On the cover of the January 2016 issue of Military History magazine, one finds an odd, unflattering photograph of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The photo is half black and white, as it was originally created, and the other half is overcast by a unflattering red shadowing. The head line covering part of Rommel’s left side reads, Was Rommel A Fraud? This question is followed by a cursory by-line. The more than subliminal conclusion drawn by the author and editors seemed unmistakable, that one of World War II’s most famous soldiers, was a fraud. They had gained my attention.
First, I sought the artist responsible for the cover photo. The credit was given to Otto, who used a file photo from the Bundesarchiv, the post war German army archives. It was an editorial work at best. Unworthy of a serious magazine cover, it is a reminder of a 1970’s National Lampoon cover.
Next, I leafed through the pages hoping to find the centerpiece article. But first I found an advertisement for the other magazines published by HistoryNet, the publisher of Military History Magazine. One of the many covers advertised featured Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most notorious mass murders. An unparalleled killer of his own Russian people. Seems Otto had not gotten an opportunity to use his editorial talents on that cover. The Other covers were as they should be, an accurate and honorable image portraying the sacrifice made by soldiers in the name of their countries.
Before long I found the article, Rethinking Rommel, by David T. Zabecki. Mr. Zabecki’s thesis was, “…undoubtedly a superior tactical commander, his [Rommel’s] skills didn’t carry over into the strategic realm of operations.”1
I next questioned what I believed to be the definition of strategic, which I found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Strategic: related to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war…over a long period of time… designed or trained to strike an enemy at the sources of its military, economic, or political power.”2 Did Erwin Rommel participate in a general plan, created to achieve a goal in war, over a long period of time, to strike an enemy at the sources of its military, economic of political strengths? Yes.
In February of 1941, General Erwin Rommel was sent to North Africa to help Germany’s hapless and nearly defeated ally Italy. He would first fight the British and then the United States in North Africa. Dominating much of the strategic and operational planning of the Allies on land, sea and in the air, until his defeat in March of 1943. The war in Europe lasted from September of 1939 to May of 1945 that is 68 months. Rommel kept large parts of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air force occupied for 26 months. That represents nearly 40% of the entire length of the European war. Longer than the war was fought in Italy or France. That is a long time.
Rommel’s orders were to aid his Italian Allies and operate under their command. He chose to aid them by attacking the British and twice forced them across the greater part of the North African desert, endangering both the strategic Suez Canal, a British life line to the Asian theater of war, and the economic and strategic British oil assets in the Middle East. In 1942 Rommel captured the strategically important port of Tobruk, which Churchill, Britain’s political and war time leader, called a low point in the war. The British also planned and began the evacuation of their prized colonial possession, Egypt. The strategic objectives of a port, canal, oil supplies, and colony which Rommel was threating in June of 1942 fit the description of striking an enemy at the sources of its military, economic, or political power.
Mr. Zabecki accurately claims that Rommel outran his supply lines. He fails to remind the reader that the Italians were responsible for getting Rommel his supplies and materials. And, that both Hitler and Goring promised Rommel that his needed supplies would arrive. Allowing the Field Marshal to continue his rampage across North Africa. When the promises of his commanders and allies failed to materialize, Rommel did the unexpected by capturing the supplies and materials of his enemies. This was evidenced in Rommel’s capture of Tobruk which delivered to the Germans enormous operational and tactical British assets that could be used to effect Rommel and Germany’s strategic efforts.
Described in the, World War II in Europe an Encyclopedia, of which David Zabecki is credited as the editor, “The Axis [forces under Rommel’s command] captured, two and a half million gallons of [petrol] and about 5,000 tons of general supplies, and 2,000 wheeled vehicles…”3 Fuel, supplies and transport vehicles that would aid Rommel’s operational, tactical and strategic advance across North Africa to the Suez and beyond to the oil fields of the Middle East, and on to the area of Southern Russia.
In thinking General Rommel I am reminded of the strategic, operational and tactical efforts employed by the British military to stop him in North Africa. No weapon was more important to the British war effort and its leader, Winston Churchill than the top secret code breaking at Bletchley Park. It is remembered as Ultra, because it was to Churchill ultra-top secret. And it was the use of Ultra that stopped Rommel’s supplies, and eventually forced the defeat of the Africa Korps in the Western Desert campaign. The use of Ultra was a strategic risk that Churchill had to take to defeat Rommel, a risk not applied to any other specific German General in World War II. Stopping Rommel in North Africa was essential to the British war winning strategy.
In his recently declassified work for the NSA, The Historical Impact of Revealing The Ultra Secret, Dr. Harold C. Deutsch explains the impact Ultra had in defeating Rommel.
