Friday, May 15, 2015

“The Desert Fox.”

"The sole criterion for a commander in carrying out a given operation must be the (amount of) time he is allowed for it." Erwin Rommel.

Anthony Eden wrote in his diary on 7 June 1942: "[Churchill and I] were both depressed by extent to which Rommel appears able to retain offensive. 'I fear that we have not very good generals,' said W.", Eden Diary, 7 June 1942, in Eden, The Reckoning, p.331. Cadogan recorded in his diary on 14 June: "We seem to be being completely worsted and outwitted, as usual, by Rommel", Cadogan Diary, 14 June 1942, in Dilks (ed.), Cadogan Diaries, p.458. Leo Amery noted in his diary on 15 June: "Cabinet, Winston rather glum over Libya on which he had set such high hopes", Amery Diary, 15 June 1942, in Barnes & Nicholson (eds), The Empire at Bay, p.815. On 15 June Cadogan wrote: "5.30 Cabinet - very gloomy. Libya bad, sinkings awful (tho' P.M. doesn't seem to think so). Malta convoys badly mauled. No good news from anywhere", Cadogan Diary, 15 June 1942, in Dilks (ed.), Cadogan Diaries, p.458

For most of the time that Britain fought alone in the Mediterranean theater, its only army in the field proved unable to cope with one under-strength German corps and whatever wretchedly equipped Italian formations were added to its numbers. Alamein, indeed the campaign in Egypt and Libya, was small change.  There were aspects of the British effort in this theater that were commendable, but the conduct of operations in the Western Desert can hardly be so dignified. Nonetheless, and somewhat perversely, the campaign in North Africa is one that has attracted inordinate British pride and attention in much the same way that a Scottish victory necessarily involves the annihilation of complete battalions other than commanding officer and piper. It was a campaign that provided Britain with two heroes Montgomery and Rommel. For the British, the Western Desert was a gladiatorial contest between national champions that culminated at Alamein, and before that time it was no disgrace to have been worsted by a military genius.  Cynicism suggests that when an army in wartime extols the virtues of an individual enemy as the cause of its defeats, something is very wrong with its system.  Rommel's success coincided with the time when the U.S.  Military attaché code and the signals covering the British order-of-battle and operational plans sent from the Cairo embassy to Washington on a routine basis were compromised. This period of success ended when U.S. signals security was restored. If so much of his acclaimed tactical sense can be thus explained, what remains of Rommel's military reputation, which was never highly regarded in Berlin and Rome One strongly suspects that just as in November 1917 the British military selected an unknown German officer to explain away the failure of the Cambrai attack, which was the result of their own ineptitude, so one suspects that the myth of Rommel's military genius, indeed the myth of German military proficiency in the Second World War, has been a cloak behind which the British army has long sought to hide its professional mediocrity in this period.

 “The Desert Fox.” German field marshal. A hard-charger, Rommel always chose attack over defense. He was wounded twice during World War I, during which he saw action as a young infantry officer with mountain troops in Italy. He was first noticed by senior officers for his innovative tactics during the Battle of Caporetto in 1917. After the war he stayed in the truncated Reichswehr. He also wrote a widely read book on infantry tactics, published in 1937. He commanded Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard during the German military parade into the Sudetenland in 1938. Even so, he was still only a colonel at the outset of the Polish campaign of 1939. He served as commander of 7th Panzer Division in the FALL GELB campaign of May–June 1940. He earned his reputation along the Meuse, where he was singularly forceful in driving his division across under heavy defending fi re. During the breakout phase 7th Panzer earned the nickname “Ghost Division” for its propensity to move so swiftly it repeatedly ran off even OKH maps, to appear suddenly where Western commanders did not think it should or could be.

Rommel received his nom de guerre, “Desert Fox,” along with the grudging respect of enemies, while leading the Afrika Korps and its successor Axis army against the British in North Africa from 1941 to 1943. He is thought by some to have been a brilliant tactician, even “the most outstanding battlefield commander of the war.” He is criticized by others as fatally indifferent to logistics and being too often and recklessly absent from his HQ at any command level above a division. Although the military effect of his African campaign was minimal, he left a lasting impression on the British and on many later operational historians. He was also promoted to field marshal by Hitler and elevated to leading war hero status by Nazi propagandists. The shift came after he captured Tobruk in June 1942. His reputation survived within Germany despite his decisive defeat at Second El Alamein that fall.

Rommel next commanded in Italy, then took charge of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defenses, greatly strengthening them for the invasion everyone knew was coming. He concluded by late 1942 that Germany was losing the war. After D-Day, convinced the war was lost, he asked Hitler to sue for an armistice. The suggestion was dismissed out of hand. Rommel concluded, only then, that if Hitler remained in power, Germany must lose the war unconditionally as the Allies were demanding. He agreed to talk to military conspirators planning the July Plot to kill the German dictator and replace him with a military government that would attempt to negotiate, at least with the Western Allies. Rommel clearly hoped the coup would lead to a separate peace in the West—he had no experience of the Eastern Front, and in private remarks often underestimated the difficultly of fighting the Red Army. It is uncertain if he overtly supported the assassination plot: there is some evidence to suggest he argued only for Hitler’s arrest and trial. Still, Rommel’s name became attached to the coup attempt after it was extracted under torture from one of the other plotters, and Hitler ordered him killed. To preserve Rommel’s reputation as a propaganda support for the war effort, rather than simply execute the Field Marshal it was arranged to threaten his family to convince him to commit suicide. The threat worked: Rommel killed himself with cyanide. It was later announced that he died of battle wounds. He was given a state funeral, a cynical curtain call even by Nazi standards.

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