Rommel’s Desert War – Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.

I just finished this book, my home ‘walkabout’ book today while getting a haircut and having an ice tea this afternoon. The book is one of the Stackpole Books’ Military History Series, which are a set of trade-paperback books on various subjects. From the list of book entries in the volume, the bulk of the books are about WWII.

I’ve picked up a few of these books from time to time and found them to be good overviews of the subjects, which often are not covered well in standard histories. The paperback release makes them about half the list price of new hardbacks, so you aren’t risking a whole lot.

For me, the most disappointing part of the book is the title. To me, it seemed to state that the book covered more of the Desert War than it did. The subtitle, The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, also seems to say that it covers the entire life of the DAK.

The Desert War can be broken up into phases:

  • The Italian Offensive and Commonweath counteroffensive (1940 – Jan 1941)
  • The formation of the DAK and Rommel’s first offensive
  • The Siege of Tobruk and Commonwealth attempts to raise it
  • Rommel’s second offensive to El Alamein
  • The Battles of El Alamein
  • The retreat to Tunisia and Torch
  • The Tunisian Campaign to the final surrender of the DAK.

This book only covers the second offensive, El Alamein, and the retreat out of Cyrenaica. The first part of Tunisia is partly covered until the failure to take Tunis in the fall of 1942.  Looking at the books in the series, there is a book called “Desert Battles” and one called “Exit Rommel” that might cover the parts of the Desert war not covered here.

So aside from my snit about the title, how good is the book?  Pretty good. While the bulk of the text is centered around the DAK, there is some discussion of the Allied side and the view of Rommel seems fairly well-balanced.  The maps in the book are fairly basic, so some additional maps for some battles could be useful. It isn’t that hard to follow the flow of battles in the text  using the maps provided.

The point of view remains at the army level. Since armor forms the main striking force, I appreciated the fact that tank losses and force levels were given at the decision points. It makes the decision to break off an attack when you read that 200 of the 250 tanks were lost than, say, if you were told that the unit had lost 2000 men out of 20000.

I also appreciated the description of several of the stages in the long retreat out of Cyrenaica. Often histories jump directly from Egypt to Tunisia in a paragraph. There’s a description of an incident on the retreat that I hadn’t seen before.  The DAK is out of fuel and struggling to bring some up to allow them to continue the retreat. They learn that a key fuel supply ship was lost trying to reach them, and things look black. Then an officer comes in with astonishing news: Barrels of fuel from the sunken ship are washing up on the shore all around the army’s position! This windfall gives them enough fuel to move on and gain some time.

Rommel sure had the luck working that day.

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