ROMMEL! The name itself is magic. Rommel conjures up tanks roaring across desert sands, the sun beating down so hot that one can fry an egg on the tank. He was Hitler's favorite general - bold, dashing, handsome, hawklike of face but a fox in action, never daunted, always brilliant - and was "relentless in combat, magnanimous in victory and gracious to his vanquished enemies. He seemed invincible. Where he was, there was victory: he attacked like a tornado. . . ."
As David Irving makes clear in this new study of Rommel's generalship (this is not really a biography; 430 of the 460 pages of text deal with World War II), Rommel was also a spit-licker, a today to Hitler almost until the very end, a glory-hunter who used methods to win publicity and fame that would have embarrassed Patton, a self-seeker whose rise to fame was made possible in no small part by Rommel's flattery of Hitler. Rommel wanted medals as badly as Douglas MacArthur did, and went after them with even more energy and nerve.
As Irving also makes clear, Rommel was pig-headed, undisciplined, unable to see the big picture, a successful small unit commander and not much more. He badly overestimated his enemy in Normandy in June, 1944, and was much too easily misled by Allied deception measures. Irving hints that Rommel's terrible showing in opposition to the Allied invasion was not his fault, but rather the fault of anti-Hitler officers who wanted defeat in the West and who consequently fed Rommel false information or even disregarded his orders.
Irving's chief villain is Hans Speidel. Rommel's chief of staff, one of the leading anti-Hitler conspirators in the German army, and subsequently the commander of NATO land forces. Irving implies that after sabotaging Rommel's defense of the West, Speidel then implicated Rommel in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler, which led directly to Rommel's forced suicide. Speidel, according to Irving, put the finger on Rommel to save his own skin.
Whether that charge is true or not, it is obvious that Rommel was never a member of the anti-Hitler conspiracy. Rommel was apolitical innocent, so innocent in fact that in August of 1944 he could still dream of making peace in the West with Field Marshal Montgomery, then the two of them together turning on the Russians, with the Americans tagging along, all under the inspired leadership of Adolf Hitler. Still it is to Rommel's credit that he did try to tell Hitler in the summer of 1944 that it was imperative for Germany to make peace, on one front or another. But he was never anti-Hitler.
By my count, this is Irving's eleventh book on World War II. Most of them are big, solid works like this. All are well written, exciting, fun to read. Irving always promises new information, based on sensational new discoveries, and he does so here, on the basis of his access to Rommel's war diary and Rommel's letters to his wife. The material is new, and sometimes interesting, but in this case none of it is sensational. There is little here to change the traditional pictures of Rommel, although there is much more detail than in Correli Barnett's The Desert Generals , or in Liddell Hart's The Rommel papers , or in Desmond Young's Rommel, the Desert Fox , heretofore the standard works on Rommel.
The illustrations are new, and they are superb. Rommel was photogenic; he was usually near or at the site of the action, and he always made sure to have photographer with him. Irving reproduces nearly 50 previously unpublished photos, many of them fascinating. Irving gives over the bulk of his text to Rommel's battles in North Africa, as well he should, since only there was Rommel a winner, and there only against the British before Monty's arrival. It is too easily forgotten today that Patton and Bradley beat Rommel in Tunisia, that Alexander beat him in Italy, and that Eisenhower beat him in France. Irving makes me believe that these Allied generals won not because they had more men (they did not), but because they were better generals.