Infantry Attacks – Erwin Rommel

Yes, this book was written by that Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’.

In the early 1930s, Erwin Rommel, then a middling officer in the small German army, wrote this book about his experiences as a small unit leader in World War I to help train new officers in what works and what does not work in war.  Rommel had received several medals for his actions so a lesson coming from him would be that much more impressive.

Rommel fought in France, Romania, and Italy, often in difficult terrain in operations carried out on a shoestring. The story of each action describes the situation, and what the unit did and how it worked out.  After each is a quick summary listing some lessons that could be derived from the battle.

But it isn’t just a dry tactical lesson – he also goes into the personal details of how he and his men felt at the time, how it felt to be stuck in a tight place like a mountainside without much food or equipment during these actions.  I suppose in a way that might be just as essential a preparation for a new officer as the arrows on a map.

The book shows in miniature the traits that he would use to thwart the Commonwealth in the Western Desert and France in the next war.  Making activity and enterprise overcome an enemy with a superiority in numbers and materiel.  If the Allies had read this, they might have had an idea of what they were in for.

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Patton and Rommel – Dennis Showalter

Men of War in the Twentieth Century

I picked this book up for a couple of odd reasons.  Neither was wanting to read yet another biography of George Patton and/or Erwin Rommel.  That being said, this is a good biography of the pair of them.

My first reason was that I had seen that Robert Citino, whose books I have been reading recently, really talks up Showalter‘s work and I don’t think I have ever read his stuff.  The second reason was that it reminded me of an old computer game about the Normandy Breakout (it might have been called Patton vs Rommel) where each turn a little cut picture of an angry Rommel or Patton yelled at you for doing too many frontal attacks!

The book has good balance between the early years of both Generals and WWII, something that is often left out of shorter biographies.  It gives good context.  Showalter is respectful of his subjects without being worshipful, a pitfalls that biographies often fall into.

I think I will be looking out for other books by Showalter in the future.

Normandy Crucible – John Prados

I picked up this book after reading and enjoying his book on the Solomons campaign, Islands of Destiny.  Like that book, this one is a short view of a battle, emphasizing issues of command and military intelligence more than day to day tactics.  It also is well balanced, giving both sides’ view of the situation.

The situation is the Allied invasion of France.  Each side struggled to get sufficient forces into the area to win decisively.  The Germans had to contend with the pervasive Allied air forces attacking any detected movement.  The Allies had to feed troops over the beaches or through a destroyed port of Cherbourg.

It is interesting to see just how much the Allies did know of the German countermoves as they happened, and thus were able to meet them and defeat them.  The breakout was a problem of its own, as the bad terrain of the hedgerow country stifled attacks. Finally, Operation Cobra launched with a devastating air bombardment at St. Lo and the breakout was on.

Aerial view of Saint-Lô, Normandie (France), a...

The discussion of the attempt to form a major pocket is interesting. Prados contends that the estimates of German losses in men are exaggerated.  He notes that the total number hasn’t changed a fraction since 1944.

Another interesting feature was an appendix where he wargamed the breakout using a modified version of the old Cobra game from SPI in the 1970s.  He explored various German alternatives strategies.  For one thing, he found that trying to form a mobile reserve usually led to a faster breakout through the weakened line.  He also examined when an all out retreat could have saved most of the army.  I had that game myself back then, and probably still have it in a box somewhere.  I thought it was a great idea to quantify even in a limited way the results of a changed strategy rather than just assert it as words alone.

A last topic that he introduces (well, to me at least) is that the Germans revamped their replacement system at this time in the face of this invasion. While it couldn’t help this battle, this was a major factor in the recovery of the German army on the borders for the fall campaign and the Battle of the Bulge.

The Path to Victory – Douglas Porch

The Mediterranean Theater in WWII is often viewed as a waste and a distraction for the Allies.  In this book Porch tries to correct this view and boost the importance of the various fronts in the overall war effort.  To me, he partly succeeds in this, but then carries the argument a bit farther than it can be reasonably sustained.

In the early war, of course, the front was the only place that the British could even face the Axis.  But only in Africa could the distance allow them to remain in the field at all, as the debacles of the Greek intervention and the Crete operation showed.  Bouncing the Italians out of Ethiopia and wrestling with the Afrika Korps was about all they could handle.  But it was vital to show the populace and (in this case) America that the British would fight on.