“No other commander over so prolonged a period was affected so outrageously by the ability of his opponents to look into his cards...The list of occasions on which his triumphs were diminished and his disasters made worse is a staggering one… specific blows of fortune was the systematic strangulation of his services of supply… the British knew their schedules and the routes they were to follow. The sum of Ultra's influence on the war in North Africa permits the query whether it was not the decisive ingredient of British and later Anglo-American victory in the Mediterranean. Without it, the time and extent of that triumph would at any rate have been inconceivable.”4
The last sentence questions the credit for overwhelmingly strategic victory in North Africa. Time, and victory itself have no other equal strategic, or operational components. To be victorious you must win the battle, and keep time to your advantage. The ending, or shortening of conflict is the political, strategic, economic, and operational goal of all war.
Dr. Deutsch continues, and challenges us to rethink the events of the North African Campaign, and by extension we must rethink Rommel,
“Declassification and release of archival material on Ultra is almost certain to be gradual and somewhat sporadic. This will challenge the historian to constant reassessment of Ultra's role, both generally and in specific phases and situations of World War II… reputations of military leaders will be enhanced or diminished… the historical appraisal of German commanders should move upward with each ascent of the curve, and that of their Allied rivals should decline in proportion…No one foresaw this with more jealousy than Bernard Montgomery,[credited with defeating Rommel] who resented having to share-even with Churchill-knowledge of the support Ultra afforded him.[in North Africa]4
Montgomery’s support was the use of Ultra: strategically, operationally and tactically. Without the use of such an asset, victory was certainly in doubt. Rommel had his strategic goals, which were supported by his superior, Adolph Hitler. And it took risking one of Britain’s most important strategic assets to stop him in North Africa.
Lastly, Mr. Zabecki references other notable German generals of the war. Amongst them is Eric von Manstein, the brilliant author of the plan that defeated the French and British in 1940. A brilliant strategist, Manstein later fought on the Eastern Front and was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison after the war. He also refused to aid the military resistance against Hitler, claiming Field Marshals do not mutiny.
He also references, Walther Model who eventually was in command after Rommel was wounded and evacuated from Normandy. The Allies never broke through Rommel’s defenses in Normandy; it was a stalemate that worried the Americans and the British, endangering the outcome of the landings at Normandy. Rommel’s brilliant defense kept the Allies from achieving their strategic goals in the summer of 1944. The breakthrough does take place and the German response, a retreat, is ultimately commanded by Model. Later in the war Model killed himself as not to be captured, and prosecuted as a war criminal for his actions on the eastern Front. Like Manstein he offer no help to the military resistance against Hitler.
Rommel was never charged with war crimes. Neither was anyone under his direct command. He was, unlike all the other German Field Marshals, the only one that challenged Hitler’s prosecution of the war. In July of 1944, Rommel wrote his famous, Memorandum of July 15, urging Hitler to draw the forgone conclusion the war was lost. Rommel was wounded, and the memorandum which Rommel sent to his superior officer was never sent to Hitler. Later Rommel was ordered murdered by the man and regime he served. His crime was treason against Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
Looking at Rommel, I see the life of a brilliant General who occupied his enemies strategic, tactical, and operational levels of warfare, while achieving some of his own strategic goals. That is concurrently mixed with his service to one of history’s most heinous regimes. Erwin Rommel is best described in the same way General Grant wrote of another brilliant but flawed General, Robert E. Lee. Grant Labeled Lee’s cause, “… one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there is the least excuse.”5
Rethinking Rommel should have begun by a critical and logical examination of this soldiers accomplishments. This was an editorial lacking proper critical thinking skills. Try again, and try Thinking Rommel while leaving your agenda and the editor’s agenda out of the examination.
Director and Founder
Normandy Research Foundation
Zabecki, David T. Rethinking Rommel. Military History, January 2016, Vol. 32, No. 5 Page 24
Merriam-Webster Dictionary On-Line
Retrieved, March 27, 2016
Zabecki, David T. World War II in Europe: an Encyclopedia. Routledge: New York. 1999. Print. P-1715.
Deutsch, Harold, C. The Historical Impact of Revealing The Ultra Secret. Approved for Release by NSA on 10-26-2006, FOIA Case # 51639. DOCID: 3827029 - UNCLASSIFIED. Reprinted, with permission from Parameters Journal of the U.S. Army War College https://www.nsa.gov/public_info/_files/cryptologic_spectrum/ultra_secret.pdf Retrieved March 29, 2016. Page 29.
Grant, Ulysses, S. Personal Memoirs (A modern library e-book). Random House: New York 1999. P.580 https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0679641491 retrieved March 27, 2016.