Image source: Rommel, 1942, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1982-0927-503 / Zwilling, Ernst A. / CC-BY-SA
Much has been written about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most familiar of Hitler’s lieutenants. Bashing the Rommel myth has become something of a pastime for historians—and why not?[i] The legend of the “Desert Fox” was deliberately and aggressively fashioned by Rommel himself—with the enthusiastic collaboration of the vast Nazi propaganda machine. Clearing away the underbrush of legend is one of the services that historians provide. And there is much to clear away in this case. To be sure, Rommel defeated a number of able French and British commanders before his string of successes was broken by General Bernard Law Montgomery in the autumn of 1942. The phrase “doing a Rommel” even became a catchword for outsmarting an opponent, whether on the battlefield or the game board. However, Rommel’s string of victories also worked against him — concealing not only the extent to which the German way of war had become bifurcated, but also two elements that made the Wehrmacht’s tactical successes possible in the first place, namely, logistical support and air cover. If, as Clausewitz said, war has its own grammar, but not its own logic, then Rommel’s military grammar detached itself from the war’s political logic and attempted to follow its own path. That path put a premium on waging a fluid war of movement, and continually pushed men and material to their limits, regardless of logistical realities and the operational range of air power. It was also a method that ultimately ran counter to Hitler’s larger strategic aims because it precipitously wore down the very fighting machine that was merely supposed to buy time and achieve some stability along the flank of the main theater of operations.
The North African theater was never more than a sideshow for Hitler, an effort to bolster a failing ally who was fast becoming a liability. After June 1941, the main effort for the Reich was the war against the Soviet Union, which by the autumn of that year had escalated from a supposedly swift campaign of occupation into a brutal struggle for existence between National Socialism and Stalinism. Rommel’s theater would never enjoy anything more than a tertiary status — behind the campaign in the east and the war in the Atlantic — something he apparently understood, but refused to accept. Right or wrong, Hitler’s political logic was clear. Yet, Rommel continually appealed to the High Command for more troops, as if taking Cairo and the Suez Canal could end the war in Germany’s favor.
Nothing in Rommel’s personal background suggests that he had the mettle to rise to high-level military command. As an officer candidate, he was rated above average, but definitely not exceptional.[ii] As a junior officer in the First World War, he proved to be intelligent, brave, and resourceful — but so were tens of thousands of other young men. Good fortune and his relentless self-promotion, perhaps driven by personal insecurities regarding his class and social standing (he was not Prussian), enabled him to make the most of his exploits: he was awarded the Iron Cross, first and second classes, as well as the Pour le’Merite.[iii] His book, Infantry Attacks (1937), was little more than a collection of war stories posing as tactical lessons; yet, it added much to his personal image as a tactician.[iv] Rommel later wrote, “position warfare is always a struggle for the destruction of men—in contrast to mobile warfare, where everything turns on the destruction of enemy material.”[v] This is an ironic observation given that El Alamein was a classic example of position warfare. He clearly preferred a war of movement, captured rather adroitly with the phrase “Schlacht ohne Morgen” or battle without end, and — almost to a fault — consistently placed himself at the point of attack.
Indeed, regardless of his rank, Rommel habitually exerted his personal influence at the decisive point. However, that habit reveals that he was a micromanager, a leader who was unwilling to trust his subordinates with important tasks. He often assumed command of his subordinates’ units, a practice that ran contrary to the supposed German tradition of issuing broad orders of intent (Auftragstaktik) and giving one’s subordinates the latitude to execute them according to the situation. One notable example is the 7th Panzer Division’s attempt to cross the Meuse River on May 13, 1940, during the campaign in France. The attempt failed despite Rommel’s personal intervention because, in his view, his subordinate officers “were appalled by their heavy losses and unwilling to press forward.”[vi] Ironically, while he typically expected nothing short of instant obedience from his own officers and men, he frequently disregarded his superiors’ orders, or creatively reinterpreted them so that they were less restrictive. Rommel’s practice contradicts the received view regarding the importance of Auftragstaktik in German military practice, and this contradiction is an issue historians have yet to examine more closely. Moreover, he habitually disregarded the physical and psychological limits of the personnel under his command, and deftly shifted blame for failure onto them to preserve his image. This habit inhibited his ability to conduct an objective analysis of his own shortcomings and style of command so as to increase his chances of success in the long-term. The cultivation of his image not only required constant attention; it also meant suppressing inconvenient truths.
Rommel’s skills seem to have peaked at the battle of Gazala in June 1942, about one week before the first battle of El Alamein. For purposes of this essay, the events around El Alamein that took place between July 1, 1942, and November 4, 1942, are considered as three distinct battles.[vii] Although the battle of Gazala would end successfully, Rommel actually followed what for him had become a predictable scheme of maneuver: a wide envelopment of the British left flank, followed by an attack in the rear across the British lines of communication. The scheme pushed the Afrikakorps’ logistics to its extreme limit, and nearly caused a disaster. It is likely that Rommel’s style of leading from the front saved him from defeat in this case, as it enabled him to issue orders, and counter-orders, faster than his opponents. He operated inside his enemy’s decision cycle, to use one of today’s popular military expressions.