But even in this stage of the war, the overreaching of the strategists caused more problems than just leading to a failed campaign.  The diversion of troops from North Africa to Greece also led to Rommel having an open field to begin his counteroffensive.  So the political benefits were dissipated because of a lack of a clear strategy of what the goals were and what means the British had.

Another of the author’s themes is that the campaigns led to giving the Allies ‘live fire training’  and experience that would vital later on.  This is true to some extent.  But outside the minds of the British generals, the true benefits are a lot less clear.  Certainly the 8th Army didn’t show itself to be hugely more adept even in Tunisia than the other forces that had not fought in the desert, both British and American.  After Kasserine, the Americans learned rapidly.  And by the time of Normandy, the units that had been fighting in the desert were no better than those that had not.

Another point is that the Allies needed something to do in 1943, as the main invasion was not ready at that date, and the Med was made to order for that.  On the other hand, rather than just grab ‘low hanging fruit’ , the campaigns in Italy after Salerno were just a waste of lives and resources that could have probably been used elsewhere to better effect.

At the time, the Americans were worried that the British were trying to avoid a confrontation in France and were shoring up their empire by wanting to concentrate there.  In this, they were probably partially correct.  But the arguing over policy to the last minute meant that the operations they did do were less well planned and supported than they could have been.  Nobody said coalition warfare was easy.

One thing I did find jarring were the sections on peripheral areas inserted into the text that continued to the end of the war.  So around 1941, there is a chapter on Tito and the  partisans that continues to the end of the war.  Then, blink, you are back in 1941 again.  There is another long section on the French that slides back to 1940 and also goes to the wars’ end.  Then we are back to 1944.  It’s even harder to sell the last years of the Italian campaign as important when you dropped it yourself to talk about Charles DeGaulle.

Another matter that Porch brings up that in a way counters his argument is that every town and city that the Allied took over was one that had to be governed and fed by us and not by the Axis.  This puts different light on the value of advancing up Italy, because it added more civilians to the list of those that needed to be supported.

So lets rate the operations:

  • North Africa (pre Rommel) – easy
  • Ethiopia – not important, easy
  • North Africa with Rommel – important to hold Suez, job training?
  • El Alamein – not important because of Torch.
  • Torch – useful to ‘do something’, job training for US
  • Tunisia – capture some Germans, job training
  • Sicily – useful ‘do something’, clear the shipping lanes, air bases
  • Salerno – useful to knock Italy from war
  • Cassino/Anzio – useless
  • Anvil – extra ports for France operations.
  • North Italy – useless

So in the end I remain partly unsold.  I am also not in the ‘total waste’ camp either though.  And the book does give a pretty in-depth look at this part of the war.

 

Death of the Wehrmacht – Robert M. Citino

I recently picked this book up on the German strategy in WWII and read through it pretty quickly.  It cut ahead in line, so to speak.  It is about the year 1942, where the situation passed from Germany seeming to be on the brink of victory to the long retreat to the end of the war.

The author has an explanation that goes beyond the post war excuses that it was all Hitler’s fault or that it was any particular decision in itself, it was just that the German ‘way of war’ was unsuited to the demands of the situation.  When faced with a shortcoming, the response was not to pull back, but to get in deeper.  This was a view shared by Hitler and the Generals.  Their divergences were on details, not essentials.

Citino brings it all back to Prussia and Frederick the Great, who grew Prussia to a major power by swiping provinces quickly with a good army, then getting out of the war quickly.  This way, the weak nation would not be prostrated by a long war’s demands in men and production.  This can serve you well if you can knock out the other side quickly, but in WWII Germany could never do this with first Britain, then Russia, and finally the United States.   When the first strike failed, the Generals’ answer was a second, and a third.  Eventually the opponents learned enough to parry the blow and the rout was on.  In Africa, Rommel basically trained the Western Allies in armored combat for two years for no strategic benefit to the Axis.  In Russia, each offensive killed a lot of Russians but gave the Germans more ground to protect and defend with the same or fewer men.   Eventually, something would give.

