German journalist Wolf Heckmann asserts in the introduction to his book that Gen. Erwin Rommel is "possibly the most overrated commander of an army in world history," but the author utterly fails to convince on that score. Despite that glaring failure, Heckmann's well-written (if disorganized), popular history of the desert war in North Africa is an interesting perspective on the human and technical aspects of that conflict.
Unfortunately, Heckmann tried to create a mosaic of the war out of personal stories (mostly about the lower ranks), but ends up with a collage. It is Tommy's and Heinz's war even more than it is Rommel's, and we read nearly as much about Bernard Montgomery (the British general who ultimately defeated Rommel) as we do of the German Panzer leader. Because Heckmann tries to tell the story of both sides through numerous anecdotes, the narrative is fragmented. One does sense, however, what this was was like for the soldier. Readers will almost be able to taste the sand, smell the diesel fumes, hear the clank of tank treads and the roar of artillery, and suffer the constant thirst. It is not that Heckmann's juxtaposition of subchapters titled "Churchill and his generals" with "Sausages and pulses" or "Bomb hits Chianti bottle" is not illuminating, it is just that Heckmann's organizational approach makes comprehension of the big picture difficult.
Scattered throughout the mosaic/collage are Rommel vignettes that reveal that Heckmann's dislike for the German general is based more on the author's distaste for Rommel's personality than for lack of appreciation of his warrior skills. Heckmann convinces us that Rommel was an ambitious glory-seeker, every ready to shift to his subordinates responsibility for his defeats. Heckmann shows that Rommel's posthumously published memoir, "War Without Hate," is frequently disingenuous. He dissects Rommel's opposition to Hitler (that resulted in the general's forced suicide), and finds that Rommel was opportunistic and only loosely connected to the dissident officers who tried to assassinate the dictator. Heckmann believes that Rommel's antipathy to Hitler was not revulsion against a murderous regime, but came purely from the realization that the war was lost.
Throughout the book, however, Rommel's reputation as a field commander remains intact. Heckmann's unsupported judgment is, in fact, overruled by Gen. Sir John Hackett in his foreword. While Hackett finds Heckmann's description of combat authentic (the British general is a serious student of military history and a North Africa combat veteran), he openly disagrees with Heckmann's contention about Rommel. Hackett finds Rommel was "bold, imaginative, and brave, with a tactical sense at times approaching genius." He believes that there "was no better commander of armored troops in fluid battle, on either side in any theater of the war and no one was more followed by troops."
Beyond trying to judge Rommel's martial virtues by looking through ethical lenses, Heckmann's book is otherwise solid. The author's mosaic-collage includes excellent pieces on logistics. Heckmann shows that the side controlling the eastern Mediterranean and the sky over it controlled the flow of battle on the African coast. He demonstrates that when Rommel's sponsors clearly lost control of the sea and air, the British were able to slaughter German and Italian reinforcements sent to North Africa, sink resupply cargo ships and drive the Desert Fox back to Europe.
Heckmann also understands the nexus between technology and victory, showing that the side with the greate artillery ranges, armor-piercing effectiveness, and thickness of armor -- all other things being equal -- wins.
There is much in this book about muzzle velocities and metal thickness and strength, but it is all understandable and meaningful.
The author, furthermore, grasps the larger truths of World War II. He mocks the so-called thoroughness of German planning by showing the emptiness of the Nazi economic effort. He demolishes the old saw that Hitler's diversion to Yugoslavia and Greece in the spring of 1941 affected the outcome of the German invasion of the Soviet Union later that year.
When all the pulses are put in the balance, they outweigh the minuses. Readers will discover an informative and accurate treatment of what war was like for soldiers in North Africa. They must overlook, however, the author's aversion for the central figure in that campaign.