However, most of the successes he enjoyed at Gazala and the subsequent assault on Tobruk were due to his foe’s ineptitude. During the encounters that took place in and around the “Cauldron” or “Sausage Pot” (May 30 to June 1, 1942), for example, Rommel had rashly maneuvered himself into a difficult situation: to his west he had a series of extensive minefields with half dozen fortified “boxes,” or strong points, occupied by dug-in infantry brigades, reinforced with tanks and artillery; while to his east he faced several British armored formations, some of which were equipped with the new American Grant tanks armed with powerful 75mm guns. A vigorous attack by the British commander, Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, might have crushed the Afrikakorps, which by this time had lost a third of its tanks and was desperately low on fuel. Instead, Ritchie threw his armor into the battle in piecemeal fashion, which enabled the Axis formations to fight and defeat them individually. To be saved from a desperate situation by the poor choices of one’s opponent is not the same as winning by demonstrating consummate skill.
Tobruk fell in the summer of 1942, and during the pursuit and exploitation that followed Rommel should have pushed his air cover forward. Otherwise, he would have little real hope of taking Cairo, or of holding anything he had gained, since he would be exposed to Allied air attack. Some analysts have argued that he ought to have paused to take Malta and strengthen his logistical situation, after all Axis forces required roughly 100,000 tons of supplies per month during the late summer and early autumn of 1942; but were only receiving half that much on average.[ix] However, establishing forward air cover was actually more critical since his forces were already exposed, and because Allied ground forces essentially operated free of the threat of Axis air attack. Rommel could not win the race to build up materiel, whether or not Malta was taken, and thus — by his own formula — he was becoming less capable of winning a war of movement. His operational intelligence, ground movement, and logistics’ flow suffered markedly due to the limited range of Axis air cover. Without forward air bases, he could not prevent his ground forces or their supply lines across Libya from being bombed.
To illustrate the point: as the Allies advanced into Italy in 1943, their air cover also leapfrogged to new bases and airfields in order to ensure adequate coverage for the next series of ground operations. The Allies’ task was, obviously, made easier by the fact that more of the Luftwaffe’s planes were being diverted to defend the German homeland from major bombing offensives. Still, modern warfare had evolved into a system by which the forward movement of ground forces was often driven by the need to capture another airfield, so that air cover could be extended to cover the next ground offensive, and so on. Fire and movement, always mutually reinforcing at the tactical level of war, had become similarly interdependent at the operational level of war as well. Rommel came to appreciate this fact far too late in the North African campaign (though he appears to have learned it by the battle for Normandy in 1944), and never took effective action to ensure his formations had adequate protection from Allied air forces.
During the pursuit after Gazala, Rommel attempted to avoid drifting into a war of position by getting ahead of the retreating British; however, his lack of fuel, the fatigue of his men, and the state of their equipment prevented him from doing so. His troops were all but spent, having fought hard across 500 miles of desert; his tanks were low in fuel and ammunition, and badly in need of refitting.[x] The Desert Fox, too, was mentally and physically drained, as were many of his subordinate commanders, notwithstanding the emotional boost that came from his promotion to Generalfeldmarschall in late June, and the Afrikakorps’ stunning success at Gazala. Fatigue and perhaps a bit of overconfidence led to hasty command decisions and poor staff coordination as the first battle of El Alamein began on July 1, 1942. Once again, Rommel overestimated the capabilities of his troops, while at the same time underestimating those of his foes. After three weeks of fighting, Rommel’s forces had lost 70 percent of their manpower, 85 percent of their armor, 65 percent of their anti-tank weapons, and 50 percent of their heavy anti-aircraft guns.[xi] Rommel found himself forced to transition from a war of movement, where his tight decision-cycle and his penchant for pushing his forces to their limits gave him an advantage, to a war of position, where superiority in numbers would tell. The uniqueness of the terrain around El Alamein and the rapidity with which British strength could grow meant that he would gradually lose his room to maneuver, and, thus, his ability to create chaos for his adversary. In addition, the Allies enjoyed an intelligence advantage through ULTRA that enabled them to read the coded messages sent between Rommel’s headquarters and Berlin.