This fits in well with the new histories of the East Front I have (or are in the process of  reading) that show that even after the first months this operation was in trouble.  Citino is taking this theme to the next year, where again apparent success is also revealing a pattern of muddled objectives and plans, and aims that don’t seem to make a lot of sense.  If you wanted to fight in a major city, you hardly need to drive all the way to Stalingrad when Leningrad is only 10 miles from your front line.

I’ve noticed this before over the years from both World Wars – the Germans are touted as great planners and strategists, but in reality, they are bad ones.  The army can fight well tactically and operationally better than almost anyone, but the high command and worse yet the political leaders don’t seem to be addicted to gambles and operations that are thrown together at the last moment.  And there is no sign of a coherent grand strategy anywhere to be found.

The Desert Generals – Correlli Barnett

The Desert Generals is an excellent book on the Desert War in North Africa in World War II.  It follows the British perspective, which is refreshing, since the temptation to make these campaigns all about Rommel is often overwhelming.

It also gives a fair shake to all the generals that fought there, not just Montgomery.  In fact, it is pretty hard on Monty and his attempts to take credit for others’ work in the run up to the Second and Third Battles of El Alamein.  See – you probably didn’t know that there were three of them.

The first featured general is Richard O’Connor, who faced the Italian invasion of Egypt in 1940 and pulled off a model armored counteroffensive that wiped out virtually the entire Italian army.  But in a common feature of the Desert War, just as he was poised to take Libya, the threat of a German invasion of Greece led to his forces being pulled away.  He was captured by the Germans in the first phase of Rommel’s offensive, when the scattered occupation forces were driven back to Egypt.

After this offensive and the failure of a premature counterattack, Operation Battleaxe, the CinC of the Middle East, Wavell, was sacked and General Claude Auchinleck was put in his place.  Like Wavell, Auchinleck was distracted by the issues of several different fronts during his tenure – he was responsible for the occupation of Syria, and for the possible defense of Iran from Germans coming through Russia.

His appointments to run the Western Desert force did not turn out well.  The first, General Cunningham wilted under the strain of the “Crusader” battle and it was only Auchinleck’s timely intervention that kept the army from retiring back to Egypt.  Instead, by holding fast Rommel had to retreat out of Cyrenaica.  But again, the needs of the Empire due to the Japanese attacks in the Far East led to this force being dispersed and the opportunity lost.

His second appointment, Ritchie, botched the Battle of Gazala and Tobruk and had the army reeling back to Egypt. Again, Auchinleck took over command and reorganized the army sufficiently to stop Rommel at the first Battle of El Alamein in July.  He prepared the defensive plan for the second battle that took place in August, but he was sacked two weeks before that battle and Montgomery took over.  Naturally, Monty never mentioned that he took over someone else’s plan.

Barnett is very critical of Monty’s plan for third Alamein, which dissolved into confusion and casualties due to its own clumsiness, but gives him props for coming up with a new plan.  Of course, since Monty scheduled the battle to happen just before Torch landed an army in Rommel’s rear, he knew that sooner or later Rommel would need to retreat.  He also knew, from Ultra decryptions, exactly how much fuel, ammo, and tanks Rommel had from day-to-day, which makes his ponderous pursuit after the battle even more inexplicable.

The book was originally published before Ultra was revealed, so there is an addendum in each chapter saying how twenty years of new information changed the original text, which was surprisingly little.

The book goes into some of the reasons why the Western Desert Force never quite got the hang of mobile warfare due to inexperience, organizational problems and just not having the right style.  It is a good corrective to the standard treatments of the campaign.

Desert War Trilogy III – The End in Africa — Alan Moorehead

This book completes the Folio Society trilogy by Alan Moorehead, a war correspondent with the Allied forces in World War II in the North African campaign.  This volume deals mostly with the Tunisian campaign, although there is an interesting detour trip around Africa to the US and then back to England and on a convoy to join up with the armies in Algeria after Torch.

In terms of historical narrative of the war, this volume is the most complete in its coverage of the main theatre.  In the others he tended to get sent off to other hot spots during lulls and miss some or all of the action, but here he more or less stayed put and followed the action.  You get a good observers view of the campaign that ended with the surrender of around 250,000 Axis troops but somehow gets glossed over in favor of ‘El Alamein, Kassarine and then they gave up’ descriptions.  This makes the fact that Moorehead does his most complete job of a campaign write-up since the 1940 O’Connor offensive especially pleasing.

