Monday, March 11, 2019

Books: "Desert Fox" On A Compelling World War II Figure

Desert Fox: The Storied Military Career of Erwin Rommel
By Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.
Regnery History; hardcover, $29.99; available Tuesday, March 12, 2019

There are many theories on just who Erwin Rommel was, from debating whether he was a war hero or war criminal; a man of integrity or Hitler flunky; a military genius or just lucky.

Bestselling military historian Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. offers a fresh look at the Allies’ most well-respected opponent of WWII and gets to the heart of this mysterious figure in Desert Fox: The Storied Military Career of Erwin Rommel.

This military-history biography explores the complexities of the controversial Nazi leader through his improbable and spectacular military career, his epic battles in North Africa, and his fraught relationship with Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Mitcham, the author of more than 40 books, most of which have been centered on World War II, writes of Rommel, "The Desert Fox. The words conjure the image of a sunburned and dust-covered military genius, an incredibly tough soldier, a mentally sharp warrior making snap decisions and hatching brilliant plans on the fly, not only surviving but conquering, directing his battered panzers with extreme courage and daring, winning victory after victory against overwhelming odds. Bold attacks, stubborn defenses, and relentless pursuits fill the mind's eye. And murder does not come to mind, as it does in the contemplation of other theaters in Nazi Germany's war. Erwin Rommel fought a war without hate, and he insisted that his men do the same. In the end the numbers finally caught up with him, and his enemies managed to concentrate overwhelming forces against him - although it is an open question whether he would have ever been defeated had it not been for the 'genius' of the Fuehrer. And even though Rommel ultimately lost, his name still engenders respect and even admiration among his former enemies. When people are asked to identify the best general in World War II, they almost invariably name Rommel or Patton...
"The purpose of this book is to tell the story of Erwin Rommel, the man. He had some magnificent, highly praiseworthy qualities. This will annoy some people who don't believe in heroes who are unable to claim the label 'politically correct.' These people will probably not enjoy this book. That's tough. Maybe they can get a refund. Here is an even more earth-shattering thought: maybe they should read it anyway. Perhaps they'll learn something. I admit that it's not likely, but we live in hope.
"The Desert Fox also had his share of flaws. There hasn't been a perfect man for two thousand years, and Rommel was not an exception."

Desert Fox reveals the following:
• How Rommel’s victories in North Africa were sabotaged by Hitler’s incompetent interference
• How Rommel burned Hitler’s orders telling him to commit war crimes
• Why it wouldn’t have helped Patton if he really had read Rommel’s book
• How Rommel was responsible for the Germans’ defense against the D-Day landing
• Why the plot to overthrow Hitler was fatally compromised when Rommel was gravely injured in an Allied attack
• The reason Rommel agreed to commit suicide after his part on the plot was discovered by Hitler

Known for his unique analysis of controversial figures from history, Mitcham examines the unsolved mysteries surrounding the Desert Fox and leaves readers admiring Rommel’s tactical genius and maintenance of chivalry despite where his allegiance lay.

Mitcham writes of how Rommel commanded from the air, "On April 4 the British blew up the harbor and ammunition depot at Benghazi. Neame ordered the Australians to fight a delaying action to the Jebel el Akdar hills and then retreat to Tobruk. He also ordered the 2nd Support Group and the 3rd Armoured and 3rd Indian Motor Brigades to concentrate at Mechili. The move was a good idea, but it proved to be too late.
"That same day, the Free French garrison at Msus saw the tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment approaching. They blew up the depot, including thousands of gallons of fuel. Only the tanks weren’t panzers. It was really the 3rd Armoured Brigade, coming to Msus for fuel. Now it did not have enough petrol to reach Mechili. It retreated across the desert all night, using the diesel from its worse vehicles to fuel the better tanks. By nightfall on April 5, the 5th Royal Tank Regiment had about eight tanks left, while the 6th RTR had only two. '3rd Armoured Brigade was no longer of any use as a fighting formation,' the British Official History records.
"Rommel flew from unit to unit, trying to coordinate the advance from his Storch airplane. Whenever he spotted a halted column, he dropped them a note: 'If you do not move on at once, I shall come down. Rommel.'
"Sometimes he would land and give his soldiers the sharp edge of his tongue. Other times he would laugh and cajole. His men were inspired by his enthusiasm, his drive, and his energy."