Rommel renewed his offensive on August 30, 1942, which became known as the second battle of El Alamein, or Alam al-Halfa; but it was doomed from the start. Even though he allegedly scaled back his original objectives, he apparently retained high hopes of success. As he confided in his wife, Lucie: “I have worried so much about this day, but I am taking the risk because I will not have another chance, in terms of the moonlight and ratio of forces. So much is at stake. If I succeed, this may have a decisive effect on the course of the war.”[xii] Yet, Rommel’s plan of attack was very reminiscent of Gazala, so much so that the British did not need ULTRA to prepare for it. Rommel sent the Italian infantry in a pinning attack to the front, and directed the Afrikakorps to punch through a perceived 13-mile gap between the southern positions of the British forces and the Quattara Depression. They were then to attack across the coastal roads leading west into El Alamein, thereby severing British lines of communication.
However, the predictability of the plan and the Allies’ advantages in strategic and operational intelligence, terrain, and materiel began to tell almost immediately. The attack bogged down, and Rommel called it off on September 4, 1942. General Montgomery received the credit for stopping the Axis advance; but his plan was essentially the same as that of his predecessor, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. Montgomery’s success was ensured, so long as he avoided committing a blunder, such as allowing himself to be baited into counterattacking prematurely. With materiel preponderance, he had the luxury of time and could afford not to chase imaginative solutions.
When Montgomery launched the final battle of El Alamein on October 23, 1942, Rommel was in Germany on much needed sick leave. He returned to North Africa on the evening of the 25th; but the battle was all but lost by then. Montgomery enjoyed a 2:1 superiority in manpower, a 3:1 superiority in aircraft, and more than a 4:1 superiority in medium tanks.[xiii] The third clash at El Alamein was little more than a World War I battle of attrition; but it was one the Allies could afford to wage. To be sure, there were several crises that required Montgomery to exert his will over subordinate commanders who were not accustomed to pushing forward against enemy fire. However, the outcome of the battle was a matter of military science, the mathematics of attrition. Military art had little say, and could not change the result. The interdiction efforts of Allied air power had severely limited Rommel’s flow of supplies. Although he attempted to launch a few counterattacks, the deficiencies in fuel and ammunition were crippling. His army was overextended and egregiously exposed, as it had been since the first battle of El Alamein, though he and many of those around him chose to ignore it.
On balance, Rommel’s style of command, while often praised by military historians, was actually ill-suited to the conditions in which he found himself. It resembled the leadership style in vogue in the nineteenth century, where the timely appearance of the commander at the decisive point on the battlefield might tip the scales toward victory. However, in the twentieth century, command at higher levels required mastering and incorporating new dimensions, such as operational-level air support and theater-level intelligence, into one’s scheme of maneuver. Rommel did not fully incorporate those dimensions into his planning. To draw an analogy, Rommel was like a chess player who used the same combination of moves again and again, while neglecting to appreciate that the rules of the game had changed. He repeatedly went on the offensive with his armor and, though enjoying many tactical successes, fatally overextended his logistics and exceeded the range of his air cover. Hitler, rightly or wrongly, desired that the campaign in North Africa should have only a tertiary priority. Rommel was unwilling, or possibly unable, to function under such an inconsequential status. His conduct of the campaign in North Africa, and in particular the battles of El Alamein, illustrate the principal flaw in a way of war predicated on the idea that wars are won from the ground up — through tactical victories. In such an approach, strategy matters little and the influence of policy even less, for the power of tactical success seemingly trumps all. However, as Rommel’s example shows, his exquisite grammar had become detached from the larger logic of the war. His brilliant tactical successes failed to achieve anything of strategic value, and ultimately Hitler’s policy trumped them all.
[i] A recent example is Robert M. Citino, “Drive to Nowhere: The War in North Africa 1941-1943,” Military History Quarterly vol. 24, no. 4 (Summer 2012): 26-38; see also David Irving, The Trail of the Fox: The Search for the True Field Marshal Rommel (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977).
[ii] Dennis Showalter, Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berkley, 2006), 31.
[iii] Terry Brighton, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War (New York: Crown, 2008).
[iv] Oberstleutnant Rommel, Infanterie Greift an: Erlebnis und Erfahrung (Potsdam: Ludwig, 1937).
[v] B.H. Liddell Hart, ed., The Rommel Papers, trans. Paul Findlay, (New York: Da Capo, 1953), 133.
[vi] Pier Paolo Battistelli, Erwin Rommel: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict (Oxford: Osprey, 2010), 20.
[vii] Niall Barr, Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein (New York: Overlook, 2005), xxxix-xl.
[viii] Martin Kitchen, Rommel’s Desert War: Waging World War II in North Africa 1941-43 (New York: Cambridge, 2009), 218-38.
[ix] Barr, Pendulum of War, 218-24.
[x] Kitchen, Rommel’s Desert War, 262-64.
[xi] Kitchen, Rommel’s Desert War, 291.
[xii] Brighton, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel, 128.
[xiii] Kitchen, Rommel’s Desert War, 320-1; Brighton, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel, 141. Numbers vary among the sources, but the ratios are consistent.