But it isn’t all about the big picture – there are plenty of day-to-day stories of the men on a dumpy little destroyer convoying supplies, of the civilians in the rear areas and between the lines and how they react, and the troops, both the Commonwealth and US that do the dirty work.  There’s even a little insight into the troops they fight against.

In all, while this isn’t a blow-by-blow of the entire war in Africa, it does give depth to those histories, while also shedding a lot of light on campaigns that are often glossed over – Abyssinia, the Syrian campaign, O’Connor’s Offensive, and the end in Tunisia.

Desert War Trilogy II – A Year of Battle

Finally finished this second book in Alan Moorehead’s Desert War Trilogy. The set was published by the Folio Society.  Moorehead was a reporter in the war, and so was involved in a lot of the events of the Desert War as an observer.  The book itself is less of a history of the campaign than of his travels, many of which shed a light on some of the odd corners of World War II.

For example, while the campaign in Egypt was in a lull, he observes the Russian/English partition of Persia.  He comes back to watch the Crusader offensive that relieves Tobruk, and then follows the Anglo-French invasion of Vichy Syria.  Moving off then to India, he views the negotiations beween Gandhi and the English to increase Indian participation in the war, before heading back for the climactic battles at Gazala, Tobruk and the retreat to Alamein.  The book ends with the line firming up, and Moorehead wanting to take a break from Africa by visiting America.

If you want a true history of the Desert War, this isn’t it. But if you want a ‘you are there’ view of this part of the Allied campaign in the Mideast, it is an excellent set of books.

 

Review of Knight’s Cross – David Fraser

This book is the life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famous “Desert Fox” from the campaigns in France and North Africa in World War II.  A book on Rommel runs the risk of degenerating into a ‘debunker’ book or a ‘fanboi’ book.  I’m glad to say that this one is neither – it is rather a good history of an excellent general who was not without flaws.  The biography balances the pros and cons both in the military life and in his support of the current Nazi regime.

The book also describes Rommel’s First World War service and his interwar development, as well as his attempt to defend against the Allied invasion of France, which are often neglected when an author wants to go to the famous parts of a life.

All in all an excellent book.

Knight’s Cross – update

I’ve made quite a bit of progress in this life of General Erwin Rommel.  World War II has started, and after spending the Polish campaign in 1939 shepherding Hitler around the fringe of the battlefield, he was given a Panzer Division to lead in the campaign in France.

Rommel was an old infantryman, but he took to armored warfare without missing a beat. His 7th Panzer Division advanced rapidly, disrupting the attempts of the French and English to block the advance across the Meuse. He kept the pressure on as fit his command style, outrunning his own supply and losing touch with this superior command. Nobody seemed to know where he was, and his command gained the nickname “The Ghost Division”.  He held off a minor English counterattack at Arras and stood down until after Dunkirk.

In early June, his division was one of the spearheads of the advance into the rest of France. The French in their prepared defenses resisted stubbornly, but when the panzers broke through they lacked the mobility to form a new line and began to scatter and give up.  Rommel again advanced extremely rapidly, reaching Cherbourg in Normandy by the time the French called for an armistice.

In the winter of 1940, the disaster suffered by the Italians in Africa prompted the Germans to send a force to try to restore the balance and defend Tripoli. Rommel was chosen to lead the German contingent, called the “Africa Corps” (in German Deutsch Afrika Korps, or DAK).  Characteristically, his idea of the best way to defend was to look for a chance to attack!

The book itself is a good one so far. The usual hero-worship is kept within some bounds. Rommel’s tendency to slip the leash and outrun his supply is at least mentioned as a possible issue, although to this point it is compensated for by his ultimate success in keeping the enemy off-balance.  On the issue of his support for Nazism, the tack seems to be to put it to a bit of political innocence rooted in the army’s tradition of being outside of politics and a dash of good cop/bad cop blaming of excesses on underlings and assuming Hitler’s essential uninvolvement, with a dash of “Rommel didn’t know”.

To a point, that’s fair enough. Certainly soldiers have an ingrained loyalty to the commander-in-chief, and Germans probably more than most.  We will see how this balance shifts later in the war and how the author handles it.