KNIGHT'S CROSS

A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

By David Fraser

HarperCollins. 601 pp. $30

THERE ARE some striking comparisons between Erwin Rommel and Robert E. Lee. They were masters of maneuver in war. Their personalities and characters transcend time and still command respect. Their talents for war and their energy continue to amaze. They fought brilliantly for a bad cause, and thank goodness they lost.

In this outstanding biography, the best yet on Rommel, British Gen. David Fraser (a veteran of World War II and author of a biography of Lord Alanbrooke and of And We Shall Shock Them, a history of the British army in the war), points to a quality of Rommel's that brings Lee to mind. Rommel, Fraser writes, "relished the challenges of combat." Fraser notes that in modern times it is de rigueur for the soldier, and his biographer, to deprecate this relish, but it cannot be denied.

Watching his men cutting down Yankee troops by the thousands at Fredericksburg, thanks to his own superior generalship, Lee remarked: "It is well that war is so terrible; if it were not so, we would grow too fond of it." (President Dwight Eisenhower, in a 1954 press conference, spoke of the "exhilaration" of the matching of wits in war, then quickly caught himself and quoted Lee's line.)

Rommel would have understood. It is one of the many strengths of this biography that Fraser helps us to understand and almost feel that relish and exhilaration without glorifying or denouncing. Rommel was a professional practicing his craft at the highest level in the greatest war ever fought and doing it better than anyone else, up to the spring of 1944. He was the most feared and respected general in the world. Fraser tells how he did it. A brief review can only hint at the richness of detail and insight in his account.

Rommel won his fame in North Africa in 1941-43, where he consistently out-generaled his British foes, until he was finally overwhelmed by numbers and materiel at El Alamein. In the spring of 1944, he was in charge in France, given the task of repelling the Allied invasion. Fraser includes an argumentative section on the controversy that all but crippled the German high command -- whether to fight the main battle on the beaches, in an attempt to hurl the Allies back into the sea in the first 24 hours, as Rommel wanted to do, or to hold the tanks back for a concentrated counterattack after the Allies began to move inland. I think he is wrong in his conclusion (which is that Rommel had it right) but quite fascinating in his analysis.

Typically, Hitler compromised, holding some tanks back, putting others near the coast, retaining command for himself. Thus Rommel was forced to fight the climactic battle of his life without the full use of the assets available to Germany. It is worth noting that in a similar situation Gen. Eisenhower (who had initially been denied command of the strategic air forces) told his superiors that he would resign his commission and go home if he could not use the Allied resources as he thought best. It evidently never occurred to Rommel to tell Hitler that, if he could not fight the battle his way, he would simply go home. Of course had he done so he might well have been shot.

Fraser makes it clear that Rommel's feelings about Hitler were ambiguous -- hardly surprising, as Rommel owed his spectacular advance in rank to Hitler, who had given him his great opportunities but by 1944 was bringing catastrophe down on Germany. He shows that Rommel was aware of but not in on the plot to kill Hitler, and he writes with an admirable sensitivity of the situation German generals were in as the Red Army bore down on Berlin from the east while the Allies were pounding German cities from the air and building up their forces in Normandy. Rommel's idea was to wait until the Allies broke out of Normandy and began streaming across France, then arrest Hitler and make a separate peace on the Western front, continuing to defend Germany from the Red Army. This might be seen as an early version of NATO. It might also be seen as hopelessly naive. But Rommel warned that killing Hitler -- as the conspirators insisted had to be done -- would make a martyr of him. "Viewed with hindsight," Fraser writes, "in the light of the millions for whose deaths Hitler was responsible, such scruples may seem inappropriate, even absurd, but Rommel did not view with hindsight nor in that light."

Hindsight might also draw on the rise of the neo-Nazis in Germany today and insist that Rommel was right to fear the martyrdom that would have been Hitler's had his generals killed him while German armies were still fighting in Poland and France. But hindsight also includes the fact that by far the greatest destruction in Germany came in 1945, that more people were killed in 1945 than in any other year of the war, and that had Rommel joined the conspiracy and become its leader it might well have succeeded and spared the world the worst year of the century.

Ironically, Hitler believed that Rommel was a member of the conspiracy. But since Rommel was Germany's most popular soldier, Hitler felt he couldn't just execute the field marshal. So he gave Rommel a choice: take poison provided by two SS officers and have a state funeral with no harm coming to Rommel's wife and son; or go before a people's court, be found guilty and be hanged with piano wire along with his family. On October 14, 1944, Rommel took the poison. Hitler attended the state funeral.

As Fraser insists, Rommel was "a leader of the purest quality. Wherever he appeared he inspired." A pity that he used his talents only on the battlefield.

Stephen E. Ambrose is president of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans; his next book, "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II," will be published in May.