when I initially developed a serious interest in military history during grade school, the North African campaign was one of first events from World War Two which readily captured my imagination. As a young boy, I spent many hours refighting the battles between the vaunted Afrikakorps and the beleaguered British 8th Army with plastic Airfix miniatures. Since that time, I’ve maintained a keen interest in the people, places and events of the North African Theater, so I eagerly anticipated reviewing Martin Kitchen’s Rommel’s Desert War.

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Martin Kitchen is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, a suburb of Vancouver. Dr. Kitchen holds bachelor and doctorate degrees in history from the University of London. With a long list of books and articles published since the late 1960s on the history of Germany during the world wars, Dr. Kitchen certainly holds the qualifications to write authoritatively on the subject.

In Rommel’s Desert War, Dr. Kitchen maintains Hitler sent German reinforcements to save the crumbling Italian army in North Africa primarily out of the political expediency of propping up his Italian ally rather than military necessity. Dr. Kitchen also maintains that Hitler placed Rommel in an independent command (the Afrikakorps) for which he was unsuited by training, temperament and ability. Since Rommel was an infantry officer, Dr. Kitchen says it was only a personal favor from Hitler that placed Rommel in charge of armored units beginning with the French campaign of 1940. In North Africa, Rommel took excessive gambles, which initially paid off. These early successes spurred Rommel to take even greater risks, disobey orders and extend his supply lines far too long. In the end, Dr. Kitchen tells us, Rommel’s unorthodoxy set up the Afrikakorps for inevitable defeat. The loss of the German army in North Africa, along with the German defeat at Stalingrad, decisively shifted the course of the war.

Rommel’s Desert War is very well researched and very well written. I particularly appreciated Dr. Kitchen’s ability to place the North African campaign within the larger picture of the conflict. For example, he informs us Rommel was never briefed on plans for Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia). As a result, Rommel failed to understand why his requests for more troops and supplies went unfilled. He believed he was being snubbed by higher headquarters, when in fact the troops and material were needed for the invasion of Russia. Such disconnects in communications, common in Hitler’s Germany, did nothing to further the Third Reich’s war efforts. Dr. Kitchen also provides us with excellent background and insight on the underlying political situation, an arena often overlooked in military history.

One issue I have with the book is the author’s analysis of Rommel’s leadership abilities and suitability for command. Words Dr. Kitchen uses throughout his narrative when describing Rommel (“insolent,” “reckless,” “publicity hungry,” etc.), give me a strong sense that he does not like Rommel. I believe in order to justify this dislike and distain, he relies too heavily on reports from German staff officers who themselves deeply disliked Rommel and sought any opportunity to discredit him.

Distain for Rommel among members of the German General Staff stemmed from two main reasons. First, the higher echelons of the German Army maintained an air of Prussian nobility. Almost all senior officers came from aristocratic backgrounds. Rommel was a “commoner” and therefore viewed with contempt by the aristocrats as “uncouth” and “not a gentleman.” This fact alone bred great animosity towards him. However, he had another factor that flamed the ire of his senior officers: Hitler liked and admired Rommel, believing he embodied the ideal of the new German officer—a man of the people and a man of action. Consequently, Rommel gained a direct line of communication to the Führer, and he was never afraid to it use when he believed the General Staff was stuck in old-fashioned, out-modeled thinking. Thus, Rommel was viewed as an outsider and a maverick who couldn’t be counted on to automatically fall in line with General Staff thinking. Put simply, as far as the General Staff were concerned, Rommel wasn’t a “company man.”

Like other “colorful” generals of World War Two, such as America’s George Patton and Douglas MacArthur or Britain’s Barnard Montgomery, Rommel was certainly not perfect. However, all these men shared a common trait in that they got results, often when others did not. Another common trait was the fact all of these men were soundly criticized by contemporaries who despised them; we need look no further than the Patton and Montgomery feud. Damning these men, as Kitchen seems to do with Rommel, based on the testimony of those who hated them hardly seems fair—or honest for that matter.

This criticism aside, Rommel’s Desert War is an excellent and thorough account of the North African campaign and its place in the larger picture of World War II, both politically and militarily. I believe most students of World War Two, especially those with an interest in North Africa, will find this book profitable.

(Editor’s note: By coincidence, one of our writers, Douglas Sterling, sent in an article about Rommel that arrives at some of the same conclusions as those in this book; his article arrived about a week before this review came in. Click here to read Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat.)

Steve Schultz is an author, historian and former Air Force pilot. He writes from southwest Florida.

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