On Rommel’s D-Day Defense, Mitcham writes, "[T]he Allied planners assumed it would be safe to land onthis part of the coast and, based on the information they had, they were correct. The terrain was unfavorable, but resistance would be weak and quickly overrun. They did not know that the situation had fundamentally changed. Had they known, they would not have landed here.
"The name of this stretch of shoreline has gone down in history as Omaha Beach. The Americans would not know that the 352nd Infantry Division was manning its defense until D-Day had been in progress for some hours. The news came as a nasty shock to their generals.
"To make matters worse, Rommel had decided that a single battalion was insufficient to defend this sector. Omaha Beach would be defended by an entire German regiment.
"As the Allied pre-invasion aerial offensive heightened and the season propitious for the invasion grew near, Rommel redoubled his efforts. He looked forward to the invasion with profound confidence. Perhaps of greater importance, the German people and the soldiers of the Western Front felt the same way. 'People see it as our last chance to turn the tide,' a secret Gestapo report stated. 'There is virtually no fear of invasion discernible.'
"No fear of invasion discernible! What a tremendous tribute to Erwin Rommel, who had achieved all that mortal man could be expected to achieve, given his lack of resources, lack of cooperation from his superiors, and the fantastic material superiority enjoyed by the enemy. On June 4, however, he threw away much of what he had accomplished and made the greatest mistake of his military career: he decided to return to Germany and personally ask Adolf Hitler for more reinforcements. When the invasion finally came, the one man who might have stopped it was away from his post.
"On the eve of D-day, Rundstedt had 58 combat divisions, 33 of which were static (non-mobile) or suitable only for defensive missions. Of the 24 divisions classified as fit for duty on the Russian Front, 13 were mobile infantry, two were parachute, four were panzer, four were SS panzer,and one was an SS panzer grenadier division. Only one panzer division (the 21st) was classified as unfit for duty in the East, mainly because it was equipped with inferior foreign equipment, including Czech tanks and French vehicles. All of the German panzer divisions, however, were short of tanks except the Panzer Lehr, which had 183. The 2nd Panzer with 161 tanks had close to its TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment) strength, but many of the others were quite deficient. The 2nd SS Panzer, for example, was authorized 163 tanks and assault guns, but had only 69—or 42.3 percent of its authorized strength. The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, had 45 full-strength divisions, all of which were fully armored, mechanized, motorized, or airborne.
"If they had major advantages over Germany on the ground, Allied strength in the air was simply overwhelming. The invasion was supported by 17,000 aircraft of all kinds, as opposed to 160 in the Luftwaffe’s 3rd Air Fleet. On the sea, the Allies were virtually unopposed.
"Rommel’s construction program had improved the Reich’s defenses, but it was nowhere near completion. Overall, Rommel had lain 6,000,000 mines. His goal was 20,000,000. In the zone of the LXXXIV Corps, for example, strong points and machine gun nests were still an average of 875 yards apart. The Desert Fox wanted to create four belts of anti-seaborne obstacles, but only two were finished. They were designed to blow up Allied landing craft if they came at high tide. They would be useless at low tide. Montgomery decided to come at low tide. This did give Rommel’s men one significant advantage, though: Allied infantry would have to cross a greatly enlarged strip of beach—about 300 yards—which would appreciably enhance the opportunities of any German machine gunners who survived the initial aerial and naval bombardments.
"One of the major improvements Rommel made was in the generally immeasurable factor of morale. Before his arrival, the Western Front was considered a backwater, and France a giant hospital for men wounded on the Eastern Front. In that intangible way he demonstrated throughout his career, Rommel had a huge impact on the attitudes of his soldiers."

Desert Fox is one of the best histories you will read about World War II and one of its most compelling figures.

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